I still remember the 1st time I went sailing. It was in a 4-man dinghy and just after we’d really got out to sea I was asked to open the self-bailer. The self-bailer is basically a hole in the bottom of the boat that opens backwards so that once you are moving forward it sucks water out of the boat. That is the theory. In practice, this boat was quite old, the self-bailer was dodgy and when I flicked the catch that I was asked to flick, the entire thing fell out of the bottom of the hull. That kind of fountain that you see in cartoons really does happen. Even as a novice I could tell that this was not what self-bailers were meant to do. Even a novice like me could see that you want the boat in the water, not the water in the boat. And that if you are getting as much water as we were getting in the boat you are not going to remain afloat much longer.
Something similar can be said about any church, ie any local group of believers in Jesus such as this one. Just as the boat is meant to be in the water, not the water in the boat, so the church is meant to be in the world, not the world (in the sense of its behaviour and its beliefs) in the church. If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus then, along with me, God has called you to be different from the world in order that God can reach the world through us. But if we become no different from it then we are sunk as far as usefulness to God goes.
And that is pretty much what had happened to God’s people back in the time of the prophet Hosea, whose book we are studying. Tonight’s passage is a warning: it shows the symptoms of what happens when God’s people become like the world. So let’s turn to Hosea chapter 7. The Old Testament is never straightforward territory. (Derek Kidner’s book ‘The Message of Hosea’ in the Bible Speaks Today series is an excellent read.) So as we look at Hosea chapter 7, I want to get across some principles - a ‘recipe’ if you like - for approaching the OT.
(The crown stands for God, here’s us on the line of time.)
The place to start in the OT is to ask: “What was God saying to them, then through Hosea?” We mustn’t open the Bible in the OT or the NT thinking that what we are reading was written directly to us. It was not - it was written to others, for us. So 1st question - what was God saying to them, then?
We need to remind ourselves to whom God was speaking through Hosea. He was speaking to the nation of Israel (the people on the left hand side of the time line), the people that God had brought into being from one man, Abraham. He’d rescued them from slavery in Egypt; and God had then, to use Hosea’s favourite phrase, ‘married’ them, brought them into relationship with himself in the desert at Sinai. God had said, “I will be your God.” They had said, “We will be your people,” and ‘the knot was tied’ at the foot of Mount Sinai. God then took them into their new ‘marital home’, the land of Canaan. They became a nation state with their own kings and the high point - the happiest moment of the marriage - was under the kings David and Solomon. Thereafter the relationship went into a steep nose-dive - Israel become more and more unfaithful to God, living as if God was not there. They committed, to use Hosea’s favourite phrase for it, spiritual ‘adultery’. Look at Hosea 7:4:
‘They are all adulterers’
So at that point, about 750 years before Jesus, Hosea hits the scene. God calls a prophet to let his people know that what his people are doing is nothing less than spiritual adultery and to tell them where that is heading, namely for an almighty judgement where God is going to turf them back out of the marital home. He’s going to throw them out of the home, he’s going to let them be invaded and carted off into exile. It is not divorce, but it is massive discipline. That’s the sort of big-picture background to Hosea.
In chapter 7, Hosea exposes what they were doing, which from God’s point of view amounted to adultery. You could sum it up in chapter 7 verse 8: ‘Ephraim (which is just another name for Israel) mixes with the nations.’ That about sums it up - Ephraim mixes with the nations. That is what it had come to in Hosea’s day.
If you cast your minds back to that marriage ceremony in the desert at Mount Sinai, let me remind you what the LORD said to them just before they tied the knot. He said this, “If you obey me fully, and keep my covenant [in other words if you’re faithful to me in marriage] then out of all nations, you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6) So the point is, the whole earth is God’s, every life here, every life on Tyneside, every life in the world, belongs to God, and should rightfully be lived for God. That is not where any of us are by nature: the whole world has actually turned its back on God - that is our default, natural position this side of the fall of mankind. So although the whole earth is rightfully God’s, what God did was to choose one group of people to bring into a relationship with himself (in ‘marriage’), so that as other people looked at their married life they would see how life ought to be lived. And they would ask, “What have they got that we haven’t?” That was the idea, the theory.
