A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on August 1, 2010.
Hosea 11:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
Last Sunday afternoon, during the wedding shower for Will Staley and Misti Freeman, I couldn’t help but notice what a good time Carolyn’s and Jerry’s grandson was having. Nine months old, young Timothy has obviously learned how to stand. He was holding on to one of the folding chairs in the parlor, laughing and enjoying the occasion. And then I observed as Jarell Wilson, our summer ministry intern, began playing with him, holding him by the hand, and trying to entice him to walk.
It’s one thing to learn how to pull one’s self up and stand while holding on to a chair. It’s quite another to walk. Timothy wasn’t quite ready to try taking his first steps. Time will bring learning, not to mention courage. Those first steps will have to come later.
That evening, as I read this passage from the prophet Hosea, I recalled those earlier events of the day. Then, nostalgically, my memory raced back through time as I remembered when our children Emily and Tim took their first steps... the stumbling attempts, the efforts to balance, the inevitable falling down on their padded, diapered bottoms. Then, getting right back up and trying it again. You who are parents, you remember, don’t you?
That is the difference between children and adults, you know. Too often, when we big folk stumble and fall, we are hesitant to try and get back up, and sometimes we simply can’t. Not children. They just bounce right back up and give it another shot.
This is the imagery the prophet uses for God’s message to his people, his people who have obviously found their legs and have run away as far from their God as they could possibly go.
When Israel was a child, says the Lord,
I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me...
Watch the little ones when their parents retrieve them from the nursery after worship. If they bring their children back into the sanctuary, as soon as the toddlers see the open spaces of these aisles they run and run with absolute abandon, daring their parents, or anyone else, to try and catch them. I have often noted that when children learn to walk, they don’t walk for very long. No, it is much more fun to run!
The people of Israel are no longer in that early walking stage when they were totally dependent on God’s provisions. Do you recall those days in the wilderness when God supplied them with the daily manna? Not that they were all that grateful for it. When they had meat they complained because there was no bread. When they had bread they complained because they had no meat. They knew they were totally dependent on God for their daily sustenance, and very often they weren’t happy about it... not at all. They preferred to be on their own.
Now, centuries later, like college freshmen they are living in wide-open spaces and they have found a new freedom never known before. But instead of using it to serve their God, they have fled to other gods, away from the One who has brought them out of bondage.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
says the Lord,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
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.
Their days of infancy are over. Their dependence on God for sustenance has waned, and Israel is stretching its wings, flying to places God never intended them to go.
It’s not surprising, if for no other reason than they are living in difficult times politically. Whenever there is political chaos (and who of us would argue that this speaks to our time as well?) people are going to go their own way and try to find their own solutions. They want it – whatever it is – and they want it their way. It is age-old, as old as Adam and Eve, and certainly as old as the days of the prophet Hosea.
In Hosea’s day, the northern kingdom, called Israel, has split from the southern kingdom of Judea. It was kind of like the reverse of our American Civil War. In this case, the north has seceded from the south. When David was king he had worked so hard to bring the two nations together, realizing how politically advantageous that would be. But now they have divided from one another again. While it might have provided a certain sense of short-lived satisfaction, what it really does is leave both nations vulnerable to the greedy and more powerful Assyrians.
But rather than invade the divided Israel, at least at this point, and taking the nation with its military might as the Babylonians were prone to do, the Assyrians found it much easier to slowly assimilate their culture, their ways, their gods into the life of the people. Just introduce their gods to them, entice them with promises of bigger and better things, encourage the people of Israel to turn their backs on the rigid commandments and rules established by their God. It’s much easier to slowly but surely entice people to walk in your direction than it is to bring them bound hand-and-foot against their will. You can catch more flies with honey, you see. But it’s still a death trap nonetheless.
I don’t often appeal to the gospel of Barney Fife, but I do think it might be appropriate at this point. Barney was famous for having said, “Nip it; just nip it in the bud.” Well, God has decided to do just that, when it comes to his rebellious children, and he has commissioned his prophet Hosea as the one who will bring the message to Israel. And it isn’t going to be pretty.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.
You can just see the blood running in the streets, can’t you? God has got a mad on, and he’s going to punish Israel and punish them good. God is not unlike an angry parent who comes after a rebellious and smart-mouthed teenager. When that kind of thing happens you don’t want to be anywhere near the vicinity. But sometimes, the worst punishment you can give someone is simply to walk away, leaving them to their own devices. In this case, God’s punishment is to put the fate of Israel in the hands of the Assyrians.
