31 July 2016

Sermon – “The Lion Roars” (Hosea 11:1-11)

 What do you say to a congregation you’ve never met before, in a denomination where you’ve never served, and among whom you know barely a single soul? That’s the predicament I’m in this morning here with you at King’s Presbyterian. And if you have the answer, I’ll gladly surrender the pulpit to you for the next twenty minutes! More seriously, I am grateful both to my long-time friend and colleague, Paul Hutten, for his recommendation and for the graciousness of your Minister, Tim Archibald, for entrusting his pulpit to a stranger for a Sunday morning.
But back to my conundrum. What to preach on? Well, as an Anglican my fallback position is, when in doubt, go to the lectionary. And among the Scriptures that the lectionary offers for this particular Sunday in the church’s year is the reading you heard a few minutes ago from the prophet Hosea, chapter 11.
As I began to read through the passage, I felt a little bit like the teacher of the law that Jesus talked about in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus said he was “like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52).
Recently I came across the story of Terry Herbert, a metal detector enthusiast:
In July 2009, [he] decided to try his luck in farmland close to his home in Staffordshire in the English countryside. He came across an artifact, and bingo. Over the next five days, he found enough gold objects in the soil to fill 244 bags. An archeological expedition was hatched, and all told, the “Staffordshire Hoard” was found to contain some 3,500 pieces representing hundreds of complete objects. The cache of gold, silver and garnet objects from early Anglo-Saxon times represents one of the most important kingdoms of the era—and was valued at around $5.3 million.[1]
Like Terry Herbert, who I suspect may have walked past that Staffordshire field dozens, even hundreds, of times, I know I’ve read Hosea 11 many times. Yet in over forty years of ordained ministry I’ve never preached on it before. And as I began to comb through it, I also began to realize what a treasure I had been passing by again and again. As one biblical scholar has put it, “Here we penetrate deeper into the heart and mind of God than anywhere in the Old Testament.”[2] So let’s take the next few moments to see what God may have to say to us from these verses.

God’s abiding care (1-4)

The reading divides neatly into three sections, the first of which begins with a declaration by God himself: “When Israel was a child, I loved him…” As parents love their children, so God intimately, tenderly loves his people. You can see that love reflected in the series of verbs that follow: “I taught them to walk.” “I healed them.” “I led them with kindness and love.” “I lifted them to my cheek.” “I stooped down to feed them.”
Those who are parents in the congregation will remember how you cared for your own children, how you looked after them, fed them, taught them, bandaged up their cuts and scrapes, and no doubt shed the occasional tear with them as well. And if you haven’t had the privilege of sharing that kind of love as a parent, I suspect you probably received it as a child.
The eighteenth-century poet William Cowper beautifully expressed what we read this morning in a hymn that includes these words:
I delivered thee when bound,
and when bleeding healed thy wound,
sought thee wandering, set thee right,
turned thy darkness into light.
Can a woman’s tender care
cease toward the child she bare?
Yes, she may forgetful be,
yet will I remember thee.
Mine is an unchanging love,
higher than the heights above,
deeper than the depths beneath,
free and faithful, strong as death.
Of course Hosea was not the first to say what he did. In fact, the opening words of this morning’s passage hark all the way back to the time of the Exodus, when God commanded Moses to tell Pharaoh, “This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son…” (Exodus 4:22). Nor would Hosea be the last. Years later the prophet Jeremiah would proclaim, “The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness’ ” (Jeremiah 31:3). And of course part of Cowper’s words came from Isaiah, through whom God reminded his people, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15). For me one of the places this truth is most poignantly expressed is in the Garden of Eden, when God looks on the human being that he has formed from the dust and bends down and breathes into him the breath of life. It is an arresting picture of the deep tenderness of God’s love for us, his creatures.
Of course as Christians we see this love taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus. Jesus’ act of reaching out his hand a leper, who had not felt the warmth of a human touch for years, perhaps decades, spoke to him more about the love of God than any words even of the most eloquent prophet. Jesus’ act of stopping and turning to a woman who was too humiliated to do anything more than touch the hem of his robe said to her in a way that words could not, “You matter. You too are God’s precious child.” And calling down Zacchaeus from his safe perch up in the sycamore tree and going to his house to share a meal would teach him that God’s love does not exclude cheats and reprobates either.
John’s gospel tells us, “God so loved the world…” But that love is not just a theological construct or some feel-good wish. It is a love that is both personal and practical, a love that cares, touches, heals and even weeps for his people. Yet there is a whole other side to Hosea’s prophecy, as we shall see…

Israel’s persistent defiance (5-7)

