Friday, November 13, 2015

“No Matter What” - November 15, 2015

Text: Hosea 11:1-9

A few months ago I shared a bit about the movie Groundhog Day, and since that time, I have been inundated with requests for more stories from comedy movies of 25 years ago.  OK, maybe not exactly inundated.  But I do want to start off this morning with an incident that took place in the movie Ghostbusters.

The basic story is that three unemployed parapsychology professors (and I think that is actually redundant, I have never heard of an employed parapsychology professor) begin a business to capture unwanted ghosts.  There is a scene in which the Ghostbusters are in jail, having been arrested because their ghost detention chamber allegedly failed to meet EPA standards.  They are trying to convince the mayor that the threat posed by ghosts in the city of New York is real and that they should be released from jail so that they can fight against this grave threat and protect the city.

One of the Ghostbusters tells the mayor that the city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.  The mayor asks, “What do you mean?” 

One of the Ghostbusters responds, “What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor.  Real wrath-of-God type stuff.

And then they describe it: “Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies!  Rivers and seas boiling!  Forty years of darkness!  Earthquakes, volcanoes!

Another adds: “The dead rising from the grave!  Human sacrifice!  Dogs and cats living together!  Mass hysteria!”

It’s hard not to love this movie.  But I mention this cinematic classic because of the wrath of God business.  When the ghostbuster Ray Stantz says, “What he means is Old Testament,” we know what he is talking about.

There is a great deal of violence and death and destruction in the Old Testament, and there is this popular perception that the Old Testament depicts a God of wrath while the New Testament God is a God of love.  There are those who have always felt this way.  Marcion, an early Christian leader who was eventually deemed by the church to be a heretic, said that the wrathful Old Testament God was a lesser and completely different God than the God of the New Testament.

Well, I will give you that it is easier to find wrath and judgment and destruction in the Old Testament.  But in the Hebrew Scriptures, we find a growing and evolving understanding of God and the way God works in the world.  And alongside pictures of God’s judgment we have beautiful and moving pictures of God’s love.  A good example is our text today in the book of Hosea.

Like Elijah, whom we looked at last week, Hosea is a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel.  He lived about 100 years after Elijah.  Unlike Elijah, he is a writing prophet.  That is, we read about Elijah in 1 Kings, but we read words that the prophet Hosea wrote in the book of Hosea.  In our Bible, Hosea is the first of the 12 minor prophets.  They are not called minor prophets because their message is less important but because these 12 shorter books were all contained together on one scroll, while the books of prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah might take up one or more scrolls all by itself.

Hosea contains two basic metaphors for God and the way God relates to humanity.  The first is the metaphor of a husband of a wayward spouse.  God asks Hosea to enact a picture of God’s relationship with Israel by marrying an unfaithful wife.  Hosea is told to marry a prostitute, and he marries a woman named Gomer.  Hosea and Gomer have children who are given the names Not Pitied, Not My People, and I Am Not Your God to illustrate the fact that God’s patience is gone, that after generations of Israel turning from God, of turning a blind eye to justice, of failing to live as God’s people, God has had enough.  So Hosea’s children are given these names.

But God can’t follow through.  God’s love is too deep, and in chapter two we read that the opposite of what the children’s names announce will happen.  Israel will be pitied, they will be God’s people, and they will say, “You are my God.”  By now Gomer has long since left Hosea, but Hosea goes to redeem Gomer, buying her for the price of a slave and bringing her home.  It is a picture of God never giving up on Israel and God redeeming a wayward humanity.

Now the story is a bit problematic in that living, breathing people are treated as object lessons, but it is nevertheless a powerful image.  Israel has been unfaithful, but God will remain faithful and continue to love God’s people. 

The second metaphor, which we find in our scripture for today, is of a parent.  Chapters 4-10 are basically judgment oracles.  Israel’s transgressions are plain for all to see and impending doom is upon the nation.  And in fact, Assyrian armies would soon be descending on Israel and its capital of Samaria, which was under siege for three years.  But despite all of it sin, despite all of its waywardness, despite its infidelity, God cannot give up on Israel.  And we come to the tender words of 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.
We have this powerful, maternal image of God loving God’s people as a mother loves a child. 

Now there were those in the early church who, influenced by Greek philosophy, argued that God is unmoving, pure truth, pure logic, not swayed by human emotion.  The human Jesus represented passion and suffering, but God the Father did not suffer.  And in fact, what came to be called patripassianism – literally the suffering of the father – was ruled a heresy.  God cannot suffer, the Church said.  There was more to it, and what they objected to most was what they saw as a blurring if not erasing of lines between the three persons of the Trinity, but still.  The legacy is that we have wound up with the image of God as cold and detached and above it all, and Jesus as the caring member of the Trinity.  God is a harsh judge while Jesus is our friend.

