July 24th, 2022 homily on Hosea 11:1-11 by Pastor Galen
Learning to Walk
One of life’s simple joys is watching a child learn how to walk. Whether it be our own child or grandchild, or a niece or nephew, or neighbor, seeing a child take their first steps is a joy-filled and memorable experience. First there’s the crawling, then pulling themselves up, and walking while holding onto the edge of the furniture. Then “cruising” from one piece of furniture to the next. Then finally venturing out, with a parent or caregiver holding them up, and then taking that first step without anyone holding onto them.
Learning how to walk also involves a lot of falling down, and so being a caregiver of a child who is learning how two walk entails a lot of picking up and brushing off and kissing away tears and encouraging and cajoling the little one to keep trying.
I remember when one of our daughters was first learning to walk, we would have to trick her into letting go of the furniture. We would hold out her favorite toy to coax her away from the coffee table, and she would clasp onto it and walk around holding that toy securely, as if it were somehow helping her to walk.
The thing is that up until the time a child learns how to walk, we generally know where the child is. When babies are first born, they can’t even roll over by themselves. So we know that if we put a baby down in one spot, and glance away for a moment, they’ll still be there. But once a baby starts to crawl or walk, if you glance away even for one moment, they could be gone. (This is why it’s often been pointed out ironically that parents spend the first few years of a child’s life encouraging them to walk and talk, and the rest of their developmental years telling them to sit down and be quiet!) The more independence a child gains, the less control we as caregivers have over the places they go and the choices they make.
And so we do our best to train them and give them the guidance they need when they’re under our care. And then we eventually grant them more and more freedom, hoping and trusting that they’ll make good choices. And that even if and when they don’t, they’ll eventually remember the lessons we taught them and return to the right path.
God – the Loving and Gentle Caregiver
This image of a caregiver helping a child learn how to walk is how the prophet Hosea describes God’s relationship and feelings towards the people of Israel in Hosea chapter 11.
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son…it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms..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 11:1, 3, and 4).
This tender, nurturing image of God as a loving caregiver gently coaxing a child to walk, tenderly lifting an infant to the cheek, contrasts greatly with the angy, vengeful, jealous image that people often have of the God of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. And for this reason I believe this passage in Hosea is one of the most significant passages in all of Scripture. Here in Hosea 11 we see a glimpse into God’s motherly and fatherly heart. Here we see God as a gentle, loving, affectionate caregiver. A caregiver who nurtures us towards greater independence, guiding us and instructing us in the way we should go, and whose heart breaks when we make harmful or bad choices and go our own way.
In Hosea 11, God says of the nation of Israel, “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols” (Hosea 11:2).
Eventually the choices they made would bring about their own destruction. In verses 5 and following, God says through the prophet Hosea,
They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all (Hosea 11:5-7).
Sure enough, if we read the history of the Israelite nation as recorded in 1st and 2nd Kings and 1st and 2nd Chronicles, we see that generation after generation the nation of Israel deviated further and further from God’s plan. Whereas they were originally to be a nation with God as their king, trusting in God alone for their protection, they instead chose a king and put their trust in military might. Whereas they were to exclusively worship the one true God, they slowly and gradually began incorporating in the worship of false gods, and with it they began to make unholy alliances with nations around them, gradually taking their lead more from the ungodly nations around them than from God. They committed horrible and atrocious acts of injustice and immorality in the name of God, all the while following after the gods of the other nations surrounding them. And sure enough, the northern Kingdom is eventually taken over by Assyria, and a remnant of the southern Kingdom of Judah does eventually go back to Egypt in order to find refuge.
And lest we think that God is sittig back dispassionately leaving the people to their own devices, we see God’s tortured anguish over the consequences of the people’s actions.
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. 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 11:8-9).
We see here the intense feelings and emotions that God has towards God’s people. Feelings of righteous anger over the ways that God’s people turned away and worshiped false idols, as if it were the gods of other nations who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt. And yet we also see feelings of tenderness and compassion, of God turning away from that anger, and continually extending grace and mercy and forgiveness to the children who went astray.
