I love maps. There are few things I love more than pouring over a good map and seeing the big picture. If I ever go somewhere I've not been before one of the first things I love to do is to get the Ordinance Survey out and work out where I started from, where I went and how I ended up at the end. Maps are great – but when you can see the big picture for real, rather than just relying on a map - woah, that is amazing! I think of one favourite walking routes in the Cairngorms in Scotland. I planned out a route on the map and followed it... walking up through cloud and mist and then breaking through and arriving at the summit, only to be rewarded as the mist and cloud disappeared below…and I could see it all! I could see where I started, my car a speck deep in the valley below, I could see the forest where I wasn't even sure if I was on the right track, I could see where I went wrong, I could see the whole thing and I reassuringly I could now see where I needed to go next - into the next valley and loop round to get back home. And it was glorious!
You know, the Bible is not altogether dissimilar. Often we can read great chunks of it and the big picture is not always obvious. But sometimes it is. Sometimes in just a few verses, it's as though we're at the summit – exposed to God's heart, to his purposes, his plans. And we are treated to fantastic explanations that capture the big picture concisely. Maybe you can think of some examples? You might point me to John's Gospel or his letters that vividly show us the heart of God, you might think of gospel summaries like Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15, or Romans 3 or 8, you might take me to some of the speeches and sermons in Acts or even the whole short book of Galatians. But how many of us would consider Hosea?! How many of us would think of Hosea 11? I certainly wouldn't have in the past. I mean sure, I've read it before. I know the story a bit.
But having had the time to study it in a bit more depth I've come to realise that Hosea 11 has to be one of the most incredible chapters in all of Scripture. And my hope is that as we stand on this mountaintop for the next 20 minutes or so, any clouds or fog will disappear and we will all appreciate the stunning view before us. Because not only does Hosea 11 map out the big picture but it does so in ways that make you realise you're not just reading a map, but you're standing in awe on the mountaintop, breathing in pure air, full of gratitude for the past and present, and full of joyous expectation for the future. It's an incredible view, so let's take a look together.
I've set out five waymarkers for us this morning. Each of them accompanied by a question that might help us on our journey. Waymarker number one then:
1. Fatherly Care (v.1 and v.3-4) – Do You Feel the Warmth of His Love?
"When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son."
A quick revision by way of a reminder. Hosea was a messenger of God, tasked with bringing God's word to the Northern Kingdom of Israel in its final days before it was decimated by the Assyrian Empire. We're talking roughly about 700 years before Jesus. And the big message is all about faithfulness. God wants to challenge his people over their unfaithfulness. Why do they keep ignoring him? And up to this point, the dominant picture that Hosea has used has been one of an unfaithful marriage. God the faithful husband. His people the unfaithful wife. And sadly, for Hosea, it's not a hypothetical image – because God uses Hosea's own marriage to the unfaithful Gomer as the vivid illustration as a means of conveying his message. But now the illustration shifts. And God, through Hosea, reveals another massively important illustration of God's relationship to his people. He's not only a faithful husband but he is a father. He is a loving father. What does that love look like?
Verse 1 again:
"When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son."
This, of course, is a reference to God's rescuing his people from slavery in Egypt. The great Exodus to the promised land. Forget verse 2 for a minute, we'll come back to that in a moment. Verse 3 and 4:
"... I ... taught Ephraim [just another name for Israel – it was the most prominent tribe!] to walk;
I took them up by their arms,
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of kindness,
with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,
and I bent down to them and fed them."
What does the Father's love look like? It's a love of creation and ownership (he's the father), it's a love of rescue, of equipping, of care, of protection, of provision. Can you see these all these wonderfully positive things? And so my question for this first waymaker is this – Do You Feel the Warmth of His Love? Friends, our journey begins with a loving Creator God who is our true father. This is a very tender picture of our heavenly Father, calling us by name, patiently teaching us to walk, allowing us to develop so we can fulfil the potential he has given us. He scoops us up when our arms are outstretched. When we fall and mess up and scrap our knees – he carries us. He protects us with cords of kindness, think of the reigns we use with toddlers – there to protect not choke! And he bends down to our level – ultimately of course through his son Jesus – but he condescends to share our experience and to be with us and feed us in every way. Do You Feel the Warmth of His Love? Even if your experience of a human father has been way wide of God's standard – Do You Feel the Warmth of His Love? He created you. He loves you. He knows what's best for you. He can heal you no matter what's happened in the past. And he's promised to be with you. What a great first waymaker – Fatherly Care. But the second one takes us into a slightly more uncomfortable territory. And the second one is this:
2. Childish Rebellion (v.2) – Are You Rejecting the Reality of His Call?
Sadly, the children of Israel rebelled. Verse.2:
"The more they were called,
the more they went away;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals
and burning offerings to idols."
