Our Old Testament reading for this day was Hosea, chapter 11, vs. 1-9. My sermon for today will examine the passage in more detail than a lesson reading can offer first. Next, the reading will be summarized. Finally, we will need to face the consequences of this passage for us; there is a lesser consequence for us, and a greater consequence.
The reading will be found on page 842 in the front—Old Testament—section of your pew Bibles, so I ask you to turn to that page while we take the detailed look at this reading. While you’re at it, I want you to think of a double-decker baloney sandwich: One slice of bread, one slice of baloney; a second slice of bread, a second slice of baloney; finally, a third slice of bread to top off the whole sandwich.
Let’s start with the first slice of bread, from Hosea 11, verse 1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” In its original context, my son meant—and still means—my people Israel, called out of Egypt in the Exodus. We Christians need to remember this meaning, because Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 2 verses 13 through 15, suggests that this passage applied to the infant Jesus and was fulfilled when the Holy Family returned from Egypt after the death of Herod the Great.
More importantly, Hosea 11 verse 1 also alludes to the God who first loves us, and appeals to us to respond to His love with love of our own.
The first slice of baloney in this reading comes from Hosea 11, verse 2: “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” Let’s set the scene a bit: King Jehu was the Destroyer of Baal-worship in the Northern Kingdom. As a reward for Jehu’s efforts against the worship of Baal and against the family of Ahab, the Almighty made this promise to King Jehu: “The LORD said to Jehu, ‘Because you have done well in carrying out what I consider right, and in accordance with all that was in my heart have dealt with the house of Ahab, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel.’ “(2 Kings 10: 30). Hosea’s prophecies took place during the reign of Jeroboam son of Joash or Jeroboam the Second—the great-grandson of King Jehu.
A little note on the Northern Kingdom’s political history is in order here: Ever since the reign of Jeroboam the First—in other words, ever since the ten Northern tribes rebelled against Judah and Benjamin—the kings of the Northern Kingdom feared reconciliation with the Almighty more than anything. If they reconciled with the God of the tribe of Judah, such a reconciliation would—from their point of view—negate the whole purpose of their rebellion against Judah and against the descendants of King Rehoboam son of Solomon.
Now for the second slice of bread in that double-decker baloney sandwich. Against that fear, the Almighty continues in verses 3 and 4: “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim [the Northern Kingdom] to walk, 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.” These verses explain themselves well enough—until we consider what “lifting infants to their cheeks” means. Is the Almighty actually comparing Godself to a human mother here, nursing the Northern Kingdom the way a mother would nurse her own child? This would be yet another powerful symbol of a God who loves the Northern Kingdom first and asks the Northern Kingdom to reply with love.
Now, the second slice of baloney in our double-decker sandwich. Alas, the Northern Kingdom refuses the Almighty; verses 5 through 7 state the consequences of that refusal: They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 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 lift them up at all.” Return, in this context, is the Hebrew word shub—which is also the Hebrew word that refers to repentance. Because Israel will not—or even can not—return to the LORD, they will return to that place where they were most sorely oppressed, and to that time before they were even a family, let alone a nation (Remember Jacob son of Isaac, and remember his twelve sons too).
Verses 5 through 7 state the consequences of the Northern Kingdom’s refusal to return to the Lord, and provide the second slice of baloney in our double-decker sandwich. There is a third slice of bread, however, that completes the double-decker baloney sandwich: Verses 8 and 9—the last two verses in the passage—state that the Lord will return to the Northern Kingdom: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim?” Before I continue, let me note here that Admah and Zeboiim were two cities that suffered the same fate, at the same time, for much the same reasons, as Sodom and Gomorrah. The Almighty, however, cannot abandon the Northern Kingdom to fiery destruction and catastrophe; he continues: “My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. 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.”
To summarize this reading: God’s steadfast love for all Israel begins no later than, and probably earlier than, Israel’s existence as a nation. The Northern Kingdom responds with ingratitude in a thousand and one different ways. The people of the Northern Kingdom will face the unavoidable consequences of their ingratitude, to be sure; however, they will also face a God who cannot stop loving them no matter what happens.
But what are the consequences for us of such an encounter with such a God?
Firstly, Christian commentators on this passage have remarked that this prophecy of Hosea naturally suggests Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. This reading of the passage isn’t wrong at all--especially if we assume the role of the loving Father in that parable.
But I offer for you a greater consequence of this encounter: We, together with the Almighty, are trapped in a plight of desperate resistance on our part combined with desperate love on the part of God. We, together with God, are living in the same state of alienation from each other that the Northern Kingdom lived in throughout Hosea’s time as a prophet and beyond. And we, by our own efforts, cannot attempt reconciliation with God without fatally undermining the rationale for what we did.