My best friend in high school used to tell a story about her family. She was the youngest of five. Her oldest sister is about 9 or 10 years older than she is, so the next sister would have been about 7 or 8 when my friend was born. When she was an infant, even until she was over a year old, her sister would come into her room when my friend was sleeping or otherwise peaceful, and she would pinch her or poke her or mess with her until the baby cried. And then big sister would pick baby up and cuddle her and snuggle her and love on her until she calmed down. And then, after a little while, when sister wanted an excuse to cuddle the baby again, she would come back in and pinch her, and then pick her up and soothe her. Not an ideal older sister, although they are on decent terms now that they’ve grown up and have families of their own.
I tell this story because I’m afraid that if you read the prophets quickly, or inattentively, particularly Hosea, you might get the idea that God acts like this. That God is, at best, a pesky older sister, pinching humanity over and over again, just to pick us up and soothe us and love on us. That God is, at worst, an abusive parent or spouse, constantly beating us and then telling us, “I love you, baby, I’ll never do it again, come back home. It’ll be different this time,” only to then spend days listing all our failings, so that we end up feeling unworthy of anybody’s love, much less God’s. The prophets certainly seem to present a portrait of an angry God, always on the brink of punishing a faithless people, only to relent in the next chapter and promise comfort, reconciliation, and shalom.
And this is a problem. It is a problem for the countless victims of abuse who have been told by their families, or worse, their pastors, that they need to stay with their abuser, with the prophets as proof. It is a problem for those who suffer natural disaster or terrorism, and then hear pundits and self-proclaimed prophets declare that this is God’s punishment for some sin or another, in order to forward their own morality agenda. It is a problem for Christians who long to understand something of God, to know God’s story, to love God, but who have been taught that the God of the Old Testament was an angry vengeful God, while the God of the New Testament is a loving, merciful God, as if God suddenly had a conversion experience of God’s own, or as if when one God went on break, this other, New Testament God snuck in and started running things. It is a problem.
And Hosea, as weird and disconcerting and just plain bizarre as Hosea is, Hosea is key to fixing this problem.
Let’s just get it out in the open. Hosea was weird. If he lived in your town, you would probably do your best to avoid him at the grocery store, ducking down the chip aisle to get away. You’d probably talk with your neighbors about his family, pitying his kids, and maybe sympathizing with his wife, even as you condemned her.
Living in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Hosea was a prophet in the years leading up to the invasion by Assyria and the destruction of the Kingdom. But he was far more than just a prophet. He didn’t just preach a sermon in the public square in front of the palace and then return home to his family in the suburbs. His whole life was part of his calling from God. The first three chapters of Hosea describe his family story. The basic outline is this: Hosea was called by God to marry Gomer, who turned out to be inclined toward unfaithfulness. She was not, as some have said, a prostitute before he married her. She was an eligible candidate for marriage, and Hosea loved her, and for a time they were happy together. They had three children together. And as prophets sometimes did, Hosea named them with symbolic names, names that related to his message from God: Jezreel means “God sows” and was also the name of a place where the kings of Israel had committed atrocities; Lo-ruhamah means “not show mercy;” and Lo-ammi means “not my people.” Not the kindest names for the children, but Hosea and Gomer were young and in love, I guess. But pretty soon, Gomer’s true nature came out, and she was unfaithful. Not just once or twice. She was wanton in her adultery, and so Hosea did what any law-abiding man would have done, he put her away from him. Kicked her out. And she fell into actual prostitution, out of necessity. But eventually, God called on Hosea again, and encouraged him to take Gomer back, to reconcile with her. This was completely against the law of Torah. Yet this is what God told Hosea to do.
All of which puts Hosea in a peculiar and unique position. It gives Hosea an insight into the mindset of God that no prophet before him had had. The Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel calls it an insight into the pathos of God. The interior tragedy of God. The grief and sorrow of God. And it is this insight that makes all the difference when we read the prophets.
See, God is angry, yes. But contrary to the old saw “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” what the prophets tell us about is “traitors in the hands of a grieving God,” or maybe “cheaters in the hands of a heartbroken God,” or “prodigals in the hands of a devastated God.” This is the the God we encounter in the prophets. A heartbroken, anguished, grief-stricken lover, who literally just doesn’t know what to do anymore. If you read carefully, if you pay attention to the story and the poetry, you quickly realize, it is not God coming in and poking us humans while we’re peacefully minding our own business. The poking, the prodding, the instigation, it’s all on our side.
