Sunday, December 08, 2019

Landscaping—a sermon on Isaiah 40

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Isaiah 40.1-11
8 December 2019, Advent 2, NL2-14 
Advent theme: “The Time Is Surely Coming” // Promise

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
    that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
‘In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
A voice says, ‘Cry out.’
    And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
‘All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures for ever.’
You who bring good news to Zion,
    go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
    lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
    say to the towns of Judah,
    ‘Here is your God!’
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
    and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    he gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.

Last week, at the beginning of Advent, we heard the prophet Jeremiah speaking to Jerusalem in the middle of a siege. The Babylonian army had been camped outside the city walls for a year, and there was still a year to go before they would finally win the battle and take the people into exile. Throughout the week the Advent calendar has reminded us of various aspects of God’s promise spoken by Jeremiah — to raise up a new king, who would bring new life out of the chaos and destruction they were experiencing. God’s promise is true and reliable, just as we can rely on day following night and the stars and planets working together in their heavenly courses. Indeed, only if we could number the grains of sand would we be able to fully count the goodness of God.

Today we have moved forward about 40 or 50 years. The Temple was indeed destroyed, and Jerusalem was left in a ruin. Many of the people were taken away to Babylon and resettled there, in the towns and countryside where they wouldn’t know anyone, they wouldn’t speak the language, and they wouldn’t have a chance to organise a resistance or plot to return. The poorest of the poor were left behind in the devastated Judean countryside to tend vineyards that would supply Nebuchadnezzar with wine for his extravagant courtly life. 

Fifty years is a long time to live in exile. The people who first lived through that upheaval had long since gone, and new generations were born, grown, and had children of their own who never knew anything but this life and this place. 

We can imagine that the people tried to keep their stories and traditions and memories alive...but it gets harder to do with each successive generation that has no personal experience of those stories and traditions. The same is still true of immigrants and refugees, of course — they try to keep their traditions and stories, to pass them on, but things inevitably change in the telling. Plus the culture around them, then and now, makes it difficult to hold on to their foreign ways. The host culture always wants people to integrate, but what they really mean is to assimilate, to let go of the foods and language and religion and clothes and stories and songs of the old place, and become like us. 

The Israelites living in Babylon experienced this tension, of wanting to maintain their identity while the culture and government around them wanted exactly the opposite. And added to that was the fact that the ancient world believed that gods were tied to now that they were far from their homeland, they were also far from their God. They were adrift, and it felt as if all was lost — both the past and the future.

To then hear the words of the prophet beginning with “comfort my people” must have been startling, after all this time. Things had changed so much for those who originally came out from Jerusalem, the idea of comfort when they’d lost everything must have seemed absurd. And for those born into exile, what sort of comfort would be relevant to them? They understood this world and navigated it with ease — they had a harder time understanding their parents and grandparents and their attachment to the past. The challenge of speaking to multiple generations in a way that makes sense to each of them is not unique to our time.

Into this reality the prophet speaks, calling us out into the wilderness — the place where no one is comfortable. It is unfamiliar to everyone, and there’s no map ... in fact, there is no road. And there, in the place where all of us feel a little out of our element and a little off-balance, is where we are called to prepare the way for the Lord, to change the landscape so that God can be seen. 

It is big work, this preparation. Not just the seemingly insurmountable tasks of cleaning the house well enough for your parents to visit, or of getting the perfect gift and planning the perfect Christmas dinner, but a massive construction project. In preparation for God to come, we are to level mountains and fill in valleys and smooth out the rough ground. To level the playing field, removing barriers and changing the tangible things of this world to make it possible for everyone to experience God’s glory.

That’s what the prophet says — that all people will see God together, when the way is prepared. 

Can we even imagine such a world? Where we willingly leave our comfort zones in order to break down the barriers that block people’s view of God? In order that all people can know comfort?

What is so interesting about this to me is that the people were in exile — which is not exactly traditionally thought of as a comfortable place. But then again, even when things are not the way we want them to be, it is often more comfortable to put up with the problems we know than it is to go out and do something different. We know that it is scandalous that some should have excess while others have nothing. We know there are people deep in the valley, unable to climb out, while others sit back and enjoy their panoramic mountain top views. The world is full of rough ground that trips up those who don’t have connections or opportunities, while a few are lifted over and then don’t understand why everyone can’t just sail smoothly like they did. 

To go into the wilderness to prepare the way means that all of us — those of us born into exile who don’t know anything different, and those who have memories of the good old days — will have to leave behind what we know and work together on creating something new. One does not level a mountain or fill in a valley on one’s own. It’s a community endeavour. The same is true for creating a new system that doesn’t trample some down in order to raise a few up. This is a major reconstruction project, and it will be hard and sometimes painful work, to let go of the way we’ve always done things in order that a new way can be found.