Instead of thanking God and loving him in return they went in the opposite direction. The wrong direction. For some inexplicable reason, they preferred to offer their thanks to false gods – fertility god and pagan idols. It sounds stupid, doesn't it? But what about us – are we any different? And I think a good question to ask here is this: Are We Rejecting the Reality of His Call on Our Lives?
Let me tell you a true story. I remember on one occasion, picking up my youngest son Thomas from school. It was when we lived in Scotland and I think he was in reception at the time, four or five years old. He came out of the door, rucksack on his back, looking for his mum or dad. I can't remember if I actually called him or waved to indicate my presence but he saw me and ran to me arms open wide (this is the picture of Hosea 11) and cried out "Daddy! I love…" …and I remember thinking "this is brilliant, Debs isn't with me and all the parents in the playground will hear how much Thomas loves me – and they'll think what a great dad I am." It's amazing how much can go through your mind in a nano-second.
But he didn't say what I was expecting. He came out of school, seeing me, but really wanting his mummy. And this is absolutely how it happened: he came out and shouted "Daddy! I love mummy!" and jumped into my arms! And those around me laughed! I couldn't stop chuckling – still can't. It's a story Thomas knows I love to tell.
It occurs to me that (in a way) that's how many of us are with God. His arms are outstretched, he's called us and we start running to his arms but before we can complete the sentence "God, I love you" something else takes his place. Something else catches our pathetic eye. Something else comes into our debased minds. Something else causes our fickle hearts to harden. Something causes us to actually run in a different direction and we effectively say 'God, I love someone else, not you.' 'I love money more than I love you.' 'I love power and prestige more than I love you.' 'I love my dream more than the reality you've put me in.' 'I love (fill in whatever blanks you need to there) my way more than your way. And God says, 'I taught you to walk. I fed you. I carried you. I've rescued you. I've provided for you. I've cared for you. I've loved you. I've created you and I know what is best and most fulfilling for you. Please, stop rebelling, answer my call. I know you by name and come into my arms. It's the best place for you!' Friends, who of us this morning is rejecting the reality of God's call? Please don't any longer. So the journey starts with the Creator's love and care, it continues with the childish rebellion which sadly leads to our third waymarker:
3. Just Consequences (v.5-7) – Do You Appreciate the Just Fire of His Anger?
There is a consequence for the childish rebellion. For the Northern Kingdom at that time God was very specific. He states clearly what will happen in verse 5:
"They shall not return to the land of Egypt,
but Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me."
And that's exactly what happened. In 722BC Samaria is captured and the Northern Kingdom falls. Now, notice how the Lord engages the emotion. This isn't just a dispassionate statement of fact. Oh no. Verse 6:
"The sword shall rage against their cities,
consume the bars of their gates,
and devour them because of their own counsels."
If you have a problem picturing this imagery, think of something like a Lord of the Rings or Narnia film (assuming you've seen them of course!). The imposing city, seemingly safe with its impenetrable stone walls and big wooden bars across its gates. The waiting army amassed outside waiting for the order to attack. Cue panned out aerial shot. The order is given! The army advances wielding swords, walking pace and into a run, shouting at the tops of their voices they storm the city. Their swords held aloft smash down bringing destruction. Somehow the gates overwhelmed come crashing down. The army like a flood pouring into the city through the streets and passages and homes. Nowhere is safe and the city is completely devoured. That's the picture here. It's vivid imagery that the Lord wants us to engage with. It's a picture of his anger at the people's rejection. And that anger results in pain, fear, hurt, turmoil, destruction and death. These are negative things. But ultimately it results in separation.
"My people are bent on turning away from me,"
And God is rightly angered. His care, protection and love rejected. The people he wants to relate with, he is unable to be with. And so the question we need to ask as we pass this waymarker on our journey is this: Do We Appreciate the Just Fire of His Anger? He is rightly angry at our rebellion and all the negative consequences that follow from it. But mercifully, the waymarkers don't stop there. Having seen the Father's care, our childish rebellion and understood the consequences we come to the dramatic summit. And the fourth waymarker is…
4. Divine Compassion (v.8-9) – Are You Truly Staggered by Grace?
Verse 8 is a really unexpected change of gear – but a welcome one at that! We've felt the just anger of God bubbling up against his people but as he looks again at his disobedient children, he is filled with compassion and we see the very centre of his heart.
"How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?"
Two cities destroyed at the same time as Sodom and Gomorrah. To ancient Israel, they were a symbol of total destruction. 'How can I treat you like them?' God asks. And here it comes, God peels back the layers exposing the core of his being
"...My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my burning anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath."
Wow! Just wow!
You know I tried to think of an illustration for this, for those of us who are human fathers or parents, is there something here that I could share. But actually no. Because when I get angry with my kids, too often my heart doesn't recoil but it hardens – because that's its human fallen nature. But this is precisely the point here. It's not 'compare'! It's 'contrast'. God says "my compassion grows warm and tender… for the very reason that I am God and not man!" Isn't that wonderful? When the layers are pulled back, at the very heart of the Father's heart is compassion. But, of course, this presents a bit of a dilemma. It seems that this waymarker is pointing in a different direction to the one we just passed. It's at odds with it, it contradicts it. How can a holy God, a just God – remain just and holy and then simply excuse the just punishment for his creation's rebellion? That's not right. That's not fair. It needs to be dealt with. Any wrong needs to be dealt with. For there to be any sense of justice wrong needs to be dealt with and punished. Well God doesn't allow Hosea to see the solution explicitly.
As we heard in our New Testament reading, Matthew joins some of the dots for us treating verse 1 as a prophecy. But the God-ordained sublime fulfilment of that prophecy some 700 years later on a wooden cross outside of Jerusalem isn't in view for Hosea at this point. But the reason for that answer is here! The motivation for that answer is here! The heart that leads to that answer is here! And it's grace. Pure, undeserved, unmerited, unwarranted, unearned kindness from a loving heavenly Father. So, as we pass this waymarker of divine compassion, the question we all need to ask is this, Are We Truly Staggered by Grace? Not just at the start of our Christian journey, not just at one or two significant points along the way, but each and every day of this difficult and tough and narrow way that we are on. Are We Truly Staggered by Grace? We need to remind ourselves and each other daily – he will not destroy us as we deserve, but his heart is warm and tender and full of grace. Friends, we're at the summit. And in many ways, I just want to stay here. Do you? It's an incredible chapter, isn't it? But we've one final waymarker to pass, and it's the waymarker of…
5. Future Hope (v.10-11) – Are You Coming Home?
The final few verses of Hosea 11, Hosea 11.11 – 12:
"They shall go after the LORD;
he will roar like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west;
they shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria,
and I will return them to their homes, declares the LORD."
The end of Hosea 11 shows us the route home. As we look from the summit we see the promise of salvation, through a series of reversed metaphors. The Lord will come like a lion – not to destroy but to roar a signal for his scattered children to come home. And his children shall come – not like the silly birds fluttering here there and everywhere for help (to Egypt, Assyria – anywhere but God), but they shall come trembling with reverent awe and respect eagerly back to their true home with the Lord. You see our future hope is to go home. Home is where God is – we see that clearly at the start. But our rebellion takes us to foreign lands and away from God's presence. But God burns for us to be in his midst, he longs to be reunited with us. So much so that he sent his one and only son to be the means by which we could get home. Because when Jesus died on that cross. He took the just punishment that we deserved. And God's anger on us fell on him. And when you see that and get that, you can't help but be drawn back home trembling with gratitude and awe at what it cost God to be reunited with us. And so my final question as we pass this waymarker is this. Are You Coming Home? We owe our very existence to a wonderful heavenly father. We need to honestly examine our lives to see the ways that we have rebelled against him. And if we haven't, we need to come to him and ask for his forgiveness.
Because if we don't, we will suffer the just consequences and we won't get to experience the depth of his mercy and have a hope for the future that will keep us going every step of this life. Come what may and however tough it gets. That's the promise. God will return his children home!
So that's Hosea chapter 11. I don't know about you, but I think it's a wonderful part of God's word. He uses evocative and charged language – and for good reason! Don't let anyone ever tell you the Old Testament is all about God's anger, but the New Testament is all about God's love. As though we could ever separate the two. That's just lazy and ignorant exegesis and its absolute rubbish! You want to see how seriously God treats sin – there are countless examples in the New Testament. None more so than when Jesus, God himself, was brutally nailed to the cross. There as we so often sing – the wrath of God satisfied. You want to see how tender and loving and full of grace God is – there are countless examples in the Old Testament. None more so I think than Hosea chapter 11. In fact, there is possibly no greater expression of God's compassionate, tender and warm heart in all of the Scripture than what we have been looking at right here this morning.
So as we close let's just take a moment to reflect on which of these five questions might be most relevant for us this morning and then we'll pray.