A Sermon by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Readings for this Service: Hosea 11
It was a nerve wracking thing bringing Fiona back to meet my parents. They’re quite conservative so this was the first time I’d brought anyone back to meet them. Would it be awkward? Would they cope? I needn’t have worried… within 30 seconds they had done what most parents seem to do when they first meet their future daughter or son in law… they showed Fiona who they were and their perspective on who I am, by bringing out the baby photos!
Our Old Testament passage is written at a time when the Jewish nation had lost their perspective on God. It was written over the 8th Century BC at a time when the Jewish nation had split in two… the North and South, The Northern Kingdom became Ephraim and the Southern became Judah.
The Jewish people, particularly Ephraim had been too big for their boots. They had internal quarrels and eventually fighting and eventually into a full on civil war. And they fought… The Northern kingdom had experienced six kings in 25 years. With a taste for blood, they had pushed the buttons of their larger neighbour, Assyria, when it was weaker. But Assyria didn’t stay weak, eventually they retaliated, . This passage is just before the Assyrians would destroy Ephraim’s cities and carry most of the population off to be slaves… things were not looking good.
Religiously they had forgotten their God, following the gods of the surrounding nations particularly the Canaanite gods of war and fertility with their destructive devotional practices.
In the middle of all their self made suffering they shout up to God “Where are you?!”
Hosea responds to this shout quietly. He retells their story from a different angle. From God’s angle. Israel’s past, Israel’s present and Israel’s future. Hosea’s response to the people struggling to understand how God could have let them slip into suffering, is to bring out the family photo album. Where was God in the story that has ended with the people of God being carried into slavery? THIS is where God was.
Hosea picks up the first photograph. I called my child out of Egypt… like a child being chosen for adoption, God had chosen Israel. Not because they were a particularly great or devoted people, just because God chose them. God had rescued them from a situation where they were slaves… a place where they were not loved.
Hosea picks up the second.
“It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms, but they did not realise it was I who healed them.”
They didn’t realise it was God who picked them up and nursed their grazed knees.
The third photograph. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.” The reins that were commonly used to help a toddler to walk without falling into anything dangerous; God’s laws were not of random rules to amuse a capricious deity but chords of kindness and love.
Designed to protect them not to make them into puppets.
The fourth photograph is pointed to. “To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.” God had held Israel, feeding them with manner on their journey to a homeland and bringing them into a land that was flowing with milk and honey.
You can see the baby photos being pointed to, one by one. Look here is little Israel – I’m taking him by his chubby little hands on his first few steps. Here he is being picked up for a cuddle from mummy. Here he is at supper time, here comes the aeroplane… open up, one for you, one for daddy.
It’s not what we expect from the Old Testament is it? There’s a rumour out there that the God of the Old Testament is distant, scary, aloof, angry and judgemental. In films, God of the Old Testament is usually played by someone with a deep, booming voice. “You down there, what are you doing? Stop it. Where are my lightning bolts?” It’s not until Jesus arrives that we see the softer side to God… Allegedly “The New Testament is where God becomes a Christian.”
This passage attempts to cast new light on this so called “Grumpy God”. You might not have seen these photos. God wasn’t aloof on a cloud shouting down orders. God was here all along. Whether Israel noticed God or not, God was the one feeding and cleaning and stroking Israel’s hair until his sobs stopped and he fell asleep in God’s lap.
God was the caring parent, nurturing Israel in its infancy.
Hosea then gets out the second photograph album, a smaller album – the teenage years – Israel’s present. You may think problems with teenagers is a new phenomenon but oh no, even back then when Hosea was looking for an analogy for a people who were rebelling against authority and making unwise decisions that got them into trouble, he reached for the idea of a teenager. The photographs have become fewer, there aren’t so many smiles now. God shows us these photos sitting at a kitchen table, maybe in a bar, with head in hands, recounting how Israel, now grown up, is constantly pressing into destruction, heartbroken about where this seems to be heading. Is there anything more heartbreaking than seeing the parent of someone who has turned really bad? You can hear the aching loss in God’s voice… as God sees the impending doom.
