I suspect I’m not the only parent in church today who remembers being nervous about the impending birth of their first child. Becoming a parent can be joyful and exciting, but it’s also an invitation to a life of worry and anxiety, self-doubt, guilt, and a strong sense of your own personal inadequacy! I don’t know too many parents who really believe, deep down inside, that they’re doing a good job. We all feel like we’re struggling to keep our heads above water. And yet, as we saw last week, when Jesus is teaching us how to think about God, he invites us to say, “Our Father…”! In other words, Jesus’ favourite metaphor for God’s activity in our lives is parenting.
There’s a common caricature of the Old and New Testaments that says that the God of the Old Testament is an angry and scary God of judgement, and the God of the New Testament is a warm and cuddly God of love. In fact, of course, there are plenty of passages about judgement in the New Testament, too—anybody remember who actually gave us the parable of the sheep and the goats?—and the Old Testament has some tender and loving passages. And one of the most beautiful Old Testament passages about the love of God is our first reading for today, Hosea 11.1-11.
Of all the Bible writers the prophet Hosea is most adept at describing God for us in human terms. And he gives us some striking images while he’s doing it. In last week’s passage, God commanded Hosea to go marry a prostitute, and he obeyed; he married Gomer, and it didn’t take her long to be unfaithful to him. And so Hosea’s marriage became like an acted parable of what it felt like for God to take Israel as his lover, and then have her cheat on him. Philip Yancey says Hosea gives us the striking image of ‘God the jilted lover’!
This week we’re still using family images, but now we’re into a parental metaphor. This week our image is ‘God, the anguished parent’. Do you want to know what it feels like to be God? In this passage from Hosea, God’s heart is laid bare for us.
Hosea begins by describing the people of Israel as children of a loving God.‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son’ (v.1). God saw the Israelites suffering as slaves in Egypt, and sent Moses down to lead them out of slavery to freedom. He sent the ten plagues on the Egyptians and finally forced Pharaoh to let the slaves go. He defeated the Egyptian army at the Red Sea and led the people on their long journey through the wilderness. When they were hungry he gave them manna from heaven and quails to eat. When they were thirsty he brought water out of a rock for them. And through it all, he taught them his ways through the Ten Commandments and the other laws he gave them.
In verses 3 and 4 we see God describing Israel poetically as a much-loved child.
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 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.
Note how this image usually works in the Old Testament. We’re not yet at the idea of each human as a child of God. Here we’re talking about the nation as a whole as God’s son. But nonetheless, the language is vivid and compelling. We see the parent watching anxiously as the toddler takes her first wavering steps across the room. Suddenly she falls down, but before she hits the ground she’s scooped up into the arms of her mom, who quickly soothes away any hurt.
That’s what God was like in the early days. Israel took their first wavering steps as a nation, and God hovered over them, picking them up every time they stumbled and soothing away their pain. God is like a mother overwhelmed with love; she can’t help but hold her child cheek to cheek, communicating security, love and peace.
In the New Testament, of course, Jesus’ favourite image for God is ‘Father’. In fact, it’s almost the only name he uses for God. And he invites his disciples into this relationship too, teaching us to pray ‘Our Father in heaven.’ Note that gender isn’t the issue here; God isn’t a male as opposed to a female God. It’s the loving, caring parental relationship that counts. Even if we’ve had a bad experience with human parents, we’re invited to imagine the best possible parent and think of God in those terms: one who always loves us, always provides for our needs, always guides and teaches us and corrects us when we go the wrong way, one who protects us from harm. And for all this, of course, the framework is God’s steadfast love.
But now we come to the hard part. Israel isn’t only seen as the children of a loving God; they’re also seen as wayward children.
We know that no parent is immune from having struggles with their kids. Our church is named after St. Margaret, who was the mother of eight children. She’s recognized as a saint, but even she didn’t have a perfect record—at least one of her children turned out very badly, so we’re told! And we can go even higher than that. In Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, the father of the prodigal is meant to represent God, and he certainly comes across as a wise and loving parent. But still, his son rebels against him and takes off for a far country where he wastes all the money his father gave him in what Luke calls ‘dissolute living’ (Luke 15.13).