On the left hand side of the picture above is what Israel was meant to be - a holy nation. On the right hand side is what Israel had become in Hosea’s day - they had forgotten God, living as if God was not there, and so actually were no different from the nations, therefore for God’s purposes no use - sunk.
Now we’ve got our bearings and we’ve put this in the context of the whole OT. Let me point out 3 symptoms that appear when God’s people become like the rest of the world. This is going to be very impressionistic, Monet rather than Leonardo. We’re not going to get bogged down in detail (and that is another principle particularly with the OT - keep looking at the ‘wood’, don’t worry too much about all the individual ‘trees’.) In summary:
Three symptoms of God’s people becoming like the rest of the world:
1 Her leaders become like the world’s (Hosea 7:3-7)
2 Her strategy becomes like the world’s (Hosea 7:8-11)
3 Her beliefs become like the world’s (Hosea 7:14-16)
So here’s the 1st symptom when God’s people become like the rest of the world:
her leaders become like the world’s.
They delight the king with their wickedness, the princes with their lies. They are all adulterers, burning like an oven whose fire the baker need not stir from the kneading of the dough till it rises. On the day of the festival of our king [probably the celebration of the coronation of the king of Israel] the princes [who were the king’s right hand men] become inflamed with wine, and he joins hands with the mockers. Their hearts are like an oven; they approach him [the king] with intrigue. Their passion smoulders all night; in the morning it blazes like a flaming fire. All of them are hot as an oven; they devour their rulers [in other words they bump them off]. All their kings fall, and none of them calls on me.(v3 -7)
At this point in history Israel was in deep trouble from Assyria, the superpower of the day. Assyria was moving down from the north invading more and more people, and was beginning to nibble at the top end of Israel. So one of the kings of Israel decided to do a deal with Assyria, and it went like this: ‘We pay you money, you don’t invade us.’ But after a while people had paid enough money and didn’t want to pay more. ‘We need a king who will stand up to Assyria,’ they said. So they assassinated one king to put another on the throne. He didn’t secure their position so they bumped him off and put up another king. And so it went - 4 kings were assassinated in 12 years. That, in picture language, is what v3-7 are about.
So what is really going on there? Israel wants to secure her survival in the world so, she puts her trust in her king. She turns to the king and his power and his ability and his cleverness. So in v7 and throughout chapter 7, God saysnone of them calls on me.
Israel trusts in her leaders rather than in God. It didn’t occur to them that trust in God might be a good option.
The 2nd symptom when God’s people become like the rest of the world:
her strategy becomes like that of the world
Ephraim mixes with the nations; Ephraim is a flat cake not turned over. Foreigners sap his strength, but he does not realise it. His hair is sprinkled with grey, but he does not notice. Israel’s arrogance testifies against him, but despite all this he does not return to the LORD his God or search for him.
Ephraim is like a dove, easily deceived and senseless - now calling to Egypt, now turning to Assyria. (v8-11)
Remember the question of the hour is how to ensure survival in the world. When Assyria was on the warpath, Israel thought, “Obviously trusting God is not going to work, praying is completely useless. We need something more practical and effective.” So first of all they sucked up to Assyria, saying, “We want to be your friends and we’ll even pay you!” But when they got fed up of that (‘sapping his strength and turning his hair grey’ v9) they started sucking up to Egypt, saying, “We want to be your friends so that Assyria won’t try any funny business because they’ll realise it’s two onto one.” That’s v11: ‘now calling to Egypt, now turning to Assyria.’ They were looking to make friends with the world so as to secure their survival in the world - which Hosea says is a half-baked strategy ‘a flat cake not turned over.’ (v8) And it’s a half-witted strategy ‘like a dove, easily deceived and senseless’ (v9) Hosea is basically saying ‘you are stupid’ to his contemporaries.
