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I suspect that some of the difficulties with bringing up children result from God giving them that wonderful thing called “free will.” Of course, God knew, or should have known, that “free will” can be a double-edged sword. We are free to be obedient; but we are also free to be disobedient.
I find it amusing that “good” babies are the ones that don’t cry a lot, and sleep at night. “Bad” babies, on the other hand, are noisy and tend to be disruptive of their parents’ sleep. In other words, “good” babies are obedient to what WE want from them, and “bad” babies are disobedient to our wishes. My mother recalls me as being a good baby. I guess I just didn’t know any better.
But God DID give us this freedom of choice. It all started in the Garden. God COULD have left that tempting tree OUT of the Garden. But no, he put it there, and he gave Adam and Eve the freedom of choice when he said “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” He also told them that they would die if they ate it, but still, he gave them the choice.
In the Genesis account, we really don’t get any sense of God thinking of the man and the woman as his “children.” Indeed, the Israelites, the “children” of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are referred to by God mostly as “my people.”
So what we find in the eleventh chapter of Hosea is not an attitude of God that has been deeply entrenched in the history of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, I think we can clearly hear a statement of God as divine parent.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”
Of course, the first part of this verse could also have been spoke by an uncle. It seems to be God at arm’s length.
But God was not passive in this relationship, when God says, “out of Egypt I called my son.” On the one hand, we hear God referring to the Exodus, during which, under the leadership of Moses, God helped the Israelites escape Egypt. But on the other hand, we also hear an explanation of the escape of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre of the infants. In light of the words from Hosea, this event becomes fulfillment of prophecy and evidence of Jesus as the Messiah.
But God continues, mournfully, to say, “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.”
And God discovers adolescence. Yes, I know, none of YOU ever behaved like that.
When I was a small child, my mother had a unique whistle. When we heard it, we KNEW it was Mother, and it was time to come home. And we usually did. But two doors down the street lived another little boy, the son of the local physician. And when HIS mother called for him, he turned and ran the other direction as fast as he could. “The more I called them, the more they went from me.”
But God is talking about a major problem here. The Israelites are not merely ignoring God; they have found a substitution for God--”sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” And this began even on the journey through the wilderness during the Exodus. When they grew impatient for Moses to come done from Mt. Sinai, they gave up waiting and built a golden calf to worship.
“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.”
It is an image of early childhood, very early childhood. “They did not know.” And we have a strange mix here. On the one hand, God seems hurt that God’s nurturing care is not being recognized. “Yet it was I!” God says. But on the other hand, there appears to be recognition that small children will not know--or be grateful--for what parents do for them.
“It was I who taught Ephraim to walk.” One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with my father’s death was realizing that I had lost the greatest teacher I would ever know. Not only in the classroom, where he was dynamite, but also in his conversations, in his advice, and in his explaining and showing me how to do things. Indeed in the way he lived, he was always teaching.
“I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
I can almost hear God moaning, “How could I have done MORE? Where have I gone WRONG?” The cries of frustration and futility. And for all of you who are parents: be consoled. God KNOWS how you feel.
But enough of this. What will happen to these wayward children? And will it be God who provides the punishment?
As long as children are of the appropriate age, and still living with their parents, parents may have punishments in store for disobedience. Indeed, those punishments may be very clear and well-known to the children. But what happens after the children are no longer around, but the parents are grieving over what their children are doing or not doing?
In the case of the Israelites,
“They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.”
And just as the Israelites were “out of Egypt” in the first verse, so now they “return to the land of Egypt.” But it is not only a geographical return. They are also returning to what Egypt represented for them: slavery. For they have new slave-masters: “Assyria shall be their king.”
And God makes it sound like this situation has resulted from their disobedience: “because they have refused to return to me.” But is this punishment God’s doing, or is it what the Israelites have done to themselves? Earlier, God reported that “they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offer incense to idols.” In other words, they were chasing after other gods, sacrificing to other gods, and these practices were their own undoing.
Even in our own lives, when we lose sight of what is most important to us, or when we become preoccupied with triviality, or when our values seem to be chaotic, we bring our punishments upon ourselves.
“The sword rages in all their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.”
Some would interpret the “sword” in this passage to be a symbol only of violence, but I suspect that there is more to it. I think we are definitely speaking of war in this context. It is, according to the New Revised Standard Version, a war that destroys the prophets, a destruction that results because of the acts of the people--”because of their schemes.” But the New International Version takes a different slant. This same war “destroys the bars of their gates and put[s] an end to their plans.” Cities in those days were almost all walled. There were very few entry points, maybe only one or two, the “gates” of the cities. And if the bars of the gates were destroyed, the security of the city was gone. But in this translation, the people are not accused of their destruction, “because of their schemes.” Rather, war simply puts an end to their plans.
“My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.”
Do your Bibles have the same footnote here that mine does? Mine says “Meaning of Hebrew uncertain.”
What I suspect is that there is a huge gap between these two sentences. Not only should they be separate verses, but there should be something BETWEEN those verses.
I think God is drawing a conclusion in that first sentence: “My people are bent on turning away from me.” And in futility, God is giving up, shutting down the phone lines, turning off the fax machine, and not accessing his e-mail. And God is thinking, “why bother?”
As a result, the second sentence emerges, “To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.”
This has happened before, hasn’t it? God gives up. Well, almost gives up. And then, God comes back. Before the flood, God gave up. But then decided to save Noah and his family to start all over. And we know from other passages in Hosea and Amos that God gives up at other times, but then changes God’s mind and returns to take care of God’s people.
Well, this is no exception. God asks,
“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.”
So God is having second thoughts: “How can I give you up? My heart recoils.” But, you may be wondering, what are Admah and Zeboiim? Well, they were cities, cities on the plain near Sodom and Gomorrah. And when Sodom and Gomorrah were wiped out, it wasn’t exactly a surgical strike. ALL the cities on the plain went with them, including Admah and Zeboiim.
But why would God compare the Israelites to these cities? Were those cities in fact “innocent bystanders” that were destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah? Is God feeling like God may have made some kind of mistake in destroying that whole plain? And is God expressing concern that ignoring the Israelites might be like committing the same kind of error again?
And God decides:
“I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”
So God backs off. And God gives an interesting reason for God’s decision: “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst.”
I can hear God saying, “I am better than this. I am capable of MORE than this. I am not mortal and should not descend to the behavior of the mortal. Wrath--anger--is beneath me.”
But why is this? What IS the distinction between God and a mortal? I think it lies in God’s patience. God has a longer memory than we have, and God can see further into the future than we can. God has seen our behavior before, and has dealt with it. And God knows that time provides the ultimate resolution for all things.
“They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.”
And thus, the rebellious child is brought home again.
In this chapter, Israel has embarked on a three-part historical journey. The journey opened with a focus on the past and the trek from Egypt, when God called the son to become “my people” in the wilderness. Later, the second part of the journey is in the present. The rebellious son must go into exile to Assyria, symbolized as a return to Egypt. Finally, the third stage of the journey shows us the future. With repentance, the formerly rebellious son returns home.
We might also see Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son in Hosea’s prophecy. Or, we might see our own lives.
How many of us have traveled through the rebellion of adolescence, only to discover that the older we got, the smarter our parents became.
How many of us have ever pushed God aside as irrelevant, only to discover later that God can help us find our way home.
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