What God Gives 8th Pentecost
Hosea 11:1-11 Luke 12:13-21
I’m sure you’re familiar with a quote by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s a great way to remind ourselves to learn our history lessons, and to let history inform our decision-making in the present. Well, for the next five weeks, I am going to be 1. Reaching back into some of the more ancient history in our faith; 2. Listening to what ancient prophets had to say to the people of their day; and 3. Exploring what those crusty old proclaimers of God’s word might have to say to you and to me today!
Back in June, we had a chance to hear from Elijah and Elisha, and in the coming weeks we will hear from Isaiah and Jeremiah. Don’t worry! I’m not going to give you a “steady diet of Old Testament”…we’ll hold up these texts in parallel with passages from the New Testament. It’s my prayer that these ancient words won’t be dusty and musty and dry, but will be a lively part of the Living Word that God brings to life in us! Let’s take a look.
In order to hear what these prophets were saying, we need to understand the context of their ministry–what was going on in their world that God needed to address. We had a glimpse of it when we looked at Elijah and his battle with Jezebel back around 875 BC. The problem was this: Jezebel was a Phoenician princess, married to the crown prince of Israel, Ahab. When Ahab became king, Jezebel became queen. You know the name “Jezebel,” right? She’s famous for being one of the “Bad Women of the Bible.” Her name is synonymous with evil and wickedness. (I’m sure none of you has an Aunt Jezebel in your family!) But you know what? Jezebel was extremely religious!! Yes! And she was vitally interested in spreading her religion into Israel—the worship of Ba’al, or The Ba’als. These are Phoenician gods of success, gods that were believed to help commerce to prosper, rain to fall, crops to grow—and the worship of Ba’al was Jezebel’s home religion. She imported many priests of Ba’al into Israel and funded the construction of temples to Ba’al—then she launched a campaign to kill the prophets of the Lord and eradicate the worship of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!
You can see why she is vilified in our faith tradition—and yet, one has to marvel at her single-minded determination to promote her faith! Just a little side-note: Elijah and Jezebel went head-to-head, with plenty of dramatic events unfolding—and then Jezebel died in the manner in which Elijah had prophesied she would meet her end.
But that was not the end of Ba’al worship in Israel. No, the prosperity gospel had taken hold of the people, and worshiping these “gods of success” continued even while the people still considered themselves to be the people of The Most High God. Interesting dichotomy.
150 years after Elijah, our Prophet of the Day (Hosea) enters the scene. God’s people have been running after false gods for several generations, and it’s time to give them a warning—as well as a glimpse into God’s own heart.
I love Frederick Buechner’s whimsical treatment of Hosea. He describes him as a fanatical prophet, “wearing a sandwich board that read ‘The End Is At Hand’ on one side and ‘Watch Out!’ on the other!” In chapter 1, God instructs Hosea to take a wife. (In politically correct language, “an adulterous wife.”) But there’s no getting around the real word. God told Hosea to marry a prostitute. Why?! Good question! As you read the book, you see that there is a similarity between Hosea’s relationship with his wife and Yahweh’s relationship with Israel. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the first few chapters:
Hosea marries Gomer (yes, the same name as Gomer Pyle).
They have three children, and God instructs him to give them odd names. Buechner says that, every time the roll was called at school, Hosea scored a prophetic bullseye without even being there! The first son was named “Jezreel,” to remind the people of a massacre at Jezreel, signifying the coming defeat of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.
Then a daughter was born and named “Lo-Ruhama,” which means “not loved,” indicating that God will no longer love Israel.
Then they had another son and named him “Lo-Ammi,” which means “not my people.” This reflects God’s statement, “You are NOT my people, and I am not your God.” Then the plot thickens.
Gomer chases off after her other lovers (just like the people of Israel were chasing after false gods), and Hosea is torn between his love for her and his disgust with her behavior.
In chapter 10, the Lord condemns Israel’s tendency to respond to prosperity with increased worship of the Ba’als! Here’s how Hosea says it: “Israel was a spreading vine; he brought forth fruit for himself. As his fruit increased, he built more altars (to Ba’al); as his land prospered, he adorned his sacred stones.” Just like Hosea, God suffered when his beloved was unfaithful.
Then Gomer got into big trouble. She ended up being enslaved to a creditor. The Lord told Hosea, “Love her, as the Lord loves the Israelites, even though they turn to other gods.” So he bought her for 15 shekels of silver and a large measure of barley. He ransomed her.
Then we come to the passage in today’s lectionary. God is expressing love for Israel, as well as the pain of having them chase after the Ba’als. With anguish, God announces that Israel will suffer foreign invasion (which indeed happens later). But God is not ready to give up on Israel. “How can I hand you over? How can I treat you like Sodom and Gomorrah? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” Then God expresses the hope that, after they suffer these disasters, the people will come back to God.
In Buechner’s whimsical treatment of Hosea, he says that the Prophet changes his sandwich board to read “God is love” on one side and “There’s no end to it” on the other. His experience with Gomer taught him about the deep pain God feels when we are unfaithful.
Now we are going to zoom ahead 700 years to see how Jesus dealt with a similar problem. Ba’al worship has long been out of fashion, but the basic sin of GREED (which is what fueled the worship of those false gods of success) is still a problem! Jesus says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” To illustrate, he told a story about a rich man who harvested a great crop, and his only thought was about how to keep it all for himself and live the high life. But God says, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.
Do you see God’s sadness here? God sends blessings upon blessings to you and to me, and (all too often) we are more excited about the gifts than we are about the Giver. What God gives is an opportunity to be in relationship with God—to have a life-giving connection in which we receive God’s blessings and harvest a great joy by 1. Being God’s people; 2. Serving God’s purposes (which are aligned with God’s will and connected to God’s people).
I want to conclude today by pointing to this banquet table in front of us, The Lord’s Supper. It represents all that God wants to give to us.
- It speaks of the ransom from our sins (just as Gomer was ransomed from her enslavement).
- It embodies the new life in Christ that comes, not as a prize that we have won, but as a simple gift from a loving God.
- It serves as a reminder that God is ready to go to extravagant lengths to pull us back from the brink, to save us from our folly.
- And it encourages us to let go of our fears and trust our well-being into the hands of the One who has been looking out for us all along!