But all the time God talks of vengeance, you can sense the waffling in his voice. You can tell that something’s going on here, that while God is talking a vengeful game, you know that somehow he’s not going to deliver on his threats. At least, not in the long run.
You see, God went up into heaven’s attic and retrieved Israel’s baby book. God’s been looking at those old sepia-colored photos, and it takes God back to those days when his children took their first steps. God recalls the wobbling and falling, the getting back up, the struggles to become a nation of people who see themselves as the children of the one true God.
You can just see the tear in God’s eye, can’t you, can watch it as it trickles down his cheek? All the while God is issuing threats of rage, somehow you get the feeling that when push comes to shove it’s going to be more like the father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son than it will be a God of wrath who brings down destruction upon his people.
Imagine it like this... a teenage girl runs away from home. It’s been two or three weeks now and still no word. While the tears flow, the girl’s mother gets out the DVDs, turns on the player and watches the videos of her little one. There’s the day she was born. Remember the birth pain? Oh yes, but it was worth it. The first bite of solid food, the crawling, first steps, first words, first day of school, first everything. And now it has come to this.1
Well, God has gotten out his DVD player to watch the videos of his straying children. I loved, God says with the tears streaming down his face, I called, I taught, I took them in my arms, I healed, I led with cords of kindness, I bent down, I fed.2 If you’re tempted to think of God solely in masculine images, read this passage again and you will find, I think, that God has a feminine side as well. As God watches, his anger melts within him even though God knows that at that very moment his children are bending their knees to Baal, the god who is no god, the new love of Israel’s life.
You think it can’t happen here, going after other gods, but it can. It can happen here or anywhere at any time. It happened in Chicago. Elizabeth Boulton tells of a friend who pastors a small church there. The congregation almost split this past winter over the color of the carpet in the ladies’ parlor. This is the way Elizabeth puts it...
“On the night of the vote, the Northern Kingdom (the Maroon Camp) wouldn’t speak to the Southern Kingdom (the Forest Green Camp), and the moderator had to call for a secret ballot, the first in 75 years.
While they were voting, thousands of Haitians were leaving their makeshift homes to wade through rubble in order to hold an open-air worship service and conduct a national day of mourning. They lifted up their hands and their voices to remember the thousands of people buried in mass graves without a funeral, without flowers, without anyone sharing scripture’s proclamation of resurrection for the body and newness of life.”
Boulton continues... “My colleague called me from her office a few hours after the vote. With all the congregational drama, she had forgotten to pray for her brothers and sisters in Haiti. She was angry with herself and her people. While worshiping the carpet as if it were Baal, they did nothing to remember, nothing to soothe the pain or to help put back together the brokenness of the world.”3
How do you think – how do you honestly think – God looks upon us when we care more for the carpet than we do those who live in misery and despair and death?
I think I can tell you. If I understand the biblical message at all, I think I can tell you. God looks at us with our misplaced priorities, our desire to live life on our terms and not his, our penchant for running away when we feel God has gotten just a bit too close with his demands to follow him, and says gently to us...
How can I give you up...”
How can I hand you over...?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy...
For I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
No, God does not come in wrath. Instead, God comes in human form, flesh and blood, and takes us by the hand as a parent takes a small child. And God says, “Walk with me.” And as we journey together, God shows us things we cannot see on our own. God shows us how not to look at the carpet but at human need. God shows us to look beyond ourselves so we can see others with his eyes. God shows us what he sees and teaches us how to be his hands of healing. God encourages us to be his presence in a broken world.
And all the while, projected on the background of our journey together, stands the unmistakable shadow of a cross. If we will indeed walk with the one true God, without our usual excuses, our steps will take us there. And when our journey is complete, and our final steps taken, we will know that the stumbling and the wobbling and the falling – not to mention the getting back up – is all worth it.
As we take our steps with you, O Lord, may we journey in your direction. Help us to see with your eyes, and when all is said and done, find us faithful, faithful to you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1The idea for this imagery was taken from Elizabeth Myer Boulton, “Living the Word,” The Christian Century, July 27, 2010, p. 20.
2Paul Simpson Duke, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Year C, Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 295.