It was at the height of the Cold War and I was a student. At that time, just before the Cuban Missile Crisis in the days of Kennedy and Kruschev - one Foreign Minister got up in the United Nations General Assembly and spoke about "neutralism". And he gave this definition of the Neutralist line as (I quote) ...
... a daydream that can never be realized. Even its theory is not correct. There are only two roads, either to support capitalism or to support socialism. There is no third road. Any vain hope to take on a third road is doomed to failure.
Well, Tony Blair wouldn't agree. But if you change that a little you get a definition of spiritual "neutralism" that every Christian should agree with. For the spiritual Neutralist line, as the Bible from cover to cover teaches, is also ...
... a daydream that can never be realized. Even its theory is not correct. There are only two roads, one leading to life and the other leading to destruction. There is no third road. Any vain hope to take on a third road is doomed to failure.
That is precisely what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. And that was the message of God to his people in the 8th century BC through the prophet Hosea. Hosea was trying to teach the people that there was only one of two ways for them to go. They couldn't be neutral. They could either follow the true and living God -Yahweh (Jehovah). This was the God who had revealed himself to and through Abraham, and then Moses and now the Prophets. And they could either follow and obey him. Or they could follow their own ideas and other gods of their own choosing - gods that allowed them to do what they wanted socially and sexually - like the Baals of Canaan. But they couldn't follow the Baals and the God of the Bible at the same time. They couldn't sit on the fence and have a bit of Baal and a bit of the God of the Bible.
Who needs to learn that lesson tonight? You think you can follow Christ on Sunday and the world, the flesh and the devil Monday to Saturday? Well, says Jesus, "you can't," and so did Hosea.
Tonight we come to the end of our series in the book of Hosea - Hosea 14. Hosea's message to the Northern Kingdom of Israel was, as we have seen over the past month or two, on the one hand about sin and judgment but, on the other hand, also about God's love. And Hosea has been using the imagery of unfaithfulness within marriage in the earlier part of the book to point up the unfaithfulness of Israel towards God. That is why tonight we have called this study The End of the Affair. Just look back to the previous chapter - chapter 13 - for some of Hosea's themes. 13.1-2 speaks of sin:
Ephraim ... became guilty of Baal worship and died. Now they sin more and more.
13.16 speaks of God's judgment:
The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword.
But 13.14 speaks of God's love:
I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?
Christian believers know that prophecy began to be fulfilled in the Resurrection of Jesus, as we will be celebrating next weekend. And it will be fulfilled finally in their own resurrection at the last day as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15 where he quotes this verse. And this is a sign of God's love. You see, Hosea is saying quite simply that if you reject God and go your own way you will suffer sooner and, certainly, later. But that is so foolish because God loves you and wants the best for you. So if you trust him and follow him and obey him, you will not only please him; you will also find fulfilment both now and, certainly, for all eternity.
So let's now look at our passage - Hosea 14 - under the following headings: first, THE CALL TO RETURN (vv 1-3); secondly, THE PROMISE OF HEALING (vv 4-8); and thirdly, "WHO IS WISE?" (vv 9).
First, THE CALL TO RETURN (vv 1-3)
Look at verse 1:
Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God.
This is at the heart of what it means to be a believer. In one sense it is so simple. It is to go into reverse. Last week I was in my car and leaving home. Instead of doing a three point turn, I went up the road and down the back lane. But coming up the lane in the opposite direction was the hugest of lorries. It had just managed to turn the corner into the lane. There was no way it was going to go back. The only thing was for me to reverse all the way to the main road. And that is what God demands of everyone, that you go into reverse - first, a radical reversal so that you change direction and go God's way; and then you need continual redirections when you go off course.
So if you have drifted away from God, this means you go back to him. If you have stopped praying, this means you start praying. If you have been immoral, this means you give up that immoral relationship.
The theological name for this is "repentance" and it is central to Christian experience. Repentance was the first element in the preaching of John the Baptist, Jesus, the Twelve disciples, Peter at Pentecost and Paul to the Gentiles as we heard in our second reading - Acts 26.20:
First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.
