What image might you use to describe your love relationship with God? Some might quickly respond with the image of God as father, or of Jesus as brother and friend. Others will think first of God as judge or king. I suspect that one image that might fit well for many people would be God as bowling ball! We would either be ants on the lane or a pin the ball is seeking to knock down. That is, we are insignificant to God or a target for God. Is this an accurate way of seeing our relationship with God? Hosea 11:1-11 speaks about God’s relationship with his people, let’s take a look.
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1 NRSV)
The first thing we notice is that God’s love relationship begins with God’s choice. He initiated the relationship, not Abraham, or Isaac, or Israel. And he did not choose to liberate the people of Israel from Egypt for any significance they had in themselves:
The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7,8 NIV)
Out of all the nations in the world, there was nothing about the Hebrews in and of themselves that would draw God to them. He brought them out of Egypt, not because they were numerous, or righteous, or showing great potential, or anything like that. His rescue was His choice to love.
Do you ever feel that God could not love you because you are insignificant compared to others? Do you feel there is nothing about you that would compel God to love you? You may well be insignificant when compared to others depending on how you define significance. However God’s love for you does not depend on your making a good impression on Him. God’s love for you begins with God’s choice of you, for His own reasons and His own purposes: “. . . he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Ephesians 1:4,5 NRSV).
Perhaps you feel insignificant not compared to others, but in comparison to God Himself? The Bible is full of people God loved who are are truly insignificant when compared to Him: Abraham, Joseph, King David, the Prophet Isaiah, the Apostle Paul, the Apostle Peter, and the list goes on! But God loved them anyway, freely out of His own choice. There need not be anything about you to compel or entice God to love you. God’s love always begins, as it does with Israel, with God’s choice.
The Second thing we notice is that God’s Love Relationship Continues in Nurture to the Rebellious. Consider the next few verses of Hosea 11:
2 The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
4 I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
(Hosea 11:2-4 NRSV)
We cannot miss the fatherly nurturing nature of God in these words, neither can we miss the outright rebellion of the people. What we might miss is the timing of it all. We might think of the nurturing as happening first, then the rebellion happening later, however, throughout the history of God’s people the nurturing and the rebellion happen at the same time! We may think of the parental nurturing during the infant years giving way to a child’s rebellion in the teenage years, but the loving parent never stops loving and nurturing. So too we see a consistency of God’s love, as he continues to love and nurture the rebellious.
We see an example of this happening in the giving of the law at Sinai. The giving of the law was an act of grace and love toward the people, an integral part of God’s nurture of them and likely what is referred to when through Hosea God says “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk”. What is remarkable is that even while God was giving the law to Moses on the mountain, the people were in rebellion with the creating of the golden calf. Now as Moses came down the mountain, he did not just drop the tablets of stone on which the law was written, he threw them down to break them: “When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 32:19 NIV). The breaking of these tablets has great symbolic significance. Moses in effect is saying “these people are not worthy of God’s covenant, of God’s nurture and love.” God, on the other hand, writes up new tablets.
Do you ever feel God should not love you because you are rebellious, sinful, or less than perfect? God has given you the scriptures not because you have been found worthy but because He loves you and wants to nurture the rebellious you through them. God has given you the Church not as a reward for righteousness but because He loves you and wants to nurture the sinful you through His community. God has given you prayer not as a prize for being perfect but because He loves you and wants to nurture the less-than-perfect you through the privilege of prayer. God has given you His Holy Spirit, not because you are good, but to lead you to goodness. As with Israel at the mountain, God gives gifts of love for the nurture of rebellious people. He leads the rebellious “with cords of human kindness with cords of love.” Of course the rebellious would be foolish not to follow.
The third thing we notice is that God’s love relationship persists through a broken heart. The next verses of our passage speak to the dilemma in God’s heart as both his justice and compassion are aroused:
5 They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
6 The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
7 My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.
8 How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
9 I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
(Hosea 11:5-9 NRSV)
The dilemma in God’s heart is between doing the right thing, exercising His perfect justice, or doing a good thing, exercising His perfect mercy. Previously I spoke about the golden calf, but there is more to that story. God’s first reaction to the golden calf incident was to exercise just consequences and wipe the people out. Moses pleaded on their behalf, appealing to God’s promises to the patriarchs and reputation among the nations, a successful appeal: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14 NRSV). But soon it was Moses who was getting angry, breaking the tablets while God reaffirmed His love and covenant. Exodus chapters 32 through 34 read like a back and forth battle between God’s justice and God’s mercy. It draws the reader into the dilemma of whether God should do the right thing and judge sin, or a good thing and grant mercy. Indeed this is a dilemma we all live through as there are situations for which we want to see God reach out with justice (often toward others) and other situations for which we want to see God reach out with mercy (often toward ourselves). We understand the dilemma yet are sometimes far too mechanical in our understanding of God. We can miss the fact that love fills His heart while sin breaks His heart, that He feels both His love for us and our rebellion against Him deeply. Do we recognize the anguish you and I cause our Lord when we rebel against Him? Do we recognize the intense longing in His heart for us that persists even when we do? “How can I give you up . . . ? How can I hand you over . . . ?”
The dilemma in God’s heart is solved beautifully and wonderfully in Jesus Christ. God’s perfect justice and abounding mercy intersect beautifully at the cross. Justice and mercy collide in grace. God’s love begins in God’s choice, it nurtures despite rebellion, it persists through heartbreak in deep longing. May we kneel at the cross in wonder of His love, may we pick up our cross and follow.
(You can listen to the audio of the full sermon at http://www.churchcloud.com/calvary-baptist-cobourg/ when it is released)