The Merciful Sovereign

Romans 9:14-29 (NLT)

Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,

“I will show mercy to anyone I choose,
   and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”

So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.

For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.

Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?”

No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory. And we are among those whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles.

Concerning the Gentiles, God says in the prophecy of Hosea,

“Those who were not my people,
   I will now call my people.
And I will love those
   whom I did not love before.”


“Then, at the place where they were told,
   ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called
   ‘children of the living God.’”
And concerning Israel, Isaiah the prophet cried out,

“Though the people of Israel are as numerous as the sand of the seashore,
   only a remnant will be saved.
For the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth
   quickly and with finality.”
And Isaiah said the same thing in another place:

“If the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
   had not spared a few of our children,
we would have been wiped out like Sodom,
   destroyed like Gomorrah.”

Sometimes the Bible forces us to think until it hurts. Paul is doing that to us in Romans today.

If that bothers you, sorry. If that doesn’t bother you, congratulations—you may be on the verge of getting a glimpse of God’s mind via Paul’s writings.

This particular passage for centuries has caused the church to think until it hurts. Differences of opinion regarding how to read it and related passages have pushed Christians into two camps. One would be the Christians who believe God predestines who gets to experience eternal life. The other camp would be Christians who believe choosing or rejecting Jesus ultimately makes the difference, although these people also emphasize that our ability to choose is a gift from God.

People in the first group are called Calvinists; they include denominations like Presbyterians, certain kinds of Baptists, and just about any church with the word “Reformed” in its name.

People in the second group are called Arminians. Methodists would be among the Arminians. I don’t have time to get into a lot of church history today, but with the internet, the history of the differences between Calvinists and Arminians is easy to find.

You may recall from last week’s sermon that Paul has been talking about the twins Jacob and Esau. Both were in the direct lineage of Abraham, but only one, Jacob, was a part of the promise intended to bless the whole world. If you look at the story in Genesis, you can see that even before they were born, God had a preference for Jacob and what sounds like an intense dislike of Esau.

In today’s text, Paul gives another example, this one found in Exodus. There you will find the story of Moses confronting the leader of Egypt, the Pharaoh. And in that story, you’ll notice a puzzling pattern.

Sometimes Pharaoh heard Moses’ warnings and “hardened his heart” against God’s plan on his own. Other times, God directly hardened Pharaoh’s heart, in order that the mighty story of the plagues and the escape by the Israelites from Egypt could play out in full and to the glory of God. When you read the story closely, Pharaoh looks like a chess pawn, something to be used and discarded according to God’s purposes.

Paul also resorts to an analogy, one common to Jewish tradition. God is like a potter, Paul says. He makes his individual creations however he wants, and he uses his creations however he wants. One pot may be for art, and the other may be fashioned as a garbage container.

As we noted last week, from a human perspective, God’s preference for one person over another or one group of people over another can seem unfair. Paul’s answer to this protest is pretty straightforward—in fact, his answer is the main point of this text.

God is sovereign. As Creator, God has a kingship no human could ever match. Being all-powerful, God can do anything he wants. Being all-knowing, God can see his creation from the beginning to the end of time, and on into eternity.

The message is designed to humble us, particularly those of us who have an inflated sense of self-importance. Who are we, compared to God? If we truly understand who God is, we sin when we look at God and say, “Unfair!”

Instead, we should be driven toward an attitude of submission, to a desire to simply serve God in whatever way we were made to serve. I’m reminded of John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

We essentially are praying, “I submit to being whatever kind of pottery you need me to be.” It is a sobering prayer. But let me take a few more minutes to remind myself, and you, why I am glad to be a Methodist. For we do take this message of God’s sovereignty and ultimately find great joy in it.

We do this by looking at Paul’s words in a much larger context. Yes, God seems to have a preference for one person over another or one group of people over another. At a minimum, he seems to have such preferences during critical moments in history, those times when he directly propels forward the Great Promise, the blessing designed for all families on earth.

We know, however, that God is a most merciful sovereign. In human kings, mercy has always been seen as a powerful virtue, although often a missing virtue. In God the King of Creation, mercy is perfect. The great merciful sovereign pours out grace on his subjects in ways no earthly king ever could.