And Jesus wanted repentance preached to the world. Luke reports (24.47):
repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem..
How important, therefore, we know what we are talking about when we talk about repentance and turning to God.
First, it is something definite and positive. It is an actual return. You remember the parable of the Lost (or Prodigal) Son. There you have this process in dramatic form. The Son says (Luke 15.18)
"I will set out and go back to my father."
But that isn't repentance or turning back. No! It is only true repentance when, as we read in Luke 15.20,
"he got up and went to his father."
I wonder if there are some people here tonight, and you are still in that "distant country" like the Lost Son. It is no good just thinking. You have to take definite and positive action and return.
Secondly, notice this is a divine command. Yes, these words are from Hosea - but he is God's mouthpiece, so to speak. So the first action in your getting right with God doesn't come from you, but from God. You don't have to pray: "O God, let me return." He wants you to return. In fact he so wants you to return that he issues a command: "Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God." In a similar vein in Ezekiel you read:
I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! (18.32).
But, thirdly, God will not force you. And we know from history that some of these Israelites - in fact many of them - did not return to the Lord; and they suffered. So if you refuse, as they did, why blame God for allowing you to do precisely what you want? If you want to go away from him and reject him, well, he will let you. And remember that the ultimate state of going away from God is Hell - the ultimate in Godlessness. Heaven by contrast is where God is with Christ at his right hand.
Fourthly, verse 1 tells us what the problem is - it is human sinfulness and the sins that follow from that basic condition. Look at the second part of verse 1:
Your sins have been your downfall.
It couldn't be clearer. And sins are the same in every generation. There was sexual sin in Hosea's time and there is sexual sin today:
(4:14) I will not punish your daughters when they turn to prostitution, nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery, because the men themselves consort with harlots and sacrifice with shrine prostitutes-- a people without understanding will come to ruin!
But along with sexual sin so often goes lying and an economy with the truth. That was the case in the 8th century BC and it is today. Have you been following the row over evolution and creation and Emmanuel College, Gateshead? It was really started, after a provocative Guardian article, by a Liberal Democrat MP, Jenny Tonge. She asked Tony Blair in Prime Minister's Questions to take issue with Emmanuel but he, rightly, refused. I was then asked to debate with her on the radio the following day at breakfast time. Without being warned, in the morning I found that Richard Dawkins, an atheist from Oxford, had taken her place. However, the night before I did some homework on Jenny Tonge and discovered some interesting facts including the following report from the London Evening Standard of the 26 February (just past). Let me read it to you:
"Liberal Democrat MP, Jenny Tonge, has been forced to apologise after her office issued a press release claiming she had visited a children's hospice [listen] which has not yet been built. The Richmond Park MP, who was not in the country when the release was issued earlier this month, was quoted as praising the work of the Shooting Stars Trust. The press release had her claiming: 'It was an honour to meet the brave children at the hospice. The work the doctors and nurses do at the Shooting Stars Children's Hospice is second to none.' She was later forced to issue a humiliating "unreserved apology" to the Trust's development manager Keith Witham, who is trying to raise funds to build the hospice in her constituency."
Here you have an MP's office uttering complete fabrications. And it was like that in Hosea's day.
(7:1) They practice deceit.
(10:4) They make many promises, take false oaths and make agreements; therefore lawsuits spring up like poisonous weeds in a ploughed field.
(11:12) Ephraim has surrounded me with lies, the house of Israel with deceit.
(12:7) The merchant uses dishonest scales; he loves to defraud.
But these are the very people God calls to return to him. No one is too bad to return and no one is too good not to need to return. Do you think you are too bad. 1 John 1.7 says:
the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
But God through his prophet doesn't only teach you of the need to repent and return. He gives you practical help on how to do that.
First, he tells you what to take with you when you return to him. He doesn't say take money. He doesn't say take sacrifices. No! He says, verse 2,
Take words with you and return to the LORD.
And God tells you who to take those words to - not to a clergyman; not to a saint; not to the Virgin Mary but to God himself - v 2b:
Say to him: "Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips."