Israel’s rebellion against God is spelled out in verse 2:
The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.
What a contrast with Jesus, the Son of God! In the New Testament, Jesus’ whole life is defined by his close relationship with God, his heavenly Father. But in the Old Testament, we could say that Israel’s life as a people was largely shaped by their rejection of God. This is the major story of the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, and even back into the earlier books that tell the Exodus story.
The specific form their rebellion took was idolatry: the worship of things that are not God. In other words, they rejected their ideal parent and ran off with another one – and then another – and then another – and so it went on. Note this: God isn’t giving in to a fit of jealousy here, like an insecure parent who complains because his child doesn’t worship the ground he stands on. No—idolatry is poisonous for us as humans, because so often we humans become like the things we worship.
We can see an innocent example of that in fans of rock bands who sometimes dress up in the same kind of gear their idols wear. I’m old enough to remember Bay City Rollers fans from the 1970s, all dressed up in tartan like the boys they loved so much! But far less humorous is the story in the Iliad of the Greek king Agamemnon, leader of the army that was trying to cross the Aegean sea to fight against the city of Troy. But the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, and the Greeks were getting incredibly frustrated. Eventually Agamemnon’s prophet told him the only way he could get a favourable wind was if he would offer his daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice to the gods. And Agamemnon did that. He worshipped savage gods, and he became savage, just like them.
This sin is also mentioned in the Old Testament: some of the Israelites were influenced by worshippers of the god Molech, and they began offering their children in human sacrifice to Yahweh, the God of Israel. Yahweh is appalled by this: “I never asked this,” he says, “nor did it ever enter my mind!” And there are other things that seem to go hand in hand with idolatry in the writings of the prophets: injustice, cruelty, oppression of the poor, sexual immorality and so on. Apparently, to reject the God of Israel is to reject his moral and ethical teaching too.
This is not ancient history. In case you hadn’t noticed, idolatry is alive and well today. When we turn to created things and ask them to fulfil God’s role in our lives, we make them into false gods. Many people do that with money and possessions, or success, or popularity. In the scary world we live in, nationalism is a powerful idol for some people: loyalty to their country is the highest ideal they can think of.
In our culture these are powerful God-substitutes that call us away from the worship of the one true God. Christian conversion, to St. Paul, involves turning away from these idols. Listen to his words in 1 Thessalonians: ‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead’ (1.9-10).
This turning from idols to the one true God isn’t just a one-off thing. False gods are constantly tempting us. Think of how many times we fall for the ads that promise us ultimate happiness if we just buy their product. We’ve seen again and again that they’re peddling lies, but still we give in! So daily conversion involves intentionally turning away from the lies of those false gods, and turning back to the one true God who alone can give us what we’re looking for.
We’ve seen that we’re the children of the living God, but we’re also wayward children who tend to stray away from him and worship false gods. So how is God going to respond? Is it going to be judgement or forgiveness?
Let me read verses 5-9 again, only this time from the New Living Translation:
“But since my people refuse to return to me,they will return to Egyptand will be forced to serve Assyria.War will swirl through their cities;their enemies will crash through their gates.They will destroy them,trapping them in their own evil plans.For my people are determined to desert me.They call me the Most High,but they don’t truly honour me.
“Oh, how can I give you up, Israel?How can I let you go?How can I destroy you like Admahor demolish you like Zeboiim?My heart is torn within me,and my compassion overflows.No, I will not unleash my fierce anger.I will not completely destroy Israel,for I am God and not a mere mortal.I am the Holy One living among you,and I will not come to destroy.”