We see here in this passage glimpses of the father in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). A father who is waiting, longing, watching for his child to “return to his senses” and come home. A loving and tender parent, waiting with wide open arms to love and forgive and restore.
Hosea’s Family a Picture of God’s Relationship with God’s People
Now, lest we think that the prophet Hosea was some sort of robotic mouthpiece for God who simply repeated whatever it was that God told him to say, the reality is that the prophet Hosea himself knew the pain of unrequited love.
While not a whole lot is known about the personal lives of many of the other Hebrew prophets, we actually know a fair bit about Hosea and his family. We know that Hosea’s wife Gomer was a woman who had a storied past. Perhaps she was one of the temple prostitutes so common in the worship of the false idols to which the nation of Israel turned. And it’s believed that she may have been unfaithful to Hosea throughout their marriage – and that perhaps at one point she even left him. Perhaps Hosea was even uncertain as to whether the children that Gomer bore to him were actually his children at all. Perhaps that’s why he named one of his children “Loammi” – “not my people.”
Hosea personal life experiences gave him a glimpse into the tortured and conflicted feelings that God felt towards God’s people. Anger and sadness mixed with tender love and compassion. Knowing and believing that somewhere deep down inside there is love and goodness, and yet experiencing anguish as you watch your loved one go down a path leading towards destruction.
But I have to imagine that as Hosea penned the words to this prophecy found in Hosea 11, that he began reflecting back on happier times, when his family was still together. He and Gomer, hand in hand, walking together while their children ran circles around them. Watching Gomer leading Loammi by the hand, teaching him to walk, seeing Gomer tenderly pick up Loruhamah (a name that means “no mercy”) and brush her off when she fell. He knew that Gomer loved their children, and he knew that his family was worth fighting for. And so he never gave up on his wife or his children.
Fortunately it does seem that Hosea’s family may have eventually gotten back together. It’s difficult to put a chronological order to the events in the book of Hosea, and it’s challenging to know what is allegorical and what is autobiographical throughout the book. But in Hosea chapter 2 we see Hosea say, “Say to your brothers, ‘Ammi,’ [‘mercy’] and to your sisters, ‘Ruhamah’ [my people].” And we hear God say that God will have pity on those who were called “no mercy,” and to those who were called “not my people” God will say “you are my people”. Here in Hosea 11, also, Hosea predicts that one day God’s people will return to God and be restored.
Ultimately we see the fulfillment of this promise in the life and ministry and the death of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was and is the ultimate expression of God’s love for all God’s people. Even if and when we go astray, even when we turn and go our own way, still Jesus loves us and cares for us. Still Jesus is waiting with open arms to forgive and restore us. There’s no way we could ever outrun God’s love. No matter how far we may try to run, no matter how unfaithful we are, still God is faithful.
Often we will have to face the consequences of our bad decisions. Our actions and inactions do affect us and those around us. So often God saves us from the consequences of our poor decisions, but sometimes as a loving parent God does allow us to experience the results of our poor decisions in order to wake us up to the reality of the choices we’ve made. But we can always rest assured that everything God does is out of love. God’s love is never failing, God’s mercy is never ending.
And so this morning, no matter how far away you may have strayed, know that God is always ready and willing to accept us back again. Know that God’s love can reach you wherever you are. Know that God will never give up on us.
I hope too that Hosea’s prophecy may give us hope for those of us who have loved ones who have strayed away. Perhaps there may even be people in your life who have not returned your love, who have been ungrateful for the things you have given them or done for them. Hosea 11 reminds us not to give up on them, just as God never gives up on us. There are times when we need to distance ourselves from people who have been harmful or destructive to us. But we can always pray for them, we can always love them – whether from a distance or close by. And we can always trust and believe that God has not given up on them either.
So let us give thanks to the God who loves us, and who never gives up on any of us. Let us remember that God is always faithful, and that God’s mercy reaches us wherever we are. And let us hold up our loved ones in prayer, resting in the assurance that God’s love can reach them wherever they are as well.