(audio note: sorry, the first minute of this sermon was not recorded)
David Harris was sent to prison in 1969 for his failure to respond to his Selective Service’s draft notice.
While in prison, he wrote a book about his deep love for his wife and child, and she – the singer Joan Boaz – honored him with an album of folk songs entitled “David”.
But a few months after David’s release, he and his wife separated.
He explained, “Living together is getting in the way of our relationship.”
Love at a long distance can be a lot easier to maintain than rubbing shoulders day in and day out with imperfect people.
During our Anne Lamott book discussion, we all knowingly nodded our heads at Ram Dass’ quip, “If you think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your family”.
But it is exactly in our daily life together that we learn to compromise, forgive, empathize, be faithful … well, to love.
It is in daily life together that we graduate from loving sentiments to real love.
And this is equally true in the relationship between us and God.
So today I’m going to tell you a story of love – a Valentine’s story of sorts – this one about God’s love for you even when you’ve drifted away from God, even when you are going through tough times.
And it begins with a man who finds himself married to a woman who not only cheats on him but actually turns to prostitution.
The context was the prophet Hosea searching for a way to clarify that Israel’s current suffering was the result of unfaithful choices, and to dramatize that God continued to love and to care for them even while they suffered.
The big question of his day was, how could disaster befall these people if they were God’s chosen ones?
Remember Deuteronomy 14:2 for you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be his treasured possession.
So, how come God wasn’t rescuing them from their suffering?
Today’s story is about Hosea, the first of the twelve so-called minor prophets whose writings conclude the final section of the Old Testament.
They are minor only in the sense that they each are shorter works than the Major Prophets like Isiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
Hosea lived in the eighth century BC when the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel lived under the thumb of the brutal Assyrian Empire.
To put this in its historical context, King David had brought the twelve Hebrew tribes together into a single nation about 250 years earlier, but after 100 years or so the nation split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
Both kingdoms were under constant threat from the Assyrians, who were the first actual empire in human history.
The Assyrian territory extended from the Mediterranean in the north, through the Middle East and down into the Arabian Peninsula, and then west to northern Africa.
They seemed unstoppable because they were the first and only army equipped with iron weapons and with what we consider modern military tactics.
Because they controlled such a vast and diverse empire, the Assyrians perfected systems of imperial rule – systems that would later be adopted by Greeks and Romans.
Initially, Northern Israel was allowed to keep their own king while paying a hefty tribute tax to their Assyrian overlords.
When their last king wouldn’t submit any longer, they were forcibly scattered to distant lands and their homes were resettled by deportees from other conquered regions.
Before their exile, the people lived under increasingly corrupt and exploitative Israeli kings, and as a whole, they turned away from the Law of Moses to worshipping the local Baal and Asherah gods.
The prophet Hosea was deeply saddened by the corruption of power and worship, and he eventually witnessed the forced exile of his people.
The first job of a prophet is to be a truth teller.
Prophets name infidelity to the Lord and injustice toward the poor.
Prophets don’t predict the future in any kind of mystical way, but they name the consequences of actions.
So, they don’t have a crystal ball to see into the future, but they will say that if you worship false gods, they will likely turn against you and leave you in a bind.
If you exploit the poor, then God will intervene on their behalf to your detriment.
Maybe you’ve taken this kind of stance with a loved one: If you continue drinking, then you’ll lose your job and your health and your family.
If you continue to run-up your credit cards, you will suffer financial ruin.
Those words sometimes feel cold-hearted, but they can actually be loving.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.”
We rarely change when we see the light.
We change when we feel the heat, which is why God allows some kinds of pain into our lives.
Proverbs 20:30 says, Sometimes it takes a painful experience to make us change our ways.
Back when Kerstynn was a teenager, Vivienne and I used to joke that the only reason we gave her a cell phone was to have the threat of taking it away as a punishment.
How can you take my phone, she would cry?
Don’t you love me?
But of course, that is love.
True love is not giving in to every demand or whim of our children.
True love is tough love that allows consequences for bad choices, even as we suffer with the child we discipline.
So, the truth we keep hearing from the Old Testament prophets is that injustice against the poor and worship of false gods will lead to destruction – and even though God suffers alongside His people, He will let it happen.
God isn’t like the weekend dad who lavishes his kids twice a month with the latest Xbox and passes to Universal Studios.
God is like the parent who cares for us day in and day out and teaches how to be disciplined, faithful and resilient.
That’s true for people, and it’s true for nations.
Now, you think your job is tough, imagine being a prophet in Hosea’s time.
Being a prophet speaking out against the power elite was a risky business.
It still is.
