The Steadfast LOVE that GOD IS: a sermon for Hosea 11:1-11

God's Admiration for us copyHere’s a sermon I preached a few years ago on this Sunday’s reading from the Book of the Prophet Hosea. Just as the people of Israel’s images of God changed over time, my own images of the Divine have changed since I preached this sermon. However, I still resonate with ways in which the Book of Hosea seeks to broaden the reader’s understanding of God away from traditional notions of anger and wrath toward images of steadfast love, for I too have had to broaden my own understanding of the Divine many times over the years. I suspect that I am only just beginning to imagine the contours of the steadfast Love that God Is.

Tommy was one of those kids that, no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t stay out of trouble. I was never quite sure whether or not Tommy was rotten or whether trouble just followed him wherever he went. Whatever the reason, Tommy managed to live up to the reputation of the typical middle child. His older brother seemed to be perfect in every way, the model child and his younger sister was the cute and adorable baby of the family, leaving the field wide open for Tommy to become the black sheep of the family. And as black sheep go, Tommy was a doosey.  Tommy was also the son of my friends and so even though, I would have rather not have been part of this kid’s life, the fact that he was the Karen’s beloved son, meant that I had to learn to deal with him.

I can still remember an afternoon, long ago, when Tommy was barely three years old. A bunch of us had gathered to celebrate Karen’s birthday.  Tommy was in a foul mood.  I decided that he just didn’t like the fact that on this particular day he wasn’t the center of attention.  He seemed to do whatever he could to upset his mother. 

Her patience with him was beginning to get on my nerves and I was relieved when Karen announced that it was time for Tommy to take his nap. After a very long and loud temper tantrum, Tommy was eventually quiet in his room; a little too quiet, it seems. It wasn’t until I got into my car to leave and happened to glance up toward Tommy’s bedroom window that I realized just why he had been so quiet. Hanging outside of Tommy’s bedroom window was the evidence of this little boy’s stubborn streak. Somehow, to this day I still don’t know how he managed to do it, but somehow little Tommy had managed to stuff the mattress from his bed out the window.

On the lawn below the window were Tommy’s pillows, sheets, stuffed animals and quilt. Three quarters of the mattress hung below the window and I am sure that given enough time Tommy would have managed to push the remainder of his bed out onto the front lawn. I dashed back into the house, grabbed Karen and headed up to his room. When we got there we discovered dear sweet little Tommy, shaking the contents of a big container of baby powder all over his room. Tommy’s himself was covered in talcum and when he caught sight of his mother and I he gave us a wicked little grin and said, “I don’t need to take any more naps!”

Driving home that day, I gave Tommy a nickname.  It’s a name that I have never uttered in his mother’s presence, but a name that has stuck with me.  On that day, the dear sweet little son of one of my dearest friends was forever labeled, Tommy the Terrible; TT for short.

Now the exploits of a cute three-year-old are one thing, and we can all laugh at the site of a mischievous little boy, who manages to out fox his mother.  But TT’s activities went far beyond the laughable exploits of a mischievous little boy. It didn’t take Tommy very long to become skilled in the art of tormenting adults. His mischievous behavior gave way to rudeness, disobedience, cheating, and more often than not down right meanness.  Of all the adults who were subjected to the torments that Tommy dished out, none suffered more than his mother did. No matter how hard she tried, Karen could never get Tommy to behave himself.  Nor was Karen ever able to understand why Tommy did the things he did. Tommy had everything a boy could ever want or need. He had two parents who loved him dearly.  He had a wonderful older brother and a delightful little sister.  He lived in a beautiful house by the ocean.  He attended the best school in the area. He had more toys than he could ever find the time to play with. There were lots of great kids living in the neighborhood to play with and all sorts of interesting and interested adults in his life.  Tommy was a bright and intelligent kid who had everything going for him. There was no earthly reason that this child should behave so badly. Karen has never been able to explain why she has two perfectly wonderful children and one child who has been breaking her heart since he was old enough to speak.