The best example, of course, is the king coming among us as Jesus Christ, teaching us about the power of love and then, in an act of love, dying on the cross for our sins. Once again, we are reminded of that great verse from the Gospel of John. Here is John 3:16 in the New Living Translation:

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

If the Great Sovereign were not somehow giving us a choice, I don’t think these words in John would be possible. Also, I don’t think Paul would have written earlier and later in Romans of the need to spread the Good News about the cross. When I return from vacation in a couple of weeks, we’re going to hear a lot from Paul about the importance of spreading the Good News.

Why involve humans in sharing the message if choosing Christ is irrelevant? Why all the talk in the gospels, Romans and elsewhere about the importance of faith if the decision regarding who is saved is fixed from the start?

I will admit, I cannot fully explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful God who “elects” and “chooses” people throughout much of Scripture also gives us the freedom to say yes or no to him. I try not to resort to the word “mystery” too often, but it likely applies here. We are, after all, talking about how the mind of God works, and I do not see how a human mind, or even millions of human minds working together, can fully understand the mind of God.

I do know, however, that the mind of God is a loving mind, and that Christ’s death and resurrection express that love fully. We are blessed to have such a king.







Eyes Open

A Parable of Jesus, from Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

“He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Parables are most effective when we can see ourselves living in them in some way.

Having heard the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, you may be having trouble seeing yourself in the story. That’s understandable. Big lottery jackpot weekends aside, most of us don’t seriously imagine a life of great wealth and constant feasting. I suspect our basic psychological makeup also makes it difficult for us to imagine having fallen so low in life that we could end up lying in the street with festering sores, stray dogs the only creatures who seem to notice us.

And yet, I find this parable to be almost universally applicable.

Certainly, the lesson is taught through extremes of wealth and poverty. But at the same time, it’s not really about the dangers of wealth, nor does it somehow invest poverty with a kind of holiness. Instead, Jesus gives us a lesson for the heart.

Notice something about both men in the first of the parable. They simply are described in their respective states. There’s no evidence they interact; at no point does poor Lazarus actually ask the rich man for anything, and at no point is the rich man portrayed as having denied Lazarus anything. They simply are in proximity to each other.

The parable points out the danger of a terrible sin, a sin we seldom talk about. It is the sin of self-absorption, of being unable to see a need that is before us. It is the sin of unsearching eyes; it is the sin of walking past someone and not caring.

We tend to think, “It is what I do that could send me to hell, to an eternity separated from God.” Jesus is telling us something very different—there is tremendous danger in what we fail to do.

The extremes of wealth and poverty are in the story for a basic reason. They make clear the rich man has no excuse for his failure to act. With such wealth, he could have easily cared for the poor man who had wandered into his circle of influence. The rich man would not have missed what Lazarus required for restored health and a decent standard of living.

The rich man is not being condemned for failing to care for all poor people, just for failing to help the one at his gate. I’m reminded of the story of the thousands of starfish washed ashore on a beach, gasping and dying. A little girl walked the ocean’s edge, throwing starfish into the ocean.

A man came along and said, “Little girl, there’s no way you can save all those starfish!”

“You’re right,” she replied, throwing another one in the ocean. “But I saved that one.”

The rich man could have at least said of Lazarus, “Saved that one.”

Some may protest this interpretation by pointing out how we are saved by faith, not works, and on that point, I would agree. We can do nothing without the grace of God at work in us, and we receive God’s saving grace through a belief in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.

Jesus intertwines faith and action in his teachings, however, presenting them as the rope that pulls us from the pit. This parable has much in common with Jesus’ teaching about the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, where he sorts the judged to his left and right—to damnation or eternal joy—based on how they treated the stranger, the poor, the sick and the imprisoned.

The lesson is the same in both accounts: Our actions best reveal whether our hearts rest near the bosom of Christ.

This teaching is good news! We are actually being invited to participate in God’s restorative work in the world. All we have to do is pray that the Christ who saves us also makes us intentional about seeing the brokenness around us. It’s a simple prayer: Lord, let me see, and then make it clear what I should do.

I once worked in a nonprofit relief organization with a woman who required a family to allow her to make a home visit before they could receive any significant aid. I asked her one day why she did that—I could tell some of the families felt they were being scrutinized or even judged.