“Will they not return to Egypt [the place God had originally rescued them from slavery]
and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent?
A sword will flash in their cities; it will devour their false prophets and put an end to their plans.
My people are determined to turn from me.”
This is God’s present tense – present and tense. Torn between wrath and mercy, knowing that mercy will cost not less than everything. God looks at the mess humanity causes, looks at our own trajectory of selfishness that leads to more and more suffering for the human race, sweatshops, climate change, lack of investment in the things that keep people out of poverty and able to keep going in life… and God is not distant and judgemental… God weeps.
What will happen? How will God respond?
God’s response is not to give up on us… There is no mention that Israel has made their bed and they can lie in it. You can hear the almost visceral yearning in God’s voice. An all-night struggle between sober, realistic pragmatism, passionate, wild fury, and overwhelming, tender compassion.
“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?”
You can feel the pacing of the floor, this is not sentimental heart or logical head… this is gut. Parenthood at it’s most raw. Does God let Israel have it’s just deserts?
And as the dawn breaks, God’s trajectory is set.
“My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. 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.”
“The Holy One in your midsts.” God is not like humanity, not even like the best of human parents. God is Eternal… not just in time but in depth of love. You will never exhaust God. God’s holiness is expansive – more different, greater than we can imagine. And God is in our midsts… God is more committed to being present with us than we can contemplate.
And finally we get a glimpse into God and Israel’s future. A brand new photograph album, yet to be filled but with spaces marked out, already labelled for events to occur. God will be like a lion, who will roar, and God’s children, Israel, will come trembling from the four corners to which they had dispersed, and be reunited with one another, with their homes, and with God. Israel will be as timid and tentative as cooing doves in the face of the mighty roar of God. There’s no question Israel’s return will be God’s doing. But like the prodigal son returning to the father, Israel will come back from exile and be reunited in God’s home and in God’s heart.
Where is God in the suffering of humanity today? God is not distant or uninvested in humanity. God formed us, God personally got down on the floor and nurtured us in our infancy. Got up night after night as humanity cried. God is not unmoved as humanity has grown too big for our boots. As we think we can destroy and kill each other, treating our fellow human beings as disposable and God’s creation as if we can own it to do what we want with. We struggle to see how God doesn’t just smite those human beings who do great evil but God’s perspective is as a parent. Like a mother, how can God turn on her son? God gives us space but God sees it all. And God weeps.
Ultimately God’s commitment to be the Holy One in our midsts took flesh. The eagle eyed among us might recognise the first verse of this reading popping up somewhere else. Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story starts with the words of Hosea 11… “Out of Egypt I called my son.” God became the Holy One in our Midsts more than anyone could have imagined. God the Son, born into humanity’s self destruction, fled to Egypt and God the Father brought him back to the land of Israel. Recreating the photographs of Hosea, the well worn poses of humanity bent on self destruction from the beginning of time, God the son refuses to let go of our hand even as humanity inhabits destruction, evil and eventually murderous scenes. God the Father, the heartbroken parent turns his face away.
But this is not the end of the story. God the Father resurrected God the Son and the resurrected God promises, he will roar like a lion. Humanity and the whole of creation will be brought before him… and he will draw everything together in resurrection and make all things, even this, new.
So the next time you are asked or you ask yourself, where is God when there are terrible acts of human destruction, where is God in climate change, where is God when there is so much human evil in the world? Turn to Hosea 11 and look again at humanity’s family photograph albums.
Since the dawn of time God’s heart has engaged with humanity in love, caring and nurturing us as tenderly as a devoted parent. In the present God’s mind sees all that humanity is doing to destroy itself and the world around it and God’s heart is broken. God is the holy one in our midsts in the form of Jesus Christ.
And in the future God’s will determines to be the Holy One in our midsts again and this Holy God promises finally to roar and bring humanity back to God’s heart. To bring humanity home. Amen.