When I was growing up my little brother, Evan, had this annoying habit that bothered all of the kids in the family. When we would get in trouble, our parents would discipline us all together at the same time. My parents would dole out the punishment for our crimes and me and the other 2 older children would be unified in our anger towards our parents. We would stand with a stiff lip and frown on while we were told how many days we would have to go without TV or how many weekends we were grounded or whatever the punishment was.
Then, almost always, our parents would send us up to our rooms to give us and them some space. We were all a little tense from the family tribunal. The three older children would quickly file out of the room, still mad and making sure our parents saw how resolved we were to be upset at what we thought was unjust punishment.
Meanwhile, my little brother who was maybe 5 years old at this time, would get big baby crocodile tears in his eyes and break down. He would start crying and he always said the same thing: “I need some lovin’…” And with arms open wide, he would rush back towards my parents.
O this made us older children so mad. As we filed out of the room, Evan stayed behind to “get some lovin’” from my parents. He would cry and they would hug him, they would wrap him up in their arms in a big bear hug. It was so annoying!!
We were determined never to talk to them again (at least if felt like that) and not 2 seconds after the discipline, Evan was wrapped up with them on the bed in a big ball of love and tears. It was like nothing had ever happened for Evan at that point.
Now, my parents still made Evan go up to his room. Even though they gave him the “lovin’” he had cried for, they stuck to the discipline they dolled out. But while the older 3 of us sat in our rooms sulking, thinking about how unjust we thought life was, Evan was playing with his stuffed animals and having a good time in his room.
He had already asked for forgiveness, been taken back into a good relationship with my parents, and moved on with his life.
As mad as this made the older three of us, I think what my little brother was doing is something like what Hosea 14 is telling us to do today. Don’t tell my brother I said his actions as a little kid were biblical, we still let him believe he was crazy for that!
In Hosea, we have the story of Israel. Israel was under pressure to assimilate to the invading Assyrian forces. In order to fall in line with this new threat, they would have to abandon many of their practices that kept them in a relationship with God.
In comes the prophet Hosea who sees Israel’s unfaithfulness and God uses Hosea to call them out on this. The whole book of Hosea is full of harsh and direct images of what is going to happen to Israel because they weren’t faithful.
If you read the first 13 chapters of Hosea, there isn’t a ton of hope in there. The picture painted is a bleak one, but one that God makes clear is justified because of their wrongdoing. But chapter 14 turns towards most clearly to hope. In fact, chapter 14 when you begin to think about it, isn’t just hopeful; it’s downright tender and precious.
Verses 1-3 begin with what Israel needs to do. God, through Hosea, tells Israel what they need to say and how they need to act. They need to stop worshiping the Assyrian gods, they need to stop paying taxes to them and pay the temple again, and in general, they need to return to God in all parts of their life.
Hosea tells Israel they should ask God for forgiveness and then stop trusting in their own ways. Even though it makes sense to their human minds, stop relying on what you can see, the army right in front of them. Stop relying on what they can do, what they could make with their own hands. Instead, they are supposed to say, “Lord, forgive all wickedness; and receive the good” (v. 2).
As soon as they do that, right away in verse 4, God tells them what will happen when they turn from their ways and trust in God again. God tells them “I will heal [your] faithlessness; I will love [you] freely…” (v. 4).
As if Divine love wasn’t enough of a promise, verses 5-8 paint an incredible picture of God’s love and provision. For us modern readers hearing these verses, it probably didn’t sound all that exceptional. But if we look at what God was saying in that time, it really is amazing.
God was comparing God’s self to dew in the midst of a dry place. God says that it will be like forests full of shade in the midst of scorching heat. God’s love for them will be like a beautiful garden that will blossom and be fragrant like the most incredible gardens on earth.
What God is promising is more than the imposing Assyrian army could ever promise. The Assyrians told Israel, serve us and we will give you protection and you will survive. Not a terrible deal, really. But God in turn tells them, serve me and I won’t just let you survive, but you will flourish like you never have before.
Just like that. Turn around, walk the other way, sin no more, ask for forgiveness and it is done. Just like my little brother: right after he had done wrong and my parents disciplined us, he turned around with open arms and begged for their love. Of course, they were waiting to give us all that love, all we had to do was turn around and accept it.
But I can tell you that as a young teenager when my little brother began to weep and beg for their love, that was the last thing I wanted to do. Sure, I wanted my parents to forgive me, I didn’t want to be upset. But there is some stubborn thing in us that makes it really hard to turn right around and fall into open arms of mercy. It’s hard to change what we’ve got comfortable doing, even if it isn’t all we hoped for. The will to survive is strong, but survival and flourishing are two different things.
Israel’s story in Hosea isn’t new. If you read the Bible before our story in Hosea, you will notice the pattern of Israel loving God, living faithfully, and then when times get tough, they turn away in doubt and fear. They worship idols and don’t live faithfully because the physical and present threat of a human army seems worse than what might happen if they don’t serve God who can feel far off in the distance.
And we can’t blame them. Their are present realities in our lives that demand choices from us. We are human which means we have wants and desires that seem more important only because they are so present and immediate. It is easy to ignore the long-view God is asking us to take by trusting God.
So instead of being faithful, we settle for a cheap and temporary satisfaction. We make decisions out of fear and longing, based on pain and hurt. We see the armies around us in our lives and it is so easy and natural to want to survive. We will do whatever it takes to make our lives a little better, a little easier. We will give in to the demands of idols because the present threat of hunger, hurt and harm are so real.
But God is not carrying a carrot on a stick in front of us. God isn’t saying serve me and I will give you protection. That is no better than the Assyrian’s or whatever your present threat is. God doesn’t promise temporary happiness or a fleeting protection.
God’s promise is a flourishing, full life. Eternal life. It’s not temporary good, but eternal great.
And this is hard to live into every day. Sure, most of us probably acknowledge that we would rather have eternal flourishing over a quick day’s protection. But when the rubber meets the road, we feel the needs our human bodies have and we forget that the best the world can offer lasts only for a moment.
And God knows this too. God sees our lives and I think God knows how difficult it can be to trust. I think God sees our humanity and empathizes, understands, our tough choices. So instead of cutting us off for good and letting us rot under the weight of our own choices, God gives forgiveness again and again.
Just like my parents knew that we weren’t always ready to be forgiven right away, they patiently and always waited for us all to come back, even if it wasn’t immediate like my snot-nosed little brother!
The story of Israel is one of faithfulness, lack of faith, pain and forgiveness. There is a constant cycle of Israel trusting then not trusting. When they trusted God, God was ALWAYS faithful and provided everything they needed, even though it came in ways they couldn’t have expected and were hard to believe. But when they didn’t trust, when they allowed their fear to dictate how they lived, they suffered under foreign rule and often paid the price for following their narrow-sighted ways.
God’s protection for us in Hosea is described uniquely as shade from a tree. The only place you can use the shade from a tree is if you are under that tree or close to it. I think that might be what it’s like with God. The shade is there always, God promises to love us with a love that knows no bounds and is unlike any other. But like any sort of shade, you have to be close to the tree, under it often times, to feel the coolness of its shade.
Hosea reminds us that there are real threats in our lives. There are present dangers that worry us. We are hungry, we are needy, we get tired and make decisions based on fear and feeling vulnerable. And God sees us in our humanity. God sees our weakness and says, “come rest in my shade.” God offers more than simple and fleeting protection, God offers free love and a flourishing eternal life.
This will be hard. We won’t get it right. We will pay taxes to the wrong people and do harm. But along the way God will come and ask us to turn around, to stop relying on our own understanding and trust God instead.
God will give us people like Hosea, perhaps a church or friend or walk in the woods, that remind us that there is a better, fuller, thicker way of living. We don’t have to settle for a temporary hype, instead, we trust that caring for the widow and the orphan really is what God has called us to do. Instead, we believe that self-serving, me-first ways of thinking is not how God has called us to live. Putting our own needs before all others is not what is required.
We love freely because that is how we have been loved. We hope and help others flourish because that is what we are promised. We repent and ask others to repent because we know being human, living here, it is messy and we don’t get it right very often.
But that’s OK. Put down your load, take up God’s, and come sit in the shade of the love of our creator. Come sit in the cool garden that refreshes and gives life like no one else or nothing else can.
Live in community, full of love for each other because we need each other to flourish, more than survive.
Today, like most every other day, is an opportunity to turn around, remember that there is more than what’s right in front of you, and live into the free love of God that will always be with you.
O God, we ask and believe in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Grace & Peace, Pastor Cole