“Gospel in the Chaos”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
In the mid-700’s B.C.E., the middle east was rife with fertility religions. That allowed temple prostitutes to make a decent living “leading worship.” At God’s command, Hosea marries a temple prostitute named Gomer, who, to Hosea’s chagrin, proves to be something of a workaholic. The strained relationship between Hosea and Gomer is a metaphor for the strained relationship between God and Israel. God and Hosea keep forgiving and taking back their wayward spouses.
In 1957, a biblical scholar named Bernhard Anderson, published an Old Testament survey text whose fifth edition is still widely used in colleges and seminaries. Anderson describes Hosea’s historical context as particularly chaotic and violent. Assyria, under its brutal king, Tiglath-pileser III, was out to conquer the known world, including Israel.1 For some Israelites, capitulating to Assyrian rule and exile was a matter of life or death. Other Israelites, mostly leaders, men of privilege and influence, worked the angles of political and economic upheaval in order to profit from their own nation’s defeat. Hosea aimed his sharpest arrows at that latter group.
“Just as Gomer played the harlot,” writes Anderson, “so Israel had broken the covenant…this was the real historical tragedy, and all the contemporary troubles of Israel were only symptoms of it.”2
“The consequences of Israel’s betrayal of the covenant were seen in the regicides…the feverish foreign policy aimed at courting Egypt or Assyria, and the foolish reliance upon arms and fortifications…Stubborn and determined, Israel had insisted on being ‘like the nations,’ and as a result it was ‘swallowed up’ among the nations.”3
Anderson then makes this sobering observation: “Like other great prophets, Hosea knew that religion…could be a way of betraying God.”4 Captured by Assyria, and captivated by selfish desires, even Israelites “thronged to the temples, not to acknowledge gratefully their utter dependence on God who had brought them out of Egypt, but rather to ‘get something out of religion’”5 And almost everyone cashed in on the debauchery. Seeing both the fear and wanton lust, “Priests were ‘feeding on the sin’ of Yahweh’s people.”6 By accommodating to the pandemic idolatries, many priests began to distort their spiritual authority into political power. This infuriated the prophet.
“Let no one contend, and let none accuse,” says Hosea, “for with you is my contention, O priest…My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” (Hosea 4:4-6)
Most of Hosea reads like that. That’s why he is included among the “prophets of doom.”
Through it all, there are two oases of grace in Hosea’s chaos. One is a single verse buried in the sixth chapter: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6) Twice in Matthew’s gospel, the Pharisees (the priestly harlots of Jesus’ day) challenge Jesus for breaking with Jewish orthodoxy, and Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 both times. “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Mt. 9:13 – also in 12:7)
God’s desires, while hardly easy, are simple enough: We are to love and trust God by committing ourselves to mercy, justice, and integrity in all of our relationships.
The second gospel moment comes in chapter 11.
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. 3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
5They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. 7My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
8How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
10They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. 11They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.(NRSV)
Chapter 11 stands in stark contrast to the rest of Hosea’s prophecy. When reading it, though, one realizes that herein lies the heart, soul, and substance of the prophet’s message.
Hosea acknowledges that Israel’s unfaithfulness has set them on a course for downfall. Having given themselves to the self-serving pleasures and fears, and to the easy demands of idols, painful days lie ahead. And a grieving God says that this is not God’s will for beloved Israel. But God is not Tiglath-pileser, and will not force God’s will onto those whom God loves.
The language in Hosea 11 is that of parental love, and you don’t have to be a parent to understand God’s and Hosea’s struggle. If you’ve ever truly loved someone – older than a toddler perhaps – then you know that loving that person often involves the heartbreaking work of allowing them to face the consequences of their own poor decisions.
So, God says, “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities…and devours because of their schemes.” (In light of three mass shootings this past week, that hits home for our cities, doesn’t it?)
And yet, your very presence with that person, in merciful love, helps them – whether they recognize it or not at the time.
So, God says, “[T]hey did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.”
Whether we have loved or been loved that way, such love requires a humility that is so deep and pure as to feel beyond our capacity. Loving humbly means seeing the other through God’s eyes, not our own, and that throws us into a grueling paradox. We see the undeniable externals, the poor and destructive decisions, and while we voice our concern, and perhaps encumber them with consequences – if that’s even an option – we refuse to judge or condemn the person. His or her actions cause enough suffering, and trying to heap punish on them becomes all about us, our own disappointment, anger, or even shame.
It can be painfully difficult not to insert ourselves and try to impose our will on them, but that’s the difference between authority and power, between love and pride. And Yahweh offers to Israel the authority of love, not the power of pride.
Even as he grieves his wife’s deliberate unfaithfulness, Hosea finds the grace to reveal and to speak from God’s heart: “When Israel was a child, I loved him…How can I give you up, Ephraim?…I will not execute my fierce anger…for I am God and no mortal…I will not come in wrath.”
God comes; and for all the prophet’s harsh words, God does not come in wrath. Wrath is our doing – or rather our undoing. To those who call themselves people of faith, God is crying out, calling us to lives that witness to a grace that defies both the all-too-real chaos around us, and the human reason on which we so religiously rely. We are called to live differently than the wrathful voices around us that would have us live as if our only concern is “getting” something – whether that something is wealth, or power, or “into heaven.” Such selfishness creates the God-betraying religion Bernhard Anderson talked about.
Hosea and Jesus call us to live in the paradox of God’s grace wherein our freedom not to judge is also freedom to speak out, fearlessly and graciously, in the face of humankind’s Creation-wrecking resentment, fear, and greed.
In that paradox, we witness to God’s redeeming love in the chaos. We enter the fray as “cords of human kindness [and] bands of love,” knowing that God brings us back, “trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria.”
By grace alone, God alone brings us home.
1Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, Fourth Edition, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1986. Pp. 301-316.