Sunday, July 24, 2022
Just a few months ago, I got a threatening notice in the mail. It was a red-light camera ticket for here at the intersection of Jackson Ave. and Jericho Turnpike. I go across that intersection at least once a day so I suppose it was bound to happen eventually. At first glance, I thought it couldn’t possibly have been me. Surely there had been a mistake! But there was a link to enter your information to view the camera video, and, well, I was busted. No question about it, I had run a red light, and Nassau County has a little bit more of my money than I had hoped. You know the feeling you have when you did something wrong and then you get caught for it? Yeah, I was feeling like that.
Today and next Sunday we’re going to focus on our first readings from a minor prophet whose story and writings you may not be so familiar with – Hosea. And I have to admit that I am pushing myself as a preacher to tackle these texts because prophets, even the big ones like Isaiah and Jeremiah, are prickly, harsh people to say the least. Probably the first thing that comes to mind when we think about the role of prophets is that of someone who predicts the future as we tend to focus on their foretelling of Christ coming as the Messiah. But scripturally speaking a prophet’s main role is to speak the word of the Lord to the people; to tell the truth even if it hurts. And unfortunately for the people of Israel in the Old Testament, it often hurts. Prophets clearly and sometimes vengefully pronounce God’s judgment for people’s sins. Like the video showing very clearly my ignoring the red-light rule at that intersection, prophets confrontationally hold up a mirror to society in order to expose sin so that people turn back to God. We might question some of their methods and whether their words and actions might be as effective today, and it’s OK to do that. As Christians who are seeking to always grow spiritually and honor God’s word in holy scripture, it is good for us to listen to these words of Hosea and try to learn from them. Also as Christians, it’s important to remember that Christ has the last word. In our gospel reading Christ certainly gives us the assurance not only of God’s law and judgment, but also of God’s grace and mercy.
Today, we have the short story of Hosea’s main calling as a prophet both to Israel and Judah, which were at this point divided into the northern and southern kingdoms. Many Israelites were worshipping other Canaanite gods to ensure fertile crops and fertile women among other things. It seems they had a “whatever works” mentality by jumping to worship one god and then another god, whomever seemed to give them the most success at the moment. Notice that Hosea does not speak at all in this passage. Instead, he shocks the people of Israel out of their infidelity to the one true God by marrying a woman with a reputation of being unfaithful and then naming his three children names that declare God’s judgment upon the people for their unfaithfulness. Those poor children! It seems unimaginable that anyone would go to such lengths today to convict people of their sin. However, Hosea is not alone among prophets to embody rather than speak God’s word by marrying Gomer (whose name means “the end,” by the way). Isaiah walks around naked in Jerusalem for three years and Jeremiah wears a yoke around his neck to warn of the Babylonian captivity, for example.
Hosea’s story still shocks us today to hold up a mirror to our own infidelity to God. How have we been unfaithful? We may not literally worship other gods like the Israelites of Hosea’s time, but we don’t have to think too hard or long to confess the ways that we have put our faith and trust in other things. Around the same time I got the red light ticket, we got our car insurance renewal certificates in the mail. I looked at the back where there were some tips on what to do if an accident occurs, and was reminded that one of the pieces of advice is step #5: “Never admit fault,” going on to explain that even if you are pretty sure you caused an accident, an investigation into the incident may prove your innocence. Since the beginning of time, human beings first reaction to an accusation of guilt has been to “never admit fault.” Blame someone else. Deny responsibility. Lie, even to yourself, that you are innocent. Our society literally tells us to not admit our sins and protect ourselves from liability. It takes the courage of one like Hosea and the gift of the Holy Spirit for us to come before God in confession as we do every Sunday to say to God, “I’m sorry. I messed up. I have been unfaithful. I got out of the habit of regular worship. I can’t remember the last time I honestly prayed. I have spent abundantly more on myself and ignored the poor and needy. I have devastated God’s creation with my overconsumption. I have not loved God or my neighbor as I ought.” And the list can go on and on. These are difficult things to admit and to say to God. No one likes feeling guilty. But the secularization of our society and the abundance of Christians in name only who do not engage regularly in any kind of spiritual practice including being an active part of a church community tells us that our unfaithfulness is real and a problem. God continues to grieve over our unfaithfulness.
And yet, Hosea’s story is not just one of God’s frustration and judgment because of our unfaithfulness. It is easy to get stuck in the shock of being found out as guilty and then to dismiss the prophets as “too hellfire and brimstone” for our modern tastes. If we go back to the actual text of the first chapter of Hosea and continue to read to the next chapter we see how deep and wide the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness is for unfaithful sinners like us when we fess up and admit it. God doesn’t just paint a vivid picture of our separation from God, but includes just as vivid a picture of God’s faithfulness to us. Just as Hosea remains faithful to Gomer despite her unfaithfulness, so the Lord will never give up on his people despite their unfaithfulness. “In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘children of the living God.’” The Lord promises to eliminate war and bring about peace. Hosea’s children are given new names which literally mean “pity,” and “my people.” The Lord reclaims us as his people again and again and again through this cycle of confession and forgiveness.
Jesus paints a picture of our heavenly Father’s faithfulness in the gospel for this morning: “if we who are evil know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will the heavenly Father give to those who ask him?” This is the amazing grace of God for us to constantly be astonished by: a God who sticks by us even when we abandon him, a God who calls us his children even when we do wrong, a God who gives generously and abundantly all kinds of good gifts simply because we ask. A God who sends his only son to die shockingly on a cross for our sakes as a visible prophetic sign of the height, width, breadth and depth of the love of God for us. Even when we are faithless, God is faithful. This picture of faithfulness then can inspire us to embody faithfulness to God in return in word and deed in thanksgiving for what God has done for us. When we visit the sick, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry. When we speak words of comfort to someone who is grieving and forgive others who sin against us just as God has forgiven our sins. May we pay attention to the Lord’s call to deeper faithfulness and rejoice along with Hosea and his family in Christ’s last word for us: we are children of the living God. Amen.