Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Saints By Seven

Hosea 3

by Daniel Harrell

I’d say that with this being Super Bowl Sunday, most of your minds are on football. But if that were true you wouldn’t be here. So rather than thinking about whether the Saints can slow down Peyton Manning and the Colts tonight, imagine this scenario instead: A man walks into my office and informs me that the Lord told him to marry a woman with a pretty shady past. OK, she has a pretty shady present too. She’ll sleep with anybody. Stays faithful to nobody. Still, he loves her. God told him she’s the one. So he married her. Had three kids with her—though he’s not sure that the third one is his. She cheated on him―he doesn’t know how many times. And then she left him―left him with the kids but without the credit cards. She took them and maxed those out. And now the creditors are calling, and even the police. He took her to court. For all practical purposes they are divorced. He hasn’t seen her in months. The whole thing has been utterly humiliating and hurtful. Horrible, basically. But now he hears that she’s broke and homeless. So he’s thinking of taking her back. Despite everything, he still loves her. He wants to know what I think. I think he’s crazy. The woman is clearly messed up and needs professional help. Why he would want to open himself up to more hurt? And what about the children? But then he says that God told him to take her back. God told him to pay off all her debts. I tell him he’d better get some professional help too. There’s no way that God would ever tell him to do that. But then he tells me his name is Hosea.

You might wonder how a loving God could ever make a blameless man go through such misery, but then you already know the reason. The Lord commanded Hosea to marry this slatternly woman because he wanted Hosea to know how it felt for God to be married to Israel. Only then could Hosea prophesy with the pathos and the passion of God himself. Hosea had to suffer what God suffered so that he could speak for the Lord. Bad enough that Hosea had to endure adultery and abandonment from his wife―but now in chapter 3 God commands Hosea to take her back and do it all over again. Why? Because God still loves his people. He can’t help it. And no matter how horrible they behave toward him, he always takes them back. And make no mistake―they have treated him horribly. Hosea’s wife, Gomer, may have dumped him for other men. But the Israelites dumped God for what amounted to snack food. Verse 1; “…they turn to other gods and love their sacred raisin cakes.” Your NIV adds the word “sacred” to try and make Israel’s rejection not seem so unseemly. But there’s nothing sacred in the Hebrew text. Israel dumps God for a Twinkie.

How do you get over such rejection? How do you forgive such betrayal? Love is the answer―but love is what got you into the mess to begin with. Isn’t it better to move on? Cut your losses? Lick your wounds? Guard your heart? Live to love another day? Not here. God commands Hosea to “show your love to your wife again,” though the command is actually more forceful than that. The Hebrew literally says “go love that adulterous woman.” How does Hosea do that? Where does he get the strength and the love to suffer more humiliation and more hurt? He gets it from God who suffers humiliation out of his love for Israel. It’s as the apostle John wrote in the New Testament: We love because God first loved us.” Or as the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “The love of Christ compels us.” Likewise, God’s love compels Hosea’s love. And it compels our love and makes us able to forgive. Now mercifully, in some cases, love and forgiveness are made easier because the ones who’ve hurt you confess their wrong and ask for forgiveness. But this is not one of those cases. There is nothing approaching repentance on Gomer’s part. Still, Hosea must love and forgive her? Why? Because God loves and forgives her. God loves and forgives Gomer and he loves and forgives Israel―which means that he loves and forgives Hosea too. Just as he loves and forgives you and me.

But isn’t this all a little dangerous? Unconditional forgiveness is so easily taken for granted and abused. How will Gomer learn her lesson if Hosea just lets her off the hook? Where’s the justice? I think it is important first to remember that to forgive is not to abandon justice. If anything, to forgive is to indict, to accuse. You only forgive people who’ve done something wrong. To forgive is to blame. Secondly, I think it’s important to remember the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is necessary for reconciliation to occur, but forgiveness is not dependent on reconciliation. It is a free gift given, even if reconciliation never happens. You do have to repent to receive forgiveness―you can’t be forgiven if you never confess your wrong. But repentance does not cause forgiveness. Forgiveness does not wait on the offender to repent or apologize. Forgiveness does not wait for the hurt to diminish or the scars to heal. It was while we were still sinners and enemies of God that Christ died for us. It is while your enemies are still your enemies that Jesus commands you love them. Is this hard to do? It is unbearably hard to do. It kills you. But it killed Jesus more. And it’s because he died for us that we can die to him. “Christ’s love compels us,” Paul wrote, “He died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” It is Christ’s suffering for the sake of forgiveness that makes our suffering doable. Christ’s love in us forgives through us, and that is why and how we forgive.

