Tag: Restoration

Beloved Children – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8C (Hosea 11)

 
11 When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
10 They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
 
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                God is love. God is compassionate. Yet, God can get frustrated. We who are numbered among God’s creation, tend to do what is good in our own eyes. We have the freedom to do so, but often it is too our own detriment. Parents understand this. Children are loved, even though they can frustrate. Of course, parents ought to remember that they too were once children. We who are parents once frustrated our own parents and the same will be true from generation to generation. It is good to remember that Scripture speaks regularly of God’s relationship with humanity as one of parent and child. So, maybe human experience can help us understand God’s experience with us, experience that involves compassion and frustration. In this chapter we see God teaching the children of God to walk. God bends down to feed the children. God cares for the people, providing healing when needed. The vision here is kenotic. We see God act in human terms; terms we can understand. God is not a human being, and yet we require human terms to catch a vision. What better image than that of the parent and the child.

                The book of Hosea records the prophetic work of an eighth-century prophet who is perhaps best known for marrying Gomer and using her unfaithfulness as an illustration of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Marvin Sweeney puts it this way: “Hosea draws upon the traditional portrayal of Israel as the bride of YHWH to charge that Gomer/ Israel had engaged in harlotry by pursuing other lovers, prompting Hosea/ YHWH to punish the wayward bride with divorce.” [Sweeney, Tanakh: A Theological and Critical Introduction to The Jewish Bible (Kindle Locations 9564-9566). Fortress Press.] There is divorce, but also restoration. Thus, as Sweeney notes, judgment is not final but preliminary to restoration. The reading for the week from Hosea 11 looks back to Egypt, when God led Israel out of slavery and on to the Promised Land. The Tanakh personalizes the message of divine love: “I fell in love with Israel when he was still a child; and I have called [him] My son ever since Egypt” (Hos. 11:1). Nonetheless, despite this divine love for Israel, “they went their own way” by sacrificing to Baal. Despite God’s efforts to pursue a relationship with Israel (like Gomer) pursued other loves (other gods). Though God pampered Ephraim (another name for Israel), the nation “ignored my healing care” (vs. 3 Tanakh).

                When we read a book like Hosea, which at points is difficult, we discover that God is faithful despite our unfaithfulness. God invites, we spurn. God pursues. We do our own thing. God redeems. Hosea spoke to a nation that would in time disappear from history. Though Israel put its hope in Egypt (rather than Yahweh), Assyria would eventually sweep in and destroy Israel. Despite the fate of Israel, the messages delivered in the eighth century by Hosea were retained and passed on. They continue to remind us of God’s compassion despite our tendency to pursue agendas that run counter to that compassion. The word here has to do with the pursuit of other gods. There is a warning. The nation will suffer. Assyria will be their king, “because they refuse to repent” (vs. 5 Tanakh). So, God will allow them to suffer the consequences of their decisions. “The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes” (Hos. 11:6 NRSV).

                Despite everything, God is unwilling to give up on Israel. God has had a change of heart and won’t act on God’s wrath. Why? Because God is God and not a human being. Therefore, God will not come in fury. There are parental/familial analogies, but at some point, they will fall short. God is not a human being; therefore, God can see beyond the boundaries we run up against. While Israel (northern kingdom), as a nation, will come to an end in 721 BCE as a result of the Assyrian conquest, scatting its people, if we read the New Testament carefully, we will discover the presence of a remnant, the Samaritans. These people claimed descent from those original people who inhabited the land. I’m not sure what to make of this relationship, except that it does suggest (in my mind) the possibility that God was not left without a remnant who might be restored to their homes.

Among the questions that emerge from this passage of Scripture concerns the relationship between our unfaithfulness and God’s faithfulness. How does God come to us as a parent whose compassion includes discipline but doesn’t end there? I’m of the opinion that there are consequences to our actions. When we choose a pathway in life that is destructive, we will likely suffer the consequences. But that doesn’t mean we’re without the possibility of redemption or restoration. The message here is that God is always there, willing to bring healing and wholeness to our lives, despite our unfaithfulness.

Hosea spoke to the people of Israel (northern kingdom) living in the eighth century shortly before the fall of the nation to the Assyrians. The fall was quick and complete, and yet there was the promise of God’s faithfulness. Perhaps it served as a warning to the southern kingdom, which survived for a time, but after its fall did experience restoration. So, how do we hear this word? What message does God have for us through the voice of Hosea that speaks to our contemporary situations? For me and many who read this, it will be an American context. Many who read will be, like me, of European descent (white). There is unfaithfulness to God’s vision for humanity present in our context, including the church. We too follow after idols. They may be different in some ways from the gods Israel pursued, but they are idols nonetheless. They are enticements to follow a path of unfaithfulness. The list is extensive. It includes materialism, nationalism, imperialism, racism, sexism. You can add on to this list as you please. Ultimately, they are all idols that call out to us, inviting us to take a path away from the path God would have us walk. God may reach out to us as a loving parent, ready and willing to bind our wounds and embrace us with divine love.

I should note that we moderns tend to read passages like this in individualistic terms. For his part, Hosea was speaking to the community. We might want to hear this word as a word to the community because it’s rare that we simply walk in our own pathways. We tend to follow the lead of others. As a broader community, we’re hearing messages of division, of hate, of violence. The loudest voices seem to emerge not from the light but from the darkness. To give but one example, recent polls that suggest that the vast majority of white evangelicals do not believe the United States has any responsibility for refugees. Before we tar and feather evangelicals, the polls suggest that white Mainliners aren’t much more compassionate. Why is this? What idols are we pursuing that lead us astray? The previous ten chapters of Hosea speak of God’s frustration and anger. God is not happy with Israel. I dare say, God is not happy with the United States of America (and a lot of other nations). Here in chapter eleven, we hear a word of grace and compassion. We may suffer the consequences as a country and as a world and as individuals because of our corporate and individual unfaithfulness, but the good news, and there is good news to be embraced, is that God will settle us in our homes. We will experience restoration. Healing is possible. We simply must turn back, like the prodigal, and ultimately receive God’s parental compassion and love    

                 

                 

Picture Attribution:  Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. First Steps, after Millet, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55507 [retrieved July 28, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1890_van_Gogh_First_Steps_-_after_Millet_anagoria.JPG.

