This is a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Hosea 1:2-10, which refers to events recorded in 2 Kings 9 and 10.
Well, last week we looked at the psalm and some of the words there which had to do with God’s judgement, and this week, quite by chance, we have a reading from Hosea which also deals with judgement, from a slightly different point of view. And it seemed to me to be a good opportunity – having had the chance last week to say some things about what we don’t do with judgement – to this week have a look at how passages like this might make a positive contribution to how we understand our faith.
And with that in mind, I particularly wanted to look at the name of Hosea’s first son, and what God is indicating in his instructions to the prophet.
So the Lord said to Hosea, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.”
Now this refers back to events recorded in the second book of Kings, and it took me a bit of digging around to feel that I really understood what God (through Hosea) was on about here, but I think the line of logic goes a bit like this.
In Kings, the story goes that Jehu, a commander of the army, was appointed by the prophet Elisha as king over Israel, and given the task of punishing the household of the wicked king Ahab and his wife, Jezebel. So Jehu went on to slaughter the current king (Ahab’s son), Jezebel, (Ahab’s widow), and all seventy of Ahab’s children, his leaders, close friends, and priests. And Jehu ascended the throne.
So far, it’s a little confusing. After all, Jehu was brutal, but it was apparently a brutality God encouraged him to. So why is Hosea so upset about it, quite a long time later?
It turns out that whatever pious justification Jehu might have had for his actions, what followed after him was a plotline worthy of Game of Thrones, with a line of kings who, one after the other, were assassinated; Shallum killed Zechariah for the throne, Menahem killed Shallum, Pekah killed Pekahiah, and so on… and each succeeding king was brutal; the records in Kings mention cities being sacked, pregnant women being ripped open, oppressive taxes, and so on.
The leaders of Israel, the royalty and the commanders of the armies who fought over the throne, had no prophets telling them to do this (at least in the records we have). They had no justification for their behaviour. They were out for power and wealth, and were happy to have it at any cost.
So then we get down to Hosea’s day, and by this time this civil war and assassination have become a way of life. The current king had assassinated the previous king in his rise to power. The land had no stability, no peace, no confidence in its leaders, no safety.
And this is the context in which Hosea – at the Lord’s instruction – names his firstborn son “Jezreel,” harking back to that first rebellion and assassination of a king, and the beginning of a pattern that the Lord here makes clear he finds unacceptable; indeed, a pattern that the Lord intends to break. The name “Jezreel” stands as a warning for that judgement.
Hosea’s rhetoric and his symbolic actions (in taking a prostitute for a wife, and so on), are designed to remind the people that the behaviour that has become normal to them, is in fact not consistent with who God would have them be; not consistent with their best and deepest and truest selves as the people of God. They had forgotten about God’s faithful love and instead borrowed standards and behaviours from the cultures around them, allowing those cultures to shape who they were in devastating ways.
And this is, I think, where the message of Hosea can become a useful prompt for reflection for us today.
Because while we have the great good fortune – although we might sometimes doubt it – of living in a fairly stable democracy, we always have the challenge of whether our behaviours and attitudes are really being formed by what we know of God’s character, or by whichever way the wind is blowing in the culture around us.
Because if we really understand God’s character, that understanding can be for us hope, confidence and motivation. If we really understand God’s faithfulness, for example, we can read God’s promises of a blessed future and find there a sustaining vision which will give us the energy to make the changes in our own lives, which will help us to more live more faithfully in line with that vision.
If we really understand God’s faithfulness, we will reject any lack of faithfulness in our own hearts; any lack of commitment to this community – or the wider church – as the cradle of the future. If we really understand God’s faithfulness, the church cannot be the arena in which we gratify our own egos or pursue our own agendas, instead becoming what St. John called “co-workers with the truth.”
“Co-workers with the truth” has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Could we adopt it as a motto of sorts, do you think?
Or if we really understand God’s justice, we will look at the world with eyes always ready to see when power is out of balance, and to lift the burdens of the oppressed. Let me tell you that we are not good at this; we only need to look at what the church does to those who have been abused by clergy, in terms of processes and trials and psychological assessments and all of that, to know that even within our own institution we have not yet begun to really know or live out justice, even in what seems like the most basic and obvious of cases. We have a long way to go before we can consider ourselves agents of justice with any integrity.
And it’s worth asking ourselves, even at the parish level, what can be done about that.
Or if we really understood God’s mercy, we would look at the world with eyes always quick to search out suffering in others, and willing to do whatever we can to make a difference. This can seem overwhelming because we know that none of us has the resources to change the world on our own; but each of us is one part of a social and community network which can draw on enormous resources to respond to human need. And yet so often we are not even conscious of where those connections are.
I’ve talked about faithfulness, justice, and mercy, and we could keep going indefinitely, reflecting on the various character attributes of God; but mercifully for you, perhaps, this sermon is probably long enough. But you take my point; in God’s character, said Hosea, we find those virtues which ought to shape our own hearts and way of life. That’s Hosea’s antidote to a country torn apart by ambition and war; and it’s a timeless prescription for those of us who live as part of a community of faith, in a wider social context which does not know God.