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Unrelenting Love

Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church
Eugene, Oregon
February 15, 1998

Since Valentine's Day was yesterday, I decided to share with you a love story, an incredible story of amazing love, a biblical story found in the first three chapters of Hosea.  Rather than read it for you, however, I'd like to just tell the story. It is a compelling but rather unusual, indeed some would even say bizarre, story.

In northern Israel in the midst of that infamous eighth century which we have been exploring for the last two weeks, there was a devote man of God who received a personal call from on high.  This is not unusual, even though it may not be a part of our personal experience.  Gary Larson has a carton depicting a man sitting in his easy chair next to his ringing telephone.  He picks it up and says 'hello.'  The next frame shows an old man with a long white beard sitting on a throne in the clouds, talking on the phone.  God says, 'Hello, this is God.  Is this 555-7382?'  'No,' says the man, 'this is 555-7328.'  'Sorry,' says God, 'wrong number.'  Click.  As I recall, the caption under the cartoon reads, 'For the rest of his life, Joe Lebowitz told his friends that he had received a call from God.'

I do not pretend to know how the prophets of old received their messages from God but Amos tells us that he was out caring for his sheep and sycamore trees when God called him.  Isaiah reports a vision of being in the presence of the heavenly hosts.  Moses heard God speak in the fire and thunder on the mountain, Elijah out of the stillness.   Joseph received his message from God in a dream, Mary from an angel.  Hosea does not give us the details, the book simply says that the Lord spoke to him.

As I have indicated before, there was a lot going on in the 8th century which was of great concern to God.  The wealthy were taking land from the poor.  Rulers took advantage of their power.  Religious leaders were taking bribes from anyone.  Images of foreign gods were brought into the temple.  The nation relied on military alliances rather than God for security.  And to top it all off, there was the growing threat of Assyria which had a habit of destroying anyone and everyone that got in its way. So we can imagine the kind of message that God might have given to Hosea.

What does God say to Hosea?  'Time to get married, Hosea!'

 'Really, God?  Now?  Do you think the time is right?'

 'Yes, Hosea, I want you to find a wife, settle down and have kids.'

 'But who should I marry, God?'

 'A woman of the street, Hosea.'

 'A woman off the street?  Just anyone I find?'

 'No, not anyone woman, a street worker.'

 'You want that I should marry a construction woman?'

 'No, Hosea, a woman OF the street, you know, a lose woman.'

 'What, there are women lose on the street?  Where did they escape from?'

 'A prostitute, Hosea!  A harlot, a whore.'

 'Lord, no, what would the neighbors think!  That's immoral, unconscionable!'

'That's the point, Hosea.  I want you to show your neighbors how immoral and unconscionable they have become.  Take a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for my people have become a people of whoredom, forsaking me and turning to other gods.'

It is a rather shocking command of God, so shocking and morally repulsive in fact, that many leading Christians and scholars, including Martin Luther, have maintained that it never happened, that this was a parable and not an historical event.  I would argue, however, that it is precisely the inconceivable nature of the story that makes it authentic, for who else but God  could conceive of such a thing?  Prophets often acted out their messages.  Jeremiah carried a yoke on his shoulders to symbolize that the people would be taken into slavery.  Isaiah went naked for 3 years   to show the nation that their alliance with Egypt for security would leave them naked before the advancing Assyrian army.

Thus Hosea takes Gomer, a harlot, for a wife to show how the people are playing harlot by their actions, their false worship and injustices, entering into unholy relationships apart from God.

Hosea and Gomer have 3 children.  The first, a son, Hosea names Jezreel.  Jezreel--the place kings and princes were massacred, where rulers willfully spilled the blood of their own people in their thirst for power.  To name a child Jezreel in those days would be like naming a child today Auschwitz.  It was a way of both reminding people of their bloody past and pointing to their likely future.
The second child, a daughter, Hosea names Not Pity, for God will have no pity on this people.  The third he names Not My People, a reversal of the heart of Hebrew identity from the Torah, 'I will be your God and you will be my people.'  Just the presence of these children playing on the street--going to school with the other kids, appearing at the temple--was a daily reminder of God's condemnation of the nation according to Hosea.

Hear what Hosea says:
Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed.
My people consult a piece of wood, and their divining rod gives them oracles. For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have played the whore, forsaking their God.  (4:2, 12)

Therefore, they will be sent into exile:
They shall not remain in the land of the LORD; but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and in Assyria they shall eat unclean food.  (9:3)

And yet, God cannot stop loving Israel.  God is like a parent who recalls the days of childhood, and so God laments:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.
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.  (11:1-4)

You see, love is greater than anger.  Remember Paul's great poem of love in I Corinthians?
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  (13:4-7)

Judgment is never the last word of God, never.  God says through Hosea to his wayward children:
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?  My heart recoils within me; my 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.  (11:8-9)

As destitute, despicable, deplorable, depraved, deprived, defiled, decrepit, delinquent, decadent, dreadful, disastrous, dishonest, disobedient as the people of God are, God still loves them, and, God still loves us.

I am not entirely sure of the significance, but note that the image Hosea gives of this loving God that will not let go of us is a feminine image.  God is like those, says Hosea, who 'lift infants to their cheeks' and bend over to feed them.  Now it may be in this day of women's liberation and men's enlightenment that fathers share the childrearing role equally with mothers, but Hebrew society of the eighth century was hardly known for its sexual equality!  It was the woman's job to 'bend down' and feed the kids.  Further, how does 'compassion' grow 'warm and tender' as stated in 11:8?  The Hebrew root for compassion is womb, thus the image of God's compassion growing warm and tender is a very maternal image.

Hosea cannot conceive of a God that would completely reject one she loved so much, because this is the child God gave birth to and maternal love is stronger than paternal anger.

