20 Jun Majoring on the Minors: Hosea
Majoring on the Minors: Hosea
Hosea 2:16-20 and 11:1-9
June 16, 2019
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
This morning we begin a sermon series on the Minor Prophets. Let me ask, who recalls ever hearing a sermon preached from the book of Nahum? What about Haggai? Any takers for Zephaniah? By the end of the summer, we’re going to change that. Why, you might ask, a series on the Minor Prophets? After all, the name itself seems to imply that they’re not very important. Let me say right off the bat, don’t let the word “minor” fool you. These twelve books at the end of the Old Testament are referred to as the Minor Prophets because of their length, not their significance. Unlike the four major prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel—the Minor Prophets are short enough to fit onto a single Hebrew scroll. I have been looking forward to this series for a number of years, and I think you are in for a big surprise at both the relevance and the contemporary punch that is delivered by the messages in these twelve short books.
We begin with Hosea which surely has to be a front-runner as one of the strangest stories in all of scripture. It’s strange to modern-day ears because the entire book is a dramatic metaphor. It starts with God directing Hosea to do a most unexpected thing: the prophet is to marry a prostitute and start a family with her, and this new family becomes a living symbol of Israel’s spiritual adultery towards God.
Hosea does what God says and marries a woman named Gomer. If anyone is looking for baby names, this is one to mark off your list. Hosea and Gomer have three children in quick succession. The first is a son named Jezreel which means “God will sow.” The second is a daughter, Lo-Ruhama, which means, “no mercy.” And the third is another son, Lo-ammi, which means, “not my people.” Those are three more baby names you might want to leave off your list. So, we’ve got Hosea and Gomer and their three little kids running around: God Will Sow, No Mercy, and Not My People.
But the main symbol in the book is the marriage itself. Gomer, as a prostitute married to Hosea, is a symbol of Israel in her idolatry. She is a picture of a heart that has turned away from God. So, when Hosea talks about Gomer, it is really God talking about Israel in her apostasy which is relevant to anyone in anytime and place whose heart has strayed from the Lord.
As we consider the strange premise of this book, the first question we need to ask is, what has Israel done that is so bad as to warrant a metaphor as shocking as a Jewish prophet marrying a prostitute? Hosea tells us that Israel has made compromises in every area of her common life: political, economic, and religious. “For their mother has played the whore; she who conceived them has acted shamefully. For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink’” (2:5).
The lovers mentioned here, the men Gomer has been sleeping with, are pagan nations that Israel has been forming various alliances with in exchange for stuff. Some of the stuff is political and military protection. Some of it is the commodities of the day—bread and water, wool and flax. Israel wants these things so badly that she abandons God and goes out, late at night, to sell her body for it. That’s the bargain Israel has made. Israel gives and Israel gets.
Hosea wants us to understand that this is how sin in all its forms works. Sin, or idolatry, which simply means putting other things before God—always makes you pay. Sin costs you something. Our age and culture are just as adept at lying about the costs of sin as Israel was in Hosea’s time. But in Gomer the truth comes uncomfortably close. Gomer valued her prostitution and what she reaped from it more than she valued Hosea’s patient and faithful love, and she was willing to pay whatever she had to in order to get what she wanted. The problem is, bargains like this always go sideways. Sin, idolatry, that thing we put before God, it always asks more of us than we want to pay—and it never keeps up its end of the bargain. We end up paying more than we thought we agreed to and sin does not deliver. The satisfaction doesn’t last. The peace and contentment are elusive. The relationship or job or new gadget or recognition doesn’t fulfill our expectations.
The irony is that everything that Israel was chasing after in her whoredom with other nations was actually stuff that God was able and ready to supply. “She did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal” (2:8). Israel had sold her body for grain and wine, but didn’t she know that God alone owns all the grain? That God himself is the great winemaker? God is the giver of all good gifts, but somewhere along the way Israel thought they came from the false Canaanite god Baal. So, Israel takes the gifts that are from God and uses them to worship a pagan idol.
Hosea gives Gomer everything she needs. He protects her and cares for her and takes her shopping, and out on Friday night for a date. He does the dishes and takes out the garbage, and she thinks it all comes from the parade of anonymous men she sleeps with every night. And it’s not just a matter of giving credit to the wrong person. She actually takes the gifts Hosea has given her and uses them to lure and impress more men, to find more lovers that she can sell her body to.
