15 November, 2015

Bands of Human Kindness and Cords of Love

A sermon based on Hosea 11.

A friend asked in a coffee shop recently:

How do you reconcile the idea of a loving God with all that happens in the world?

It’s the oldest question in the world. And when we look at the stark horror of what has happened this week in Paris, in Beirut, in southern Japan, in the Bosso district of Niger, and in Baghdad It’s hard to start anyplace but disbelief and sorrow.

How can we reconcile the idea of a loving God with all that has happened in the world?

This is the question, I believe, that the book of Hosea seeks to answer. In fact, I think it’s the question the whole of the Bible seeks to answer. Why do bad things happen, if God really loves us?

Here’s a little background of our text from Hosea this morning. Hosea is one of the “minor” prophets. The major prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel and Daniel. Their books are longer, and their content has broad, even global implications. The minor prophets are smaller (although Hosea and Zechariah are almost as long as Daniel) and the content is more narrowly focused.

Minor prophets are not less inspired than the majors. It’s probably just hard to think of them all as one body of prophets.

Hosea’s ministry happens about 100 years after Elijah, and this places it in the eighth century BCE. So perhaps 760 to 725. This is smack in the time of the Assyrian captivity of the Hebrew people. The Northern Kingdom was hauled off by Sennacherib, and the Southern Kingdom, including Jerusalem, was besieged, but not taken.

The book kind of goes like this:
God tells Hosea to take Gomer as his wife, an unfaithful wife (some translations even say “a wife of whoredom.”). Then they have children. They name them God scatters, No mercy, and Not my people. Uplifting, isn’t it? Then Hosea returns to her former lifestyle.

The overarching metaphor of the text is that Hosea is God and his wife is the people of Israel. It is, by the way, a metaphor that makes my poor feminist heart shudder. On the other hand, that metaphor serves a few points: first, to indicate the idea of covenant between God and the people, second, to underscore the inequality of that relationship between God and Israel (remembering that there was inequality in the marriage relationship during this time), and finally, to understand what happens when the covenant is broken—this book is like a lawsuit against Israel for breaking the marriage covenant between man and wife.

But our text this morning? Found in the 11th chapter, it’s a love song, and even a lament. It is also a promise. Think for a minute how you picture the God of the Hebrew Bible. Many say that vision of God is a graceless, mean, angry God. But this text stands in opposition to that. This imagery is so filled with love, longing, and hope.

And ultimately, answers the question, “How can we reconcile the idea of a loving God with the horrible things that happen in the world?”

So what is love? In our text this morning, the word for love is ahav, not hesed. Hesed is that abiding, covenantal love. But ahav is the word for romantic love and parental love, which means to nurture, or to devote completely to another.

I went to the internet to find some definitions of love.

James Thurber, who wrote The Secret Life of Walter Mitty said, “Love is what you’ve been through with somebody.”

Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, says, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.”

Victor Hugo, who wrote Les Miserables said, “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved—loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.”

But the best definition I found was from Neil Gaiman:

Have you ever been in love? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses, you build up a whole suit of armor, so that nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life. You give them a piece of you. They didn’t ask for it. They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness,…It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It’s a soul-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. I hate love.”

What if God’s love for us makes God that vulnerable? Because I think it does. I think you can hear it in this passage today. These are the ways this love poem goes:

God’s love looks like a mother.

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. “it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”

God’s love doesn’t end.

“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.”

and more

My heart recoils within me; compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

God is saying: http://bit.ly/IqT6zt

Never gonna give you up
Never gonna let you down
Never gonna run around and desert you
Never gonna make you cry
Never gonna say goodbye
Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you

And yes, you’ve just been rickrolled. God’s love is like rickrolling. That is when you are inexplicably tricked into going to the youtube video of Rick Astley singing “Never gonna give you up.”

God’s love is found in the bonds of human love.

I have been thinking about verse 4 all week. “I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.” This may be the most perplexing verse I have ever read in Hebrew. It literally says, “With cords of humanity, I drew (or pulled, or led) them with bonds of love (ahav).” One way to look at it is that God yokes us, like oxen, with cords of love appropriate for humans. Or another way, is that with the bond between humans, God has led us, and that bond is love.

Which, for me, brings us back to our question. “How can we reconcile the idea of a loving God with the horrible things that happen in the world?”

If the terrible things that happen in the world make us doubt God’s existence and God’s love, then shouldn’t it be the wonderful things that happen to us through the love of others that makes us convinced that God loves us?

And isn’t that what God is saying in this text? You know that you are loved because of the love you share with others?

As you know, today is a stewardship Sunday. Our focus today is on CARE, which is precisely the love that we share with one another in this congregation that proves to us that God loves us.

We do it through our hugs and handshakes during the greeting time of the worship service.
We do it through notes and birthday cards to other congregants
We do it through visiting
We do it through participating with our children and adults in Sunday school, Wednesday night suppers, special worship services, the Circle meetings and Men’s breakfast.

We do it anytime we kindly CONNECT with one another.

And we know that we are loved through the love we give and the love we receive.

May it ever be.

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