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Called by a New Name – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2C (Isaiah 62)

Gerard David, Miracle at Cana (16th century)
Isaiah 62:1-5 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
62 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
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                In a word spoken to a post-exilic community seeking to rebuild and create a new identity, the prophet, whom scholars identify as Third Isaiah (Isaiah 55-66), relays God’s message to the city of Zion-Jerusalem. The message is this: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”  In this message that is written using parallelisms we hear of God’s intense interest in the welfare of the covenant people of God who dwell in Jerusalem. The language is that of covenant, and the passage as a whole speaks of this covenant relationship in terms of the intimacy of a marriage relationship (even if it is couched in patriarchal terms).
In this scenario, God is the bridegroom, while Zion-Jerusalem is the bride. As the divine bridegroom, God has made a claim on Zion (and we might, perhaps, the whole people of Israel). It is clear that difficult times had preceded this announcement. Perhaps we could speak in terms of a prior divorce (exile) that involved a city laid waste and its Temple destroyed, while the leading citizens were taken away into exile to the faraway land of Babylon. The exile is now in the past, but it is still part of the people’s memory.  Memories of exile and displacement doesn’t dissipate quickly or easily. Congregations that have moved know this to be true. We might even think of the current age, where religious institutions struggle for survival as being a time of exile. We may wonder if there is hope of restoration. In this passage, Zion has emerged from exile, and has seen the covenant relationship restored. We can imagine hear the people who receive this word celebrating their vindication as seen in the rebuilding of the city (and perhaps the Temple as well).  Not only do the people of Zion witness this reality, but so do the kings of the nations, who bear witness to this vindication. As I pondered this message, I thought of the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5. While this passage is not one of the lectionary readings for the day, what the prophet describes is a day of new beginnings. The old is passed away, and the new has begun. It’s time to rejoice and be glad. Indeed, it’s time for a wedding feast.
                 This change of status is represented here by a name change, which is in keeping with biblical precedent. Throughout Scripture names get changed to reflect new realities. Such is the case here. Whereas once Jerusalem was known as “Forsaken” and “Desolate,” now the city shall be called “My Delight Is in Her” and “Married.” We know that some things get lost in translation, and that is in a sense true here. The meaning comes through with the translations, but we lose some of the poetics of the passage in this translation. When we look at the names in Hebrew, we see their rhythmic qualities. Thus, Azubah and Hephzibah become Shemamah and Beulah. Although things have been changing in recent years, when two people get married, it has been tradition for the wife to take the husband’s name. [See discussion by Julie Faith Parker in Connections, p. 181].And, when we name our children, those names often have some significance for us as well. They represent something about who we are. The name might be that of a friend or a relative, or a player of one’s favorite baseball team. I am named after my father. Sometimes we look at baby name books and pick out one that sounds good to the ear. Or, we might just want to break with conformity and choose something out of the ordinary. Whatever we choose reflects on our identity, and unless we change our names, we’re stuck (for good or ill).
Jerusalem got a name change due to the marriage covenant God made with the city. It went from “Forsaken” and “Desolate” to “My Delight Is in Her” and “Married.” If we understand the context of this word, we understand the power of this name change. It represents the move from exile to return. In marriage terms we could see this as a move from divorce to remarriage. It is a rekindling of a broken relationship. This is represented by the move from the city being abandoned and destroyed to be repopulated and rebuilt after the exile.  With this name change God affirms the reestablishment of a relationship with the people that had been broken, and thus a reaffirmation of the covenant God had made long ago.  
 
When we read passages like this, we will need to address the patriarchal background of the biblical imagery. At least in my circles, there has long been a move from patriarchalism, where the husband rules and the wife submits, to one of equal partnership. The move to mutuality in our interpretation of this passage will need to be done with great care so as not to either reinforce patriarchalism or miss important points of the passage. It is important to recognize the covenant language present here. It’s not the language of an equal partnership. God is the claimant, the protector, and the city is the recipient of this care, for God is like the bridegroom who rejoices over his bride. In this, the city is vindicated. The nations affirm God’s act of vindication.      
   
       
                As we ponder these words, we must acknowledge the patriarchal realities that stand behind these words, even as we seek to hear a word concerning our own relationship with God. We might, for instance, read this through the lens of liberation theology. God is the one who has stepped in and liberated the people from their oppressors. In this case it would have been the Babylonians. This is a hopeful word to those who struggle against injustice and oppression in our day. The covenant language that is present here also reminds us of the intimacy with which we relate to the God who will not remain silent, but who will vindicate God’s people. The word we hear is that we are called by a new name. We have gone from Forsaken to Marriage (Beulah). With that promise of a restored relationship with God our vindicator, we can join the festivities. After all, didn’t Jesus himself bless a wedding party? That is the message of John 2, where Jesus makes wine at the wedding in Cana! With that promise, may we rejoice in God’s protective presence, even as we refrain from embracing the patriarchal vision of marriage that is present in the passage.   


Picture Attribution: David, Gérard, ca. 1460-1523. Miracle at Cana, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46657 [retrieved January 14, 2019].

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.