Rev. Teri Peterson
31 July 2016, P2-3 (overflowing: healing)
The prophet Hosea lived in the mid-700s BC, and most of his words were directed toward the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the years leading up to being conquered by the Assyrian Empire. His poetry is full of metaphors, puns, and plays-on-words that aren’t always obvious to us in English. Most of Hosea’s book uses the metaphor of family to talk about God and God’s people. The covenant relationship between God and humans is like a marriage, or like a parent and child. It hurts when family members turn away, or when they behave in ways so contrary to the values we hold dear. That’s true for God too—God’s heart is grieved by the way God’s family has behaved. But because this family is formed by God’s covenant love, even after all Hosea’s message of condemnation, every poem ends with healing and hope. Today we are reading the last chapter of the book, Hosea 14 verses 1 through 9.
Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take words with you
and return to the Lord;
say to him,
‘Take away all guilt;
accept that which is good,
and we will offer
the fruit of our lips.
Assyria shall not save us;
we will not ride upon horses;
we will say no more, “Our God”,
to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy.’
I will heal their disloyalty;
I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
he shall blossom like the lily,
he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon.
His shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive tree,
and his fragrance like that of Lebanon.
They shall again live beneath my shadow,
they shall flourish as a garden;
they shall blossom like the vine,
their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols?
It is I who answer and look after you.
I am like an evergreen cypress;
your faithfulness comes from me.
Those who are wise understand these things;
those who are discerning know them.
For the ways of the Lord are right,
and the upright walk in them,
but transgressors stumble in them.
Many of us are so accustomed to thinking of the Old Testament as being all anger and destruction, or boring repetition of names we can’t pronounce, that we forget that the same God we know in Christ is also God in the Old Testament. This summer as we have been reading, we’ve had lots of weeks where it felt like the body count was the most abundant thing about the people’s experience of God, or where we couldn’t see our way to grace through the litany of the different imaginative ways people have found to worship other gods.
But then we stumble on passages like this one. There are more of them than we think—it may be a sentence here and there, or a poem or paragraph in the midst of a frighteningly long recital of battles, but they’re there. Throughout scripture—from beginning to end—the beauty of God’s unending love is woven in.
Today, at the end of the book of the prophet Hosea, we get this beautiful image—God’s healing love will flow so freely that the people will blossom, their roots will grow deep, they will be fruitful and flourishing like olive trees and grape vines. God will be the dew refreshing the plants each morning, the shade under which they will dwell secure. Here, in the very last verses of a prophet who spoke such hard words just a few chapters ago, is the unconditional love, healing, and restoration that we know God to be.
And these images—blossom like the lily, beauty like the olive tree, roots like the forests of Lebanon, flourishing like a garden—are traditional images. They come from stories like the blessing that Isaac gave to Jacob and from poetry like the Song of Songs. Hosea isn’t the first to relay this promise from God—his words echo the same story God has been telling through Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Miriam and Ruth and Naomi and Esther and Job and Josiah and Jeremiah and thousands of others, from the beginning.
In fact, the way God speaks in the middle of today’s reading: “I will heal…I will love…I will be like the dew…”—all those “I will”s are the same word as the word God takes as a name when speaking to Moses at the burning bush. “I am who I am”…or “I will be who I will be.” Here we see who God will be: healer, lover, provider. There in God’s name, revealed in Exodus chapter 3, is the reality that Hosea now reveals to the people, and to us: that through all the things we might do, God will be who God will be—and God chooses to be faithful to the covenant, even when God’s covenant partners aren’t. God chooses to forgive, even before we come forward with our confession. God chooses to seek us out, over and over, never giving up on compassion and love.
And eventually, we are found by grace…again and again. As the people are called to confess at the beginning of the chapter—when we look to human powers and systems to save us, God will find us with grace. When we build up military might and rely on it for our strength, God will find us with grace. When we turn to the idols we have made, whether in the form of statues or systems, money or ideals, God will find us with grace, and will breathe new life into us, giving us what we need to walk in the ways of the Lord.
God knows that we will stumble, and that we will need finding again. We sometimes forget that reality, and we think we can be righteous and faithful on our own. We rely on our willpower, and we castigate ourselves and each other for not living up to the rules. We create systems that tell us if we are being good enough or not, and rewards and punishments that we draw out of context from scripture and apply to the afterlife, or to the prosperity or hardship we experience in this one. But God tells us the truth in verse 8: “your faithfulness comes from me.”
If we are able to be faithful, it is because God is faithful.
We love because God first loved us.
Or, as Desmond Tutu said at the top of the bulletin today: God says “you are lovable because I love you.”
Not because we made ourselves lovable. Not because we said the right words or did the right things. We are lovable because God loves us. Because God is love.
Yes, God is angry in some of these stories we have read this summer. But as many of us know, anger is rarely the primary emotion—it’s the symptom of something else. The book of Hosea offers us a possibility: that anger is part of God’s grief. God longs for the kind of relationship with the creation that is founded on mutual care, on justice and peace, on love. That’s the basis of the covenant—God has demonstrated love and care for us, has enacted justice and offered peace…and our side is supposed to be to do the same. Because we have been loved, we are to love others. Because we have been cared for, we are to care for others. Because we have experienced justice and peace, we are to create it for others. God is longing for a world where what God offers to us then overflows through us into the whole world.
When that doesn’t happen, God grieves. And sometimes that looks like anger—calling us to account for the ways we have held up the streams of living water, hoarding them for ourselves or diverting them for other uses, and for the times when we have attributed God’s blessings to ourselves or to other gods of our own design and so have failed to be grateful and to pass them on. But through the angry moments, there is a deeper truth: God has no intention of giving up on God’s people. God is faithful, and it is from God that we learn to be faithful too.
God’s promise is true: God’s care for us extends from roots to blossoms, cultivating us in faith, hope, and love until we flourish like the garden of Eden. We are found by grace, healing overflows, forgiveness is already real, and we are constantly being restored as partners in God’s covenant. We are lovable, because we are loved.
Thanks be to God. Amen.