A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., August 1, 2010.
The more I read about the founding of our country, the more convinced I am that America never should have defeated Great Britain in our Revolutionary War. Our military forces were so poorly trained and equipped and unruly that our Commander in Chief, George Washington, felt on many occasions that our cause was lost. But somehow, inexplicably we won.
The more I reflect on the human race in general, and the nation of Israel in particular, the more convinced I am that Israel should have been annihilated centuries ago, and the human race with it. From day one we rebelled against the One who made us, and that trend of debauchery and disobedience continued throughout the history of ancient Israel and remains to this day. No less than Martin Luther once said, “If I were God, I would kick the world to pieces.” Yet somehow, inexplicably human beings, including citizens of Israel keep on keeping on.
The more I learn about the church of Jesus Christ, the more convinced I am it should have collapsed under its own weight centuries ago. Even in its pristine first century church members squabbled and divided over all manner of things. And in the intervening centuries, the church has been riddled with sin and corruption of every kind. Yet somehow, inexplicably Christianity not only survives, but thrives.
None of this makes any sense, except for one thing—God’s love always has the last word over God’s judgment. Our very existence bears testimony to the triumph of God’s love.
The Bible has no greater exponent of God’s love than the prophet Hosea. Hosea lived 2700 years ago, but his insights are as fresh and relevant as today’s newspaper. Hosea has been called the “love prophet,” and the 11th chapter of Hosea the “love chapter.” One commentator calls Hosea 11 one of the greatest chapters in the Bible, and another describes it as the “John 3:16 of the Old Testament.”
Why all this praise for a prophet we rarely discuss, and a chapter of scripture we rarely read? Because Hosea 11 describes with great poetry and passion a love from God that will not let us go, a love determined to triumph in the end.
You may remember that the early chapters of Hosea are devoted to comparing God and Israel to Hosea and his wife, Gomer. Gomer may have been pure on the day of her wedding. But in due course she became a prostitute.
In his book, Peculiar Treasures, Frederick Buechner describes Gomer this way: “(Gomer) was always good company—a little heavy with the lipstick maybe, a little less than choosey about men and booze, a little loud, but great on a party and always good for a laugh….While Hosea was off (preaching and prophesying) on the sawdust trail, Gomer took to hitting as many nightspots as she could possibly squeeze in, and any resemblance between her next batch of children and Hosea was purely coincidental.”
The more loving Hosea was to Gomer, the more unfaithful Gomer was to Hosea. Which is precisely the way it was with God and Israel. While God was doing all he could to forge a relationship with Israel, Israel climbed into bed with every kind of idol worship and pagan nation that walked by, and it broke God’s heart.
Now, in Hosea 11, the metaphor changes because as Fred Wood observes, “one figure of speech cannot exhaust all the spiritual truth about our heavenly Father.” God is now the loving Father of his disobedient son, Israel. And like any parent, God is in a quandary about what to do. What do you do when you’ve given your child every benefit, every act of love imaginable, and he still spits in your eye and rebels?
If you’re Martin Luther, you kick your kid to pieces. But as God reminds us in Hosea 11, he is God, and not a human being. And God expresses a mysterious, inexplicable love for us that emerges in not one but several stages.
We see first of all God’s love extended.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” You can sense the nostalgic pride in God’s voice as he talks like any daddy about his boy. Out of all the nations of the world God called, or elected Israel as his son. Egypt had more talent. Assyria had more military might. And Phoenicia had more wealth. But God chose the runt of the litter.
Because “when Israel was a child, I loved him.”
We can almost see a twinkle in our heavenly Father’s eyes as he continues: “It was I who taught Ephraim(another name for Israel) to walk, taking them by the arms…I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to cheek, and I bent down to feed them.”
Your version of scripture may differ from mine because the Hebrew here is difficult to translate. But regardless of your translation, the point is the same. God not only freed Israel from Egyptian slavery. Like any good mother or father, God took Israel through diapers, late night feedings, toilet training, preschool, the first day of kindergarten, and all the rest. Why? Because somehow, inexplicably God loved Israel.
