1The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri, in the days of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah of Judah, and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel. 2When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” 3So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. 4And the Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. 5On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.” 6She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the Lord said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. 7But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”
8When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. 9Then the Lord said, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.” 10Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”
Sermon: And yet… When the Divine interacts with humanity, it often does so in stories and symbols. Think about the burning bush, Ezekiel’s wheel, the forbidden fruit, the tree of temptation and the tree of life, the stake that when gazed upon, healed; the cross, where humanity and divinity intersect. I could go on for a long time, and I’m sure you could think of profound symbols of great meaning from our Bibles alone, not to mention symbols from other religious traditions, recording other people’s perceptions of interactions with that which is Mystery and Other. God communicates deep truths to us out of images and events that beg to be interpreted and decodified. Interpretation, you see, requires our engagement. God goes to great lengths to engage us in a kind of theater, mesmerizing us with story, stories we tell and reenact again and again, Sunday after Sunday ever since Pentecost—remembering, until the narratives and the images become real to us and shape our thought, lives, and communities. We are meant to be entranced, hypnotized and psychically shaped by the power of the stories we read in our Bible. Jesus knew this; that is why he often communicated deep truths through telling his parables. Now these were offensive stories to some, especially the Pharisees and rulers, because they disrupted the natural course of the human mind with an unexpected twist—a twist that pointed to God’s favor of the poor, the ordinary worker, the migrant, the refugee, the mixed-blood Samaritan, and the sinner. So, know it is not unusual for God to ask prophets to do something, even as strange as marrying a prostitute, to produce an image, a visual lesson. This is how the Divine communicates with us. And so, with that background, we will now approach today’s passage about the prophet Hosea. The story of Hosea is an offensive, shocking story, at least to our modern ears. Sometimes women in particular have a tough time with this story, as the bad person here is the prostitute wife. It’s not a good tale for a feminist—and if you read it in full, you might see why. But I would say, stick with the story, because allegorically, it has a lot to reveal about God’s nature. Remember that there are many virtuous tales of women in the Bible as well, and men are often bad guys in the Bible too. I’m glad we have no children here today, because Hosea is about a prostitute—but there’s the thing, we can all be like the prostitute Gomer, men and women alike. Now with all of that said, I should tell you that some modern-day theologians even go as far as to say that this is the second greatest story in the Bible—next to the Jesus story of course, because if we stick with Hosea’s story, you will see that God is communicating something profound to us through it: God does not leave us even when we leave God—that is your take-home message in a nutshell. God is always actively at work, going to great lengths, and we find this good news simmering just below the surface in the story. Hosea communicates to us God’s very nature, a nature always working for our redemption and restoration. God is the ever-pursuer, even when Israel breaks its covenant, again and again. And it is our calling as Christians to always imitate God in life—not the prostitute Gomer. We too must be the ever-pursuers when it comes to loving and matters of justice. Now, the covenant God made with Abraham was conditional in that God would guide and protect Israel if Israel would obey God. That little word “if” is a clue that it was a conditional covenant. Even though Israel did not uphold its side of the covenant, and the covenant was broken again and again, God’s love was never, ever conditional. It was steadfast, even when the people committed, as the Book of Hosea roughly calls it, “great whoredom.”
So, let’s dive into the first chapter of Hosea with a little historical background: Hosea, who prophesied for at least 38 years, lived during a time when Israel was suffering from a war with Assyria and in virtual anarchy. Four Israelite kings had been assassinated within fourteen years after the death of Jeroboam II. Remember him? He was king when Amos was prophesying—Jeroboam the Second’s reign was marked by peace and prosperity (at least for the elite). And by the way, Amos and Hosea were roughly contemporaries—Hosea prophesying just after Amos. Hosea’s time was in the middle of the eighth century BC. Both Amos and Hosea were calling out Israel for its offenses against God—oppressing the poor and worshipping other gods for material gain. During this historical period, God commanded Hosea, a native to his own people, to take a wife of whoredom; in other words, God tells this prophet to marry a prostitute and have her children, which Hosea does, expediently and obediently; Hosea marries the local prostitute Gomer. Now I’m not sure this was pronounced “Gomer” (as in Gober Pile) or “Go’mer,” pronounced with more of a French accent! No doubt this great drama, this theater is to exemplify in a symbolic way that Israel has committed great whoredom by forsaking God—because Israel was worshipping other gods, Baal in particular. They were worshipping for water and bread, wool and flax, grain and wine, all those material things. The Northern Kingdom of Israel, you see, had delved into pagan practices, believing that there was favor and reward to be gained. The whole Hosea drama is an analogy; Hosea (who symbolizes God), will deal with Gomer. Gomer is a symbol for Israel, or by extension, even us. As the book of Hosea unfolds, the prophet’s personal life becomes an embodiment of God’s redeeming love and amazing grace. You will also see the Christ motif.
Now the symbolism I was talking about earlier runs deep. Hosea’s Hebrew name means “salvation” or “deliverance.” Imagine that! Not surprising if Hosea represents God in this story; Hosea, in fact, is an early Christ figure. Now, Gomer’s name means “completion,” in the sense that she was the complete measure of idolatry, or ripeness of consummate wickedness. Her name symbolized the complete adultery and idolatry of the very kingdom she represented. “As ‘a wife of whoredoms,’ this woman of the Northern Kingdom, regarded as an idolatress, became a symbol of her people” (All the Women of the Bible, Zondervan, 1988, https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/all-women-bible/Gomer). In fact, Gomer likely was one of the Temple prostitutes, hanging out near the front door of the temple. Ironic and kind of funny, since Hosea, as a prophet, had probably been condemning such prostitutes all of his life—and then God commands him to marry a prostitute!
