Alfred Place Baptist Church

Love Her As The Lord Loves Israel

Hosea 3 “The LORD said to me, ‘Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.’ So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, ‘You are to live with me for many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you.’ For the Israelites will live for many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or idol. Afterwards the Israelites will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the LORD and to his blessings in the last days.”

Hosea was the spokesman for God in very urgent times and there was an intensity about his ministry – it was demanded by such dangerous end days. So he focused his ministry on the most important issue facing the backsliding and defiant people of God and that was their relationship with God himself. We face the very same battle, keeping our relationship with God central in our own lives. The professing church today has a broken relationship with God, and we are to inform people that this is the case, but we are to do it two ways, as one sinner to another, and close up and personal. We are to make the church aware not only that they have broken God’s law but that they have broken God’s heart, and in a strange way that particular message is for them the good news the best news they could hear. It is good like the Friday on which the Lord Jesus died is called ‘Good Friday’ because the substitutionary work of Jesus and our declaration of what it means for all who trust in Christ there is forgiveness for their sins and the gift of eternal life. The God whom we have offended has provided the comprehensive and the all-embracing solution for our lostness, and the church is called to announce this reality and offer a Saviour freely to all men and women, boys and girls.

Now to proceed, Hosea goes on to say that though our relationship with God is broken we are still loved. This is the heart of this prophet’s message, and the heart of what the Bible has to say. Both in heaven and on earth there is one superb divine and absolute reality; it is an eternal, unchanging and enduring reality. It is, in othe words, the covenant of grace. It is the saving love of God for all his own. Alas it has become ordinary to us. We can develop a barren familiarity with it. Christmas is less than a month away and if we hear on the radio a rare message about the coming of the baby into the stable at Bethlehem every listener will be told that it is all because of God’s love for us. And everybody yawns; it is wallpaper religion, and the songs that go with it are the background music to supermarket shopping or they are gaps and jingles in the classical music on Classic F.M. It is what everyone expects; all the land know backwards this vague and unspecified love of God. It is comfy slippers theology; it is a warm drink before bed-time doctrine. It is the comforting message of one annual visit to church, midnight mass for the inebriated. That should not be! Grace should always be amazing. We are to labour to get our hearts affected by the love of God. So what does Hosea teach us about the love of God?

1. GOD’S LOVE FOR SINNERS IS AN IMPOSSIBILITY.

Our culture does not think like that. Men’s assumption is that God is love. It is one of those self-evident truths that everyone knows. One reason they think like that is because of an earlier grace in our culture, that for almost 1900 years there have been Christians in Wales. In other cultures like India and in the middle east men don’t think like that. God is an avenger and he has his own way of judging mankind, but we are long familiar with the New Testament story. In our principality we’ve had traders sailing to Wales from before the end of the first century buying animals skins and Welsh gold and some of them brought with them the gospel message they had believed so that very early on there were Christians here in Cardigan Bay who believed in the love of a personal God who had made himself known by his Son coming into the world in Jesus of Nazareth. Little wonder that after almost 2,000 years the novelty has worn off. “Of course God loves,” people say, “what’s new about that?”

What does Hosea say? He raises the question of how in the world is it possible for God to love us? How can it happen? The first great prophet before all the other prophets was Moses, and he laid down God’s law, and in one part, specifically in Deuteronomy 21 and verse 18 he decreed that parents who have a son who is stubborn and rebellious could as their last resort bring a prosecution against him. They took their case to the elders at the city gate. The boy would then be facing a capital offence. He could be stoned to death for his evil contempt, and violence and defiance against those God called him to honour. That is the background to Hosea as he speaks in chapter 11. God himself, the father of Israel, is coming with his law suit, his prosecution of his children for their treatment of him. He is bringing the case against them; but this is the amazing way in which he addresses them in Hosea 11!