I was out in Minneapolis last weekend speaking at a church where I retold the story of a man I knew who was in a serious financial mess. He had delayed the sale of a house he owned for several years so that he wouldn’t have to evict two tenants, both of them professing Christians―brothers and sisters in Christ. Nevertheless, these Christian tenants put off paying their rent to this brother, offering one excuse after another, month after month, until they’d run up a back-rent of more than $30,000. Still willing to help, this man refinanced his mortgage in order to lessen their financial obligation. Eventually however, unable to sustain two mortgages on his own, he ended up having to sell the house and evict the tenants anyway. He called me because he wasn’t sure what to do about the back rent. It was causing him a ton of stress. My initial advice was to suggest he seek legal assistance and get what was rightfully owed him. It wouldn’t have been an unbiblical route, especially given that it was a last resort. But as a follower of Jesus I couldn’t help but also ask, albeit hesitantly, whether he’d considered just forgiving the debt. I hesitated because I knew most people would consider such a move enormously irresponsible, unfair and as far as the tenants were concerned, totally underserved. But I noted an immediate lightness in his voice at my suggestion. He sheepishly asked, “Would that be OK?” See, he also knew that to forgive such an enormous debt was irresponsible, unjust and clearly undeserved—which was precisely what made it feel so much like grace. I assured him that, yes, grace is always OK.

Afterwards, someone from the congregation walked up shaking his head. He told me his story about a trusted friend who swindled him not out of back rent, but of out of his entire life savings in Bernie Madoff fashion. He went to his minister who, like me, advised that he take his friend to court and get what was rightfully owed him. And doing so saved his life―though he obviously lost the friendship. Not that there was much of a friendship to lose. What kind of friend cheats you out of everything you own? I’m thinking, probably one like the wife who leaves you and the kids, runs up your credit cards and runs off with the snack food vendor. The good news is that God takes Israel to court. We read about that back in chapter 2. The hard news is that he does it in order to take her back. The Lord courts Israel in both senses of that word. His indictment is an invitation. He accuses in order to spur repentance. He forgives in order to invite reconciliation. God uses every art and tool to win a response that will make for a genuine reunion. He can’t help it. He loves his people. So he does whatever it takes. Even though it kills him. On a cross.

It’s Christ’s love in us that forgives us. It’s what makes forgiving others possible. “So I bought her back,” Hosea says, verse 2. “I paid off her debts with my own money even though I didn’t have to. I took her back into my home. I loved her. And I forgave her.” But again, to forgive is not to pretend as if nothing happened. To forgive someone implies that he or she is not a good person. There would need to be ground rules. Verse 3: Hosea told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you.” A better translation has Hosea saying to Gomer, “you must have no sex with any man, nor I with you.” In other words, for this promiscuous woman it was time to go without. Cold fish. Cold turkey. A clean break. In Israel’s case: idolatry detox. Verse 4: No idols, no ephods, no sacred stones, no sacrifices, no princes, no kings. Ephods are liturgical vestments. Sacred stones are like monuments. Along with sacrifices, these were all parts of proper Israelite worship. But they had become corrupted by Israel using them in pagan worship. Princes and kings would have been fine, except that these were leaders of pagan nations whom Israel ran to instead of God for help. They had rejected the Lord and his gifts, turning his good gifts toxic. Sin does that. It gets all its power from the good things it perverts. It’s why we describe it with words like injustice or iniquity or ingratitude, disorder, disobedience, unfaithfulness, lawlessness and ungodliness.

But Israel’s deprivation was not an end in itself. Like all detox, its purpose is intended for good. A clean break was needed—deep enough and long enough to make a new beginning possible: a pure return, in all humility, to the Lord himself; a renewal of marriage that had seemed beyond all repair. God’s harsh indictment turns out to be an open invitation. He ferociously accuses in order to ferociously embrace. He unfairly and unconditionally forgives in order to spur repentance and pave the way for reconciliation. God’s mercy is as severe as it is generous. It killed Jesus, and it kills the sinner too. “Christ’s love compels us,” Paul wrote, “because we have concluded this: that Christ died for all; therefore all have died.” This would be Israel’s come-to-Jesus moment. Where is the Jesus they come to? Verse 5: “The Israelites will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the LORD and to his blessings in the last days.” The reference to “David their king” is a reference to the one who ultimately would inherit King David’s throne and crown, the one before whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess as Lord, Jesus Christ the risen king.

