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A Divine Marriage

Sermon - 7/29/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Hosea 1:2-10

Back in June, I began a little "mini-series" on the first prophets of Israel, beginning with Elijah, who though not actually the very first prophet, is often considered the father of the prophetic tradition as a spokesperson for God.  As apart from, and often opposed to, the King.  After Elijah came Elisha, and then Amos, who we looked at a couple weeks ago.  He was the first prophet for whom we have a book that carries his name (the book of Amos, the first of the classical prophets).  

Today I want to look at Hosea, who followed Amos (probably by a decade or so), in Northern Israel, in the time when Israel was divided into two nations -- Israel in the North and Judah in the South (with the capital in Jerusalem).  

Hosea was actually the last of the prophets to appear in that Northern nation, and we'll come back to that in just a moment.  What I wanted to point out for now is to not be confused with the order in which the prophets occur in your Bible, because they're not in chronological order.  In fact, the prophetic books of the Bible are more arranged by order of length than they are by chronology.  

So Amos is the first, Hosea second, then comes Micah and Isaiah, who were active in the Southern kingdom of Judah.  Hosea, I think, is one of the more fascinating of these prophets to study for several notable reasons:

First of all, the book of Hosea contains more biographical information than perhaps any of the others, save for perhaps Jeremiah.  

Secondly, the life of Hosea, narrated in the first three chapters of the book, is inseparable from the message of Hosea.  They're very closely intertwined.

Third, of all the prophets, Hosea (I think) is probably the most creative, the most imaginative when it comes to describing God.  He speaks of God as a farmer, as a berry-picker, as a bird catcher, as a physician, a lion, a mother bear robbed of her cubs, as a citrus tree, as the spring-time rain.  And perhaps the most bizarre, he compares God to that of maggots and dry rot!  I kid you not, you can look it up yourself, chapter 5, verse 12 (hopefully that'll get you to open your Bibles J).

Fourth, the structure of the book of Hosea is very illustrative.  There is the word of doom (judgment), followed by a word of hope.  Then more doom, and then hope.  And then doom.  And then hope.  And that in itself tells us something -- that the authentic message of God never ends in doom.  There is always hope.

Fifth, the message of Hosea, paradoxically, is the last message to Israel that survives.  Shortly after the ministry of Hosea, Assyria comes in and defeats the nation, carries off the people of Israel.  They are what we refer to now as the 10 lost tribes of Israel.  They disappear from the face of history.

And so it's the editors of the South, Judah (Jerusalem), who preserve the message of Hosea (as well as that of Amos), presumably so that the remaining descendents of Abraham and Sarah (the Hebrew people) might learn from these prophets and from the mistakes of their Northern relations.

So with that in mind, let's review that story of Hosea and his message and then reflect a little bit on why that matters for us today.

[Editors note:  Dan did not read the passage from the Bible, but it is included below for reference]

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’ 3So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

4 And the Lord said to him, ‘Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. 5On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.’

6 She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. 7But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.’

8 When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. 9Then the Lord said, ‘Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.’

10  Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people’, it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’

 

First of all, the story.  Rather than read it, I'd like to just tell it to you, perhaps in the way that it was cast down orally from generation to generation before it was composed in its written form.  The story goes something like this:

Hosea, a godly, devout man, came of age to be married.  God said to him:  "Hosea, I don't want you to marry just any woman, I want you to marry someone special".  Hosea said "That sounds great, God!  Every man wants to marry someone special".

"Yes, Hosea, I want you to truly have a special wife".

"Well God, will she be pretty?"

"Oh, yes Hosea, all the men will find her very attractive".

"And God, will she bring me lots of children?"

"Yes, Hosea, she will bring you lots of children from lots of men who find her very attractive".

"Say what?  God?"

"Hosea, I want you to marry a prostitute".

"A what?"

"A prostitute, Hosea, a harlot.  A promiscuous woman.  I want you to marry a whore".

"You're kidding, God.  I mean, come on, is this some kind of divine humor?"

"No, Hosea, it's a divine marriage.  You will be the faithful husband and you will have a faithless wife".

"Uh, God, whatever happened to family values?  You know, one man, one woman?"

"Oh, that's right, thanks for reminding me, Hosea, you shall have a family.  You will have three children.  You won't be there father, biologically speaking, but don't worry -- DNA tests for paternity won't come yet for another 2,700 years.  So no one else will know, it'll just be between me and you.  And, I've got all of their names picked out for you -- great names, if I do say so myself".

"Well, great, God, I can hardly wait to hear them".

"So here you go, Hosea.  The first child you will name Jezreel".

"Jezreel?!  You mean the name of that town where Jezebel was thrown off of the tower and splattered on the sidewalk and the dogs licked up her blood?!  That place where Jehu massacred the seventy sons of Ahab?  That Jezreel?"

