by Daniel Harrell
Few things exceed the ugliness of divorce court. Couples who pledged undying love now only want each other dead. Heated battles rage over previously ridiculed wedding presents. Accusations hurl over formerly adorable habits. Miserably stranded are the kids, forced to choose sides, ashamed and unwillingly complicit as the two most important people in their lives ruin everything. Despite the heartbreak, or perhaps due to it, we’ve succeeded in making divorce entertainment here in America. Twice a day in Minneapolis you can tune into My29 TV to watch Divorce Court with Judge Lynn Toler, now in its fifteenth season. Viewers witness firsthand grudge matches between husbands and wives. Recent episodes featured a wife divorcing her husband for pawning her grandmother’s rosary beads. Another had a husband admitting to sneaking through his wife’s belongings where he found love letters and a picture of another man on her smartphone.
Now there’s no need to subject yourself to Divorce Court on TV. There are plenty of places to retreat from such sordidness. Unfortunately church on this Sunday is not one of them. Today is Reformation Sunday, which truth be told, annually commemorates one of the bloodiest breakups in history. Reformation narrates the tragic failure of Christians to live out the unity that is supposed to be our identity through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We’ve tried to make the best of things, divided from one another as Congregationalists and Catholics, Presbyterians and Pentecostals, Lutherans and liberals and evangelicals; still, sadly, Christians killed a lot of Christians over the centuries to get here. This not what Jesus prayed for. It’s not what he died for. “The glory that you have given me I have given them,” Jesus prayed regarding his followers, “so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Unity is a hallmark of love.
And yet it’s difficult to find, even in the Bible. Hosea 2 is biblical divorce court. This little Old Testament book narrates a messy breakup between the Lord and his people, played out by a prophet of Israel embittered by his own obedience to God. Because the most effective communicators are those who speak from experience, God commanded Hosea to go out and [quote] “marry a whore, and get children with a whore.” Why? “Because this country itself has become nothing but a whorehouse by abandoning Yahweh.” Hosea dutifully goes out and does what God says. He enters a marriage that was as horrible as it was necessary. Hosea empathized with God. His own personal sorrow echoed God’s sorrow. Hosea suffered what God suffered—and therefore he could speak for the Lord.
Chapter 2 features the Lord himself as the jilted husband. God takes Israel, his two-timing wife, to court and there instructs their children to denounce their mother. Who are the children here? There are three of them, represented by Hosea’s actual three children whom the Lord named Jezreel, Lo-ruhamah (which means No Mercy) and Lo-ammi (which means Not My People). Jezreel (which deliberately sounds like Israel), hearkened back to a time when Israel’s King Jehu was commanded to eliminate idol worship from the land. To God, idolatry was adultery of the worst kind. Idolatry substituted the worship of God with homage to stick and stone statues. Genuine love gave way to manufactured lust, not unlike the way we exchange face-to-face relationships with flesh and blood people for contrived encounters over Facebook and iPhones.
Technology can lead to a kind of idolatry, which is why so may parents won’t let their kids have smartphones. The irreverent yet sometimes poignant comedian Louis CK recently railed like a prophet against the toxicity of smartphone technology. (I watched the rant on my own smartphone.) Louis CK explained that as a parent he’s not here to make his children happy. He doesn’t care what they want. “We’re not raising children,” he said, “We’re raising the grown-ups our kids are going to be. We have to raise them with the tools to get through a terrible life. People are mean, even as kids. A kid will go up to another kid and say something like, ‘you’re fat,’ because kids do mean things. But then when they see the other kid’s face scrunch up by the meanness, they’ll think to themselves, ooh, that doesn’t feel good. Maybe I shouldn’t do that. But when they text ‘you’re fat,’ they don’t have to see the other kid’s face or sense her hurt. They can just go, hmm, that was fun.”
Ancient Israel didn’t have smartphones to cradle, but they cradled their idols. Bad enough that they credited their idols—whom they called Baal—with creation and the provision of crops and rain. Worse that these other gods didn’t actually exist. They were made (and made up) by human hands. Why was that so bad? Because to make up your own gods means you make up your own values and ethics too. You can do unto others whatever you want. You can say whatever you want however you want to whomever you want, no matter how much it hurts them. You can ignore needy people and never feel guilty. You don’t have to deny yourself for anybody or anything. Israel’s King Jehu couldn’t resist idolatry’s permissive pleasures and ended up contaminating the whole country. So the Lord pronounced No Mercy and named them Not My People.
It’s really quite sad. Why do people chase after pleasures so greedily and capriciously, making choices that are hurtful, and ultimately disastrous―only to then rationalize, minimize and blame everybody else? Hosea will write that we do it because the human heart is deceitful. We want what we want. Though lovingly made by God to be great in the service of greatness, we make ourselves small by simply serving ourselves.
You’d think this would make God sad, but instead, it made him mad. If ever you have loved and given yourself completely to another only to have your love betrayed, then you know the hurt and the grief and the anger that ensue. God furiously announces in chapter 2 that Israel is no longer his wife. He brings charges with words that The Message translation portrays like this, “Haul your mother into court! Accuse her! She’s no longer my wife. I’m no longer her husband. Tell her to quit dressing like a whore, displaying her breasts for sale. If she refuses, I’ll rip off her clothes and expose her, naked as a newborn. I’ll turn her skin into dried-out leather, her body into a badlands landscape, a rack of bones in the desert. I’ll have nothing to do with her children, born one and all in a whorehouse. Face it: Your mother’s been a whore, bringing bastard children into the world. She said, ‘I’m off to see my lovers! They’ll wine and dine me, dress and caress me, perfume and adorn me!’ But I’ll fix her: I’ll dump her in a field of thorns, then lose her in a dead-end alley. She’ll go on the hunt for her lovers but not bring down a single one.”
