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Monday, August 13, 2018

"I will not Come in Wrath" (Hosea 11:1-2, 8-9)

HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, August 12, 2018

            We’ve heard much about God’s anger as we have listened to the prophet Hosea.  Now, we come to chapter 11.  In the New Revised Standard Version, at the end of verse 9, we hear God say, “I will not come in wrath.”  God’s fury and God’s hurt have been spoken, but God won’t stop at these broken emotions. God has more to say. “My heart recoils; … my compassion grows. … I will not execute my fierce anger; … I will not come in wrath.”  Punishment?  Yes, God disciplines, but in the end, gives mercy. 
            Hold onto that thought and do not let it go.  However you see yourself, hold onto this.  God loves you.  God has mercy, forgiveness, new life.  God has this for you, for the people around you, for the people who have been hurt by you, and those who have hurt you.  It’s true for me, for all sitting here, and for all people who come to Him in faith.  God’s mercy and love are beyond our capacity to sin; God’s forgiveness exceeds the sins we’ve committed. 
            Hold onto that as I look at the Bible and recent history this morning. 
            Recent history: September 11, 2001 is, for the United States, the defining moment of this young century.  Passenger airlines were hijacked by terrorists and flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  Thousands going about their daily routines in what they thought was safety died violently.  We Americans thought ourselves untouchable by enemy fire, suddenly felt very vulnerable.  We didn’t like the feeling and did not know what to do with it.
            In Dallas, Texas, one American, a white man, thought he knew what to do.  Born in 1969, Mark Stroman was almost 32 when the planes piloted by extremist terrorists hit the twin towers and killed so many people.  By that point in his life, he had a history of criminal activity, broken relationships, drug use (including crystal meth) and prison time.  He was a well-known name in the white supremacist and neo-Nazi circles in Texas.  His daughter said that once she identified who her father was to Aryan Brotherhood racists she met in a bar, they began singing his praises and treating her well.[i]
            He was an uneducated racist with violent tendencies who had never been out of Texas in his life.  He loved America in his own perverted way, and after the terrorist attacks, he decided to join the war on terror by killing Arab Muslims who happened to live in America.  So he went on a shooting spree.  He thought that as a good American, it was his duty to murder Arab Muslims.  He didn’t actually kill any Arabs, but that didn’t matter.  In his mind, as long as he was fighting brown-skinned people, he was showing his love for America. 
On September 15th, 2001, four days after the attacks he killed not an Arab, but a man of Pakistani descent, convenience store owner Waqar Hasan.  On October 4th, he murdered Vasudev Patel.  Mr. Patel was neither Muslim nor Arab.  He was a Hindu man from India.  Again, it made no difference to the one-man American killing machine, Mark Stroman.
            In between those homicides, senseless killings of people who loved America as much as he did, on September 21, 2011, Mark Stroman shot a Muslim man working at another convenience store, Bengali Rais Bhuiyan.  Mr. Bhuiyan didn’t die.  As the pellets fired out of the barrel, he turned his head.  His face was filled with the burning metal and he collapsed to the floor, but he was alive.  After many surgeries, Rais Bhuiyan recovered.  Loss of sight in his right eye was the only permanent damage. 
            Texas law enforcement officers quickly apprehended Mr. Stroman.  The trial was never in doubt.  Mr. Bhuiyan was able to testify, and soon Mark Stroman was on death row.  Prisoners go through a lot of appeals and end up spending years awaiting execution.  That was Stroman’s experience.
            For his part, Mr. Bhuiyan faced multiple surgeries, mounting medical bills, and heartbreak.  He had a fiancĂ© back in Bangladesh, but she ended their relationship.  Depression threatened to set in.  However, this Bengali demonstrated remarkable resilience.  He had already climbed the ranks in the Bangladeshi air force.  He won a diversity lottery which got him his visa to come to America.  Alone and recovering, he tenaciously pursued all the financial aid he could get so that his medical debt became manageable. 
            Then he got work at Olive Garden.  He started as a waiter and worked his way up, slowly increasing his earnings and decreasing his debt.  His heartbreak healed as did his wounds, and he managed to get a technology degree and became a highly paid IT professional.  He also became an American citizen.  He was living the American dream so many immigrants hope can be theirs. 
            However, for Rais Bhuiyan, the changes weren’t just in his body and financial status and national citizenship.  A devout Muslim, he turned inward, and tried to understand who God wanted him to become.  The spiritual breakthrough came when he did something he had, for years, promised himself he would do.  He took his mother on a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.   The trip to Mecca, where Islam started is something all Muslims aspire to do in their lifetimes.   Those who can financially afford the trip take it.  While he was there, praying, reflecting on life and faith, he felt God was leading him to forgive Mark Stroman. 
            I don’t know what your impression of Islam is.  I know some people – some in our church with whom I have spoken – hear “Islam” and think “terrorist.”  I am telling you, the only person who did any killing in this true story was a white man from Texas who claimed to be a Christian.  A brown-skinned Bengali man, Rais Bhuiyan, looked to the heart of his Muslim faith and heard God tell him to forgive. 
            Make no mistake!  I am a follow of Jesus Christ.  I believe Him to be God in human flesh and the one and only Savior of humanity.  In order to have a right relationship with God, one has to give his heart to Jesus, receive forgiveness in Jesus’ name, and worship him as Lord.
I look into Islam and I see a faith that admires Jesus as a prophet, but does not worship him as Lord.  Anyone who fails to worship Jesus as Lord, in my understanding, is lost.  Jesus Christ is Lord.  We who follow and worship Him cannot accept any confession that comes short of this. 
However, I know God can and does work outside my religious boundaries.  Does God work through Islam to speak to the hearts of Muslims?  All I can do is listen to the stories of real people.  This man was led to do the very thing Jesus commanded.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Rais Bhuiyan did all of this and he did it to the fullest extent.
While he was healing and growing spiritually, the man who tried to kill him, Mark Stroman, sat in prison with death ahead.  But, as it always does, the execution day was a long time in coming, years in fact.  When Mr. Bhuiyan returned from Mecca, he took up a cause.  He was going to stop this execution. Citing his legal right to mediation with the criminal who harmed him, he worked with lawyers and anti-death penalty advocates to try to keep Mark Stroman alive.   
Mr. Bhuiyan’s quest became an international campaign.  Through a prison pen pal program, antideath penalty activists in Europe came into contact with Mark Stroman while he was in prison.  They became his most ardent supporters.  Stroman’s own children, in their own way loved him, but also, for the most part, did not keep in contact with him as the years on death row went by.  He pined for letters, but they never came.  The correspondence came from strangers who encouraged him, doing it all in the name of opposing the death penalty.  And one the leading the charge to save him, was the victim who survived his attack.
Alas, all the appeals and attempts to find legal loopholes were no match for the Texas legal system’s undaunted quest for finality.  On July 20, 2011, almost 10 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he was executed by lethal injection for the murders he committed in the weeks after 9/11/2001.

