These verses from Hosea paint a picture we are all too familiar with: God cares for us, provides for us, and calls out to us, only to have us respond by running after other things. It is the story of the Bible, of people called to be in relation with God only to keep turning to false idols for fulfillment. These lines also sound familiar to any parent in this room who has ever had a rough time with their own child. It rings true for any child in this room who has an estranged relationship with a parent. Hosea’s imagery this week hits hard. It depicts a God, not of holy and righteous wrath, but of a God of passionate love, forever pursuing those he cares about. He is an anguished parent, knowing that the poor choices of Israel have consequences, but finds the pain they will suffer intolerable. This picture shows a God in despair, whose deliverance comes not out of avoiding suffering but through it. This is a God whose anguished roar will bring his children home, a roar that Hosea prophecies and Jesus delivers, for it is this same roar we heard from the cross. Not a cry of righteous fury but of loving tenderness, that will shake us to our core more than anger, wrath, or judgment ever could.
Hosea’s prophecies stand out from the other minor prophets for his depictions of God’s wild and passionate love for the people of Israel and Judah. Yahweh in this book has all the intimate love of a spouse and a parent, continuing to pursue and seek their unfaithful lover or a prodigal child. Look at Hosea’s own words, “‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.’” God talks about Exodus, speaks of freeing the Hebrew people and adopting them as the Lord’s own precious children, yet all this love was rejected as “‘The more I called them, the further they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and they burned incense to idols.’” Now, we might not call them Baals today, but there are still idols that many of our children still pursue despite all of the advice and guidance of those who love them. How many times have seen the idols of drugs, popularity, success, money, and others pull those we love toward disastrous consequences? Despite well-meaning warnings, our children pull away.
Are any of us any better when it comes to following God? What are our idols? Are they obvious? Idols can even start off as good things believe it or not. For instance, what farmer would not love perfect weather for their growing season? What rancher would not love to have all the lambs, calves, and kids they need in a breeding season? When Hosea mentions Baal, what springs to mind? Nowadays maybe we would picture Baal as an empty idol or as something demonic as Baʿal Zebub or Beelzebub, as we often say it today, is often seen as just another word for the devil. Back in the day though, Baal was a Canaanite storm god to whom you would pray for good rain and fertile livestock. People thought very little about having some Baal idols around the house just in case, all the while still worshipping Yahweh. To them, it was no worse than consulting weather from the Farmer’s Almanac in more modern times. Author and pastor Timothy Keller defines this kind of idolatry as what “‘happens when we take good things and make them ultimate things.’” You see, food and wealth from good harvests and livestock had become their ultimate good, so they did not think twice about making room next to Yahweh for Baal.
What about us and our children, can we claim that any of us are different than these Israelite people? Idolatry happens to be the most common sin we all commit. We as people love to make any number of things our god, good and bad. It can be things like drugs or alcohol or gambling or any number of vices, but it can also be things we would normally call good. It can be our love of country, our families, passionate political ideologies, our work, our hobbies, and any number of good things that can be elevated in place of God or share space with God in our hearts, only to see them robbed of all semblance of goodness and then become a plague upon our minds and souls. It is true of us, our children, our own parents, and every single person across the face of this world. We have all erred in this way. That is why we call idolatry sin, for to miss the mark of holding Almighty God as the foundation of our lives, sees lesser things crack and break under the strain, pulling everything else down with it.
What now? All of us break the heart of God because all of us have been guilty of something like idolatry, and perhaps like a child caught in the act of doing something wrong, we brace ourselves, ready for the judgment and anger and the punishment we sure are coming. We brace ourselves, sure that we will hear a divine voice cry out in wrath and judgment against us, as judgment and anger are easy to give, even with our own children. If they weren’t, I do not think we would see so many families today estranged and torn apart over the wrongs and perceived wrongs of children and parents. The pain in these situations is very real, and this is why we cannot take these verses lightly. As too often, even God has been dressed up as this kind of divine parent, ready to punish bad children, ready to respond in anger to every slight. If we think this, we need to look again to Hosea’s words this morning:
“‘How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart winces within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.’”
Anger is easy, tenderness and compassion are not. Even when God gives Israel over to the consequences of their actions, God never abandons them. At first, the words out of God’s mouth almost sound like the opposite, like an angry parent guilting their child to get their own way:
“‘Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;
I took them up in my arms,
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them
with bands of human kindness,
with cords of love.
I treated them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks;
I bent down to them and fed them.’”
How many of us have been a parent or had a parent or have been an adult who has tried to convince someone else they should do things a certain way based solely by what we have already done for them? In other words, how many people have used the reasoning, “I gave birth to you” or “I raised you” as the basis for why a child should listen? It is like a scene from the film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, where Sydney Poitier’s character is having an argument with his father. His father wants him to not marry the woman he loves because she is white and he is black, imploring him to instead marry a black woman. To get his son to listen, the father reminds him that he worked for many decades as a postal carrier, delivering mail on foot to provide for his son, including seeing him through medical school. Sydney Poitier’s retort to his father’s attempted guilt trip is to say:
“Let me tell you something, I owe you nothing if you carried that bag a million miles, you did what you were supposed to do because you brought me into this world and from that day on you owed me everything you could ever do for me like I will owe my son if I ever have another.”
In verses one through four of Hosea 11, we have God having a conversation like this with himself. Here, instead of this being some kind of guilt-trip argument for Israel to listen to God, we have God reminding God who God is. Here, God acknowledges that “I loved, I called, I taught, I took them in my arms, I led them with cords of love and kindness, I bent down and feed them.” These words are not for Israel but for God. To paraphrase the late great Sydney: I owe my children this love because it is my commitment to them as a parent. God is not tender and loving because Israel has behaved themselves, rather God is loving and tender because that is God’s character. It is God’s commitment maintaining God’s own character that will redeem and restore.
Does anger or judgment or punishment or wrath make any of us better or stronger? Does it make God weak to speak of compassion and love? Hear God’s words again through Hosea this morning:
“‘I won’t act on the heat of my anger;
I won’t return to destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a human being,
the holy one in your midst;
I won’t come in harsh judgment.’”
“‘I am God and no mortal,’” as the NRSV puts it, pointing to how God shows his hand to us this morning. This is not a God that is cool and displaced and dispassionate. This is not a God of wrath and anger. This is a God of passion and fire, of passionate love and burning compassion that turns our false idols to ash! You can see this in our closing verses where it says God roars. Usually, someone or something roars with anger to scare someone else away or cow them into submission, but God has already said he will not be given over to the heat of anger. God has already said that when he sees the suffering of his children, the very heart of God “winces” or “recoils.” This is a God whose roar is a call to bring those wayward children home, not through punishment and judgment but through tenderness.
We see this because this roar was seen and felt at the very moment of the cross when Christ lifted up his voice and body as a roar out to creation, he is the cry to come home. It is a cry that has known our despair because God has despaired over our suffering and experienced it. If God can be so tender with us, what is our excuse with ourselves and each other? How can be anything but tender? Tenderness is not the easy road, but the way of those who follow God. Where do we need to be more tender with ourselves today? Where do we need more compassion for our children, our parents, and all the people of this world? Just maybe, modeling our God’s tenderness and compassion more might well bring all of us, all the children of God, home when our Lord calls. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman