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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Being a parent is hard no matter what the child’s age. One couple found life with their newborn particularly challenging when the baby would not and could not settle down. The father and mother took turns rocking, feeding, comforting, and then sneaking quietly away from the crib… only to be pulled, sleepily from bed a moment later by cries of distress. This went on all night long. Around 7 AM, watery light streaming through the windows, it was the father’s shift, and as he came creeping silently out of the nursery, a miracle happened: the baby did not cry. The weary mother mumbled, “How did you do it?” Dad replied, “I put the baby in a cab, and told the guy to drive around for a few hours.” Without giving the matter another thought, the mother yawned, “Okay,” and rolled over and went back to sleep,
Yes, being a parent is hard work. As you watch your children grow, you simply hold your breath, and pray. Then in the middle of the night, you find yourself waking up and asking, Is he ok? Is she happy? Did I mess up horribly? Should I start the therapy account now? And as your children grow older, you discover the stakes are even higher. The questions now include, Are they safe? Will they make the right decisions? Can I protect them? And sometimes, did I teach them enough?
Being a parent of a single growing child is hard, so can you imagine what it is to be the divine parent of all the world, “our Father who art in heaven?” All God wants from his creation is the same thing that any good and loving parent wants. He wants his children to thrive and learn and grow into his own loving image, but sometime, God’s rate of success is only as good as yours and mine.
My friends, this morning I would like to invite you to meditate on the word of the prophet Hosea and to consider his image of God as a patient, scorned parent waiting for a prodigal Israel to come home. There is an edge of expectation, discouragement and judgment to be sure, but there is also a wonderful sense of grace and mercy which cannot be denied.
The prophet Hosea wrote his short book of prophecy around 750 BC. It was directed to the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the last years of the reign of King Jeroboam. Assyria and Egypt, Israel’s major enemies, were waiting as wolves at the doors, but oddly, the people weren’t turning to the God of Israel for protection. They were turning instead to the former Canaanite god called Baal. We know little about the prophet Hosea except for the name of his wife, Gomer and his three children. Hosea’s wife was one of the many in Israel who had turned to worship Baal. In spite of this, God instructed his prophet to marry her, and to name his first son, Jezreel, which means God sows, his daughter, Lo Ruhamah, which means ‘no mercy’, and his second son, Lo Ammi, which means, “not my people.” All of this pain, infidelity and conflict within the prophet’s own family was intended to instruct him how to understand God’s anger and frustration with the children of Israel.
As the spokesperson for the Holy One, Hosea’s chief complaint was that Israel and its leaders had broken its covenant with God. They were placing their trust in other gods. For this reason God of Israel was preparing to destroy the nation, which did indeed happen by means of the Assyrians in 721 BC. And so the prophet Hosea spent much time trying to persuade the people of Israel to reform their ways, to return to God.
Now, it would be simplistic to dismiss God as angry. Yet, it is how many people generalize the God of the Old Testament. Frankly, it would be better to describe God’s anger as divine indignation. It is never God’s desire to punish his children when they go astray, or to release his destructive powers upon the world for the sake of sin, or even to facilitate between the two impulses of salvation and judgment simply to make us feel uncomfortable.
God sent his prophet Hosea to tell the nation of Israel to take God’s expectations for their lives’ seriously. Moses described God’s love for the nation of Israel in the book Deuteronomy when he told the people that God did not choose them because of their greatness. He chose them, instead, simply because of his love for them and because of his oath to Abraham. It is true for us today. God’s love is unconditional. He is loyally committed, in spite of human misdeeds. But that doesn’t mean that you should take God for granted and live by the adage that it is easier to get forgiveness than permission.
The book of Hosea reminds us of God’s demanding expectation, and just importantly balances this word with a description of his nurturing love. Consider these three truths drawn from this morning’s lesson.. 1) God always chooses to remember his children in their youthful innocence. 2) The goal of God’s anger is never to destroy, but his anger is meant to restore, and 3) Returning in repentance to God is always a response he is looking for and welcomes.