Do you remember, from the beginning, what I asked you to hold onto and not let go?  God’s mercy is bigger than our sin.  In the story of Hosea, God is frustrated because the people He has selected as His chosen ones, the people of Israel, have turned away from God to worship the idols representing false gods: the gods of Assyria and Egypt and other ancient peoples.  Along with this idolatry came abuse of power by many of Israel’s kings, and the corruption of justice, especially for the poor.  The poor were exploited as the rich perceived themselves to be untouchable.  And worst of all, the leading perpetrators of the corruption were priests who were supposed to lead God’s people in worship.
Hosea has vividly depicted God’s anger at the conditions in Israel, 8th century BC.  However, now in chapter 11, we see anger cannot be God’s last word.  Yes, the people sinned and yes the nation did go into exile.  But God went with His people.  Their descendants, the Samaritans, were among the first to meet God’s grace in the person of Jesus.  There was suffering in the story, but it leads to salvation and new life in Jesus Christ. 
In the aftermath of 9/11, Waqar Hasan and Vasudev Patel were murdered.  Rais Bhuiyan was injured.  Mark Stroman ended being executed; so much loss in this story.  But out of it, we see grace.  Rais Bhuiyan fought for Stroman’s life.  After the execution, he gave financial support to Stroman’s children in his attempt to end the cycle of hate, violence, and revenge.  He overwhelmed these Texans with his love and he did it for the sake of changing the world, combatting hatred, and glorifying God.
Now, what about my story, or yours?  God sees our sins and sees the hurt we cause to ourselves and those around us.  God pours out love asking, “How can I make you like Admah?  How can I treat you like Zeboiim?”  Deuteronomy 29:23 reports that these cities, Admah and Zeboiim, were destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah.  God’s promise in Hosea 11 is that anger and destruction is not the end for people who turn to Him in faith.  Those cities were consumed, but God’s followers will not be.  “I will not come in wrath,” God says.  God comes in grace.  God is love.
The mercy Rais Bhuiyan showed Mark Stroman is a picture of the love God has for us.  God wants the best for us.  God’s mercy never runs out.  God’s love overflows.  You know your own life story.  I know my own sins and how much they hurt me and the people I love.  You know your own sins. 
What do we do?
We come before the cross of Christ.  We fall to our knees and pray for forgiveness.  We receive it.  And we stand as healed people, washed and cleansed, new creations marked by the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 
Come and lay your heart out before God.  Come and receive forgiveness. 