Isaiah’s vision of the community coming together to prepare the way for the Lord echoes again in the Magnificat, the song that Mary sings when she is pregnant with Jesus. Mary sings of the poor being lifted up and the rich being brought down, the hungry filled with good things and the full sent away...of the world turning upside down, basically. And that’s what true equality would feel like, for those of us at the top of the mountain. But notice that neither Isaiah nor Mary says that the mountain will become the valley. This is about levelling. So that no one is sleeping in the car park or the doorway while a few metres away others live in luxury, no parent is relying on a foodbank box to feed their children while their neighbours have three course meals every day, no one is working three jobs just to keep a roof over their head while the companies they work for dodge taxes and the CEOs hide their billions off shore. 

The world we live in now has such a gap between the mountain heights and the valley depths, and it seems insurmountable. But nothing is impossible with God. And God has promised, and his word endures forever, even when our own enthusiasm for God’s kingdom has waxed and waned, withering like flowers in the sun when the task has been difficult. It may require more of us than we thought we could manage, and it will need every tool at our disposal, but it is also what we are called to do: to tangibly change the landscape of this world so that it looks more like the kingdom of God. The voice is calling, even now, even in election season, even in the midst of the terrors of the world and the twinkly lights of the holidays: in the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord. Raise up the valleys and bring down the mountains, level the ground so that everyone can see...God is coming. 

May it be so. Amen. 

Sunday, December 01, 2019

When? — a sermon on Jeremiah 33

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Jeremiah 33.14-26 (CEB)
1 December 2019, Advent 1, NL2-13
Advent theme: “The Time Is Surely Coming” // Promise

14 The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfil my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. 15 In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness. 17 The Lord proclaims: David will always have one of his descendants sit on the throne of the house of Israel. 18 And the levitical priests will always have someone in my presence to make entirely burned offerings and grain offerings, and to present sacrifices.
19 Then the Lord’s word came to Jeremiah: 20 This is what the Lord says: If one could break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night so that they wouldn’t come at their proper time, 21 only then could my covenant with my servant David and my covenant with the levitical priests who minister before me be broken; only then would David no longer have a descendant to rule on his throne. 22 And just as the stars in the sky can’t be numbered and the sand on the shore can’t be counted, so I will increase the descendants of my servant David and the Levites who minister before me.
23 Then the Lord’s word came to Jeremiah: 24 Aren’t you aware of what people are saying: “The Lord has rejected the two families that he had chosen”? They are insulting my people as if they no longer belong to me. 25 The Lord proclaims: I would no sooner break my covenant with day and night or the laws of heaven and earth 26 than I would reject the descendants of Jacob and my servant David and his descendants as rulers for the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I will restore the captives and have compassion on them.


Last week we heard about King Josiah and the reforms he instituted when the scroll of God’s word was discovered during a Temple renovation. Josiah was a young man, just 26 years old when he led the people in renewing their commitment to follow God’s way together as a community, gathering around the scripture and doing what it said—which meant following the book of Deuteronomy’s instructions about structuring society in such a way that the poor, the immigrant, and the widow would be cared for, that the land would be stewarded well and preserved for future generations, and ensuring that only the one true God was worshipped. 

Jeremiah was a child himself when he was called to be a prophet a few years before that reform — back when Josiah was 21. God commissioned him to speak to kings and to the nation, to call them back to faithfulness and to let them know that the consequences of their bad behaviour were on the way.

Over the years since then, and through the change of kings, Jeremiah spoke boldly. He reminded people of God’s instructions, and of God’s enduring faithfulness even in the face of their brokenness. He acted out the words he was given, not just speaking them but actually putting on a one-man drama of the things God wanted the people to hear. His message was unpopular, and he was regularly contradicted by the court’s official prophets, who were paid by the king to say what he wanted to hear. 

By the time we get to today’s story, more than 30 years and three intervening kings have passed—some with reigns as short as a few months, so it must have felt much like a constant election season does. All of those kings are described as “he did what was evil” — and still Jeremiah is speaking God’s challenging word to the people. Where we picked up today, Jeremiah is about my age, and Zedekiah is the fifth king of his lifetime, and the Babylonian army is besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah is in prison. 

The Babylonian army, led by their King Nebuchadnezzar, had surrounded Jerusalem, and tried to starve the people out. They had siege engines and such, but they hadn’t been able to break down the walls....and they had held the siege now for a year. Inside, the people of Jerusalem were beginning to crack under the strain. They were running out of food and water, and there was no sign of an end to this drama. Their political leaders were oblivious to the impact that their decisions had on the everyday person in the street. The religious leaders were not much better, and regularly led them astray, following other gods that promised success, wealth, and power without asking for any kind of life changes, though they did ask for child sacrifice sometimes.

