Alfred Place Baptist Church

Return To The Lord

Hosea 14:1&2 “Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God. Your sins have been your downfall! Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to him: ‘Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.’”

Hosea is being taught by God that sin does not only break God’s law, but it breaks God’s heart, and the consequences of sin have moved God – not only to condemn sin but to set up the whole plan of redemption, to send his Son as the Saviour and his Spirit to apply his Son’s salvation to numerous men and women. Hosea is taught this lesson of God’s love for a disobedient people by a very unusual means. The prophet Hosea is given a unique commission by God that is recorded at the very opening of the book. “It is time for you to get married, but you are to marry one particular woman who is going to be unfaithful to you, who in fact is going to be a serial adulteress, and so you will discover for yourself what it means for love to be rejected. Your marriage and the heart ache will be brought right into your own experience, when you see the mother of your children drifting further and further away from your home until finally ending up as a common prostitute and sold in a slave mart for debts that she’s accumulated that she can’t pay.” And Hosea did exactly what God required; he walked that road into loneliness and rejection and heart-ache. In his own family he experienced the alienation of his own wife, and he came to discover the reason for her long absences and her late nights, what everyone else knew already, but what his love for her at first refused to believe.

God explains it to him; “I have determined that you should experience all this that you may feel in the depths of your heart the pain of betrayed love and unfaithfulness, so that you may get a glimpse of what I have experienced in Israel’s departure from me in her worshipping other gods.” There is no preacher who’s entered into the hearts of his hearers the way Hosea was drawn like this into the heart of God.

Then the Lord further says to him, “Now I’m going to tell you what we are going to do about your wife’s unfaithfulness and what you’re going to do about Gomer. You’re to go down to the slave mart where you’ll find she’s up for sale, and you bid for her, and purchase her, and love her again.” He was not to bring her back and redeem her from such a self-destructive way of life in order to place her in the servants’ quarters of his home. He was to take her back as his wife. Hosea might well cry in anguish to God, “But I’ve already done once all you told me to do. I married an unfaithful wife. You made the grief of this marriage spectacularly clear. It has been a disaster for her, and for me, and for the three children. . . Isn’t enough enough?” But God is relentless, and God says to Hosea, “Go and love her again. You are my servant. Learn of me, learn of how I’ve loved my faithless people Israel.” And God’s persistent love, in the teeth of all that you would expect to kill love and make it shrivel and die is the great example to the prophet and also to every Christian of what can happen when the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts. Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (I Cor. 13:7&8).

So Hosea learns that he is in for the long haul as the spokesman of God to a defiant and recalcitrant people of God, and that he learns that he is not to become bitter and harsh and preach to them incessant messages on judgment and the law of God. He is to hang in with them and preach the whole counsel of God, and discover that whatever God requires of him God is able to perform in him, to make Hosea the loving pastor-preacher he must be. If God wants him to take back Gomer and go on loving her then Hosea can do it! God’s grace is sufficient for this thorn in the flesh, Hosea also can go on loving his bored and hostile congregation. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not easily angered. Love keeps no record of wrongs. God is like that, and feeling the love of God will energize the true preacher-pastor to love an indifferent people. Marrying Gomer was teaching Hosea the way he had to see Israel’s backsliding.

Then there is another thing that this prophecy teaches us. Israel were set on a course of drifting away from God; they were in spiritual decline, and what we learn here is to see the impact of this but not on those of us who are the spectators of such behaviour in fellow professors who’ve fallen away, but the impact our backsliding has on God! No, what is it doing in the heart of God when I’m spiritually drifting away? That’s what Hosea is learning, and the grief and sorrow he himself experienced in these years is a reflection of what happens in the heart of God at the defiant behaviour of his people. You think of the Lord Jesus responding to the sin of the covenant people of Jerusalem. He took little comfort in the absolute sovereignty of God to harden sinners and give them up – though God does that. Jesus wept over the inhabitants of the city. He tells them that he would long to protect them from themselves and the destruction that lay before them. He would spread his wings over them and they’d be safe, but they rejected his invitations, and their hearts were not broken at the sight of his tears. The backsliding of the people of God made God the Son weep. Paul said, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart . . . for the sake of my brothers” (Roms. 9:1&2). Had Hosea ever wept for Israel? Have I ever wept for Aberystwyth?