Soon after they were married, Gomer begins to bear children, whose names also have prophetically symbolic meanings. And I should tell you that the children were not Hosea’s; these children were born out of Gomer’s continuing unfaithfulness—we learn this if we keep reading through chapter 2. Even during marriage, Gomer continued prostituting herself. She bears three children. The first is a boy, Jezreel, which means “God Scatters.” The second is a girl, Lo-Ruhamah, which means “not pittied.” And the third, another boy was named Lo-Ammi, which means “not my people.” Our passage today tells us that Gomer was the daughter of Diblaim, whose name is also interesting. Diblaim means “double layers of grape cake,” double layers of cake being something sensual and indulgent. The prostitute, symbolically at least, came from a father, whose name represented sensuality and indulgence, which were prime temptations for Israel. But as you will recall from last week, God’s wrath often ends up being something like karma—cause and effect from the lack of right living—from lack of caring for the poor and from worshipping other Gods, which in this day and age may look like worshipping the God of money at the expense of the poor or the earth—when the legacy of such will be revisited upon us with long-reaching social ills or environmental calamities.
We see God’s utter exasperation with Israel in Chapter 1. God says things like “I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel. You are not my people and I am not your God. And yet…juxtaposed with that exasperation, God goes to say, “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered, and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’ The people of Judah and the people of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head; and they shall take possession of the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel’.’” So, you see, Israel’s punishment it not final; there is hope for the future—a hope that Christians see actualized in the coming of Jesus. Something else is coming—a new and final covenant. There is another place in the Old Testament that is absolutely pivotal regarding salvation history, and that’s Jeremiah 31:31-34, which reads, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,’ says the Lord. ‘But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ says the Lord: ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ says the Lord; ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.’” These verses, like the Book of Hosea point forward to the coming of Jesus, the embodiment of God with us, God joined like a husband to the church, the bride of Christ. Hosea tells us that God will be steadfast even with a sinful humanity, even when his wife, Israel and us by extension, have courted other lovers.
I want to provide a little sermon illustration that sums up the point of Hosea’s unconventional marriage with a prostitute. “A couple married for 15 years began having more than usual disagreements. They wanted to make their marriage work and agreed on an idea the wife had. For one month they planned to drop a slip in a “fault” box. The boxes would provide a place to let the other know about daily irritations. The wife was diligent in her efforts and approach: ‘leaving the jelly top off the jar,’ ‘wet towels on the shower floor,’ ‘dirty socks not in hamper,’ on and on until the end of the month. After dinner, at the end of the month, they exchanged boxes. The husband reflected on what he had done wrong. Then the wife opened her box and began reading, They were all the same, the message on each slip was, ‘I love you’” (www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/marriage.html. The husband here is so much like God, who rather than harping on his wife’s faults, just wants to love her into reconciliation. And so, how can the first chapter of Hosea be good news for us? How is your relationship with God? Do you see God as one continually wielding a big stick, out to get you? Or do you see God as the ever-pursuer, even when we fall away.
I was kind of brought up to see God wielding a big stick, someone always out to get you. I remember an awful episode from my childhood right after my father died, when I was 12. We had a big estate to keep up—four acres of lawn to mow. My younger brother was out on the riding mower and my little sister had jumped onto the hitch in back of the mover and held on to my brother, bumping along for a joyride. My mother caught a glimpse of this out the window and went into a bit of a frenzy as she ran out the door to intervene, bawling at me: “The dear Lord is going to take her next because of the way you mistreat her!” Fortunately, I was in confirmation class at the time, and our good UCC pastor was able to disabuse me of any notion of God exacting any kind of retribution for sibling rivalry and meanness by having my sister get run over by a lawnmower.
Do you see God as the one who writes the message, over and over again on the pages of your Bible, “I love you?” Fierce judgments are proclaimed on the pages of the prophets, to be sure, but we need to stay close to the text and keep reading. Fierce judgments, that play out something like karma, and yet…Something else is coming: Hope, steadfastness, demonstrations of sacrificial love…A love that woos us, calling us to respond, actively at work to buy us back. A love calling us all the while to forsake the Baal’s of this life, to forsake all that is cheap and all the easy money at the expense of the poor and the earth and our relationships. Because we are wedded to the Divine and often forget this—but deep signs abound everywhere, reminding us that we are joined to God. That is what going to church and taking communion are all about—a weekly reminder that there is so much more than this material universe and all of its distractions. This is why we are surrounded by symbols and drama and entrancing stories. We need to be entranced and called back—regularly. Jesus said to the church at Ephesus through John in Rev. 2:4, “You have forsaken your first love.” What are the Baal’s in our lives? What makes us spiritual adulterers who forsake our first love? For some, addictions. For some, neglecting our relationship with God and others. Only you know what stands between you and God, you and your spouse, you and your family, you and your co-workers, you and your friends. Know this, there is cause and effect; judgments do come when we forsake God and God’s ways…And yet, the best news is that God is always at work in all of our lives, supplying power, working for our redemption, wooing us back. We do not have to be Gomer; God has shown us a better way. Let us live into the image of God, revealed best in the person of Jesus, and shown also to us today in the Old Testament exemplar Hosea. May it be so, Amen.