by David Baer, November 15, 2015
Text: Hosea 11:1-9
There are no words that can unwind the terrible events of the last few days. There are no words that can make them make sense. There are no words that are going to secure in us a sense of safety, that are going to erase the vulnerability a lot of us are feeling. The shootings and explosions in Paris brought violence and terror into a place that, for so many of us, is a familiar and iconic city of beauty and enjoyment of life. Now we’re painfully aware of this violence that has been unfolding for a long time in other less familiar places—Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. Authorities have begun to investigate how the Paris attacks happened, who perpetrated them, and for what purpose. But right now, in this hour, is not the time for explanations or advice. Right now is a time for mourning, for lifting up those who are hurting in prayer, and for looking to God for hope.
I chose the title of my sermon, “Love Wins,” before the Paris attacks, but it seems fitting. As Christians, now more than ever, we need to be reminded that love wins. Love wins in the heart of God. Love wins us into God’s family. And practicing the way of love in our own lives wins over hostile or hurting others and makes a new start for our world. The worst thing, in the face of terror, would be to abandon our trust that God’s love in Jesus Christ is victorious over the evil that threatens us within and without. Friends, in a time of violence and anxiety, let’s linger over the words of Hosea, through whom God speaks this good news. Love wins.
The passage we heard today comes from the time of the divided kingdoms. The prophet Hosea spoke God’s word to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel during the troubled 8th century BC, when foreign powers threatened and eventually destroyed his nation. This was a time of shocking violence and instability inside Israel as well, as monarchs were assassinated and competing factions slaughtered one another. Prophets like Hosea tried to hear and speak God’s word into this tumultuous time. We only had time to read a part of the book that bears his name, but the rest of it is worth reading. Hosea’s prophecies describe the relationship between God and God’s people in passionate, intimate terms. God speaks to Hosea in the experience of Hosea’s own troubled marriage to an unfaithful woman, and so Hosea’s words are seasoned with love, jealousy, anger, and hurt as he proclaims God’s heartbreak over the unfaithfulness of God’s people.
Last week we heard the story of Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel during the reign of King Ahab. The prophets of Baal cut and mutilated themselves and cried out all day, trying to get their god to accept their sacrifice, but there was no answer. Elijah put every obstacle in God’s way, even pouring water three times over his offering, and when he prayed fire immediately consumed it. The people fell on their faces and declared, “The Lord indeed is God!” Unfortunately, the struggle for the hearts of God’s people did not end at Mount Carmel. The people and their rulers turned again and again to Baal and Asherah and the other idols they hoped could bring rain to their crops and give protection from their enemies.
The verses we heard give us an intimate, tender glimpse of God. God is speaking in a monologue brimming with emotion. Israel is God’s child. When God rescued them from slavery, God gave life to a new people. When God led them through the desert and gave them the Law, God was teaching them to walk. God fed them with manna. God healed their diseases. God held and protected them. As the father of a toddler, I can’t help but see my own son in these verses, as he takes his first tentative steps. And I feel God’s tenderness in these words that describe my everyday life with my children: “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.” God feels joy and delight and love for this people. This is not a cold, distant, calculating God. This is a passionate father, a proud mother, excited to see her child growing and maturing, worried for his child’s well being, and deeply, fiercely loving.
But God’s love is not returned. They did not know it was I who healed them, says God. They turned away, made sacrifices to the Baals, offered incense to idols. Some of these offerings even involved human sacrifice—the ancient Israelites were no strangers to religious violence either. What does God do, seeing all this? God grieves. God rages. God even contemplates destroying Israel. In the Law of Moses, there was a punishment for a “stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, [and] who does not heed them when they discipline him” was for his mother and father to take him to the town gate, accuse him in front of the elders, and have him stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). God invokes the superpower nations that threatened the kingdom of Israel, Egypt and Assyria, as possible agents of destruction. Is God going to give Israel what it deserves for its faithlessness, for its ingratitude, for its neglect of right worship and its devotion to false gods? Is God going to bring a punishment that fits the crime?
Some of you may know what it’s like to suffer such an intense betrayal. Maybe your child lied to you and broke your trust in them. Maybe it was a spouse or partner. Even if you haven’t had your heart broken like this, you probably know someone who has. You can feel God’s anger and God’s heartache. And you get this impulse to lash out and make the other person feel the hurt you feel. The scriptures tell us that we’re made in the image of God, and so maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that when we get a glimpse of God’s inner emotional life, it feels familiar and recognizable. We’re built to love like God loves and to feel the same intense hurt and anguish God feels when our hearts are broken.