"Yeah, Hosea, that Jezreel".

"Well, God, I think I'd rather name my children something like 'Abu Ghraib' or 'Hiroshima' J".

"Well, those are good names, but they might work later, not now".

"God, you said three children, so who comes next?"

"Ah, the next one is better yet, Hosea.  You shall name your second child -- you ready? -- 'Not Pity'".

"Not Pity?!  What kind of name is that?"

"It's the perfect name, Hosea.  Don't you see -- my people are faithless like your wife.  They shall end up like Jezreel, and I will have no pity on them".

"You call this a divine marriage, God?".

"You bet, and I'm saving the best for last".

"Oh, God, I can hardly wait.  I suppose you'll want my last child to be something like, oh, 'Not My People'".

"Oh, that's a great idea, Hosea.  Actually, I was going to name them the "Huskies" -- same thing J.  But I like 'Not My People' better".

"Imagine calling your children to dinner -- "Bloody Massacre, Not Pity, Not My People, time for dinner!".  What will your neighbors think?"

"Yeah, God, that's what's got me worried -- what will my neighbors think?".

"Don't worry about that, Hosea, they'll think you're nuts.  But they won't forget, either.  There will come a day -- a day of judgment -- and they will remember.  And they will say 'You know, maybe that Hosea wasn't so crazy after all.  Maybe he was trying to tell us something about how we abandoned God, and now God has abandoned us'.

"Oh, God, you wouldn't really do that, would you?"

"Hosea, remember, I told you I was saving the best for last".

"Well, God, after Jezreel, Not Pity, and Not My People, I'm not sure I want to hear it".

"Hosea, I want you to go then and to find your wife and to catch her in adultery".

"Don't tell me, God, I know how this is going to end.  She gets what she deserves -- we'll stone her to death".

"No, Hosea, not quite.  It's not what she deserves, she will get what I desire.  You will reclaim your unfaithful wife and you will love her".

"Now, God, not really, you've got to be kidding now".

"No, really, Hosea.  For in so doing, you will reveal my unending love for my people.  And 'Not Pity' shall be pitied.  And 'Not My People' will be my people again".

"God, I've got to tell you, this is one crazy marriage".

"No, Hosea, it's a divine marriage".  

 

That's the story of Hosea and Gomer, word for word, right out of your Bible J.  Well, I forget, you have the revised version in the pews, its been shortened a little bit.  But if you read it, and I encourage you to do so, I think you'll pretty much find that that's the story that is told there.

It's a great story, it's a powerful story.  I do want to make one disclaimer, a troubling aspect of the story.  Why is it that women so often in Biblical stories come out on the short end?  You know, Adam and Eve both eat from the tree of knowledge, but who gets the blame?  Two people caught in adultery -- by definition it takes two to tango -- and which one gets dragged before Jesus to be stoned?  Where's the man?  You see, the truth of the matter is there is a bias against women inherent in much of the Bible.  And so Hosea is pure and spotless -- the knight in shining armor -- while Gomer is presented as this vile creature as if prostitution were solely a female crime in which men have no part.

Hello.  Before you pass judgment on unfaithful Gomer, consider there were two types of prostitution in ancient societies.  There is cultic prostitution, in which enslaved women were placed in service of male-dominated fertility cults.  And there's economic prostitution, in which impoverished women are placed in service of a male-dominated society.

We are not told which is the case for Gomer, but regardless, Gomer is as much a victim here as she is a perpetrator.  Perhaps more so.

Of course the truth of Hosea is not that he had this peculiar marriage, but that his marriage was a metaphor for the unfaithfulness of the nation.  And the details of that unfaithfulness are described in the succeeding chapters which provide the bulk of the message -- the oracles of Hosea, beginning in chapter four.

Like Amos before him, Hosea is critical of those who abuse their power and wealth and take advantage of the vulnerable.  Unlike Amos, it's not about economic or distributive justice as much as it is about the lack of faithfulness of the nation, as illustrated by this marriage.  And the lack of knowledge of God, which results in (Hosea says):  swearing, lying, stealing, adultery, and murder.  And that's just the first two verses of the first oracle.  

Whereas Amos blames the government and the economic elite for the injustices against the people, Hosea blames the rulers for relying on military alliances for their protection, rather than God (does that sound relevant today?).  And the greatest blame for Israel's faithlessness and ignorance of God, Hosea places on the church.  The religious establishment of his day.

We read in that oracle in chapter four:

Yet let no one contend,
   and let none accuse,
   for with you is my contention, O priest.

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
   because you have rejected knowledge,
   I reject you from being a priest to me.