3rd symptom when God’s people become like the rest of the world:
her beliefs become like the world (v14-16)
They do not cry out to me from their hearts but wail upon their beds. They gather together for grain and new wine but turn away from me. (v14)
Note there is a footnote here, indicating the literal translation of the Hebrew ‘they slash themselves’. The Canaanites worshipped Baals, fertility gods for their crops. They would even cut themselves in Baal worship as a kind of desperate arm-twisting - ‘I’m going to die down here unless you do something for me.’
I trained them and strengthened them, but they plot evil against me. They do not turn to the Most High. (v15-16a)
Instead they were turning to other people’s gods, other people’s beliefs. They lost all conviction in their own beliefs.
So those are the symptoms when God’s people become like the world - her leaders, her strategies and her beliefs all become like the world’s. And when that much water gets into the boat God scuppers it and sends it to the bottom. God says ‘woe to them’, - not that it gives God any pleasure. He longs to redeem them, but they won’t be redeemed:
Woe to them, because they have strayed from me! Destruction to them [exile], because they have rebelled against me!
I long to redeem them but they speak lies against me.(7:13)
That’s what God was saying to them, then through Hosea. So what is God saying to us, now, through Hosea?
Now we’ve got to come back up the time line to us. Remember Hosea was not speaking directly to us, but he was speaking for us. So what is God saying to us through Hosea?
When we read the OT what we have to remember is that all of God’s purposes in the OT were fulfilled when Jesus came on earth, in his life, and in his death (so we could be forgiven), and in his resurrection to be Lord of this universe.
When God sent Israel into exile it was the beginning of the end for Israel. But it was not the end of God’s purposes.
You remember right back at that ‘marriage’ at Sinai God said, “you will be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” God’s purpose was to call into relationship with himself a people to be ‘holy’ for him, that is, set apart for his purposes - to know him, to be different to those around them, to be a people through whom the rest of the world could also know him.
At the exile, God said to the current generation, “You are not my people.” They had completely failed to live out God’s purposes. “You are not my people,” Hosea says in chapters 1 and 2.
Now look in the NT, in the Apostle Peter’s first letter - this is about Christians, a people who have been forgiven through Jesus’ death and started life over again with Jesus as Lord -
You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God [ie you are now fulfilling the purpose God had in Exodus 19], that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, [words lifted from Hosea - once you were as far from God as the generation sent into exile], but now you are the people of God … aliens and strangers in the world.
As Christians we don’t belong to ourselves any more; we don’t belong to the world any more; we belong to God. And his purpose is that as we stand out for him others will come to him through us. We stand out as Christians not as a single national people. But as the international body of Christ in local churches all over the world (the white blobs in the picture above).
So now we can read over Hosea 7 one last time. We know from 1 Peter that we are the spiritual successors of the people of Israel. Jesus has called us into a relationship with him to live out the purpose they failed to live out.
So to end, let’s revisit those 3 symptoms of God’s people becoming like the rest of the world and let’s be warned so we can be on our guard. Because Hosea 7 is a portrait of what the church should not be.
Symptom 1: her leaders become like the world’s (v3-7)
This is Hosea’s pen-portrait of the power-play at the top. ‘If only we had a strong king.’ And they trust in the leaders and not in the Lord.
None of them calls on me (v7)
And Christians easily do the same. Read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and you see how criticised he was for not being a powerful leader, for being an unimpressive speaker, in fact for failing to be everything the world thought a leader should be. And speaking of how he carried the gospel to people, Paul said,
“We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the all-surpassing power is from God, not from us.” (2 Cor 4:7)
He was trying to teach the church to trust in its God and not in the leader, the preacher, the evangelist. Over the last few months I’ve been involved in discussing possible missions and events. A few times people have said, “We need a ‘name’ - like Rico Tice or Jonathan Edwards.” That is OK if you are looking for someone who’s faithful, tried and tested. But it’s not OK if your trust is in the name, in Rico Tice or Jonathan Edwards or Billy Graham.
