Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/tIqRA38YXbQ.
Pentecost 10C 24th July 2016
What do you think about God? Who is God? What is God like? Do you see a God of wrath or a God of love? God who will visit punishment on us for our sins, or God who loves us unconditionally? And if we see a God of wrath and punishment, how do we then relate? Or if God is a God of love and mercy, what changes for us?
These passages today seem to me to say a great deal about relationship and they are there to teach us some very important lessons about God but also about ourselves.
Let us begin with this terrifying passage from Hosea. I think it helps us if we have a bit of a sense of what was going on when this was written. We don’t know a lot about Hosea himself except that he lived quite a long time and so saw a range of events in the life of Israel, and this begins around 760BCE. Hosea lived in the Northern Kingdom- that is Israel as distinct from Judea and during his lifetime he saw terrible events with death and pillage and utter destruction of the Northern Kingdom. This is real suffering- not unlike what is happening in Syria today. There is nothing speculative about what Hosea is describing. And while he uses poetic language this is very real. The sins and suffering that Hosea describes are happening all around him and he puts an interpretation together about what they are experiencing. Now, I said these passages are about relationship and here we have Hosea seeing the events of Israel’s destruction in terms of relationship.
Hosea is told by God to take a wife of whoredom and the metaphor of family is continued for the whole of the first four chapters. What this phrase “wife of whoredom” actually means is very difficult to say. He is not simply directed to marry a “whore”. It may point to the practice of cultic prostitution, or it may simply refer to a serially promiscuous woman. We have no way of knowing but it is certainly a metaphor for Israel who kept straying away to other gods. The names of the children, bitter, hard names about “not being my people” and “having no pity” and “breaking the house of Israel”, are titles, if you like, for the people. These indicate the broken relationship between God and God’s people. There is a glimmer of hope however, in the promise in verse 10 about the number of the people of Israel being like the sand of the sea and them being called children of God. Hosea is seeing the destruction of Israel in terms of the corrupt and broken relationship between the people and God. God is like the husband symbolised by Hosea himself. Hosea expresses God’s wrath in terms of a husband’s wrath. And there is a sense of despair there I think. Not, that I am saying that God is in despair over God’s people, but that we humans would be in despair if we were God. Just as we might be very angry, if we were God, about some of the terrible things that are being done, and even worse some of the terrible things that are done in God’s name.
I am reminded of the terrible scandal that has emerged out of Newcastle diocese this week. We, God’s family here on earth, are still capable of doing frightful things under God’s banner that bear no relationship with God and God’s love. The forced prostitution of women, which took place in Hosea’s day is still happening all over our world. The coercion of the innocent, the corruption of others, the blind eye turning continues to happen. We are still a very broken family, aren’t we? And we deserve God’s anger when the “least of these”, children suffer. Nothing has changed in 2,800 years, has it?
This book of Hosea, however, does get more cheerful. Let me encourage you, before we come to chapter 11 next week to read the whole of the book and to get a bit more of a feel of it in its entirety.
From this short section the thing that I want us to take home is that the relationship with God is not a big national event but a family affair. A family where God the Father and Mother is the perfect loving parent, with only good in mind for God’s children, that is us!
And we see that clearly in Luke’s gospel, don’t we? Jesus himself, is praying to God and the disciples see his example and ask him to teach them to pray. Now we have tended to think of this as a “how to book”, a formula that will unlock the combination and get us what we want from God. However, I am quite sure that Jesus himself wasn’t going to God the Father with a shopping list. Jesus begins with an acknowledgement of who God is and prays that we might be aligned with God in God’s kingdom. But the naming of God as Father points to a very personal prayer. Jesus, who has a deep familial relationship with God encourages us to do the same. He doesn’t pray, Almighty, Invincible, God Pantocrator, as he might, but simply “Father”. It’s just as it was in Hosea, the way we are to see God is in a familiar way. And this view of God as Father brackets the whole of this section.
Then Jesus gives us three brief petitions for necessities: food, forgiveness and preservation. There is a lot I could say about each one but let me just highlight the prayer about forgiveness for a second. In the Greek there is something interesting going on here. God is continuously forgiving us, aorist tense, but we have to do it again and again, present tense. Many of us say the Lord’s Prayer every day and so we are encouraged to make that daily act of forgiveness for others. It is just the same as the daily bread- needed new every morning. God’s forgiveness on the other hand is both complete and eternal. This is a relationship that we can rely on.
Jesus then extends the family metaphor a little further with the use of a brief domestic parable. Jesus asks us to picture a man already in bed with his family. Now before you recoil, thinking of the inappropriateness of that in our society, let me remind you that in many places in the world even today whole families sleep together in one bed both because of restrictions of space and the need for warmth- it is only very recently, even in our 1st world societies, that we each have our own room and our own bed. This father is tucked up with his children and when his friend knocks and asks for bread he reluctantly gives it. This is a “MORE AND” parable, if a human would do this how much more will God do? And do you notice that the man is asking for another’s need? And that it is about the duty of hospitality? The father in the parable gives because of the man’s persistence, not because of the relationship, but this is a “more and” parable, so the relationship which is hinted at becomes the primary force. The next little bit is joined on in the Greek and is a continuation of the same idea. Jesus says to us, so search, knock, and ask because God will be “getting up” to you! The metaphor is then extended and we are back to the familial relationships- which parent when asked for a fish would give a snake or for an egg would give a scorpion? God, our parent wants to give us what we need, what we ask for and will give it with great love, Jesus says.
And then comes the reference to the Holy Spirit. Now all the way through Luke’s gospel the Holy Spirit is a force to be reckoned with. It is Luke, of course, writing in Acts that gives us the great picture of Pentecost but the Holy Spirit doesn’t wait in the wings but is a constant in Jesus’ life. It is through the Holy Spirit that Jesus is united with God the creator, and so it is for us. We have the example of the man Jesus ever before us in the Gospels but the picture is animated by the Holy Spirit herself. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit that enables us to really be part of God’s family. We are invited in, just like the knocking man, by the Holy Spirit to be one with God. God, the loving father.
It is through the Holy Spirit that we “receive” Christ Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit that we continue to live our lives in him. There is another relational image here in Colossians, which is slightly different to the family image. Paul encourages us to be “rooted” and “built up” in him, that is, Christ Jesus. Think of a plant for a moment- the roots are integral, aren’t they? The plant has no life apart from the roots and is not able to live without the roots. The roots are both a separate entity and simultaneously an essential part. And we all know that if a plant has no roots it dies but that new life can spring up from the roots! This is relationship of the most intimate order. And it is through the roots that growth can take place.
This is a relationship that already exists- we have been buried in baptism and therefore we have already been raised from the dead. We have been forgiven and our sins nailed to the cross, before we have even committed them! We are alive with Christ. However, it seems to me that this “transaction” is a bit like marriage vows. We could, in fact, be married, consummate the relationship and then live apart for the rest of our lives, returning only to inherit when the spouse dies. But instead we are called to live in relationship with God. We are called to be faithful wives or asking friends, rooted and growing through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives .
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
This picture of God as Father, as husband and as roots for our very being, should, I think both comfort and free us for our life in the Kingdom.