August 4 Sermon: Misguided Youth
God and Israel have a troubled relationship, and the prophet Hosea likes to express the nature of that trouble with images drawn from troubled human families. Last week Hosea likened Israel to an adulterous wife and her God to a spurned and jealous husband. This week, God is the loving and long-suffering parent of an ungrateful and rebellious child.
It wasn’t always this way between God and Israel. The Lord fondly remembers the good ol’ days of their relationship, when God parted the Red Sea waters and liberated the Israelites from slavery. God led them through desert wastes for 40 longs years, in a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of flame by night. Those were the days of miracles, when God rained bread from heaven on the Israelites, and God caused water to pour forth from rocks, lest they starve or die of thirst in the desert. God gave them two stone tablets carved with the Ten Commandments. These commandments taught Israel how to love God with their whole being—heart, soul, mind, and strength—and how to love their neighbors as themselves.
Hosea, or to be more precise, the Lord speaking through the mouth of the prophet, likens these events to tender acts of parental love toward a small child. Unlike in Cecil B. DeMille’s rendering of the Exodus, the God who speaks here sounds more like a tender and compassionate mother than a fearsome patriarch. God gathers Israel in her arms and nurses her. God guides Israel by the hand and lets her go, if only for a moment so that she can learn to steady herself and walk on her own. God was a vigilant parent, protective of her offspring. Hosea invites us to think of those “Thou shalt nots” as “cords of human kindness and bands of love,” kind of like those harnesses some parents put on their children to keep them from bolting into the street where hatred and meanness go whizzing by. I know, I know, everybody has opinions about putting your kids on a lease, but in Hosea 11, at least, it appears as though God is “that kind of parent.”
Now maybe God, or the prophet speaking on God’s behalf, is looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. Israel in the Wilderness was shall we say, a fussy baby. At nearly every turn she balked and cried out in fear. Just like we forget the misery of staying up all night with a cranky, colicky baby when that baby has grown up to be a curfew-breaking adolescent, God, or perhaps the prophet, has forgotten about Israel’s past idolatry and ingratitude in the face of its present rebellious behavior.
But far worse is the fact that Israel has forgotten. Maybe she never remembered. Good parents never get enough credit, even from good children, because we can only remember part of what we put them through. We don’t remember how they walked us around the apartment while we were teething. We don’t remember how we tried their patience when we spat out everything. Applesauce, strained peas, mashed up carrots—nothing satisfied us. And so you get a child who was loved and protected at his or her most vulnerable, doesn’t remember a lick of it, therefore isn’t inclined to say thank you, and is ready to assert his or her own autonomy. In other words, a teenager. And that was Hosea’s doom, to prophecy to Israel in its spiritual adolescence.
“They kept sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols.” Israel has fallen in with the wrong crowd. The wrong crowd often defeats the parents in the battle for the teenager’s loyalty because they offer so much for so little: friendship, acceptance, fun, pleasure, and no demands regarding moral character, academic achievement, delayed gratification, and the like. So it was with the gods of Israel’s gentile neighbors. Go to the pagan shrine, slay the fatted calf, make an appointment with the temple prostitute, and next year your barns will be full and our wife will be nursing another son. No onerous requirements to do justice for orphans, widows, and aliens. No moralizing about leering at your neighbor’s spouse or livestock with a greedy eye. Wouldn’t it be great to worship a god who promised you everything and asked nothing of you!
“The more I called them, the more they went from me.” The Lord raised up judges, anointed kings, and commissioned one prophet after another to beg and cajole the Israelites to return. It didn’t work. In fact, it seemed to have the opposite effect. The more mom begged her wayward son to be home in bed on time, and get his homework done, the more he stayed out all night, and the more Ds and Fs he racked up. So the Lord adopted a new strategy. You’re an adult now, Israel. You’re too big to wear a leash, and I’m done repeating myself. You will have to decide whether there is wisdom in my words. You will have to decide whether to walk with me of your own free will or play in traffic. If you choose the latter, the consequences are yours to bear.
The political and military balance of power in the 8th century BC was the background to Hosea’s colorful family metaphors. To the northeast, the ruthless Assyrian Empire was on the rise. Coups and revolts had turned the gates of the king’s palace into a revolving door. Her kings vacillated between buying off the Assyrians with tribute money, cobbling together a coalition of their smaller neighbors in order to withstand them, or, irony of ironies, looking to their old oppressors, the Egyptians, to defend them. The Israelite people covered their bets by worshipping every deity available. Craftiness, weapons, and back-scratching will save us, the Israelites believed. Israel simply couldn’t believe that her future could be secured by devotion to the God who had saved her and by practicing the kind of neighborliness God wanted her to practice. Hosea saw all this scheming and dithering as Israel unharnessed and playing in traffic. The consequences would be dire: Israel defeated in battle, her cities plundered by the enemy, her people marched off into exile.
Seeing Israel on the road to ruin, the Lord seems to feel the same grim satisfaction that some human parents feel when their children learn the hard way that Mom and Dad were right all along. But the Lord God is no mere mortal. So the Lord God will no abide forever in a state of grim satisfaction. God’s covenant with Israel is eternal and unconditional, and through faith in Jesus Christ, we become partners with God in an eternal and unconditional covenant. Not that faith in Christ does away with divine discipline or accountability. That would make our God just another idol. But God’s discipline is always bounded and limited by God’s warm and tender compassion. Human parents may cut off their children or write them out of their wills, but God’s love endures forever.
The difference between adolescent assertions of autonomy and mature freedom is this: the rebellious adolescent flouts parental wisdom and courts the very disasters that good parents once prevented them from going near simply because he can, because he’s off the leash. Mature and free adults needn’t be harnessed or leashed because they’ve internalized the wisdom and warnings of their parents. They know better than to play in traffic. The commandments—don’t make idols, rest and worship on the Sabbath, don’t steal, kill, lie, or commit adultery—are not done away with when we come to faith in Christ. Instead, as Christ takes up residence within us, he gives us a new heart and a new will that recoils from evil and seeks out God’s loving nature.
The difference between spiritually misguided youth and spiritually mature adult is not a function of chronological age. The teenager who trusts in God to provide for her needs, obeys the commandments because goodness is its own reward, and views her future career and choice of a life partner as opportunities to glorify God is well on her way to attaining maturity in Christ. The middle aged church-goer who pays lip service to God, but in his heart of hearts trusts his handgun or alarm system for safety, his stock broker for prosperity, the latest fad diet for longevity, still has a lot of growing up to do. The same thing can be true of whole congregations who put their institutional survival in the hands of the preacher’s charisma, or good advertising and PR, or political favor. The false gods change from generation to generation, yet they never seem to have any trouble beguiling the people of God. But the old, old story is true: the future belongs to those who love God and neighbor and invite others to join them on the journey of discipleship, not to those who put their trust in mere human powers.
In light of Hosea’s reflections on rebellious Israel and her long-suffering parent, I want to invite you to do two things. First, come to this table. Unlike other meals, where we turn food and drink into us, at this meal, Jesus Christ turns us more and more into him, and the more we are like him, the freer we are. True freedom is not the ability to do as I please. True freedom is unhindered love of God and our fellow human beings. Free from resentment or regrets about the past, and free from fears about the future.
The second invitation is this: let Hosea’s metaphors lead you to think for a moment about your own family. Reach out this week to a family member you have a distant or strained relationship with. Don’t try to put everything back together in one phone call or text message, but use the freedom Christ has given you to kindle a flame of compassion where there is coldness. Everything is connected. If we can make some small contribution to the health of our families, then the household of God will be a warmer body, and this violent, angry society in which we live will be more peaceful.