Did you hear this week about Rachel Whitear? She was a 21 year old student who died of a heroin overdose in the west-country. Her body lay undiscovered for three days. Photographs show her dead and keeled over on the floor, with bruised and discoloured flesh and a hypodermic syringe in her hand.
But her mother and stepfather loved her. Yet they had to witness this utter folly of death by drug addiction. And they not only loved her. They now want to help others by releasing graphic pictures of Rachel's dead body to warn teenagers of the fearful consequences of taking drugs.
Well, if human parents are like that, how much more will God, our heavenly father, whose love is infinite, want to warn us of the fearful consequences of turning away from him and ignoring his way of living. For we certainly will suffer - sooner or later.
That is the lesson God was teaching his people at the time of Hosea. But he was teaching his people more than about the moral and spiritual laws we defy to our own peril. He was also teaching his people that he loved them with an infinite love. That is the great message of the Old Testament book of Hosea and especially chapter 11 - the chapter we are studying tonight and have called THE FATHER HEART OF GOD.
But by way of introduction let me remind you of what Paul said in the epistle to the Romans about the Old Testament. He said that the Old Testament was written for our "endurance and ... encouragement" so that "we might have hope" (Rom 15.4).
You ask, "what is endurance?" Well, it is the ability to stand firm when the going is tough. The people of God always find it tough living for God when the world is going in the opposite direction. And that is why you can so easily get discouraged. So the Old Testament is to help you swim against the tide and not to be discouraged. It provides encouragement. How, therefore, we need the Old Testament today! At this time there are many Christians who are getting discouraged. A Christian friend asked me last week: "how do you stop getting discouraged?"
For you get discouraged in the church when bishops deny the faith, like Jack Spong the American Bishop does, who came to Newcastle a week or two ago.
You get discouraged in the world when you have misinformation in the wake of Britain's soaring illegitimacy rates and its Sexually Transmitted Diseases epidemic - when people say the answer is to tell children and young people to use condoms - as was being said this past week - and not that the answer is abstinence until marriage.
For they don't tell you that condoms have a failure rate against pregnancy of 15 percent; and for those regularly active between 15 and 20, a one in six chance of getting pregnant; and they don't tell you that their consistent use only reduces (it does not stop) the yearly risk of contracting HIV and only reduces the risk of gonorrhoea from women to men. They don't tell you that there is no clear evidence they have any effect in reducing the risk of other STD's including gonorrhoea and chlamydia in women. They don't tell you they will not stop the spread of HPV - which is the most common STD in the UK and is linked with cervical cancer. And they don't tell you that the answer is abstinence until marriage.
So people are discouraged. How we need the encouragement of the Old Testament.
But it was not much different in the time of Hosea. In Israel at the time people were sleeping around outside marriage. They had drifted away from God's standards and God's word and were going multi-faith and saying - all paths get you there in the end - why be so intolerant towards these nice pagan people who live alongside us. They worship Baal and some of the things they do seem a bit more fun than the things we do. They are not for ever saying, "Wait till marriage before you have sex." No they had religious teachers saying, "sex was OK before marriage and outside marriage." They even ritualized their immorality - with cult prostitutes.
All this is the background to the book of Hosea. And Hosea's own wife was all caught up in this immorality. But God in this context is making his moral law clear. He does that not because he hates his people who are behaving badly, but because he loves them, and sees that they are destroying themselves. Well, that brings us to chapter 11 - our chapter for tonight and a chapter of huge encouragement.
And I want to have three headings tonight. First, THE FATHER'S ELECTION; secondly, THE FATHER'S JUSTICE; and thirdly, THE FATHER'S MERCY.
First, THE FATHER'S ELECTION
Look at verses 1-4:
1"When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. 3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. 4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them.
Verse 1 is about "election". Election simply means God "calling out". It is from a Greek word meaning just that - "calling out". And the church - the word for the "church" in the New Testament - is (in Greek) the "ekklesia" - the "called out" group.
The fact of election tells us this: unless God first takes action, we will get nowhere spiritually. If God hadn't first called his people out of Egypt - where they were as slaves in the time of Moses - they would have still been there today, assimilated as a tribal group. Listen to Ephesians 2.1,4-5:
1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins ... 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved.
God's action is always needed first. The natural state of everyone is spiritual death. They are spiritually like that poor girl Rachel - except they are not dead through drugs but through transgressions and sins - and we all are - not only people who believe heresy or those whose sexual sin leads to pregnancies and STD's. Oh no! There are more respectable sinners, not least the respectable clergy and health professionals who are causing all these problems by teaching what is false or by the sins of omission as others sit back and allow what is false when they know better.
We are all sinners. We are all spiritually dead. And what is needed in the presence of a spiritual corpse is neither criticism nor good advice. What is needed is a spiritual resurrection and new life - Jesus calls it, as we heard in our New Testament reading, new birth. And that is what God offers us through Christ. Yes, it is hard to believe that you need a supernatural spiritual power to give you new spiritual life. And it is hard to believe that that power is centred in Jesus Christ who alone gives you his Holy Spirit. But Jesus says:
"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14.6); and
"All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Matt 11.27).