How then is the backslider to respond? What now is Gomer to do – living under the same roof and sharing again the bed of her husband Hosea? What does God require of her? Let us turn to the verses of our text, in the last chapter of Hosea, chapter 14, and see these words as they can be directed at Gomer, and also the backsliding people of God, and to ourselves. God through Hosea says, “Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God. Your sins have been your downfall! Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to him: ‘Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.’” So the first word of exhortation is “Return” and then you see it is repeated a little later, “Take words with you and return to the Lord.” Here is compressed the whole story of God dealing with Hosea and Gomer. Hosea has bought her and so she belongs to him legally and geographically. She is under his roof, but her husband’s concern is that she also returned spiritually to God and how this could be accomplished. But this is not simply the story of one man and his troubled marriage, it is the story of the people of God who go away from him, off to pagan altars on the hills, where sacrifices were made to Baal. So to Gomer his cry is, “Return! Return to Jehovah your God. Come away from your love affairs with other gods.” Come let us to the Lord our God with contrite hearts return!

This in fact was the message of all the prophets. It was the message of John the Baptist. It was the message of the Lord Jesus Christ when he began to preach to the people. Repent! Turn! Return! So the history of Hosea’s marriage and message helps bring our emotions to the truth, and it is not simply focused on Gomer, or on Israel, but it is a message for everyone of us today. This is the message of all the Scriptures, that men know God and are clamping down on that truth, Our first parents walked and talked with God and were blessed by God each day. Then mankind through our father Adam and through our own sins, left God and listened to another voice and did what that voice told them. They replaced the living Creator for a talking serpent, and that is the story of everyone of us – my story and your story. But the Bible tells us that God hasn’t given up on us. God determines that things will change, that all is not lost, that we can be redeemed. There is hope if we return to God in the way God spells out in Scripture. God comes looking for our fallen parents and he tells them of the seed of the woman who one day would be born and would crush the head of the serpent, triumphing over our enemies.

However, it is not enough to know these facts, to hear about the redeeming love of God. That is insufficient. The devils know of the redeeming love of God but they are strangers to its power in their lives. Judas heard Jesus say, “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” The words themselves did him no good. It is not enough to know those words. They are inviting us to do something, to come to him. God says to Gomer and to Israel and to us, “Return to the Lord!” You have to turn right around, 180 degrees. You have been going in the wrong direction. You have to change. Get off the broad road. It is leading to destruction. You are going to be destroyed. Get onto the narrow path of holy obedience to God, the path of God-centredness and divine priority in your every attitude. That way leads to life. That alone! Return! So how do we explain that?

1.THERE IS A WRONG WAY TO RETURN TO GOD.

The prophet describes the wrong way in chapter 6. Those opening words are very familiar: “Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. Let us acknowledge the LORD; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.” You ask what is wrong with this? It is a classic case of a superficial and temporary change of heart. Such resolutions of changing take place all the time. There is a well known proverb that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. We are only too familiar with the ‘morning after’ regret syndrome, when the passion and the drunkenness and the fights and arguments of the night before are just bad memories, and there is only some regret for the follies of the previous hours. We decide we must change! What is the NIV heading of this chapter? “Israel Unrepentant.” One of the great Scottish paraphrases that we sing in our Grace Hymns is based on this passage: “Come let us to the Lord our God with contrite hearts return; Our God is gracious nor will leave the desolate to mourn.” But in the passage Israel is actually saying, “God, you’ve gone away, but we want you to come back. We realize how desolate we are without the living God here. Now that you are not with us we can see that we need to have you back again. So we’ll go to God.” You can almost get the lilt of their words. It is like the music Handel wrote to the words, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” There is a jig about it. There is nothing serious or grievous. So it is here; “God has torn us to pieces, but he will heal us. He has injured us, but he will bind up our wounds. Just two days and he will revive us; three days and we will be restored and we will live again in his presence. So let’s acknowledge him. He will come to us like the winter rains, or if they are but a light rain then there are always the spring rains. One way or another we will be irrigated and washed.