[i] Giridharadas, Anand (2014), The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, W.W. Norton & Company (New York), p. 263.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Religion God Desires

I have heard it said, over and over by people who don’t attend church, “I am spiritual but not religious.”  In certain Christian circles, especially some evangelical expressions of the Christian faith, the mantra goes something like this.  “Christianity is about faith in Christ, not religion.”  And, a lot of famous people spout sanctimoniously this idea: “I don’t believe in organized religion.”
            Is religion a bad thing?  When you hear the word, ‘religion,’ what thoughts immediately come to mind?  Are those thoughts positive and uplifting and hopeful, or is religion something not to be trusted, something that’s dark or manipulative? 
            Here’s the Merriam-Webster online definition of ‘religion’, entry #2: “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” I’m happy for each of us to have our response to the word ‘religion,’ but keep this in mind.  In reading the Old Testament, religion is at the center of the story.  Any time we read the word ‘sacrifice’ or ‘temple’ or ‘priest,’ we’re dealing with the very center of Israelite life.
            The Gospel of Jesus Christ stands on the life that is established in the Old Testament.  Our identity is grounded in who we are in Christ.  So, religion – Biblical religion – is at the very core of who we are if we want to be God-worshipers and Jesus-followers.  And, when the Bible talks about religion, it means religious practice.  Who we are is seen in what we do. 

