These devotions were written in the summer of 2004. Click on a chapter number to jump to the first devotion for that chapter.
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Like a fair number of seminary students, Mark is older than typical college age. He’s a guy who has enjoyed a solid work life for a number of years. When asked to bring an object that represented success to class, Mark brought in a pipe wrench. If I remember correctly, it had belonged to his father or grandfather. Whichever it was, that person had taught about the value of being a dependable and high-quality worker. That lesson came across strongly enough that when Mark opted to attend seminary, his employer created a new job at their Kansas City location just so they could hang onto his services.
Mark could have easily gone through his whole life working at a place that values his contributions, earning a healthy income, and going fishing on Saturdays. Lots of guys do that sort of thing. They work hard and play hard, and they form the backbone of both our society and our economy. There’d be nothing wrong with going through one’s whole life in such a manner. But that wasn’t what God had in mind for Mark.
Apparently, God got a hold of Mark and said, “I want you in ministry.” Surely there was a part of this man that said, “Say what? I have a good job that I know I can hang onto. I’ve got things pretty well figured out. I don’t know that I can make a go of this pastoring thing. Are you sure that you want me to do this, Lord?”
Likewise, Hosea seems to have had his life pretty well in order. At least there’s no reason for us to think that he didn’t have things lined up. I imagine this guy being settled in his trade and yet maintaining a close walk with God. After all, when the word of the Lord comes to people, it’s typically when they’re staying close enough for the conversation to be held. And then what does God say to Mr. All-Together? “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness.”
Say what? Can you imagine how Hosea must have responded to that command. “Hosea to God: please repeat last transmission. The message was garbled!”
But the message had come through loud and clear. Take an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness. God explained why, but I’m sure that Hosea was focused much more on the what than on the why.
By obeying God, Hosea messed up his life, at least from the human viewpoint. Mark could be seen to have messed up his life as well. In the end, Mark might not be that successful as a minister. The jury’s very much out. But just like Hosea, Mark’s already a success because after he said, “Say what?” he turned and followed God’s command.
In hindsight, we’re not that funny. Penny and I, when one of our kids do something that drives us over the brink, tend to look at each other and say, “That’s your kid.” When Emily backed her car into a friend’s car, I looked from the car to Emily and then to Penny. “That’s your daughter,” I muttered. When Alyson tried to spend the night at a friend’s and then got scared, Penny looked at me. “That’s your daughter.” We’ve applied this phrase to Olivia when she throws a fit or Thomas when he makes a mess.
In the end, despite these words, I hope that my kids understand that I will never disown them or turn them away. I know people who’ve been terribly disappointed by their kids’ choices in career, schooling, or marriage. I even know two people with children who’ve spent many years in prison for murder. Those parents, despite the incredible pain that must cause, didn’t turn away from their kids.
Robert Frost described “home” as the place where they have to take you in when you go back there. Although that’s mostly true, I’ve heard of a few cases in which parents decided to sever all ties with their kids. What sort of anger, disappointment, or betrayal would it take for parents to turn their faces away from their own flesh and blood? What sort of pain must it take to turn home into not-home? I can say that I’d never do that under any circumstance, yet there’s always a limit, isn’t there? There’s always a point at which a parent would just say, “No more.”
And that’s just what Hosea is conveying from the Lord here. And what more painful way can Hosea use to get this message across than to father these children and give to them these hurtful names. The proud papa looks down at his second child, a daughter, only to hear God say, “Call her ‘Not Loved.’” I can think of a thousand girls names that would be far better than ‘Lo-Ruhamah’ or ‘Not Loved.’ As if this weren’t enough, God instructs Hosea to name his next son ‘Lo-Ammi’ or ‘Not My People.’
It seems that the love of God has its limits. We don’t like to think about it, but this God of love is here declaring an end to his love for the people of the northern kingdom. That’s a depressing thought, I must say. What’s to keep God from ceasing to love you and me? We know that God won’t drift away from us, but we can drift away from God. I think that’s why Robert Robinson, in his great hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” says “Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee.” Unlike Israel, bound simply by the law of obedience to God, Christians are bound by the Holy Spirit and the law of love. In short, once we’re adopted, we will not be disowned. What a joy to imagine the day when we’ll hear God say, “That’s my child!”
When I was a kid, I used to love professional wrestling. This was back in the era when wrestling, while still a sham of a sport, had not turned into the soft-core porn that it is today. They didn’t have bikini-clad girls or indoor pyrotechnics. It was just two hours of a bunch of flamboyant guys smashing on each other, sometimes with metal chairs.
The thing I always loved was the tag-team matches. In those matches, a team of two good guys would face off against two bad guys. Good guy number one started the match against bad guy number one. They’d battle for a few seconds before bad guy number two distracted the referee with his stamp collection or a leak in the roof. During this distraction, the bad guy in the ring would lay into our hero with a chainsaw or an anvil or something. Then, barely alive, or so it seemed, our hero would manage to hang on somehow while the cheating bad guys would take turns kicking, gouging, throwing, and torturing their victim, all the while holding him just out of reach of his earnest and virtuous team-mate.
And then it would happen. Somehow, our hero, although suffering from skull fractures and third-degree burns, would manage to tag his team-mate. Good guy number two, filled with righteous indignation, would bound into the ring, and the bad guys would scurry and cower. In a flurry of action, good guy number two would utterly demolish his cheating opponents—both of them at once—to the complete delight of the crowd. Strangely, when I saw those matches in person or watched them on TV, it never occurred to me that they always seemed to follow that script. And why? You couldn’t have the bad guys winning (unless they cheated). And it would be totally boring if the good guys simply strolled in and won a cleanly wrestled match. No, the agony of watching one guy just out of reach and then the joy of seeing him make the tag and turn the tables—that’s what was really sweet.
How far is Hosea from professional wrestling? A long way, but I’m still reminded of those matches. For the first nine verses of this book, God has been wailing on the people of Israel, giving them the thrashing they deserved. How much sweeter, then, is it when he turns the tables. That simple word, “Yet,” is like the long-awaited tag in the wrestling match.
Paul tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God, but Hosea beat him to it. No matter how angry God has rightfully become at the idolatry of Israel, he will not forever turn from his people. He chastises those he loves, but he never stops loving. This script has been written. You can depend on it even more than you can depend on professional wrestling being fake.
We got to Scout camp that year just after noon, only hours after the previous troop had vacated the campsite. With the energy of jackrabbits, we claimed tents and began bounding about the area, discovering what wonders of nature or man had been left for our delight. And then we saw it, a pile of perfectly cut firewood stacked near the fire ring.
“We’ll have a campfire here tomorrow night,” somebody pointed out. “Man, we can have a bonfire!”
Indeed we did have a bonfire. While other troops made do with the sort of fire that merely paints the faces of the boys in a warming orange, our fire blazed out like the center of an atomic blast. As it reached its peak, we actually had to scoot the log benches back to keep from cooking ourselves. Normally you light a campfire and sing rip-roaring songs when the fire is rip-roaring. Later, as the fire fades away, you let the mood grow more somber and thoughtful. None of that for us. We kept throwing wood on the fire as the campfire’s mood shifted from high to low. As the Scoutmaster shooed us all toward our tents, the campfire still blazed away. My recollection is that the adults sat around that fire until the wee hours, but it was probably all of about twenty minutes.
Cutting wood is hard work. A couple of years after our inferno, I had the pleasure of building a campfire for the entire camp. You’d be amazed how much wood you can go through in a ninety-minute campfire, and you’d be amazed at how long it takes a wimpy suburban kid with a crummy bow-saw to cut that wood. If I had appreciated just how much work had gone into creating our found wood-pile that summer at camp, I’m sure that I wouldn’t have burned through it with such glee. Indeed, that stack of logs that we burned through in two hours probably represented a good six hours of sweaty toil from somebody. Even a guy with a chainsaw would have worked up a healthy sweat cutting and stacking that wood.
Okay, the image of us thoughtlessly burning wood that we didn’t cut is certainly not as powerful as the image of the harlot Israel running after adulterous lovers and wasting the gifts that she did not produce. On the other hand, it’s not nearly as painful. Back at Scout camp, we were just thoughtless, but the faithless Israel that Hosea blasts is in a whole different league.
But of course, God didn’t just put this in the Bible for historical interest. All of us, now and again, run after our lovers, squandering what God has given us on them. I don’t have to look very far from the computer where I write to realize my own infidelity. Computer games have eaten some of my time, while secular writing ambitions have stolen my attention from God. You have your own lovers that you’ve run after, I’m sure. When we read this book, we err if we think ourselves the good guys. It’s time to gaze thoughtfully into the dwindling campfire and see ourselves for who we really are in this book.