The siege would go on for another year before the city finally fell to the Babylonians. But the people Jeremiah was speaking to that day didn’t know that. They were simply living in the middle of the chaos, trying to eke out a normal existence, to manage all the stress of the constantly uncertain situation. 

They were under a literal siege, but sometimes I honestly feel like we are being psychologically besieged in our postmodern world. Between the political dramas, the manufactured crises, the economic instability, and the daily onslaught of misinformation or partial information or flat out lies, not to mention terrorism....added to the regular stressors of life in the digital age, and in the midst of a massive climate feels like a swirl of chaos from which there is no escape. And we have no idea how long it will go on, or whether we’ll ever get a calmer normalcy back, or if there’s something worse ahead, or if there’s a new normal we have to create along the way.

The people of Jerusalem were just on the edge of desperate, but they were still in the middle of all of it.

And that’s the moment that Jeremiah offered them this vision of God’s restoration and compassion, a vision of hope and a promise of a future of peace and justice, when the political and economic and religious systems would be structured like the kingdom of God, and everyone would know the presence of God with them.

They didn’t even know yet how the crisis was going to end, and here the prophet was giving them this promise. First there would be the consequences for their years of injustice and infidelity—they would be taken into exile, scattered across the Babylonian empire, and Jerusalem would be destroyed. They would end up living 70 years in exile, with only the poorest of the poor left behind as caretakers of the vineyards, because of course no king can be without his full wine production capacity in use. But one day...the time is surely coming, the prophet proclaims. But not yet.

The fact that it is not yet does not mean the promise is untrue. God does not break promises. Just as it would be impossible for God to break the system of day and night, it is impossible for God to break faith with us. Though people might look in from the outside and say “it seems like they’ve been abandoned” the reality is that there is nowhere we can go away from God’s presence. Because once God is committed, there’s no out. God is all in, forever. From the very beginning, until the end of time, just as day follows night, so God will be with us. The promise of the kingdom of heaven coming on earth will be fulfilled. God will raise up the people that make this possible, the people who will lead us in a society structured around justice and righteousness and faithfulness. 

In the middle of a siege, whether literal or psychological or political or emotional, this feels like an impossible promise. When? When is the time that is surely coming? And what do we have to go through first?

That is the question of Advent. This is a season of waiting, of preparation, of anticipation. The time is surely coming, but it isn’t yet. The promise will be fulfilled, but we don’t know what that’s going to look like exactly, yet. 

Of course we do know what is coming. We already know the fullness of Christ’s promised presence, we know that God chose to be among us in the flesh and do this work himself, we know that the Holy Spirit gives us the power to be the people God promises to the world, the people who lead the society in doing what is just and right. That is what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world. 

But this is an already - not yet reality. Yes, we already know it. But it is not yet visible in all its fullness. The kingdom of God is not yet known on earth as it is in heaven. Just like the prophets and the people they spoke to, we are still waiting, still anticipating, still longing for the day that God promises. We are still waiting to see those promises fulfilled. And even when the storm swirls around us, we still look forward to that day, and know that God never breaks a promise. The time is surely coming—the time of restoration and compassion, of justice and righteousness, of grace and peace.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Success — a sermon on Isaiah 5 & 11

Rev Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s 
Isaiah 5.1-7, 11.1-9
17 November 2019, NL2-11

I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
my loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.
‘Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
    what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
    and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
    and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
    neither pruned nor cultivated,
    and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
    not to rain on it.’
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him –
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord –
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash round his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.


This week I spent three mornings at primary schools, running a workshop with Primary 7 pupils that is designed to help them begin to transition to high school. We do four of these throughout the year, and each one is about one of the Clydeview school values. This week the workshops were on the theme of Success. Throughout the morning we do activities that invite the kids to think about what success means, how we judge if something or someone is successful, and what it takes to succeed ourselves. Often, when we first ask them about it, they say things like “you know you’ve succeeded if you feel good about something you’ve done.” The conversations also usually include talking about awards, passing exams, and sometimes status symbols like big houses or fancy cars. But almost always the first reactions this week were about feeling more confident, knowing in yourself that you’ve done something well.

It was interesting to be thinking about success all week while also pondering this reading from Isaiah — in which it becomes clear that God’s vineyard has not succeeded. Whether the measure is by how God feels about it or by a more objective standard of fruitfulness, the vineyard is a failure. It’s a shocking idea, that God could fail at something. But through the prophet, God asks: what else could I have done? What more effort could I have put in? I did everything I knew how to do — cleared the ground, planted the best vines, prepared the wine press, pruned and weeded and watered and fertilised and cared. And still the fruit was bad. The vineyard was not a success, it did not produce grapes that could be made into wine and shared to make glad the hearts of others.