            I am going to paraphrase the thoughts of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann as he demonstrates how the words of the prophets tie together justice and religion.[i] This connection is one of the primary ways our Sunday morning church practice connects directly with our Monday-Saturday lives.  We think of church giving us a foundation for morals, but the Bible consistently shows greater concern for justice in society than an individual’s morality.  If we intend to live out a Biblical Christianity, we will be driven by a hunger for a right relationship with God and for justice for all people. 
            Referring to the prophet Jeremiah, 22:15-16, Brueggemann writes that caring for the poor is the same as knowing God.  “He judged the cause of the needy … is this not to know me?” Jeremiah asks.[ii]  Later Brueggemann writes, religion was supposed to be the way people entered into relationship with God.  That’s what religion was supposed to be.  However, by the time Hosea came along, religion had become the place where God was disregarded.
            That’s the situation at the beginning of Hosea chapter 6.  The nation and the temple and the religion centers in the north had all turned away from God.  The poor were exploited.  Sexual sin ran rampant.  Hypocrisy was at its worst.  Priests and rich and powerful people would come to worship on the Sabbath and then live with no reverence for God or love for people the rest of the week.
            What kind of faith do we have if we are in church once a week but then the realities of God have no voice in our lives the rest of the time?  This is a fundamental question. 
            At the beginning of Hosea 6, the people are in a desperate state.  Because the people turned away from God and did not trust in God, God allowed invading armies to threaten and ultimately overrun the nation.  Hosea’s prophecy comes shortly before this catastrophe, but the storm clouds loom.  And so, in desperation, the people say, “Come, let us return to the Lord.”
            Go through those opening verse, Hosea 6:1-3.  The people are sorry for their sins, kind of.  They’re more fearful of the consequences of God’s anger than they are remorseful for how they have hurt God and exploited the neediest people in society.  We ended last week with the close of chapter 5 where God said he would rot them as maggots and rip them apart as lions.  Shuddering, they respond with this overture of sorrowful repentance.
            Their words state great faith in what God will do. 
            “Come, let us return to the Lord.  … He will heal us.  He will revive us; on the third day, he will raise us up, that we may live before him.  … His appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth” (6:1-3). 
            It’s all true.  God does receive us when we turn from evil.  God does desire a deep and lasting relationship of love with us.  The opening of Hosea 6 is absolutely right, except it is premature.  God knows the heart, and what He sees in this repentance, is words, not changed hearts.
            Be careful about what you wish for; you might get it.  If today we want the salvation God has to offer, we have to be willing to turn to Him completely.  Chapter 7 expands on how much God can see the rebellion that continues to lurk in the hearts of his people even after these earnest words of repentance. 
He addresses Ephraim in chapter 7, verse 8.  Ephraim was one of the sons of Joseph.  One of the ways of referring to Israel was by referring to specific tribes among the twelve tribes, and Joseph’s tribes were divided into half-tribes named for his sons Manasseh and Ephraim.  We you read references to Ephraim in the prophets, think of the most favored among God’s people.
In Hosea 7:8, describing Ephraim’s weak faith and wavering commitment even as Ephraim repents of rebellion against God, God says, “Ephraim is a cake not turned.”  In other words, Ephraim is half-baked.  Any time the community of faith tries to represent God without working for justice, we demonstrated a half-baked faith.  God has no place for it.  In the opening of Hosea 6, the people beg to be reconciled to God, and it will come, but it won’t be easy.
God responds “What shall I do with you Ephraim?”  What shall I do with you Judah?  Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early” (6:4).  God receives our confessions.  Lord, I am sorry for all the nasty words I said, the bad choices I’ve made, mean things I’ve done, and the hateful thought I have in my head.  I am really sorry Lord.  We say that and God hears and loves us, but God can see us too.  God sees us going right back to all of our sins the minute we finish confessing.  The Lord of the Universe, the creator of all that exists, throws His divine hands up in utter exasperation!  “What am I going to do with you,” God ask furiously. 
In the Bible God displays a full range of emotions.  The middle chapters of Hosea are not the most comfortable place in the Bible to sit.  However, we need to see God here so we know how much our actions, our sins, affect the God who loves and saves us.  We need to know the depths God goes to forgive us and make us new.  And, as we will see, there is a word of life-changing hope right in the middle of God’s angry outburst.
But, first the outburst.  Hosea 7:12-13: “As they go, I will cast my net over them; I will bring them down like birds of the air; I will discipline them.  … Woe to them for they have strayed from me!  Destruction to them, for they have rebelled against me!  I would redeem them, but they speak lies against me.”
Hosea doesn’t end with God’s anger.  God will forgive his people for their sins.  His love never fails.  God will make a new day.  Ultimately, God restores all of creation in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  But there is some hurt along the way.
Anyone who has gone through addiction recovery knows this.  It’s hard to be free from an addiction.  Help is needed.  Often, there are relapses, where the cravings seem more powerful than the love of God, and the addict falls back into deadly patterns.  It takes years, painful years, to break free.  The same can be said when sin comes in relationships.  One person hurts another and trust is broken.  Then comes confession, heartbreaking, genuine tears, and forgiveness.  But even after forgiveness, trust is hard to re-establish.  It’s worth going through the pain because the alternative is to stay in the sin or remain in the addiction.  But, the Bible doesn’t sugarcoat anything.  Reconciliation with God and with people is difficult, lifelong work. 
            How do we as a church exist as a religion in the best sense of the word?  Using Brueggemann’s description of Old Testament religion, how do become the vehicle that carries people into a right relationship with God, a relationship of love, grace, and trust?  Remember, he quoted Jeremiah 22: when we care for the needy, we know God.  In the New Testament, we read that Jesus says that when we feed the hungry and house the homeless, we are doing it for him (Matthew 25).  And in the book of James, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.  Care for orphans and widows is work we do all week long, throughout our lives.
            The justice words that call God’s church to dedicate itself to helping people are the essence of Hosea 6:6.  God says, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”  Sacrifice, burnt offering; this is the procedure of religion and it’s important.  In our context, it would be like the offering, the hymns, the communion; all the things we do in our worship service.  Steadfast love is who we are – agents of God’s compassion.  Knowledge of God?  Brueggemann has already pointed out from his lifelong study of the Old Testament prophets that knowledge of God comes as we work for justice and help the poor, and Jeremiah and Jesus and James and 1000 Bible passages underscore this truth.  
            When we sponsor a child or volunteer with the dental bus or volunteer our time to tutor students or give sacrificially in order to supports missions or advocate for racial justice, we live out the religion God desires.  And we hold the key to our own well-being.  Our happiness comes when our relationship with God is right.  Our relationship with God is right when our religion is true.  Our religion is true when we work for justice. 
            We need not recoil at the idea of religion.  We simply need to live our faith, our religion, all the time, not just on Sundays.  And when we repent of sin, we go into it knowing sin is painful and God is angry.  Repentance is hard work and only takes hold when we have a change of heart.  But God’s love is deeper than his anger.  We’ll see that in future weeks as we continue through Hosea. 
For now, as we come into our time of prayer, fix your gaze on the cross of Christ.  If for you, today is a day of repentance and confession, come to Him.  He will receive you in love.
If for you, this is a time to recommit yourself to serving the poor and working for justice in the name of Jesus as an expression of his Gospel, make the commitment to do that.  And ask the Lord to show you what that will look like in your life.