Have you ever read Homer? In The Iliad and The Odyssey, the great blind poet created some of the world’s oldest and most enduring literary creations. The reason that I think about these great epics today is that they emphasize something very important. Events in this world don’t just happen randomly. No, actions tend to have consequences. Take this example. Agamemnon, the great king of The Iliad didn’t just go to Troy. No, he wanted to go, but found that the winds were against him. In order to placate the gods, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter. What a nice fellow. Result? The winds turned but so did the king’s wife, who waited ten years for her chance at revenge. When Agamemnon returned to Greece, his wife murdered him. Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, in turn, murdered his mother, and then the supernatural Furies, hounded the son to the ends of the earth. One thing, leads to another.
You’ll find the same sort of thing in Shakespeare. You can’t just do things in these literary worlds and expect that they’ll have no consequences. If you murder your brother, the king, you can expect to meet a grisly death. Things happen. If you defy your parents and secretly marry their enemy’s child, bad things will invariably follow.
I haven’t murdered any kingly brothers or sacrificed any daughters, but I know that I’ve done a number of things in my life that I wish wouldn’t have consequences. Several times, I’ve done something and seen very real and very dramatic consequences descend upon me. And I’m not talking about the nice kind of consequences.
God, speaking through Hosea, looks at Israel as an unfaithful wife who seems to think that she can simply do anything that she wants, free of repercussions. Like some of the characters from Homer and Shakespeare, she acts as if her actions will have no consequences, but, God makes clear, there will always be consequences.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could segment our lives, isolating our actions so that the events that carry religious impact would be completely separate from the events that are really important. You know what I mean. I’d like to be able to cheat on my taxes on Saturday and then come to church on Sunday and keep the two separate. I’d like to be able to yell at my family on Monday, realizing that this will have absolutely no bearing on my walk with God. But it just doesn’t work that way.
While I might like to sacrifice my daughter in order to gain favorable winds for sailing—it’s just an example, girls—I know that such an action will impact every other part of my life. God doesn’t ask for a sliver of our lives. He doesn’t seek to be an isolated happening to us. He wants permeate us through and through.
I was about ten years old when Worlds of Fun, the Kansas City amusement park, opened to the public. At age ten, nothing could be more fascinating than the finer points of roller coasters and other rides. Like my friends, I knew all of the rides. If there were two lines available to board a ride, I knew which one moved more quickly. I knew where to sit to get the wildest ride. And like every self-respecting preteen, I longed to ride the biggest and baddest of the roller coasters, which, at Worlds of Fun in 1973, was the Zambezi Zinger.
Fairly tame by the standards of today, the Zambezi Zinger gained its altitude by climbing a sort of helix of track before plunging down a number of long drops. It twisted left and then right through a Missouri woodlot before—and this was undoubtedly the coolest thing of all—passing through a fifty-foot tunnel near the end. The dear old Zambezi Zinger is no more. It has been superseded by other bigger and gaudier coasters, but it’ll always hold a special place in my heart.
I’ve been thinking a bit about roller coasters lately. It occurs to me that whatever their differences in speed, seating arrangements, and general nausea inducement, all coasters have a couple of things in common that make people willing to step onto them. First of all, if a coaster is worth anything at all, it’ll drive you right to the brink of panic somewhere along the way. But you could get that by driving your car off of a bridge, a course I wouldn’t recommend. No, the second thing about roller coasters is that they come back to stop safely at just the place they started. No matter how far up the coaster goes, it goes down just as far. It might turn you upside down seventeen times, but it’ll invariably turn you rightside up just as many times. For every twist to the left , there’ll be a corresponding twist to the right. Except in extraordinary and awful accidents, roller coasters wind up right where they started.
As I have been reading through Hosea lately, I feel as if the God that the prophet portrays has much in common with a roller coaster. No matter which way Hosea’s God turns, climbs, and twists, we can be certain that he’ll return to where he began. At the beginning of chapter two, in our text for yesterday, we found God pouring out his anger toward his adulterous Israel, yet today God returns to expressing his love for Israel. Like a roller coaster, God will push us to the brink of panic sometimes, but it’s only to the brink.
Don’t misread me, however. I’m not suggesting that we follow some sort of capricious god like the Greeks created. The roller coaster of God’s love rises and falls in response to our faithfulness. This isn’t torture, but it can be torturous. No, our God is like a well designed roller coaster. He’ll force us to face our weaknesses and fears. He’ll leave us white-knuckled and hanging on for dear life. But in the end, he returns us lovingly to the station and leaves us eager to ride again.
Yesterday, we put the wraps on a summer dramatic production for kids. Five kids and as many adults conspired together to stage Charlotte’s Web for about 300 people in two performances. Although I would love to talk about the joy of playing a fat, obnoxious pig, what really sticks in my mind is a moment of silence in the play.
About half way through the story, Charlotte the spider prepares to write the third in a series of words into her web. After having written “Some Pig” and “Terrific,” she readies herself with another message designed to rescue the little pig Wilbur from the frying pan. “Radiant,” she decides, is the perfect word for this task. In our first performance yesterday, the stage cleared of everyone but Charlotte, who was to utter a fairly long speech while placing the word “Radiant” in the web. I was backstage listening, and what did I hear?
Silence. Poor Charlotte had gone completely blank. She couldn’t remember her lines, and she had no one onstage to help her get back on track. I’ve been in that boat—although never alone—and I know just how nerve-jangling it can be. Quickly, those of us concealed backstage searched the script page for the proper spot. Then Alyson, the stage manager, crept as close to Charlotte as she could without being seen and hissed, “I’m suddenly very tired.”
“I’m suddenly very tired,” Alyson whispered again.
“I’m suddenly very tired, but I must do this for my friend,” Charlotte began. She flew through the remainder of that speech and the rest of the play without incident. But how long she might have stood there, vainly waving her eight arms as she tried to recapture the lost lines, I have no idea. No, she needed to be rescued.
Rescue could be the theme of Hosea 3. In this brief prose passage, Hosea interrupts his poetry and explains God’s instructions. Apparently his wife Gomer had run off and found herself enslaved. For fifteen shekels of silver, Hosea redeems her and brings her back to his home. Like Charlotte, Gomer needed to be rescued in order to get back on track.
Would Gomer run astray again? Probably. But she had within in her the potential to be a loyal and loving wife just as surely as Charlotte had within her those forgotten lines. Jesus didn’t die for us expecting us to be perfect. His forgiveness didn’t assume that we’d never sin again. His sacrifice highlights our sins, but it just as surely highlights our potential. We can be rescued! Like Hosea, Jesus calls us to be ever faithful, but also like Hosea, he will come and rescue us when we stray. That’s truly “Radiant.”
They’re everywhere these days. From the Sierra Club to Earth First, from Greenpeace to the Wilderness Mafia—the environmentalists are everywhere. They’ve got their own political party, the Green Party. The Greens are pretty much a sideshow in the U.S., but in Europe they actually get people elected to government. The true extremists do such friendly things as embedding spikes into century-old trees so that anyone using a chainsaw to fell those trees is likely to take shrapnel to the skull.
Lately, they’ve been showing up at various anti-globalization protests, blocking streets, wearing outrageous outfits, and sometimes creating genuine trouble. The furthest-out environmentalists seem to believe that anything that humans do to change nature is, by definition, negative. They seem to prefer that humans were still scurrying about in the undergrowth of the forest, dodging predators and eking out a living from grubs and berries. They prefer these things, and they use all the best technologies to proclaim their views. Makes sense, eh?
While we might laugh at the environmentalists, we have to recognize that their message is meaningful. The spotted owl may be a dispensable species, but the rate of extinction in the world is very worrisome. The Glen Canyon Dam may not be the most awful act ever perpetrated by humans, but the overall effects of human intervention on nature’s waterways is troubling. Perhaps we don’t need to worry about the pallid sturgeon, but the dramatic drops in the world’s fisheries should bother us.
The environmentalists point to all sorts of culprits for the degradation of the environment: SUVs, suburban sprawl, deforestation, non-renewable resources, non-hemp fabrics, and so forth. But few of them recognize that the true cause of our environmental distress was explained nearly three thousand years ago by Hosea. After complaining about the Godlessness of the people of Israel, Hosea explains the consequence of turning from God’s commands. “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.”