But something distinct, something special, something extraordinary is rising up in the passionate heart of God. In the face of betrayal and heartbreak, even as God gets angry, even as God contemplates utterly wiping this people off the face of the earth, God’s love surges up and overpowers the anger. How can I give you up, how can I hand you over? God asks. My heart recoils, literally turns over, within me, God says. God’s heart is being changed. “I will not execute my fierce anger,” God says. Listen carefully to that. God doesn’t stop being angry. God doesn’t stop feeling hurt and aggrieved. But God chooses not to let that anger shape God’s actions. “I will not destroy… ,” God says, “for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” Something is happening here that sets God apart from the humans made in God’s image. God’s steadfast love is set against God’s wrath, and love wins. Love wins over the heart of God. Not our love. We didn’t do anything to win God over. Sometimes, as in the case of Israel, we can be downright unlovable. God’s own love wins out, it conquers and subdues God’s wrath. Love wins.
We heard another story today, briefly, from the gospel. “Let the children come to me,” Jesus said, and for me, and maybe you too, I think of these Sunday School posters that show a smiling Jesus with a bunch of neat, well-behaved, well-groomed little tots. But I’m guessing that if that’s what those children were, the disciples might have been more eager to let them come see Jesus. No, in the light of what we read in Hosea about God’s love for the child Israel, I think we have to imagine Jesus looking at a grubby, surly teenager and saying, “Let him come.” We have to imagine Jesus beckoning to a little girl who’s just broke her younger sister’s toy and saying, “Let her come, let them both come.” We have to imagine him turning to us, when we’ve stretched the truth, when we’ve let someone down, when we’re hurt and guilty and feeling dirty inside or out, and saying, “Yes, you, child… come to me.” Because once love wins in God’s heart, it starts to win us over too. “How can I give you up? … I will not destroy…” says God, and so we know that whatever we might look like on the outside, whatever we might feel like on the inside, there is nothing but a welcome and a blessing waiting for us in the arms of Jesus. Love wins us over and bids us come closer. Love wins.
Love wins, sometimes, even in communities that have seen horrific violence. In 2006, an armed man named Charles Roberts burst into an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, and he shot and killed five girls before turning his gun on himself. That night–that very night–some elders from the Amish community visited Mr. Roberts’ wife and three young daughters at their home. They embraced the Roberts family and told them they held no grudges. A parent of one of the girls who had been killed said, “The pain of the killer’s parents is 10 times my pain. You would just feel terrible if you were the parent of a killer.” When asked why they did this, the Amish said that it was part of their Christian faith. When somebody harms you, you forgive–immediately and unreservedly. You might still feel scared or hurt or threatened, but that doesn’t lessen your duty to forgive, the Amish said. You can work through the feelings later–you forgive right now.1
This act of forgiveness sent ripples around the state and the country. Mennonite pastors reported visitors coming to their churches asking if they could learn there how to forgive in the same way as the Amish. Something about this story was so deeply compelling for so many people. The Amish, a people we mention most often in jokes about their supposed backwardness, were light-years ahead of the dominant culture when it came to the practice of forgiveness. And this one incident wasn’t some aberration, either. When a drunk driver struck and killed a group of Amish traveling in a buggy in Upstate New York, near where my family vacations, the community forgave the driver. One Amish business owner put it this way: “Maybe if somebody had forgiven the imprisoned driver for his first transgressions years ago the … accident never would have happened.”2 That’s astounding. This man really believes that forgiveness had, and still has, the power to alter the life story of someone who killed people he loved dearly. That’s an amazing faith in the power of God’s forgiveness to transform. These are people that really believe love wins.
What’s the ripple effect of your kindness? What power does your forbearance and forgiveness have to transform the path of the people around you? The Amish stand apart as a community devoted to extreme forgiveness, but in Paris, even as the attacks were unfolding, scores of people took to social media posting the hashtag “#porteouverte” or “open door,” to welcome strangers fleeing the attacks into their homes. What risks are you willing to take to bring a little kindness and goodness into a fearful time?
In the face of our own guilt and hurt, love wins. Love makes us sinners into God’s beloved children. Love transforms strangers into guests. Love makes enemies the object of forgiveness and care. In God’s own heart, mercy and forgiveness carry the day over wrath and punishment. God’s anger is but for a moment, but God’s steadfast love is for a lifetime. When we’re feeling anxious and terrorized, Jesus says, come to me, come to me, children, you who are afraid, you who are angry, you who are hurting. Cast your worry and your pain and your rage on me. Trust in me. I have conquered. Love wins. Love wins. Amen.
Ann Rodgers, “Nickel Mines legacy: Forgive first.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07273/821700-85.stm, accessed 11/13/2015.
Gwen Chamberlain and Al Bruce, “A year of tolerance has passed.” GateHouse News Service. 23 Jul 2012. http://www.mpnnow.com/news/x915675565/A-year-of-tolerance-has-passed, accessed 17 Aug 2012.