This week’s sermon came on the heels of Preacher Camp. What that means is that this was really a collaborative sermon, born when one of us asked the group: “Hey, anybody preaching on the Hosea text this Sunday? What’ve you got to share??!?” Lots of conversations, passing comments, brilliant brainstorms, and furious note-scribbling ensued, and those of us working with the passage came up with some great shared ideas. I have to thank, especially, Jim Somerville, for his conversations with me about poor Hosea and the situation in which the prophet found himself. Because of the ideas we batted around I took a little more of a risk this week, and we both came up with some interesting homiletical approaches to this passage. I am grateful, as always, for the push, encouragement, and ideas of my gifted colleagues.
Hosea: A Holy Trouble Maker
When Prophecy Gets Personal
We continue our exploration of Holy Trouble Makers this week by meeting another Old Testament prophet, Hosea. It’s widely debated in biblical study circles, but I am of the opinion that Hosea is very likely the most compelling of the Hebrew prophets.
Like the prophet Amos whom we’ve learned about these past two weeks, by the time Hosea arrives on the scene things were heating up in the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel…the people were increasingly becoming assimilated to the cultures around them and forgetting the covenant promise between God and Abraham, the covenant that made them Yahweh’s chosen people.
Honestly, you can’t blame them.
Their kingdoms were largely agriculturally dependent, leaving them at the mercy of the rain and the sun, and some years they had plenty and some years they starved. All around them were other cultures in the same situation. Living as close as they did to each other and holding a shared reliance on the whims of the weather began to assimilate them in ways that caused the Hebrews to begin to forget their dependence . . . on God.
It all started, you recall, when they got tired of a system of rule in which God was in charge. They wanted a king, and why not? Everyone else had a king, and having a king would help them, they thought, to maintain independence, to assure military prominence, to establish themselves as a power to be reckoned with among the many cultures and countries surrounding them.
Well, that was all a very nice idea in theory, but if you remember the story of the monarchy in Israel, you recall that Saul was the first king . . . and it all went pretty much downhill from there.
By the time we meet Hosea, Israel has split into the northern and southern kingdoms; the monarchy was becoming increasingly corrupt, with unpredictable allegiances among the kings—one king a follower of Yahweh and the next not, up and down, back and forth, and with all that drama chipping away, slowly, slowly, slowly, at the peoples’ identity as followers of Yahweh. To add to the distress of the situation, the Hebrews were quickly becoming enmeshed with the cultures around them.
I’ve never been much of a scientist, but I was thinking the other day about a science project my class did when I was in second grade. Why the experience of this particular science project has burned itself into my memory and, probably more importantly, what educational value its undertaking had for us impressionable second graders, I do not know. Perhaps my teacher was thinking about all those future sermon illustrations we’d be called upon to find . . . .
At any rate, one Friday in class we were each given a jar filled with water and three white carnations. Our teacher told us to carefully label the jars with our names, then choose a bottle of food coloring—any color we wanted. I chose blue. We were then instructed to put a few drops of food coloring into the water in the jar, then carefully cut the ends of our carnations and put them into the colored water. We then packed up our backpacks and headed home for the weekend.
When we came back to school on Monday morning, you know what we found . . . our previously white carnations had turned the color of the water in which they were sitting all weekend. Taking the water into their stems, the color deposited itself in the petals of the flowers and, in my case, I now had blue carnations, not white anymore.
What happened to my carnations that weekend was a good picture of what was happening to the Hebrew people by the time Amos, Hosea, and the other prophets arrived on the scene. With an increasing loss of identity as the people of Yahweh, those called out of Egypt and chosen for a special purpose, it’s not surprising in the least that the folks in both the northern and southern kingdoms began to assimilate with the cultures of the people all around them.
After all, they were all in the same boat—reliant on an agricultural economy dictated by the weather. The situations in which they found themselves—either with plenty or in famine, directly affected their relationships with each other. And living in such close quarters it was hard to maintain a unique perspective and identity. So the people of Israel, both the northern and southern kingdoms, began flirting with the ideas of their neighbors . . . the gods they worshipped and the rituals they followed to insure adequate rainfall or fertility or good harvest. When everyone around you is doing it, it’s hard to be different, unique, independent, and as I learned in second grade, when you find yourself immersed in blue water, well, you tend to take on a distinctly blue-ish tinge.
This is the context into which Hosea the prophet came to be bringing a word from the Lord to the people of God. Hosea was working during the same period in the life of the Israel that Amos was working, but we don’t have any evidence that they knew each other. Amos was in the southern kingdom and Hosea in the northern kingdom, so that was one difference, but their voices came to the fore around the same time, indicating, if we didn’t know already, that things were going sour for the Hebrew people in terms of their relationship with Yahweh.
