Return to God

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I've got a slightly odd question to ask you. That probably isn't going to be a surprise to those of you who attend regularly, but if you're new here please bear with me. Here's my question:

Can you spot the odd one out?

A. A family walk on a Scottish beach – in glorious sunshine no less.
B. Going to see Deacon Blue (one of my favourite bands) perform at Newcastle Racecourse.
C. Watching my beloved Partick Thistle take on Ayr United on the first day of the Scottish Football Season.
D. Repentance – which if you don't know is not a little village we visited in Cornwall on holiday, but it is the crucial business of turning away from sin and coming back to God.

Can you spot the odd one out? Well I'm sure you've guessed it! It was indeed watching Partick Thistle on the first day of the Scottish Football Season!

Because all those other things were things I enjoyed doing over the summer. No one in their right mind could enjoy watching Partick Thistle. You don't enjoy watching Thistle, you endure it – and boy did we endure it. After about 30 minutes the kids started asking me when it was going to end and if we could go home yet.

Now, I'm sorry for the trick question but my aim this morning is not to run you through my family's summer highlights. And neither is it to claim that I am much holier than you and I just love repenting so much that it's the highlight of my year.

Rather it is to show you that it should be! When we repent, when we really turn from sin and back to God, it is the most wonderful thing in all the world.

Is that how you feel about the word 'repentance'? In a list of happy, positive life experiences, does repentance stand out as the greatest privilege of your life? Or are you dreading a whole sermon about this subject?

I reckon many of us do tend to think of repentance as something negative and depressing and restrictive. But Hosea wants to help us see it as something wonderful and joy-filled. The very best thing we will ever do in our lives.

We're in our final week in this book of Hosea and to some of you that news might come as a bit of a relief! The message of this book has not been easy listening. And as Ben said last week it's often felt like we've been covering the same ground over and over again. The reason for that is not that we preachers have run out of fresh ideas, but because the book of Hosea is one message that gets repeated four times. It's a message about:

  • Adultery – how God's people have been unfaithful to him, their perfect husband;
  • Judgement – as God's fair and inevitable response to the people's sin;
  • But then also restoration – As God promises to love them despite their sin.

The book of Hosea takes us round and round that cycle, until we come to the climax of the book in chapter 14, as this chapter finally shows us the way back home to God.

I've got two points to highlight what Hosea's telling us here. Here's the first one…

1. God Invites Us to Repent

Do you see that there in verse 1? Hosea says to God's people:

"Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the Lord…"

Now if you've been paying attention closely as we've gone through this book you'll remember that the people of Israel did try to return to God at the start of chapter 6. Though they were supposed to be married to God they ran after other lovers instead. But when things went pear-shaped, they said: "Come, let us return to the Lord…"

And their return looked really promising – as they came back with their sacrifices making all the right moves. But God saw right through it. They weren't really sorry for their sin. They were only really sorry for themselves.

They were a lot like my kids when Fiona and I tried to get them to say 'sorry' to one another when they were younger. Something happened that they needed to apologise for and we'd go and get them and bring them back to the scene of the crime – pushing them from behind to keep them moving like a condemned man on the way to the electric chair.

And then they'd stand in front of their brother or sister or us and we'd have to prompt them:

"What do you say?"
"Who are you saying it too?" – because at that moment they were head down mumbling rather mournfully at their feet.
"Sorry Lucy."
"And what are you sorry for?"
And then they'd have to think really hard about what it might be that they'd actually done wrong. "Sorry for… annoying you."
"No, that's not quite it is it?"
"Ok, sorry for pulling your hair."
"Ok. I'm just sorry for being alive."
"Ok. I'm sorry for pulling your hair whilst hitting you on the head repeatedly with a cucumber."

They would go through this ritual, saying whatever they had to, so that the whole ordeal would be over as soon as possible and they could get on with doing what they wanted to do.

The Israelites were like that. They weren't really sorry for their sin. They weren't hurt by it. They didn't hate it and how it breaks God's heart. So God said to them: "Don't just do your duty! I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. When did I stop being a real person to you? With a real heart?"

And so if Hosea has had it right in this book – that being a Christian is like being married to God – and if what we've done in our sin is committing spiritual adultery, then maybe repentance might not be as easy as we think.

