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There’s Nothing You Can Do

Date: November 10, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

Scripture: Hosea 11:1-9

Today we turn from the historical books of the Old Testament to the prophetic writings.

There were, of course, prophets in the historical books—last week we had a very dramatic story from 1 Kings in which the prophet Elijah orchestrated a contest between himself and the prophets of the foreign god Baal, to see whether Elijah’s God or Baal was truly God.[1] We know the names of quite a few other prophets from the historical books: Samuel, Nathan, Elisha, Obadiah, the prophetess Huldah—even Jonah and Isaiah, from whom we’ll hear next week, make appearances in the histories.

But this week and next week we are going to be spending time with two of the prophets whose names are given to books recording their words. Today’s is Hosea, who prophesied in the late days of the Northern Kingdom, Israel.

Before we get started, it’s probably worth remembering what the job of the Old Testament prophets was. First and foremost, the prophets were seen as speaking for God—the words that came out of their mouths were “the word of the LORD.”

Sometimes they didn’t speak in words but in actions, like when Jeremiah bought land from a relative to demonstrate that one day the people would again live in their own land,[2] even though most of the time Jeremiah was promising they would be going into exile. Some of those actions were just flat-out weird, like the time Ezekiel put a brick on his shoulder and laid on the ground for over a year, then turned over and laid on the ground facing the other way for another month and a half. [3]

Hosea interpreted his troubled marriage as a metaphor for God’s troubled relationship with Israel. That’s earlier in the book than where we are today.[4]

Prophets were active in a great many different times, places, and circumstances, from Samuel in the time before there were kings and the reign of the first king, Saul; to Amos and Hosea in the waning days of the nation of Israel; to the Second Isaiah speaking to the Jewish exiles in Babylon; to Haggai who brought good news to the returned exiles discouraged by the work of rebuilding.

Some of them were religious leaders, or at the very least worked at the Temple, like the First Isaiah,[5] who also had a close relationship with the king. Others, like Jeremiah, spoke to the rulers but were generally ignored or punished for what they said. And some, like Amos, were just ordinary working people[6] to whom the word of the LORD came.

But they all had a common task: to speak God’s words to a people who were frequently unwilling to hear, mainly to try and get the people to envision something other than the circumstances in which they were living. Sometimes that alternative was hope amidst depair; but other times the people needed to be shaken out of complacency by the reality that, in God’s eyes, everything was not okay. The people needed to know what God thought about the things they were doing—chasing after foreign gods, like Baal in last week’s story, was a really big problem for God’s people from the moment they anxiously demanded Aaron make them a golden calf while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai in God’s presence.

The message that God was not happy about their unfaithfulness and rebellion was the message of Hosea to the people of Israel.

When my sister and I were little—I was maybe eight, so she would have been around five—we decided one Saturday afternoon to run away.

I can’t remember what it was that provoked this, whether we were in trouble for something or our parents had said “no” to something we wanted, or what. But we decided we were going to run away. We packed a bunch of doll clothes into a lunchbox, put on our sweaters, and headed out into the blustery November afternoon. We had some half-baked idea about going up to our school, an entire block away, and living in the bushes beside the building.

I’m not sure we even made it to the corner before we gave up—or, more than likely, started fighting—and went home. We hadn’t even been gone long enough for our parents to notice, much less worry about us.

Seems like, at least in the past, just about every little kid decided to run away at some point. And for the most part they did it about like Carrie and I did—throwing a few things into a suitcase and heading out, making it just a little ways from home and realizing it was a dumb idea. Or maybe they “ran away” to a friend’s or a relative’s house.

It’s hard to get too worked up about little kids deciding to run away, because it’s so common and short-lived. When they become teens, though, it’s a different matter. Then it’s possible a kid has access to some money, and can run further and get more thoroughly lost and in a great deal more danger. We don’t hear of it terribly often, but it does happen—and most cities tend to have a substantial population of homeless teens. [7]

Some teen runaways leave because of abuse, and others have loving, caring parents but chafe at their limits, like curfews or rules about when and where they can date. Some kids are troubled for one reason or another, and their parents try everything they can think of to get through to them—consequences, punishment, even family counseling—but nothing works.

I cannot pretend to have a clue about the thoughts and emotions that go through a parent’s mind and heart when a child runs away. I would imagine caring parents being absolutely beside themselves, frantically calling friends, family, and the police, watching social media for any clue where the child is and whether they are safe.[8] Sometimes when the parents find their child, the child is safe, but still not willing to come back home.

In Hosea 11, the prophet describes God as the parents of a child who persistently rebels and runs away. The more God reaches out, the harder that child—Israel—runs in the other direction. This parent God shares bittersweet memories: of when the child took their first steps, of tending to a skinned knee when the child fell down, of holding the child close. But the child has run away, chased after false gods, rejected God’s embrace again and again and again.

Hosea shows us God alternating between sorrow and anger over the child Israel’s rebellion. At one point God resolves to let them go—go back to enslavement, go to domination by foreign powers, go to destruction if that’s what they really want. Let them endure the consequences of their actions, even if it means being wiped off the face of the earth.

But just as soon as that resolve is expressed, God’s anger is overtaken by other emotions:

“How can I give you up?
How can I hand you over?
How can I make you like the little villages swept away when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, not just obliterated but utterly forgotten?”

Verse 8ab

The very idea of destroying this beloved child—this beloved, but incorrigibly rebellious, runaway child—causes God’s heart to skip a beat, and God’s compassion again wells up.

The passage ends—in the last two verses, which weren’t part of our reading for this morning—with God promising to roar out God’s severe mercy and lead the runaways back home.

Here’s something that’s fascinating about this very emotional text. We see here God’s sorrow and anger over the sin of God’s people. We see God’s wrath about to be unleashed in response—but then we see God stay God’s own hand.

“How can I give you up?…
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.”

Verse 8c

And God resolves not to act in anger, not to destroy the rebellious child.
The amazing thing is why God makes this decision:

“I am God…the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.”

Verse 9b

God will not let wrath mean the destruction of the beloved, sinful child, because God is God.

Hosea is not saying God’s wrath isn’t real. It has to be; a God who just smiles indulgently as we objectify, harm, and destroy ourselves, our neighbors and kinfolk, and creation is no God worth believing in. Without God’s wrath against sin, God’s justice is utterly meaningless and there is thus no force that can ever put right the oppression and violence we inflict on one another.

But what Hosea 11 shows us is that even as God is heartbroken and angry at our sin and our rebellion, God’s wrath is not unleashed as a force for our destruction. God’s dismay and anger over our continual running away is always in tension with God’s unfathomable love and infinite, but severe, mercy.

And when God’s wrath finally does roar out, it’s not a scream of destructive anger and vengeance, but a call that shows God’s people, finally, once and for all, the way home, leaving behind, as though burned away in a smelter’s fire or washed away in a baptistry, all of the sin and rebellion that separates us from God, so we can enter fully into the relationship with God that God intended us to have from the first moment of creation.

[1] See 1 Kings 18.

[2] Jeremiah 32:6-15

[3] Ezekiel 4:1-8

[4] Chapters 1—3.

[5] Isaiah’s call, which is found in Isaiah 6, takes place in the temple.

[6] Amos 1:1 says Amos was “one of the shepherds of Tekoah”; in 7:14 he describes himself as “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.”

[7] Oftentimes these homeless teens have been kicked out of their homes and families for being gay or transgender.

[8] A friend of mine once shared a tried-and-true method to find a lost cat:  drag an article of clothing that bears your scent around the neighborhood, giving the animal a trail to follow back to its own home.  But such things don’t work with runaway children.