But also, imagine trying to proclaim God’s promise to never abandon His chosen people to those same people who were suffering under such oppressive regimes.
Yes, it was the consequence of their choices, but the prophet also wants to reassure the people of God’s love even as they suffer.
That’s the second job of a prophet: assure people of God’s love.
Some of Hosea’s audience must have been looking at Israel’s accumulating disasters and wondering if the Lord really cared at all.
Maybe their neighbors who worshipped the local Baal deities were right after all.
It seemed that those deities at least provided healthy yields of crops and fertile wives … but where was the Lord?
In any case, Asherah worship with shrine prostitutes was a heck of a lot more fun than sitting around reading Moses’ Law.
Corruption of the Northern Kingdom’s kings had escalated to the point that several were assassinated by rival family members.
Many had tried to keep one foot in Hebrew worship and the other Baal worship, but even that pretense was abandoned by King Ahab.
Until that time, Ahab’s father was considered the worst king of Israel’s history, but then Ahab went further and married a Phoenician princess named Jezebel who outright rejected the Lord and went on a building spree of shrines to Baal and Asherah.
When the Hebrew priests objected, she ordered their massacre.
Later, when King Ahab didn’t get his way in a land swindle, he went home and pouted to his queen.
Jezebel concocted a false accusation of blaspheme of the rightful landowner and had him stoned to death.
It was then that God sent the prophet Elijah to personally confront King Ahab over what he had done.
Elijah bravely delivered God’s message to Ahab that his reign was to be short-lived because of his acts of injustice.
Feeling smug behind their palace walls, Ahab and Jezebel must have scoffed at this scruffy prophet, but within a short time Jezebel was dead and their rule had collapsed.
Being a prophet is a dangerous business, but men like Elijah are an inspiration to regular people who find the courage to speak truth to power in all times.
Psalm 34:15-16 The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are attentive to their cry; but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to blot out their name from the earth.
So, the job of the prophet is to assure us that in the end, God’s love will prevail over the smug, the arrogant, the exploiters of our world, and that even while the world feels out of control, God stays personally close to us.
Psalm 34 continues (vs. 17-18) The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; He delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
The third problem facing Hosea was how to drive home his message to the people.
The prophets were a bit like today’s political cartoonists who use imagery to make their point penetrating and memorable in a way that words alone cannot.
How could Hosea both slap the people into recognizing the consequences of their unfaithfulness to the God who had led them from Egyptian slavery, and also show them God’s continuing love for them?
God instructed Hosea how to publicly illustrate His faithfulness by marrying Gomer, a woman who had been publicly shamed.
Hosea 1:2-3 The first time God spoke to Hosea he said: “Find a whore and marry her. Make this whore the mother of your children. And here’s why: This whole country has become a whorehouse, unfaithful to me, God.” Hosea did it. He picked Gomer daughter of Diblaim. She got pregnant and gave him a son.
God then ordered Hosea to give each of his children
names that expressed the emotions God felt
because people had rejected Him.
Of course, it didn’t take long before Gomer went back to her old ways, and Hosea chapter two is a powerful poem about his pain over his unfaithful wife, which paralleled God’s pain over unfaithful Israel.
Gomer played around and continued to believe that prostituting was her reliable source of wool, olive oil, grain, and wine.
Living in the Ancient Near East, Hosea had put himself into a position of enormous shame that could have been partially relieved by having Gomer stoned to death, the prescribed policy for an adulterous wife.
Likewise, God could have been expected to completely abandon His chosen people for their infidelity.
So, this is when Hosea’s message was really driven home.
Hosea 3:1 Then God ordered me, “Start all over: Love your wife again, your wife who’s in bed with her latest boyfriend, your cheating wife. Love her the way I, God, love the Israelite people, even as they flirt and party with every god that takes their fancy.”
Because of her prostituting, Gomer found herself treated as a slave, and Hosea had to actually go to a slave auction to buy her back.
God is patient and compassionate with His wayward people.
Through Hosea, God does not promise an instant fix to their suffering, but He does say that because He is faithful and forgiving of them, they will eventually return to God.
Hosea 3:5 But in time they’ll come back, these Israelites, come back looking for their God and their David-King. They’ll come back chastened to reverence before God and his good gifts, ready for the End of the story of his love.
Hosea is God’s Valentine’s story to us.
I can think of times when I felt abandoned, ashamed, alone and wondering where God is(was).
Maybe you can think of times when you held onto attitudes that isolated you from God.
Maybe you can think of times when you insisted on feeling resentful or angry or unforgiving that isolated you from God.
But as God shows through Hosea, the Lord will never abandon us … even when we walk away.
Or as 13th Century preacher, Meister Eckhart said, “God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk.”