[i] W. Brueggemann (1997), Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p. 613, 644, 677-678.  Brueggemann frequently refers to Israel religion as the ‘cult.’  This is a loaded word as people in our church have come out of oppressive, manipulative cults.  So in place ‘cult,’ I will refer to Israelite religion.
[ii] Brueggemann, 613.

"Maggots and Lions" (Hosea 5)

            See if you can identify this early ‘80’s pop song from some of the lyrics.
They say there's a heaven for those who will wait
Some say it's better but I say it ain't
I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun

You know that only the good die young

            Anybody know this song, this Billy Joel song?  Did Billy Joel have it right? Are the sinners much more fun?  People who don’t go to church might suppose every Sunday pastors like me get red-faced mad as we slobber and sweat, railing against the evils of sin!  Pulpit-pounding isn’t really my style, nor is the hurling of threats about hell-fire.
            However, sin is real.  We must tackle this reality head-on and holistically.  Baptists often make the mistake of putting all focus on individual sins.  It is important for you and for me to address our individual sins because they cut us off from God.  Sin causes a rupture in the relationship and God gets angry and we are broken.  In our need to confess our individual sins and repent of them, we need to also be mindful of systemic sins that disproportionately affect the poor and exacerbate systemic racism and other social evils.  Individuals sin, congregations sin, communities sin, and nations sin.  We need to confess because we have our own part in all these areas.
            This might begin to feel real if we can somehow shift from the sense that we are people sitting in church listening the pastor drone on – if we can shift from that to the idea that God is speaking to our hearts, then this word may grab hold.  “Listen to the word of the Lord, O people of Israel” Hosea says, “For the Lord has an indictment” against us (4:1).  When I read Hosea and see mention of Israel or Judah or Ephraim, I imagine that if Hosea were giving a similar message today, he would say, “Listen to the word of the Lord, O church, because He has an indictment against you.”  We are a worshiping community as they were.  Our sins aren’t similar to theirs, but we sin just as much and can be cut-off from God as they were.
            What strikes me in my reading of Hosea 5 is two contrasts.  First, verse 7, “Israel’s pride testifies against him.”  Israel was puffed with a sense of self-importance.  The leaders believed they could exploit the poor, form alliances with pagans, worship God and then worship others gods, and do it all without harm to themselves.  They saw themselves as untouchable.  They went through the appropriate rituals in worship.  Why would God care if they went to a shrine of another, false god?  God did care. 
            God cares about what we say, what we do, what we think.  Remember, by the time we’re in Hosea 5, God has already indicted Israel.  He’s already said, “There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land” (4:1b).  We need not worry too much about specifically why God said that about Israel.  Here’s what should concern us.  What rebellions might we be committing that would cause God to say of us, ‘there is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in that church,’ or ‘there is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in that nation’?  What a terrible thought!  Sin becomes so prevalent that God, in disgust, shakes His divine fisted hands and shouts “there is no knowledge of God”!
            As a key piece of evidence supporting this divine indictment, God says, “Israel’s pride testifies against him.”  Might that be said of me, or of us collectively?  Is the sin that threatens to rip apart my relationship with God my pride?  Do I think so much of myself that I don’t really feel I need God, not that much anyway?  Is pride a factor in your life that stops you from humbly bowing before God in confession and prayer? 
            Hosea declares in 5:7 that the prideful life leads to Israel producing illegitimate children.  What comes from pride is something ungodly, something profane.  Galatians 5 says when we are filled with God’s spirit, what comes is God’s fruit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  These are the “children” of the Spirit-filled life.  The prideful life is only concerned for the self, not others, and thus produces “children” with no inheritance in God.  And of course by ‘children,’ I mean what comes out of our lives. 
            Remember, I said, I noted two contrasts as I mulled over Hosea 5.  The first is if we lived by faith instead of pride. 
            It seemed to be a quiet week at HillSong, yet on Thursday, something quite amazing took place.  Four members of the church gathered Thursday evening for prayer.  We prayed about everything.  This has been going on all summer, Thursday night prayer times and it was beautiful. 
            One of the verses used to guide us into prayer comes from 1 Samuel chapter 12, verse 23.  God had promised to be the ruler of this new nation, Israel.  However, the people said they didn’t want God as their king.  They pestered their prophet, Samuel, to give them a human king like every nation had.  Samuel warned them of how disastrous this could be, but they were prideful.  So God told Samuel to go ahead and let the people learn the lesson the hard way.  And they did, over and over, up to the days of Hosea, hundreds of years after Samuel, right before exile would come – utter calamity. 
