Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

Click here for directions
 

A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Foolish Love:  Anguish in the Heart of God

Rev. Kathy Donley

 3/11/18

 

Scripture Lesson:  Hosea 1.2-10, 2:14-23, 11:1-9

 

Hosea was a prophet in Israel in the 8th century before Jesus.  It was the age of the prophet Amos who said “let justice roll down like waters”  and Micah who said “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”  It was the age of Isaiah whom Jesus quoted in his first sermon, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because God has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.”  It was the golden age for prophets and Hosea was right there in the thick of it with Amos and Micah and Isaiah, but Hosea’s words are not inscribed on monuments or set to music, or even repeated very often.  To put it bluntly, Hosea is strange.  Perhaps he was not always strange.  Perhaps he was as normal as anyone else ever is, until he was captured by God’s foolish love. 

God tells him to marry an unfaithful woman.  She might be a streetwalker or a prostitute in the fertility cult of Baal. We don’t know.  After they marry, she gives birth to three children.  The text is ambiguous as to whether they were all fathered by Hosea or not.  The children have compelling names.  *The first son is named Jezreel.  Jezreel was once a beautiful place, a city in a fruitful valley until King Jehu began his reign there.  His reign was one of vengeance and horror, so that the name Jezreel became linked with  violence and mass murder. One scholar suggests that naming a child Jezreel might be like naming a child  “Auschwitz” or “Hiroshima.”[1] 

The next child is a daughter named Lo-ruhamah, which means  “not loved, not pitied.”  It is a declaration that God’s mercy will no longer be extended and so, it might be like naming a child  “punishment”

The last child is Lo-Ammi which means  “not my people”.  A contemporary equivalent might be  “damnation”.

I once heard a sermon by Brian McLaren in which he imagined these kids on a Little League team.[2]  He imagined Hosea cheering from the stands,

“Come on, Auschwitz, keep your eye on the ball.”  “Punishment, don’t strike out this time and

Damnation, you steal that base if you can, OK?”

With the parents they had and names like that, they would be social outcasts.

Hosea and his family were flesh-and-blood representations of the relationship between God and Israel.   The overarching metaphor at the beginning of the book is of the covenant love between spouses. It is as if God is married to Israel who is repeatedly unfaithful.  Their relationship is deeply painful as evidenced by the children -- violence and punishment and damnation. 

If you have ever been close to a marriage where infidelity has happened, then you can understand this text through that lens.  It is a swirl of betrayal and broken vows and heartbreak and anger and recrimination and guilt . . . often, there is still love for the faithful one and the unfaithful one.  One of the questions that has to be addressed is whether reconciliation is possible. 

That is what God is wrestling with, in terms of Israel.   The covenant relationship is like a strong marriage, one of deepest intimacy and tender, reliable love.  But what should God do when Israel repeatedly abandons the covenant to go after other gods, to put trust in military strength and political alliances rather than the Lord?  Those are the kinds of questions Hosea wrestles with in his relationship with Gomer.  One scholar describes it this way, “The pain in the heart of the prophet became a parable of the anguish in the heart of God.” [3]

Let me remind us that everything we can say about God is metaphor.  We do not have language large enough to speak specifically about God. All metaphors are limited and any metaphor involving humans is going to include human brokenness and become problematic.  If you read the entire book of Hosea, you will find assumptions about men and women, about husbands and wives, assumptions about who is most often to blame when marriages fail and frankly, because God is cast as the husband, you will find deeply troubling images of God as an abuser.  Please don’t read this book and think that we should accept those 8th century cultural understandings of marriage as descriptive of our covenant relationships or of God. 

If you have ever been close to a marriage where infidelity occurred, then you understand something of the pain that Hosea and Gomer are living in, something of the anguish in the heart of God. Perhaps you have also seen in the midst of that pain, the faint possibility of reconciliation.  Perhaps you have witnessed, years later, the strength of a marriage that healed from such a deep wound. 

Maybe such pain and hope are often found together.  In the chaos of war, there are folks like the White Helmets of Syria, volunteers carrying out their own search and rescue missions in the midst of bombings.  In the pain of another school shooting, many of us are finding hope in the courage of teenagers who are doing all they can to make “Never Again” a reality. 

And even in the midst of Hosea’s despair and God’s anguish comes this word in verse 10, “in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said of them, ‘Children of the living God.’ The reading we heard from chapter two describes a time when God will accomplish reconciliation.  At that time, in the hopeful future, violence and war will be abolished, there will be safety and justice and faithfulness and love.  Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God will keep the covenant. 

One theme of Hosea seems to be that hope and pain exist together.  Hosea’s family life becomes a demonstration of the pain in God’s heart, in the hope that humans will get a sense of God’s love.  Hosea would have been a laughing stock, a fool for putting up with such a wife, an idiot for failing to be a successful husband, when measured by his culture’s standards.   We might place him in a category called Holy Fools, those rare individuals who are so consumed by the love of God that the measures of successful living are completely inverted. 