Does this make sense? Can our culture’s disdain for the things of God really account for our damage to the environment? Think about it. Would truly Godly people feel the need to constantly acquire and consume more and more? Would Godly companies have knowingly poisoned Lake Erie or Times Beach? Would Godly researchers be rushing headlong into genetic modification, human cloning, and stem-cell research without thoroughly exploring the possible effects of those actions?
God has placed us as stewards over his creation. While you and I can’t stop coal fires from polluting the air, what we can control speaks volumes about our devotion to the Creator. Let’s not cede this act of devotion to the tree-huggers.
Some people say that big-time ministers are all wet. Sometimes those people are right. We can be happy that a good number of years has passed since the televangelist scandals of the 1980s gave Christians such a black eye. Still, the images of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker falling into adultery, and Oral Roberts making absurd pronouncements in the name of God, haven’t completely receded from view. I doubt we’ll ever completely forget those debacles.
It would be nice if no ill deeds had been done in the name of Christianity in the years since that group hit the trifecta. In reality, though, you can find examples of ministerial malfeasance on a regular basis if you know where to look for it. Happily, it hasn’t been the biggest names who have gone astray, but unhappily they seem to do it just as regularly as they used to. Hardly a church in the land can’t tell a tale of somebody oon the payroll doing something he shouldn’t have done.
Now before you start thinking that I’m going off on some kind of anti-clergy rant, let me assure you that I recognize most ministers to be basically hard working, honest, and, while fallible, decent people. But as in the case of lawyers, doctors, corporate executives, and politicians, we find a few people drawn to the ministry not because of a deep sense of calling but because of the call of deep supplies of power and money. That’s a shame.
Of course this is nothing new. Back in the early sixteenth century, the thing that pushed Martin Luther over the edge and really got the Reformation rolling was the sale of indulgences by the Catholic church. Where my church has sold bonds to fund the construction of a new building, the power trust at the Vatican decided that indulgences were to be the financing vehicle for the building of the new St. Peter’s Basilica. And what is an indulgence? It’s essentially a “Get out of jail free” card. The purchase of an indulgence promised the buyer a diminished time in purgatory. Were you a glutton? Not to worry. Buy the right indulgences and that 10,000 years you’d need to stay in purgatory for that sin could be wiped out. Now that’s an abuse of ministry!
And lest we bash the Catholics too much, let’s be aware that this passage in Hosea talks about the same level of sin in the priests of Israel. “The more the priests increased, the more they sinned against me; they exchanged their Glory for something disgraceful.” Be sure to read Hosea correctly here. He’s not saying that priests are naturally evil. He goes so far as to talk of their glory. No, the priests of Israel fell into grievous sin for the same reason that Peter sank into the Sea of Galilee: they took their eyes off of God.
I’m not a member of the paid clergy, but I don’t get off that easily. You see, you and I are every bit as apt to take our eyes off of Jesus as were the priests of Martin Luther’s day. We’re just as capable of exchanging our glory for something disgraceful as were those Old Testament priests. And our glory is so much more than theirs!
Like Peter, walking on the waves, we simply must keep our eyes on Jesus. If we don’t, I’m afraid we’ll wind up in over our heads.
Recently, I heard a story about a church having some difficulties. After a couple of months of infighting, the church polarized. A sizeable group decided that the pastor simply couldn’t do anything right, while a bare majority supported the church. When they discovered that they couldn’t effect a coup, many of the dissidents split away from this church. One couple in particular—I’ll call them the Levers—made quite a spectacle of their departure.
“They’ll really miss our contributions up at that church,” Mr. Lever remarked to anybody who would listen.
Mrs. Lever was just as blunt. “They’re really hurting, you know. I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t have to really cut the budget back.”
Rather than immediately heading out to join another church, the Levers sort of lurked in the neighborhood, as if they were watching and waiting, hoping to see the eventual implosion that their departure brought about. You would think that they would have wanted to get on with their lives, but they just hung around, asking for updates and never bothering to take their names off the rolls so they received all the mailings.
Now I can’t say whether the Levers were justified in taking off from this troubled church. For all I know, their pastor was every bit as awful as they believed him to be. But I do know that the style with which they headed off into the sunset seemed strange. They didn’t seem to want to get away. It was as if they had escaped their burning house and then stood watching the place burn to the ground.
The Levers thought that their departure would bring that church to its knees. Although they’d never admit it, they probably hoped that this collapse would happen. But the funny thing is that the church in question, while certainly suffering from the defections, seems to be turning the corner. It seems to be moving on, consolidating, and steadying itself to get back into meaningful ministry. The Levers must be so disappointed.
What the Levers and all those like them don’t seem to realize is that it’s the actions of men that crash and burn. The work of God will never be frustrated. When a pastor does something foolish, he doesn’t stop the will of God. When a family jumps ship, they can’t put an end to the plans God has laid for the church.
As I read Hosea’s words today, I recognize that God sometimes cuts off certain people—individuals or entire groups. He cut off Israel in the eighth century before Christ, but that did not put an end to the plans that God had made. He still had Judah through which to work.
What we need to remember is that God will do what he promises in his Word with us or without us. We can’t stop his work any more than the Levers can stop their old church from doing what God has willed for it. The only real choice we have is whether or not to be a part of that will. I’m choosing to be a part of it.
Five days ago, the summer semester ended. On Friday, I enjoyed one of my favorite activities, turning in grades and putting the semester to bed. After teaching for sixteen years, I still enjoy that moment of closure, which rolls around three times a year. Why? I enjoy it because on that day I get to part company with a few difficult students, the sort that make life crazy.
There’s one type that seems to show up every semester. This summer was no exception. Andy began the class at the same time that everybody else did, around June 1. Around June 10, he dropped off the face of the earth so far as I could see. While everyone else—okay, not everyone, but everyone who completed the course—was turning in papers number two through seven, Andy registered nary a blip on the radar screen. In reviewing his activity in this online class, I realized that several times in late June and early July, he had checked in on the class. He’d read a few of the web pages, but he turned nothing in. As deadline after deadline passed, I assumed that Andy had given up on the class.
Imagine my surprise, last Thursday morning, when Andy’s name popped up in my email. “I’m terribly sorry that I’ve gotten so far behind. I will be submitting all the assignments today.” The translation of that is that he intended to whiz through eight weeks worth of class in some eighteen hours. Even if I had allowed him to ignore the deadlines, there’s no way that he could have done sufficiently good work to pass the class.
I like to think that I know what went on inside Andy’s head across this summer. It began in mid June when he started to get behind. Faced with the choice between doing his English class and heading to the lake with his friends, he opted for the Jet-skis. I understand that temptation, and I can’t say that I always resist it. In the back of Andy’s mind, he thought something like this: “I really should be doing the school work, but I can get caught up. I’ll just go to the lake this once.”
In reality, that sort of thinking is realistic. You and I probably do this sort of trade-off every week. I should have mowed the grass yesterday, but I knew that I could do it today. Hopefully I’ll get it done today. The problem is that at some point, we go too far down that road of irresponsibility to get back. Somewhere around July 1, Andy passed the point of no return.
Is there a point of no return with God? Our theology of the love of God would say that there isn’t, and surely we’ve seen serious sinners turned back to the straight and narrow from time to time. More often, however, those who stray down the wrong road too far wind up beyond hope, barring God’s intervention. “Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God,” Hosea says of the people of Ephraim. That’s one of the sadder verses in the Bible, to my mind. Those people, like Andy, could simply watch wistfully as their hope sailed away.
Many people, when visiting the college where I teach, are surprised at the size of the place. They hear “community college” and imagine half a dozen Quonset huts or an underused strip mall. With some 12,000 full-time students, Johnson County Community College needs a big campus.
Of course, like anywhere in our modern world, along with the need for buildings and sidewalks and the like goes the need for parking. For as long as I have worked at JCCC, students—and employees who arrive on campus after 9:00 am—have complained about the parking situation. Students typically pull into the entrance at 9:55, expecting to find a close-in parking spot from which stroll to their 10:00 class. When the professor glares at them entering the class fifteen minutes late, they shrug and mumble something about “crummy parking.”
In response to this chronic complaining, I’ve taken to asking classes to brainstorm solutions to the great JCCC parking crisis. Normally, as we begin such a session, the first solution is completely useless. “They just need to build more parking lots,” somebody—usually a guy in a backwards ballcap—will opine.
I’m always ready for it. “But will that really solve the problem? If you were to go out to the farthest edge of campus at the busiest time of day, couldn’t you find parking spaces?” I ask.