So what’s the takeaway for you and me? If you’re like me, you read chapter 3 and immediately identify with Hosea. You think of all the people in your life who have humiliated you and hurt you like Gomer hurt him. How do you forgive them? How can God ask you to do that? Even if to forgive is to indict and detoxify for the sake of repentance and reconciliation, it’s exhausting. Who’s got time for all that? Isn’t it better to move on? Cut your losses? Lick your wounds? Guard your heart? Live to love another day? Besides, what are the chances that forgiveness would work anyway? Most likely you’d just end up humiliated and hurt all over again, and how does that help anybody? Good for Hosea. But I’m not Hosea.

I’m Gomer. That’s the takeaway. Inasmuch as Israel’s story is our story too, we’re the adulterous wife, the unfaithful bride of Christ, the ones too willing to put everything else before our husband. We refuse to love, we take no time to care and take God’s grace for granted. We deliberately choose to do the same stupid things over and over again with little regard for the hurt we cause. It is me and you whom God indicts. You and me whom he blames. You and me whom he accuses. You and me whom he loves. He can’t help it. No matter how horribly we behave toward him―and make no mistake, we behave badly―God always takes us back. He spreads a table before us even though we act like his enemies. He forgives us and overflows our cup so that we might spill his grace even onto our own enemies. The only remaining question is whether his grace is enough to spur your repentance and return you to the Lord to fix the marriage. His indictment is an invitation. Come to Jesus and his table, confess your sins and receive his grace.

How I Met Your Mother

Hosea 2

by Daniel Harrell

There are few things uglier than divorce court. Couples who had pledged undying love to each other now only want each other dead. Heated courtroom battles rage over previously ridiculed wedding presents. Accusations fly over formerly adorable habits. And of course the kids are stuck in the middle and forced to choose sides, all the while watching the two most important people in their lives ruin everything. This being America, we’ve managed to turn divorce into entertainment. Three times a day in Boston, you can tune to WFXT to watch Divorce Court, now in its eleventh season. Viewers can witness firsthand the embittered fighting between husbands and wives. This week’s episodes featured one wife divorcing her husband for pawning her grandmother’s rosary beads. Another has a husband admitting to sneaking through his wife’s belongings where he found love letters and a picture of another man on her cell phone.

Of course you don’t have to watch Divorce Court on TV. There are plenty of places to turn away from such scandalousness. Unfortunately your Bible is not one of them. Hosea 2 is Biblical divorce court. Last Sunday I began a tour through the life of this prophet―a life embittered by his own obedience to the Lord. Because the most effective communicators are those who speak from experience, God gives Hosea an experience he would have never picked for his worst enemy. He commands Hosea to go out and [quote] “marry a whore, and get children with a whore.” Why? “Because the country itself has become nothing but a whorehouse by abandoning Yahweh.” Remarkably, Hosea goes out and does it. He enters a marriage that was as horrible as it was necessary. In his miserable marriage, Hosea empathized with God. He grew to understand that his own personal sorrow echoed God’s sorrow. Hosea suffered what God suffered—and therefore could speak for the Lord.

Chapter 2 works as a poetic replay of chapter 1. Same sordid beginnings. Same unexpected ending. The difference is that rather than viewing Israel’s predicament through the literal lens of Hosea’s predicament, chapter 2 features the Lord himself as the jilted husband. God takes Israel, his two-timing wife, to court and there instructs their children to denounce their mother. Who are the children here? There are three of them, represented by Hosea’s actual children whom the Lord named Jezreel, No Mercy and Not My People. Jezreel (which deliberately sounds like Israel), hearkened back to a time when Israel’s King Jehu was commanded to eliminate all idol worship, but he became enchanted with it instead, taking everybody else down with him for years afterward. Thus the Lord pronounced No Mercy and Not My People, for to God, idolatry was adultery of the highest order. Bad enough that idolatry credited other gods for creation and the provision of crops and rain. Worse that these other gods didn’t actually exist but were made (and made up) by human hands. Why? To make up your own gods means you can make up your own values and ethics too. You can do unto others however you want. You don’t have to deny yourself for anybody or anything. You can forgive whomever you like, or not. You can say whatever you want. You can keep all your money for yourself. You can sleep around. You can ignore needy people and not feel guilty―or at least pretend that you don’t feel guilty. All the while feeling good about yourself since you’re so religious.