She laughed, telling me that yes, some of them probably felt that way, but the home visits let her see the needs the families weren’t revealing. Even the poorest people in rural Upper East Tennessee are generally a proud bunch, and the problem there was getting them to ask for all the help our little nonprofit could provide.

When I understood what she was doing, I admired her approach. She was actively searching for need so she could see it and address it.

The end of the parable emphasizes the overall point. The rich man’s last request is that Lazarus be sent to his presumably rich brothers as a warning about the danger of their hard-heartedness. Abraham makes it clear that these lessons about compassion have already been delivered by Moses and prophets, and that men who failed to hear those ancient words would continue in their deafness “even if someone rises from the dead.”

And there again is the great danger of unseeing self-absorption. When we fall into it, we miss God entirely. In God’s greatest work in this world, Christ rose from the dead, but self-absorption can leave us blind to even this great miracle.

Be alert. Ask God to show you the broken people in this world and trust God to help you play some small part in undoing their suffering. Your open-eyed awareness has eternal implications.

The featured image is a detail from Fedor Bronnikov’s “Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Home,” painted in 1886.

The Surprising Samaritan

Luke 10:25-37

I’ve noticed a very particular trait about the hero in the story of the Good Samaritan. Maybe you’ve seen this trait in him before, but it is new to me.

It helps that I recently read a couple of commentaries providing additional details for the main scene of the story, the road running from Jerusalem to Jericho. The earliest audiences for the story would have learned these details by traveling the road or hearing others complain about the road. But we cannot know these ancient details without the help of experts.

It’s a steep trip downhill going northeast from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jerusalem is about 2,500 feet above sea level, while Jericho is 846 feet below sea level, making it one of the lowest cities in the world. The 18-mile journey required a descent of more than 3,300 feet! For you hikers, the closest local equivalent I could find would be taking the Boulevard Trail down from Mount LeConte. Hiking guides list this trail as “difficult.”

And at least local hikers don’t have to deal routinely with bandits. Like many of our local mountain trails, the “road” from Jerusalem to Jericho was a narrow, winding, rock-strewn path with switchbacks and overhangs galore. In Jesus’ day, much of the path consisted of soft, flaky limestone that eroded easily. Thieves loved to hide along this road, attacking shaky-footed travelers to take what they wanted.

There is one strange thing about all the characters in this story. They all traveled alone. People usually traveled in caravans for safety. For whatever reason, the wounded man, the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan were taking big chances traveling alone. Everyone in this story was at least a little afraid.

This fact doesn’t justify the actions of the priest and the Levite, but at least we can learn they weren’t just being haughty. There’s a good chance they hustled away in fear. What had happened to this half-dead man in the ditch could very well happen to them, too, they must have thought.

To stop and help the wounded man, the Samaritan required a very special trait—courage. Not only did he have to fear the bandits himself, he had to fear being accused of banditry. Remember, Samaritans were considered unrighteous half-breeds by the Jews. Had a band of Jews found the Samaritan hovering over the man in the ditch, the situation might have quickly turned ugly. But all the same, he stopped.

He took on the time-consuming and laborious task of cleaning and binding wounds. He slowed his journey considerably in dangerous territory as he burdened his beast with the injured man. There’s no doubt he had courage.

Christians, we need courage, too.

We need courage to go to the places that frighten us. We need courage to be among the people we distrust or dislike. We need courage to act when action is needed, not waiting in some vague hope that someone else will come along and deal with the situation.

You may fear Muslims. We as Christians still need to be among Muslims. You may distrust poor people, particularly if they seem manipulative. We still need to be among poor people, helping them and witnessing to Christ’s love.

You may be tired of hearing about people with lifestyles very different from ours. You may even be pretty sure their lifestyles are sinful. But we still need to be among people of different lifestyles and ways of thinking, trusting that God’s word and the Holy Spirit will reveal—and heal—sin in all its forms.

Jesus calls us to go among all our neighbors offering mercy and grace. Mercy and grace are the healing wine and oil given to the world by Jesus Christ.

The featured image is a 1771 book illustration of the story of the Good Samaritan.

