‘The Hunger Games’ and the Human Predicament

For the last couple of days I’ve had some late nights because I’ve been rewatching the32b48154b2be18daf89f26dee4993c60 ‘Hunger Games’ movies on Netflix (I’ve also read the books). I know, it seems a dark and depressing way to end the day, but I find them riveting. In fact, if I wanted to lead a young adult study group on the Christian doctrine of original sin, I think I’d start with ‘The Hunger Games’.

I can hear the objections. ‘Can you really imagine a whole society being so twisted that it enjoys the spectacle of teenagers—and some barely into their teens—killing each other in a virtual arena?’ Well, as it happens, I can. I recall a time in human history when gladiatorial contests were entertainment—the more blood, the better. I also recall a time when young children were sent up chimneys as sweeps, and many died when they got stuck up there. As a human race we’ve dropped bombs on children, sold them as sex slaves, kidnapped them and turned them into child soldiers. We’re not quite the enlightened race we like to think we are.

‘But a nation set up in such a way that a wealthy capital sucks in all the resources and enjoys the lifestyle they make possible, while keeping the regions that produce the resources in poverty and subjugation? Surely we wouldn’t do that?’ But that was the whole point of colonies, wasn’t it? Places that the developed nations could exploit for their resources, while keeping the natives under their thumb. People living in the two-thirds world tell us it’s still going on today.

‘But can you imagine people standing up in front of a microphone and telling out and out blatant lies like that?’ Um – funnily enough, in 2020, I can! Enough said about that!

‘But those ridiculous costumes and hairstyles! All that flashy extravagance and love of spectacle! Isn’t it all a bit over the top?’ Maybe, but is it really so very much different from a modern political convention—or the Grammy Awards?

‘But children standing up on stage talking about how they can’t wait to get out into the arena and fight for the honour of their district?’ Well, that sounds rather like what a lot of soldiers said when they marched off to fight in World War One. And some of them weren’t much older than the kids in the Hunger Games.

So yes—I think ‘The Hunger Games’ tells us some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Christians believe human beings are made in God’s image, but are also infected with the disease of sin. And what is sin? It’s what Francis Spufford calls our ‘Human Propensity to F___ Things Up.’ We’re really good at it. We break things. We break people. We break relationships. We know it. We try to change it, but it’s desperately hard to break old habits and find a new path.

And ‘The Hunger Games’ reminds us that it’s not just about individual choices. Whole societies are organized in such a way as to institutionalize evil, to reinforce it, so that if you want to step away from it, you have to be intentional about it and be ready to suffer the consequences. As Cinna did. As Katniss and Peeta did.

A gloomy way to start a Friday morning? Maybe. I also believe God has come among us as one of us and started a movement to root out the poison of evil from our souls and our societal structures. But I don’t expect that to be the work of a few minutes, and I don’t expect it to be completed in a single lifetime.

As so often, Bruce Cockburn sums it up well:

From the lying mirror to the movement of stars
Everybody’s looking for who they are
Those who know don’t have the words to tell
And the ones with the words don’t know too well

Chorus:
Could be the famine
Could be the feast
Could be the pusher
Could be the priest
Always ourselves we love the least
That’s the burden of the angel/beast

Birds of paradise — birds of prey
Here tomorrow, gone today
Cross my forehead, cross my palm
Don’t cross me or I’ll do you harm

[Chorus]

We go crying, we come laughing
Never understand the time we’re passing
Kill for money, die for love
Whatever was God thinking of?

 – ‘The Burden on the Angel/Beast’ (from the Album ‘Dart to the Heart’ [1994])

Making a Difference (a sermon on Matthew 5.13-20)

There’s a very important difference between a thermometer and a thermostat. A thermometer tells you what the temperature is inside your house, but it doesn’t actually change anything. A thermostat, on the other hand, is connected to the furnace; it changes things! When the temperature dips below a certain level, the thermostat sends a signal to your furnace, and the burners fire up, and a few minutes later things are toasty warm again. Thermometers give you information about the world. Thermostats change the world. We Christians are called to be thermostats.

Last week at St. Margaret’s we celebrated the Feast of Candlemas, and Susan led us in our reflections on Jesus as the light of the world. So it’s a nice piece of serendipity that Matthew 5.13-20 follows on as our gospel reading for this week. In John, Jesus tells us that he is the light of the world, and all who follow hm will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. But in today’s gospel he turns it around, as he looks straight at us and says, “Youare the light of the world.” In today’s Gospel we think about how we’re called to shine the light of Jesus in the world around us. Like a thermostat in a cold room, a candle in a dark room makes a difference; it changes the world. We’re called to be that change.