In today’s passage, God is speaking in the voice of a bereaved mother. She remembers longingly those early days, when her child was a baby, and had eyes only for mama. Teaching the baby to walk, catching him up in her arms when he stumbled, holding him close and protecting him. Showing him the ways of kindness and love, wrapping him in her arms and nuzzling him so she could smell his warmth. Feeding him and looking after his every need. And now she watches as her beloved child strays, makes bad choices, throws his lot in with a bad crowd. She struggles to know how to recover him, or even whether to recover him. Maybe tough love is the answer. Let him reap what he sows. So much of the prophets’ writing is this. God stepping back and letting Israel sleep in the bed they’ve made. In fact, there are almost no accounts, particularly in the prophets, of God sending destruction. Instead, God most often steps back and allows the people’s choices to have their consequences. Which is, as many of you know, one of the hardest things for a loving parent to do. And so God laments.
This is Hosea’s message for us. God is grieved. God is weeping. God is heartbroken. We go from God, sacrificing to Baals, offering incense to idols. Just as Elijah condemned the prophets of Baal a hundred years before, Hosea calls on the people to repent of their idol worship. Because the people continue to fall back into these false ways. Even today, we are constantly drawn astray, likely to run after idols who promise us wealth, power, control, belonging. And so often, in the name of faith, in the name of religion, in the name of God or Allah or Yahweh. This is the tricky bit: those times when we believe that we are following God, that we are somehow serving the church, that we are upholding our traditions. But here is the way that you will know whether it is truly God you are serving, or whether you are unwittingly sacrificing to Baals, offering incense to idols. It is quite a simple test, with only one question: Is it bringing you together, or is it dividing? Is it drawing people together? Or is it dividing them?
Because that is the nature of Baals. That is what is so appealing about the false gods and the other idols that we worship. They divide us. And when the world is a scary place, when we are afraid, it can feel good to be divided. It feels comfortable to surround ourselves with people like us, to live in our enclave where everyone is predictable and conversations are easy because we all agree. When the walls go up, we feel secure, and we find ourselves easily affirmed. And it is so nice and warm and cozy. But it is not God’s work.
God does not divide. Our God is the God of all of creation. And our God grieves, mourns, and even rages, when we divide ourselves. When we strike out against God’s children. When we put up walls, and hide behind them, throwing missiles at one another in our self-righteous indignation, in our rush for vengeance, in our obsession with protecting our own. When the truth is, they are all our own. All of them. Your sister died in Paris. Your son died in Beirut. Your son was killed in Baghdad. Your nephew was beheaded in Kabul. The children on the streets and on the campuses, crying for justice, they are our children; the people who languish in prisons and the police who strive to protect and serve, they belong to us; the refugees who flee from the war in Syria are our family, and yes, even the terrorists who set them on their journey and who infiltrate their destinations, they are ours, too.
But the world is a scary place, and sometimes nowhere in all the world feels safe, and so we put up more walls and more divisions and it seems like the Baals will win.
But the Baals cannot win. And the prophets show us this, too. Not only does Hosea show us God’s heartbroken grief when God’s people go astray, when Israel goes after the Baals, when humanity builds more walls than bridges. Hosea also shows us God’s unrelenting love. God’s utter inability to let us go. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? I will not come in wrath. For I am God and no mortal.
God does not, in the end, behave as humans do. God does not place vengeance and punishment above compassion. And God does not abandon us. Restoration, reconciliation, and resurrection are always God’s endgame. What Hosea shows us is that God has always been about these things. God has always been working to draw us back to God, forgiving and loving and calling us home, even when we are at our most prodigal. This is who God has been all along, and this is the God that we encounter in the prophets. The same God who finally took all of our consequences on God’s own self, took the very worst that humanity could dish out, the divisions and the violence and the hatred, and carried it onto the cross, not for any one group, not for any one tribe or nation or creed, but for the whole world.
God is not the abusive lover, tearing us down in order to keep us under God’s thumb. God is not the obnoxious older sister, pinching us until we cry, and then holding us close to feed off of our need. God is the loving parent. Of all humanity.
A professor of mine, David Lose, used to tell a story about fighting with his sister. One day, it went too far, and he pinned her to the floor and raised his fist, but before he could land a blow, his mother was there, grabbing his hand, her face livid, and said, “What do you think you’re doing?” He replied, “I can do anything I want to her, she’s my sister.” And his mother replied, “She’s my daughter. No. You can’t.” That is our God. The angry, heartbroken, and above all, loving parent who stands between the fighting children, holding us apart, loving us all too much to let us destroy one another. Loving us all too much to ever ever let us go.