A Grieving God
Hosea: A Holy Trouble Maker
Today we’re reading Hosea again, a prophet who takes bringing a personal approach to the work of ministry . . . to a whole new level.
Last week we learned about Hosea’s family life, his marriage to Gomer, and Hosea’s deep pain over Gomer’s infidelity. Hosea used his own experience to talk to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel about the feelings God was having about them and their behavior. Today is much of the same, except Hosea is channeling God, the parent.
Remember, the people of Israel had settled in Canaan after a very dramatic rescue from slavery in Egypt. For over five hundred years they’d been making their home in the new land, grappling with what it meant to be a people chosen by God.
I don’t think I would be completely out of line to say, either, that they were not doing such a great job.
By the time Hosea and his prophet colleagues started working bringing messages of warning to the people, Israel had taken some seriously wrong turns in her relationship with Yahweh. Assmilation was the order of the day; the people were spending little time thinking about Yahweh’s expectations of them and a whole lot of time doing things like worshipping idols, participating in pagan fertility rituals, and forgetting their special identity as God’s chosen people.
Hosea’s job, the same job as the other prophets, was to bring this diversion from Yahweh’s purposes to the peoples’ attention, if they hadn’t noticed already. The prophets’ role was to sound a warning, to raise an alarm: God is not happy with the ways in which you have chosen to wander from right relationship with him. He wants you to remember that there are consequences to your behavior. But most of all he wants you back; he wants you to look hard at the choices you are making and redirect your life to return to him. He misses you; he loves you; he most desperately wants right relationship with you restored.
So this was the basic message of the prophets, and the message Hosea was tasked with bringing to the people, who considered him an annoying, trouble-making harpy. They wanted to do what they wanted to do, and Hosea’s constant reminders that God was disappointed in their behavior were making them uncomfortable, to say the least.
Today, the God Hosea is depicting to the people of Israel is a parent—a mother—whose child has wandered far away from everything you’d hoped for him . . . and far away from relationship with you.
Like a human parent, that God of Hosea chapter 11 has about had it with her child. She’s done everything she could possibly do to nurture the child, to care for it, to form its development in healthy ways. Despite all her efforts, though, that child has made poor choices; has turned away from everything God hoped for him; and has used up his very last chance to come home. God the parent has every right to cut things off.
As God watches the natural consequences of the peoples’ choices slowly and steadily unfolding in their lives—the impending horror of exile in Babylon, for example—the next most obvious course of action for God is to wash her hands of such a rebellious child, to close the door on Israel once and for all, to declare with all firm conviction that this behavior will not be tolerated any longer, and that God the disrespected parent is moving on with her life.
That’s it. No more chances.
But later, after the big blow up, after God says what God has to say and Israel knows they’ve gotten to the end of God’s rope, God goes into her room and shuts the door. The gut-wrenching grief that we read in Hosea 11 is what happens then. Flung across the bed, chest heaving with sobs, God wails.
She thinks first about when Israel was a little child—he was the kind of child you just want to hug with all your might, to bury your nose in the folds of his neck and kiss him until he squeals in protest. When he was a baby, he was the kind of child who would grab for your hand and look up at you with the most trusting eyes. He wanted to be wherever you were; he’d toddle along after you shouting, “Mama!” in excitement when anything new crossed his path. You were his touch-point, his strong sense of home, his Mama—the first word he ever said.
And as the sobs keep coming, God remembers: the day she held out her hands and Israel took one halting step . . . then another . . . then one more—he was walking! God cheered and Israel clapped and they looked at each other with the kind of look that only a Mama and a child could share.
And God remembered more: the nights Israel would wake, hungry, and she would bend down, pick him up, and hold him close, offering milk and nourishment and comfort—the safest place in the whole world. She’d hold him up to her cheek, inhaling his scent, kissing him while he giggled, sure that that bond they had, the deep love they shared, would never be broken. How could it??!
But somehow, someway . . . it was. It seemed like overnight Mama was no longer the touch point of Israel’s life. He wandered further and further, looking for affirmation, for nurture, for approval in other places. And they were not good places . . . they were not the kind of people and places she would have wanted for her beloved child. They were bad influences, people who taught wrong things and led in harmful directions. She could have told him—she tried to warn him. But Israel wouldn’t listen. He laughed at the suggestion, he rolled her eyes and said he was old enough to make his own decisions, he turned his back, he stomped off and slammed his door.
And the end result? Well, it wasn’t anything good. Not at all. War raged in the cities of Israel. The people were cut off from each other. The priests, the very ones tasked with connecting the people to God, well, they were sold out to causes that were harmful to everyone. And eventually the people got tired. They needed help. They looked to God again to bail them out. And God the parent said no—no more. I’ve had it up to here with you. I’ve given you every chance that you deserve—and more! I’ve forgiven over and over and over again. I can’t live like this . . . with hope welling up inside me and then, suddenly, despair again. It’s killing my parent heart and, for your good and for my own, I have to say: no more. Maybe now you’ll learn.
And the sobs overtake her; the loss is epic; her child is gone from her forever.
But . . . no. No, that can’t be the end of things after all. God cannot bear for that to be the case.
No matter how far Israel strays, no matter how sinful he becomes, no matter how many gods he ends up following . . . Yahweh cannot let him go. She just can’t do it.
So, she gathers her wits about her, pulls herself up off the bed, smoothes the covers and heads to the bathroom. She leans over the sink then and splashes cold water on her face, patting her swollen eyes. She blows her nose, wipes her face, and straightens her blouse. Taking a deep breath she gathers her courage and heads out the door, after Israel.