Most of the class nods at this.
“So,” I continue, my voice rising in stentorian splendor. “The real problem isn’t how much parking we have but where it is, right?” I smile then, puffed up with the self-satisfaction of the worst of politicians.
JCCC’s President used to say, “We don’t have a parking problem; we have a walking problem.” I usually quote him at this point.
This year, while I’ve been off shirking my teaching duties, JCCC has actually addressed this walking problem. They’ve built a multi-level parking garage right over the faculty parking lot. They could have paved everything between the campus and downtown Olathe, but that wouldn’t have fixed the problem.
How often do we look to the wrong “doctor” to heal our ailments. People see their kids running amuck and expect the schools to fix them. They get themselves into a mountain of debt and then look to the government for help. They eat a mountain of bacon every morning and then expect the doctor to make things all better when heart disease sets in.
That’s one of those things that drives the prophets crazy. In this text, Ephraim, the Northern Kingdom, finds itself in trouble. So where does it turn? To God? No, it turns to Assyria for help. That’s a lot like paving the far edges of the JCCC campus.
Lest we start feeling too smug, however, we need to ask ourselves how we score on this count. Do you look to the Lord for help first on all matters or only “spiritual” matters? Do you say, “God, I’m counting on you to handle religious stuff, but Dr. Phil has the relationships covered”?
We need to realize that all of our problems—walking, parking, or whatever—are God problems.
You have to break some eggs to make an omelet, the old proverb says. Sometimes I think of that when dealing with my kids and find the prospect of breaking eggs a bit too appealing. The breaking of eggs in that proverb goes along with a lot of other actions we might get into. For example, when I go to organize a closet, I usually pull everything inside outside. You have to make a bigger mess before you can clean a smaller one up. Or we can see it with doctors. Surgeons will invariably make things worse—cutting you open and hacking at things—in order to make things better.
I know a fair number of folks who can’t imagine God working in this way. They want to envision a God who sort of tip-toes around creation, patting us on the head from time to time and singing pretty songs. While such a God might be soothing to our psyches, it’s not the God that is described in scripture.
Look at how Hosea describes God in this brief reading: “He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.” That’s not the nicey-nice God that some people describe. Look at those words: “He has torn us to pieces.” That sounds more like the work of a grizzly bear, yet these actions are ascribed to God.
No one complains when the surgeon cuts a patient open, provided that this same surgeon can make the needed changes inside the body. Think about a heart transplant for a moment. That doctor cuts open the chest and removes the patient’s heart. You’d have to think of that as a negative action, but there’s the positive to go with it. The surgeon continues by sewing in a new and usable heart, patching up all the leaks and closing the chest. No wonder these doctors tend to feel godlike.
A surgeon who won’t make the opening incision can never heal anyone. Similarly, if God were to refrain from tearing us to pieces, he could hardly put us back together as something new and better. Those who like to imagine God padding around the world smiling and hugging us won’t admit that we’re not worthy of smiles or deserving of hugs. God could simply look approvingly at us, but then we’d never become any better than we already are. It would be malpractice as surely as if a cardiologist were to look at a candidate for a quadruple bypass and pronounce him ready to run a marathon.
“Let us return to the Lord,” Hosea says. Let us return to him and allow him to perform his surgery on our lives. For then, “we may live in his presence.” That’s better than having a nicey-nice God, I’d say.
David grew up in my neighborhood. The son of a wealthy and self-made man, David wanted for nothing material. Before I owned a car of my own, David had gone through three different models, each of them costing easily twice what mine did. Although I didn’t receive an invitation to David’s wedding, I heard the reports. Three limousines, including a Bentley, ferried the wedding party to the church. And the reception? Just try to remember the big party, complete with a full orchestra, that Michael Corleone throws at the beginning of The Godfather II. The whole thing must have set his family back more than the gross national product of certain small nations.
To the best of my recollection, David stayed married all of nine months, give or take. Where he is today, I have no idea. The lesson that I take away from his experience is simple. It’s not the size of the engagement ring, the cost of the wedding gown, the rarity of the flowers, or the exclusiveness of the musicians that make a wedding. Oh, they might make a wedding but they don’t make the marriage.
All of the things that we spend money on for a wedding are simply tokens of love and affections. They are meant to represent something. For some people, of course, they represent the wrong thing. In some cases, that money spent represents the wealth of the family or the desire to impress the friends and neighbors. In other cases, it symbolizes heartfelt love and a desire for a fabulous future.
Just as the trappings of a wedding can signify all the wrong things, so can the outer evidences of religious behavior. That’s what I think when I hear Hosea’s words: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” Is this an evidence of God waffling on the issues? Has he changed his mind since back in the Torah? I don’t think that’s the case. No, God commanded sacrifices and burnt offerings, but he doesn’t want them if they represent simply an attempt to conform, to impress the people next door. God wants sacrifices that indicate a pure heart, surrendered to him.
A recent survey reported that some self-described religious people were apt to substitute financial giving for actual church attendance, as if we could pay God off rather than fulfilling our duties to him. God doesn’t want our money unless it represents true devotion to him. He doesn’t want our prayers unless they indicate our true surrender to him. He doesn’t want to hear us sing praises with our mouths, when our hearts are full of envy and spite.
I’ve never been in a position to give lavishly either to my family or to my God. Part of me would like to be in that position so that I can demonstrate my true devotion to both parties. Another part, however, realizes that maybe God has given me just the right resources for demonstrating my measure of mercy and my acknowledgment of God.
This morning, Penny and I will teach our last fifth-grade Sunday School class for the foreseeable future. We started teaching together five years ago. Our first room was on the unfinished third floor of the church’s education wing. We’ve been through a lot of kids in those five years. We’ve done some things very well, while other things we’ve barely faked our way through. In the grand scheme of things, five years isn’t a very long time. But from ground level, and especially right now as I approach the end of the road, it seems as if I’ve always been teaching this class. Therefore, I feel as if I’ve earned the right to pontificate on these kids for a moment.
You know what I’ve learned about fifth graders in those five years? In some respects, they’re quite a bit different from adults. Most of them haven’t a clue about the significance of money. Give them another year or two and they’ll know a hundred bucks from a hundred thousand, but right now, they don’t really grasp something that you and I don’t give a second thought to. Similarly, they don’t know cars, jobs, or the difficulties of getting things done in a complicated, bureaucratic world. Finally, I’m constantly concerned to see that about half of these kids don’t know how to read very well.
But these kids do understand many adult sins. To start with, they’re experts at lying. From the flat-out, bald-face lie to the tall tale, most of them can spin a yarn with ease. They have envy and greed all figured out as well. Granted, the objects of their envy and greed might be Pokemon cards or Brittany Spears CDs, but they’re every bit as accomplished at it as the best adults. And they can put us to shame when it comes to being clannish and cliquish. They know how to ostracize another kid for talking a little too loud or for wearing the wrong shade of lip gloss.
Much to my horror, I see kids—the girls especially—going boy crazy at an earlier age that we used to see. When you’re a ten-year-old girl, you’re not supposed to call a guy “hot” unless he’s mowing the grass in August, but we hear it more and more. We see kids being exposed to childish adult behavior. And we see them following along all too often.
My mother is fond of looking at my kids and saying, “They’re good kids.” And yes, as kids go, they’re pretty good. But kids aren’t good. Neither are adults. When Hosea voices God’s feelings about Israel, I don’t think he’s just talking about them. “Whenever I would heal Israel, the sins of Ephraim are exposed.” Whenever God would look at me and say, “He’s a good kid,” my sins are exposed.
My only hope, and the only hope for this year’s or next year’s fifth graders, and the only hope for you, is that our sins will be blotted out, carried away with the blood of Jesus, carried away out of God’s sight. When I look back at five years of teaching, I guess that’s been my enduring message. And should I return to teaching down the road, it’ll be to carry that message to a new class.
Here’s an idea: retirement at age twenty-seven. That’s what Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams decided to do a couple of weeks ago. At the absolute top of his game, Williams determined to chuck the future and head out of the country to travel for a while. Rumors have suggested that Williams, who has run afoul of substance abuse policies in the past, might have seen more serious problems coming down the road, but for all anybody knows for certain, this fellow just got tired of playing football.
Unlike Barry Sanders who, several years ago, abruptly quit the game while on the verge of breaking a host of long-standing records, Ricky Williams has never seemed like an all-together guy. When hearing about his various escapades over five years of playing football, you have to wonder if his dreadlocks weren’t wound a bit too tightly. During his first three years, playing in New Orleans, Williams routinely gave interviews while wearing his helmet. He said, during those years, that he felt like a weirdo. There’s a reason why he felt that way.