It’s sad, really. Why do people chase after pleasures that are so selfish, yet capricious, hurtful, and ultimately disastrous―and then rationalize, minimize and blame everybody else? Hosea will write that we do it because the human heart is deceitful. We want what we want. Though we were made, theologian Richard Niebuhr wrote, “to stand in the presence of eternal, unending absolute glory, to participate in the celebration of cosmic deliverance from everything putrid, destructive and defiling, to rejoice in the service of the stupendous artist who flung universes of stars on canvas, sculptured the forms of angelic powers, etched with loving care miniature worlds within worlds… we throw away that heritage and are content with the mediocrity of an existence without greater hope than the hope for comfort and for recognition by transient others. Human beings made to be great in the service of greatness, make ourselves small by refusing the loving service of God; and in our smallness, we become very wicked and covetous of the pleasures that soon will be taken away.”

You’d think this would make God sad too. But instead, it just makes him mad. If ever you have loved and given yourself completely to another only to have that love betrayed and abandoned, then you know the hurt and the grief and the anger that ensue. Thus God angrily announces in chapter 2 that Israel is no longer his wife. Eugene Peterson taps into that anger with his own translation, The Message: “Haul your mother into court. Accuse her! She’s no longer my wife. I’m no longer her husband. Tell her to quit dressing like a whore, displaying her breasts for sale. If she refuses, I’ll rip off her clothes and expose her, naked as a newborn. I’ll turn her skin into dried-out leather, her body into a badlands landscape, a rack of bones in the desert. I’ll have nothing to do with her children, born one and all in a whorehouse. Face it: Your mother’s been a whore, bringing bastard children into the world. She said, ‘I’m off to see my lovers! They’ll wine and dine me, dress and caress me, perfume and adorn me!’ But I’ll fix her: I’ll dump her in a field of thorns, then lose her in a dead-end alley. She’ll go on the hunt for her lovers but not bring down a single one.”

Now a bit of metaphorical clarification is in order. If Israel is the adulterous wife, and her children are Israel the unfaithful children, who’s accusing whom? Most commentators make the distinction between the government, priests and kings of Israel as the mother, and the ordinary citizenry as its children. Thus having the children denounce the mother here is not unlike Massachusetts voters electing Scott Brown. Arrogant leaders who take voters for granted get their due. If such is the case in modern democracies, how much more in ancient Israel where God himself directly determined who sat on the throne? Facing the wrath of voters is one thing. Facing the wrath of God is another. This goes for everybody.

Understandably, the adulterous wife attempts a turnaround. Sounding a lot like the prodigal son in verse 7, she says, “I will go back to my husband as at first, for then I was better off than now.” But unlike the waiting father, God as the cuckolded husband knows better. He’s got history. He refuses to be taken in by fake sincerity or phony contrition. He continues to read off the charges.

Verse 8. “She has not acknowledged that I was the one who gave her the grain, the new wine and oil, who lavished on her the silver and gold—gifts which they then wasted as offerings to Baal.” Baal, remember, is kind of the catch-all name for Israel’s pagan idols. Baals were believed to be patrons of fertility and thus you had to pay homage to them if you wanted a bounteous crop come harvest time. This not only included the kinds of offerings and sacrifices you were supposed to pay God, but it also included having sex with temple prostitutes―a blatant and adulterous violation of sex as the expression of marital faithfulness. It was twisted stuff—made even more so by the belief that to have sex with these prostitutes was to have sex with the gods and somehow to tap into their virility for yourself. Like taking some ancient version of Viagra. Except that temple prostitution was not just personal sexual sin. It was a personal grab at divine power. Having an idol meant you had control of your personal universe, that you could do whatever you wanted, or so you thought.

In this way some suggest an analogy between ancient idolatry and modern science. Just as local idols were understood to account for natural phenomena in Israel’s day, so in our day science explains natural phenomena, and if you can explain natural phenomenon scientifically, who needs God? Moreover, if you can explain it you can eventually control it, or so we think. But if God is the author of nature, then he is the natural source of nature’s ability to do all that it does. A natural explanation is not a godless explanation because God made nature. As creatures made in God’s image, we are given power to creatively and humbly participate in the goodness of God’s creation. But whenever that participation becomes an arrogant and idolatrous power-grab―from atomic energy to genetic engineering―harm and disaster are genuine dangers.