C.S. Lewis has pictured the devil presiding over a council in hell and instructing his demons what they are up against. “Remember,” the devil warns, “disgusting as it may seem to you, God really loves those weak and filthy human vermin that crawl the earth….He really wants them finally happy. That’s why God did that treacherous thing we here in hell will never understand; cut them loose from his control, put human beings on their own…took some of His own freedom and slipped it into their beastly little hearts.”
Like any devoted mom or dad, God extended his love to Israel in every way imaginable. And like any disobedient child, Israel was free to resist that love.
And so we see in Hosea 11 God’s love rejected. Almost from the beginning, Israel began to betray God’s love. “The more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to the images…but they did not realize it was I who healed them.” Israel literally bit the hand that fed him, and not only refused to listen to God, but walked away into scandalous worship of other gods. Again, we can imagine a large lump in God’s throat as he recounts this heart-breaking disobedience.
Then the tone changes abruptly. “Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent?…My people are determined to turn from me. Even though they call me God Most High, I will by no means exalt them.”
Israel has made his own bed. Now he can lie in it. Touch a hot stove and you’ll get burned. Run away like a prodigal son and you’ll wind up wallowing in a pig pen. Disobey like a cocky Israel and you’ll wind up crushed by your enemies. And so Israel was defeated and dispersed. But not destroyed.
Why not? Because wonder of wonders, God’s love was re-extended!
Listen again to two of the most heart-wrenching verses in scripture.
“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
All my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
Nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a human being—
The Holy One among you.
I will not come against their cities.”
The Old Testament Law articulated in Deuteronomy 21 clearly grants parents the right to stone to death a chronically disobedient child in the appropriate circumstances (Years ago I often read Deuteronomy 21 to my children before tucking them into bed at night!) So God would have been well within the law to kick Israel to pieces, as he did the villages of Admah and Zeboyim when he destroyed Sodom and Gemorrah.
Instead, God does something very strange, totally unpredictable. He in effect breakes his own law and spares his rebellious son. But then God is God, and God can do what God wants to do. God is truly above the law of judgment, even his own law.
Even more startling, says Hosea, God repented of his plan to destroy the human race. Yes, you heard me right. God repented! Listen to the King James Version of verse 8—“How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? How shall I deliver thee, Israel?…mine heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together.”
What we have in Hosea 11 is a rare glimpse into the very heart of God. God is having an internal debate about what to do with Israel. His head is saying it’s time to kick the kid to pieces. And he formulates a plan, using Egypt and Assyria, to turn Israel into an ash heap of history.
But his heart is pulling in the opposite direction. His heart is reminding him of how much he loves this kid. In fact, he’s crazy about this kid who is perpetually driving him crazy. So in the eleventh hour, God “repents”. In other words, he changes his mind and decides to spare Israel from his fierce anger.
Judgment and love go to war in God’s heart. And love emerges the winner!
Consequently, says Hosea, the day will come when his beloved Israelites will follow the Lord; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west…like birds from Egypt, like doves from Assyria. I will settle them in their homes,” declares the Lord.
And when the Lord declares it, that settles it!
Of course, this break-through triumph of love does not occur in Hosea’s lifetime. It happens seven hundred years later when God finally does become a human being in the person of Jesus. It’s only appropriate that the second chapter of Matthew lifts a verse from Hosea11 to describe the newborn Jesus. When Joseph and Mary flee Bethlehem with the Christ child into Egypt to escape the sword of King Herod, Matthew 2:15 observes, And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
God had tried every remedy for human sin and failed. He offered the Law and provided the prophets to no avail. But we serve a God who doesn’t give up easily, or for that matter, ever. A generation after Christ the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1 that he was confident of this, that he who began a good work in (us) will carry it on until the day of Christ Jesus (1:6). And to drive the point home, Paul adds in Philippians 2 that Jesus humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross! Consequently, says Paul, the day will come when at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (2:8, 10-11).
In other words, sin won’t win. Hatred won’t win. Judgment won’t win. Love will win. For love never, ever fails (1 Corinthians 13:8).
Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, was right when he said that God finally conquers sin not by power but by love, not by destroying but by forgiving. Or to quote the old hymn,
“Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.”