In my marriage, I find it hard enough to say sorry for minor toothpaste offences, so imagine trying to say sorry for an affair. Do you think that it would be easy to apologise for adultery? This is why God doesn't call us to simply mumble a quick 'sorry' and a promise to do the dishes for a month. He calls us to "return". Did you see that there in verses 1 and 2? "Return, O Israel… return to the Lord…"

In your sin you have turned away from God and are heading down the highway in the opposite direction. So do a U-turn! Stop, turn around and come back home to God. You see repentance is more than simply saying "sorry" – it is a complete reordering of the direction of your life.

We see that in this prayer Hosea encourages us to pray in verses 2 to 3: "Take with you words and return to the Lord;" says Hosea. Say something to God.

Maybe you have never prayed before. Maybe the whole idea just feels weird. But give it a go. As you turn to him, talk to him.

What are you going to say? Hosea suggests three things:

i. Ask God for Forgiveness

Verse 2:

"Say to him, 'Take away all iniquity…"

'Iniquity' literally means 'bentness'. Which suggests that our own natures are somehow bent, so that we don't naturally go in a God-ward direction like a shopping trolley with a dodgy wheel. So we aren't to pray that God would just ignore our sin and pretend it isn't there, but that he would take it away. We are to call out to him to straighten what it is twisted in us so that we would run to him rather than away from him.

Then say – verse 2 again: "…accept what is good…" – which can also be translated "receive us graciously" or "receive us kindly". When you turn to God in prayer is that what you think of him? When you talk to others about God do you describe him as "kind"?

"…and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips.'"

It probably means 'our words will be like sacrifices offered on the altar before God'. Remember what God said to them in Hosea 6?

"I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice – knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings."

Or what about King David in that Psalm we read earlier on? he said:

"O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."

In other words, God does not want you to be religious. He does not want you to sort your life out before you come to him. He does not want some grand gesture. He wants your heart. He wants a broken and contrite heart.

This is the good thing that he accepts: a heart that acknowledges that you have nothing to offer and comes to him for forgiveness. "Oh lord, open my lips," says David. "Take with you words," says Hosea. Say something.

Say that you are sorry. Say that you can't make it on your own. Admit that you are bent and broken and all out of shape. Pour out your frustration that you feel trapped and unable to change. Own your shame that you still keep coming back to him with the same old sins. And ask for forgiveness.

But don't stop there – too often we do stop there, don't we? We say "Amen" and get up off our knees and are away before we even think to renounce our sin.

ii. Renounce False Security

As Hosea's prayer goes on – verse 3:

"Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, 'Our God', to the work of our hands."

Real repentance is not just turning back to God – but a turning away from idols. As here in this verse, we get a list of Israel's favourite lovers.

  • Assyria – the local superpower whom Israel made an alliance with thinking that they would save them. When actually they ended up destroying them!
  • Egypt – from whom Israel bought war-mounted horses from, which in those days was the equivalent of arming yourself with Exocet Missiles.
  • And Baal – whom they made idols to worship, thinking that everything they had came not from the Lord God, but from the work of their hands.

So Hosea says, "Renounce them! Reject all those false gods and false hopes."

Now not many of us are tempted to turn to Assyria. Nor will many of us have a horse. And if you do, I doubt that you rely on it for your future! But let me ask you this: How would you complete this sentence?

'My future will be secure if…'

If God is not at the heart of how you complete that sentence, then it's a false hope. You've muddled up God's gifts he freely gives to you, with him the giver.

But real repentance recognises that those things don't deliver! They don't satisfy our passions and desires. Real repentance says:

  • 'Father God, I'm sorry that I've been so controlled by other people's opinions about me. I am no longer going to bow down to the god of popularity, because I can see that in Christ the only verdict about me that ever matters… is already in.'
  • Real repentance says: 'Father God, I'm no longer going to trust in other strategies for my security. I will not bow down to the god of money and finance that so easily disappear and fade – because I can see that you are my fortress, and in Christ I'm rich beyond all measure.'
  • Real repentance says: 'Father God, I'm no longer going to find my identity in my relationship status. I'm not going to bow down to the god of romantic attachment because now I realise that in Christ I have a perfect wedding day to look forward to.'

Do you see? Real repentance is not a trip to the dentist to top up on fillings ahead of another week on the fizzy drinks. It's not rocking up at confession, saying sorry for another full on week of sinning. This is a decisive turning away from idols, to serve the true and living God. We are to "say no more, 'Our God', to the work of our hands", turn from false security and instead…

iii. Express Your Faith in God's Fatherly Love

Verse 3 finishes by saying: "In you the orphan finds mercy."