Now, this verse 1 is applied in Matthew's Gospel to the infant Jesus, who like the early Israelites had to take refuge in Egypt and then later to return to the land of Palestine. Matthew is teaching that Jesus Christ summed up all that Israel was called to be. Yes, Israel failed but Jesus didn't. In Christ there was that true restoration, and through Christ a new restored people of God. However, subtle that may be, it certainly tells us that the principles in this chapter, indeed in this book, are relevant for the people of God at whatever stage they are in God's great plan of history.
But someone says, "I find this business of 'election' very hard to swallow. Where does human free choice come in?" Well, it is quite clear that the Israelites (the people of Ephraim) had free choice. Verse 2:
But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.
They freely rejected God. However, we can't deny that the Bible is clear that there are God's sovereign electing purposes:
(Rom 8:28-30)And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
And God calls people not because there is anything good in them. He is not looking out of heaven and seeing clever and nice and beautiful people, and saying, "I'll save you because you are good". No! By God's standards none of us are what we ought to be. We all fall short. No! The reason for God's saving love for the world is not in us but in him. He loves us because he loves us. There is a mystery here. But Hosea makes it clear that there is no compulsion on God's part. He didn't force the people of Ephraim to realize that God was healing them (verse 3). And look at verse 4:
I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them.
God respects human beings as rational creatures. He acts on us by love - "with cords of human kindness" and "with ties of love". No one comes to God unless he draws them. But he doesn't draw them contrary to their human constitution. He relates to us as the thinking, choosing, willing human beings that he has created us to be. He doesn't relate to us as inanimate objects. He leads us "with cords of human kindness" and "with ties of love". Let's move on.
Secondly, THE FATHER'S JUSTICE
Look at verses 5-7:
5 "Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent? 6. Swords will flash in their cities, will destroy the bars of their gates and put an end to their plans. 7 My people are determined to turn from me. Even if they call to the Most High, he will by no means exalt them.
Human freedom means that there is sin and sin means suffering - in this case domination by the ruthless Assyrians. And that means the Israelites will try to escape to Egypt once again. They will, verse 7, "turn from me" and, verse 5 "return to Egypt". There is a moral law of cause and effect - verse 6, "swords will flash in their cities". But the moral law is not God thinking up ways of being awkward. The moral law is simply how the universe he has created works in terms of human personal relations. Oh! you can try it your way, but to your cost, as poor Rachel Whitear discovered. God has no alternative but to punish sin. It is necessary for the moral ecology of the universe.
There is nothing more terrible than an absence of the rule of law, when there is no government. I was living and working in the Sudan in the 1960s when there was a revolution and the government was overthrown. It was terrifying until a new government was established. God will not give up the moral government of the universe. So where is there hope? Well, that brings us to our third heading ...
Thirdly, THE FATHER'S MERCY.
Look at verses 8-10:
8"How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. 9 I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man-- the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath. 10 They will follow the LORD; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west.
According to the moral law Ephraim (or Israel) should be given up and destroyed. And that is what human logic says. But in the same way that you have to be careful when you think about election and human logic seems to be defied, so you have to be careful here. God says he will have mercy. And why is that? Look at verse 9 again:
"I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man-- the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath."
It is because God is God and not man. God, indeed, has ways of defying human logic. Jesus once said to his disciples (Mark 10.25):
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." The disciples [we read] were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?" 27 Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."
Nor does God say as we might say, "I will not devastate Ephraim because he is not as bad as he might have been and he has potential." No! It is "for I am God and not man". God says that it is not because of what Ephraim is that decides the issue but because of what he is.
Is there someone here tonight and you feel thoroughly guilty? I expect in a crowd like this there may be someone who has been like that girl Rachel even if you aren't now. And you thinnk, "How can God forgive me?" Well, the great hope that comes from this chapter is that your hope of forgiveness doesn't lie in you in any way at all, but in God and his character and love. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you have hope.
So don't look into your own psyche or history for some reason why God should forgive you. There will be none. Look to God. Yes, he is (verse 9) the "Holy One" - and that is terrifying. Verses 10 and 11 speak of God's children "trembling" before God. You say, "but that just condemns me even more." True. But you must then read on. For, secondly, God says here to his people, "I will not come in wrath". But you say how are those two things possible if there is this moral ecology? Answer: God is God and not man - and God has provided a way out though the cross of Christ. This is how Paul puts it in Galatians 3.13-14:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law [or from the consequences of God's moral ecology] by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." [he took the punishment we deserve, in our place - and remember there was no sin that was or is too bad to be laid on Christ. That is why he was "cursed" for you and me] He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
I must conclude.
Perhaps you are asking, "but when does God not come in wrath"? Answer when anyone turns by faith to him.
There was a remnant in Ephraim who did that, and we read about them in 1 Chronicles 9.
And when Christ came centuries later, it was so much easier and many turned by faith to him. God's purposes were then much clearer and the Holy Spirit came with new power. Paul says "the blessing given to Abraham" now comes "to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus" - that is to you and me. And listen, "so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit."
So who needs to come by faith to Christ tonight to receive his forgiveness and then his new life by his Spirit? As we now pray, why not turn to him, by faith, for the first time if necessary, or return to him, if you have been drifting.