Secondly, he tells you what to say or pray. And there are to be three aspects to what you say or pray.
First you must admit you have been going the wrong way - "Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously."
Secondly, you must pray "believing" or in faith. It is not just saying words. You must truly believe that there is no other way out. So you must also say, verse 3:
Assyria cannot save us; we will not mount war-horses. We will never again say 'Our gods' to what our own hands have made, for in you the fatherless find compassion."
That is to say, politics will not save us - in this case politics in the form of alliances with Assyria or Egypt (where the war-horses came from); nor will other 'gods' or faiths or religions save us, or (for us) the modern idolatries of money, sex and power. In the New Testament Jesus makes it so plain that he, God the Son, alone is the way, the truth and the life.
And you must pray believing not only that there is no other way, but also that God loves you. Look again at the last part of verse 3: "in you the fatherless find compassion. "
As you move through the Bible and come to the New Testament and supremely to the Cross and Crucifixion, you see God's love and compassion more and more. God so loved you and me that he gave his only Son to die for us and our sins which he bore, in our place, on Calvary. Do you believe all that? Because when you turn to God or return to him, you must draw near to him not only with your lips but also in faith and with your heart. And you are to be definite. Hosea gives you something definite to say and believe.
Thirdly, you are to give thanks. Look at verse 2b again:
"Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.
That fruit is the praise of God. That is a sacrifice you can, and must, bring to God after you are right with him. This verse is quoted in Hebrews 13 15 where the writer says ...
... through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise - the fruit of lips that confess his name.
Let's now move on more quickly.
Secondly, THE PROMISE OF HEALING (vv 4-8)
4 "I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them. 5 I will be like the dew to Israel; he will blossom like a lily. Like a cedar of Lebanon he will send down his roots; 6 his young shoots will grow. His splendour will be like an olive tree, his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon. 7 Men will dwell again in his shade. He will flourish like the grain. He will blossom like a vine, and his fame will be like the wine from Lebanon. 8 O Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols? I will answer him and care for him. I am like a green pine tree; your fruitfulness comes from me."
Look at verse 4. There are three important things here.
First, God gives assurance of forgiveness to those you seek forgiveness. You don't have to feel forgiven to be forgiven. It all depends on God who forgives you in Christ. He exchanges your sin for Christ's righteousness. So God can say, "I will heal their waywardness".
Secondly, he says, I will "love them freely"(v 4). That is the only way God can love - freely. No one can buy his love or work for it. It is undeserved and unmerited. By nature we all deserve God's judgment not his love. So be confident of God's love. It does not depend on your character but on his which is one of infinite love.
And, thirdly, be confident of a judgment-free eternity. God's promise is that "my anger has turned away." That should assure you of heaven. Always keep heaven in mind.
Then there are verses 5-8. These give you a wonderful sense of new life but also stability, if you are right with God - with that picture of spring-time. And that is for now and for all eternity. Life with God is better - not easier, but better, on average, even now. Believers do better, on average, in so many areas of life than non-believers - even social science is proving that. But God allows many believers to go through hard times as we were reminded this morning. When that happens you can know that
"our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all" (2 Cor 4.17).
Heaven is God's ultimate spring-time. And God's goodness is experienced both at the individual and the social level. The social influence of the evangelical revival in the 19th century was remarkable. Conversely today's spiritual degeneracy is having negative effects. When you lose the Fatherhood of God, you soon lose the brotherhood of man. It is obvious that sexual immorality and lying are socially corrosive. So that brings us to our third heading ...
Thirdly, "WHO IS WISE?" (vv 9)
Let me read, without comment, verse 9:
Who is wise? He will realize these things. Who is discerning? He will understand them. The ways of the LORD are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them
I must conclude.
So I ask, do you need, for the very first time, to "return to the Lord your God". If so why not be definite tonight - repent and turn to Christ - and seek his forgiveness and the power of his Holy Spirit.
And if you are a believer, but you need to "return" in some other way, that you alone know about, equally be definite tonight and respond in the way you should and seek God's help. Pray that prayer (Hosea 14 verse 2) and pray it "believing" and mean it:
"Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips."