You know that weird uncle who never gets invited anywhere because he’s always standing up and shouting really political, awkward things at the people on the stage at fancy public functions?
Or that cousin who lives in a bunker and stockpiles canned goods and water purification pills, advising everyone to be prepared for the day the national power grid and global financial systems utterly collapse?
They might be decedents of the biblical prophets.
Remember that the prophets were off the grid, out of the empire folks, and the stories get pretty fantastic, often involving absurd confrontations and wild encounters that highlight the weakness and wrongness of the way of life the Israelites have chosen and calls them strongly back to God.
The prophets are inconvenient, embarrassing and God uses them to hold before God’s people a vision of who they really are and who God really is, because they keep forgetting. Prophets criticize and energize; they shake the façade that keeps everyone quiet and content and accepting the unacceptable. Because the prophetic tradition knows it could be different, and that difference can be lived out.
The prophetic tradition calls us out of the numb imagination of the empire to embrace the imagination of God. It keeps on reminding people that reality is different than what they are choosing to live at the moment.
Today we find ourselves 100 or so years after Elijah’s display on Mt. Carmel. The Northern Kingdom has been through a series of brief and unstable dynasties, and is poised to be taken over by the Assyrians. They continue in their disobedience and idol worship, and into this scenario comes the prophet Hosea, one of the earliest writing prophets.
Hosea had the unfortunate calling to actually live out the analogy God wanted the people to hear, and so his life went something like this, as wonderfully described by Frederick Buechner:
Gomer. She was always good company – a little heavy with the lipstick maybe, a little less than choosy about men and booze, a little loud, but great on a party and always good for a laugh. Then the prophet Hosea came along wearing a sandwich board that read “The End is at Hand” on one side and “Watch Out” on the other.
The first time he asked her to marry him, she thought he was kidding. The second time she knew he was serious but thought he was crazy. The third time she said yes. He wasn’t exactly a player, but he had a kind face, and he was generous, and he wasn’t all that crazier than anybody else. Besides, any fool could see he loved her.
Give or take a little, she even loved him back for a while, and they had three children whom Hosea named with odd names like Not-pitied-for-God-will-no-longer-pity-Israel-now-that-it’s-gone-to-the-dogs so that every time the roll was called at school, Hosea would be scoring a prophetic bullseye in abstentia. But everybody could see that marriage wasn’t going to last, and it didn’t.
While Hosea was off hitting the sawdust trail, Gomer took to hitting as many night spots as she could squeeze into a night, and any resemblance between her next batch of children and Hosea was purely coincidental. It almost killed him, of course. Every time he raised a hand to her, he burst into tears. Every time she raised one to him, he was the one who ended up apologizing.
He tried locking her out of the house a few times when she wasn’t in by five in the morning, but he always opened the door when she finally showed up and helped her get to bed if she couldn’t see straight enough to get there herself. Then one day she didn’t show up at all.
He swore that this time he was through with her for keeps, but of course he wasn’t. When he finally found her, she was lying passed out in a highly specialized establishment located above an adult bookstore, and he had to pay the management plenty to let her out of her contract. She’d lost her front teeth and picked up some scars you had to see to believe, but Hosea had her back again and that seemed to be all that mattered.
He changed his sandwich board to read “God is love” on one side and “There is no end to it” on the other, and when he stood on the street corner belting out
How can I give you up, O Ephraim!
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
For I am God, and no human.
The Holy One in your midst.
nobody can say how many converts he made, but one thing that’s for sure is that, including Gomer’s, there was seldom a dry eye in the house.
(Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, from Hosea 1-3, 11)
Now Hosea’s story is a messy one. But God is no stranger to messy family dynamics. In fact, there are two metaphors used in Hosea to describe God’s relationship to God’s people, and they’re both messy.
The first is that of marriage to an impossibly unfaithful spouse. God asks Hosea to take as a wife a prostitute, promising him that no matter what, she will never be truly faithful to him, and that this will be an illustration of how God’s relationship with Israel is faring at the moment. Hosea will again and again seek her out and bring her home to care for her, as God will with Israel, and again and again, she will leave him.
The second metaphor is in the language God uses through Hosea, the strained and longing commitment of a mother to her rebellious and self-destructive child – a child lost to addiction, a child in prison for a terrible crime he did commit, a child who injures and abuses a sibling.
Now, the infidelity and rebellion God is so worked up about is because the children of God have turned their back on God, forgetting whose and who they are, sacrificing to the Baals – which may not seem like such a terrible thing, until you realize it meant actual human sacrifice.
They had so drastically lost their way, they’d become nearly unrecognizable, joining in a system of living that destroys yourself and those around you in a vile and caustic game of lies, dehumanization and greed that resembles not at all the life God has laid out for them when God delivered them from slavery into freedom.
Infidelity and rebellion means turning your back on your source of life, and also on all that God had made you to be, forfeiting your identity as God’s people and calling to bear the love of God to the whole world.
God is angry, the God of the Old Testament is often angry, but God’s anger is not opposed to God’s love. Like a brokenhearted spouse whose love is never received or returned, like a distraught parent who knows what the beloved child’s true life should and could be, God’s anger comes from God’s deep and abiding love.
When the children of God trade a life of freedom for a life of slavery, injecting themselves with the poison of destructive fear that eats out their souls and destroys others’ lives, God is livid.
When God’s people forget who they belong to and fail to love others – turning their back on the very thing that makes them who they are, God is outraged.
And so much of the book of Hosea is God’s heartbroken rage and distraught fury poured out in vivid descriptions of Israel’s betrayals and wreckages, like a letter read to them at an intervention, detailing the pain they’ve caused to those around them, to God and the grave injury God is witnessing them doing to themselves. And this tragic indictment by the Creator of the Universe is absolutely rooted in, surprisingly raw, vulnerable and loyal love.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
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.
Here is the astounding thing God wants known about God through the prophet Hosea: God suffers. God is in aguish when God’s children hurt one another. God is heartbroken when the children of God turn their back on their heavenly mother, their eternal father, the source of their being. When God’s children refuse to live in the relationship that gives them life, and instead pursue death, God grieves.
There is no god like Yahweh. From the beginning of time, God has put Godself in a devoted relationship with humanity, and has chosen not to remain unaffected.
We make choices and they have consequences, sometimes terrible, destructive and irreversible consequences. God doesn’t block the results of our actions, and God doesn’t force us to acknowledge God, or make us live as we were meant to live. But God does not, will not, ever give up on us.
On the cross we see the heart of God exposed – taking on all that separates humanity from God’s love – death itself – absorbing into God’s own self all the impact of sin and selfishness and fear and hatred so that nothing can ever separate us from God. There is no mistake too great, no step too far, no injury so powerful it can keep God from claiming us and inviting us back into the life and calling God has for us.
And yet over and over again, we act as though we are separated, we act as though our lives are worth nothing, as though the lives of our neighbors are worth nothing. And when we do – it grieves our maker.
But sisters and brothers, hear the good news of the gospel: No matter how far we fall or fail or flee, our story is never defined ultimately by our terrible choices, but by the relentless love and persistent compassion of our God. God who has seen us at our best and our very worst, and refuses to let us go, will search us out, find us, and bring us back, again and again. God’s love is not up for grabs, not ever.
And so we can always, no matter what, heed the words of the prophet, and return to the relationship that holds us, to find forgiveness and healing, and to remember whose we are and claim who we are as children of God, as those who bear the love of God to all.