Saturday, July 30, 2016

Truth and Consequences; forgiveness and adoption . . .

     This week’s reading from the OT might offend you, were you all fluent in Hebrew or Greek.  As it is, with the NIV’s sanitizing, I still saw more than a few squirms as our lector read this morning.  Yes, I decided to continue our journey through the minor prophets rather than spend all morning discussing the Lord’s Prayer in Luke.  I know, I know.  Everyone here wanted to know why Jesus gave us this prayer.  Suffice it to say that the prayer He gave us teaches us much about God, just like our reading from Hosea.  The big difference, of course, is that everyone here has said the Lord’s Prayer so many times that we likely do not pay attention to what we are praying.  Hosea has the virtue of being unfamiliar to us.  That, and the language, might cause us to pause and really listen.
     Those with gentle ears might be shocked that the Lord would command His prophet to take a prostitute for a wife, but that is just what He does in the beginning of the book named after that prophet on the receiving end of the command.  Scripture is uninterested in why Gomer is living the life of a prostitute.  There is no “she was really a faithful woman reduced to that profession by the lack of support within the godless society;” nor is there a condemnation of her actions as a determined decision to act contrary to the torah of God.  Hosea is told to marry a prostitute, and Gomer is the one chosen.
     Now those of us who view the Bible and the revealed characteristics of God from way above the text might be shocked that God would tell His prophet to do this might well remember our Confirmation classes.  I remind you all, often weekly, that God specializes in making the common holy.  One of our denominational strengths, I think, is our recognition of this particular effort by God to make the common holy in our midst.  I suppose the first sermon you all heard me speak of this was about the women in Austin who had been chastised by pastors and lay leaders for breastfeeding their infants in church.  I have spoken how God can use us in check-out lines at the store, on computer games, at work, and any number of other places.  More recently, you have heard me remind us to be inviting to those strangers who show up at our doors playing Pokemon and to consider learning to play it with your grandchildren or others in your family.  God often takes ordinary “secular” moments, times, or events and causes them to be holy.  So few of us spend time with that younger generation that we despair of the legacy, at least spiritually and emotionally, we might leave with them when we are gone.
     Now, to simplify things, we have a special language.  For those of you visiting today or for those who have never sat through a Newcomer’s class, and because the laughter sounded as much nervous to my ears as ironic, that last statement was made in a sarcasm voice or font.  We call this making the common holy sacramentalizing.  Now, all you good Episcopalians should be able to answer this question: what is a Sacrament?  That’s right.  A Sacrament is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  We Christians agree there are two, right?  Baptism and the Eucharist.  It’s hard for any denomination to argue against those two because Jesus said we were to do both:  break this bread and drink this wine and baptize in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  In typical Anglican vocabulary, we call those Dominical Sacraments, because our Lord Jesus commanded them, and then we give each other wide latitude in describing the other five sacraments or rites.  You know them as marriage, unction, confirmation, confession, and ordination.  Such was the fight a few hundred years ago that our Anglican founders included an entire Article, #25 I think, on how the Sacraments relate to and are to be used by the Church.  Because we associate God and the Church usually with good, we tend to think of the Sacraments as good.
     What is happening in Israel, though?  Are the people keeping the torah?  Are people loving God with all their heart, mind, body, and soul?  Are the people loving their neighbors as themselves?  Well at least the kings are getting it correct, right?  Oh, wait.  You know better.  We have read Samuel, Kings, and Amos since Easter.  Well, at least the priests are getting it correct, right?  I see the head shakes.  We talked about how the priest in Amos forgot the holy place, Jezreel, was God’s and not the king’s and actually rebelled against God’s identified prophet.  So what is going on here at the beginning of Hosea? 