Hosea's view of God is much like that portrayed in the movie 'A River Runs through It' from a few years ago.  I resonated with the movie because it is the story of two preacher's kids, a good son and a bad son, just like me and my brother.  I was of course the good one!  The good son leads a good, clean life while his brother hangs around the wrong kind of people, gambles, gets drunk and gets into fights.  And yet, in the realm of God, portrayed as the river, and religion, illustrated by fly fishing, it is the bad son who is the perfection of grace.  That is God's love, love so great that it embraces the wayward son with open arms when he returns from his prodigal journeys.

God commands Hosea:
The LORD said to me again, "Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods....
So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer of barley and a measure of wine.  (3:1-2)

 Love what kind of a woman?  One like Gomer who has betrayed her husband.  Interestingly, this is the first mention of love in the story, after she had left him, returned to her harlot ways.  Then God says, 'Go love that woman.'  Thus we see that Hosea's love for the unfaithful Gomer is the image used for God's faithful love of the people.  You see, this story is not really about Hosea's love for Gomer, it is about God's love for Israel--and for us.  It's God's love story.

This story may not teach us a whole lot about marriage, indeed, I think it would be foolish and dangerous to view Hosea's relationship with Gomer as in anyway instructive for marital relationships.  There has been a lot of speculating that President Clinton's continued popularity in spite of the charges against him are not because people believe he is innocent, but because most people are hesitant to cast stones in such personal matters.  With the difficulty of maintaining faithfulness in marriages today, the last thing we need is Hosea and Gomer as a role model.

Yet this story does teach us something about love and relationships, namely, that God's love is most fully known within our relationships.  I John we read:
In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.  (4:10-12)

Marriage, of course, is not the only relationship in which we experience God's love.  Erich Fromm, the great psychoanalyst, says that  one cannot be truly in love with another without loving all of humanity, 'all that is alive', for it is in the act of loving that unites us with life itself.  [Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving.]

We sometimes view God the Creator as acting unilaterally, alone.  But that is not the biblical picture.  In Genesis 1 we are told that God says, let US make humankind in OUR image after OUR likeness.  John 1 says that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.  All things were created through the Word.  It is in and through divine relationship that the world is brought into being.  It is when we, through our relationships, whatever they may be, create in love that which we can not create alone, that we experience God's presence in our lives.

Being the day after Valentines Day, I want to say an additional word about the marital relationship.

To our married people present today and those who are preparing for or contemplating marriage, I would offer that the key to a happy and successful marriage is to deepen your relationship.  Strive on a daily basis to deepen your relationship with your loved ones.  This is so elemental, so obvious, and yet so often ignored or forgotten.  'I don't know what happened, we just seemed to grow apart.  One morning I woke up and there was a wall there between us and I didn't know how to break through it.'  A strong relationship is not one without walls or without valleys and hazards, but rather one which learns how to open doors and to build bridges.  I know, I've been there.

There was a time in our marriage when Judy and I were separated by a wall as big as the Great Wall of China.  Let me tell you, it takes more than one to build a wall that big and it takes more than two to tear it down.  Only this was not a wall we built, rather it was built years before by long, forgotten, sexual abuse only to resurface in our marriage like a giant mammoth of the past brought back to life through some horrible genetic experiment.  Some of you have heard Judy speak of her discovery of that horror from her childhood and the consequences it had in our lives.

I am not the least bit ashamed to say that we sought help and I am not talking about one or two meetings with a marriage counselor, but two or more years of hard, dedicated work.  From our experience I have grown to deeply appreciate trained therapists who know how to help people heal. For those who have wondered whether or not they should seek professional help for their marriage or who may face a situation like ours sometime in the furture, let me say this:  If you broke your leg, would you hesitate to see a doctor?  If your house is on fire do you hesitate to call 911?  Why wait until your marriage is dead before asking for a prescription to fix it?  At that point, it is a little tough!

Some couples who wait a little long to seek help remind me of the coroner called to testify on the cause of death of a victim.  The lawyer for the defendant, attempting to cast doubt on the coroner's ability, asked him if he had taken the deceased's pulse.  'No'  said the coroner.  'Did you check to see if he was breathing?' asked the confident lawyer.  'No' replied the coroner.  'Did you listen for a heartbeat?' shot back the lawyer hot on the trail of his prey.  'No' said the coroner rather coolly.  'In other words,' said the lawyer moving in for the kill, 'you did nothing to establish that the deceased was in fact dead at the time of your examination!'   'Well,' answered the coroner calmly, 'his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar, and for all I know, the presumed deceased could be out practicing law somewhere.'

I am not suggesting you call a therapist the first time you have an argument.  But if your relationship is having difficulty breathing, it may be time to invest in a thorough check-up.  It just might prevent a post-mortem analysis of your marriage in a courtroom.

Do you know what we got out of our investment in our marriage?  We got more than a few good years together.    We received the blessing that exceeds any dollar amount--the blessing of a loving family and the two most beautiful children in the world.  I am proud and not the least but embarrassed to say that our children are not just the result of a romantic evening or two, they are the result of years of commitment, hard work and a love that would not let go.

You know when parents adopt a child, it takes more than nine months of work and typically costs about what you might pay to buy a new car.  I wish that every child in this world would be born to parents willing to make that kind of commitment so that no child should go through life with names like Not Pitied, or Abusive Parent, or Custody Casualty or Drug Baby or No One Cares.

To announce the restoration of God's people, God proclaims through the prophet: I will have pity on Not Pitied and will say to Not My People, 'you are my people' (Hosea 2:23).   This is divine love, that we, in our relationships, find a place where we are loved and create a place for every child to belong.



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