            Samuel’s prayer shows unbelievable faith.  He already knows the people have rejected his counsel, but he says in 12:23, “Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you.”  Thank you Todd Baker for calling my attention to this passage on Thursday.  Samuel considered himself a sinner if he ever stopped praying for this people who had long since stopped listening to him.  I never conceived of it this way: failure to pray is a sin!  This is the contrast – Israel’s pride verse Samuel’s great faith.    The second contrast comes in what we think we know of God and in what is said beginning in Hosea 5:12.  “Therefore” the verse begins.  Verse 11 ended with the people “determined to go after vanity.”  Vanity, pride – Ephraim was living for Ephraim and assumed God was also excited for the benefit of Ephraim.  We could substitute ourselves for ‘Ephraim’ whenever we put ourselves at the center of the universe instead of God, whether ‘ourselves’ refers to me, or the church, or the country. 
            We sin, then God indicts us.  God uses our pride as evidence that we have rejected Him and exalted ourselves above others.  We have failed to love and failed to pray and failed to help the poor.  Next comes the verdict.
            God says, “I am like maggots to Ephraim and rottenness to the house of Judah.”  Ugh!  Maggots?  God is like Maggots?  It’s right there in Hosea 5:12.  Facing a verse like that, we can quickly flip over to Psalm 23 or Isaiah 55.  Those are comforting inspiring passages that don’t mention maggots.  We can turn there quickly.  Or we can stop and wonder.  Why would God say, “I am like maggots causing sickness and rot to my people?”
            Might God paint this grotesque picture because God wants us to fully understand what sin does inside us, in our bodies, in our hearts, and in our communities?  In order to root it out, God inflicts us with sickness.  If God doesn’t do this to get our attention, eventually the sin will destroy us.  God may use stark imagery to get the point across, that He hates sin and will discipline us for it, but it is for our good.  Thank God He is like maggots, signaling us that because of sin, something is wrong.  Something needs to change.
            God says in verse 14, I will be like a lion to Ephraim.  Sin doesn’t just corrode us.  It rips us apart.  “I will tear,” says the Lord.  We don’t need to be any descriptive.  Anyone who’s seen a National Geographic program knows that when a lion tears, it isn’t pretty. 
            The first contrast we mentioned was between the convicting pride that reveals our sin and the extreme love and faith of prophets like Samuel who pray even for those already turned away from God.  Are we living by faith or by pride?  The second contrast is in the images God projects – maggots and lions – in his righteous anger over sin, and what those images lead to in the long run.  Decay?  Yes!  Ravaging?  Yes!  Sin is awful. I love Billy Joel’s music, but he got it wrong in that song.  It is not better to laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.  The saints are sinners too – we all are.  But the saints realize the damage sin does.  That’ why they’re crying.  The guffaws of sinners who brag about their debaucher is the laughter of fools who only realize how far they are from God when it is too late. 
            After the decay and ravaging conjured by the image of God as maggots and lions comes restoration.  “I will return to my place,” says the Lord, “Until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face.  In their distress they will beg my favor” (5:15).  Next week, we’ll discover how hard repentance is.  It is not a simple, quick process.  But’s that next week.
            For now, God embeds an invitation in the middle of His angry rant.  “I will return … Until,” God says.  Until!  God hears our prayers.  Even when we are at our very worst, God hears our prayers.  The book of Judges testifies to this.  Jesus’ gracious response to the criminal on the cross who begged to be remembered testifies to this. 
            In the midst of one of history’s greatest evil, the European enslavement and trading of Africans, God heard the prayers of abolitionists like William Wilberforce.  When Hitler ordered the systematic execution of millions, God heard the prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and so many others.  In Charleston, South Carolina, God has heard the prayers of the friends and relatives of those killed by Dylan Roof in 2015.  In each of these cases, awful things happened, but God was with the people.  God saw humanity through these crises.  Even when we as a species are at our very worst, God hears us. 
            That word, “until,” is God’s invitation.  The story doesn’t end with maggots and lions.  It ends in restoration.  We discover how joyful it is in God’s embrace, forgiven, made new.  This is beyond what’s in Hosea 5, but the prophet would want us to go beyond.  He didn’t want the story to end in Israel’s destruction.  He’d want our story to end in salvation. And it can.
            We learn the lesson – sin is real.  We turn from it.  We open our hearts to God.  We commit to the faithfulness Samuel and so many others modeled.  And we accept God’s invitation.  In humble confession we gratefully receive forgiveness.  That’s where I want to close: with the promise that God will hear your prayers.  No matter what’s going on in your life, God will receive you, pick you up, forgive you, and make you new.  When we are in Christ, this is where every message on sin leads.  God is a loving God.  The images of maggots and lions are part of the story, not to be ignored.  But the end is a father’s embrace and new life.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Fumbling Pride