The Prophet Who Never Got It

“Jonah and the Whale,” Pieter Lastman, 1620, made available through the Google Art Project

“Jonah and the Whale,” Pieter Lastman, 1620, made available through the Google Art Project

The Book of Jonah

Do you ever wish God were different? It sounds like a strange question, but the prophet Jonah could have easily answered, “Yes.”

The story of Jonah opens with the prophet at home somewhere in Israel, hearing from God with the clarity most biblical prophets seem to experience. God gave Jonah a simple command: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

Nineveh was to the east, in what is now the northern part of Iraq. (Its ruins are near the city of Mosul, where so many battles have been fought in recent years. With Mosul currently under control of Islamic State, we’re likely to see more.) It was one of the great cities of the Assyrian empire, a wonder to those who beheld it. Jonah had no doubt which direction Nineveh lay, yet Jonah headed west by sea, rather than east by land.

The story tells us Jonah went to the coast and got on a ship bound for Tarshish, a place not easily identified today. In the novel Moby Dick, the clergyman at the New Bedford Whaleman’s Chapel, Father Mapple, preaches on Jonah and asserts that Tarshish must have been a port in Spain, the farthest point west a Jew in Jonah’s day would have known. It’s not a bad notion—we’re told Jonah is trying to go “away from the presence of the Lord,” so what seemed like the end of the earth would have been a logical destination.

Storms soon began to worry the ship on its journey to Tarshish, however, to the point that the pagan crew cried out to their various gods. The captain implored Jonah to pray, too. They cast lots to determine who was the cause of the problem, and the throw of the dice showed it was Jonah.

And, very early in the story, Jonah began to understand that God was present regardless of how far Jonah ran or sailed. He admitted to the crew who he was and what he had done, and despite their initial reluctance, he convinced them to throw him in the sea. The sea immediately became calm.

This brings us to the part we know best from childhood: God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Yes, it could have been a whale; the Hebrew word used in the story literally means a large fish, but the Jews would have used this word to include whales.) In the belly of this large sea critter, Jonah prayed a powerful psalm, in part acknowledging that God is everywhere, even capable of hearing one of his rebellious prophets trapped beneath the waves, “at the roots of the mountains.”

In response to this prayer, God had the fish vomit Jonah out somewhere on dry land. And Jonah once again heard his marching orders: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” This time, Jonah headed in the right direction, presumably after cleaning himself up.

Once in Nineveh, Jonah preached his message. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And here’s the twist we might not expect when reading this story the first time—those pagan, supposedly godless residents of sprawling Nineveh responded!

Even the king put on sackcloth and ashes and repented. He ordered everyone to do the same, and to fast. They went so far as to cover the livestock with sackcloth and withhold the animals’ food or water. The prayers, wails, bleating and lowing set up a din that had to reach to heaven.

God heard, and God relented from the destruction he had promised. And that, we learn, was precisely what Jonah feared would happen.

“O Lord!” he prayed. “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah was so bitter, he prayed that God might kill him. You see, the Israelites considered the people of Nineveh their enemy. The Jews had suffered terribly under Assyrian rule; Jonah had hoped for a scene of destruction worthy of Sodom and Gomorrah. And now, here was the God the Jews acknowledged, the God over all things, showing mercy to these people!

All Jonah could do was pout. That pretty much sums up the rest of the story of Jonah. He pouted while God explained his deep concern for the people of Nineveh, using a simple plant as an example.

God is love. God is mercy. Yes, God’s holiness demands justice, too; and yet, God seems to have this unrelenting desire to let people off the hook, to forgive, to find a way to draw people back into relationships with him.

That truth is best expressed through Jesus Christ, of course. Through the great sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God found a way to extend mercy to all, no matter what evil has been done. Repercussions in this life for our bad deeds may be unavoidable, but a renewed, ongoing relationship with God is constantly available, in any moment, on any day, under any circumstances.

When we find ourselves hoping God will crush someone, we’re wishing God were different. When we think there’s no way God could love us, forgive us, or change us, we’re underestimating who God is.

Question is, why would we want to wish for a different kind of God? The one we have offers eternal life. We’ll do no better than that.

Beatitudes II: Kingdom Desires

Matthew 5:1-12

Let’s continue with our series on the Beatitudes.