Instead of receiving all that care and turning it into an outpouring of goodness and care for others...instead of being blessed to be a turns out that the people had taken the blessing for themselves and refused to share. They were supposed to do justice, to lift up the poor and level the playing field so that all would have enough. They were supposed to live righteously, with their relationships in the right order — God in priority position, and everyone else equal. They were supposed to understand that they were as intertwined as the vines of the vineyard, all in it together, working together to produce fruit that could be shared to enhance God’s kingdom. Instead, they set up systems that oppress. They allowed some to be outcast, and the poor to be trampled. They turned away, choosing not to look at the people who were the collateral damage of their economy, their social norms, and their greed. Instead of justice and righteousness, they produced a crop of bloodshed and cries.

So the vineyard was left in disarray...overgrown with weeds and vines dying, trampled by animals and left without water or care.


Even though it looks like God gave up on the vineyard, we know that is not how God is.

And death never has the last word.

From the stump, the dead tree that had been cut down and was left there to rot in its place....from the dry stump, symbol of lost hope...from the stump will come a new shoot. The deep roots can still nourish new life. God will do a new thing, and bring life out of death.

The shoot that will grow out of the stump will be marked by the very things that the vineyard lacked: justice and righteousness, both of which will favour those who had been oppressed or left out. He won’t judge by what he can see — because remember, God looks at the heart. This new life won’t be about status symbols like fancy cars or holidays or clothes, but about the other measures of success. Even one tiny, fragile, shoot coming out of a deeply rooted stump will bear more fruit...fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self control.

The results of this new life, deeply rooted in the truth of God’s love and call, will be just as shocking as the sight of the dead, overgrown vineyard, though. It will at first glance involve just as much disarray. The order that we think is built into the world will be turned on its head. Rather than the strong preying on the weak, they will live together. The wolf and the sheep, the leopard and the goat, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, the lion and the’s a comprehensive list of predators giving up their natural inclinations and choosing a different way. 

In this new vineyard, the powerful treat the powerless as if they matter. 
In this new vineyard, relationships that have been fraught with violence become peaceful and mutual.

Not because the lamb or the calf or the child have changed. They haven’t become more confident, or worked harder, or paid money, or earned their way in by acting in ways the others think are appropriate.

It’s the wolf, the leopard, the lion, and the bear that change. They choose to change their diet—to eat straw rather than each other. They choose to change their way of relating to others, lying down rather than chasing and attacking. They choose to give up some of their power in order to raise up others, making a system of equals who can work together. They choose to use their resources to create opportunities for those who had none, for both meaningful work and for rest. 

It feels wrong, because our human society is so used to the idea that it is right for some people to have more than others. But here we have a picture of the top of the food chain choosing to share meals with the bottom...where neither of them is on the menu. We have a vision of the powerful and powerless living side by side in the same house, and of neighbourhoods where those who are deemed dangerous and those who we think deserve protecting live side by side. 

God says this is what the world will be like when the earth is filled with knowledge of the Lord. They will not hurt or destroy...because why would we need to? Why would we want to? It may seem at first glance like everything is in disarray, with the powerful and powerless living together and valuing each other as equals — meaning neither has power over the other any longer. But then we would truly be living in right relationship, with God and one another. There would be no oppression or bloodshed or cries of brokenness. We would live as we are meant to — blessed to be a blessing.

Given the contrast of these two visions — of the failed vineyard and the peaceable kingdom — why do we continue to choose the one that failed?

This is a question for us as individuals, of course, but it is also a question for us as a society, and as a church....and as nations heading into elections on both sides of the Atlantic, with a daily news cycle that highlights every moment the choices we have made along the way.

I don’t have an answer as to why, other than our sinfulness, our brokenness, that leads us to think that imbalance of power and inequality of wealth is somehow a mark of success. But I do have a hope, that one day soon we will choose a different way. That when we recognise the effects of choosing to be the failed vineyard, we will want to choose the way of new life instead. Surely we would rather go through the upheaval of learning to give up our position at the top of the food chain, if it meant we could have a world of peace and opposed to the continuous cycle of destruction that comes with bearing bad fruit. I want to believe that we can dig deep, and find ourselves rooted in God’s grace, however hidden it sometimes appears to be...and then from that grace, find the capacity to do a new thing, to try a new way of sharing the blessing, and perhaps find the success God is calling us toward: a world marked by fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self control.

May it be so. Amen.

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.