I’m glad we celebrated Candlemas last week, but it’s too bad that it preempted the usual gospel reading for the day, which would have been the Beatitudes, the opening passage in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I’d like to suggest to you that the Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. Most people who enroll in the School of Jesus do so because of a sense of need in their own lives; we’re coming to Jesus for help for ourselves. That’s fine as a place to start, but we’ll soon discover that the School of Jesus doesn’t just exist for my personal benefit; it exists to change the world. This is very clear as we read through the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus starts in the Beatitudes by telling us we’re welcome in the Kingdom of God whether we’re saints or sinners, beginners or long-time Christians. But he then goes on immediately to remind us that the purpose of the School of Jesus is to produce disciples—people who can make a difference in the world by being like salt and light. That’s what today’s gospel is about. 

“You are the salt of the earth”, says Jesus in verse 13. The word ‘You’ is a plural; he’s addressing his followers as a community, not just individuals. We, as a community, are to act on the world like salt acts on food.Salt was mainly used in the ancient world to prevent meat from going bad. The purpose of the salt was to influence the meat, not the other way around! So Jesus calls us, his disciples, to have a positive influence on the world around us, and we can’t do that if we’re no different from the world. If we’re going to be useful to the world, we need to be different, to live by different values, to follow a different Master.

In this passage Jesus explicitly warns us about losing our distinctive flavour. Modern table salt actually can’t lose its flavour, but in the ancient world the salt wasn’t pure. It was picked up from the shores of the Dead Sea, and many other impurities were picked up with it, impurities that looked just like salt but actually weren’t. The pure salt was water soluble, so it wouldn’t be uncommon for all the saltiness to be washed away and only the impurities be left. So Jesus warns his disciples: there will be a lot of pressure for you to ‘wash away’ your distinctiveness and blend in with the world around you. He’s warning us not to give in to that temptation, because if we do, we kiss goodbye to any opportunity to make a real difference for God in the world.

And we are to be visibly different; that’s the point of the second illustration. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (vv.14-16).

It’s interesting that in John’s gospel Jesus says, “am the light of the world”, but here in Matthew he says to us, his followers, “You are the light of the world”. Darkness in the Bible stands for evil, sin, and ignorance, and Jesus is bringing light into the world – truth, goodness, and holiness. He calls his disciples to be like him, so that they also may spread his light wherever they may go. And the question for us as a church community is surely this: does our life together as followers of Jesus remind people of our Master? Do they see his light in us?

I think we sometimes have a tendency to assume that they don’t. Many of us have a perfectionistic streak in us, and all we can see is how far we fall short, without giving ourselves room to be thankful for the good things that arehappening. I need to take some responsibility for this, too; Marci sometimes reminds me that I’m the resident Eeyore in our family! But then I remember some years ago when a member of our congregation brought me a cheque for $300. She told me a friend had given it to her to pass on to our church. Her friend wasn’t a member of St. Margaret’s, but she’d heard on the grape vine that we were a church that knew how to be a blessing to the poor and needy. Not a bad reputation to have!

But of course, there always is room for improvement, and so as a community we need to be constantly listening to the teaching of Jesus in the gospels and asking ourselves “How would that change the life of our community? If we actually did what he tells us here, how would we be different?” And then, of course, we need to actually make the necessary changes. That’s what it means to be a Christian church, a community of disciples of Jesus.

But in order for this to happen – in order for us to truly be salt and light and to have a positive influence on the world around us – there needs to be genuine transformation in our own lives, and it can’t just be superficial; it has to go deep. This is what Jesus goes on to address in verses 17-20, where he says,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

As it stands, there’s an obvious difficulty with this teaching: it doesn’t line up with the practice of Jesus. Jesus actually sat rather lightly to some of the commandments. For instance, he allowed his disciples to harvest grain on the Sabbath. He healed the sick on the Sabbath. He said it was no longer necessary to keep kosher, because it wasn’t unclean food entering the body that made a person impure, but evil actions coming from within. He wasn’t always scrupulous in observing every little detail of the law himself. So how are we to understand this passage?

We need to remember that Jesus was raised in a tradition in which exaggeration was an accepted form of teaching. He talks about a camel going through the eye of a needle, and about not trying to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye when there’s a great plank of wood in your own, and being able to use faith to move mountains. Teachers in Jesus’ day often exaggerated in order to make a point, and we need to take this into account when we’re interpreting what Jesus had to say.