In the second segment of Hosea’s prophecy the focus shifts from God to the nation of Israel. And what do we find? We move from a gently caring parent to a defiant and rebellious child. There is an important historical background to what Hosea wrote. The year was probably around 733 BC. Hosea was writing in the northern kingdom of Israel, centred in Samaria. The nation had already been attacked and conquered by the powerful armies of the Assyrian Empire and a couple of things had happened. Some of its citizenry had fled southwards to Egypt, while others of its leadership had thrown in their lot with their Assyrian conquerors. In either case, this represented not just a geographical move or even a political alliance, but a shifting away from God to embrace the rituals and practices and, more seriously still, the deities of those nations.
Equally seriously, even those who had remained had consistently refused to heed warnings of the prophets, who had repeatedly called them to repent and return to the Lord. Less than a generation before Hosea, Amos had warned them in these crystal-clear words (and here I read from Eugene Petersen’s earthy paraphrase in The Message):
This is what the Lord says:
Because of the three great sins of Israel—make that four—
I’m not putting up with them any longer.
They buy and sell upstanding people
People for them are only things—ways of making money. 
They’d sell a poor man for a pair of shoes.
They’d sell their own grandmother!
They grind the penniless into the dirt,
shove the luckless into the ditch.
Everyone and his brother sleeps with the ‘sacred whore’—
a sacrilege against my Holy Name.
Stuff they’ve extorted from the poor
is piled up at the shrine of their god,
while they sit around drinking wine
they’ve conned from their victims…
I also raised up prophets from among your children…
but you commanded the prophets not to prophesy. (Amos 2:6-8,11-12)
The biggest problem facing Israel, Hosea and the other prophets argued, was not its Assyrian conquerors who had attacked from the outside, but the spiritual and moral corruption that was slowly but inexorably eating it away from within. In the New Testament we find Jesus saying much the same thing to the religious leaders of his day. Again, let me read it to you from The Message. “You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds” (Matthew 23:27-28). As the prophet Isaiah lamented, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).
And so we see that some of the most telling condemnations that we find in the Bible are against God’s own people. We are quick to blame so many of the world’s woes on other people, be they politicians, Islamists, Hollywood, the NRA or whatever. But what about ourselves? We may not have bowed down before idols like Hosea’s fellow Israelites. But to what extent have we yielded to false values of the world around us? How much does what we profess here on Sunday morning bear an influence on what we do and the kind of people we are from Monday to Saturday? Does God look upon us in the same way that he did upon the people of Hosea’s day?

The final outcome (8-11)

There was a punishment prescribed for recalcitrant youths in the Old Testament and it was severe. Let me read Deuteronomy 21:18-21 for you:
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.
I’m not sure the sentence was ever carried out (I certainly hope not!), but I have no doubt that when Hosea proclaimed his prophecy against his people, both he and they were well aware of these words. As a nation they had brought upon themselves what was happening to them. They deserved to be wiped out. Yet God, who had brought them into existence, who had nurtured and cared for them, who loved them with an everlasting love, would not allow this to happen. “How can I give you up?” he cries. “How can I hand you over? … My heart recoils within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger… For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you.” If we had time, we could spend hours just poring over these remarkable verses. In all of Scripture there are only a handful of other places where we are permitted to gaze so deeply into the heart of God. I think we could probably count them on the fingers of one hand. Like Moses we need to take off our shoes and hide our faces, for we stand on holy ground. We have entered the Holy of Holies.
But our moment of meditation is broken by a lion’s roar. And I suspect that those of us who are C.S. Lewis or Narnia fans will not be able to read these verses without thinking of Aslan. Do you recall the scene, towards the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the great lion says to the children, “And now to business. I feel I am going to roar. You had better put your fingers in your ears.” Then the story goes on,
And they did. And Aslan stood up and when he opened his mouth to roar his face became so terrible that they did not dare to look at it. And they saw all the trees in front of him bend before the blast of his roaring as grass bends in a meadow before the wind.
“The Lord will roar from Zion,” wrote the prophet Joel, “and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble.” And then he goes on: “But the Lord will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel” (Joel 3:16). God roars—his hatred of evil and all that undermines and despoils his good purposes in creation is unabated. God roars—and the powers of wickedness and injustice will fall like a house of cards before him. God roars—and his children will know that they are safe once again.
“When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west.
They will come from Egypt, trembling like sparrows,
from Assyria, fluttering like doves.
I will settle them in their homes,” declares the Lord.
The Lion has roared. May we hear his voice today.

[1]        http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/wilderness-resources/stories/6-incredible-treasures-found-with-a-metal-detector
[2]        H.D. Beeby, Grace Abounding, 140
[3]        “Hark, my soul, it is the Lord”

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