     In truth, God is using an outward sign to display the inner heart and lack of grace of His people.  If it makes you feel better, we could call it a negative sacrament.  But God is using a visible sign to make known what is in the heart of His people.  Now His command to Hosea makes sense, doesn’t it.  Over and over, throughout the entirety of Scripture, God reminds us that we are unfaithful to Him.  The most common, though not the only, imagery used is one of a marriage.  In fact, the next chapter of Hosea will pick up just on that image.  God is the groom; the Church, you and me and everyone who claims Him as Lord, is the Bride.  I see the nods of assent.  Israel is so far gone from Her Husband that she accepts the rich stealing from the poor, the king leading Her away from God, rejects the prophets voice, and even thinks that God will be unfaithful to His covenant and cause the Land to disgorge them.  Given the imagery of marriage and unfaithfulness, God’s command makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
     Think of the discontinuity that must have, or at least should have, been incarnated in the minds of Israel.  Our most holy man is commanded to marry a prostitute, a whore.  Has God lost His mind?  What if I were unmarried, walked into the sanctuary this morning and told you that God had commanded me to marry a prostitute? A druggie?  An infamous criminal?  How disturbed would you be?  Brian, are you sure?  Brian, do you know who she is?  What she has done?  Maybe some of you would ask such questions out of some concern for me, but most would ask because of the scandal.  We are not alone.  How do the Pharisees respond to Jesus and His willingness to allow the woman to minister to Him?  If He were truly a prophet and knew who she was, He would never allow her to touch Him.  Right?  That got them a good lecture on forgiveness.  Wait, God is not done.
     This is not a marriage of convenience.  Gomer will not be the prophet’s wife in name only.  She bears Hosea a son.  You know what that means.  That’s right.  The prophet of God had sex with that former prostitute.  Given my experiences and conversations with those who like to use prostitutes, such an idea may not disgust or worry us as much as it should.  Despite the risk of STI’s, men routinely force the prostitutes to have unprotected sex with them.  A suggestion of safe sex can result in a cuffing or beating for the prostitute.  Yet here is Hosea, prophet of God, knowing His wife, getting her pregnant with a son.  You all did not know you would need a shower after church today, did you?
     Even that event negatively sacramentalizes the condition of the hearts of the people of Israel.  The son is named Jezreel.  We have spoken of Jezreel a bit this summer.  Who named the place?  That’s right.  Jacob named it when he had the vision of the ladder to heaven way back in Genesis.  It should have been a special place to Israel, right?  The God of Jacob granted him a vision in that very spot.  What has happened since?  Everyone remember the story of Naboth and Ahab and Jezebel?  How about the priest trying to drive out Amos?  Where was that?  Jezreel, the place of God.  Soon, Jezreel will be the site of the northern kingdom’s enslavement by the Assyrian empire.  The place of God will be overrun by the soldiers of Assyria, and ten of the twelve tribes will be carried off into Exile.  God instructing Amos to name his son, his firstborn son, Jezreel should provoke Israel much like it would provoke you if I had another child and told you that God said I should name him or her Orlando, or Baton Rouge, or Baltimore, or Dallas, or Nice, or some other such name.  Yuck, huh?
     God’s not done, not by a long shot.  What happens next?  That’s right, Gomer gets pregnant again and bears a daughter.  Who is the father?  Compare that description with the description of the first child.  Notice anything missing?  Could Hosea be the father?  Sure.  Is Hosea named the father, though, as he was of Jezreel?  No.  It’s ambiguous.  Or is it?  Hosea has been invited into relationship with a prophet of God, much like Israel has been invited into a relationship with God.  Whether Gomer chose to be a prostitute or was forced by circumstances, she should have thought of herself as “trading up” in this marriage commanded by God, right?  But so should have Israel.  Yet Israel constantly chases after the Ba’als and other false gods of the ANE, even though Yahweh had freed them and kept His promises to them.  The question of parentage should resonate with Israel.  Who was the father of Gomer’s second child?  Who do the people around us think is our God?  Subtle, right?
     Not so subtle is the naming.  God instructs Hosea to name the daughter Lo-ruhamah, which means “not compassionate” or “not merciful.”  God reminds Israel that He will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them.  Like with Amos, when He played on the words of passing them by and the Passover, God is telling Israel His mercy is at an end.  That’s a scary thought.  One of the worries of the time before the Exodus was, and one of the worries during the Exile will be, whether the Covenant of God was still in effect.  Has God forsaken us?  Has He quit on us?  Did we drive Him completely away?  Now, whenever the people think on the prophet, they will be reminded that he was commanded to marry a prostitute and named his children Jezreel and Lo-ruhamah, the latter of which might not even be his own child.  What is going on?