Remember a couple of key points: First, we’re seeing characteristics of citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Second, these aren’t really characteristics we can strive for; instead, we simply open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s work, what Methodists call his “sanctifying grace,” and we find ourselves more like those whom Jesus calls blessed.

The verses we’ll look at today have a lot to do with holy desires. What do citizens of the kingdom truly want?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Righteousness” isn’t too hard to understand. If something is righteous, it is aligned with God, approved by God. In understanding this verse, what the modern world has is a problem of context.

Jesus is describing a kind of hunger and thirst we seldom experience in developed nations. In his day, the typical worker was seldom getting enough calories. Clean water was scarce, too, and it was easy to end up in a situation where you could be without one or both for days.

He’s talking about desiring righteousness the way a dying man might want food or water. Nothing else takes precedence.

This understanding helps us grasp another difficult teaching, the “camel through the eye of a needle” story found in Matthew 19:23-26. It’s likely the rich young man’s possessions, which sheltered him from the typical experience of others, kept him from feeling the desire he really needed to feel to be a disciple of Jesus.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

To understand the concept of mercy, you also have to understand the underlying concepts for the Greek and associated Hebrew words. To show mercy, a person had to also have a deep sympathy for the motivations and situation of the person receiving mercy.

A science fiction example would be Counselor Troi on Star Trek, whose telepathic abilities let her actually feel another person’s emotions and motivations. The Bible isn’t science fiction, however. We don’t have telepathy, but we do have the Holy Spirit binding us together and enhancing our compassion for one another.

Again, we have to let the Holy Spirit work. We have to be patient; we have to listen, even when we’re really angry with someone. Showing mercy takes time.

And of course, we need to remember we are all recipients of mercy. Because God took on flesh and dwelled among us, even suffering like us, we are forgiven the sins that should result in eternal separation from God. We’re given eternity and asked to show a little temporal mercy to others in return.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

The idea of purity here is rooted in the concept of something unmixed: William Barclay uses examples of grain sifted of all its chaff, an army purged of the discontented and the cowardly, milk or wine unmixed with water, or a metal like gold with no “tinge of alloy.”

We of course are being called to be fully holy, our sin refined out of us. And of course, we cannot do it ourselves. Self-examination through prayer, study, worship and participation in the sacraments opens new aspects of our being to God.

Again, we’re talking about sanctification, God’s continuing work after we are saved, a concept Methodists love to emphasize.

The reward is particularly enticing. We see God now. We’re reminded again the kingdom is present now, that we live in eternity now, its joy available to us in this life.

A Holy Interruption

Luke 15:11-32

Let me talk for a few minutes, and then y’all help me with this one. Those of you who are reading this online are welcome to comment, of course.

We have before us what is probably Jesus’ most popular parable. The parable of the prodigal son, a young man we might today describe as a “wild child,” is a rich metaphor of God’s grace, a story we could unpack section by section for weeks.

It also is a good follow-up to last week’s Bible text and sermon, which reminded us of the need for vigilance in the face of sin. This week, we’re shown how God responds when we step away from sin and its sidekick, death.

You probably know how the parable of the prodigal son goes. The snot-nosed little punk wanted his way—now—and asked for his inheritance, implying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” Surprisingly, Dad complied; the son left to try a little “dissolute living.”

Any of you tried that? It’s fun until the money runs out.

The money ran out. The snot-nosed little punk was left with not so much as a hankie to his name, and ended up working at the nastiest job a Jew could perform, the feeding of pigs.

The reality of the pig sty was sobering; the NRSV says he “came to himself.” Hank Williams had not yet written “I Saw the Light,” but the filthy, mud-caked—wait, is that mud?—young man must have been humming a Jewish version of it as he headed home.

On the way, the rehearsal began. He had to let his father know he was sorry; he had to show proper repentance. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” I’m sure he practiced that act of repentance not once, but dozens of times, on the long walk home.

Rembrandt's Prodigal Son

Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son

God—excuse me, I mean, Dad—saw him coming from far away. That means God—whoops, there I go again—that means Dad was scanning the horizon day after day, seeking his beloved child’s return. Are you seeing this: The rude, filthy child finally turned toward home, and Dad ran to him.