I don’t mean to poke fun at a guy who apparently has some sort of anxiety disorder, but I do find it remarkable that, while excelling so greatly in a game that requires at least some brains, he demonstrated so much cluelessness. Most people realize that when you’re in the public eye and demonstrate no charisma that you’ll be unpopular. Most people realize that, but Ricky Williams apparently couldn’t see it. He could turn on the TV and watch other athletes warming up to the public. He could see the difference between him and them, and yet he didn’t seem to understand that much of his acceptance problem came from his shrinking personality.
It’s not exactly front page news for an athlete to be clueless. For every one of them that shocks the sporting world by retiring at the pinnacle, there are five who hang on well past their primes, forcing the coaches to make embarrassing cuts. They’re like the people whom Hosea describes today. “His hair is sprinkled with gray, but he does not notice.” Sometimes the athletes are the last to see that they’re headed nowhere.
But they don’t have the corner on the market on cluelessness, either. How can a woman as smart as Martha Stewart think that she won’t get in trouble from insider trading? How can a woman I know smoke for fifty years and then be surprised that she needs oxygen constantly? How can that person I saw pulled over by the police today not expect to be stopped with expired tags? The warning signs are as plain as the gray hairs on my head, but they don’t see them. Of course I’m not clueless about anything. Yeah, right!
So maybe Ricky Williams is really not as clueless as I think. Maybe he’s finally gotten smart enough to realize that playing football, while very rewarding financially, doesn’t make him happy. I don’t know. We all have our clueless areas of life. That seems a given of the human condition. The only hope that we have lies in paying careful attention to the person of Christ, who can highlight our duller areas for us, helping us to get a clue now and then.
I just returned from Cub Scout Webelos camp yesterday. Three days and two nights sleeping in tents and eating mess hall food is about as much as I want to endure right now. Despite the gripes I could offer about the cold potatoes or the uncomfortable cot, I thoroughly enjoyed the activities of those days. In the end, I guess the best part of the whole deal was that my son, at nine years of age, still likes to spend time with his dad and still will hold his hand in an unguarded moment.
Our pack sent only two boys this year, and both dads were there. Across the campsite we got to know another pack, also with two boys and two adults. The funny thing about this other pack was that these two adults apparently weren’t related to these two boys in the slightest. These were just a couple of nice people—a husband and wife, it turned out—who took a few days of their time to bring these boys to camp. After watching them deal with these two peculiar ten-year-olds, I had a great deal of respect for this couple. One image of this camp that I’ll carry with me is little Jacob, whining and pining for home on our second day there. I’m fairly sure that he didn’t want to leave the camp as much as he wanted his own flesh and blood to share his day with him.
In fact, I spent a lot of time watching kids and their leaders over these days. I saw plenty of boys who were there with their dads. A much smaller group was there with their mothers. But I guess the largest group was those who were there with somebody else entirely. There are plenty of good reasons why a parent couldn’t take their kids to camp. Some people don’t have flexibility at work and others just aren’t the camping type, but I know from experience that a fair number of these people are just coasting through parenthood, sowing the wind as they go.
There’s no guarantee that those boys whose dads were present this week are going to grow up to be perfect models of American masculinity. And there’s nothing that says that the ones who were in the clutches of others won’t turn out just fine. But past outcomes do suggest that the more people invest of time and energy into their kids, the better those kids are likely to turn out. Those, on the other hand, who sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.
This passage from Hosea today doesn’t pertain directly to parenting. It deals more broadly with the entire way that we conduct our lives. Are we focused on the things of God or on the things of ourselves? Most of us have a mixed scorecard when asked that question. From time to time, we make our own idols and set up our own kings without God’s permission. My prayer is that I’ll spend a lot more time sowing good seeds with Tom than I’ll waste sowing the wind. God has given us all fields to cultivate, and harvest time is approaching. Let’s grow a crop worthy of Him.
I’m starting to worry about myself a bit. Maybe it’s all the stuff about Ronald Reagan and his Alzheimer’s, but I’m starting to think that maybe I’m forgetting more things than would be healthy. Let me give you an example. About twenty-four hours before Tom and I went to Webelos Camp, I got a call from another of the dads. It seems that this other boy and his father couldn’t go to camp because of a gravely ill relative. Since Tom is closer to this boy than to the other who would be attending, I thought he’d be rather disappointed. On Sunday morning, a couple of hours before we were to leave, I found a quiet moment to talk with Tom. “I just wanted you to know that Alex won’t be able to go to camp,” I explained.
He nodded, as if I’d told him the plates in the dining hall would be blue rather than green.
“So, you’re okay with that?” I asked.
“You told me last night,” he added.
I told him last night. How on earth could I have told him the night before and then forgotten it twelve hours later? Yes, I asked him if he had a raincoat fourteen times, but I remembered that. But telling him about Alex? How could I forget it. Even after he reminded me, it was only a vague image in my mind.
If that were the only problem, I’d be okay, but it’s not. I’ve always been bad about forgetting to do things, but now I’m starting to have a positive memory of having done them only to find that I actually didn’t. Where does that come from?
Penny has been accusing me of having the onset of Alzheimer’s for about five years, but we’ve finally realized that I just don’t pay good attention to her. As I sat here typing, she just came in and told me something about Tom finding a tick on himself and flinging it across the room. It’s in my mind now, but it’ll probably be gone by the time I get up. I’ll find that tick crawling around in a day or two and wonder where in the world it came from.
My forgetfulness can’t be controlled, but God’s forgetfulness is a whole other matter. I’ve always found it inconceivable that God could or would actually forget our sins once the blood of Christ has been applied to them. Yet in Hosea’s words, the action of memory is used as a threat. “He will remember their wickedness and punish their sins,” Hosea warns.
In the Old Testament, God certainly overlooked some sins. He seemed to accept a certain level of sin, ceremonially washing it away with sacrifices designed to mimic the approaching sacrifice of Jesus. But for Christians, the sins are forgotten, as far as east is from west. Let us never be so foolish as to forget our mercifully forgetful God.
During the spring of 2003, while American and British troops were scooting across Iraq like NASCAR drivers, Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi Information Minister, could be seen denying that any allied forces were anywhere in the country. In case you weren’t treated to the opinions of “Baghdad Bob” when he was still the mouthpiece for Saddam Hussein’s regime, I have gathered a few of my personal favorites here. "My feelings—as usual—we will slaughter them all," he said when asked about the probable outcome of the war. When it became clear that Americans were making their way up the Euphrates valley toward Baghdad, he said, “They’re coming to surrender or be burned in their tanks.” And, with an American patrol apparently just two blocks away from the site of his news conference, he offered this: “I triple guarantee you, there are no American soldiers in Baghdad.” My personal favorite was his promise to meet the American invaders with “bullets and shoes.” Don’t ask me what that meant.
Good old Baghdad Bob apparently wasn’t a bad guy. He didn’t torture people or gas civilians or anything. What he said was so absurd that you have to wonder if he wasn’t some sort of Saturday Night Live-style spoof. After a brief detention, the “American infidels” released him and he’s now a talking head for Abu Dhabi TV.
The reason that Baghdad Bob pops into my mind right now is that he’s a sort of poster child for the promoter of the lost cause. At a time when any sensible Iraqi official would have been high-tailing it for the nearest border, he faced the microphones and cameras of outrageous fortune and unashamedly told lies.
In reality, though, we’ve all got a little bit of Baghdad Bob in us. Just turn on a college football game this fall, and you’re sure to see the fans of some perennial loser rejoicing in an upset over a much-vaunted opponent. And those fans will, I assure you, be waving their index fingers in the air and shouting, “We’re number one!” How absurd. When the Libertarian Party held its nominating convention in May, I’m sure the enthusiastic delegates cheered and chanted and felt as if victory were inevitable. Come November, they might have won an alderman’s seat in Sandusky, Ohio, but in May, they were invincible.
It’s easy for us to convince ourselves of our greatness. Most of the more decadent and corrupt people you’ll ever encounter don’t see themselves as decadent and corrupt. Most dysfunctional families don’t see themselves as failures. It’s easy for us to become persuaded of our own virtue and worth. But it is often a lie.
Hosea, in his continuing diatribe against the self-satisfied nation of Israel, today warns them not to take pride in themselves. He warns them that even if they seem to have wealth and success, the wheel will most certainly turn.