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realise it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them” (Hosea 11:1-4). “See all I have done, as a patient and loving father.” We are told that God bent down, he stooped, to help them. But what are the consequences for Israel, God’s son, in rejecting such kindness? “Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent? Swords will flash in their cities, will destroy the bars of their gates and put an end to their plans. My people are determined to turn from me” (vv.5-7). This was not the first time for God to send prophets to them and tell them of his displeasure with their behavior. They were an obstinate people and as reluctantly as any father picks up his rod God picked up Assyria as his rod to chasten his son Israel. God says to them, “My son had no cause to turn against me as he did, and yet from the kings to the beggars I looked, and lo there’s been nothing but hostility towards me.”

Here was a pretty open and shut case. The jury of elders at the city gates are not going to debate the case for a few days with food sent in and strict instructions given that they are not to talk to anyone about this when they go away for the evening. Nothing like that. Everyone knew how Israel has behaved. The hills and trees knew it, the cities and the fields knew it all across the land. Not a prophet who testified said anything other than that this boy was guilty of contempt for his father. It was an open and shut case and so there would be condemnation; stones would fly; swords would flash in the cities, and Assyria was going to be God’s High Chief Executioner. God’s people were determined to turn from him, says verse 7, and so calling on Jehovah in desperation as the siege engines triumphed and the walls collapsed, and the Assyrian army poured into the city of Samaria killing and plundering and raping – I say that calling on Jehovah then to help would receive a mute response from their heavenly Father. It’s over. It’s all over! When every factor is taken into consideration, it’s finished for the northern kingdom. They have filled to the brim the jar of their iniquities and God says, “Enough!” They are off to slavery in Assyria never to return.

And then you get verse 8 and where in the world does this verse come from? “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man – the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.” What is this? The father has dragged his mean despising son to the city gates, and he has described the conduct of this evil boy to the fathers, and they have heard all the damning evidence against him, and then the father’s demeanour suddenly changes. It’s the father who halts the proceedings. What is this? He is actually dropping the case against the boy. He actually weeps over his prodigal, this heart-breaker. He says to him, “I can’t do this to you. Come home son.” They’ve got the stones there ready to hurl at him. They have the cart ready to take his body down to the dump, and then the father’s whole tone changes. “I can’t hand you over to the executioners. We’re going home to your mother.” The prosecution ends and the trial is over. The city fathers get up and go home wondering why this case was ever brought this far.

Do you see my point? Where does the love of God come from? It doesn’t come from us. Consider the narratives in the book of Acts. It wasn’t that the Philippian jailer had become a sweet and gentle man, and so then God loved him and saved him. The brutal man was then and there about to kill himself as he’d killed others when he was told to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and he was saved and baptized and other members of his family too. It wasn’t that Saul of Tarsus had made a decision; “Jesus is the Messiah.” In fact Saul was going to Damascus breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the church to imprison and stone men to death and it was there and then on the road that his mission was perforated and God in love met Saul on God’s own mission of mercy to Saul. At the very moment when it all seemed so certain that the rod of God’s justice would smite Paul into the dust that the Lord spoke tenderly to him, “Saul, Saul . . .” The love of God overwhelms the jailer and overwhelms Saul and back here in this prophecy before us it overwhelms everything Hosea has been saying. And the Lord, in Hosea chapter 11, is overflowing in love for this recalcitrant and defiant people.

So God’s love is not predictable – like the time of high tide today, or the hour and minute of the setting of the sun tonight or the day of the full moon this month. The love of God is not something we can guarantee and take for granted on our way to doing something else that we find more gripping, that we prefer to do, or as the mere frame in which we carry on believing the things we want to believe. “Oh yes there’s the love of God. What’s on the telly tonight?” When it becomes familiar – like the words of mere men, like the daily repeated cliches of the presenter of Bargain Hunt, then the sheer wonder of God’s love vanishes and we have no note of surprise when we sing, “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood?” Of course I have an interest in the Saviour’s death. And that cool acceptance of the costly saving love of the Lord Jesus brings a response of utter rage in the heart of God. You read about killings and tortures of the vulnerable and helpless almost every day in the newspapers. You hear of hardened judges who are too choked by all they’ve had to listen to to be able to finish a sentence and pronounce the sentence. God’s love is not some postscript we repeat like the benediction to send everyone off to their homes again in an ethos of religious complacency . . . “but God is love.”

