A sermon on the book of Hosea, preached at Christ Church Cockfosters on 5 March 2017.
When was the last time you felt betrayed by someone? Badly let down?
Maybe you’ve been crossed by someone in a business deal, or let down by your employer. Maybe a friend who you thought was a good friend turned out not to be quite such a good friend after all. Maybe you’ve been in a relationship with someone who, it turns out, just wanted you for the wrong reasons and then was happy to cast you off.
Sometimes the anger comes out in revenge. I heard about a farmer who found out that his wife was cheating on him, got in his tractor, and filled her car up with horse manure. It might have made him feel better for the afternoon, but I doubt it really helped.
And being betrayed in your marriage is probably the hardest place of all to be betrayed, because of the nature of the promises that you made to each other – promises that are supposed to last a lifetime – “till death us do part”.
Whatever happens, and however we deal with it, being betrayed is really hard.
And then think about this question: How does God deal with being betrayed?
Well, that’s what the book of Hosea is all about. Have a look at chapter 1 verse 2.
When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, ‘Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.’
It’s not entirely unusual for the OT prophets to be given stage directions as well as a script; Isaiah was once told to go out in his underwear as a graphic picture of the disgrace that was coming upon God’s people. Ezekiel spent over a year lying on one side, to depict the siege of Jerusalem. But I think they have it easy compared to Hosea. “Go, marry a promiscuous woman…” Why? “For like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.”
Hosea’s mission was to speak to the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, about 800 BC. And God’s message is graphic. “You know the pain of a wife who’s unfaithful…well, Hosea, you’re going to feel that pain yourself, and you’re going to feel that pain and live out that pain to just give these people a little picture of what it’s been like for me to be betrayed by them.”
Hosea is a painful book to read. But it’s not a difficult book to read, because if you’ve understood the first page, you’ve basically got it. The rest of the book fills out the picture with beautiful poetry of lament and of love.
And all the way through, the question is: how will God deal with being betrayed?
Have a look, then at v3. Hosea and his unfaithful wife have three children, though quite possibly someone else is the father.
So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. Then the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Call him Jezreel, because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel. In that day I will break Israel’s bow in the Valley of Jezreel.’
Often people choose a child’s name for the meaning. So ‘Richard’ means: ‘brave leader’. And this child gets named after a massacre. It’s like calling your child Auschwitz, or Aleppo, to say that the evils done there have not been forgotten and must be paid for. In this case, it’s a massacre carried out a hundred years earlier by King Jehu, the great grandad of the current king. And his disobedience just typifies the bigger story of the nation’s disobedience. Later on Hosea will say,
Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites,
because the Lord has a charge to bring
against you who live in the land:
‘There is no faithfulness, no love,
no acknowledgment of God in the land.’
The people have rejected true knowledge of God, and effectively become like spiritual prostitutes, selling themselves to the spirit of the age. Sound familiar?
Then Gomer has another child: this time it’s a girl. What shall we call this one?
Middle of v6: ‘Call her Lo-Ruhamah (which means “Not loved”), [or possibly “No mercy” is a better translation] for I will no longer show love to Israel, that I should at all forgive them.’
That is the sad reality for Israel. The southern kingdom of Judah will be shown mercy, at least for a time but for Israel the crunch is coming and exile is on the cards.
And then the third child comes along, v8, and guess what he is called? “Not my people.” Another classic boy’s name! Back in the day of Moses God had made a covenant with the Israelites, and said to them, out of all the world, “You will be my people!” It was effectively a marriage covenant between them. But they broke it. And so look where they have ended up. What shall we call the baby, Hosea? Call him “Not my people,” for God says, “You are not my people, and I am not your God.”
How does God deal with being betrayed? The first thing we have to say is that he doesn’t pretend it never happened. This kind of behaviour has got to have some consequences. It’s just like in a human marriage, like in Hosea’s marriage. Did he care that Gomer went off with other men? Of course he cared! If he loves her then he’s got to care.
And that could be the end of the story. Farewell. Divorce between God and his people.
Except that after those chilling words, “I am not your God,” comes the word: “Yet”. One small word, but a whole lot of hope. Verse 10:
‘Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people”, they will be called “children of the living God”. The people of Judah and the people of Israel will come together; they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel.”
After judgment comes hope. God’s promises and purposes will not fail. Those who were “not God’s people” will now be the people of God. And the end of the story is even better than the beginning; in the book of Romans in the New Testament, the apostle Paul points out that this is also a message for non-Jews – that is, most of us. For centuries they were “not God’s people” but now in Jesus they can be part of the people of God.
