11When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. 3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. 5They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. 7My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
8How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. 10They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. 11They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
Sermon: Parenthood by Rev. Sandi Anthony
Last week we talked about the opening chapter of the Book of Hosea. Hosea the minor prophet who was commanded by God to marry a prostitute. The symbolism is rich here. So last week our image of God was that of a husband—a husband of a prostitute. This great drama is enacted by Hosea, who is commanded by God to marry a wayward prostitute so that he can restore her. Symbolically the prostitute was Israel and can be, by extension, us when we leave our first love, God. Sometimes we, like Israel, go off and sacrifice to other gods for material or short-term gain. This week we will delve into the eleventh chapter of Hosea, which gives us another symbolic and relational image of God. This time our image of God is not the husband of the whore, but the parent of a wayward child. In this chapter God is the brokenhearted parent of Israel—also referred to as Ephraim (one of the lost tribes) in this passage. And by extension, God is the brokenhearted parent of us, when we are wayward. Know that when we go awry, we break God’s heart, who feels acutely what parents do when our own children stray into dangerous waters.
Now parenthood is messy; I know. I had one child, for good reason—it was tough; she was not easy, though it was totally worth it, especially now that she is 25 and her frontal lobes are approaching full development. But I’m telling you that I had a terrible time especially with the teenage years—some of you were my greatest support during those years before I was a pastor here, and you listened to me whine all the way through it. And you were right—it got better. Now our daughter has a nice boyfriend, a good job, and with our help, just bought her own house and she is genuinely a good person! But let’s talk more about Parenthood—this time about the 1989 movie starring one of my favorites, Steve Martin who played Gil Buckman, the husband of Karen Buckman, who was played by Mary Steenburgen.
Their kids were a mess in that movie—and so were their nieces and nephews—the storyline, you see, encompasses the whole extended family with its black sheep, personality disorders, the whole gamut. Gil is a perfectionist who works as a sales executive under significant work pressures. Their oldest child, Kevin has emotional problems that Gil thinks he can remedy through coaching Kevin’s little league team. Kevin often misses the ball and loses the game for his team, adding to his emotional angst. He loses his retainer and frequently has emotional outbursts. A bully steals his money; he wails and cries. Gil and Karen’s two younger children also have deficiencies. Their middle child, Taylor, kisses all the boys at school, and she also projectile vomits. The youngest son, Justin, likes to “butt things with his head.” The movie hilariously and poignantly follows the whole extended family. One of the most interesting storylines, at least to me, is when Gil and Karen’s niece, Julie, played by Martha Plimpton, scores high on her SAT’s and her mother, played by Diane Wiest, has high hopes for her to go off to a good college, yet Julie gets sidetracked by her feral boyfriend, Todd, played by Keanu Reeves. Julie, instead of going to college, runs off with Todd, ends up pregnant and at one point is even caught panhandling. Yep, I really identified at one point with Julie’s mother in the movie with that brokenhearted feeling—that her teenage daughter is squandering her intellect and future for a boyfriend with no apparent ambition or future.
And so, perhaps, I glimpsed an inkling of what God must have felt when dealing with a wayward Israel in the middle of the eight century BC. Just to recap the historical milieu, Hosea prophesied for at least 38 years 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 II’s reign was marked by peace and prosperity (at least for the elite, who gained their prosperity on the backs of the poor). Remember that Amos and Hosea were roughly contemporaries—Hosea prophesying just after Amos. Hosea’s time was marked by Israel’s worship of the Canaanite fertility deity Baal. There was a conflict simmering during that time in Israel over who they believe made the land fertile. Was is Yahweh or Baal? Moreover, Israel was struggling with if it were possible to give allegiance to more than one deity. The prophets, of course, answered a resounding NO—including Hosea. By attributing prosperity or fertility of any kind to Baal, the people were committing great whoredom. God, in fact, was brokenhearted over this, in the manor of a parent who sees a daughter go off with a feral boyfriend young rather than get a good education and wait until she meets the right young man.
Now who was this Baal and how does Baal worship translate into the 21st Century? As I mentioned, Baal was a deity worshipped by pagan cultures around the Mediterranean world at that time. His symbol was often the bull. People sacrificed to him for rain to water their crops and so that women would produce children. Sacrifices to this deity were based on “sensuality and involved ritualistic prostitution in the temples. At times, appeasing Baal required human sacrifice, usually the firstborn of the one making the sacrifice. The priests of Baal appealed to their god in rites of wild abandon which included loud, ecstatic cries and self-inflicted injury” (www.google.com/amp/swww.gotquestions.org/amp/who-Baal.html). In the seventeenth century AD Christian belief, Baal begins to be seen as a high-ranking demon with legions under his command.
Today we use Baal as a metaphor for things that compete with us for right relationship with God—things like greed and selfishness, dishonesty, lack of compassion, unfaithfulness, addictions, judgmentalism, adultery and fornication, pornography and all kinds of immaturity, spiritual and otherwise. These things can ruin our lives, of course. And when they infect us, God grieves—because they hurt the sinner and those in relationship with him or her. Those of us who have had children, when we see them straying into dark paths, we grieve; we are alarmed. Sometimes we don’t know what to do. Spend time coaching their little league games? Try to get them into therapy? Tough love? Cut them off? Sometimes all of the above, but the sleepless nights always come, nights when soliloquys like the one God utters in our passage today play over and over again in our own heads. We crank similarly:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim (another word for Israel) to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them…” By verse 5, God talks about the calamities that will befall his children because they have turned away: “They shall return to the land of Egypt and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests and devours because of their schemes…”
And I think of all those sleepless nights, checking for the green dot on Facebook to let me know my teenage daughter was alright and on line, even when I didn’t know where she was. God continues, “How can I give you up, Ephraim?”
In our passage today it sounds a bit like God is expressing doubts, questioning decisions, having change of heart, and ultimately deciding not to act on the basis of legitimate anger. Overwhelmingly, compassion wins out. Verse nine is the heart of this soliloquy and the center of Hosea’s thought: “I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” Bible commentator Gene Tucker explains, “Hosea takes human metaphors for God’s love as far as they will go and then stresses that the difference between God and human beings involves [God’s] capacity for radical, forgiving love” (Gene M. Tucker, Harper Collins Bible Commentary, James M. Mays, ed., HarperOne, 642).
It is always God’s image that we are called to emulate. Who in your life needs your constancy and your compassion, and radical, forgiving love even when that person may have strayed? Even when that person disappointed you, hurt you or pushed you to your limits. Are there relationship breakdowns and failures that haunt you in this life? Are there steps you can take toward reconciliation, which mind you, can indeed cost you something? Granted, you may not be met in kind, but as a Christ follower, we need to at least take the initiative.
Let’s go back and examine another scene toward then end of the movie Parenthood. Julie’s feral boyfriend is now her husband (and is also the father of the baby she is now carrying. Todd gets into car racing. Julie is panicked at a race. Her mother, even though she does not approve of Todd or their teenage marriage, comes to be with Julie at the race. Todd indeed crashes his car. Julie’s mom rushes to the side of Todd’s wrecked car; Julie can’t—Julie is too overwrought. In the crash’s aftermath, Julie’s mom tells Todd he is important and valued, because he is going to be the father of her grandchild. Later Julie’s younger brother, who had taken a liking to Todd, admires his mom for her devotion to Julie and Todd. She replies simply to her young son, “Julie wants Todd. Whatever you guys want, I want to get that for you. That’s the best I can do.” We see this mom err on the side of compassion for both her daughter and for Todd. Julie and Todd, while far from perfect, are children of God, after all. Julie did not pursue the course that her mother had dreamed for her—going to a great college because of her high SAT scores and making the most of her young intellect, yet her mother came to be with her even in the trouble that ensued. Julie’s judgement would most likely be forthcoming in life, in something like karma; her mom did not need to enact any kind of punishment or cut her off. Without an education or viable plans for the future and a baby on the way, Julie and Todd would likely struggle and scrape—the odds weren’t in their favor. Was Julie’s mom hurt and worried, disappointed and upset? You bet! It’s one thing when your children go off and make you proud in life. It’s another to accept them as they are; stand with them in their mistakes, and love them unconditionally.
Hosea gives us two great relational images of God’s unconditional love for God’s people in this Old Testament book. Hosea (whose name means salvation) at God’s command marries the whore Gomer, who symbolizes the people of Israel. God so loves the people that God uses the metaphor of wedding them—even when they are errant. Later, Hosea uses the parent metaphor to show how God feels about God’s children. God feels hurt and worry and anger when God’s children become involved in the Baals of this life. Because there is temptation and great danger there. Ultimately, we learn, in fact, that the difference between God and most human beings is God’s capacity for radical, forgiving love. What does it take to save us from ourselves? Radical and forgiving love. Because the alternative is a lifetime of brokenness, angst, heartburn, obsession, and ultimately isolation.
That’s what Jesus teaches us—Jesus who tightly focuses God’s nature into a human being so that we can best understand. Jesus, who during his life and ministry told the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is a story more about the nature of the father rather than about the prodigal. Like Julie in the movie and so many humans are apt to do, the son squandered his inheritance. That inheritance can be money, other resources, or natural gifts and talents. The brokenhearted father of the prodigal waits for karma to set in, for the consequences of squandering the inheritance, until the child is in so much pain that the child will return home, ready to make changes. And Jesus tells us, when the prodigal is still far off, that the father is filled with compassion. And I think of how Julie’s mother in the movie is so filled with compassion that she goes to stand beside the car wreck, even when Julie and Todd were similarly a “long way off” of where she would have them be.
Our God comes into the car wrecks of our lives and wants so much more for us. Does God want right living? You bet. Does God grieve when we go off and metaphorically sacrifice to the Baals of this life. You bet! Is forgiveness and a fresh start still available? Yep, 70 times 7. Hosea’s OT book demonstrates all of these things; but the life, death, and resurrection of Christ communicates all of this even more deeply. Jesus is how God so loved the world. May we grasp the incredible implications of God becoming vulnerable like we are, then pouring out sacrificial love on the cross, so we might live into wholeness. Amen.