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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 08/04/2013

I said a couple of weeks ago that the prophets don’t really make for pleasant  summer reading and if you’ve been following the daily lectionary or just listening to the readings on Sunday morning I think you know what I mean; most of it isn’t feel good stuff.  Last Sunday we moved from Amos to Hosea, another one of the so-called minor prophets, although I should say that in this case minor doesn’t mean that they are less important, it just means that the amount that they wrote is less than that of the major prophets. 

In Hosea’s case, he speaks what might be called “prophetic lawsuits” as he announces accusations against the people, accusations which mostly have to do with violating the covenant and the commands of the Lord; not a surprise.  That is then followed by the sentence.  In one respect the sentence Hosea announces amounts to the undoing of creation with humans, animals, birds and fish dying due to a famine in the land but along with that, the threat of invasion by Assyria, the dominant power of the day, also looms; that threat is part of the equation and also contributes to the undoing of things. 

The way that Hosea presents this is a bit crude to our ears and a bit shocking, which I’m sure is the intent.  He has images of marital infidelity and playing the whore and talk of children of whoredom, things like that, not exactly nice church talk.  Then as now, it gets your attention with God as the spurned husband who has been betrayed by his unfaithful wife.  It’s not what you expect to find in the Bible.  You don’t learn this stuff in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School; Hosea is not invited.

By chapter 11 though, the imagery has shifted from husband and unfaithful wife to parent and problem child.  That image doesn’t grate quite so much and might be easier to relate to, not to imply that any of you or your children could possibly have been problem children, but with all kids, there are those times…those “I’m not mad at you, I’m disappointed” times, and for a lot of us we probably would have preferred mad.

Disappointment is where we are in Chapter 11.  In previous chapters God has been angry at the people for their unfaithfulness, unfaithfulness that deserves punishment, but in Chapter 11 the anger has mostly become disappointment, but even though punishment is deserved, the Lord can’t bring himself to do it.  What this chapter does is to provide a rather remarkable look at the mind of God, the thought process of God as imagined by the inspired words of Hosea.  For those who want to hold on to the stereotype of the Old Testament being about a wrathful, judgmental God and the New Testament being about a God of grace, take a look at this chapter.  Hosea daringly goes deep into the mind and heart of God and what he finds there is grace.  The prophets weren’t at all shy about revealing what we might call the dark side of God, that’s what makes them unpleasant summer reading, but Hosea’s deeper probing finds a God of grace.

The parent imagery starts with God as a father or mother who feel like they have done everything right with their son, loving him, holding him, teaching him to walk, feeding him and so forth, all those things a loving parent does.  But the son, the people of Israel, seem to appreciate none of it, instead preferring the company of those who his parents find undesirable rather than being with those who have nurtured and cared for him.  Because of that, disappointed by that, the parent is ready to let the child suffer the consequences, even to be devastated by the sword of those he has turned to.  It’s harsh, seemingly going beyond what we might call tough love, but according to the law of Deuteronomy, it’s the appropriate punishment; if someone has a stubborn and rebellious son they are to take him to the elders of the town and then all the men of the town shall stone him to death; that’s what it says, Deuteronomy 21; you can look it up.  According to the law, punishment is what has to happen.     

Following verse 7 though, there is a shift and it’s almost as if you can see the wheels in the mind of God turning.  Punishment is justified, the law makes that clear; but as Hosea probes the depths he finds a God for whom things aren’t quite that simple, not quite that cut and dried because the compassion of this God far outweighs any desire or need to punish.  “How can I give you up; how can I hand you over?  My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender.”  God, the Lord, just can’t go through with it. 

It really is a remarkable text because as important as the law is, this text reveals that the compassion of the Lord trumps the law.  We may have an image of God as immovable and unchangeable but this is a text, and it’s not the only one, that reveals a God for whom things are not quite that settled.  The law, including its punishments, are understood to be given by God himself, yet here God engages in this internal struggle and is ready to ignore the law for the sake of his beloved.    

It really is remarkable and equally remarkable is the fact that the reason for the change in the Lord’s determination to punish has absolutely nothing to do with any change on the part of the disobedient people.  There is no indication of any shift in the hearts and minds of the people, no indication of repentance or regret on their part.  The change is all from God’s side; it has only to do with heart and mind of God whose steadfast love endures forever.

What this chapter represents is a different kind of justice.  We watch the coverage of the assorted trials that the 24 hour news networks sensationalize, sometimes pretending to be disgusted by it all, yet fascinated at the same time, and we want justice to be done.  We watch and we weigh the testimony and the evidence concerning George Zimmerman or Whitey Bulger or whoever the next one is and we reach our own verdict but we want whoever it is to get what they deserve and it bothers us if someone seems to have gotten away with something.

But in this chapter of Hosea we have God pursuing justice by forgiving, not by punishing.  The problem child, Israel, gets away with it.  In this case, God’s holiness isn’t about separation from sinners, it’s about turning to them, the people of Israel, despite their unwillingness or inability to turn to God.  Again, the initiative for this action is all with God.

It is a remarkable text, but still it’s one that doesn’t explain everything nor does it nullify texts that have a more punishing tone to them; we need to pay attention to those words too.  What this does though, is to create tension that I believe we are intended to wrestle with as we deal with issues that involve justice and punishment.  It ought not be understood as a blank check that naively assures that everything will be OK.  The prophetic tradition, including Hosea, never assumes that because the reality of loss and displacement and punishment was part of their experience just as it’s part of ours, so none of that is denied.  But this text represents another example of God’s unwillingness to let such loss and displacement be the last word. 

We still wrestle with the tension between grace and punishment, but what Hosea discloses is a God whose very being is rooted in grace and that’s significant.  The law does call for punishment, but for God, the Lord, the God revealed in Jesus, the God who is the author of the law, grace trumps the law; law doesn’t get the last word.  We wrestle with the tension just as the prophets and others who wrote the Bible wrestled with it, but what Hosea shows us is that God wrestles with it too, and comes down on the side of grace because that’s who God is.   With that knowledge we can rest secure.

When you think about it, that is really good news.  It’s so good it seems too good to be true and thinking that the security of God’s grace is too good to be true we often look elsewhere for security.  Using the first readings that we’re using this summer there’s no intended connection between the first reading and the gospel but this week I think there is one because the gospel is about a rich man looking for security, particularly looking for security in his accumulation of crops and other goods.  He was saving for the future which is precisely what we are encouraged to do by every financial planner out there.  Like the rich man in the parable though, in the end our only real security is the grace of God.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan for the future, only that we should realize that real security rests only with God, the grace of God, the steadfast love of God, which does endure forever.

Grace trumps the law; forgiveness trumps punishment.  For security you don’t need much more.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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