God is love. Yes, but where does such love fit into the Belsen concentration camp, and the ISIS beheadings, and young men and women walking into a concert and shooting dead scores of young people? There is a tension between the anger of God towards all that is sick and cruel and mean and trashy, and the fact that God is love.

Now that tension is here behind Hosea 11 so that we ask why . . . why hasn’t God wiped out defiant Baal-worshipping Israel? Why this grace? Why is it everywhere, throughout the Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. You find sinners who are not condemned, but are loved and forgiven. The rebels Adam and Eve are clothed with skins and are promised that one of their children’s children will crush the head of the serpent. The maths does not work; the logic does not work. God comes to Abraham who lies about his wife being his sister so that another man takes her as his wife, and later Abraham sleeps with his wife’s servant-maid to have a son, and yet God comes to that man and tells him that the Lord protects him as his sun and shield and exceeding great reward. The believing sinner Abraham is the father of all who believe! Where is the logic of that? How can God say something like that without being an indifferent God, an inconsistent God, a God who shrugs and looks the other way, even a double-tongued God of cosmic malice? The logic is illogical. And you go right through them all, every religious leader is deeply flawed, the murdering Moses, the adulterous David, the polygamous Solomon, the swearing Peter, the doubting Thomas. You have the same problem with every man jack of them. How can God bless men who are serial sinners? It shouldn’t happen.

Satan himself is perplexed with God. He doesn’t know what to do. The one thing Satan’s got is demonic confidence that the whole bunch are sinners. “They are mine now. God is holy and just and cannot help them. They are on my side now. They are as lost as I am. They are defiant rebels.” That is his strategy. That is his approach, and yet he finds that God is loving them! God is receiving them and forgiving them and blessing them. “God must be pulling his hair out,” thinks Satan.

And you know how we feel about this subject of the love of God, how we are concerned about giving the wrong impression and giving an unbalanced approach just in case unworthy and indifferent rebels will believe it without repenting and turning. We want to guard it and safeguard it from misuse. So every time we mention the love of God we feel we need to mention his wrath in the same breath. Yet here in Hosea 11 God steps from verse 7 and its decision to judge them to verse 8 and his self-questioning as to how can he give them up!

What Hosea is teaching us is that the love of God has a logic all of its own. It won’t fit into our categories. It transcends our thinking. It destroys our vocabulary. It has its own rational, and activity. When God was sending the people into Canaan he said to them, “When you go into the land don’t think for a moment that I have given you this land flowing with milk and honey because you are bigger and better than any other nation in the world. That is not the reason.” “Right, Lord, then what is the reason?” “I’ll tell you,” God says; “The reason why I set my love upon you is because I loved you. I chose you because I loved you and that is the reason.” “Yes lord, but why did you love us?” “I cannot tell you that. Maybe you will never never know that. There is nothing more profound, more absolute, or or more logical than my love. There is no more ultimate reason you or I can appeal to for choosing you than my loving you.” It is there in and of itself. The fountainhead out of which flow all the attributes and actions of God is his love. God is love. God’s judgments may and do need a reason, and the reason is our wickedness. God’s compassion needs no reason. He is compassionate because he is compassionate. Through all eternity there was nothing for which God had any cause to show his wrath. In the beginning and for billions of years as we reckon time, God was love, until the angelic rebellion and then the fall of man. But there’d been in all eternity the love of God the Father for the Son and the love of them both for the Spirit and his love for them in return. God simply is love. And there is no reason for it except that it is his very nature, his illimitable love, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free.