Symptom 2: her strategy becomes like the world’s (v8-12)
Israel was sucking up to the world, making friends with the world to try to secure her own survival in the world. And that’s the great question for the church when it has abandoned God, “How will we secure ourselves and survive in this world?” That is a completely godless question, not one any Christian church or Christian Union should ask, because the church exists and will continue to exist because Almighty God and the Lord Jesus Christ have caused it to exist - and it will continue, and grow, and be added to, and ‘the gates of hell will not overcome it’. (Matthew 16:18)
But churches and denominational leadership like the Anglican leadership in the UK have become godless and started asking that question, “How will we secure ourselves and survive?” Their answer is to make friends with the world, to start sucking up to the world. You change your message until it’s no different from what the world believes, so that the world can believe it and join you - because you’re now no different from them. You use the world’s methods like the Anglican bishops who, a few years ago, employed management consultants, spending tens of thousands of pounds, to come up with a new logo for the Church of England and after much effort they came up with the cross! They make desperate attempts to appear relevant by jumping on the world’s latest bandwagon and make that their gospel instead of Jesus Christ and his cross. Like Hosea says, it’s half-baked, half-witted and senseless (v11). It’s like a vegetarian society asking how to survive and suggesting, “Let’s allow meat-eating in our society.” You become like the world so that the world can join you because you are already what it is. That is the strategy of the non-Christian church.
What should we do? How does God secure the existence and growth of his church in the world? It sounds almost as half-baked and half-witted as what I’ve just described. He secures it by using weak people like you and me sharing the message about a God who got himself crucified 2000 years ago. Paul said to the Corinthians,
“I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified … so that your faith might not rest on man’s wisdom but on God’s power.” (1 Cor 2:5)
That is, I share the gospel and I trust God. And people are converted and more of the world is changed and becomes the church.
Symptom 3: her beliefs become like the world’s (v14-16)
Israel mixed belief in the Lord with belief in the Baals without realising they can’t and don’t mix. It’s one or the other. If you believed that the LORD was the one true God who made himself known in history you would have rejected belief in the Baals. But they had no such conviction. So they drifted into the multi-faith mix and that’s still what the non-Christian church does today. There is this endless seeking of common ground between the religions. Whereas as someone said, “It’s not where men agree in matters of religion that there is any significance at all, but where men disagree.” True Christianity disagrees with everyone, by saying that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God; the cross was the only way to put people right with God. True Christianity quotes Jesus,
I am the way, the truth and the life (Jn14:6)
And in the light of that, common ground is an irrelevance. There is an endless blurring of lines. There are multi-faith services, where ‘experience unites us’. Experience is always a great way of getting around stubborn truth.
Those are the symptoms of the church which has become like the world. Its leaders, strategy and beliefs are just like the world’s. We need to take this pen-portrait of Hosea’s to heart and be warned.
To close: 3 applications
First: if you find a church like that don’t join it; if you’re a Christian in a church like that, leave it. There are non-christian churches as well as Christian churches, and Christians shouldn’t be in the non-Christian ones. Too many people compromise their spiritual welfare by joining non-Christian churches - because they are local, or the church they first looked at. When you move to uni from uni, or on from Newcastle, take this to heart. A Christian should join a Christian church.
Second: God’s judgement on churches and denominational structures which are like Hosea’s pen-portrait is good news We mustn’t be cowed by statistics saying the church is in decline. What God is getting rid of - as he got rid of adulterous Israel - is the ‘dead wood’, not the Christian ‘live wood’. The ‘dead wood’ does God’s reputation more harm in its existence than in its removal.
Third and most importantly: Israel would never in a million years have believed Hosea’s description of them. They would have said, “That’s not us! Look at all the religious activity and worship!” There was a gulf between the way Israel saw themselves and how God saw them. And we must take that to heart. Here at Jesmond Parish Church, we are not the church we like to think we are. We must measure ourselves by the word of God, and criticise ourselves and reform ourselves again and again by the word of God. This side of heaven the best church, the best boat, is going to be full of holes letting in the world’s beliefs and behaviour left, right and centre, without us feeling the damp around our feet. So we must return to the Lord our God to search for him in his word, so that he can show us the holes, and we plug them so we remain afloat and of use to him.