I don't know if you keep a mental list of films that it would probably have been best not to see. One on my list is The English Patient. It got through my 'filter' and I didn't find it helpful at all. The poster billed it as 'The greatest love story of modern times'. It's actually an adultery story - of an affair between a wife and her lover which ends with the enraged husband killing her, killing himself, and narrowly failing to kill the lover. A love story it certainly is not. But it paints a devastating picture of the effects of adultery.
If you weren't here last Sunday evening we've started a sermon series in the Old Testament (OT) book of Hosea. He was a prophet who spoke for God about 750 years before Jesus. His message was that God's OT people, Israel, were committing spiritual adultery against God. So Hosea spoke of the Lord as like a husband, and his people as like a wife who'd left him for her lovers. But Hosea didn't just speak about their spiritual adultery. His own personal life was a visual aid of his message. So look back to 1:2, where we were last week:
When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, 'Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord.' So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. (1:2-3)
Ie, God led him to marry a wife who would leave him for other lovers. So that he knew from the inside what it's like to be betrayed in that way - just as God knows from the inside. And so Hosea's own personal life would be saying to the people, 'My wife is doing to me what you are doing to the Lord.'
We looked last week at chapter 1. We saw the righteous anger of the Lord at his people's behaviour - and some hint that this story is not going to end like The English Patient, with a plane crashing and burning – ie, with destruction. And that's where chapters 2 and 3 pick up: where we see God, the husband with every right to disown his people, coming after them and wooing them back to himself. We're not going to look at all of it, just enough to get the main points. I've got 3 headings:
I.The Lord's rivals
II. The Lord's method
III. The Lord's heart
First, THE LORD'S RIVALS (2.5-8)
We first need to meet the false gods to whom Israel turned, and so be warned about why people turn away from the Lord. Let's pick it up at 2:5. The Lord is speaking through Hosea about Israel as a mother, and the next generation of Israelites as her children. He says:
Their mother has been unfaithful and has conceived them in disgrace. She said, 'I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink.'
And then 2.8:
She has not acknowledged that I was the one who gave her the grain, the new wine and oil, who lavished on her the silver and gold - which they used for Baal.
So Hosea keeps up the picture of spiritual adultery. The Lord is the husband, Israel the unfaithful wife, and the lover she goes chasing after is Baal. There's no reason you should know, but Baal was a fertility god worshipped by the people who were in the Promised Land before the Israelites arrived. In fact there were a whole load of false gods who were called collectively, 'the Baals' (eg, 2:17). And you can tell just from 2:5 what people believed about them. Baal was basically the farming god - the 'agric' amongst the false gods. He was believed to be in charge of rain, of crop fertility and flock fertility. People then would have said that Baal gives you all those things in v5 that you need: 'my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink.'
So put yourself in the shoes of the Israelites of those days. The Lord has rescued you from Egypt, snatched you out from under slavery to Pharaoh, bought you through the Exodus into the desert and he's proposed marriage at Mount Sinai: 'I will be your God… will you be my people?' And you've accepted: forsaking all others you are going to love, trust and obey him. After all he has saved you from Egypt: he can part the sea. And he fed you all the way to Sinai: he can do manna out of nowhere. But now you're in the Promised Land, the question is: can he do rain? Can he do crops? Is he any good at sheep? Because the locals say that's Baal's expertise. So, just to be on the safe side, you're tempted to worship Baal as well.
And we need to be warned by this about why people turn away from the Lord, so we don't become one of them – or so we stop being one of them, if that's what we've done.
So, why did Israel turn from the Lord to Baal? They should have recognised the Lord's sovereignty (control, rule) over everything: including the weather, their crops and livestock. If we're thinking straight, that's the way to see life. God is in control of everything and he is totally capable of meeting every one of our needs. He is all-sufficient. But the locals said, 'Actually, no. Baal is the expert at agriculture: you've got to trust him and worship him to get you what you need. The Lord's OK for the 'spiritual stuff' - you know, salvation, forgiveness of sins and the 'one-off' things like parting the Red Sea. But let's face it: you don't need to cross the sea every day. Whereas Baal is the really practical, down to earth, day-by-day-real life god – the god with his feet on the ground. So spread your bets, trust Baal as well.' So said the locals. But to trust Baal 'as well', is to trust Baal instead. You cannot have three in a marriage, by definition. Three into one won't go.
So when you ask, 'Why did they turn to Baal?', it's because they didn't trust that the Lord has everything in his hands: all our circumstances, all our needs. So, like switching an investment from one bank account to another, they switched trust to Baal in the hope that he would 'deliver' on things that they didn't actually believe the Lord could deliver.
