David Walker - July 24th 2016
Over the last couple of weeks we’ve heard Old Testament readings from the book of the prophet Amos – an interesting character and much of what he had to say has a striking resonance for us today in the 21st century. Alec preached very powerfully on this and I hope you had the chance to hear him and to think more about the message of Amos.
Today we have had words from another prophet, Hosea, a near contemporary of Amos, as their years of active ministry actually overlap during the 8th century BCE. They are part of a group of prophets who make up the Twelve, together the Book of the Twelve, who are the first prophets in the Bible to actually have their words written down. You’ll find them as the last twelve books of the Old Testament, from Hosea to Malachi. They’re also sometimes referred to as the ‘minor prophets’.
Amos and Hosea have much in common, as you would expect. They were both prophets, both people who had been called by God –to do what? To foretell the future? Possibly, but prophecy is much more than that. It is essentially not so much about foretelling as forth-telling, forth-telling the truth, and speaking that truth into the present, seeing things for what they are, and telling any and everyone who will listen. In doing this Amos and Hosea differ in very important ways, and very profound ways, in the truths that they are inspired to speak. And this is what I want to talk about – what makes Hosea so unique, so special, so important to us, here and now. But first, a very brief bit of background.
In the 8th century Israel as a whole was divided, and had been since the time of Solomon, two hundred years previously. There were two kingdoms – the one known as Israel in the North and in the South there was Judea. Two kingdoms, with a common language and inheritance but a different approach to living, and especially to religion and worship. The North had long favoured the worship of idols, rejecting the God of their ancestors, the God of the covenant. When they did favour God they took him for granted, preferring to adopt outward symbols of religiosity, pointless and useless sacrifices, in preference to a real and meaningful spirituality.
Amos and Hosea were both much concerned with the North (although Amos was by birth a Southerner). Neither of the kingdoms was large and both were dominated by the regional super-power of the time – Assyria. Despite that Israel in the North was actually doing quite well for itself.
Its economy was booming. Its borders were expanding through conquest. There was a period of peace and prosperity – although this was not shared by all, as Amos had been quick to point out. The unprecedented affluence, indulgence and self-satisfaction was confined to the ruling classes leaving the tenant farmers and the underclass to struggle on in debt and poverty.
But the good times weren’t going to last. Assyria had been getting on with its business of empire, largely pre-occupied with defending its own northern and eastern borders, repressing Israel’s immediate neighbours and would-be enemies, but ignoring Israel itself. It was all a bit of a false position, and it was inevitable that Assyria would take notice of them at some point, especially with their new prosperity.
When they did it was bad, and then it got worse. And it ended, in around 720, with the destruction of the kingdom of Israel, and the dispersal and exile of its people.
Amos saw this coming, and so did Hosea. But they viewed it differently, were driven to talk about it for different reasons, and understood why it was going to happen in different ways.
With Amos, we have a prophet who never wanted to be one, even denies that he is one. He was a businessman, a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees - yes, but on probably a large and profitable scale. He responded to God’s word, he had no option. And he reacted to the injustice of the world around him in response to that word.
Hosea, on the other hand, responded to what God did to him, did to his life, made him do.
And we have that here, in this morning’s readings. This is pretty much all we know about Hosea. We don’t know where he came from, where he was born, what he did for a living, or when he died. We do know about his wife, his marriage and his family. And what we do know of him and his life becomes an acted out parable for the relationship between the people and their God.
What gives Hosea such fire and passion is the pain of his own personal experience as he equates the meaning of Israel’s covenant relationship with God through the language of family love.
When Hosea heard God’s call it was a command, a command to action – ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord’.
So he marries Gomer, knowing that it will all go wrong, knowing that she will betray him in every way and that even though they will have children, those children will let him down. And this is what God has done with Israel, entered into a relationship, knowing that it will go wrong, knowing that he will be let down, forgotten and betrayed, and that the children of Israel will continue to do the same.
But Hosea’s marriage has been inaugurated by God, just as the relationship with Israel is of God’s doing and comes out of God’s grace. Both are special and will continue to be so despite being broken almost from the beginning.
Because this book is about the love of God, the faithfulness and steadfastness of God who does not give up on us, on them on anyone. He does not give up on Hosea’s marriage and neither does Hosea. And he will not give up on the people of Israel no matter what they do, what happens to them as a result of heir actions, where they end up, how they become dispersed. God will also be there, the one fixed point in their lives, in all our lives.
Amos looked out at the world and saw injustice, people cheating one another, inequality, a lack of care and concern for those unable to care for themselves And he saw this as damning in the eyes of God, in the eyes of Yahweh, the God of Israel, the covenant, and now the God of all. He wanted people to act righteously and to put themselves in right relationship with God in that way. Act first and God will reward.
Hosea saw that it was relationship that was important, that love was the answer, the love of God for his people. No matter what happens to you, stick with God, because God will always stick with you.
Earthly kingdoms may come and go, governments, alliances, laws, wealth, power, wars and terrorism. Everything comes to pass, everything changes, nothing lasts forever.
There will be good times and bad, good people and bad. And we can always do things better. We should always try to do so. But even when we can’t we need to keep firm our commitment to God.
God made a promise to humankind, an agreement based on relationship. And he is going to stick to it. No matter how hard we try to break our side of it. God will hang in there. That’s Hosea’s message. He hung in for Gomer. She treated him abominably. She took lovers and betrayed him. But he loved her. And his children who turned their faces against him and against God. They too were loved.
Hosea’s life is a living metaphor for the journey of the people of Israel, the journey of all people, our journey, with God.
Hosea’s story begins in grace, but it is jeopardised from the outset. He sinks to the depths, as Israel is about to sink to the lowest point in its history. But Hosea holds out the hope of restoration, of reconciliation, of rebuilding – of rebuilding a marriage based on constancy of love and faithfulness, and of building up a relationship with God based upon love and the knowledge that God will always be there.
It was a strong message for the people of Israel and the message is there still for us today. No matter that the world seems to be in chaos, that we feel surrounded by threats of terror, that we are fearful for our futures, God has not abandoned us. God will never abandon us. He doesn’t know how to do that.
We started at the beginning of Hosea. Let’s finish with words from the end.
I will heal their disloyalty;
I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them.
5 I will be like the dew to Israel;
he shall blossom like the lily,
he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon.*
6 His shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive tree,
and his fragrance like that of Lebanon.
7 They shall again live beneath my* shadow,
they shall flourish as a garden;*
they shall blossom like the vine,
their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon