It’s already been a long weekend and I’m only halfway through it. I was trying to hobble my way over to the lections last night, past Rick Warren’s poorly reasoned “My Apology to Christian Women,” on past this tweet:
Listen carefully to the music of your heart. Find your unique rhythm and simply begin to dance!
to Hosea, which is the Old Testament lesson for this morning. I’ve been reading this book with the Women’s Bible Study at my church for a few weeks. It’s stressful, as you know, and I’m pretty sure Ancient Israel would have appreciated some kind of apology, especially for tone, from God and his prophet, Hosea, for having articulated his complaint against them in this visceral and insulting way. God, especially, lacks all the winsome requirements of modern discourse. Not only is his tone spectacularly “unkind” in the current usage of that word, but he quickly goes to the “you’re literally Hitler” motif—what’s that called? Godwin’s Law? (heh) I’m pretty sure that if God got on Twitter and tweeted out this book, line by line, every single Christian today would meltdown on an epic scale.
Just to recap, in case you haven’t cracked open ye olde holy scriptures recently, (paging Rick Warren…and basically everyone), Israel, upon settling into the Land that the Lord her God had given her, decided that worshiping the gods of the people who lived there was at least as interesting as offering sacrifices and praise to the Lord. It’s not that they didn’t “worship” God, it’s just that on the way home from the place God put his Name, it was expedient and sensible to also stop at various other shrines and sacrifice a child or two along with pouring libations on the ground and depositing other kinds of offerings in the nooks and crannies of their inheritance. The all-or-nothing nature of Temple worship didn’t really suit the people whom the Lord had called out from all the nations around, to worship him alone.
And so, throughout Hosea, God repeatedly refers to Israel as a “whore”—seriously, not my word. It’s the one given by God himself. It’s not very nice, but it is, nevertheless, the proper term for a person who cheats, who is treacherous. If you’re grasping for some way to describe someone who promises to faithfully love only one person, but then goes out and sleeps with every passerby, even offering money to get those people to be with him, or her, the word that God provides does rather fit the circumstance.
In anger and jealous sorrow, in chapter one, God takes the children of Hosea and his unfaithful wife, Gomer, and makes them into spiritual signposts for what it’s been like to embrace Israel as his covenant people. The three babes are called Jezreel—that blood-soaked valley of ungodly vengeance—and No Mercy, and Not My People. And some people think the Bible is hard to understand.
The problem with idolatry, you might have noticed, is that it creeps in unawares. Like any other disease, it happens to you when you’re not paying very close attention. You set out to do something good, but because you don’t know what “good” even is, and you don’t want God to be the one to tell you because that’s embarrassing and painful, you end up binding yourself to the very thing you were trying to run away from—death, alienation from everyone who matters most to you, broken things, lies, devouring envy, lust, small meanness towards your true friends, self-justifying bitterness. All these sorts of intimate sins don’t seem like that big a deal in the moment. After all, you’ve been hurt by a lot of bad people. You can’t be expected to do any more than you’re already doing. Life is so hard.
And that’s true. Life is hard. But it is hard because disobedience and self-worship make the natural and spiritual world into a smoke-filled, smoggy, complicated misery. Each person committing to love herself more isn’t good, but it seems like it will be, and so that’s what we’re going with.
The problem is that no one can be satisfied with anything that isn’t truly good:
They shall eat, but not be satisfied;
they shall play the whore, but not multiply,
because they have forsaken the Lord
to cherish whoredom, wine, and new wine,
which take away the understanding.
The more you take your mincing steps down that idolatrous path, the more grasping and frustrated you become. As you go, you become less and less able to understand why things are so bad, why you’re so unhappy. You can’t see the problem or the solution. So you just keep going. Eventually, you start sticking Pride flags everywhere, because in your pursuit of “goodness,” your foolish heart has been so darkened that you can’t see that you’ve embraced the deepest and most terrible lie of all.
It’s interesting to me that in English we can say that we “embrace” certain ideas. It’s such an intimate term, as close and near as the best kinds of love. Usually, though, when you say that someone has “embraced” something, it’s because you wish they wouldn’t have done that. Whatever it is—because it’s a thing or an idea and not a Person—is destroying them. Yesterday, I was at church, puttering in the kitchen, and a man who often does wander in, came to see what he could get. He is gaunt and always belligerent. He doesn’t eat much because he’s not hungry because he drinks so much beer. He always says lewd and inappropriate things to me. He is persistently desirous for me to know that he’s actually a good person. Once someone in our church had to drag him out of the street where he had fallen down, so drunk he couldn’t make it all the way across without stumbling. He came back later to resume the discussion of his own personal righteousness and how he doesn’t “need” God. He sneers at those, like me, who say they do. Yesterday he took a map of the land of Israel and a muffin and went away again, angry with me for some reason. He has “embraced” everything that is bad for him. Not just new wine, or rather 100 oz cans of beer, but all the lies that go with it.
In chapter five God says that Israel is like “one who moves the landmark.” That’s a person who quietly makes it harder for other people to enjoy their inheritance by taking it away altogether. Not only does the mover of the landmark lie to himself, he lies to his neighbor, and cheats him. I imagine most people, in the time of Jesus, would think of Matthew as a mover of the landmark. It doesn’t seem like a very mean thing to call someone, but it’s on the trajectory of being literally Hitler. It’s the treachery, the selfish gain at the expense of others, the playing God, the grasping for anything you get, the great wall of sin you erect to keep out the Word of God.
So, in chapter five, God promises to come like a lion to tear the people apart. Which brings us to our text for this morning:
“Come, let us return to the Lord;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;
his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
as the spring rains that water the earth.”
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes early away.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets;
I have slain them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
If you read the whole book, you know that God quickly overturns his verdict on Israel. He can barely contain himself. He almost immediately makes Not My People into My People, and No Mercy into Mercy, planting Jezreel back in the land in time for the rains. In two days—barely two days when you count by sunset. The sun slips down over the horizon just as his body is laid in that silent tomb and the stone slips into its grove and the people, throats parched with grief, number their steps back to whatever home means now. They sit. It will be an eternity. One long day that never ends. That’s what grief wrought out of the destroying ruin of sin feels like—forever. But it is barely a day and a long interminable night. As soon as the sun soars back up over the horizon on Sunday morning, as sure as the dawn is his going out.
As the spring rains that water the earth, he walks out alive, whole, triumphant, to bind up your wounds, to drag you out of the pit that you’re currently digging for yourself, to pull you out of the road before you’re destroyed. You couldn’t do it because you don’t even know what good even is. But he did, and does.
Look at what happened to Matthew. Not my people was turned into My People. No Mercy was made into loving-kindness, into praise, into following Jesus all the way to the cross and the tomb and beyond. Perhaps even into the pew this morning. Not to explain how good you are, but how much you want to embrace the Person who came to save you.
Hope to see you there!