Verse 9: “I will take away my grain when it ripens, and my new wine when it is ready. I will take back my wool and my linen,” says the Lord. “I will expose her nakedness before her lovers, all of whom will be helpless to help her.” The punishment will fit the crime. The Israelites literally uncovered their nakedness in temple prostitution as part of the Baal fertility rituals. Yahweh will, in effect, give them the nakedness they wanted, only not the way they wanted it. Yahweh will withhold the agricultural fertility they sought from Baal resulting in their own “nakedness”—a metaphor for destitution and shame and ultimately exile—all of which Baal is powerless to do anything about. Hosea foretells famine and finally God’s abandonment of Israel to the Assyrians, a military calamity that will finish off the northern kingdom.

It was a bitter lesson to be learned. And Hosea tried to warn them. It’s like the Ohio mother who just before Christmas called the cops on her 6-year-old daughter after she caught her shoplifting a package of stickers. “You’ve got to catch them when they first start if they do something wrong,” said the mom. Bloggers and child psychologists were predictably aghast, labeling the mother abusive and uncaring. (Though the mom did turn down the $30 reward from the store for catching a shoplifter.) I thought my own dad abusive and uncaring when he marched me back to the store from whence I’d lifted a candy bar as a 6-year-old. I had to shamefully confess my sin to the store owner and not only give back the candy bar, but pay for it too—a tough thing to do when you have no income. I hated it but have to admit it did me some good. Here I am a minister. It’s easy to read God’s punishment as abusive and uncaring too. He names Hosea’s kids No Mercy and Not My People. He decimates their fields, their country and allows them to be taken captive by their enemies. And yet this is not the end of the story. The Lord punishes Israel but he has never ceases to love her.

Nowhere is this more evident than in verse 14, where Hosea offers the third of three “therefores.” The first was in verse 6: “Therefore I will block her path with thornbushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way.” Israel deserved that. The second is in verse 9: “Therefore I will take away my grain when it ripens, and my new wine when it is ready.” Israel deserved that too. The third shows up in verse 14, where you rightly expect a deserving final declaration of divorce and retribution. But instead you get the gospel—an unexpected expression of mercy. “I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert…” Now for every Israelite, “desert” was a code word for abject failure. It was in the desert that their forebears so abysmally messed up on their way to the Promised Land. Despite being rescued from Egyptian slavery by God in truly miraculous fashion—ten plagues, Passover, Red Sea crossing, pillars of fire, the works—they rolled out a golden calf―an idol ―and showed their gratitude to it instead. It was adultery of the highest order. So why go back to the desert and risk all of that again? Because the desert was also the place where God and Israel had their first date. God takes Israel to court, but what he wants to do is court her. He uses every art and tool to win a response that will make reconciliation genuine. “I am going to speak tenderly to her.” I’m going to romance her and win her back. I will give her back her vineyards, roses and wine, and she will sing as she did when she came out of Egypt, before everything went wrong. It’s a chance for a do-over.

Hosea makes it sound so promising. Verse 16: “In that day,” declares the LORD, “you will call me ‘my husband’….” Verse 17: “I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips,” Verse 18: “I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety.” It does sound so promising―but it also sounds crazy. Ask any marriage counselor and they’ll tell you that going back to the beginning doesn’t fix anything that’s bad about a relationship. You have to fix the people involved.

Which is what God does. Verse 19: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion.” God lavishes bridal gifts on his wife again, only the gifts he gives are the gifts of himself. Righteousness, justice, love and compassion are all core traits of the Lord. God gives his whole self to this new marriage. But God wasn’t the problem. Marriage is a two-way street. What about Israel? What’s going to make her faithful this time around? The answer is God. Verse 20: “I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD.” It’s a shotgun marriage. Or better―a crucifixion marriage. God takes Israel back to the desert, but this time, rather than relying on her to keep faith, God keeps it for her through Christ. Jesus takes Israel’s place―he takes our place―at the altar. Jesus came to earth as God in the flesh to be sure, but he also came to earth as representative of all humanity. When Jesus confronts Israel’s temptations in the desert―satanic temptations to cheat on God by bowing to the devil himself―Jesus stays faithful. As our representative, his faithfulness becomes our faithfulness. His obedience becomes our obedience. And his death becomes our death and his resurrection becomes our resurrection too. God fixes his people. He fixes us. “I have been crucified with Christ,” is how the apostle Paul put it. “I no longer live. Jesus lives in me.”

And it is to Jesus in us that God responds. Verse 23: “I will show my love and mercy to the one I called ‘No Mercy.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people, ‘‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’” The whole thing sounds just like a renewal of marriage vows. And it is. Only this time, in Christ, the vows have been kept. The do-over has become a done deal. As the apostle Peter writes, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises [and serve] the one who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”