Then God responds, and he says something that shows us that the people are speaking of false and superficial repentance. He says, “What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears” (Hosea 6:6). Do you know what the morning mist is like? If you’ve had a camping holiday in the mountains and you’ve got out of your caravan or a tent at 7 then the grass can be very wet, but on a cloudless sunny day it is not long before the sunshine makes all that dew evaporate and the grass is hanging down listless and the sheen is gone on the leaves. That is what superficial repentance is like. Vain regrets last an hour or two and they disappear when the next night out is celebrated. Here we have a cheap sort of repentance. You once heard it sung . . .“A little talk with Jesus makes it right, all right.” Maybe there’s a place somewhere or other for that little talk, but there are many occasions when more is required that a little talk with him. When Peter denied Jesus three times with oaths then more than a little talk was needed for reconciliation. Peter needed to be brought to a broken and a contrite heart. That is what God does not despise. I was talking to a man this past year and he suddenly told me that he had committed adultery with someone the previous day. “Excuse me,” he said to me, and he closed his eyes and put his hands together and said, “I am sorry I committed that sin yesterday.” Then opening his eyes he said to me, “Now it’s all right”. That was a confession in word but not in reality. There was not even a sense of shame. Here in these words of Hosea there is a sense of loss, but there’s not a sense of sin; no confession of grieving God. There is a sense of hurt, but not a sense of guilt. It is very different from David’s repentance in Psalm 51: “Against thee, thee only have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight.” There is nothing in Israel’s words in Hosea 6 about the desolating reality that sin breaks the Lord’s heart!

Here was unrepentant Israel saying the right things, but dealing with God on the basis of mechanical mercy rather that from a broken heart, as though it is simply God’s job to forgive. You know how evangelicals can bring pressure to bear on people to get them to make a decision and to experience assurance? They interrogate their quarry: “What does God say he will do to those who confess their sins?” That he will forgive them. “So you have repeated the words of confession, haven’t you, and now you must believe that your sins are . . . forgiven sins.” So the evangelist thinks he can do a work that the Holy Spirit alone can do, and so he seeks to give assurance to a person who has some slight interest in religion that if he repeats some words about being sorry means that an act of true gospel repentance has occurred. True confession in fact is coming into agreement with God about my sin, and judging my own sin with the same Judgment Day honesty that God shows towards my sin. Think of the publican in the temple, his head bowed, his hand beating his chest and crying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’ But these people of Hosea six have faced their woundedness but they have not faced their waywardness. They knew their life had difficulties but not guilt. They were taking God for granted. And it is significant that in the famous paraphrase that we often sing that repentance has been introduced – which is not in the original. “Come let us to the Lord our God with contrite hearts return,” and that is why we love and sing that hymn. So there is a wrong way to return to God, but . . .

2. THERE IS A RIGHT WAY TO RETURN TO GOD.

And the right way is in the opening words of chapter 14; “Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God. Your sins have been your downfall! Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to him: ‘Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.’” This is how Gomer must pray. This is how Israel must pray, and this is how every returning sinner must pray, for example, the Prodigal Son, taking words and saying to his Dad, “Father I have sinned before heaven and in thy sight and am not worthy to be called thy son.” There is a deliberate contrast between chapter 6 and its superficial repentance, and these words of chapter 14. In other words when the grace of God starts to touch your life and you start to have real dealings with him, then there is something deeper than . . . “He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence” and then we can get on with other things as if nothing has happened. So what are ‘real dealings’ with God? There are four exhortations in this passage.

