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Steadfast Love: Perfect Love for Imperfect People (3)

. 6 min read


Thanks to Joel for closing out this series of messages from the prophet Hosea 11:1-11.

Prayer:

Lord, open our hearts and minds by the power of
your Holy Spirit, that as the scriptures are read and your Word proclaimed, we
may hear with joy what you say to us today.

Listen
again to the words of the Psalmist, who looks forward to the time when:
“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet / righteousness and peace will kiss
each other. / Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, / and righteousness
will look down from the sky.” These words join with those of the eleventh
chapter of Hosea in reminding us this morning of one of the biblical story’s
most persistent themes: The love of God for his creation is steadfast. It is
immeasurable, unconditional, and altogether trustworthy. No matter what we have
thought, said, or done, the God whose story is told in scripture, the God of
Israel, Jesus, and the church, stands forever ready to welcome us; to receive,
forgive, and ultimately to transform us. In the end, when all is said and done
and when history reaches its completion, God’s creation will be redeemed. There
will be no more turning away from God; there will be no more idolatry; and
there will be no more selfish exploitation or injustice. For in that day,
“steadfast love and faithfulness will meet.”

This
is not exactly news to those of us who have gathered here these past weeks,
listening to the words of the prophet Hosea. For the singular message of Hosea
is that ultimately, even as his people break his heart, God’s love remains
steadfast. Over and over again the prophet proclaims this, as he goes from
warning to lament to assurance; there is no force in heaven or on earth
stronger than the love of God. In our text for this morning the prophet uses a
new metaphor to make this point: God is no longer depicted as the faithful
husband of a promiscuous wife; rather, he is a longsuffering parent whose love
for his wayward child persists in spite of that waywardness.

The
eleventh chapter begins with this fond reminiscence: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called
my son.” Hovering in the background of Hosea’s words is the story of the
Exodus, God’s deliverance of Israel
from bondage in Egypt
to freedom in the land of promise. When the descendants of Abraham called out
from their bondage to the God of their ancestors, the story tells us, God
remembered the promises he had made to their ancestor, promises to bless his
descendants and to make them a blessing to the peoples of the earth. And so God
freed them from slavery and began the slow, patient work that Hosea describes
as teaching them to walk. God began making them into a holy people, a people
set apart to demonstrate to the world the extent of God’s love, a people whose
character was to mirror and manifest God’s character, a people whose common
life, built on the foundation of what we now call the Ten Commandments, was
ordered toward making it possible for them to attain true happiness – that is,
to flourish – as individuals and as a community.

That
foundation begins, as we were reminded last week, with this reminder and
exhortation: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” True and
ultimate happiness is impossible unless life is oriented toward and ordered by
the One who makes it (happiness) possible. Saint Augustine put it well when he said (to
God), “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they
rest in you.” Human desire is bottomless. Unless and until it is directed
towards God, it consumes. In calling Abraham and his descendants, in revealing
himself to them and giving them a law through which they might learn properly
to love him, each other, and the rest of creation, God was freeing them from
the bondage of relentless, restless, self-centered desire.

And
yet, says God through the prophet, “the more I called them, the more they went
from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.”
Set free from bondage and given the perfect freedom of fellowship with their
creator and his creation, Israel
instead chose, time and again, to reenter bondage by worshipping the cruel and
capricious Canaanite gods, the Baals. As has been the habit of the human race
from the beginning, when given the choice of entering into God’s embrace or
turning away from that embrace, Israel turned away, alienating themselves from
God, and suffering, finally, the consequence of that alienation, the
destruction of their promised homeland and their being scattered away from it.

But
still, in the midst of all this disobedience, God remained – and still remains
– faithful. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I give you over, O
Israel?” God’s love is steadfast, and God keeps his word. Just so, God promises
to re-gather his people from their diaspora, to restore them to the land, and
to make them once again a light to the nations of the world. “They shall go
after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come
trembling from the west.” God’s love is moving history toward its completion,
and that completion, we are reminded, includes – indeed it centers on – the
restoration of God’s people. “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.”

This
is good news indeed, this reminder of God’s faithful, steadfast love, this
reminder that God’s ultimate intention for all of his creatures is their
salvation. It is at the core of the gospel Jesus proclaimed when he called upon
people to “repent, for the kingdom
of God
is at hand.” And
yet, I wonder if we Christians have followed Israel in forgetting this, or
whether we have heard it so often that we have long since begun to take it for
granted. I wonder whether we, whom God has called by name, have like Israel turned
away from God and toward idols of our own or others’ making. I wonder whether
our worship remains devoted to the one true God, the only one with the power to
save, the only one with the power truly to bless.

This
concern may seem to many of you misplaced and even anachronistic. Where, you
ask, are these idols you are so worried about? Where are these Baals, these
carved statues, these golden calves? Where are the temple prostitutes and the
human sacrifices? And the easy answer to those questions is that they no longer
exist and are no longer temptations for God’s people. It has, I admit, been a
while since I’ve seen a golden calf, and in Mountain Top, at least, temple prostitutes
are nowhere in sight. At first glance, at least, all seems well with God’s
people where idolatry is concerned.

But
the matter of discerning the faithfulness of our worship may not be quite as
simple as it first appears, for worship is a complicated business. Certainly it
is something that we do for more than an hour on Sunday morning. The word “to
worship” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word that means, simply, “to ascribe worth”
or “to find worthy,” which means the true object of our worship is whatever we
regard as most important, whatever we find worthy of our time, our energies,
and our resources. And this suggests, quite simply, that who or what we really
worship is revealed, ultimately, by the way we live our lives. My friend Philip
Kenneson puts it this way when he says; “Every human life is an embodied
argument about what things are worth doing, who or what is worthy of attention,
who or what is worthy of allegiance and sacrifice, and what projects or
endeavors are worthy of human energies. In short, every human life is ‘bent’
toward something. Every human life is an act of worship.”
 
The
philosopher Wittgenstein once said, “If you want to know if a man is religious,
don’t ask him; watch him.” What would someone carefully watching us say that
our lives were bent toward – not just on Sunday mornings, but for the rest of
the week, as well? What god or gods would they say we worshipped? Would they
identify us as worshippers of the God of Israel, Jesus, and the church, or
would they say that our lives were bent toward something else altogether? The
Baals of the Canaanites still exist, appearing freshly reincarnate to each
generation of every society. In our time and place they are many; people and
products clamoring for our attention; corporations, governments, political
parties, and other institutions, demanding our absolute allegiance; and what
Jesus called Mammon – money and power – seducing us into bowing down to them.
All of them ask of us things that are properly reserved for God alone. All
promise us a happiness that they can never deliver. All have in mind simply to
use us up for their own aggrandizement, to consume us, and in many cases
ultimately to destroy us. And all the while, the triune God, whose nature is to
love, whose character is to remain faithful, whose work in history is
sovereign, and whose desire for us is our true happiness, waits patiently,
wooing us, gently calling us to repent – that is, to turn – away from our
idols, and toward him.
 
God
offers this to us as a pure and perfect gift. God offers to transform us into a
holy people, a people whose life together declares to the world the goodness
and the steadfast love of God. For God, who is altogether righteous, seeks from
us what he has sought from the beginning, a people who will worship him alone,
a people of whom it can be said that “Faithfulness will spring up from the
ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.” May we continually
respond to his invitation, with joy and thanksgiving. Thanks be to God.