In the sermons this summer, we have been looking at the 8th century BC prophet Hosea to hear the Word of the Lord.  However, last week, we took a break from Hosea to read 1 Timothy as we ordained new elders and thought about church leadership.
            Today, as we return to the fiery words of the prophet, a lonely voice for God amid a society turned away from God, I want to briefly think back to 1 Timothy and the idea of church.  The church is a family, and hopefully we are engaged participants in the life of this family. 
The church goers I have seen who receive the greatest blessing from church are those who develop deep, lifelong friendships with the people they worship alongside each Sunday.  In those relationships, we grow as disciples.  We serve together, giving our very best in terms of time, talent, and energy to the life of the church. 
As we serve in the church, we locate our lives within the church.  And we see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.  In the church, we realize we are not of the world around us.  The church is not just one more institution in a society full of institutions competing individuals’ time and loyalty.  The church is the body of Christ in the world.  In the church, we know, we’re bound for and bound to the Kingdom of God. 
We’re not cut-off.  We stay fully engaged in the world, showing people love and grace.  We know we are sent by God to announce his rescue mission.  Jesus is the Savior.  The church is the gathering of his disciples.
In the 8th century BC, the nation of Israel was meant to be a gathering of God worshipers.  The world would look to Israel, see God’s holiness, repent of sin, and come to Israel seeking God.  The problem is when the world looked to Israel, God’s holiness was not seen.  Israel lived as just one more kingdom vying for power, forming ill-fated alliances, and rising and falling based upon the deaths of common people who gave their lives on behalf of monarchs who didn’t want to dirty their own hands.
They went through the motions of worship, and at the same time, they aligned with nations that were utterly opposed to the ways of God.  It happens in our day and time too.  Famous pastors and supposedly Christian leaders align themselves with political figures who show open disregard for the ethics found in scripture.  Pastors today find themselves praised not for their forceful proclamation of the stories in the Bible, but for their words about this candidate or that one.  Many high profile Christians today have forfeited their witness as badly as kings and priests did in Hosea’s day.  Many churches today fail as courageous witnesses when their “gospel” is eerily similar to the platform of either of America’s major political parties.
We who are in Christ are called to be something else.  We are to be a light on the hill shining on something the world hasn’t seen – the city of God, a city unlike any on earth.  Israel was called to be holy.  So are we.  In Israel’s constant flirtation with other religions, in her exploitation of the needy, and in her repeated acts of fornication she was profane and she fumbled her responsibility to point the world to God. 
What does God think when His people try so hard to be worldly instead of faithful?  The opening of chapter 4 sets the table for God’s response: “Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel, for the Lord has an indictment against [you].”  Hosea then develops this theme of indictment. 
Chapter 5, verse 5: “Israel’s pride testifies against him.”  
Pride.  Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  Most Americans claim to be Christian and most Christians says they believe what the Bible says.  If we believe it – Hosea 5:5 & Proverbs 16:18 – then we need to be careful about pride!  And yet pride in our country is expected of all Americans.  If you aren’t proud and don’t tear up during the National Anthem, you aren’t patriotic enough! 
But we say we believe the Bible and Hosea and Proverbs, two Biblical books, say pride indicts us and leads to destruction!  How do we reconcile this?
We feel the need to insist how much better America is than other places and other peoples, even when we haven’t visited other places and don’t know other peoples.  “They wish they were like us,” we say. “They wish they were here.”  Maybe some in other countries do; certainly not all.  What if we celebrated that America is strong and we love our country.  Would that be enough?  Do we have to puff out our chests and insist that “America is the most powerful nation in the world”? 
Is that so important? In the days of the Hosea, Assyria was the most powerful nation, and they were not in step with God’s vision for creation.  In the days of Jesus, the most powerful nation was Rome, and Rome glorified itself, not God.  I love America.  Every citizen should.  We should all contribute to the thriving of all people in America.  But Jesus, not America, should define us.  I pray for America to be blessed and God to be glorified.    
Of 8th century BC Israel, Hosea said, “with their flocks and herds they shall go to seek the Lord, but they will not find him; he has withdrawn from them” (5:6).  Why?  God never turns back an earnest seeker.  Why would Hosea say God rejected Israel?  The people had circumcised bodies.  They sacrificed animals. They performed all the religious rites.  However, their hearts were indifferent to God.  They used God for their own purposes.  We are to submit our purposes to God’s will and then live by God’s command.  We are to be of use to God, not vice versa.
Hosea 5:7 says that because the people dealt faithlessly with God, they bore illegitimate children.  What came from that faithless society was something other than the holiness God intends for us, God’s image bearers.  We also yield unholy, ungodly fruit when we live for our own desires without regard for God. 
Upon reading Hosea 5:7, “they have broken faith with the Lord … they have begotten alien children,” each one of us has to ask, ‘Have I broken faith with the Lord?’  ‘Is my life producing God’s holiness?’  Or, is my life profane?  This goes beyond morality.  A lot of people who have very little to do with Jesus live what appear to be moral lives.  But they are not lives submitted to Christ. 
The Apostle Paul captured this tension well in Galatians.  There he contrasts what our lives produce when we are motived by our own appetites and cravings verses what comes out of our lives when the Holy Spirit pours through us.  Galatians 5:
16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy,[e] drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