Then in the next oracle:

Hear this, O priests!
   Give heed, O house of Israel!
Listen, O house of the king!
   For the judgment pertains to you;

Note that order:  Priest, house of Israel, King.  It's very clear:  political leaders come after the religious leaders, who bear the greatest responsibility for the failures of the nation.

And thus for Hosea, the solution is not better government, it's better religion.  

The only scripture Jesus quotes two times is Hosea 6:6:  "For I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice.  The knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings".

And this is the truly radical, hard-to-hear message of Hosea that is relevant in every age and never more so than this:  that all the problems we see around us -- it's not up to someone else to fix, it's not up to the government to fix.  It's up to us.  

Remember the first page of the U.S. Constitution -- call it to mind, I bet you can see it.  Three bold words at the top of the page.  What does it say?  "We the people".  We are the ones responsible.  We are the ones in charge.  

The message of Hosea, you see, is precisely that -- we are responsible for the way things are.  We are the ones called to make a difference.  

Joan Chittister, a Catholic theologian, popular author and preacher, sums it up powerfully in an article we read on Tuesday morning in our Sojourners peace with justice group.  In that article, she makes a couple of historical references of which I'm not familiar, but you'll get the gist of it.  She says:

"Hosea lived in a period and a place where the priests of the Temple themselves had become tamed and fattened on the spoils of the system.  The temple had gone political.  It was the word of the King, not the word of God, that mattered.  It was sacrifice, cult, and culture that mattered, not insight, wisdom, and the justice of the Jewish Tsedakah (righteousness).  It was the practice of religion, not the righteousness of religion, that counted now.

And who doesn't know that it is no small thing to see a church go political.  To discover that pastors prefer full collections to full homilies.  To find out that ministers preach the civil religion more than they do the Christian religion.  To come face to face with the fact that it is the political church that puts the flag of the country in the sanctuary, and the yellow ribbons on the crucifix in the cathedral.  It is the political church that buys its tax-exempt status with silence, and holds prayers breakfasts instead of protests while civil rights legislation is eroding away.

It is a totally politicized church that cedes the teaching of the just war theory to the Commander in Chief of the country while a physician, a mother, goes to jail for having a conscience about it and teaches more about conscience in one fell swoop than the church did in six months.

But there is no Hosea now.  There's only you and I.  And the message to a domesticated church is yet unheard, and unjust wars go on being justified.  So, whatever the cost to sojourners everywhere, we have no choice.  We must go on.

 

Sounds like something that could have been written last week.  Dr. Chittister preached that message in the summer of 1991.  Such are the words of prophets -- they ring eternally true.

Finally, this is the eternal truth from Hosea that is the ultimate source of our hope:  in the climactic passage of the book, and one of my favorites of all scripture (Hosea 11), God reveals (through the prophet) the depths of divine love:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
   and out of Egypt I called my son.
2The more I called them,
   the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
   and offering incense to idols.

3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim
[Another name for Israel] to walk,
   I took them up in my arms;
   but they did not know that I healed them.
4I 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.

8How can I give you up, Ephraim?
   How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah (Sodom)?
   How can I treat you like Zeboiim (Gomorrah)?
My heart recoils within me;
   my compassion
[remember the Hebrew word for compassion comes from "womb"] grows warm and tender.

9I 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.

 

This very definite, positive, feminine image for God replaces and supplants the negative portrayal of the faithless Gomer, with this faithful, maternal God, who, as James Weldon Johnson proclaims in his great poem about creation "bends over her people like a mammy bending over her baby".

This is the God, Hosea tells us, who will not, can not, give up on her people.  It is the knowledge of this loving God that literally can change, must change, how we relate to one another.

At the conclusion of his book God's Politics (I apologize to those reading the book -- I'm going to read the end of it, close your ears if you don't want to hear), Jim Wallis tells the story of Lisa Sullivan.  A very dynamic, energetic, hope-filled young African-American woman that was part of the Sojourners community in Washington D.C.  She died at the age of 40 from a rare heart ailment.  

He tells how Lisa would get angry when anyone would say "Where are the leaders?  Where is the Martin Luther King of today to lead us?"  And she would reply "We are the ones we have been waiting for".

So, concludes Wallis:  "Lisa's words are the commission I want to use to conclude this book.  It's a calling the prophets knew and a lesson learned by every person of faith and conscience who has been used to build movements of spiritual and social change.  It's a calling that is quite consistent with the virtue of humility because it's not about taking ourselves too seriously but rather about taking the commission seriously.  It's a commission that can only be fulfilled by very human means.  People, who because of faith and hope, believe that the world can be changed.  And it is that very belief that changes the world.  

And if not us, who will it be?  After all, we are the ones we have been waiting for".

Hosea could not have said it better.

 


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