i] Take words with you (Hosea 14:2). It’s not enough to take feelings with you. The prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel took feelings with them, and they took energy and tons of faith in their god, and none of that was good enough. We don’t take goose pimples and electric currents running up and down our spines. We don’t take the hairs on the back of our heads standing on end. We don’t take gossalalia with us. We take intelligible words that have meaning, and we speak to God with our words about our lives, about what we have done and failed to do and we talk things over in the presence of God with the Lord. You know when a wife catches her husband cheating and he tries to hug her and tell her he doesn’t want to hear anything more about it and let them forget it all, then she says to him, “We’ve got to talk.” When things are wrong between ourselves and God then it is not simply a breach of law that has occurred so that we pay the fine and move on. There has been a breach of trust; love has come under fire. There is a broken relationship in Hosea’s home. It needs to be mended and words have to be used. There is a family full of tension and the reason for it has to be faced big time. There is a spouse who has been betrayed, who needs to be reconciled. Take words! Speak humbly and softly with a broken heart those words! You have to open up; you have to reveal what is in your heart. So Hosea is saying that if you want to come to God in the right way then it is with words and you tell God where you’re at. Confess to God and ask for help. Then we are given a script by God. He tells us what we are to say. He doesn’t leave it to our imagination. Here is something we can run with. What is the script?

ii] Seek forgiveness for all your sins. (v.2). You come to God and you confess your sins, all of them. We believe in confessing our sins to God our Creator and our Judge. Jesus, when he taught his disciples to pray, told them not to forget to ask, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.” So here is the word ‘sins’ in the plural and ‘trespasses’ in the plural, not just the one big overwhelming sin with all its notoriety that keeps us awake, that put us in the paper, but every kind of sin, of deed and word and thought and omission. And you must give the same names to sins that God gives to them, not some euphemisms. And you consider the motives that caused you to act like that and the consequences for yourself and others. That is what you must do. Go down the list! Go through the ten commandments. Tell God you are guilty. Ask for his forgiveness. Is it any wonder that God seems a distant God to us if we have never find closure with God and speak to him about ourselves and our lives in that way? A relationship that is never honest or frank is not a strong relationship. So you make a list and confess your sins to God.

There is a book published by Evangelical Press by John Caldwell and its title is Christ, the Cross and the Concrete Jungle. He tells us that at 18 years of age he was immersed in the drug and drink culture without hope and then a sudden desire arose in his heart to read the Bible. They were a nominal Catholic home and John searched for the Scriptures but in the drawer where there were religious things he found a holy wafer, confirmation candles, crucifixes, a prayer book but no Bible. Then a few days later his sister came home from school saying that the Gideons had been to school and they had given her a Bible. John was very excited but hid it, asking her if could see the Bible, in a very dismissive way. When she was out of the room he eagerly opened it and read the introduction and then increasingly marveled at God being able to see his need and provide him with the Scriptures. Then he tells us the following; “One day I came to the point where I knew what I had to do, I needed to ask Jesus into my life. I immediately fell on my knees and began to cry out to God. I poured out my heart in a confession of sin telling God how sorry I was for the mess I had made of my life. Later on that day I headed out for a walk. All of a sudden I began to feel something. While I struggled to describe it at the time a feeling of love, joy, peace, began to wash over my entire being. Fear, guilt and shame evaporated and love filled their place. The whole world seemed to have been transformed. Every part of creation seemed to radiate with life and light. I became deeply aware of Jesus.” What was the door to this encounter with Christ? It was his confession of his sin, telling God how sorry he was for the mess he’d made of his life.

iii] Appeal to the grace of God. “Receive us graciously” (v.2). In other words, “Don’t treat us as we deserve, but in grace and pity.” That has to be Gomer’s prayer, and the prayer of every one of us too. We don’t appeal to former times of religious zeal and warmth. Those are not solid bases for coming to the God who knows everything about us. The only way you can return to God is to cast yourself on the divine pity. “I am returning to you . . . please receive me mercifully. I don’t deserve this but I come in Jesus’ name, through all he is and everything he has done. That is my only hope.” That is the basis on which we stand. You can’t be a Christian without saying ‘I am what I am and I will be what I will be all by the grace of God,’ and meaning every word I say, speaking from the depths of my heart. You know such an appeal to the grace of God is powerful because God is gracious. That appeal to God is irresistible. “Save me by giving glory to Jesus,” and the Father loves to do that.

