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Yoked with Mercy

A Homily from Hosea 11:1-11

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

August 1, 2004 (18th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Our reading from Hosea from last Sunday felt not unlike getting poked several times with a sharp stick. Hosea described our relationship with God as a marriage. Throughout the text, mixed in with powerful images of God’s love for us, were several equally powerful images of how our infidelity hurts God. It’s difficult to read that passage without feeling a bit wounded.

Today’s reading from Hosea is, in many ways, a salve for that wound. Where we previously heard of God as our spouse, today Hosea tells us of God as our parent. We already know from the earlier chapters that Hosea had three children, and it’s not surprising that, just as the prophet’s marriage became a personal metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel; so also does an intimate portrait of what it means to raise a child become another metaphor for that relationship.

As Christians, we take that metaphor a step further. We do not think in terms of God’s covenant with a particular nation or with a certain group of people; but with each of us as individuals. For us, then, this text is a metaphor within a metaphor. Whereas the nation of Israel was the object of Hosea’s story; for us Israel is symbolic of our role in a new covenant as God’s chosen people.

Thus, when Hosea begins with God reminiscing about Israel’s liberation from Egypt; our question becomes, “What is our Egypt?” Where were we in bondage? From what kind of slavery has God liberated us?

People who are recovering from addictions might have a ready answer there. They often use that kind of language: “freed” from alcoholism or “freed” from drug addiction. You will also hear it in many conservative churches, where people talk of being “freed” from sin. Over here on the leftward side of Christianity, however, we don’t use those particular words as often.

That is probably a mistake on our part. Here in Hosea God treats the liberation of Israel from Egypt as their birth. It was the point at which the nation became the collective child of God. God says, “I loved them. I called them out of Egypt. I did it for them.” It was in acting for the children of Jacob, in doing for them what they could not do for themselves, that God became their parent.

For humans, it is a very short journey from birth to rebellion. Being freed by the hand of God did not stop the newly liberated Israelites from sacrificing to other gods. When the need was not longer pressing, they were easily distracted by other things; and they forgot why they had so desperately needed God.

Any father or mother understands this principle. Your infant crawls over to something shiny and it stabs them. When curiosity turns to pain, the only thing that will comfort them is Mommy or Daddy. They cry and wail until you pick them up and hold them. Then, when the pain goes away, they crawl away looking for other shiny things – no longer interested in being held. Repeat this process fifty times a day for 6 months, and you have every child’s life from age six months to one year.

We humans never outgrow looking for the next shiny thing, which is why it is unwise to let go of the language of freedom and liberation that is very much a part of our faith heritage. If we pretend that God has not freed us from something, if honoring what God has done for us is not the reason we are here, then it’s almost as if we are the ones doing God a favor. We are deigning to grace God with the honor of our presence.

That is not the case at all. There is an Egypt in each of our histories. For some of us, it is a dark place that our faith has led us from. For others of us we are still there, struggling to find our way out of it. There are as many different types of slavery as there are people. Egypt can be something dramatically evil like an abusive relationship or an addiction; or it can be more subtle like greed, selfishness, even a bad temper, or a bad attitude.

Whatever our Egypt is, or however many things it is for us; our relationship with God begins when God works in our lives to liberate us from the things that hold us back. That process is different for each of us, and isn’t always a pleasant one, but God does not want us to be enslaved.

Sometimes the Church is the actual instrument of liberation. A Habitat house built by a church group can free a family from an unsafe environment. A church counseling program can provide a person with the route to better health. A church stewardship program can teach both financial independence and the importance of sharing our wealth.

Other times, God works more directly and less obviously. A person may find their priorities changing after they start spending a few minutes a day in prayer or Bible study. Their attitude may improve, their friendships may grow closer, and they may find that they spend their time in ways that make them happier.

Using language from the gospel of John, we refer to that initial moment of liberation as the moment when we are “born again.” That fits perfectly with how Hosea describes our relationship with God.

As newborns in the faith, we are easily distracted – returning quickly to our old “gods” of selfishness and sin. “Nevertheless,” says God, “I taught you how to walk. When you fell and skinned your knees, I took you back into my arms and healed you; even though you didn’t know that it was me who did the healing.”

When my own son was about two years old, I called my father to say thank you for all of the times he must have stopped whatever he was doing to put a band-aid on my knee, put back together what I had broken, or get me what I wanted. I don’t remember him doing those things, but, having become a parent myself, I have started to get an idea of how many things my parents had done for me without me realizing it.

God says, “You have no idea how many times I have picked you up when you have fallen; or how many times I caught you before you fell and hurt yourself.” One of the purposes of coming here, of gathering to worship and to pray, is to say “Thank you” for all of those times that we were picked up and never knew it.