     God is still not done.  Again, Gomer conceives and bears a child that may or may not be Hosea’s.  Unlike Jezreel, who was born to him, this third child is just conceived.  This is another son.  Again God gives the name to His prophet.  Hosea names the child Lo-ammi, which means “not my people.”  We have no real way to really get at the heart of this particular name, at least I don’t.  Israel would worship God reminding themselves of their relationship with God.  He was their God.  They were His people.  It was axiomatic to their existence.  The Lord had sworn the covenant with Abraham.  The Lord had confirmed it through Isaac and Jacob.  The Lord had provided Joseph in Egypt to preserve His people.  The Lord had sent Moses to free His people from Pharaoh.  God had humiliated Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods.  God had punished Israel for her disobedience and lack of faith at the Jordan.  Eventually, God had given them the land, given them great victories, and tormented those who hated Israel.  By this time in Israel’s history, they think they cannot be harmed.  Were they to be conquered, that means God would be conquered in the heavens.  That could not happen, so they could live as they wanted.  We Christians would call that cheap grace.
     Imagine if we had to remove the whole “The Lord be with you.  And also with you.” from our worship.  How weird would it sound to our ears?  How would we ever get meetings started or large pot lucks?  Those words signify to us a prayer is about to begin, worship is about to begin.  What if we were prevented from such?  What if God said “no more!”?  How would we feel?
     Now, every time Israel speaks of the prophet and his family, they should be reminded of their spiritual harlotry and its consequences.  There goes Amos and Gomer with the kidsWho’s acolyting in the Temple or synagogue today?  It’s either Not-My-people or Unmerciful, I forget which.  Ouch.  Talk about cringing.  Talk about serving as a negative reminder of the inward and spiritual condition of Israel.  Whew.  They should have been driven to sack cloth and ashes.  They should have seriously worked on repentance.  Unfortunately, most ignored the warning incarnated before them.  And the result in 722 BC or so was that they were conquered.  The ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom were carried off into slavery and dispersed throughout the Empire.  God, indeed, no longer passed by their sins.  God, indeed, no longer showed them mercy and protected them as His people.  It is no wonder then that Israel will be convinced during the Exile that they have been abandoned by God.  People will wonder if God has abandoned them.
     Curiously, had they listened to the words of Hosea to begin with, they would have known He was still with them in the Exile.  Way down in the bottom of our reading, in verse 10, Hosea speaks the promise of God.  Despite the looming punishment, says God, the number of the people Israel, the people of God, will be like the sand of the sea.  There will be too many to be counted.  And where people (read Assyrians) will mock them and remind them that they are not God’s people, Gentiles will say of them that they are “Children of the Living God.”
     Where’s the Gospel in the passage?  If Jesus is right, and all the Old Testament is about Him, where is He in the passage?  Those of us sitting in church today falsely thinking that God in the OT was far more wrathful in the NT should spend some time studying the Passion.  Ask Jesus, the next time you are in prayer, whether He thinks the Father took sin seriously?  Whether He took sin seriously?  Whether you were a harlot when it came to following God and His instruction?  Whether you, and all of humanity beside you, needed Him to be merciful so that we could live into the hope and promise of being His people?  I see the squirming.  I know.  We want to pretend we are so much better than Israel.  We want to think that we really are His people.  We catch all His warnings, but especially His obvious ones.  We would never make the same mistakes as Israel did.
     Yet, look at us.  Are we not struggling with issues common to Jezreel?  We claim America is Christian or founded on Christian values, but what does the world see?  We rattled off some of the violence of the last month earlier.  I guess we are sort of Jezreel.  I had some really good, thoughtful, conversations about racism this week.  Heck, I’m not sure I can answer even most of the questions raised by people.  And, in a tip of the hat to a former Adventer, (oops.  Make that a grown up Adventer who lives elsewhere and now attends another church), Percy Ballard, maybe we are not giving voice to the sadness we should be expressing in the midst of such violence or racism or whatever evils.