So what’s he trying to say in this passage? Surely the point is that faith in him involves obedience to God’s commandments. Jesus hung out with sinners, but that didn’t mean he was okay with sin; he wasn’t. He wanted to welcome everyone into the kingdom to begin a journey of transformation, so that together they could become people whose lives were visibly different. In this way, he said, he came to fulfil the law and the prophets; his movement would produce people who were more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees, not less.

In the rest of Matthew chapter five Jesus gives us some concrete examples of what he’s talking about, and in every case it’s clear that he’s taking the law and internalizing it. He’s not interested in righteousness that’s only skin-deep; he wants the word of God to penetrate into our hearts, so we’re transformed on the inside as well as the outside.

So it’s not enough, he says, to congratulate yourself because you haven’t murdered anyone. Murder is caused by anger and resentment, and you must root these things out of your lives as well, and do your best to be reconciled to your adversaries instead of nursing a grudge against them for decades. And it’s not enough to congratulate yourself that you’ve never committed adultery, while all the time you’re nursing secret sexual fantasies about other people. It’s not enough to congratulate yourself on the fact that in your divorce you followed the law to the letter; God didn’t establish the institution of marriage with divorce in mind, so we’re called to work for reconciliation. It’s not enough to proudly say that when you take an oath in court you never break it. Why do you need to take an oath in the first place? Are you telling people you can’t be trusted unless you take an oath? It’s not enough to follow the Old Testament law that limits vengeance to exact equivalence—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Rather, don’t take vengeance at all; turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and love your enemies, just as your heavenly Father sends sunshine and rain on both good and bad alike.

You see what’s going on here? Jesus is focusing not so much on the letter of the Law, but on the positive values God is looking for – reconciliation, faithfulness, honesty and truth, forgiveness and love for all. This is what Jesus means by ‘fulfilling the Law and the Prophets’, and it helps us make sense of his saying about our righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees.

The scribes and Pharisees were seen as the most religious people of their day, but the problem, according to Jesus, was that often their religion was only skin deep. They would keep the commandment about murder but continue to seethe with anger against others and see nothing wrong in that. They would keep the commandment about adultery but continue to nurse lust for others in their hearts. They would keep their oaths but not be so scrupulous about telling the truth at other times. They would congratulate themselves on having achieved an amicable divorce rather than working for reconciliation in their marriages. They conformed to God’s standards outwardly, but inwardly they were unchanged.

This may look good on the outside, but it’s not what Jesus is after. Not that he’s against outward actions. Sometimes that’s the way it works; we learn to do some outward action, and gradually it transforms us on the inside as well. We learn a new habit, which at first is only an outward thing, but gradually it starts to go deeper. Young couples who are madly in love with each other often hold hands, but it works the other way around as well; older couples who continue to hold hands often find that it enhances the love they feel for each other. The outward action is meant to lead to an inward transformation, and it’s the inner transformation that Jesus is most interested in, because that’s what makes it possible for us to make a difference to the world around us.

Let’s go around this one last time.

Everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God, because God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are. However, he loves us too much to leave us there. He knows that living lives of disobedience and sin is ultimately bad for us, so his purpose is to lead us out of darkness into the light of a new way of life. And he’s not just doing this for our own sake; he wants the whole world to be transformed by his light. We, the disciples of Jesus, are called to be a community that learns a new way of life from our Master, and then practices living it together. We, as a community, are the salt of the earth, the city set on a hill, the light shining for all to see. The world is meant to be able to see our way of life and take note: this is what God’s Kingdom looks like.

But in order for this to happen, our obedience can’t just be skin deep. Rather, the Holy Spirit has to work below the surface to transform us into people who love to do the will of God. As we continue our studies in the Sermon on the Mount next week, we’ll look a little more closely at the examples Jesus gives of the deep work of transformation that God wants to do in us.

The God who looks for the lost (a sermon on Psalm 14 and Luke 15.1-10)

I suspect that when we read our psalm this morning, some of you had a strong negative reaction to it. I’m thinking especially of verses 2-3: let me refresh your memory by reading them again to you, this time in the New Living Translation:

‘The LORD looks down from heaven upon the entire human race; he looks to see if anyone is truly wise, if anyone seeks God. But no, all have turned away; all have become corrupt. No one does good, not a single one.’

Really? No one? Not Jean Vanier? Not Mother Teresa? Not the people who put in hundreds of hours a year volunteering at Hope Mission or Habitat for Humanity? Not the parents who run themselves ragged week by week trying hard to make life good for their kids? Not the counsellors who answer emergency calls in the middle of the night to listen to people who are on the verge of suicide? What on earth is the psalmist talking about? Did he get out of the wrong side of bed that morning? What had happened to him, to give him such a negative view of the human race?