Somehow she’s found some more determination, even though it seemed like the end of the road for them. She realizes: how can she let her child go? How can she give him up for lost? She can’t. He’s her baby, her little child. He will always be that little one, looking up at her with trusting eyes and a heartfelt grin, just for her.
And she will never, not as long as she draws breath, not as long as there is sun in the sky, she will never, ever let him go. She will fight to the death for his healing. She will follow him to the ends of the earth until she finds him. She will wait—wait and wait and wait—until he sees the way home and finally, finally, takes it.
This text, it’s a beautiful one, one of the most beautiful and poetic of the prophets of Israel. Our English translation doesn’t really do it justice, but if we look hard we can see some of the poetic parallels in the text. Notice: in verse four, Yahweh will remove their yoke and feed them, but in verses five and six no one will be able to remove the yoke of their punishment. And in verses four, five, and six, God bends down to feed them, but in verse seven the people are bent on turning away. In verse five Yahweh says they will return to Egypt, another way of saying they’re about to be punished, but in the same verses Hosea laments their in ability to return to God. In poetry and anguished theatrics, Hosea does his very best to show them just how full of grief God really is.
All that drama about God and the people of Israel, but what about us? What is the message of Hosea 11 for you and me? Well, notice in this passage that nothing changes about Israel. Not one thing. It’s not like this child suddenly realizes he is wrong, turns around, comes home, apologizes, and sets his life on a course of right living, determined to make up for all the pain he has caused his mother. No, the text doesn’t say that Israel does anything like this.
This text is all about God. It’s God who loves like a mother. It’s God who showers her child with compassion and nurture and care. It’s God whose heart is broken when that child turns away. It’s God who finally, with utter and total grief, decides that the best thing to do is to give that child up for lost, once and for all.
And it’s God . . . it’s God . . . who picks herself up with determination and a well of divine compassion so deep no human could approximate it . . . to say no. No, I will not let this child go. No, I will not abandon him to his own devices. No, I will not give him up for lost. No matter what he does. No matter what. And Hosea’s God . . . well, she’s our God, too.
I’ve been gardening this summer. It’s not gardening in the same way that, say Harold Ritchie or the Stones garden, for sure. But for me, it’s been a pretty wonderful experiment in watching things grow (and in some cases die).
I have a hanging basket just outside my front door. I began the summer with it planted like the hanging baskets in the botanical gardens—trailing petunias and all kinds of riotous flowers.
Yeah, that didn’t last.
A few weeks ago I finally gave up trying to revive said plants, totally took the basket apart, and replanted it with really hardy marigolds and some kind of trailing vine that doesn’t seem to die no matter what I do. This worked great! The basket was thriving, or seemed to be, when one day I noticed a lot of activity around the basket. A couple of morning doves kept flying in and landing in the basket, then flying away, then coming back again.
Given my limited knowledge of nature, it took me perhaps a little longer than most to realize that these doves liked my newly planted basket and were, in fact, building a nest in it.
I wanted to tell them (and I did, until my neighbors started looking askance at me): I didn’t think this location is really the best option for a nest. For one thing, it’s hanging right in the walkway along the balcony. Lots of people come and go past that hanging basket. It’s not exactly the great, remote outdoors, if you know what I mean.
And, the sun beats down on the basket during most of the day, making it unbearably hot, if I had to guess. Despite my best efforts, my plants didn’t live. What makes you think a nest would thrive? Given, I don’t know that much about nests, but I just think maybe a nest in the shade might be a better option?
Despite my best advice, the doves didn’t listen. They built that nest. And for the past three weeks, that morning dove mama has been sitting on those eggs and she will not leave.
She will not.
It’s been hotter than hot, as you all know. She can’t have been comfortable through the heat wave of last week, sitting in the direct sun with the temperatures over 100. And there have been violent thunder storms, rain beating down and lightening cutting through the sky, both of which surely threatened that little nest.
And then there’s me.
I come and go, slamming the front door and walking in and and out, right past the nest. I can’t bear for my marigolds to wilt, so I insist on watering the basket (and, I guess by default, the nest), even though that little dove is clearly agitated and worried, cooing at me with all the ferocity she can muster.
No matter what seems to come her way, that mama dove will not leave. She will not abandon the nest. She’s determined to nurture those babies until they hatch, to feed them and care for them, to give them the best start in life, not matter what storms hit that basket or what bumbling humans threaten its safety. Like Horton in Horton Hears a Who, she seems determined to stay, no matter what.
They are her babies, after all.
She is their mother.
She will not leave, no matter what happens.
As Hosea cries out to the people, begging them to turn away from their sin, at the end of the day his message is really not about the people. Rather, its about the true nature of the divine. God.
God will not leave. God will not abandon her children, no matter what. God will not let Israel go, no matter what they insist on doing, no matter how far they wander, no matter how agregious their betrayal.
And so it is with us.
God’s last wish for us is that we wander away from the loving relationship we knew with God our parent. God has shown us what is good. And what the LORD requires of us . . . to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God, and Yahweh wants us—desperately wants us—to follow in those ways.
But if the day ever comes that we wander, if we rebelliously turn away and refuse to follow the advice and direction of God, if our lives veer off into paths of hurt and pain and evil and despair . . . well, God our parent will not abandon us. She will not.
Like the morning dove right outside my front door, the God of Hosea will keep a vigil. She will light a candle in the window to guide our way home. She will sit at the kitchen table, leafing through photo albums, smiling at memories of our chubby-cheeked babyhood. She will wait and wait and wait.
Until we finally, finally decide to come home.