The son tried to get the words of repentance out. He started them, but he never made it as far as his offer to work as a hired hand. Dad was already calling for robe, ring, sandals and banquet, presumably all to be preceded by a bath. A celebration was in order!

“This son of mine was dead and is alive again,” the father said. “He was lost and is found!”

There’s more to the story, of course. There’s an older brother, filled with anger and jealousy when he sees the father’s ridiculously gracious response. Today we’ll just acknowledge that such people are out there. Don’t be one, and don’t let them bring you down.

Let’s instead focus on this repentance interrupted, this grace that tackles us and wraps us in love before we can even finish our “I’m sorry.” We are all deserving of death. We’ve all been snot-nosed punks who at some point wanted our own way rather than God’s way. But God grabs us, God restores us. All we have to do is head for home.

When did you receive the ring, robe and sandals? What was your banquet like?

And if you’ve not yet gotten them, do you want them? Turn toward the risen Christ, and see him running toward you.

Relentless and Scandalous

Third in a sermon series, “A Different Kind of Christmas”

The Old Testament doesn’t give us a lot of information about the prophet Hosea’s wife, Gomer. She may be described in English Bible translations as a promiscuous woman or a prostitute.

It may be that she worked in a pagan temple where ritualistic sex was associated with rain and the fertility of the land. It could be that she simply made several bad choices where relationships were concerned. What matters is this: To the Jews, she was a known sinner, a sexually broken, unworthy woman.

Don’t be too judgmental of Gomer, however.  Symbolically, unfaithful Gomer also is us. And what God communicates through this strange story in the Book of Hosea should be of great importance to us, particularly as we approach the Christmas season.

Despite Gomer’s reputation, God told the prophet Hosea to take her as his wife and to have three children by her. The story at first seems to be one of prophetic condemnation. Gomer’s sexual choices symbolize the religious infidelity of God’s chosen people, who repeatedly have worshiped other gods despite having been bound to the One True God.

In particular, the God-given names of the three children were designed to evoke images of what the people deserved for their idolatry. “Jezreel” served as a reminder of a brutal massacre and an image of what should happen to a people who turn from God. “Lo-ruhama” meant “no mercy,” and “Lo-ammi” meant “not my people.” Clearly, God was trying through this marriage of Hosea and Gomer to communicate displeasure.

The strange baseline for this story leads to an even stranger twist, however. After naming the children, God said this: “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the Living God.’ ”

Despite sin, God intends to show mercy. Despite sin, God intends to call the Israelites his people.

This is followed by the second chapter of Hosea, which is largely poetry that speaks of a husband’s jealous love for a straying wife and his deep desire to return her to a state of faithfulness. And then in Chapter 3, Hosea is told to once again take an adulteress and love her. It’s unclear from the text if this woman was supposed to be Gomer, but for her sake, I like to think so.

God was saying through Hosea that even in his quite righteous anger, he loved the Israelites so much as to be relentless about his pursuit of them, despite the pain their sin caused him. Through his prophet, God even went so far as to predict their full return to him in the “latter days,” a promise found in Hosea 3:5.

As Christians, we believe this deep, even scandalous love has been extended to all the world through Jesus Christ. That expansion of the promise to all the world is the fulfillment of the promise made in the Old Testament that God’s children will be like “the sand of the sea,” uncountable.

It doesn’t matter what we have done. It doesn’t matter how far we have strayed, or how publicly humiliating our sin may have been. Whether we’ve been literal adulterers like Gomer, or pursuers of other godless wants and desires, God wants us back. God is willing to forgive and forget so that we may live in close union with our Creator for all eternity. All we have to do is believe in the effectiveness of the work Christ did on the cross.

As we’re told in Romans 3:23-24, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

When I read Hosea, I’m left wondering if Gomer was sensitive enough to God’s ways to understand the tremendous gift of mercy she had been given. She was allowed to live honorably and bear children despite the dishonor she deserved. She even received love where revulsion was to be expected.

When I read the Christmas story, I wonder the same thing about us. Do we understand how our sin should have separated us from God? Do we grasp what it means to be given holiness and eternal life despite the evil we have done?

Do we know and appreciate how much we are loved?