Hosea 11:1-11

8th Sunday after Trinity

St Barbara’s; 30.07.2023

Rev Jeremy Bevan

Late-night confessional: God’s heart of mercy laid bare

I saw a small child the other day, taking a large, boisterous dog for a walk. But it was the dog who was really in charge, and I wondered where the two of them would end up. Listening to our reading from Hosea might have felt a bit like the child pursuing that dog, as it pulled us here, there and everywhere. God is at first a tender, doting parent, rescuing Israel from slavery in Pharoah’s Egypt, caring for and nurturing the people with “cords of loving kindness”, as any parent here would for their own child. But then there’s a tug on the lead and suddenly God seems to lurch towards judgment. Tiring of the people’s faithlessness, God seems ready to cast them off, abandon them to the terror of slavery and oppression under Assyrian rule. Once it’s sniffed at that particular lamp-post, the passage is off again, and now we’re privy to an amazing scene: God agonising over that final judgment – before opting for something better. One final pull, and it seems we’ve been round the block: we’re back to the loving God, but now with a fierce edge: a lion’s roar.

What are we to make of this passage, veering helter-skelter between judgment and mercy; slavery and freedom, destruction and restoration? A passage where, as one writer I’ve read this week put it, we penetrate deeper into the heart and mind of God than anywhere else in the Old Testament. Well, maybe it resembles something many of us know: family drama with parent and child at loggerheads. I think there are three scenes in this particular drama – and we could call the first of them the frustrations of parental love.

God has done everything for the people of Israel: led them from slavery in Egypt through the exodus, given them laws that helped them (so to speak) learn first to toddle and then walk in God’s ways; shown them steadfast loving kindness throughout their history; soothed them in adversity, held them (as it were) cheek to cheek. And how has Israel repaid this kindness? By rebelling, spurning every gesture of parental kindness, care and advice, following the devices and desires of its own heart, even to its own harm. Parents at the end of their tether will get this: the grief of love spurned, and the desire to wash your hands of a problem child. All very understandable.

Israelite law held that parents should take a rebellious son to the town elders. If that charge were proved, the men of the town got to stone him to death. That stark fact brings us to the second scene in our drama: the agonies of parental love laid bare. As we’ve seen, God loved Israel like a child. But God’s law is God’s law, so shouldn’t the people get what the law of God said a rebellious son deserved? And so the stage is set. Imagine it’s night, it’s late. God sits alone, at the kitchen table: head in hands, head and heart in conflict. This, too, may be a scene we know from our own family life. Like a confessional diary room moment out of TV’s Big Brother, God switches on the video. We’re a fly on the wall as the troubled thoughts pour out.

“How can I do it, give them up, leave them to the fate they deserve?”, says God. That would end our relationship. It would be as final as the end that overtook Admah and Zeboiim, cities that shared the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. If Hosea 11 was a play, the stage directions would call for a long, reflective pause here. And we, the audience, hold our breath: when it comes to the crunch what is God really like? Cue that long, reflective pause…

Suddenly, God is resolved: “my heart recoils from doing that, it’s not me, it’s against all that I stand for.” What does God stand for, ultimately? When God’s heart is churned up, from somewhere deeper rise compassion and mercy. Divine anger at Israel’s sin is still there, only God chooses to set it aside. God’s bias, it seems, is towards mercy. We humans, as frustrated parents (or angry children) may be tempted to sever ties, give up in despair, speak judgment. Those are understandable human responses. But Hosea suggests divine mercy is somehow a beyond-human thing that breaks into our world as a thing of wonder. The reason God will be merciful and will suspend judgment is because God is God and not mortal like us, is the Holy One “in your midst”.     

The Holy One in your midst. That phrase leads me onto our final scene: parental love living in hope. God is in the midst of the people Israel in Hosea’s time, and supremely in our midst in Jesus. That’s God choosing to stick with us. To share our life, feel our ups and downs with the rush of joy and the sting of pain we do, long and hope for our best. That’s all part and parcel of God being committed to us in love: God who suffers with us, sometimes because of us. As Hosea lifts the veil on the God who is God and no mortal, an amazing vision emerges: of God who is beyond cut-and-dried, black-and-white; of God whose mercy is healing balm, bringing resurrected life out of brokenness, and despair. For all the many unhealed families out there, this is a God who flings wide the gates of hope.

What should that mean for how we live? Well, that final pull on the dog’s lead brings us back to a God of love. It’s a fierce love, though. It’s the roar of a lion, and as Mr. Beaver wisely remarks about Aslan, the character who represents God in C.S. Lewis’s book The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, he’s not a tame lion. Mixing his metaphors somewhat in these final verses, Hosea suggests that roar should engage something in us: we’re meant to be like homing pigeons, knowing the way home, the way to the place where God’s compassion and steadfast loving kindness live. Know it, and respond to it, no matter how far from that home we find ourselves, no matter how broken our earthly family situation feels. Ears tuned to the lion’s roar, let’s come in awe and thanksgiving that healing mercy, not judgment, comes from the Holy One. The Holy One in our midst.