Karen shed all sorts of tears over Tommy.  It was difficult to see her so tormented by this ungrateful little brat. To this day I don’t know how Karen hung in there. Tommy’s childish torments were bad enough, but by the time he was a teenager, he had figured out even more frightening methods to torment the adults in his life.

Childish pranks and bad behaviour gave way to, drinking, staying out all night, skipping school, suspensions from school, fooling around with drugs, stealing, fighting, and all sorts of car accidents. About the only thing Tommy never managed to do was get himself arrested. Somehow his survival instincts managed to keep him out of the reach of the law.

Through thick and thin Karen stuck with it.  She never wavered in her love for Tommy. Karen never gave up on him.  She tried everything she could think of.  When unconditional love didn’t work, she even tried tough love, she sought help from all the experts, but nothing seemed to work. Long after his teachers, friends, siblings and even his own father had given up on him, Karen never gave up.

One night, I found myself sitting in a hospital waiting room as Karen anxiously paced the floor. Tommy had managed to total his father’s brand new car. He and a bunch of his friends from college had come home unexpectedly.  Without asking for permission to use the car, Tommy had helped himself the keys.      Fortunately, for the four other young people in the car, Tommy was the only one injured when he wrapped his father’s shinny new Mercedes around a tree. Tommy was in a comma; the next few hours would be critical. 

His father waited around long enough to see that his son would be okay and then announced that he had reached his limit.  Tommy was on his own as far as his father was concerned. I sat down beside Karen and asked her what she was going to do. She just shook her head and said, “What can I do, he’s my son?”

Karen nursed Tommy back to health.  Her love gave him the strength that he needed to face the difficult days of rehabilitation. I wish I could tell you that the accident turned Tommy around.  But after he recovered, Tommy went right on tormenting his mother. Karen spent even more time agonizing over his ridiculous behaviour. She has cried a lot of tears over the years. More  tears than a person ought to be expected to weep.

A few years back, on one of my trips home from seminary.  I paid Karen an unexpected visit. When I rang her doorbell a man answered the door. I barely recognized the handsome young man that Tommy the Tormentor had become.  He greeted me with a warm embrace. As his mother and I caught up on each other’s lives, Tommy fixed us lunch.  While we ate together we reminisced over old times. We laughed, joked and teased one another as we remembered some of Tommy’s more adventurous antics.

Just before he left, Tommy admitted that he didn’t know how we had managed to put up with him all these years. He was off to do some shopping for his new apartment.  After he graduated from university, the only job that he could get didn’t pay enough for him to be able to afford his own apartment. But now that he had found a better job and there was a promotion down the road, he figured it was safe to sign a lease on his own place.

After he left, I told Karen how happy I was that after all these years; Tommy had finally straightened himself out,  “She must be so proud of him?”

She agreed that she was indeed, proud of her son, but she also cautioned me not to let appearances fool me.  Underneath that confident handsome together looking young man it was still Tommy after all. And Karen knew that boy inside and out.  She knew that there could very well be lots of trouble up a head. But she insisted, there was just something about him, something you just had to love.

Karen’s love for Tommy is about as steadfast a love as I have ever come across. She knew that boy about as well as anyone is capable of knowing another person, she knew his failings and his shortcomings and no matter what, she loved him. But as steadfast a love as Karen has for Tommy, it pales in comparison to the love of God.

It is difficult for us to comprehend the depths of the love that is God.  Over the years there is one thing that I have learned about the nature of God’s love that has helped me to realize just how unfathomable God’s love really is. I believe that the greatest love that we mere mortals can ever imagine pales in comparison to the love that is God.

The Book of Hosea describes God’s love for God’s people.  The text presents us with a picture of God’s steadfast love.  As mortals the only way we can try to understand things is in human terms.  In trying to understand God’s steadfast love,  we can’t help but look at our own experiences of love. And yet as steadfast a love as we can point to, you can be sure that our love falls far short of God’s steadfast love. 