Perhaps one of the best known Holy Fools was Francis of Assisi, a saint known even to Protestants.  Born into wealth and privilege, he pursued poverty, because Jesus was poor and because Jesus loved the poor.  He stressed poverty so strongly in order to become closer to God. He took the greatest joy in destitution. 

G.K. Chesterton described Francis’ love for ordinary people when he wrote “What gave him his extraordinary personal power was this: that from the Pope to the beggar, from the sultan of Syria in his pavilion to the ragged robbers crawling out of the wood, there was never a one who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis was really interested in him; in his own inner individual life from the cradle to the grave; that he himself was being valued and taken seriously, and not merely added to the spoils of some social policy or the names in some clerical document.”[4]

Francis heard his call from God as he stood in an abandoned church, “Francis, go repair my house, which is falling into ruins.  His passion became leading the church back to Christ.  He was considered foolish by many, even many within the church, and yet his wisdom is remembered and repeated all over the world today.

Francis was strange.  Hosea was strange.  They are people who are so consumed with the love of God that they belong in a class by themselves.  I could hold them up as models for us to imitate, but I’m not sure that’s a life I would wish on any of us.  So perhaps what I want to do is to encourage us to see through them to the God whose love is expressed in hope and anguish and what we often call foolishness, even the foolishness of the cross.

There is one more important metaphor in the book of Hosea.  Consider these words from chapter 11:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and 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 to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I 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. 

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. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a male,  the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

The metaphor shifts.  God is no longer like a spouse, but a parent.  This is the parent of a rebellious teenager or a young adult lost in the far country.  This is God looking at the photo albums of better times:  Israel’s first steps.  Israel’s first words.  Birthdays.  Wrestling matches and the injuries they caused.  As they share those memories, one parent advocates for tough love; Israel has to understand that actions have consequences.  The other parent says that Israel will always be their child, no matter what.[5]  God is both parents, bound in deep, conflicted relationship to humans.

This is metaphor.  All language about God is metaphor and it makes sense that our most truthful  metaphors about God come out of our most enduring human relationships.  The metaphor of marriage, the metaphor of parent and child. 

But here is one fascinating thing.  Note verse 9 in that last reading.  “I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a male, the Holy One in your midst.”  The word for male there is ish.  It means male.  It is the counterpart to ishah, the female.  There is a hint, that even in Hosea’s time, people understood that God could not be contained or limited to human constructs.  And so, Old Testament scholar John Holbert sums it up, “The Holy One in the midst of the people is not the powerful God of Amos, the raging God of Micah, the demanding God of Ezekiel.  YHWH is here the warmly compassionate God, who in plaintive sadness and expectant hope keeps searching for Gomer/Israel, no longer as a traditional male, but a God of new heart, a God madly in love with someone who too often does not, will not cannot love YHWH back.  This is the God Hosea has discovered. This is the God of Jesus the Christ.” [6]

The love of God can only consume us as we experience and appreciate it and receive it. The best response we can offer to that love is to return it by embodying it in our own time and place.  Catherine of Siena lived about 100 years after Francis.  In her own ways, she challenged cultural norms and wisdom.  She was one of the first recognized women theologians.  I invite you to read aloud with me this prayer she wrote in 1379 and perhaps to make parts of it your own.

O Godhead, my love,

I have one thing to ask of you.  When the world was lying sick

You sent your only-begotten Son as doctor,

And I know you did it for love.

But now I see the world lying completely dead –

So dead my soul faints at the sight.

What way can there be now

To revive this dead one once more?

For you, God cannot suffer,

And you are not about to come again

To redeem the world but to judge it

How then

Shall this dead one be brought back to life?

I do not believe, O infinite goodness,

That you have no remedy.

Indeed, I proclaim it:

Your love is not wanting,

Nor is your power weakened,

Nor is your wisdom lessened.

So you want to, you can,

And you know how to

Send the remedy that is needed.

I beg you then,

Let it please your goodness

To show me the remedy,

And let my soul be roused to pick it up courageously.[7]

Amen.

 

 



[1] James Limburg, Hosea-Micah, Interpretation Commentary Series, (Atlanta:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1988), p. 9

[2] Brian McLaren “Good News!  Christianity is Pregnant”  sermon delivered at the Festival of Homiletics, May 14, 2015

[3] James Limburg, p. 10

[4] As quoted by Jim Wallis in Cloud of Witnesses, Jim Wallis and Joyce Hollyday, eds, (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books,  and Washington DC:  Sojourners Magazine, 1991), p. 5

[5] This portrayal of God comes from the Rev. Jacob Morris, of Nazarene Compassionate Ministries https://www.aplainaccount.org/single-post/2016/07/25/Hosea-1118

[6] http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/god-we-hardly-know-john-holbert-07-30-2013.html#

[7] Catherine of Siena, The Prayers of Catherine of Siena, trans, and ed, Suzanne Noffke (Mahwah, NJ:  Paulist Press, 1983), Prayer 19 Passion Sunday, 27 March 1379

 

Home