I am trying to take your breath away by presenting to you the inexplicableness of God’s glorious love. I am trying to show all of you who sing from your hearts, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so,” that in fact you are ‘Exhibit A’ of the fact that God loves to men, angels and demons. You are an example of a living impossibility. We deserved nothing. We should have got nothing. We should be in the dark. We should be outside. The only thing we should get from God is justice. The only thing we could hope for is a deafening silence. We should be in a dark room, in a little corner, curled up, alone with our guilt. ut where are we today? Justified, forgiven, clothed in the garments of righteousness, adopted, heirs of God, joint heirs with Christ, facing an unfading inheritance, joined to Christ, all things working together for our good, every need richly supplied, nothing separating us from his love. The love of God towards proud creatures like us! It is an impossibility.

2. GOD’S LOVE FOR SINNERS IS AN OUTRAGE.

We live in a culture that is often outraged about God. It gets angry about hell and the judgment of God. “Who is God to tell me what to do?” The idea that God has expectations of us is offensive, and that God will punish for our rejection of him and his laws is outrageous. The idea that he going to hold us accountable to his expectations is scandalous. Hosea, however, wouldn’t have understood such an attitude. He would think that the world is outraged about the wrong attribute of the Almighty. It should be the love of God that is outrageous to men. This is what you meet in Hosea’s story. And so we must turn to the third chapter of the prophecy.

Here again you meet Gomer the wife of Hosea, and the story of their relationship becomes the structure and parable and main theme of his ministry. Think of Joni Eareckson Tada and how what happened to her, the diving accident and the broken back and becoming a paraplegic, became the story of her own powerful ministry for the rest of her life. Hosea and Israel is a living parable of God and his people. Gomer becomes a serial adulteress and finally a prostitute and thus the relationship is over. Hosea has had enough. Divorce. Now there is nothing outrageous there. If you had a son whose wife treated him in that way then most of you’d think that he waited too long to divorce her, and if she were a member of the church then the congregation would back you and all agree – if not demand – that some separation, some statement of disapproval and censure needed to occur. No one would be surprised at that. There is nothing outrageous at the termination by Hosea of such a rotten marriage.

Then (can you believe this?) then in chapter 3 Jehovah comes to Hosea again. He tells the prophet that there is something he wants Hosea to do for him. “Yes Lord, what is it?” “Go and find Gomer.” I don’t know what Hosea said then. We’d have said something like, “Say it again,” or “Pardon? It’s painful for me to talk about her. I’ve just about got over her and that sorry chapter in my life. I am thinking of marrying again and I am fully involved in raising three children by myself.” “Go and find Gomer,” said God. “And love her as the Lord loves Israel.”

So, can you believe it, without a word of exasperation or query or defiance, Hosea goes. He asks around. He hunts here and there, makes inquiries, and finally he finds her. And when he finds this used and abused woman it is clear that she is up for sale. She has been selling her body for a couple of years but now she herself seems to have got into debt, and the man to whom she owes money has demanded that she be sold as a slave to discharge her debt to him. It is something like that but we are not given the details. Gomer was low before, but now she is in the pits. Can she get any lower than this? She stands on a platform barely clothed, before the coarse gaze and ribaldry of a crowd of men, and she is being auctioned. The bidding is slow. The wear and tear of the last years have left their mark on her. She’s no bargain for anybody. She has to be looked after and housed and fed. Hosea stands to one side and watches her and looks at the men ogling her; she is the mother of his children. And suddenly there is heard the voice of a new bidder. “15 shekels!” She hears the shout. She recognizes the voice. It can’t be him, the man she betrayed. Again, “15 shekels and a bag of barley!” Who is going to bid against Hosea the prophet when he is buying his former wife? So Hosea goes across to the auctioneer and pays the price picks up the receipt, and then walks down to the front and he tells Gomer quietly, “Come home.” And he brings her home.