First of all, Hosea reminds us that God chooses to never forget the innocent years of his child’s life. He remembers how much he meant to that child, and how much that child meant to him. God says, “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.”
In the dark hours of the night, it may be easy to focus only on the present sorrow and most recent challenges. God could do that too- for every one of us, but instead, he chooses to remember you in your childhood innocence. It is like a parent turning the pages of a photo album. It can be both painful, and a blessing. It can be truly joyful to recall the ways in which they once cared for their children from the earliest times, and remember how their children responded to them in love, but it can only be painful to note that you have been neglected or completely forgotten. My friends, it is keeping that picture of a child and their innocence, and your joy ever in focus, that you experience and demonstrate the image of God’s own steadfast love.
Let us now turn to the second characteristic: The purpose of God’s love and anger is never to destroy, but to restore. As Hosea once took back his unfaithful wife Gomer who worshiped the god Baal, so God longed to take back his people Israel. But God was indignant. It is what we feel when our own children disappoint us, filling us with anger. It is the painful part of parenting that makes all-nighters with fussy babies look like a cakewalk. It is when we must allow consequences to take their course. It’s the tough love that parents have to demonstrate toward their children that are on a road to self-destruction. If they want to persist in unhealthy habits they cannot live in the home. If they continue to run with the wrong crowd, they will forfeit their parent’s protection when the police come to the door. As painful at it is, they must learn to experience consequences.
As a parent, it may be tempting, to let go and to wash your hands of a situation. But that is the third characteristic that the prophet Hosea longs to proclaim of God’s love. Returning in repentance to God is always a response he is looking for and welcomes.
God is different than you and me. He feels your frustration and pain, but ultimately he chooses to express his steadfast care to the nation of Israel, willing to once again rescue them from captivity and establishing them in their own land. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? He says. How can I hand you over, O Israel?” He says, “How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim, the destroyed cites near Sodom and Gomorrah? God says instead, “My heart won’t let me do it. For I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” With God’s loving heart, there is always room for repentance and a new beginning.
In a 1961 article in the Reader’s Digest magazine, prison warden Kenyon J. Scudder told this story. “A friend of (mine) happened to be sitting in a railroad coach next to a young man who was obviously depressed. Finally the young man revealed that he was a paroled convict returning from a distant prison. His imprisonment had brought shame to his family, and they had neither visited him nor written often. He hoped, however, that this was only because they were too poor to travel and too uneducated to write. He hoped, despite the evidence, that they had forgiven him. To make it easy for them, however, he had written to them asking that they put up a signal for him when the train passed their little farm on the outskirts of town. If his family had forgiven him, they were to put up a white ribbon in the big apple tree which stood near the tracks. If they didn’t want him to return, they were to do nothing, and he would remain on the train as it traveled onward. As the train neared his hometown, the suspense became so great that he couldn’t bear to look out of his window. He exclaimed, ‘In just five minutes the engineer will sound the whistle indicating our approach to the long bend which opens into the valley I know as home. Will you watch for the apple tree at the side of the track?’ His companion said he would; they exchanged places. The minutes seemed like hours, but then there came the shrill sound of the train whistle. The young man asked, ‘Can you see the tree? Is there a white ribbon?’ Came the reply, ‘I see the tree. I see not one white ribbon, but many. There is a white ribbon on every branch. Son, someone surely does love you.'”
My friends, that is your promise. There is a loving God waiting – who is always more willing to receive, than we are willing to go. But let me assure you, his arms are ever open.
Yes, being a parent is hard work- as challenging as it is to be “our heavenly Father.” But there can be moments of joy and success when we like God choose to remember our children in their youthful innocence. To remember that anger is meant to restore and not destroy, and to practice repentance that is always welcome. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind is Christ Jesus. Amen.