Now before I begin, I want to let you know that I am not going to read the scripture passage until the end of my sermon so don’t get nervous and think that I forgot it!!! It’s just that the passage is the last chapter in the Book of Hosea and to read the ending before telling you the story just doesn’t seem right!
Hosea is the first of the twelve Minor Prophets in our Old Testament. He is a prophet in the Northern Kingdom of Israel and lived around 750 BCE. The book starts out with God speaking to Hosea and telling him not only to speak a prophetic words of judgement but to embody God’s message in a personal and emotionally painful way. God asks Hosea to take a ‘wife of whoredom’ who would illustrate Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. So, Hosea marries Gomer, a woman whose status is a little unclear clear but is tarnished in some way… She may have been a cult prostitute who was used to ensure fertility and prosperity to an ancient religious community or a professional prostitute. However, remember the times and the position of women in the community are very different than today. Women were objects of their fathers and then their husbands and had value as the cattle and sheep did. So she even could have been a woman who had engaged in premarital sex, or like Dinah (the main character in the movie The Red Tent which we will see in two weeks) damaged goods because she had been raped. What we do know is that Gomer had a past and that when Hosea married her he knew she would be unfaithful.
So the book starts out with God telling Hosea to marry and he does. AND, just in the first chapter of the Book, Gomer and Hosea have three children who God tells Hosea to name very sad and unfortunate names dealing with issues of not being loved by God and of not being considered God’s people anymore. The whole section of the first part of the book is like this…. depressing and sad. Then the mood and message changes and this story ends with a message of forgiveness and restoration. Hosea actually goes out and buys back Gomer after she runs away.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see God’s message here. We are to draw a parallel between God and Israel’s unfaithfulness. Israel has followed other gods and that provides reasons for God to announce punishment on God’s people. Israel’s greatest commandment is to have one God and they have adapted to new cultures and worshipped false Gods.
We read this and have trouble and get stuck with the use and abuse of the woman. We who have lived through the ‘Me Too’ movement have little tolerance with men abusing their power and taking advantage of women. Just like President Clinton’s dance around this Monica Lewinsky scandal during interviews this past week, it just sounds so distasteful and abusive now. (I mean, really didn’t you just want him to shut up already!!!) But to understand the metaphor set up in the book we need to remember the context to which it was written. The Israelites did not view marriage as a mutual relationship between equals. (And I have to say, I look forward to the day when I have to remind and teach congregations in sermons like this that there was actually a day when marriage was only between a man and a woman.) Men had more power, but they were vulnerable to being shamed if a wife was unfaithful. Similarly, God had more power in God’s covenant with Israel, but the Israelites could shame, embarrass, and hurt God if they trusted in other nations or other gods. God is the husband in this metaphor and Israel is the unfaithful wife.
And we end this first of three parts of the Book of Hosea the way the others are ended. Accusations are made against Israel and an announcement is made that punishment will come. But then each section ends with a message of comfort and hope. The story of Hosea and Gomer ends as a declaration of God’s forgiving love. The message is that even when we turn from God…. even when other things become our God, God forgives and loves us.
The other two sections are similar. Beginning in chapter 4, there is a shift in the metaphor from God the husband and we are the unfaithful wife to God the parent and we the rebellious children. The pain in the heart of God is compared to that of a parent who has invested decades in child rearing only to have that child turn out to rebel against the parent. Once again the doom/hope pattern is a factor in the arrangement of what is written. Chapters 4-10 being mostly words of doom, with the promise of a hopeful future is found in chapter 11. And we who are parents know this hope. Our children rebel, they spread their wings and rebel. And we hope that the nursery rhyme, ‘Leave them alone and they will come home, wagging their tails behind them’ has truth. As parents we live with that hope so we respond to the hope God has for us.
The love of God is described in a new way in this second art of the book. Where the first part of the Book of Hosea spoke of God’s forgiving love, this one talks of God’s nurturing love.
The second part of the book also develops and builds on the imagery of God. If one can get past all the negativity in the gloom and doom part of this section of the book which seems to go on forever, part of its richness can be seen in all the images used to describe God and God’s relationship with God’s people. In the same manner Jesus who told stories and used a variety of images, Hosea does too. God is a hiker coming up a path towards his people as one comes upon sweet grapes in the wilderness. God is like a lion, a bear, or a leopard robbed of her cubs. The imagery is wonderful and gives a deep understanding of God’s nature and love for us.
The message of the book is that we are not deserving of God’s love and we have created a mess of our world and are living in pain but God still loves us and will heal and restore us and the mess we have made of ourselves. Through forgiveness, nurturing, and healing, God will pour out love upon all of us who are God’s people…… God’s love and forgiveness are interesting in that we do not deserve either but they will still be abundantly given to us.
The last part of the book speaks of God’s healing love. We are wounded but God will make us well. The final verses of the book speaks to God’s people who feel broken and wounded. In these final verses of the book, Hosea pulls out all the stops to describe the blessed life of those who have felt the healing love of God. Image after image spills out. Israel will be like a blossoming lily, a deep rooted tree in the forest of Lebanon, a fragrant blossom, an olive tree, and God will restore this garden to its beauty. God will nourish and look after Israel.
I think of how the prodigal felt when his father restored him. He was healed and forgiven and restored to a new life. And I believe that is the restoration that is offered to us. God does more than forgive. God LOVES us and RESTORES us and allows us to begin anew. What a wonderful gift. What wonderful and freeing news for us to live by. (However the back side of this is that as God’s followers we are to offer that same forgiveness, love and restoration to those who go against us. But that is a whole other sermon for a later day!)
Listen now for words of God’s love as they were spoken by the prophet Hosea in the 14th chapter.
Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
2 Take words with you
and return to the Lord;
say to him,
“Take away all guilt;
accept that which is good,
and we will offer
the fruit[a] of our lips.
3 Assyria shall not save us;
we will not ride upon horses;
we will say no more, ‘Our God,’
to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy.”
4 I will heal their disloyalty;
I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them.
5 I will be like the dew to Israel;
he shall blossom like the lily,
he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon.[b]
6 His shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive tree,
and his fragrance like that of Lebanon.
7 They shall again live beneath my[c] shadow,
they shall flourish as a garden;[d]
they shall blossom like the vine,
their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
8 O Ephraim, what have I[e] to do with idols?
It is I who answer and look after you.[f]
I am like an evergreen cypress;
your faithfulness[g] comes from me.
9 Those who are wise understand these things;
those who are discerning know them.
For the ways of the Lord are right,
and the upright walk in them,
but transgressors stumble in them.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.