Let me say two things right away. First, to read the Bible with your brain in gear means that you begin by asking yourself ‘What kind of literature am I reading here?’ Obviously, if you go to your local library and pick out a volume of poetry, a copy of the Criminal Code of Canada, a history of Alberta, and the latest novel by Stephen King, you know you’re reading four very different kinds of books. You’ll have to read them very differently if you’re going to understand them and enjoy them.

And it’s the same with the Bible. The Bible is a library of books written over a span of about fifteen hundred years. It contains letters, hymns and poems, biographies, historical chronicles, and the criminal code of ancient Israel, to name just a few genres. Reading a poem or hymn is not the same as reading a sermon or theological essay or a law book. And Psalm 14 is a poem. Poets use vivid imagery to make a point, but they don’t always expect you to take their images literally. Sometimes they’re just being imaginative, and sometimes they’re being intentionally provocative.

Secondly, I think I can begin to understand the mood the psalmist was in. I’ve been in it myself for a couple of years now. For a long time I’ve been in the habit of skimming the pages of my newspaper as I eat my breakfast, but lately I’ve noticed that I’m getting more reluctant to do that. It feels more and more like a really negative way to get ready to go to work. I read about Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin and all the other political leaders who seem so blatantly unfit to lead their people. I read about corruption scandals and murders, wars, acts of injustice and oppression, and the refusal of so many people to take climate change seriously. I read these things and I say to myself, “Has everyone turned away from virtue and goodness and become totally corrupt? Is there, in all the world, any such thing as a single uncorrupt politician? Is there anyone left who’s in it for other people, not to build their own kingdom?”

But then I look into my own heart and try to face up honestly to what’s there. I think about some of the things I’ve done in my own life, things I’m ashamed even to remember. And I think of the famous story of the writer G.K. Chesterton, who was responding to a newspaper article with the headline, ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ His letter to the editor was very simple. ‘Dear Sir: I am. Yours faithfully, G.K. Chesterton.’

I think this is what the psalmist was grappling with here. I don’t know whether or not he was familiar with the words in Genesis chapter one: ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1.27 NRSV). But if he was, I’m sure he must have been struck by the contrast between these two visions of human nature. On the one hand, Genesis sees us as the pinnacle of God’s creation: we were the last thing he made, the climax, the thing every other creative act had been leading up to. Here was a being made just like God, like a daughter or son made in the image of their parents! Surely such a being would show the love and compassion and creativity and sense of justice of God? Wouldn’t you think so?

But then, how do you explain the rest of the Book of Genesis? Within two chapters you have Cain murdering his brother Abel. And the rest of the book talks about faithlessness, family intrigues, jealousies, and acts of manipulation and violence. How can a creature like that be made in the image of God?

Today we maybe feel the same way. Our human knowledge has expanded enormously over the past century. It’s now within our power to do all kinds of good in the world, using technologies our grandparents couldn’t even dream about. So why is it that the story of humanity feels very much like it always has? Wars and rumours of wars, thefts and murders, acts of greed and corruption, the rich exploiting the poor, people dividing up by race or religion or skin colour or political opinions—we can find it all in the Bible, and we can find it all in the latest edition of the Globe and Mail. Most people who think the Bible is out of date have never read it. When you read it, much of it feels depressingly familiar.

It seems to me that a Christian who reads the scriptures thoughtfully and prayerfully is forced to discard two simplistic views of human nature: one that says all human beings are basically good, and one that says all human beings are basically bad. If all humans are basically good, how do we explain the acts of evil committed by people brought up in loving homes by good parents who gave them the best possible moral guidance? How do we explain the fact that even the best possible projects for the improvement of the world seem to run aground, over and over again, on the rock of human selfishness and self-interest? But on the other hand, if all humans are basically bad, how do we explain the incredible acts of kindness and generosity we see around us every day?

We humans are made in the image of God, the best of all parents. And like a good parent, God doesn’t force us to do his will; if he wants us to grow and mature, he has to allow us the freedom to make our own choices, in the hope that they will be good choices. Is there any way to offer that freedom without the possibility that humans will make the wrong choices? I can’t imagine any way that could happen. Growth in maturity involves forming the habit of rejecting the way of hatred and injustice, and choosing the way of love and goodness. It has to be a meaningful choice: one in which making the wrong choice has real consequences.

The Bible tells the story of how so often we humans have made the wrong choice. It’s as if sin and evil is an infection that comes into our systems at a very early age. Some theologians would say we have it before we’re born, although the Bible doesn’t very often speculate about that. But the reality is that humans are made in the image of God, but are also infected with evil and selfishness. We have our better angels, but we also have our inner demons. We do acts of kindness and love, but we’re always tempted to be selfish and angry and judgemental and cruel, and we struggle with that every day.

