Hosea 11:1-9  November 15.15

There was a public service announcement playing on TV once in which a teenager sits in a laundromat and watches as another young man bursts in threatening the people there.  His face is gaunt and scarred from drug use.  He steals their money and then approaches the teenager in the corner.  As the teenager looks up and sees his own face, the thief yells, “This was not supposed to be your life!”  It is meant to be a warning to young people not to try meth, but it pulls at the hearts of parents who fear for the safety of their children in a world filled with dangerous possibilities that promise excitement but hide the cost and toll they will take.

Hosea speaks the words of a broken-hearted God who experiences the feelings of a parent, “When Israel was a child I loved him.” These words can be comforting for any of us at any stage.  But I think they are especially meaningful for parents.  These are words from our Eternal Parent to all parents.  But certainly not just parents.  These are the words of a God who has loved and had that love rejected.  The wrong is evident: in so many different ways the people have betrayed God, forgotten God’s love, and rejected God’s goodness.  So we have this fascinating picture of a conflicted God.  A God who, on the one hand, would be perfectly justified in striking out to punish.  And yet, on the other hand, is so consumed with love that God cannot.

Have you ever been betrayed?  Perhaps by someone you believed was trustworthy.  Perhaps they were someone into whom you had poured great energy to help them achieve something.  Then you discovered they had acted against your interests.  How did you feel?  What did you want to do?  What did you actually do?  When they know we’ve been betrayed, some people urge us to seek revenge.  Sometimes they call it justice, but it’s really revenge.  The idea is that the pain of the other person will ease my pain.  We can see the results of that all over the world where nations have been at each other’s throats for so long that no one knows how to stop.  Anyone who tries to stop it is shouted down as a coward.  So the killing and the hurting go on and on because no one can find a way out.  According to the bible God would be justified in punishing the people of Israel.  Why?  Because after all of the things God has done for them – freeing them from slavery, leading them to the Promised Land; defending them from enemies; caring for them in disaster; giving them rulers and prophets; cherishing them as the apple of the divine eye – after all that and yes, after Israel repeatedly promised to have only one God – they routinely go chasing after other gods.  The case against Israel is clear.

And yet.  And yet.  God cannot get over the relationship.  God has a nurturing, motherly relationship to this wayward yet so beloved child.  God was present for those initial, basic steps.  How can I give them up? asks God.  How can I give up one as precious to me as these little ones baptized today are to their parents?  Have you ever been in a prison?  There’s something about the clanging of those doors behind you that is like no other sound I’ve heard.  Imagine a mother, visiting her son after judgement has been passed.  She shudders at the clanging of the doors as she walks to the visiting area.  But even at that moment she remembers his first words, his first steps, his first scraped knee.  She loves him and will not give up on him.

Israel’s main problem?  They are going after other gods.  The Baals were formidable enemies to Israel’s faith in God.  As in many cultures with multiple gods there were Baals for just about every aspect of life.  They were immediate, tangible, sensuous, where Israel’s God often seemed remote and disconnected to daily living.  Imagine there was a god whose sole reasons for being was to help you get places safely.  Or there was another god who promised you success in your various activities.  Or there was another god who was in charge of your health – and those who you loved.  Not only that, the worship of the Baals was often fun, immediate, involving all of the senses, with joy, and dancing and feasting.  That’s a pretty potent combination. The Baals are immediate gods, represented by fertile fields, jars of olive oil, and succulent smells of bread and roasting meat. In the Spring, the cry “Baal Chaiie!” (“Baal is alive”) rang through the mountains and hills of the villages of Israel, and many a God-worshipper joined in, attempting thereby to ensure a bounteous crop and a satisfied family. Though God-worship was demanded in the sacred places of that God, more than a few Israelites hedged their bets and serenaded Baal with fervency and frequency. After all, where was God anyway? On some mountain somewhere, I suppose, but what has God done for you recently? The Exodus was long ago, and Baal is current, relevant, offering riches regularly. Yes, God has a difficult antagonist in the Baal.

To me, one of the most frightening parts of this passage is when God contemplates leaving the people to their own devices.  That’s the freedom that God gives, leaving us to ourselves.  The results are terrifying.  Frank Sinatra sings, “I did it my way,” and we say, “Thanks very much for confirming that Frank.  We were pretty sure it wasn’t God’s way, but it’s nice to be clear.”  There wasn’t a wholesale move to atheism  The people of Israel did not, outright, reject God.  They didn’t sign anti-God petitions or set up anti-God websites.  They just drifted into other practices.  They went with Baal when they figured it would help.  They claimed to believe in God and they sang all the right hymns but they didn’t obey and they didn’t follow God’s way.

So, Hosea gives us this picture of a conflicted God.  What’s your image of God?  Is it a warm fuzzy teddy bear, no sharp edges or strong demands.  This bit of wisdom comes from a washroom wall: “I like to sin; God likes to forgive. What a deal!”  Is that our attitude?  We do whatever we want and God has to forgive and accept just because that’s God’s job?  There is no relationship.  If we constantly live the warm fuzzy God we are deluded.  But, on the other hand, in another place a number of years ago, a parishioner asked me to pray for an ailing parent.  I was glad to but said, “You could pray for them.” “Oh”, he replied,  “If I pray God will be too busy looking through my past due accounts to get to the prayer.”  My parishioner understood that God takes our actions seriously, but he made God too angry and judgmental to fit the image we have in scripture.  God does judge – but God does not only judge.  God is a loving parent – but not a hopelessly indulgent one.

So allow me – if I can – to bring this home to where you and I live. I would be surprised if anyone here had an idol of wood, stone or metal set up on a private altar at home.  I would be surprised if anyone here consciously chooses to worship “another god”.  My questions are, “where do you and I place our trust” and “how is that reflected in our daily living”?  Many people place their trust or their ultimate worth in the opinions of others.  They are constantly checking their own reviews and how others feel about them.  That’s a baal – something in the place of God.  Or they place their worth in their job.  A lot of people turn their job into a baal – something that gives them the real meaning and purpose in life.  Some folk turn having the latest gizmo or gadget into a baal; or a relationship; or a particular cause.  The bible over and over again tells us what we already know: The worst thing about idols is that they are utterly useless when you need them most.  The praises of others will fade; you may lose your job or retire, you can never acquire every toy and, even if you do, someone might steal them or break them.  When your heart is broken or you are on your last leg of hope, they will not sustain you. 

That each lost sheep and wayward child breaks the heart of God may come as a surprise to you.  God wants us to come home, to be at home with ourselves and with one another.  Wrath and revenge are never God’s ultimate goal; and if that is true, they can never be ours.  We may rage in anger at betrayal, but beneath the anger is loss and the deep desire to be made whole and for relationships to be restored. We long to return to a home and community that loves each one into living the life we were meant to live.  And that is also the longing at the heart of God.  Let those with ears hear the Spirit’s word to the church.