     At least we are not in the middle of a division like the Northern and Southern kingdom, right?  Dang it!  I forgot.  The Republican convention was last week; the Democratic is this week.  At least the individual parties are unified, even if they are dividing us.  Why are you all laughing?  You’d think there are internal protests or squabbling the way you all snorted.
     Well, at least we are not under any threat by any foreign nation or power, like Israel was with Assyria.  Oh, wait, I forgot about ISIS and Al-Queda.  All of us would sleep well if Iran got the bomb.  I’m sure we are all comfortable with Russia’s recent military provocations.  I know we all sleep better knowing that China owns more and more of our ever-growing debt.  And who knows what in the world is going on in North Korea?
     At least our personal spheres are unbothered, right?  None of us worries about provision.  None of us are fighting cancer or other diseases that threaten our very lives.  At least it’s non-members in orbit of the parish who are dealing with the traumas of horrific events in their lives, like rapes, or muggings, or terrible accidents and not Adventers.  At least we all have great relationships with our families and friends and co-workers.  We don’t have those pesky problems caused by misunderstandings.  And, let’s face it, we can see and hear God with us in every event in our life.  We never wonder where He is.  We never have those crises of faith common to others.  When things go bad, which seldom happens, we know right where He is and how He will redeem our situation.
     Have I made my point?  Do we have more in common, both personally and corporately, with Israel in the 720’s-30’s BC than we would like to admit?  I think so.  Fortunately for us, we live on this side of the work and person of Jesus.  Fortunately for us, we live on this side of the Incarnation of God.  We know our need for repentance and our need for a Savior, and we know it was provided by our merciful, loving God in the person of Jesus Christ.  We know that Jesus has made it possible that verse ten can be proclaimed of us, in spite of us and our shortcomings.  To use the image of the next chapter of Hosea, God will court us despite our adultery, despite our wantonness, despite our “not deserving Him.”  That God would court us again, to use the next image of Hosea is not enough to capture the promise given word by the prophet in this reading.  Not only will we be courted, we will be given the chance to become heirs.
     Brothers and sisters, I know this has seemed a dark sermon.  If I discerned well and spoke well this week, we have each been forced to examine our own faithlessness, our own spiritual harlotry, and we have each had to face the fact that we are no more deserving of His love and His grace and His mercy that the audience that first heard Hosea’s words.  Had my sermon ended there and had God’s words in Hosea ended there, we would truly be without hope.  But now, now brothers and sisters, all of us who proclaim Jesus as Lord and seek to live as He commands us, are heirs.  With that adoption comes great benefit and great responsibility.  Like our Lord before us, you and I are called to die to self.  We are called to quit living for the things we once or the world currently values.  Wealth?  We cannot take it with us.  Power?  Again, it turns to dust with these bodies, if not sooner.  Sex?  As Meatloaf says, it is not built to last.  Drugs or alcohol?  They assuage the pain only for a time and the hangover, ugh!  Whatever it is that we value more than our Lord, we are called to give up.  He is to be our treasure!  He is to be that which we value above all else!  And it is He who will see to the fact that we will be His eternally!
     But we have a responsibility.  We who love the Lord with everything must also strive to love others into knowing and loving the Lord, too.  It matters not whether we like them, admire them, want to hang out with them, are repulsed by them, or want to run screaming from them.  We are called to love them all into a relationship with the Lord who calls us His children.  We are called to invite them to see Him in us and the possibility of Him in them.  Make no mistake, my friends.  This is incredibly hard.  But in a world full of Jezreel’s, Lo-ruhamah’s, and Lo-ammi, no testimony, no witness, no act of love could be more needed.  We live in a dark world, brothers and sisters.  Every day it seems we are driven a bit more into the darkness of the mid night.  And in that bleakness, in that darkness, He has called forth you, and you, and you, and me to show forth that candle that is lit in our hearts, that the world might be drawn to the brilliance and glory of the Groom who calls us all!  We who have lived through the Passion and darkness of the tomb are especially equipped for this job.  He has promised.  We are all now, after all, children of the living God!



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