And that struggle is made doubly difficult if we don’t have God’s help. Our psalm began with the phrase, ‘Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God”’ (v. 1 NRSV). That might give us warm fuzzy feelings about ourselves: we’re not atheists, so we’re not fools! But we need to think again. In the ancient world atheism was almost unknown, so it’s highly unlikely that the psalmist was describing literal atheists here. What he was likely describing is people who act as if there is no God:

‘The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God…Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the LORD?’ (vv. 2, 4 NRSV).

The fools are the people who tell the census taker, “Yes, of course I believe there’s a god of some kind—doesn’t everyone?” But then they don’t do anything about that belief. They don’t let their belief in the existence of God influence a single moral decision they make. It doesn’t change the way they spend their money. It doesn’t change the way they treat a poor person, or a person of a different race. It doesn’t have any effect at all on the way they vote in an election. And they certainly don’t put any energy into trying to build a relationship with God. They’ll work their fingers to the bone to get an expensive university education; they’ll incur hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to get exactly the home they want, but how much time and money are they prepared to put into learning how to know God? No, the psalmist says, ‘they ‘do not call upon the LORD’ (v.4 NRSV).

And this is where our gospel reading starts. God loves his people and longs for them to know him. He wants them to seek him with all their hearts, but they’ve demonstrated over and over again that they won’t. So what does he do? His people are lost and they don’t even seem to know it. In fact, they refuse to acknowledge that they’re lost. “We’re fine—nothing to see here—move on, please!”

How do we respond to people like that? The Pharisees and scribes have a very judgemental attitude toward them. They’re not at all happy with how much time Jesus is spending with them. ‘And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”’ (Luke 15.2 NRSV). As far as they were concerned, it was up to the lost sheep to find their shepherd. After all, they were the ones who got lost! It was their fault! Why should God go looking for them? It wasn’t God who strayed away!

But I suspect Jesus saw things differently. He knew that most sheep don’t wander away on purpose. They just aren’t thinking ahead. They keep their heads down, eating grass, thinking only of the needs of the present moment, and then after a while they look up and realize that the rest of the flock seems to have vanished! They were so concerned about the need of the present moment—grass—that they took their eyes off the shepherd.

And that’s the way it is with people. Often, we don’t mean to stray away from God; we just get so tied up meeting the needs of the moment—a bit more money here, a moment of relaxation there—that we lose sight of what life is all about in the first place, and we lose sight of the Good Shepherd who gives our life meaning and purpose. It doesn’t take a big sin to take us out of orbit around God – just a little distraction will often do the job.

And so God doesn’t wait for the lost sheep to find him. He knows that’s not going to happen. Psalm 14 says that the Lord looks down from heaven to see if there are any who seek after God, but there aren’t. Our track record there is not very good.

But fortunately for us, God doesn’t leave it at that. After centuries of trying to get our attention through prophets and preachers, he sends his Son to us, the one who is the perfect image of the Father. The Gospel of John tells us that God himself comes to us in his Son. ‘In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God…So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.’ (John 1.1, 14, NLT).

So Psalm 14 isn’t the last word on the subject. It’s a true word, but by itself it’s not complete. Psalm 14 brings us face to face with the bad news about ourselves—what Francis Spufford calls our ‘Human Propensity to Mess Things Up’ (except that he uses a stronger word than ‘mess’!). We can’t pretend this doesn’t exist; we can see it all around us.

But the Gospel gives us another word: God doesn’t wait for us to seek him. He came among us to seek us. That’s what Jesus was doing. By his life and teaching he was demonstrating for us what a life of love and godliness is like. He was showing God to us through every word he spoke and every action he took. And he was reaching out to the last, the least, and the lost, going the extra mile, doing all he could to bring the love of God within reach to every human being.

That’s who Jesus is. That’s what God is like. That’s what the Gospel is. We may be more messed up than we like to admit, but we’re also loved more deeply than we’ve ever dared to imagine. Jesus came all the way from heaven to earth and gave his life on the Cross for us. He says, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11). And not just for the sheep as a group; Paul says in Galatians ‘The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). You matter to God. So do I, and so does every other individual on the face of the earth. God is out searching for us, and he won’t rest until he has found us and brought us home. That’s what the Gospel story is all about. Human failure doesn’t have the last word. The love of God has the last word. That’s why the Gospel is Good News.

God, the Anguished Parent (a sermon on Hosea 11.1-11)

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.[1]

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.

[1]I’m indebted for this image to Paula Gooder, Hosea to Micah (The People’s Bible Commentary, BRF, 2005).