We can avoid the fate of Baghdad Bob when we place our trust not in ourselves or the institutions with which we associate. Instead, we must trust God alone. As Paul points out, we must boast only in the cross. God will invariably bring the haughty down to size, no matter how often they threaten to meet their enemies with “bullets and shoes.”
My kids are fond of things. Oh, who am I kidding? We’re all fond of things. The difference is that my kids aren’t terribly aware of their fickle nature. They see the latest whatchamacallit and simply have to have it. Let’s take an example from my grown kids. Back when Emily was in grade school, pogs were all the rage. “What’s a pog?” you might ask. They apparently didn’t have much staying power, since my spell-checker doesn’t recognize the word. Pogs were a brilliant marketing device. You printed a small circular design, about an inch and a half in diameter, onto cardstock, and then you punched out the circle to form a small disk. Voila! You have just made a pog. Pogs probably cost about a dollar a thousand to make—maybe less—and people were selling them hand over fist, five for a dollar back in the early 1990s.
Emily just had to have pogs. She needed creepy pogs, and cheerful pogs. She wanted ones with little space alien pictures on them. No matter how many of them she got, she wanted more. How could anybody live without pogs? Apparently, you played some game with the things, although I never actually saw kids playing the game. No, they just hoarded these silly little disks.
A few years later, pogs were out and Beanie Babies were in. Alyson just had to have Beanie Babies. People drove around town, buying Happy Meals when they had Beanie Babies in them. These people—and I knew a couple of them—would buy the meals and throw the food away just so they could get their Beanies. Today, Beanie Babies are largely a thing of the past, relegated to a tiny shelf in the few stores that carry them. Easy come, easy go.
I’m really moved by these words that Hosea shares with us today. When God first found Israel, they appeared like grapes in the desert. That’s a beautiful image. What could be better than grapes in the desert? They’d be even better than pogs and Beanie Babies. But over time, God saw his beautiful fruit turn sour and inedible. That doesn’t reflect a change by God. It reflects on Israel.
But I’d like us to reflect on the position of the grapes for a moment. Haven’t you experienced the joy of pogs? Oh, it wasn’t pogs, but it was something. Maybe you found Chipotle burritos or eBay simply too wonderful to describe, and now, maybe that fascination has waned. Similarly, most of us, at the moment of our salvation, find God to be as marvelous as grapes in the desert, but over time we take those grapes for granted. Our enthusiasm for them fades.
What happened to Israel? It wasn’t that God’s attitude toward them changed. No, what happened is that Israel treated God the way that kids treated pogs. Once the novelty wore off, they went in search of the next big thing. May we never forget that our God is the ultimate big thing, never to be gotten over.
I remember my father saying something about a stock he owned years ago. I asked him why he owned General Motors common stock. This was back when I was trying to make my fortune through investments, and I thought I knew an awful lot. His answer surprised me. “GM may not go up as much as a lot of the other stocks that you could find, but you have to figure that if GM ever goes under, then we’ve got a lot bigger problems than just some lost money. The whole country would have to go under.”
At about that same time, my dad owned stock in White Trucks, the company that made White Freightliners. In those days, White trucks probably made up something like forty percent of the over-the-road trucking fleet in this country. They seemed like another safe bet. No, they weren’t as impregnable as General Motors, but they sure seemed to have the market share and future to encourage confidence. That was before White Trucks went belly up. Before long, we had parleyed a $10,000 investment into about $500. The truck business was purchased from bankruptcy by Volvo and we were left with something called Northeast Ohio Axle. To the best I could ever understand, their biggest endeavor was making conversion vans.
We’ve seen plenty of giants in the world of business fall over the years. In Kansas City, many people made fine careers at TWA when it was one of the elite airlines. And today? TWA is just a glimmer of nostalgia. In fact, any airline that ever makes a hub in Kansas City, no matter how powerful it might seem, can be expected to file for bankruptcy within a couple of years.
We can see these sorts of collapses in other fields as well. Who would have ever thought that Sears could fall from the undisputed champion of retail to just another player among many? Who would have expected Montgomery Ward to disappear altogether? And whatever happened to AMC, the American Motor Company, the people who brought us the Pacer and the Gremlin?
The bottom line, of course, is that, despite the basic soundness of my dad’s philosophy, there’s no such thing as a safe investment. Yes, General Motors is too big to completely go away without a complete collapse of our economy, but it’s certainly not as strong now as it was twenty years ago. Where will it be in another fifty years? Who can say?
What Hosea describes today is a nation that experienced the sort of success that GM has experienced over the years. “Israel was a spreading vine; he brought forth fruit for himself.” There’s not a thing wrong with bringing forth fruit, but it is wrong to give the credit for that fruit to the wrong source. It’s also wrong to assume that the fruit will invariably keep appearing.
There’s a temptation we all face when we experience success. On the first day of success we remember that God gave us the victory, but by day one hundred, we can be tempted to think ourselves the victors. Hosea would remind us that, just like General Motors, we are nothing beyond what God has decreed us to be.
Not far from where I live you’ll find a house sitting on a corner. Across the road from this house is a business building sitting on about two acres of ground. I’m not sure what this business does, but clearly they’re not terribly consumed with their appearance. Their building is a squat, grey creation, and the surrounding land is a tangle of all manner of weeds. Every fall, the lawn—if you can dignify it with such a label—sprouts up with tens of thousands of dandelions. Several years ago, the fellow living in the house across the road erected a sign in his own dandelion-spotted yard. The sign thanked the business for their gift of dandelion seeds.
I’m not horticultural phenom, but I have discovered something intriguing about the art and science of maintaining one’s yard. If dandelion seeds get strewn across my yard, then dandelions will typically spring up. When I spread grass seed, I can reasonably expect grass to grow. In my garden, I have yet to plant green beans only to watch peas sprout out of the soil. In the end, I’d hardly say that it was Jesus’ most profound moment when he told us that we will reap what we sow.
How remarkable it is, then, when we find people who act surprised when the gardens of their lives yield the very plants that they have sown. Later this week, my school will do one of the more civilized things that they do from time to time: feed us. On Friday, most of us will arrive at the campus early in order to enjoy the riches of the All-Staff Breakfast, a venerable tradition. On the buffet, we’ll see all manner of bagels, fresh fruit, and light muffins. And then there’ll be the food. They’ll have link sausage, bacon, eggs, and my favorite, biscuits and gravy. When I walk through that line, I’ll know that I should load myself up with melon and strawberries, but instead I’ll create a lovely arrangement of the fattiest foods available. I do the same sort of thing when I eat out or here at the house. My eyes are open when I sow those seeds, yet I act surprised if my blood pressure is borderline when I visit the doctor. I find it irritating that my cholesterol is higher than they’d like.
“Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love,” Hosea tells the people of Israel. He warned them time and again of their impending doom. He warned them about the sort of seeds they were planting, yet they still acted surprised when the harvest came in.
We’re no different today. Each of us sows some seeds of unrighteousness and reaps a crop that is not what God would want for us. His instructions are so amazingly simple. The crop he’d suggest for us isn’t some temperamental plant that must be handled with extreme caution. No, God’s crop is a simple thing to grow. But we still, looking out at the acreage of our lives, insist on planting at least a few acres in something else.
Unlike my neighbor, we can’t blame our lots on the seeds that blow in from across the street. Our harvest is largely of our own making. Let us plant seeds worthy of the Master Gardener.
We live in a funny time as Christians. As the rest of the world is spiraling into relativity, questioning the very ability of sentences to mean anything, many of us find ourselves fighting back with the same rationalistic tools with which the humanists have been beating us for the past three hundred years.
The archbishop of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, argued famously—at least famously among university literature departments—that “there is nothing outside the text.” As the leader of the vanguard of postmodern interpretation, Derrida took great joy in exploring the multitude of meanings that a single text can convey, consciously and sometimes unconsciously.
The reason I bring up Derrida and deconstruction today is that today’s reading contains a wonderful example of how we, as believers in the power of God’s Word, can learn a thing or two from this French-Jewish philosopher, who many see as the intellectual villain of our time.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son,” says Hosea. When we read these words here in the last chapters of this book, we see that they fit into a pattern of symbolism that Hosea has been deploying for quite some time. Israel is a beloved wife who has become unfaithful. Israel is a domesticated animal that has gone astray. Israel is a child, called out of Egypt, who then became rebellious.
