Sunday, November 10, 2019

Still You Called — a sermon on Hosea 11

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Still You Called
Hosea 11.1-9 CEB
10 November 2019, NL2-10

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
        and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
        the further they went from me;
    they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
        and they burned 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 bands of human kindness,
        with cords of love.
    I treated them like those
        who lift infants to their cheeks;
        I bent down to them and fed them.
They will return to the land of Egypt,
        and Assyria will be their king,
        because they have refused to return to me.
The sword will strike wildly in their cities;
        it will consume the bars of their gates
        and will take everything because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me;
        and though they cry out to the Most High,
        he will not raise them up.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
        How can I hand you over, Israel?
    How can I make you like Admah?
        How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
    My heart winces within me;
        my compassion grows warm and tender.
I won’t act on the heat of my anger;
        I won’t return to destroy Ephraim;
    for I am God and not a human being,
        the holy one in your midst;
    I won’t come in harsh judgment.


During my holidays the last few weeks, I spent five days at the board meeting of RevGals, an international organisation supporting women in ministry. During the day, we worked for hours on discerning a vision, undoing some bad habits, and considering how we might lead an organisation of over 7000 people around the world. And then every evening, we ended with worship. My night to lead worship was a communion service, and the other board member I was paired up with was Episcopalian. We decided that I would be the one in charge of the communion liturgy because, as she put it, she had to follow more rules about what is included in communion prayers. She noted that she would be required to recap the entire story of creation, the fall, God’s continuous call to the people, the life and ministry and death of Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Whereas we Presbyterians have fewer rules about that so I could write something that would be...well...shorter. 

I pointed out to her that we Presbyterians also cover all of those things in our communion liturgy, though we might do it in more poetic language that conveys a lot of different aspects at once, for example in one of my favourite lines of the great prayer of thanksgiving: “when we lost our way, or turned away, still you called us home.” 

It seems to sum up so much of human history — when we lost our way, or turned away.

The prophet Hosea was speaking to people from the northern tribes of Israel, in the 8th century BCE, who had separated from the southern kingdom, and they had a long string of terrible kings and they made a lot of awful choices, including worshiping other gods and treating their neighbours badly. Just a few years after Hosea’s life, they would be overrun by the Assyrian empire and scattered. But in this moment, they are still holding on to a tenuous place between the Egyptian empire and the Assyrians and their former siblings to the south. 

Throughout his book, Hosea calls to the people, telling them they have lost their way...or turned away. Or both. Sometimes they were lost and then they chose to remain that way. Sometimes they turned their back on the way they knew they were supposed to go. Both resulted in the people and their leaders being unable to discern what God wanted for them, and also unable to see what God was still doing in their midst. They felt alone, abandoned...and so they turned even farther, to different gods, idols of fertility or money or productivity or violence. 

But the line of the prayer doesn’t stop there. When we lost our way, or turned away, STILL you called us home.

Despite the terrible choices and the bad behaviour, God still loves these people. God remembers: it was I who taught them to walk. I took them up in my arms, and they didn’t even realise it was me. I was like one who lifted a child to her cheek...taking in all that sweet baby skin and smell, rubbing our noses together and looking into their eyes...I fed them with my own hand. They may be bent on turning away, but I can’t give them up. I just can’t let go, can’t turn away myself.

It’s unusual to get such an intimate glimpse into the tenderness of God’s heart in the midst of a prophet’s proclamations. But here we have it: our God is one who remembers teaching us to walk, who still holds on to that moment when we were cheek to cheek, who picks us up and feeds us. And however tempting it might be, now that we’re unruly teenagers who reject everything, God can’t bring himself to let us go. 

God never gives up on us. Even when we lose our way or turn away, still God calls us home. Still God picks us up and teaches us again and again, brushing away tears and smoothing our hair and healing us with the truth: that before we existed, God loved us, and whatever we do, God loves us still. This is not to say that we can do whatever we want, or that God turns a blind eye when we participate in injustice or hurt each other or do wrong things. There are consequences for those actions, but those consequences never include God withdrawing love from us. We may make choices that are disappointing or even angering, but God’s love is never in doubt. It is perhaps the only thing we can truly say is unchanging.

After all the descriptions of the ways humans have devised to hurt each other — war, economic systems that cause poverty, scheming, oppression, inequality, hatred, betrayal, and so on — the prophet ends by giving us these words straight from the mouth of God:
I won’t act on the heat of my anger;
        I won’t return to destroy Ephraim;
    for I am God and not a human being,
        the holy one in your midst;
    I won’t come in harsh judgment.

God may indeed feel anger, hurt, frustration, and disappointment. But God does not act on that heat...instead, it is God’s compassion that grows warm, God’s justice and grace that leads the way. Because God is God, not a human being. Humans are the ones who struggle to respond with grace and compassion and justice....but God always chooses to act on love. 

When we claim that God’s judgment on someone else will be harsh, or that God excludes people because of their behaviour, or that God gives up and abandons us to absence, we are directly contradicting the Bible, making God in our own image. Hosea, as well as many other parts of scripture, is clear that God is not like us, our ways are not God’s ways. Indeed, if God intended to banish us to the hell of our own making, why be incarnate in Jesus? Why send the Holy Spirit? Why have the psalmist say “there is nowhere I can go away from your presence”? The prophet speaks of a God who loves, calls, heals, teaches, feeds, carries, leads, lifts up, won’t give up, has compassion, and withholds judgment.

And in response to this amazing grace, we are called to live into the truth of how God made us: in God’s image. Just as God always chooses love, we too are called to choose love. To remember how we have been picked up, taught to walk, held in God’s arms, fed by God’s hand, healed of our brokenness .... and then to extend that same grace to others. To be people who work for a world where all know the truth: that God’s love is unchanging, and even when we have lost our way or turned away, still God calls us home.

May it be so. Amen.

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