We know more about Amos and Hosea than we do about any of the other prophets of Israel, and that’s important to note because with Hosea, prophecy gets really personal. You recall that Amos railed against people for their perpetuation of injustice, for their neglect of the poor, for the system of government that created and maintained a small class of very wealthy people and many, many who didn’t have enough. For Hosea, the message was even more personal than that.
Here were the people of Yahweh, a people who had been invited into covenantal relationship with the God of the Universe, having made promises to God and having been the recipient of God’s promise to them . . . and their perpetually unfaithful behavior threatened to break that covenant relationship altogether.
Remember that up on Mount Sinai, when Moses received the 10 commandments, they’d made a promise to each other . . . “If you will be my people, I will be your God.” Well, here they were, 500 years later and that covenant promise that started out so rosy and promising, that followed them into the Promised Land and settled them nicely in the land of milk and honey . . . well the shine had begun to fade. They’d gotten too familiar with the gods of their neighbors—altars to Ba’al were popping up all over Israel. Shrines and worship to the fertility god Anath were a regular part of Hebrew life. All the promises about being the people of Yahweh had flown out the window as they’d tried to fit in to the cultures around them. The people had forgotten that they’d promised that Yahweh would be their God, no matter what. Forever and only. A covenant.
And so . . . Hosea was commissioned by God to bring a word of prophecy to the people, and the word he had to share was a word of strong indictment about their infidelity, about their unfaithfulness in their covenant relationship—their promise—to God. What a trouble maker he was.
It all started for Hosea one day when he received a word from the Lord. It wasn’t your typical prophetic assignment, either—you know, go out and tell people something they don’t want to hear, hoping that you don’t get run out of town or killed in the process. No, prophecy got personal for Hosea, when God told Hosea to go out and “take a wife of whoredom.” Nice.
Sort of gives the phrase, “taking your work home with you” new meaning, huh?
And so it was that God told Hosea to head on down to the red light district of Samaria and look for a cute girl he might marry. Now, that’s not technically for sure the way things happened; we don’t know if Gomer was seriously engaged in turning tricks on the side to supplement the family income (after all, the work of ministry doesn’t really pay that much . . .). It could have been that she was a participant in the fertility rituals that were increasingly becoming more common in Israel, and as a result her sexual adventures went beyond the confines of her marriage to Hosea. It is also true that the name “Gomer” can mean “has difficulty saying no,” and in whatever expression it lived itself out, this was certainly the case with her.
So, day in and day out, Hosea would see his wife, this woman with whom he had entered into the solemn promises of marriage—you could say a covenant, in fact—putting on her lipstick and heading out for a night on the town, coming home night after night smelling of cigarette smoke and another man’s cologne. Whatever the details of Gomer’s indiscretions, Hosea was living the violation of the covenant relationship, the pain that Yahweh was feeling as he watched his people stray from their commitment to him. Hosea knew it first hand; his life mirrored the situation of Yahweh and Israel.
Soon enough, Hosea and Gomer had a child, three children, in fact. The text is not clear about whether they were Hosea’s children, but the question kind of hangs in the air, doesn’t it . . . especially when you hear their names. The first child, a son, was named Jezreel, technically meaning “God scatters” . . . a not-so-veiled warning that God was not too interested in holding things together when the Hebrews were out having a good time with other gods. The second child, a daughter, was named Lo-ruhamah, meaning: “I no longer have pity on the house of Israel.’ What a beautiful name! The final straw came with the birth of the third child, a son, named Lo-ammi: “You are not my people, and I am not your God.”
Right there, in the drama that was Hosea’s life, the patience of God was wearing thin. Year after year Yahweh would wait…he would take the people back over and over again after they continuously were unfaithful to him. He watched their dalliances with other gods, their repeated offering of themselves to the idols of the land around them. Over and over he forgave, over and over he hoped they could remember, if just for a moment, the love and commitment they felt when they’d made their covenant with him. Over and over he hoped they would change their ways.
But time was running out. Yahweh had gotten pretty much to the end of his rope. The covenant relationship that hinged on this conditional arrangement—if you will be my people, I will be your God—just wasn’t working for God anymore. And Hosea was the one who had to bring them the bad news that God just wasn’t willing to put up with their unfaithfulness anymore. No more.
Have you ever made a promise to God?