So the judgment on God’s unfaithful people is not the end. God reluctantly decides that he probably ought to have them back. So he does. Roll credits.
Rubbish! No love story finishes like that! If a Valentine’s Day movie finished like that, you’d ask for a refund! And this is God’s love story, remember. If you turn over a page to chapter 2, you’ll see how he treats his adulterous wife. 2:14:
‘Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor [which means ‘trouble’] a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.
‘In that day,’ declares the Lord,
‘you will call me “my husband”;
you will no longer call me “my master”. [that’s a pun on the name Baal, one of the gods of the Canaanite nation, whose name means ‘master’]
I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips…
How does God respond to being betrayed? Two ways. Firstly there’s that uncompromising judgment; but secondly there’s tender, alluring, merciful, extravagant love.
And both that judgment and that love are extreme in their intensity.
One big mistake today is to imagine that God’s love means that his judgment is somehow toned down. How does God deal with being betrayed? Well, his wonderful love means he’s not too bothered about unfaithfulness; he can just let a lot of things go. Anyway, we’re in the New Testament times now; surely those days of judgment are in the past! Do you think?
Well actually the biggest day of judgment is still to come. And when God allures his wayward people now, he doesn’t say that our unfaithfulness doesn’t really matter. He stretches out his arms in Jesus who says, “I love you this much – enough to die for you.” What happens when Jesus dies is that judgment and mercy come together, in their most extreme forms, as Jesus, with perfect love, takes all the judgment we deserve.
So where does Hosea leave us today? Here are two reasons his message is still vital.
The first thing it does is expand our vision of the character of God. I think if Hosea was sitting over there, and you told him you were going home tonight with a bigger, better vision of God as a result of reading his book, he’d be delighted. If you told him that you’d never known how tender and alluring and strong and intense his love is – and also that you’d never really appreciated just how strong and uncompromising and holy and right his judgment is – Hosea would go home happy. He wants to expand our vision of just who God is.
But he also wants us to see the way back to God. That’s Hosea’s great message of hope.
There will be people here tonight thinking, “God might love other people, but not really me. At least, not with that extravagant unconditional love. Not after what I’ve done and who I’ve been.” And Hosea would say, “As surely as I loved Gomer, and God loved unfaithful Israel, he can and does love you. Not because you’re wonderful, but because he is, and he does!”
The Christian message is all about how sinners come back to God. And Hosea helps us understand how that happens, and how it doesn’t happen.
Take the question of sexuality – a massive question for both our culture and our churches at the moment. On what basis can people with all kinds of sexual history and sexual inclination and sexual opinions come together in the church of Jesus Christ? What would Hosea say?
Our Archbishops made a statement on the subject a few weeks ago, after the church’s General Synod. And they call for a “radical new Christian inclusion” in the church. It’s a striking phrase – though the question, of course, is what you mean by it. The Archbishops don’t define it; sadly, I think, because at the moment they’re not sure that they want to be completely clear.
You see, for some people, a “radical new Christian inclusion” means you can just put matters of sexual practice to one side as merely incidental. If inclusion means anything, they say, then it means that everyone is welcome, without discrimination.
But what would Hosea mean by the phrase? After all, if anyone gets a radical new inclusion then Hosea’s wife does! He’s kind of our resident expert on the subject. But Gomer’s restoration comes not on the basis of confusing right and wrong, or saying that what she did is officially disallowed but pastorally accommodated. That just doesn’t make sense, anyway. No, Gomer’s radical new inclusion comes on the basis of God’s true, alluring love, which accepts she is under judgment and leads her to repentance. That is how the Christian inclusion works. And it’s the only way to peace with God.
So as I finish, listen to these wonderful words from 1 Corinthians 6. Paul says,
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. [It’s not just certain sins; it’s all kinds of sin.] And that is what some of you were. [The church in Corinth was made up not of good people but of forgiven sinners. Christ Church Cockfosters is made up not of good people, but of forgiven sinners!] But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
And if Hosea were sitting over there, he would be on his feet cheering by now, to discover how his vision of God’s justice and God’s alluring mercy came together 800 years later at the cross of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to bring new life to sinners from every nation in God’s church. “Oh the depth of the rightness of God!” he would be saying. “Oh the wonders of his tender, merciful, love.”
And he would be wanting us all to go home saying the same.