Our dining room table is piled high with seasonal decorations, most still in boxes, but we did manage to hang a string of lights around the kitchen window.
It feels like a slender thread, electric wire and bulbs, a pop of color with a little shine, casting a warm glow inside our home.
And it offers a moment of respite from the things still to do, the list of sermons to preach and prayers to offer and church decorations to find, not to mention the things left to do at home.
It’s not the first First Advent when Christmas has seemed impossibly distant, not in days (those will speed by, I know), but measured in hope. Less than a week ago, I wondered what bad news would come, would require mention in today’s sermon, and the world, as it does with sickening regularity, complied.
This week a man in Biloxi shot and killed a woman at the Waffle House when she told him to put out his cigarette. What is wrong with people? What makes us think a gun is the solution to a disagreement?
Other first Advents, I’ve preached about trampled shoppers, and hostages in Mumbai, and natural disasters, and the execution of young men, and the pervasive sin of racism, and acts of pure terror delivered not only by strangers but by our own countrymen. And it is hard to know where to find hope after this week’s additions in Minneapolis and Colorado Springs, this week’s reminders in Chicago, this month’s violence and terror in Mali, Beirut, Paris…
Where is our hope?
Our hope is in the Lord.
The words feel trite until we look deeper, uncover the stories, the stories of all the days Jesus walked among us, the subtle forms of threat used against him by the authorities. It feels trite until we remember that nothing they said or did stopped him from being the truth, the light, the hope that you will have ultimate victory over the death-dealers.
It feels distant, but I am holding on, even if a string of lights is all I have to bind me to your hope this morning. Help me preach it, Lord, I pray. Amen.
In 5th grade, I was in a Sunday School class that took us through the Old Testament using drama. We acted out the stories, even wearing costumes. At the end of the school year, we had what amounted to an Old Testament fair, with 5th and 6th graders as the figures in living dioramas. The part I played was from Hosea, a story we definitely learned in the G-rated version. This is what I remember about it.
Hosea was a prophet, a faithful man of God. He married a woman named Gomer, and after they had some children, she ran away. Things went from bad to worse for her, and she ended up in slavery. Hosea went down to the place where slaves were being auctioned, and he bought her freedom. He forgave her for running away, and they went home together. There’s a lot more to the story of Hosea and Gomer, but for today, those are the essentials. A book of prophecy that begins with a metaphor about marriage ends with a metaphor about motherhood, and that’s where we find ourselves (Hosea 11:1-9).
On the day I played Gomer, I was a 4’6” 10-year-old with short hair and bangs. A mom in our class dressed me in old sheets draped in a pseudo-Grecian style, which was surely not quite the right thing but intended to evoke the fallen woman Gomer had become. A somewhat untamed wig topped off the costume, clipped to the top of my head. It must have been a mess to begin with, possibly out of the family dress-up closet rather than the mom’s own hair accessory wardrobe. I stood in prop chains, on a raised platform, with the big, long hair hanging down my back, and I’ll admit to you, I was excited to be portraying an ancient woman in a dramatic situation, because I had no idea what it really meant to be enslaved. I had no idea what it meant to be a woman at risk, on the run, in all the worst kinds of trouble and now under the control of whoever might pay the price for me.
Beside me, as if I were the volcano model at a science fair, there was a poster board explaining the story of Hosea.
Hosea was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom, Israel. He was the first prophet to leave a written record of his own, instead of being written down by someone else later. The rulers of the Northern Kingdom were all terrible, even wicked. They were unfaithful to God, and they led their people to worship pagan gods like Ba’al.
The poster included a map, showing the location of their capital, Samaria, and the nearby nation of Assyria, which would soon come down upon them and end the Northern Kingdom. It had a timeline with the names of all the kings, some who didn’t rule very long because they were assassinated by their own people.
I stood on the auction block, and when parents or other adults stopped to listen, I spoke the piece I had learned, telling (a G-rated version of) Gomer’s part of the story. As the crowd of after-church coffee-drinkers thinned, I kept my eye out hopefully for someone else to come and listen, so I saw the two well-dressed ladies coming toward me, and I heard it when one stage-whispered to the other, “How could her mother let her hair get like that?”
I felt angry and embarrassed for my mother, who of course had no fault in the matter because IT WASN’T EVEN MY HAIR!!!!! How could they not see I was wearing a wig? My face burned as they walked by, averting their eyes, not even stopping to let me tell the story. I felt ashamed, as if I had somehow let my mother down.