Real repentance comes like an unloved child rejected by their parents – who against all expectation finds a Father's kindness.

You see God doesn't want us to return to him being forced to spit out a snivelling apology to a disgruntled sibling who is seriously enjoying our discomfort and probably started it all in the first place.

No! That's not real repentance. Real repentance ends up with us being wrapped in the strong, everlasting, ever-loving arms of God our Father, who accepts those whom no one else would love.

And look at the lavishness of his love in verse 4 – God promises: "I will heal their apostasy" – which is a word that basically describes the way God's people had so readily ran away from him. But now he says: "I will heal their apostasy, I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them."

Sometimes you hear people say that forgiveness is just too easy for Christians. You know a quick prayer of confession – 'I'm sorry' – and boom! It's all forgiven and forgotten.

I mean what about justice? What about taking sin seriously? I mean haven't we had 13 chapters of idolatry and sin and unfaithfulness here – and now we get two verses of repentance and it's all forgiven.

But what did it cost God to say verse 4? How easy is forgiveness? It is as easy as having your son nailed to a cross.

You see the judgement Hosea has been proclaiming does come on God's people, but it falls on Jesus in our place. God's anger – which he is perfectly right to have against us because of the way we've treated him – is bearing down on us, coming to crush us. But before it reaches us, God – do you see in verse 4 – turns it away and onto the cross. The cross – if you like – is like a lightning conductor, that absorbs the terrible force of God's anger in full.

Now if we turn back to God in repentance, he will love us freely because of Christ! There's no holding a grudge. No penance. No sitting it out in the dog house. He is so quick to forgive because of Christ.

And he is also quick to – secondly and much more briefly…

2. God Promises the Fullest Life Possible to Those Who Repent

What is the result of our turning to God in repentance? Well it's verses 5-7. As God is promising us that if we turn to him in repentance, we will flourish!

As you look at those verses you will see that promise of flourishing from all the references to living things there. But what's with the mentions of Lebanon – three times – do you see? Well Lebanon is just north of Israel and it was famous for its snow-capped mountains, it's vast forests and sandy beaches.

In fact, I've been checking Lebanon out and it appears like it's having a bit of a revival and is becoming a bit of a holiday hotspot. Earlier on in the week Fiona and I booked our summer holiday for next year – but after browsing the Visit Lebanon website on Friday I felt like we were really missing out. Seriously three minutes on Visit Lebanon and you will want to go.

This place is paradise! And God says: 'That is you! This is how repentance transforms you. It's where real repentance leads.'

Do you want to be beautiful and lovely – verse 5 –like the blossom of a lily? Do you want to be strong and secure – verse 5 again – unshakable like the trees of Lebanon? Do you want to be – verse 6 – full of vitality and life where previously there was nothing? Spreading life to others? Being the kind of person who brings the fragrance of Christ into every room you enter? Do you want your life to be fruitful – verse 7 – do you want it to produce something that matters? And do you want to be famous? Not by going on the X-factor! But by being known as a place of shelter and refreshment for others too?

Some of the promises here like "I will be like the dew to Israel" might not seem like much to you – especially living in Newcastle. We do not suffer a lack of precipitation do we?! But imagine living in a place where it did not rain for months on end. Then the promise of dew has real meaning.

Maybe you feel spiritually dry. Hosea's invitation is: 'Look to God to be your dew, your refreshment, your renewal.' Turn, come home, and he will revive you.

Maybe you feel defeated by your sin, as if you could never escape the repeated patterns of failure. Hosea is saying: 'Don't give up! Don't despair!' Come home to God and he will strengthen you to fight sin, and help you blossom and grow as a person.

Or maybe you have never known God. At best he's been an idea to you, but you have never known him as a Father, who, unlike earthly Fathers, you can trust. Turn, come home, he will never let you down.

So don't hesitate. Don't let the devil deceive you into thinking you can make it on your own. Repent! Do it daily. Do it diligently. Do it even when you don't want to. Do it with the words of Hosea 14 if you can't find the words yourself.

But most of all do it delighting in the God who loves you more than words can say, and who can make you and your life and those around you in your life flourish like nothing else can.

After all – isn't that how Hosea finishes? Let me finish with verse 8 and 9:

"O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress; from me comes your fruit. Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them."

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