And God finally says no. This cannot stand. God must put a stop to this, and we hardly need an explanation as to why. “Therefore, I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will take away my wool and my flax which were to cover her nakedness. I will uncover her shame in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her out of my hand” (2:9-10).
All the strange men, all the one-night stands, they are going to turn on Gomer. And laugh at her; turn their backs on her and want nothing to do with her. That’s what happens when we doggedly persist in having our own way. What we pursue in place of God will eventually devour us. We will be abandoned to it, and there is a loneliness that comes with that abandonment that is crushing.
Here’s the thing: when the judgment of Gomer’s adultery comes, it makes total sense. So often people talk about judgment as if God is unreasonable to judge sin. There’s sort of an attitude of “How could God?” Yet, when it’s laid out in front of us as vividly as it is in Hosea, we get it. We’ve seen it coming, like a train barreling down the tracks. We’ve known for a while that this story isn’t going to have a happy ending, not because God is unreasonable but because Gomer is.
But the shocking part of the story is yet to come. “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wild, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make [a way out of the wilderness]. There she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt” (2:14-15).
Can you believe it? After all that, God still loves Gomer, still wants to be in a committed, faithful, mutually fulfilling relationship with her. God forgives Gomer so that she can have a clean start, and together they’re going to renew their relationship as if Gomer’s sin had never existed.
I know that it is not popular to talk about sin. It’s not popular outside the church, which is understandable, but it’s also not popular inside the church. But there’s a big problem with that. When we have no real grasp of the severity of our sin—of the cost to ourselves and to others of our pride and impatience, our lust and selfishness, our pursuit of material things over spiritual maturity, of taking care of ourselves before we share generously with others, of separating ourselves from people who don’t look or act or think like we do—when we don’t see the grossness of our sin, then we cannot appreciate the necessity of judgment or grasp the insanity of mercy. Because make no mistake, mercy should cause us to marvel.
I raised the question last week about whether the church has lost our voice. When the church avoids the subject of sin in order to be politically correct, we diminish the holiness of God, and the result is that forgiveness is just blah. Who cares if God forgives sin if sin isn’t a big deal and God really doesn’t mind what we do? When we sugarcoat our spiritual condition and lose sight of God’s greatness, then forgiveness becomes just an empty idea that might sound nice and mean something decent, but it doesn’t amaze us.
Oddly enough, we get it when it comes time for us to extend mercy to others. At home with our families, sometimes we can feel aggrieved and wronged by the tiniest of things and we struggle to be patient and gracious. We encounter a co-worker or boss or neighbor who rubs us the wrong way, and we don’t want to give an inch, much less a mile, much less the extra mile that Jesus tells us to give. We’re too afraid—afraid of being taken advantage of, afraid of someone getting ahead of us, afraid of being perceived as weak.
Have we forgotten that forgiveness is always the unexpected option? God has never owed us forgiveness, any more than God owes forgiveness to Gomer or Israel, which makes God’s words in Hosea 11 all the more astounding: “How can I give you up, O 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 burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (11:8-9).
God doesn’t forgive us because our sin is not a big deal. God forgives us because God is God and because forgiving sin is insane. It’s too much for us to even comprehend. It’s supposed to blow our minds.
And God doesn’t stop there. “I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord” (2:19-20).
Hosea is describing a wedding. A promise. God rescues Israel and makes a new covenant with her. It’s as if God is bringing Israel back to the innocence she had when God first delivered her from slavery in Egypt. There are even references to the Garden of Eden, to the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, meaning that God is bringing Israel back to when God first recued her, back even before Adam and Eve sinned. God marries his people, promises divine faithfulness, and also promises that Israel will live in fidelity with God. Little Jezreel, I’m going to plant you. Little No Mercy, I’m going to show you my mercy. Little Not My People, you will be my people. Gomer is now Hosea’s faithful bride. Like I said, mercy is insane.
Hopefully this imagery of a wedding reminds you of the New Testament language that also uses the metaphor of a wedding to talk about Christ’s relationship with us, the Church. Jesus’ love for us is as faithful, as committed, as pure as Hosea’s love for Gomer. And like Gomer, we have often failed to be worthy of the love and forgiveness that has been so extravagantly extended to us. But it does not have to be this way. Like Gomer, we have a choice. Will we run after the lures and pursuits and wisdom of our culture? Or will we live in fidelity with God who is the greatest lover we could ever hope to have? What kind of marriage do you want?
Thanks be to God. Amen.