Maybe you can look back over the course of your life and remember a time that you gave your life to God, promised to live it with God first, promised that nothing would ever get in the way of your devotion to God. Maybe it was your baptism, or a particular moment of clarity or commitment. Maybe it was a big decision in which you knew—without a shadow of a doubt—that your life would be different, and that no matter what you would never, ever turn your back on God, that you would be 100%, absolutely sold out to this relationship that had transformed you.
It was great, wasn’t it? That moment when you knew for sure that your you would be sold out for God even when everybody around you marched to the beat of a different drummer.
And for awhile, it was really great. The initial infatuation of what it might mean to be sold out to God was enough to propel you to life lived in a truly different way. Everyone around you knew what was important to you; each person who came across your path could tell that your life belonged to God in radical and unusual ways. Your life was marked with a level of commitment much unlike the lives of those around you.
And why not?
The transformation and hope you had experienced, the new way of looking at the world that relationship with God afforded—these were radical and amazing experiences. Why wouldn’t you want to be completely committed, totally sold out to life in covenant relationship with the God of the universe?
But then, slowly, things began to change. It wasn’t like some big, earth-shaking change. Rather, it was slow, sneaky, kind of insidious. Life out in the world had this appeal, this pull that tugged at you, and it’s hard to live your life so differently than everyone else around you. Despite your best intentions and before you even knew it, a life of comfort and material wealth seemed to look pretty good. It wouldn’t be wise, financially speaking, to give so much money in tithe. After all, I have my retirement to think of. If I don’t take care of myself and plan for my future, how can I be around to help anyone? The ideal of radical generosity, a life sold out for God, seemed to fade in the distance as the promise of material wealth and comfort loomed large.
Or maybe, at the beginning, it seemed I was spending as much time as I could learning about my faith, engaging in spiritual practice, investing my time and talents in my community of faith. Every day my pressing questions were: what does God have to teach me today? How can my life be part of God’s work in my community? But then . . . other things began to catch my attention. New relationships demanded time away from the community; other pursuits began to take my time; I was cutting the commitment of presence and participation out little by little because there were other things—important things—that were demanding my attention. At first it was just a little, here and there, but pretty soon my practice of faith became one thing on a list of many things that took my time. It’s natural, after all, that initial ardor would cool, that church and faith practice would settle into a reasonable place in life, along with work and family and all the rest. Right?
It wasn’t like you intentionally broke trust or violated a promise . . . somehow, that relationship with God, that covenantal promise we had made to each other . . . it kind of took a back seat.
But Hosea has a strong message for the people of Israel and for all of us who have wandered from right relationship with God. The people of Israel did not want to hear his indictment, and if we listen seriously to Hosea, we know that God is not okay with the cooling of our ardor. God has not forgotten the promise God made to be our God, but it’s looking more and more like we forgot that we promised to be God’s people.
So what’s a God to do? The covenant has been broken, by us. Time after time God has waiting for our return, but we keep getting sidetracked by all the things that pull us away from lives of full commitment, sold-out investment, covenant relationship.
And God has had enough.
And so, the prophet Hosea lived out his life that was a metaphor for the relationship between Yahweh and God’s people. Some nights, in the wee hours of the morning, after he’d heard her come in, throw off her shoes, and climb into their bed, Hosea would look over at Gomer. Laying there in the sliver of moonlight streaming in from the window, breath rising and falling, face turned away from him, hair curling on her cheek, he could see very clearly that most of the girl he had fallen in love with has gone. But in those moments, he can still catch a glimpse of the youth and beauty she’d radiated, and he remembers the day they promised each other their lives just as clear as it was yesterday.
In those moments he wants to put all the pain aside, to try again, to say to her—remember? Remember when you only had eyes for me? Don’t you remember the promises we made?
But then the light dawns and it’s back to life as usual—he to the work of prophecy and she to the tasks of tending the children and running the household. And that next night, just like all the others, after the children go to sleep he watches her dress up in her party clothes, put on her jewelry, and head out into the night. The anger and disappointment he feels are overwhelming: how could she do this to him, again?
He manages to push back the pain and tend to the evening chores that need doing. Feeding the animals, making sure the house is settled for the night. He goes in and looks at the children, sleeping soundly, and he tucks them in again. There they are, living evidence of his pain and yet full of such promise that perhaps—maybe, if he tries just a little harder, waits just a little bit longer—she might come around and things could be different.
So, as the house settles and the moon rises and the sounds of the night crowd in, he pulls up a chair to the window and waits. Yet again, he waits.
Is he foolish to hold out hope that tonight she’ll remember her promise . . . that tonight she’ll come home . . . to him?