Apart from God, our lives issues forth profane words, ideas, and relationships, all utterly cut off from the holiness God commands for us.  God doesn’t like it.  God is more invested in us than we in Him.  The pain God experiences when we reject Him is greater than the hurt we feel apart from Him.  Hosea reveals how God reacts to our disobedience and disregard of Him. This is chapter 5, verses 12-14.
12 Therefore I am like maggots to Ephraim,
    and like rottenness to the house of Judah.
13 When Ephraim saw his sickness,
    and Judah his wound,
then Ephraim went to Assyria,
    and sent to the great king.[a]
But he is not able to cure you
    or heal your wound.
14 For I will be like a lion to Ephraim,
    and like a young lion to the house of Judah.
I myself will tear and go away;
    I will carry off, and no one shall rescue.
When you got up to come to church this morning, did you expect to hear God say, “I am like maggots and rottenness?”  Maggots swarm over piles of putrid, stinking mess.  God swarms the person who dares abandon him and turns away from him.  This nasty imagery is unappetizing, but to say less would dilute the message of the prophet. God is disgusted when people reject Him and His call, and Hosea wants his readers to feel that disgust.  God loves us.  When we swat that love back at God with the strength of a tennis pro’s forehand, God doesn’t go away.  God stays.  And then, we reek with the stench of God-rejecters. 
Hosea then shifts images, from maggots to the lion.  “I will tear,” God says.  God will ravage the faithless congregation that plays at worshiping Him all the while trying to please the culture around it.  Like prey in the wilderness, God chews us up when we turn from him.

We are to live within our American culture.  But, in that culture, we are to be salt, seasoning the culture with the flavor of Heaven.  Where our culture expects cutthroat competition, we are to offer cooperation with an eye toward the thriving of everyone.  Where our culture calls for vengeance in disputes, whether verbal or violent, as people of heaven we give forgiveness and mercy.  Where our culture exalts the mighty and powerful, we are to, as Colossians 3 says, “clothe [ourselves] with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and love” (v.12, 14).
Those values differ greatly from the bravado and power-posturing so valued in our culture.  Compassion.  Kindness.  Humility.  Meekness.  Love.  We can’t aspire to live out these ideas unless we are filled with the Spirit of the risen Christ.  Oriented toward our culture we are turned away from God, and God ruins us and rips us apart. 
Hosea casts God in an active role – causing rot, tearing us in pieces; But, I think the best way to receive Hosea’s words, especially in light of all we know about Jesus, is as imagery.  We rip ourselves apart trying to divide our loyalty between personal success, political stances, and Jesus, and other things. 
The final verse of Hosea 5 sums up our situation.  God says
I will return again to my place
    until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face.
    In their distress they will beg my favor

All the ways Hosea displays the anger of God lead to the point where we come begging God for another chance.  And here’s the good news!  God gives that second chance, every time.
We are the church family.  We recognize the devastating effects of our sins.  Like Israel in Hosea’s day, we come to God on our knees.  There’s no pride, only humble confession.  When we see how bad life is apart from God and how far our sins have moved us away from God, then we turn to Him and ask forgiveness.  He gives it in abundance, gently, in love. We plead for a second change.  He gives it, over and over.  As we see in the life of Jesus, the core of the Gospel and over and over in the words of the prophet Hosea, God takes us back in love, cleans us up, and sets us up once again to live in joy as His people. 
Decide what you want. Pray for the world.  Pray for the nation.   Pray for your town.  Pray for your church.  Pray for your own life.  Set your mind and heart on the love God has for you.