Well, enough Historical Theology.  The larger point is that when I read passages like Hosea chapter 11, it is hard to imagine God as detached.  God feels.  God cares.  God has compassion.  God is deeply moved.  God is affected by the actions of God’s children.  And it is hard to read these words and say that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him.”  It is great to have babies, new children and grandchildren, in the congregation.  There are more babies on the way, with two due next month.  Those tiny babies are so precious to their parents.  The parents will shelter them, feed them, change dirty diapers.  They will spend countless hours caring for them and playing with them and sleepless nights attempting to get them to go back to sleep.  Parents will spend long nights nursing them through sickness. 

In the eyes of parents and grandparents, babies can do no wrong.  What is amazing about all of this is the fact that as babies, we do nothing to deserve the love and care we receive.  Our parents willingly shower love and attention on us.

This is the way it is with God and us.  God’s love for us is just a given.  And that love remains with us through our lives. 

The prophet continues, “… I taught Ephraim to walk” (Ephraim is another word for Israel it was one of the larger northern tribes.)  Parenting does not stop once the child can feed herself or himself and is potty trained.  Being a mother or father never ends.  Parenting is walking with our children as they explore, discover, run, fall – as they experience life.  Parents are present to dry tears and celebrate successes. 

As a parent, there will be times when we will have to discipline inappropriate behavior.  We’ll have to put the kid in “time out.”  There will be those times when we demand that bedrooms to be cleaned or enforce time for homework or say No, you can’t have another cookie.  There are those times when we have to say No for the child’s own good.

And as a parent, there will be those times of letting go.  From letting go of the bicycle as you are running alongside so that your son can learn to ride for himself to letting your daughter take the keys and drive off in the car by herself for the first time, parents have to allow children to make decisions and choices and be responsible for themselves.

This is the way God thought of Israel.  God called the Israelites out of Egypt.  God journeyed with them and led them through the wilderness.  God provided for their needs, giving them manna every morning and drawing water from rocks.  God had cared for Israel like a child, but as Israel grew, it had not followed in the way that God had led.

The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols… I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.
It is 2:00 am and your teenager’s curfew is 11:00.  She has not called or texted.  You have called the parents of the friends she is supposed to be with.  Both of those friends are in bed asleep.  You keep calling, keep sending text messages but get no response.  You check Facebook for clues.  You are thinking about calling the police when the front door suddenly opens and there she is.  You are so relieved; you want to hug her and hold her close and at the same time you could strangle her.

This is what God is feeling.  Both anger and love.  The anger is really a part of the love.

Part of parenting is knowing that sometimes, children have to learn for themselves.  You may want to step in and save your child from the results of their behavior, but sometimes being a parent requires you to let them learn from their mistakes, learn to be responsible.  And we cannot always shield children from the consequences of their actions, as much as we might want to.  And so the prophet says,

They shall return to the land of Egypt; Assyria shall be their king.  The sword rages in their cities; it consumes their oracle-priests and devours because of their schemes.
As a parent, the choices that your child makes can sometimes make you want to pull your hair out.  You may remember your son or daughter as an innocent child while you watch in agony as that child wrestles with drug addiction or alcoholism or repeated incarceration.  It is like that for God with Israel; it has reached the point where God seems resigned to let the consequences of Israel’s behavior play out.  And Israel will suffer the consequences of decisions and actions it has taken – the Assyrian army was at its doorstep.  And yet – despite everything – God just cannot give up on Israel.

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 no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

Here in the middle of the Hebrew scriptures, set in the midst of judgment oracles, we find these tender and powerful words of love.  God will never give up on us.  Whether we have brought suffering on ourselves, whether we have turned from God, or whether we have simply suffered from the pain that is so much a part of our broken world, God will always be there.

The current issue of the Christian Century included a number of short essays submitted by readers on the subject of song - ways that music had influenced the writers or touched their lives.  One especially spoke to me.

Nancy Bauer-King, a pastor in Wisconsin, wrote:

It took me 45 years to catch on to the value of a faith community.  Then one Sunday, halfway through the first verse of the opening song, I got it.
I had completed my first year as a pastor and was standing behind the pulpit singing no. 133 in the Methodist hymnal: “What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms.”  I knew the people well enough to know some of their personal histories.  I knew the hymn well enough to look out over the congregation as I sang.

Ruth and Roger both lost spouses to cancer and then found each other.  Bernie’s first husband killed himself with a shotgun.  Ben and Gloria buried a two-year old child.  Bob’s wife and two grandchildren were killed in an accident with a semi.  Jim’s son was in prison.  J.C. lost an arm in a mishap with a corn picker.  Sandy recently joined a support group for incest survivors.

Then it hit me: they were all singing.  How could they sing?  How could they experience such tragedies, yet come to worship every Sunday and sing?
We know the answer because we have experienced such pain and loss ourselves.  The answer is that we have had experiences of faith that transcend our suffering.  The answer is that we have felt the everlasting arms holding us up when we could not go on on our own.  The answer is that we have learned through hard experience that whatever happens, God will be there.

Hosea’s words are a powerful reminder of God’s unfailing love.  “How can I give you up?” God asks.  The very notion is offensive to God – “my heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.”

God is not an unmoved mover, a deity who sits in heaven above it all, observing creation.  God is a passionate God who suffers with us, a parent who always loves us, always cares for us, always wants the best for us - no matter what.

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