Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Sermon Sketches: Hosea 11:1-9 ~ As a Parent Loves a Child…

Note: I usually post an initial sketch on Monday or Tuesday of each week; then, I come back with a revised piece on Fridays. I hope my thoughts nourish your thoughts, that something here helps you think in the right direction for the congregation you serve. Cheers!

As we begin to preach this passage, we want to remind our hearers of the story we're following--from Creation to sin to a flood to a plan of redemption; from the call of Abraham to a promised land to an Egyptian detour to the call of Moses; from the Exodus through the wilderness to the promised land; from a loose confederation of tribes to a monarchy to victory to defeat to dissolution of the Kingdom...into the North (Israel) and the South (Judah). And today, we join the prophet Hosea in the Northern Kingdom--here referred to as Ephraim. Let's step up and have a look at this passage....

Just looking at this passage in our Bibles (or on our devices), if it’s been formatted and presented properly, we notice something different immediately. We’re not looking at the usual prose paragraphs of Genesis or Ruth or Matthew or Romans. Rather, this looks like what see in books of poetry—like the Psalms or Proverbs, Job and Song of Songs. What do we do with this? How do we approach and read this? When we come to poetry (and prophecy), we read it differently and do different things with it. In fact, upon first reading, my thought was, “What? How in the world do I preach this?!” Unlike the narratives of Sundays past, this passage begs for a different approach. So, what to do?

As a minister who is also an English teacher, I get to teach poetry from time to time. Presently, in my British Lit. class, we’re strolling through the 17th Century writers—Donne, Jonson, Herrick, and Milton. They’re poets—all of them. And, one of the tasks I have is to teach my students how to read poetry, what to do with poetry, how to understand poetry.
Poetry has a different purpose besides often having a different structure. We read the following sets of lines quite differently:

“I think you are a very beautiful person, and I hope we get a chance to go out and get to know each other.”

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate….”
                           from Sonnet XVIII, W. Shakespeare

The first lines above give information—what one person thinks. We find informational prose in those lines. The second lines, from Shakespeare, are far richer…evoking imagination through imagery and metaphor. Poetry is more about the expression of feeling through comparison, imagery, personification, and more.

We find in the words of Hosea exactly these things—imagery, comparison, metaphor…all to express God’s love.

               When Israel was a child… ~ metaphor

               It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
             taking them by the arms.
~ metaphor

               I bent down to feed them… ~ personification

And, these are only the most obvious examples.

If we were to attempt to approach this passage as we might approach the usual prose passages, we would find ourselves frustrated and perplexed. We often come to a passage from an exegetical approach, examining each verse…taking the verse apart to test each word…and then putting it all back together to see a deeper understanding. But, when we come to these poetic passages, rather then digging deeper and dissecting, we actually need to step back, step away, in order to get a sense of the overall image, meaning, and feel of the passage.

When we step back, we see a declaration of parental love on the part of God for the people of Israel—the northern Kingdom. Our academic side wants desperately to find the ‘factual,’ to compare what is said here to what actually happenings in history…but that is not the point. The point is, God rather fiercely declares a parent’s love for a child.

If anything, we get a sense of the child-like nature of ‘Ephraim.’ Israel and we like to imagine we’re all grown up and mature, that we can handle things, that we can make decisions. This passage reminds us that we’ve only just begun to walk; perhaps we’ve made it to that rebellious teenage period of our lives. In any case, we need a parent to guide us; we still need the loving oversight of one who sees more than we see, who cares for us in spite of our rebellious tendencies.

But this is more than simple poetry. This is also prophecy—the ‘forth-telling’ of God’s will and—in this case—a fore-telling of things to come. Mixed with the declaration of God’s love are words of warning—Ephraim, your rebellious ways are going to get you in trouble. Here, the loving parent warns the youngster much as we might warn our own children during their rebellious stages of life: I love you, son, but your behavior is going to get you in trouble; I love you, daughter, but these folks you’re running with are going to take you places you don’t want to go…. Through the words of Hosea, God expresses both love and warning to a young, rebellious people.

Some have pointed out that God declares the following, but the Northern Kingdom is decimated by Assyria anyway:

I will not carry out my fierce anger,
    nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
    For I am God, and not a man—
    the Holy One among you.
    I will not come against their cities.

How do we make sense of this? If God says, “I will not carry out my anger…I will not come against” them, but then destruction does come, how to do we understand these words? I’m not sure. Could it be that God had something even more destructive in mind? Rather than rob them of life, did God simply allow them to lose identity (being subsumed into the Assyrian world)? We again are probably being too academic and exegetical. Perhaps we again need to step back and hear the sense or sentiment of the poetic, prophetic words: Israel, you are frustrating me so much and I want to bring my wrath and anger down on you…but I’m not going to do that, I’m holding back. Perhaps this is a temporary reprieve…or perhaps we humans simply cannot see all that is going on behind and around these words.

And where is Jesus in all of this? Jesus often reminds us of the parental aspects of God. He calls us to pray to God as if he were that perfect, loving father we can all imagine: “Our father…” (Matt. 6:9). In that same teaching in Matthew, Jesus reminds us that the forgiveness God wants to pour out in our lives is conditional—only if we forgive can we know God’s forgiveness. In another passage, Jesus calls us to be “perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt.5:48). All through the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ Jesus calls our attention to the parental aspect of God—17 times!

But, we don’t want to be children, and we don’t want to need a parent to guide and teach us. In fact, we often want to be more like Ephraim than we’d like to admit. And, like Ephraim, we run after false gods—just their names have changed: wealth, power, social media influencer, popular. We often would rather turn from God and do our own thing, our way…even if we claim and call on the name of God on Sunday mornings for an hour.

Things don’t turn out well for the rebellious children of Israel. Why would we think that our destiny will somehow be different even if we act the same? The words of Hosea come as both a comfort and a warning, then, for us today. Yes, God loves us—dearly!—as a parent loves a child. Yet, we must live as children of God—trusting, obeying—if we are going to enjoy the blessing of being the children of God.

God loves you, loves me, loves us. Let us not squander or take advantage of that love. Let us not be blind to the love of God that has given us hope, a spiritual family, purpose and direction. God has made us a part of this very story we read today. Hosea's story, Ephraim's story--all of this is our story. Therefore, let us live into this story of stories...into this family faithfully, trusting, as brothers and sisters in this household of faith.


Feel free to leave your own insights, questions, and words of encouragement below--perhaps they'll help us all as we strive to faithfully present this passage to our congregations. Blessings...

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