There’s also something particularly powerful in the image of God teaching us how to walk. The secular world will make us think that we know how to run, that we are in charge of our own destinies, that we understand how the world works and what matters. What counts for “running” in the world of materialism and rationalism is nothing more than bouncing in place in one of the bouncy swings you use with a baby before they can walk.

All of the things that lead to “success” in the secular world: money, a bigger house, a nicer car, stepping on other peoples hands while we race them up the “ladder”…all of those things take a lot of energy and make us feel like we’re getting somewhere, but we’re really just bouncing in place. Only God can teach us how to walk.

What follows is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, marred only slightly by the fact that we don’t know precisely what it means. One possible translation is God saying to us, “I led you with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to you like one who lifts an infant to their cheek, who bends down to feed them.”

Another possible reading is that we are like oxen in the field whom God gently steers with reigns of love. When the time for rest comes, God lifts the yoke from our shoulders, and kneels down to our level to feed us.

Either reading fits who we are to God. Left to our own devices, we will make a mess of things. Whether we are toddlers wandering about, or oxen who don’t know which way to pull the plow; we won’t accomplish anything that matters without the guidance of God. God reminds us that, even when we couldn’t see it, the guidance was there.

Some of you may at this point be thinking, “If God has guided me here, then God obviously needs new glasses; because I don’t like where I am.” I’ve had several of those moments myself. Part of growing up, however, is knowing that sometimes our parents make us do things that we don’t want to do or go places we don’t want to go.

God says, “Even though I have freed you, and raised you, and guided you; you will still return to the land of Egypt because you keep turning away from Me.” It’s hard to feel superior to the Israelites in this regard, because we have a bad habit of returning to the very things that enslave us. There is a price to be paid for that kind of behavior, and God is not a parent who is afraid of giving out a necessary spanking, or of putting us somewhere that we don’t like so that we’ll learn a hard lesson.

Does that mean that every time something bad happens to us, we are being punished by God? Does that mean that the pain and grief we carry in our hearts is God’s way of “spanking” us?

Certainly not. First, it should be noted that a God who watched an innocent child, Jesus, suffer and die understands our grief and shares it with us. That same God, walking with us in the flesh, experienced first hand the ways in which a broken world can wound us unfairly. God does not necessarily cause our pain, God shares it.

But that does not excuse us from our own culpability. Hosea reminds us that there are times when we face consequences for our rebelliousness or our childishness. Like all caring parents, however, God shields us from the full consequences of our mistakes. That is part of the beautiful message of the cross, and we get a foreshadowing of the cross here.
When we reject what God asks of us, when we return to our Egypts, God does not say, “Well, you’re getting what you deserve.”

In fact, God says in verse 9, “How can I watch you suffer? My heart is changed within me. My compassion grows warm and tender. I will not punish you as I could. I will not punish you out of anger.” Why does God stand with us in our suffering? Why doesn’t God unload the punishment on us that we deserve? Quite literally, God doesn’t have the heart for it.

When I was a teenager, my father grounded me to my room for several days. Then, seeing my misery, he sat in my room with me and played chess for the whole period of my “solitary” confinement. I don’t know if any of you had a father or mother quite that mushy; but that is the kind of mother and father we all have in God.

Why? God gives an answer for that as well. God says, “Because I am God, not a human being. I am not a mortal, I am the Holy One who stands in your midst. I will not come in wrath.” How is it that God can lead and protect us in spite of our constant rebellions and our forgetful nature? How is it that God can suffer with us, even when our suffering is a result of ignoring what God has taught us? How is it that, having every right to be very angry, God can come to us in tender love and limitless mercy?

All of this is possible because God is not like us. God is holy and set apart, perfect in ways we cannot imagine. Take the very best of humanity, human beings when we are at our most selfless, when we are loving parents focused totally on our children, and go infinitely, infinitely beyond that – and there you have the love of God.

At the close of the passage, Hosea reminds us that this infinite love is a powerful thing. God says, “I will roar like a lion, and my children will come to me like trembling doves from their slavery, and I will lead them home.”

There’s the entire lifetime of a believer in 11 short verses. We are born into the bondage of our sinful desires and fleshy priorities. We are rescued from that bondage through the merciful hand of God. Even as we celebrate our freedom, we return time and again to the things that enslave us. Every time we do, God patiently tugs us back, sometimes soothing the burns we received when we didn’t believe that the fire was really hot. In the end, no matter how far we might have wandered, Almighty God steps in and leads us home.

Each of us is at a different place on that journey. Some of us are still wandering in Egypt, wondering if there is even a God to lead us out. One of the cardinal messages of Hosea is that it doesn’t matter where we are. God is there, seen or unseen, wanted or unwanted, a loving parent who will never leave our side.