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The Anguish of Faith

Sunday, August 4, 2019. Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Hosea 11:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11

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Our text from Hosea 11 that Virginia just read is one of the most remarkable biblical texts, in my view, because of what it reveals to us about the anguished heart of God.  It is a text that may be unfamiliar to you, as it was to me for a long time; but my hope is that it may become an increasingly important text for us.

When I was growing up, there were two primary images of God that I absorbed.  If you had asked me what God was like, I think I would probably have told you one of two things.  The first would have been that God was like an old man with a really long beard, sitting on a really big throne.  Now this old man was a fairly benevolent guy, not a malicious kind of god, but one of the main adjectives you could have used for this image of God – next to really old – would have been distant.  This God was a long, long way away, and was sort of a dispenser of cosmic goodies.  My seminary professor Shirley Guthrie said that this image of God was something like a Cosmic Bellhop, whom you would call on to do stuff for you.  My hunch is that this image was sort of a cross between the pictures of the god Zeus in school books and Santa Claus.

The second image of God that I walked around with was an image of God as the Great Cosmic Police Officer, waiting to catch people breaking the rules.  After all, God had given the 10 Commandments, and I think I would have assumed that the major point of the 10 Commandments was to catch people breaking them.  So this image of God would have been one of God following me around, waiting for me to mess up.

Either God was a great big Santa Claus up in the sky, far, far away, or God was a really big Cop, waiting to catch me messing up.  Neither of these pictures of God has much to do with the God of Jesus Christ whom we meet in the Bible, and they certainly don’t have a lot to do with the God who is given to us in the prophet Hosea today. 

If you had asked me as a young boy, “Does God grieve?”  I’m not sure that the question would have even made sense to me.  God?  Grieve?  Get sad?  Worry?  Live in any kind of anguish?  If you had pushed me to think about it, I imagine that I would have said that if you happen to be so lucky as to be God, surely one of the perks of being God would be that you don’t have to go through messy things like grief or regret or anguish.  Surely, if you’re God, you get to live in constant bliss, a state unsullied by things like grief.

That is what is so remarkable about the God given to us in the Bible, and why passages like the one we read this morning from Hosea are so important.  Because what the Bible gives us is a God who is a personal God, a God who is in relationship with us. “When Israel was a child, I loved him.  I took Israel up in my arms; I was to Israel like those who lift little babies up to their cheeks.  I bent down to feed them with a spoon.”  This relational God has been with us all the way along while we were growing up, while we were learning to eat, while we were learning to walk, becoming the people we are today.

But what happens to most of us when we’re teenagers happened to Israel as well.  When we go through adolescence, we push away from our parents.  We want to make our own way, we rebel against parental authority.  Even those of us who toe the line can often do it in a somewhat sullen way, and we will find our own ways to resist authority.  The people of Israel did this in their pursuit of idolatry and oppression of the poor.  The church does this today as a community of faith.  Our society does it.  We run away from God, we break relationship with each other, we teach our young people to hate those who are different from them, we teach violence as a way to solve our problems.  We push God away, we push each other away, we hide from God, we find security in things other than our relationship with God.

And what our text from Hosea shows us is how God responds to this.  Now, the Santa Claus god of my childhood would have said, “Oh, let’s don’t talk about those hard things, let’s just look on the bright side of life, don’t you want some more cookies?”  The rule-checking God of my childhood would simply have whacked Israel and sent them into punishment.   But the God of Hosea sits in the anguish and pleads:  “How can I give you up, Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, O Israel?  How can I make you like Admah?  How can I treat you like Zeboiim?  My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.”

What does that sound like?  I think it sounds like a parent whose teenage child was supposed to be home 4 hours ago, and hasn’t come home yet.  The parent is simultaneously furious at the child, and scared to death that the child’s not safe.  When that child finally comes home, the parent may read the child the riot act, but on the inside, the parent will be filled with relief and rejoicing.

Hosea says that’s what God’s heart is like.  The world tends to think that someone is Godlike when they are powerful and secure and confident and impressive.  But Hosea raises the possibility that we are actually most like God when our hearts are breaking open in anguish and grief.  The God of the Bible is so committed to his people, so filled with love for them, that his heart breaks in grief when their lives are not going well.  Some people may say that a God of pathos and anguish doesn’t sound much like the god they want to have, but we may observe that this is precisely the kind of God we see in Jesus Christ, who suffered and died on the cross for the sins of the world.  The God of the Bible moves to action, but Hosea and Jesus teach us that God’s action is grounded and motivated by grief for the wayward people, by anguish over the horrible mess that the people have gotten themselves into.

The mass shootings and the gun violence in the United States are surely breaking the heart of God.  When garlic festivals and shopping centers and schools and churches become something much darker than places of human interaction and commerce and pleasure, God’s heart is surely torn with grief and anguish.  When politicians and their constituents are unable to find ways to balance 2nd amendment rights with common-sense approaches to safety, God’s heart must break. Earlier this summer, one of our presbyteries in Texas ordained Rev. Deanna Hollas as a minister of Word and Sacrament whose ministry will focus on gun violence prevention.  Rev. Hollas’ work will be to encourage and coordinate conversations and actions in churches across our denomination around preventing gun violence.  Hollas grew up around guns in Texas, and because she comes from a part of the country that is traditionally pretty conservative around gun issues, she said in an interview that she expected more pushback around her position than she has received.  “I think it’s because people are just tired of this,” she said.  “People are tired of children being shot in their schools; people are tired of the high numbers of gun violence in communities of color; people are tired of dying by suicide,” she said.  Grief is changing the conversation.  Though there are surely some necessarily tough conversations in front of us about policy, grief has a way of changing the conversation.

What breaks your heart open?  What are the things that drive you to your knees in anguish?  What situations in your personal life do this?  What situations in our world break your heart?  If our text from Hosea is to be believed, then the anguish you feel, over these or other things, is not something to get over or get past.  Your anguish is holy; your anguish is a way that you are sharing in the grief and anguish of God.  A church that is formed by the cross of Christ and by prophets like Hosea will have the steadfastness to sit with the grief and to allow your tears and your anguish to soften up the situation and to open the way forward.

Friends, the God of the prophets, the God of Jesus Christ is not some great big Santa Claus, nor a Cosmic Rule Checker, but is much better, and much more hopeful than that.  We worship and serve a personal God, who is in love with us, and whose heart breaks when we are hurting and when we are hurting each other.  God is not a private God, not your God alone, but God is a profoundly personal God, who is personally in love with each of us, and who invites us to love each other with that same anguished love.  To our relational God alone be all the glory.  AMEN.