But when we read these words in Matthew 2:15, they seem to mean something completely different. “And so it was fulfilled, what the Lord had said through his prophet,” Matthew says, introducing this prophecy. Rationalist critics of the Bible point to this and shriek with glee. “Ah, but look. This was not a prophecy. Hosea didn’t predict that Jesus would come out of Egypt.” Those critics, of course, are absolutely right. So isn’t Matthew absolutely wrong?
The fallacy that these people commit is that they look for a one-to-one correspondence between statements in prophecy and fulfillments in history. But the arch-skeptic Derrida would insist that language is never that linear and simple. When Matthew says “it was fulfilled,” he isn’t standing there with a sort of scriptural checklist: “There! That takes care of Hosea 11:1!”
When Matthew notes that Jesus’ emergence from Egypt fulfilled Hosea 11:1, he meant that it “made full,” “made abundant,” or “made complete” the prophecy. That's not my opinion, but rather the opinion of my Greek dictionary. Matthew knew this wasn’t a simple prediction, but looked beyond the surface and saw the deeper resonances. When Israel was called out of Egypt, Israel strayed, yet when Jesus was called out, he stayed on the path prescribed by God. The more God called Jesus, the closer Jesus became. When Israel came out of Egypt, God gave them the law on stone tablets, but after Jesus came out, God wrote the law on our hearts.
Yes, Jesus fulfilled Hosea 11:1. He didn’t match up with a simple prediction, but he filled up and made abundant Hosea’s words in a way that Hosea could never have imagined. He put an end to the problem of human sinfulness on which Hosea dwells for chapter after chapter. What would Jacques Derrida say about that?
It doesn’t get any simpler. Yesterday, Penny and I loaded a ton of Alyson’s stuff into a van and drove the two hours to Bolivar, Missouri and Southwest Baptist University. Last year when we made this trip, Alyson was a basket case. She didn’t really know anybody. She didn’t know how she’d get along with her roommate. She didn’t know about classes. She worried about the food in the cafeteria and thousand other things. This year, she couldn’t wait to go. For more than a month, she’s been counting down the days until she could return to school. Part of that might have to do with the fact that she now shares a bedroom at home with her eleven-year-old sister. Part of it may be that we, her parents, drive her nuts sometimes, but most of it revolves around the fact that she sees her life centering at SBU now.
Penny and I took some joy—okay, maybe joy is too strong of a word—at making our delivery yesterday. Part of us wants this kid out of the house. We knew that Aly would be happier and we knew that our lives would run more smoothly. There’ll be one less car in the driveway and one less person to please at supper time. There’ll be one less demand on the TV channels in the evening, and one less pair of feet thudding around upstairs when we’re ready for bed. Still, saying “goodbye” to her yesterday evening wasn’t altogether easy. I think she was ready to get rid of us, but we struggled a bit to let go of her.
Two years ago, I felt that same pang when Emily got married. Walking her to the altar, a big part of me was saying, “One down and three to go!” But another part was longing to hold on, longing to keep my little girl close by. But of course that’s not the way that life works. College students have to go off and do their thing. Kids need to follow their hearts and create a life with a spouse. We knew that on their birthdays, but that doesn’t make it any easier. No matter how irritating, how frustrating, how expensive, how time-consuming, or how nerve-wracking these girls have been, we still get misty eyed when we see them process out of the house.
No matter how sinful Israel and Judah had become, no matter how much he wanted to just smack them like disobedient puppies, God couldn’t just turn his back and ignore these “children” of his. “How can I give you up, Ephraim?” he says through Hosea. “How can I hand you over?”
Of course the answer to that, the answer that we only fully understand when we read the New Testament along with the Old, is that God won’t just give us up or hand us over. He loves us and he finds a way for our sins to be overcome and to keep the family together. My prayer today is that I can mimic God’s treatment of his family as I watch mine change.
There’s an old joke I recall: “I may be fat, but you’re ugly. And I can diet!” Sometimes I wonder if I don’t fulfill both sides of that joke. But then I’m not that fat. I’m not that ugly. At least I can still touch my toes. At least I don’t look like this person or that. That’s the heart of the At-Least-I’m-Not Syndrome. Let me give you a great example.
A guy goes to his high school reunion only to find that everybody that he graduated with is staggeringly successful and well off.
“Well, at least I’m not unemployed,” our hero is likely to say. “At least I’m not missing my house payments.” If this guy is a bit more bitter about things, then he’ll go in one of these directions. “At least I’m not ignoring my family in order to get to the top of the heap. At least I’m not worshiping the almighty dollar. At least I’m not a big jerk about things.” That’s a perfect case of this syndrome.
I find myself teaching at a two-year college. At times, when I consider the path that I might have taken, pursuing more prestigious and recognized positions at universities, I descend into the At-Least-I’m-Not Syndrome. “At least I’m not teaching as a part-timer. At least I’m not working at some crummy two-year school out in the hinterlands. At least I’m not spending my career writing meaningless scholarly articles that nobody will read.”
My students, however, do it too. When I savage somebody’s paper next month, I’ll probably hear refrains like these. “At least I’m not skipping class. At least I’m not writing as badly as some people do. At least I’m not failing to turn the papers in.”
It seems to be human nature to try to justify ourselves by saying that, “Yeah, I might have some faults, but at least I’m not as bad as . . .” You can complete the sentence. “I’m not the best husband in the world, but at least I’m not . . .” You get the picture.
For the past eleven chapters of Hosea, we’ve seen God constantly pointing out the flaws of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. But in today’s reading he points out that nobody has any hope for immunity from prosecution. After pointing out Ephraim’s (Israel’s) faults, Hosea quickly shifts his attention to Judah. No, Judah can’t get away with saying, “at least I’m not as bad as Israel.” Judah is guilty as well. And then Jacob is guilty. That covers the whole of the twelve tribes. He talks about the children of Jacob as if they had all struggled with an angel and grabbed Esau’s heel. No, we can’t claim that “at least I didn’t cheat my brother.” All of the nation is guilty of what Jacob did. Judah is guilty of Ephraim’s sins. Everybody’s guilty.
I have no claim to justification based on the levels of depravity to which I have not stooped. That’d be like saying that I didn’t get into my mom’s pool tonight just because I didn’t get my hair wet.
The miracle of God’s love is that he loves us despite our sins and our foolish attempts at self-justification. When we recognize the depths of our own sinfulness, we can better understand just how colossal is the love of our God. I am a sinner, but at least I’m not forsaken by the living God. There, that’ll work.
Travel back in time with me to the winter of 2002. If you live in the Kansas City area, you’ll know exactly what I mean when I simply say two words: ice storm. Yes, in January of that year, Kansas City was smacked with one of the worst ice storms in the memory of the Midwest. An inch of ice coated houses, cars, streets, power lines, trees, and everything else that wasn’t inside. Driving around the city today, two and a half years later, you can still see the evidence in the scores of scarred and broken trees. My favorite image from that storm was a Bartlett pear tree that once graced our front yard. That tree split in four directions that laid out to the points of the compass.
We think we’re so sophisticated these days. As I type this, I have six things that require electricity to operate on my desk alone. We defy the darkness by reading under incandescent lights. We defy the silence by listening to music recorded on CDs. We defy the decay process by keeping food and drink in refrigerators. We defy the cold by pumping heated air throughout our houses. And all of that changed in January of 2002. Where were you when the lights went out? Besides in the dark, you were in the cold!
When one simple thing like electricity fails, our lives unravel fast. That forced air furnace doesn’t force much air without a fan to blow it through the flues. The TV won’t run on natural gas. The Internet is pretty tough to use by candle-light.
We couldn’t cook on our electric stove or use our microwave, but we needed to go through some food before the refrigerator warmed up and the food went bad. We could still manage to take hot showers, but we had to do it in the dark. Even though our telephone line didn’t go down, we struggled to use the phone because we rely on cordless units that have to be plugged in to electricity to operate. Yes, when the lights went out, we found out just how vulnerable we are.
I’m reminded of this experience when I read Hosea’s words to Israel: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt; I will make you live in tents again, as in the days of your appointed feasts.” Israel had become wealthy, and along with its wealth it had acquired more than its share of pride. “With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin,” they said.
God has a way of humbling us when we think we are beyond the reach of ill winds. Was the ice storm of 2002 a wake-up call for the people of Kansas City, a message that God sent to tell us not to place too much confidence in our civilization? I don’t know about that. But I do know that God can and will humble the proud when it serves him to do so. Let’s resolve to save him the trouble. We should humble ourselves regularly, recognizing that despite all our accomplishments, we’re still pretty feeble.