Why does scripture make use of metaphors of marriage and family? Because nothing weighs heavier than our sense of family loyalty. And no betrayal feels worse than a family betrayal, whether it’s by your parents, or your children, or your spouse. These are the people who ought to treat us right. These are the people who ought to know better.
So the story of a runaway wife and the the poem about a runaway child make sense as metaphors for a nation’s faithlessness to God. They should have known better. This was their God! Their God BROUGHT THEM OUT OF EGYPT, OUT OF SLAVERY!!! This God gave them the Promised Land and this God let them have kings when they wanted kings, even though it was bound to work out badly. As it did. God was a caring and indulgent parent. Now what?
Anyone who has ever been in trouble with her mother – and that’s definitely me, on many occasions – might recognize the maternal aggravation cycle in the nine verses we read today.
Frustration: I cared for you, I nursed you, I held your hands while you learned to walk. How could you do this to me?
Resignation: Well, I can’t do anything about *that* choice! I’ll have to let her learn her own lesson.
Anguish: I am angry about the choices he has made, and I can see they will lead to no good! I’m angry enough to lash out! But I won’t.
Reconciliation: Really, I’m more hurt than angry. If she wants to come home, I’ll be here to open the door.
God is so far beyond our comprehension — so literally awesome, so literally mercy-full — that the best we can do is project what we do know onto something we cannot know fully. Every person has a parent – good or bad, present or absent. We understand what a father or a mother is, from our happy experiences and also from our terrible disappointments.
We call God Parent, Father, Mother, and we describe a family relationship, but in these verses from Hosea, we are reminded that the Lord is more than a human parent. Those of us who have our moments and more of failing our parents say “Thank God!” when God’s anguished heart changes in verses 8 and 9 :
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
Thank God that God is more than a human parent.
Thank God that God has god-sized mercy on us.
God remembers cities destroyed alongside Sodom and Gomorrah, cities and the people in them. God does not want all of the Northern Kingdom to be destroyed. Angry though God is, God will not act on it, “for I am God and no mortal.”It’s hard to talk about the words of scripture today without some words about other cities in the world. In Paris, in Beirut, in Baghdad, mothers and fathers are weeping for their children and children for their parents. Paris stands out because it doesn’t happen there so much, the suicide bombs, the automatic rifle fire. It stands out because we went there in college, or a friend sent pictures from her honeymoon, or a family we know is there right now, in my case.
I struggle, as you may, to take in the details of terrorism, which has at its root a desire to control not only by random killing, but by leaving the survivors in fear. I struggle to understand why a difference of belief should be the fuel for a fire of destruction. We live in a nation founded on the idea that religious differences make a richer society, that they should not be a threat to anyone. We may not always execute that ideal perfectly, but it’s part of who we are meant to be.
So it’s baffling to face opponents whose extreme religious views – whatever their faith – not only divide them from the world but make them hostile to the rest of us.
And I wonder what God thinks of them. In that cycle of frustration, resignation, anguish and reconciliation, where is God now?
There’s a point in running away, in acting out, in doing the wrong thing when adrenaline captivates us with a wicked high. We feel invulnerable, immortal, or maybe don’t even care if we are *are* mortal. That may be the suicide bomber’s passion, too, a chemical reaction that magnifies the importance of what we are doing in a way that transcends actual reality.
It may have been what motivated Gomer, a search for something exciting, a thrill beyond the normal daily tasks of nursing her babies and teaching them to walk.
She is the mother gone wrong, perhaps our worst nightmare until the fresh horrors of the modern world.
When Gomer stood alone on the auction block, did she wonder where God was? Did she ask God to help? Did she imagine God was finished with her? The world certainly thought she wasn’t worth much anymore. I wonder how she felt when she looked up and saw Hosea in the crowd? When she heard his voice offering a bid? When he took her home again to her children?
In that story, none of us can stand invisible in the crowd, playing only the role of the spectator. We are Gomer. Each human being is in some way, at some time, this everywoman. We are the ones who make mistakes, the ones who run away, the ones who let God down. We are the reason God is angry and disappointed.
It’s easy to point the finger at others and forget that we, too, are part of the cycle of frustration, resignation and anguish. It’s easy to forget until we are hoping for reconciliation.