If you got a Valentines card last Thursday you probably didn't get a message inside it saying this:
I will go back to my place until you admit your guilt. And you will seek my face; in your misery you will earnestly seek me (5:15).
But that's the message God sent the people of Israel – a message they deserved for their adultery against him but it was also a message of a lover's short-lived coolness sent to reawaken their love for him. Before that he had also promised actions – actions of judgement and discipline – wounds of love.
Turn back in the Bibles for a moment to chapters 4&5 to see why. God has brought a serious charge against Israel and particularly against the priests. Look first at v1-3 at the beginning of chapter 4:
Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites,
because the LORD has a charge to bring
against you who live in the land:
'There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land.
There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.
[The Ten Commandments have all been broken.]
Because of this the land mourns,
and all who live in it waste away;
the beasts of the field and the birds of the air
and the fish of the sea are dying.'
They had turned away and committed adultery.
And God's Word speaks to us and to our nation today when even though 60% of people still call themselves Christians and call this land a Christian country there is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of the one true God on TV (as I speak the BBC are showing the Newcastle v Man City FA cup tie at what used to be a recognised church service time). There is no acknowledgement of God in many of our schools, our laws are becoming increasingly secularised, juvenile crime is on the increase, lying is widespread and even acceptable, all bounds of morality are being broken in the church as well as in the nation. God's judgement on man's sin (v3) affects all living things in this world. The Foot and Mouth outbreak of last year being one result.
From v4 the priests are charged as they too were guilty. Look at v6 onwards:
'… my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge [partly because the priests had failed to teach God's Word to the people]. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children. The more the priests increased, the more they sinned against me; they exchanged their Glory [meaning God] for something disgraceful. They feed on the sins of my people and relish their wickedness.'(See Romans 1:18-25)
Many clergy today fail to teach the truth of God's Word and a growing number relish people's wickedness. In fact there is a famine of God's Word in the church and a push to accept immorality. In a Church Times survey this weekend 30% of the clergy who responded are in favour of practising homosexuals becoming bishops. This morning in St Thomas Haymarket, the former home of this church, Bishop John Spong, who denies that Jesus is the Son of God, who denies the virgin birth and the resurrection and every other fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith was preaching – a preaching which leads to destruction says this passage. As v10 says, 'The people 'will eat but not have enough, they will engage in prostitution but not increase because they have deserted the LORD'. Isn't that true of much of the church in this country today? How the church needs to repent and return to the Lord and his Word. Judgement begins with the family of God says 1 Peter 4:17.
In chapter 5 the priests, the people and the royal house face judgement and discipline, which again is very pertinent for today. Their arrogance and their corrupt deeds do not permit them to return to their God, says v4, a spirit of prostitution is in their hearts; they do not acknowledge the LORD.' V6: 'When they go with their flocks and herds to seek the LORD [meaning when they go to him with prayer and sacrifices] they will not find him; he has withdrawn himself from them.' Offering sacrifices in their situation was useless for the LORD is 'found' only when people turn to him with integrity of heart. Judah's leaders and people also come under judgement for moving boundary stones (v10) – taking land and setting aside God's standards perhaps referring to King Ahaz who blatantly turned away from God's law and encouraged moral decline (2 Chronicles 28:19). As a result God will pour out his wrath on Judah and Israel is oppressed trampled in judgement intent on pursuing idols (v11&12).
And what about us? Are we faithful, loving God and our neighbour and acknowledging God? Are we arrogant or have we humbled ourselves under God's mighty hand, that he may lift us up in due time? (1 Peter 5:6) Have we genuinely repented and trusted in Christ or are we trusting in outward sacrifices? Jesus said in Luke 13: 'Repent or perish!' We have all sinned. No-one is righteous. (Romans 3) We are all in need of God's help. Have we admitted that? Are we recognising that God is at work drawing us to himself or disciplining us as the children he loves (Hebrews 12:5-13) and that we need to turn to him in repentance and faith. Repentance meaning a complete change of mind, turning round 180 degrees to go God's way rather than our way. So…
First, WHO DO YOU TURN TO FOR HELP?
Israel and Judah both recognised their sickness and their wounds but not their guilt and their true healer. Israel did not turn to the LORD for help. V13 &14:
'When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his sores, then Ephraim turned to Assyria, and sent to the great king for help. But he is not able to cure you, not able to heal your sores. For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, like a great lion to Judah. I will tear them to pieces and go away; I will carry them off, with no-one to rescue them'
Israel turned to the King of Assyria for help but he was unable to and in fact he became her invader. They were under God's judgement and no power on earth could help them. The real problem was their sin and only the Lord could heal.
Who do we turn to for help when we see our sickness and our sores? Do we turn to a false saviour - human solutions such as drugs or retail therapy, wooden idols, our own efforts, other fallible human beings or to the Lord? Repentance towards God is the only solution. The tortuous efforts of Israel and Judah to save themselves here testify to the folly and failure of mankind. You see the real problem is in the heart of man – the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart - and can be solved only by the grace of God.
Often we have to learn the hard way (v14&15). One way in which God makes people see their folly is the withdrawal of his gracious help. By this method of discipline true believers will be brought to their senses. Look at verses 14&15:
'I will tear them to pieces', says the LORD, 'and go away; I will carry them off, with no-one to rescue them. Then I will go back to my place until they admit their guilt. And they will seek my face; in their misery they will earnestly seek me.'