Never one to miss the chance to imbue this space with a bit of culture, I find myself compelled to share with you a poem, written about 200 years ago by the Englishman Percy Bysshe Shelley. It’s called “Ozymandias.”
I met a traveler from an antique
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
That’s the story of Israel, translated to another land, culture, and time. “Look upon my works and despair,” the people of Israel said to those around them. Yet the fear that this nation created in the minds of their neighbors burned off like the morning mist once the Assyrians decided to deal finally with Israel.
An additional irony to this poem lies in the fact that the poet died at the tender age of thirty. All of Shelley’s great poetic powers were interred with him in poet’s corner at Westminster Abbey. And with the passing years, Shelley’s works fade more into the background of our consciousness. If you’ve ever read this poem, you probably read it from some textbook and for a class. In another hundred years, I’d guess that Shelley will be largely ignored except by scholars and a scattering of graduate students.
There’s a bit of Israel, a bit of Ozymandias in each of us. No matter how we might try to remain humble, we find ourselves filled with pride. We find ourselves thinking that our actions surpass these frail bodies in which we travel the earth. We believe that our accomplishments will last throughout time. In reality, even the best among us are pretty feeble by earthly standards. (No, Bill Gates is not a subscriber to this.) And our actions, while significant, will not long outlive our deaths. That’s just the way the world is.
All we can do, Hosea reminds us, is to hitch our wagons to the eternal and build statues to the king whose reign will not be bounded by time or space. Ultimately, that’s the message that Hosea delivers to Israel time after time after time, a message that transcends time.
Just when you think you know a person, they often go and surprise you. About four years ago, my department at school hired a new chair, John. Whatever his qualities were when we hired him, John didn’t seem to be a people person. After twelve years working with a guy who is nothing if not a people person, the entire group of us went into a bit of shock. John seemed to have a penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. He brought up things that probably needed to be brought up, but he did it in a way that left everybody feeling a bit uneasy. Personally, I had no beef with him, but some of his actions toward my friends made me squirm. The scuttlebutt was scuttling around the halls of JCCC in those first months of his tenure.
And then the strangest thing happened. One of our department’s most beloved workers, the Writing Center secretary, lost her mother. A good contingent of us went to the funeral and who should we see walk in? It was John. He seemed like the least likely to walk in that door and express condolences, yet here he was. I mulled that discrepancy over in my mind and came to a conclusion. I had misjudged John. Far from a callous autocrat, John has an understanding for people and education. At heart, you see, John is a decent although peculiar guy. On that day, sitting toward the back of a funeral home chapel, the JCCC English department started to recognize this fact.
I’m reminded of this event today because the words of Hosea seem to hold just such an out-of-character utterance. In the midst of blasting Israel for their sins, something that Hosea has been doing for a good ten chapters, he shares words from God that sound as if somebody sat on the remote control and got us onto a different program for a moment. Look at the imagery. In verse thirteen, he’s comparing Israel to an unborn child that won’t come to the opening of the womb. And then we go to verse fourteen.
“I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?”
But then, as if our TV viewer changed the channel once more, the tone goes back to condemnation. “I will have no compassion.”
So what’s with God here? Does he have multiple-personality disorder? Is this verse an interpolation by a later editor? The problem is that this verse can be read in two ways. In the NASB, verse fourteen begins, “Shall I ransom them?” The implied answer is “no.” Yet anyone who has ever sung Handel knows that he read this as a mocking of death. “O Death, where is thy sting?” rather than a call to death to bring it on.
Like so much about our faith, this passage appears paradoxical when our puny minds consider it. Jesus is fully man and fully God. God is fully loving and fully vengeful. When we attempt to reduce God to a simple answer, we go beyond our abilities. I can never fully understand any human—my kids, my wife, my boss. How then can I hope to fully understand my God. But the commandment is not to understand God. It is to worship, obey, and serve God. Regardless of how out of character his words might seem, we must simply trust and obey.
This morning, at nine o’clock, I’ll walk into a classroom at Johnson County Community College for the first time in more than a year. Undoubtedly, though, there will be others in this class who will be returning to a classroom. Every semester, it seems, I encounter some student who is taking Comp I for the second, third, or fourth time. Often times I witness the first attempt from these people as they run out of steam early in the game. Few people in my classes earn an F, but a good number of them get an F when they simply don’t complete the work. They’ll party too hard, play too many video games, or otherwise squander their opportunity. One guy, from nearly sixteen years ago, comes to my mind especially.
Joel started out in one of my first Introduction to Writing classes, back in the late 1980s. I tried to talk him into moving out of Intro and into Comp I, since his first writing demonstrated that he could easily do the work. He politely passed on that offer. He stuck out my class for about six weeks. Then he seemed to disappear from the planet. Weeks went by and he never made an appearance in class. Eventually, the end of term came and I had to record an F next to his name.
The next semester, the same thing happened. I took as a bit of flattery that he would sign up to take me again, but I didn’t know what to make of him getting less than half way through the course and then fizzling out. Was it me or him or what? Finally, in a third effort to pass the course, he managed to string together enough attendances and points to squeak out a C. I felt happy to be rid of this guy.
But of course it wasn’t that simple. Joel showed up in my Comp I course the next semester. And he pulled his disappearing act once again. To add a lovely coda to this whole tale, he wound up, a good four years after that last disappearance, once again in a Comp I class, and once again he lasted about a third of the way through. All in all, I guess, Joel spent some six years trying to get through his freshman year. To the best of my knowledge, he never succeeded.
Some people just quit, but Joel didn’t. I’m not sure what that says about him. I guess I had done a good job of leaving the welcome mat out for him throughout all of his failures. He just knew that the next time would be different. God leaves the light on for us as well. No matter how many times I have sinned the same sins and fallen short in the same endeavors, he still calls out, “Return to the Lord your God.” Yes, our sins have been our downfall, but our God welcomes us home whenever we are willing to return to him. That’s perhaps the most hopeful thing that Hosea has to say in this entire book. And it’s the hopeful note that we sometimes forget in our walk with Christ.
Last week, an amazing study appeared that seemed to shock the Oprah set. It seems that among teens aged twelve through seventeen, those who reported that more than half of their friends are sexually active were considerably more likely to have used drugs and alcohol. The researchers, working out of Columbia University, found that the sexually active group was more than six times as likely to have used alcohol, twenty times as likely to have used marijuana, five times as likely to have smoked, and thirty times as likely to have gotten drunk in the past month.
What’s not clear to me is which way the cause and effect relationship would flow here. Does the sexual activity lead to the drugs or vice versa. Interestingly, the reports all seem to suggest that sex, something that a significant voice in our culture has spent decades saying is no big deal, is the true culprit. There used to be a joke that said that Baptists disapproved of sex because it might lead to dancing. It seems that a certain segment of our populace disapproves of it now because it might lead to substance abuse.
I’m not certain how many dollars these researchers spent to arrive at their conclusions, but it’s rather amusing that they’d spend any dollars. My parents didn’t have to spend any money to come to the conclusion that “If you lie down with the dogs you’re going to get fleas.” In fact, the report had come in years ago. It’s loud and clear in the Bible. When you hang out with wicked people—or just misguided people—you’re going to start acting like them. And over time, one sin leads to the next. That’s how Israel got into the shape that we find them facing in Hosea’s day. They didn’t wake up one morning and say, “Oh, Moses is dead. Let’s turn away from God.” They did it gradually, little by little. They assumed that they could sin in isolation. “Yes, I might cheat on my taxes, but that won’t affect any other aspect of my life.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is a truly amazing discovery to be found here at the end of Hosea, however. He’s hinted at it before, but today he finishes out his words with these marvelous verses of divine love and hope. You see, the truly amazing thing to find in Hosea is not the continual degradation of Israel. Anyone who has studied human nature at all finds that unsurprising. No, the amazing thing is the ferocious love of God. It’s the fact that however awful Israel has become, God still promises his love and redemption to them. But they will not return to him on their own. They can’t. It’ll be God’s doing. “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely.” Those who claim that the God of the Old Testament is simply a vengeful God must have missed these verses and many others.
“Amazing love, oh what
The Son of God given for me.
My debt he pays and my death he dies
that I might live, that I might live.”
Tune My Heart is primarily an aid to the devotional life of its author, Mark Browning, who holds the copyright for this material. It is provided online in hopes that some will find it edifying. All contents, unless otherwise noted, may be redistributed freely provided that you give credit for its origin and do not charge anything.