Ropes of Love
Sunday, November 10, 2019
Intern Teleen Saunders
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I have spent the vast majority of my life working with children; first as an elementary school teacher and later as a stay-at-home mom. And so I feel bitter-sweet that our youngest child received her first college acceptance letter just this past week. It looks like the countdown to an empty nest has officially begun. Yes, I know they move back home. And yes, I know that they still rely on us for tuition, healthcare, and moral support, but it’s momentous, nonetheless. So, I can’t help but bring my own perspective from years of parenting to today’s reading. And I don’t think that’s an accident. I believe the prophet Hosea is intentionally using the power of poetry as a way to make God understood in the lives of everyday people because the language of parent and child used here not only simplifies God’s thoughts and actions for the people of ancient Israel but simplifies God’s thoughts and actions for us today too. And actually, that is one of the jobs of a prophet, an often misunderstood role in the Bible. It’s not a typical job in our modern society. No one claims “prophet” on their tax return. I like to define a prophet as “someone who speaks to God for the people and someone who speaks to the people for God”. This is most certainly true for Hosea. For in today’s reading it’s not Hosea’s voice we hear – but God’s voice.
Here, we are invited to pass through the historical events of the time to experience God’s inner most thoughts and feelings. We discover that God is not an impassive spectator, but a passionate and committed participant in the lives of her children. Where the role of fathering God or mothering God are both appropriate.
Speaking as the voice of God, Hosea writes, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt. But when I called the people of Israel, they went away from me. They offered sacrifices to the Baals and burned incense to the idols.” Our text today brings us to a time and place where the people of Israel are caught between religion and politics. Israel’s location provided the people rich agricultural lands and access to both the Jordan river and Mediterranean Sea opening up trade routes for economic security and cultural advancement. This land and these people were blessed! God had been so good and delivered on the promises made to Israel’s ancestors – God’s children. Hosea’s words reveal the type of relationship that we often take for granted. The bond between a parent and a child defies common sense. Children are needy, messy, loud, demanding, and expensive! But so far, the human species keeps reproducing! Maybe because at the end of the day, it’s a sloppy kiss and a monkey hug that make everything worth it.
And so God relates to us as if we are children: “It was I who taught Israel to walk, and I took them by the arms, but they did not understand that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ropes of love.” Here the analogy of parent and child is very interesting because as children, we have freedom. We are not slaves indebted to an overlord. And we are not chattel to be led around by a yoke or harness. Rather, God uses ropes of love to guide our lives because God wants us to prosper, not in riches, but in relation to God and others. But in this freedom, the children of God have failed.
As Israel’s faith weakens, the more powerful country of Assyria advances into their territory and begins to spread pagan cultural and religious practices. And when the Israelites bow down to these foreign gods it is nothing short of betrayal. A brutal betrayal that cuts to the heart and leaves an omnipotent, all powerful God vulnerable to the unfathomable pain of abandonment.
“My people have made up their minds to turn away from me. The prophets call them to turn to me, but none of them honors me at all.”
For anyone who has experienced abandonment, this is a difficult text because these are difficult emotions, and little has changed in three thousand years because we are still turning away from God’s promises! Husbands, wives, parents, friends, siblings, neighbors, co-workers – we can all easily fall to the empty promises of idols, even in the midst of blessing. And we know that idols come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. If you or a loved one has ever succumb to the ravages of addiction, mental illness, disordered eating, perfectionism, defeatism, greed, self-harm, or any other idol that will take you away from the promises and plans that God has made for your life, then you know the kind of abandonment expressed here today. You know how easily these temptations can destroy the natural inclination to life when lies overshadow God’s truth.
And God cares. God cares deeply. God struggles between abandoning Israel to escape this relationship of pain and holding on to the very people he loves so much. A relationship that demands tough love.
And so, we move into a part of the Old Testament that gives the Old Testament a muddy reputation. This is the part where God allows the people to suffer, not as a punishment, but as a natural consequence of their sin. God is moved towards a righteous anger out of a jealous love for his people. Never acting out of capriciousness or vindictiveness but always in the service of grace. God punishes only in order to save—knocking down the wayward child if that is the only way to keep it from stepping into traffic.
Here, God’s law and God’s grace clash with the anguished questions to Israel, “How can I give you up? How can I give you away?” And in this moment, I’m not really sure God knows the answer. But God is in relation with God’s people. God cannot set aside this love, just as God cannot set aside divinity. This relationship IS love.
God is forever resolving the inner-tension between wrath and love in favor of love—for “wrath” is what God does when warnings and punishments are necessary to preserve life and when protection is required for the oppressed; but “grace” is who God is, now and always.
Like Israel, we too stand under the divine wrath of God (Rom 3:5). But through baptism in Christ we also live under God’s grace (Rom 3:24). The incarnate Christ came not to appease the angry God of the Old Testament but to deliver on God’s promise that nothing, not even death, will separate us from the love of God. Jesus is the full and final resolution granting us freedom, healing our disloyalty, and bestowing upon us the unconditional status of God’s children.
So, when God says, “I am God and not a human: I am the Holy One, and I am among you.” God is making a promise to continually extend “ropes of love” with freedom and grace. God is a promise keeper – the perfect parent. And just like the college student who is always welcome back home, we too can always come back to God. For we will always be God’s children. Amen