Here we are really gazing into the pain in the heart of God, aren’t we? What parent hasn’t felt this way? “I can’t believe she did this! How could she betray my trust like that? If I let her get away with it, her feet are going to be set on a path that leads to a very bad place. I need to stamp this out right now! But wait—if I do, she’s going to be really hurt! She’s going to think I’m rejecting her, and she’ll hate me for it. How can I possibly cause her pain? I can’t bring myself to do that. But if I let her get away with it…”
In this section we see God mulling this over. He contemplates sending them away into exile, but then he recoils from this thought. In fact, he sounds like a parent who says rash things in the heat of the moment, then thinks it over and in the morning gives a more measured response. Are there any parents here who have done that? I know I have! “No”, God says, “if I behaved like that I’d be acting just like a mortal—a human with a temper problem!” God will correct us, but in love, not in anger.
In one of his books Philip Yancey talks about a conversation he had with a Japanese friend about the love of God. His friend told him that in his culture father-love and mother-love are complimentary but different. Father-love is the love that pushes children to achieve and makes demands on them. Mother-love is the safe place they can return to when they’re exhausted or lonely or demoralized. Philip’s friend felt that his culture had over-emphasised the Father-love of God but under-emphasized God’s mother-love. We can see this tension in the verses we’ve just read.
How does God balance these two kinds of love? Surely this demands infinite wisdom on God’s part—a wisdom all parents long for! Sometimes children misinterpret parental discipline. “You hate me! I hate you back!” If you’re a parent, this pierces you to the heart! We don’t hate our kids—if we did, we wouldn’t care. No—it’s because we love that we feel the need to correct and train our kids. But the overall framework for all of this is the deep, deep love we have for them. Balancing the contrasting demands of the different kinds of love is what makes parenting such a tough gig. Ask God—he knows all about how tough it is!
So we’ve seen that we’re children of a loving God, but we’re also wayward children. We’ve seen the dilemma God has—balancing what Philip Yancey’s friend called father-love and mother-love is a tough gig. Finally let’s look at verses 10-11, which deal with responding to God’s call.
‘They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They 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.’
These two verses have a poignant quality to them. They remind me of a parent shaking her head over her children, saying “One day they’ll smarten up!” We can hear the sadness in her voice; she sees the pain her child is putting himself through because of his choices, and she longs for him to change his mind and change the direction of his life.
Our NRSV Bibles translate this in the third person: ‘They shall go after the Lord.’ But the New Living Translation puts it in the first person: ‘For some day the people will follow me.’ We hear God saying, ‘Some day—I wish it was today!’
God is committed to respecting the free will of his people, so what can he do? He can call—and I think that’s what the lion’s roar in verse 10 is all about. The lion is roaring to signal to his kids that the street lamps are about to come on, so it’s time to come home! The kids have been having fun, so the call is a bit of a shock. “Whoops—I guess we stayed out too long!” So they come ‘trembling’, says the reading—they’re expecting a scolding!
Remember again Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. The son asks for his inheritance, then goes off to a far country and wastes it all. When it’s all gone, and a severe famine comes to that land, he gets a job feeding pigs. That’s when he comes to his senses, and decides to go home. He makes up an apologetic speech to give to his dad, and I’m sure he practices it many times on the way home. Why? Because he’s expecting to encounter anger, not welcome.
But to his surprise, he encounters not anger, but joy. His father gives him a bear-hug and a kiss, sends a servant off for new shoes and new clothes, and throws a feast in his honour to welcome him home. Jesus says this is how God treats us when we come home to him. We’re wayward children, yes, but we’re still his children, and nothing can change that fact. ‘They shall come trembling…,’ says God, but ‘…I will return them to their homes.’
The heart of God is our home. We’ve seen that God’s heart is full of love for us, a love stronger and wiser and fiercer than the love of any parent who has ever lived. We’re constantly being tempted to stray from that home, but God is constantly calling us back. The welcome feast is spread out for us this morning. Let’s come home again to the heart of God.
I’m indebted for this image to Paula Gooder, Hosea to Micah (The People’s Bible Commentary, BRF, 2005).