The prophet Hosea insists that despite all the past sins and crimes that the people of Israel committed, God remained faithful.  God could not help but love the people of Israel.  When the children of God were mere children.  God loved them.  But the more God called them, the more they went away from God.

God is described as pleading:  “The more I called them, the more they went from me. 

Yet it was I who taught them 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.”

But despite the tender loving care of God, the children of God continue to turn away.  And even though God’s anger and wrath would be justified.  But for some unknown reason, God cannot resort to anger and wrath. According to the prophet Hosea, all those TV evangelists have it wrong.  You see according to the prophet Hosea, God says, “How can I give you up?”  “How can I hand you over to your enemies?”  Even though the sins of the children of God are many and God’s wrath would be justified, God declares:  “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 

I will not execute my fierce anger.  I will not destroy my children; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” 

That’s right. God declares:  “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger.  I will not destroy my children; For I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”

From the writings of our ancestors, an image of God is fashioned; an image that points to mere mortals who are capable of some small measure of steadfast love and asks, how much more capable is our God of steadfast love. For God is God and no mortal, the Holy One is in our midst and our God will not come in wrath. Faced with the choice of wrath or grace, our God chooses grace.  Faced with the option of anger or mercy, our God decides in favour of mercy.  Despite the fact that God’s grace often runs contrary to our notions of justice.  God is determined to impart grace.  Despite the fact that we would rather have rules and regulations that tell us how to live.  Despite the fact that we would rather be able to do something that would assure us of God’s love and acceptance.  God is determined to love and accept us always and there is nothing we can do about it.  Even though God suffers when we turn away, God cannot give us up. 

Hosea tells us that, God’s heart recoils within and God’s compassion grows warm and tender and God will not execute God’s fierce anger. God’s steadfast love will endure forever.

A few years ago when I visited Niagara Falls, standing before the majesty of the falls I was struck by the awesome power of God.  As I watched the force of the water thrusting over the rocks, images of a forceful, mighty, powerful and vengeful God flooded my mind and overwhelmed me.  God’s fearful wrath overwhelmed me.

I began to wonder how I could ever hope to stand before the awesome power of God without being swept away.  I began to measure my own brokenness against the awesome majesty of God.  Unable to contain myself, I began to express my awe at the power of it all.  I spoke about the awesome God responsible for creating such force.  Images of God’s wrath flooded my mind.  No wonder we fear God.  No wonder we all to often look to God and expect anger, rage and judgement.

But, then, I looked over at the face of my companion, and I saw a small tear……… 

and at that moment, I saw God.  I saw God, not in the awesome power of the Falls; Now I saw the incarnation of God in the face of my companion. In the wonder of a tiny tear, I saw the Grace of God.  Looking back at the Falls, I wondered how many tears God has shed as a result of our brokenness. I wondered just how much God has suffered as a result of our desire to turn away from God.  How often has God been moved to tears as a result of our rejection?

The longer I looked at the Falls the more beautiful they became.  Where once the force of the water struck me, thrusting over the rocks, now I was overwhelmed by the image of God’s grace flowing over us like billions and billions of tiny tears. As the water cascaded over the rocks, I began to see the magnitude of God’s grace. Like the Fall’s, God’s grace cannot be contained.  As mighty and majestic as the falls are, they pale in comparison to the wonder of God’s grace.  They pale in comparison to God’s steadfast love. 

So in the words of the Psalmist:

“Give thanks to the Lord, who is good, whose steadfast love endures forever…thank God for God’s steadfast love, for God’s wonderful works to humankind….Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of God.”

The Holy One who refuses to come in wrath, the Holy one whose compassion grows warm and tender, the Holy One is in your midst and the Holy One’s steadfast love endures forever.

(Thanks to TT for giving me permission to share his story!!!)

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