Now we may be unlikely to turn to Baal. But we, too, can commit spiritual adultery. All it takes is to transfer our trust and allegiance from the Lord to something, or someone, else - for what we think it/they will deliver in our lives. So, eg, a church can do it by transferring its trust from the Lord (who is the source of all church growth) to staff and strategising. You end up worshipping the idol of management. And one symptom of that will be prayerlessness. We may pay for the church, but we won't pray for the church. A denomination can do it. The Anglican one that our church is in is doing it right now. It's transferring its trust from the Lord as the one who creates the church through the preaching of the gospel, to its own ability to bring people in with a different message. So you end up worshipping the idol of popular opinion and you tailor your message to the point where actually your message is what people believe, anyway. So, yes they come in - but not as Christians. Still as the world.
And individuals can do it, too. I don't mention this example to single out sexual sin, but it is the most striking, and sad, example I can mention from my experience. A friend who professed faith in Christ and appeared to be going on as a Christian then fell in love with a non-Christian girl. They began sleeping together, he eventually shacked up with her, and when another Christian challenged him on what he was doing he said, 'Sarah is my god now.' (Not her real name.) He transferred his worship to her. I guess because he was looking from her for what only God can ultimately supply – totally secure love, and an inexhaustible source of self-worth. A relationship can be a rival to God; or an ambition; or success in any area you care to mention; I think perfectionism was one of mine (still is a temptation). Financial security, job security, job status, or just plain pleasure-seeking – they're all things to which we can turn from the Lord, because we don't think he can deliver what those things offer.
It's worth pausing just to think: what rivals to the Lord do you detect in yourself? Where do you detect that transfer of trust? Where are you looking for your needs to be met outside of the Lord? Be warned against the Lord's rivals.
So what did the Lord do to bring the Israelites back to himself?
Secondly, THE LORD'S METHOD (2.6-14)
How does the Lord seek to turn people back to himself? Hosea speaks of one way and that is: chastening. In other words, the Lord was about to take them through hard circumstances, with the aim of bringing them to their senses.
The truth is that Baal was just a figment of people's imaginations. Baal – like all false gods - does not exist except in peoples' minds. The question is: how was the Lord to persuade his people that that was the case? The answer: by removing the things that they believed Baal supplied. If the Lord took away the rain, the food, the flocks - or even took his people out of the land completely - then he would pull the rug out from under Baal's feet. It would discredit the idea of Baal's very existence. If the supply of rain/food has failed, then clearly the 'god' has failed. That was God's method. 2.5:
Their mother has been unfaithful and has conceived them in disgrace. She said, 'I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink. 6Therefore [ie, here is the Lord's method for wooing his people back] I will block her path with thorn bushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way. 7She will chase after her lovers but not catch them; she will look for them but not find them. Then she will say, 'I will go back to my husband as at first, for then I was better off than now.'
And that is repeated in a longer way in vv8-14 (v8 is the charge of adultery; vv9f is the method of wooing her back – 'Therefore, I will…'). We haven't time to unpack all that. But overall, in chapter 2, the Lord was saying that he intended to bring hardship on Israel – ultimately removing them from the land, with all its plenty, and taking them back to the desert, which is where (just after the exodus) the whole love affair had begun:
Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.(2.14-15)
Chapter 2 is a promise of loving judgement. The Lord was going to take away everything his people thought that Baal provided, including the land itself - so that Baal would be utterly discredited in their eyes. And there is that lovely v7, which is where such tough love is aiming:
Then she will say, 'I will go back to my husband as at first, for then I was better off than now.'
Which is a pretty humble basis on which Almighty God has people back, isn't it? After all, it's a pretty self-centred reason for coming back - 'I will go back to my husband as at first, for then I was better off than now.' I've talked to quite a lot of people who've been close to the point of coming back to Christ - either for the first time, or having wandered. And they've often said (and there's a good side to this), 'I feel I ought to wait until I'm coming back for less selfish reasons.' Maybe their reason is that they've made a mess of life, they've proved they can't run their own lives as they thought they could, and now they're coming back to God because they realise that would be better. Or maybe their reason is that conscience is doing them in. They need forgiveness, and they're coming back to God to seek it. The truth is that none of us actually comes back to God for purely God-centred reasons, and God doesn't mind. That is one of his methods. Verse 7 is remarkable because it is saying that we come back is more valuable to him than why.
So that's one of God's methods for getting us away from the rivals to whom we may have turned. Chastening. Hard times. The things or people to whom we've transferred our trust fail us - and so remind us that they are not God, that they are the wrong place to look, and that we need to re-invest our trust in the Lord alone.
So, eg, God will chasten a church that trusts in itself with forms of failure, until or unless it does trust in him. God will chasten a denomination with decline and failure until and unless it returns to him and his gospel. And God will chasten individuals - us - when we transfer our trust elsewhere. So, sadly that friend of mine I mentioned who said, 'Sarah is my god, now,' broke up with her. The relationship went sour and he had to face up to the fact that what he'd put his trust in couldn't deliver. What he was looking for could ultimately be found only in God. Whatever our idols, God will shake them. Which sounds tough - and in my experience of a long wander at one point in my Christian life, is tough. But it comes with a huge tenderness behind it. So that's my third heading.