Now a bit of metaphorical clarification is in order. If Israel is the adulterous wife, and her kids are also Israel the unfaithful children, then who’s accusing whom? Most commentators make the distinction between the government, priests and kings of Israel as the mother, and the ordinary citizenry as the children–a distinction we can appreciate especially given the most recent Washington budget absurdity. Having the children denounce the mother is like citizens railing at Congress whose approval rating as of yesterday stood at 8.4%, the lowest in history. Arrogant leaders who take voters for granted get their due come Election Day. If such is the case in modern democracies, how much more in ancient Israel where God himself directly determined who sat on the throne? Facing the wrath of voters is one thing. Facing the wrath of God is another.
Understandably, the adulterous wife attempts a turnaround. She says in Hosea, “I will go back to my husband as at first, for then I was better off then than now.” But God knows better. He refuses to be taken in by fake sincerity or phony contrition. It’s like an Ohio mother who called the cops on her 6-year-old daughter after she caught her shoplifting a package of stickers. “You’ve got to catch them when they first start if they do something wrong,” said the mom. Bloggers and child psychologists were predictably aghast and labeled the mother abusive and uncaring. They probably would have said the same thing about my dad after I lifted a candy bar from a store as a 6-year-old. My dad caught me, made me shamefully confess my sin to the store owner and not only give the candy bar back, but pay for it too—a tough thing to do when you had no income. It’s tempting to read God’s punishment of Israel as abusive and uncaring. He names them No Mercy and Not My People, decimates their fields, their country and allows them to be taken captive by their enemies. And yet like the Ohio mom and my dad, loving parents press hard on their kids out of love to shape them into the grown-ups they’re going to be.
Nowhere is this more evident than in this morning’s passage, where Hosea offers the third of three “therefores” regarding Israel’s adultery. The first was back in verse 6: God says, “Therefore I will build a wall against her so that she cannot find her paths.” Israel deserved that since she kept choosing to go down wrong roads. The second is in verse 9: “Therefore I will take back my grain when it ripens, and my wine in its season.” Israel deserved that too because she took God’s greatness for granted in the service of greatness, choosing to serve only her small self. The third therefore shows up in this morning’s passage, where you rightly expect a deserving final declaration of divorce and retribution—you know, three strikes and you’re out. But instead you get this: Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.”
Now for every Israelite, “wilderness” was a code for failure. It was in the wilderness that their forebears so abysmally messed up on their way to the Promised Land. Despite having been rescued from Egyptian slavery by God in truly miraculous fashion—ten plagues, Passover, walking on dry land through the Red Sea, pillars of fire, the whole shebang and more—Israel gave credit to a golden calf—an idol they made for themselves. It was adultery of the worst kind. So why go back to the wilderness and risk all of that again? Because the wilderness was also the place where God and Israel had their first date. Here in Hosea, God takes Israel to court, but what he wants to do is court her.“I will speak tenderly to her,” says the Lord. I’m will woo her and win her back. I will give her vineyards, roses and wine, and she will respond as in the days of her youth, as she did when she came up out of Egypt, before everything went wrong. God opens a “door of hope;” a do-over, chance to start again.
Hosea makes it sound so promising. “On that day,” says the LORD, “you will call me ‘my husband’ again…. I will remove the names of the idols from her mouth… I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground…” It sounds a lot like a return to the garden of Eden God set up in the beginning. “I will abolish war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety.” It does sound so wonderful, so promising―and so totally unrealistic. Ask any marriage counselor and they’ll tell you that going back to the beginning doesn’t automatically fix anything. You can’t repair relationships by simply going back to the beginning. You have to repair the people involved.
Which is what God does. He repairs his people. “I will take you for my wife forever;” he says, “I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy.” God lavishes bridal gifts on his wife again, giving her the traits that comprise his own character: righteousness, justice, love and mercy. The Lord gives his whole self. But marriage is a two-way street. So about Israel? What’s going to make her faithful this time around? God will. He will repair his people by pressing them into new creations. It’s a shotgun marriage. Or more precisely, a crucifixion marriage. God takes Israel back to the wilderness, but this time, rather than hoping she’ll be faithful, God keeps faith for her. God sends Jesus to take Israel’s place―Jesus takes our place―and Jesus makes the reconciliation hold by making us new people.
As God in human flesh, Jesus represents all humanity. Jesus went back to the wilderness and withstood the worst the devil could dish out. Satan tempted Jesus with a way around the cross, a way around the hard work of reconciliation, an easy way out if only Jesus would bow and worship him. But Jesus stayed faithful. He refused to cheat on the Lord. And as our representative, his faithfulness becomes our faithfulness. His obedience becomes our obedience. His death becomes our death and his resurrection becomes our resurrection too. God repairs his people. He truly reforms us by living in us and filling us with the empathy and compassion and mercy we need for real relationships: loving relationships with God and with each other, a chance to be one as God is one.
“I will have pity on those named ‘No Mercy,’” he says,and “you are my people” to those named “not my people.” And because of Christ in us, we will say, “you are my God” and mean it. The whole exchange sounds just like renewing marriage vows, or in the context of this morning, confirming baptismal vows. In Christ, the do-over is a done deal. The resurrection of Christ raises us up– up to like like grown-up Christians: righteous and just, loving and merciful, an answer to prayer, reunited as one, with the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit and even each other.