“When Israel was only a child, I loved him.
I called out, ‘My son!’—called him out of Egypt.
But when others called him,
he ran off and left me.
He worshiped the popular sex gods,
he played at religion with toy gods.
Still, I stuck with him. I led Ephraim.
I rescued him from human bondage,
But he never acknowledged my help,
never admitted that I was the one pulling his wagon,
That I lifted him, like a baby, to my cheek,
that I bent down to feed him.
Now he wants to go back to Egypt or go over to Assyria—
anything but return to me!
That’s why his cities are unsafe—the murder rate skyrockets
and every plan to improve things falls to pieces.
My people are hell-bent on leaving me.
They pray to god Baal for help.
He doesn’t lift a finger to help them.
But how can I give up on you, Ephraim?
How can I turn you loose, Israel?
How can I leave you to be ruined like Admah,
devastated like luckless Zeboim?
I can’t bear to even think such thoughts.
My insides churn in protest.
And so I’m not going to act on my anger.
I’m not going to destroy Ephraim.
And why? Because I am God and not a human.
I’m The Holy One and I’m here—in your very midst.
-Hosea 11:1-9 (The Message)
If there is a primary question that the Bible is concerned with, it is this one: who are we? The answer, overwhelmingly, is that we are God’s people.
Now, if it were that simple, this sermon would be over already. But it turns out that it is the work of a lifetime to figure out what it means to be God’s people, in this or that time, in this or that place, is one of the many and varied reasons that the bible goes on and on and on. In each time and in each moment, it seems that there were different answers to be had.
Take the time of the Biblical Kings for example: during the time of David, being God’s people meant being faithful to the covenant through the practice of ritual sacrifice. There were systems in place. With the building of the Temple, those functions were solidified, and systematized. Of course, in the process, the covenant people were at risk of seeing their identity as ONLY being about ritual. Which is why the prophets came in so handy, reminding them, at the end of the day, belonging to God wasn’t about which sacrifice and when, so much as it was about living a sacrificial life in which God’s ideals: justice, righteousness, peace, and mercy, came first.
Even Jesus has an answer to this question: to be God’s people means to be like a child, filled with wonder and awe, who accept God’s Kingdom with the simplicity of a child-like faith in their Parent (or is it that the Kingdom of God belongs to the innocent? There are so many directions we could take the child-metaphor, but all of them come back to the notion that we are part of God’s Kingdom without earning membership–we are simply welcomed.)
Now, this question feels different depending on your situation. In times of security, the people have no trouble imagining what it means to be God’s people—it means being exactly what they are now. But what about in bad times? What does it mean to affirm God’s presence with you when the world as you know it is crashing down?
Our reading today comes from one of those bad times. The Prophet Hosea is writing to a people on the cusp of exile. He knows it, they know it, God knows it. The end of everything they thought matters, the end of every sign that they are Gods—the land, the Temple, the monarchy—is near.
So what does it mean to be God’s people then? When you fear you may be about to lose everything? When you worry that the future will be worse than the present or the past?
Is God with us in a world where terrorists seem to wish us and all that we stand for dead?
Is God with us when the economy collapses, when we lose our jobs, when the future looks like a long slog in the darkness?
I don’t know about you, but I have noticed that when my family’s elders start worrying about the future, one of the first things that they tend to do is start at reminiscin’ about how it was back in the Good Old Days.
Let’s consider my parents, for example. When my dad wants to talk about the golden age of politics, back before everyone was fighting all the time, he often brings up the Reagan years. Maybe you do too.
What he doesn’t mention is the fact that, in 1982, right before I was born and as Reagan was settling into his first term, our country was going through an awful recession. Since then, our country has experienced multiple recessions and bubbles, moments of a booming economy, and war abroad.
Which makes me just about like most generations, actually. Consider my father again. He was born in 1952 in the midst of the Korean War. The McCarthy witchhunts were underway in DC, our government was building a Hydrogen bomb, and the Cuba Missile Crisis came to a head just as he was about to become a teenager. During my father’s childhood, WW2 had JUST officially ended the year before when Truman signed a peace treaty with Japan. At the same time, Segregation was finally declared illegal, Disnyeland was opened, and the Civil Rights Act was passed. Heck, McDonalds was born!
Turns out the Good Old Day’s weren’t all that different than today. Perhaps the problems were different, but there were still problems and struggles.
Now let’s go back to Hosea—we are standing here with the prophet on the cusp of a turning point for the people of Israel. Remembering our ancient history, the nation of Israel doesn’t last forever. They are taken into exile. And Hosea stands in the gap at the moment that the people are beginning to realize that perhaps their best days are behind them. They are looking wistfully at their Good Old Days, and wish they could find their way back.
And to those people who would rather look back than acknowledge the future, God has this to say:
Never gonna give you up
Never gonna let you down
Never gonna run around and desert you
Never gonna make you cry
Never gonna say goodbye
Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you
I wonder if part of the problem in Hosea’s time was that the people were afraid that God wasn’t powerful enough to prevent heartbreak. What Hosea tried to teach them was that theirs was a God who would persevere through heartbreak. That God isn’t in the business of preventing pain and suffering. God is in the business of standing with us, of being in covenant with us NO MATTER WHAT. That God is in the business of bringing us back from whatever abyss we find ourselves teetering over.
But we have to be willing to let go of certain things. In order to embrace God, we may be asked to let go of what we thought we needed. In Hosea’s time, the people thought they needed a nation to be God’s people. Without a king, they worried they would be nobody, that they would disappear. To them God says, “Never gonna give you up.”
Have you ever noticed how sometimes it takes a real tragedy to put in relief what is most important? After 9/11, people swarmed into churches, not because they wanted religion, necessarily, but because they needed to know that there was something bigger than hate. Something bigger than fear. And they found that in the knowledge of God’s abiding presence in Christ. They found something bigger than themselves, that wouldn’t give them up, no matter what.
I wonder how many churches, synagogues, and mosques will be filled today in France.
There is a lot of anxiety in the world, and it is natural for us to feel it too. I feel it. I worry about my future, about my children’s future, about the future of the church, about the future of the public school system, about democracy. I worry about terrorism, and refugees, and world peace. I worry about justice, and about God’s righteousness. But I could spend my whole life worrying, and never find the time to do something that contributes to the things that matter.
So instead, I have to put down my worry. I have to let God carry it, so that I can carry the childlike faith that Jesus calls us to. Because when I put down that burden, when I give it to God, then I find that my hands are free to embrace God’s children with the love and the joy and the hope of God’s kingdom in my heart.
I don’t know about your community of faith, but in mine you don’t have to look too hard to find reasons to be anxious. There is always something we can find to worry about. But worry isn’t all that there is to living. In fact, we want to be more than that. We want to embrace the future with hope, whatever it may look like. We don’t want to wait for the worst to happen. We want to imagine a future in which God is with us, in which we are able to do the work of God for the people of God. Will you join us?