None of his neighbours were outraged when he divorced her, but imagine their reaction when he brought her back home, into their neighbourhood and into their street where their husbands and children will regularly see her! They have to draw water with her from the same well. And how would that fly with church members when the former wife of the pastor, divorced for persistent adultery and prostitution, turned up in church on Sunday and sat with her three children listening to her husband? I would hope that many would weep and go to her and hug her and tell her that it was good to see her back where she belonged. Others would walk out at the end of the service saying to their husbands, “It’s not right. She is under discipline. What do the elders think of this? I am not a happy bunny.” There is nothing outrageous about passing judgment on a sinner, not when we know the full story of what we are and who she is, and what she’s done, but then, welcoming back into the fellowship someone who has fallen like Gomer is a huge pill for some churchgoers to swallow. They gag each time they see her. They are thinking of going to another church.

The outrage is really this, that God approved and God demanded that Hosea treat his ex-wife like that. Take her back! The shock to our moral system is that God should still love. The exaspertion is that God should come looking for a sinner like that, because that is what is happening here. It is not Hosea who goes looking for Gomer, it is God looking for her, and he is not just looking for Gomer, God comes looking for us. That is our message that the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost, the Gomers of this world. You say, “Why should God care about a woman who behaved like that who got what was due to her? What is he doing here? I can understand him in heaven, but here where men crucify other men and stone adulteresses – why does God bother with them? God’s place is in glory, in a temple with angels crying Holy Holy Holy. But what is God doing, a baby sleeping in a manger? What is God doing in the obscurity of a village on a hillside of thorn bushes in Nazareth for thirty years helping his father make doors and ploughs? He made the stars, and what is he doing making mortice tenon joints? What is he doing in the wilderness, what is he doing in the wilderness in the presence of Satan? What is he doing listening to Satan tempting him? What is God doing letting a woman weep over his feet and then allowing her to dry them with her own hair? What is he doing in Galilee, as the friend of sinners? What is God doing kneeling down and washing the feet of his disciples? What is God doing running along a road to catch hold of an erring boy hugging him and welcoming home again as a son? What is God doing letting men drive big nails through his hands and feet and letting a crowd shout and spit at him as he hangs naked before them?

That is the outrage, that he should come looking for us. The outrage is that when he finds us that he should pay the price for us paupers. We should be paying it, and so purgatory is invented, and we should be making a pilgrimage to Rome, and we should be seeking for him. We should be rejected by him. We should be outside. We should be in the dark. We should be in the deafening silence. We should be the ones standing in the naked flame of God’s holiness, not him. We should be consumed by the magnificent rectitude of the righteousness of God, not him. But we are not. Why are we not? Because he was. He interposed his own body. He stood in the sinners’ place. He paid the price we should have paid but could not. He became the scapegoat. He was outside the holy city. He hung in the darkness, not us. He was forsaken by his Father, not us, and when he cried “Why?” heaven was silent. He chose to drink the cup of God’s wrath. He is there made guilt, made sin, every sin and all sin and only sin laid on him by the Lord, He is there with nothing but wrath and no comfort from his Father at all.

That is where the tension gets resolved. The tension we see in chapter 11 of the holiness of God and the love of God does get resolved not by God forgetting or overlooking – that tension that runs through redemptive history holding together God’s mercy and God’s justice. It has been resolved. It was resolved on the cross. The Lamb was made sin and is condemned for the sin he bears that is not his own. But he lovingly stands there and remains there because he loves Gomer and people who behave disgracefully like she did. God’s holiness is satisfied by what the Son has done. It is an outrage that God should bring Gomer back.

So what contribution do we make to the love of God and the benefits that his love brings us? We bring our need of him; we bring our sin and guilt; we bring a plea for mercy and that is all. God has loved; God has redeemed; God will receive all who receive him. He will give them the right to be called the children of God. He will give Gomer the right to come running into his presence and look into his great smiling face and say to him, “Abba, Father!” And that is the outrageous and impossible good news of the gospel that you have heard today. “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood? Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

29th November 2015 GEOFF THOMAS