Thirdly, THE LORD'S HEART (3.1-5)
Skip on to 3:1. God's hand in circumstances may feel very tough, but look at the tenderness underneath. 3.1:
The Lord said to me, 'Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.' [The 'raisin cakes' were probably part of some ritual to do with Baal – this isn't a blanket ban on mince pies and garibaldi biscuits.]
Once again, Hosea's own personal life was to be a visual aid for his message. He stands for the Lord and the Lord's behaviour. Gomer, his wife, stands for Israel and their behaviour. So, v1, Gomer is shacked up with someone; she's showing no signs of remorse, she's not knocking on the door and saying, 'Can we talk about it?' And the Lord says, 'Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods…' And that is what God is like. When people turn away from him, when people have never turned to him in the first place: he loves us as we are. But he hates the way we are, and what we're doing.
And then I think v2 is the most moving bit of all:
So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley.
It's so pathetic, really. Pathetic for Gomer that she was worth so little to her so-called 'lover' - possibly her pimp. But infinitely more pathetic for Hosea. Can you imagine having to go and buy your own wife? Can you imagine walking down the street knowing what people are whispering, and hearing how people are mocking? Can you imagine how they looked walking back home together - and yet, not together. Can you image just how costly, just how humiliating that was for Hosea.
Well, that is what God is like when he acts to get us back. That's what we're here to remember at this communion service. Because nothing ever looked more pathetic than Jesus hanging on a cross for us, resolving once and for all this extraordinary tension between God's love and God's justice. Or, if I can put it like this, resolving the tension between the grace of God's love and the jealousy of God's love, as he took the punishment for our sins upon himself. And we don't have to imagine him walking down the street to buy us back. We don't have to imagine how they mocked him. It's all there in the Gospel accounts. And that is what we remember in this communion service: that is, how far - or rather how low - he was prepared to go for us. That is how much he thought of you. That is how much he thinks of you tonight. The cross reveals God's constant attitude to us - tonight and always.
Then, v3. Hosea says:
Then I told her [Gomer], 'You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you [or 'I will wait for you' – see NIV footnote].'
The footnote says there's a different translation that is, according to most of the boffins, better. By v3, Gomer was back in Hosea's hands, and he confined her to get her away from her ex-lovers. But he didn't want mere ownership of her, he wanted relationship. And the end of verse 3 is better translated like this 'You must not be a prostitute or intimate with any man, and I will wait for you.' In other words, 'I will not initiate sexual relations with you, either. I will wait for you - because there is only relationship where there is response.' And that, too, is what God is like. He owns us – we are his creatures. But he has acted in Jesus' death on the cross to get us back in a way that moves our hearts to love him back.
From Hosea's vantage point, God was about to exile his people: an act which expressed judgement on sin, and yet was also an act of love, designed to bring people back to himself. Look at vv4-5:
For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or idol. Afterwards the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days.
From our vantage-point, we know that, beyond the exile, God had in mind the coming of Jesus. We know that God had in mind an act which would be the ultimate judgement on sin and the ultimate act of love to bring people back to himself. We know God had the cross of Jesus in mind. And we can now understand v5 more fully than Hosea did. We understand that 'the Israelites' are in fact the church - people world-wide turning back to the Lord. And we know that 'David their king' must mean the Lord Jesus who has died for us and risen again.
As we close - having thought about the Lord's rivals, the Lord's method and the Lord's heart - let me say two things.
One is this - It may be that you are conscious that you have turned away from the Lord. And I don't mean the sort of 'finite' lapses that our day by day sins are. I mean a long spell of settled compromise or disobedience. Or it may be that you've never turned to God in the first place. Well, either way, have it on the authority of this part of God's word that he will have you back if you come. Whether or not you will come is the limiting factor - not his willingness to have you back. And he couldn't have shown that more clearly than in sending his Son to die for you, to get you back.
The other thing is this - Some may be conscious of having turned away from the Lord, or of never having turned to him in the first place. But the rest of us should all be conscious of our potential for turning away from the Lord. The potential for lapses (particularly those to which we are individually prone), becoming lifestyles - of settled compromise or disobedience. And I want to say to us tonight (and this is exactly what communion is for): Remember the cross. Remember him walking down that road to buy you back. Remember what it cost him. Remember the humiliation. Remember the judgement on sin that lies at the heart of that great act of love. And like v5 says, that will keep us coming 'trembling to the Lord'. Not trembling with the fear of rejection – which is precisely what the cross has cancelled out, once and for all. But trembling with the fear of ever taking that love lightly again.