Then, when people see their guilt and seek his face in repentance, they find that he is at hand to deliver. Jeremiah 29:13 says:
'You will seek me and find me, when you search for me with all your heart.'
Throughout Hosea this is the longed for outcome of God's judgements. They are wounds of love. Yes they are deserved. God's withdrawal is only what the fickle wife deserves while she plays fast and loose with her true partner. But they are also a lover's short-lived coolness to reawaken love.
So what God is saying through the prophet in v15 and on into chapter 6 is that when I am hard on you, and hard to find, it is to get you seeking. I must have your loyal love, not your fleeting piety or your sacrifices.
The Lord disciplines those he loves (Hebrews 12:6).
Does he have our loyal love?
Hebrews 12 goes on to say that God 'punishes everyone he accepts as a son and disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it'.
There will be disciplining in our Christian life and some of it will be very painful. But by it the power of indwelling sin within us will be weakened and our hearts turned to earnestly seek the Lord, who is the source of all our good. In the midst of it we must learn to cast ourselves upon God. Paul reminds us in Romans that 'all things work together for the good of those who love God' and that his will is good, pleasing and perfect'.
Secondly, COME, LET US RETURN TO THE LORD
Look at v1-3 of chapter 6:
'Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us that we may live in his presence. Let us acknowledge the LORD; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.'
Some take these verses to be a superficial repentance on the part of Israel, which is then condemned by God in v4. And Psalm 78:34, 36-7 reminds us of false repentance with no integrity of heart:
When he slew them, they searched for him; they repented and sought God earnestly…But they flattered him with their mouths; they lied to him with their tongues. Their heart was not steadfast toward him…
But it seems to me that these words are Hosea's own call to his compatriots to return to the Lord and to press on to know him. Now v4 makes it clear that Israel at this point won't but one day she will as chapter 14 of Hosea foresees. And these are words which we can use today.
Perhaps some of you here know you need to turn to the Lord for the first time. You are ready to genuinely repent and trust in Jesus Christ and know God's salvation – his healing, restoration, life, to know him and to press on to know him, to have eternal life. Jesus defined eternal life in John 17:3 as 'to know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent'. If so why not do so tonight. Others of you here may be ready to return to the Lord – to come back to him in repentance after drifting and then knowing the wounds of love in your life. Others of us may simply know we need to repent and renew our commitment to the Lord – to press on to know him no matter what – just as Paul said in Philippians 3: 'I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings'.
And what words these are. Look at v1-3 again. We can return to the Lord with confidence because he invites us (v1). We are ready because of him. He has sent the circumstances of our distress, so that we might be stopped in our tracks, see our need and turn to him. 'He has torn us to pieces, but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.' He is the great physician, he will revive us and restore us that we may live in his presence. A radical cure is needed for man's desperate plight – and these words revive and live express the meeting of a need as desperate as that which faced Ezekiel in the vision of his people as a heap of dry bones, or Paul in his diagnosis of man in Ephesians 2:1 as 'dead in his transgressions and sins'.
Christ's death on the cross, where the demands of God's justice and mercy were met, where Jesus took the punishment we deserved for our sin, and his resurrection was to meet that need and here in v2 we have mention of the third day. Hosea may have spoken more significantly than he realised for it is only in Christ's resurrection that his people are effectively raised up. Hosea then calls the people not only to return to the Lord but to press on to know the Lord (v3). It is, after all, a marriage that God is concerned with, nothing less. And the perseverance, which the first line of v3 invites, is more than matched by God, who will appear as surely as the sun rises and who will come to us like the transforming rains.
After all that v4 is shattering, as heartbreaking as perhaps our own performance and which leads us on to my final heading and v4-10:
Thirdly, GOD DESIRES MERCY NOT SACRIFICE
Look at v4:
'What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.'
But the fierceness of v5 in response is not 'blind fury' as one writer puts it 'but has clarity of light, the purity of justice and the constructiveness of love – for v6 reveals the end in view: 'For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement [or knowledge] of God rather than burnt offerings.'
The word mercy here refers to both loyalty to the Lord and right conduct towards our neighbour which is what he desires of us and not sacrifice, for sacrifice apart from faithfulness to the Lord's will is wholly unacceptable to him. What could make repentance so easy as the belief that forgiveness could be won simply by offering sacrifices? Jesus, in our reading from Matthew 9:1-13, charged the Pharisees with being immaculate in their pattern of sacrifices, but devoid of mercy. They despised people like Matthew, a tax collector, and God will not tolerate it. His mercy welcomes sinners like Matthew and us when they repent and follow Jesus.
V7-10 is a sort of mini guidebook to the geography of sin in Israel; going from one place to another it catalogues the famous crimes of various localities as an indictment of the whole nation.
Israel at this point is unrepentant but as v2 of chapter 7 reminds us all is known to God even though the wicked believe he does not see.
Have we repented and put our faith in Christ who died in our place on the cross? We can only have peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ, through his sacrifice of himself. God's knowledge of Israel's failing should remind us that he knows our failings too, yet if we are in Christ, he will never break his covenant with us. The promise of 2 Chronicles 7:14 holds for us:
'If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.'