iv] Bring to God the fruit of your lips. (v.2). Do you see what is being said? Gomer didn’t talk to her men about Hosea her husband when she was kissing lovers and strangers. She gave them the fruit of her lips, but she did not do that after she returned to God. It is to God that she brings the fruit of her lips. She speaks warmly and lovingly of her Lord and Saviour. It is interesting that in the letter to the Hebrews chapter 13, this very phrase is quoted. “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name” (Hebs. 13:15). Continually the Christian speaks of Jesus Christ; he is our table talk, our pillow talk, as we go out and as we enter in, we’re saying to one another in effect how beautiful and glorious is Jesus Christ. We have a great high priest!

“The dearest idol I have known whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from the throne and worship only Thee” (William Cowper)

3. GOD’S RESPONSE TO RETURNING SINNERS.

Finally we find the response of God to Gomer the unfaithful wife who has returned to her husband and turned in repentance to God. What is her future? What would be her future in the eyes of the world? All the technicolour of life would be gone – that’s how the world would see it. It would surely be a monochrome grey life of moralism, religion and saying no to fun. That is the propaganda of Satan. The reality is here in chapter 14 and it is the very opposite. It is solid joy and lasting treasures. A dry and barren life becomes fertile – “I will be like the dew in Israel” (v.5). A colourless life becomes one fragrant with flowers – “He will blossom like a lily” (v.4). A repentant life becomes a strong and stable life with a future – “like a cedar of Lebanon he will send down his roots; his young shoots will grow” (v.5). Here is God responding to the weakest evidences of gospel repentance, nourishing and cherishing such a life. Lives become fruitful and are blossoming. People find shade under these spreading branches. There is a fragrance about this relationship that fills the community.

Of course this is a picture of every true gospel church with Christ in its midst, and the fruit of the spirit of Christ abounding everywhere. And it all starts when you turn from your idols and return to the Lord. It doesn’t start when we get a better pastor, or better officers, or grow in membership or get a rock solid constitution. It starts, this beautiful, fruitful, strong and fragrant life, when people turn and appropriate God himself. You need to put down more roots into God and for your branches to spread out. It is not new resolution; it is not better performance by you; it is rather your abiding in Christ and he abiding in you because without him you can do nothing. We don’t need more stuff; we don’t need better stuff. We need to know God deeper and stronger.

As Hosea 6 says after the superficial repentance, rather, “Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge the Lord” (Hosea 6:3). Knowing the Lord isn’t the beginning of Christianity. It is the beginning and the end. It is not just the alpha of Christianity, it is the alpha and the omega. It is not the baby steps of Christianity, knowing the Lord is the baby steps and the giant steps of the faith. He is first, yes, but he is last too. He is Lord of our history, of all Gomer’s history, one Lord was giving her life and breath. Let her take refuge now in the Lord who did not compress her wretched life into a ball of waste and throw her into his cosmic incinerator. He let her be humbled; he showed her the destructive unhappiness and barrenness of sin and then he brought her back from her waywardness. Let her live from now on for him.

What God says stands. There is nothing in God that needs to be improved. There is nothing that can go wrong that God decrees that needs to be adjusted. He is constant, the only constant, the great I AM. And everything about him that was true in Hosea’s day is still true. And everything that was true about him in the days of Jesus is still true. He that loved Gomer loves returning sinners today. He that loved Mary Magdalene loves you too, or you would not be here reading this. That is the greatest unchangeable reality of he who is the same yesterday, and today and for ever. So draw from his omnipotence; put your roots into his Almightiness and of his fullness receive and grace for grace, every day, more grace. Grace to kill remaining sin; grace to shrink bad memories; grace to live a new life – not a perfect life, but a better life. He is all sufficient for you. That is the wonderfully encouraging message of Hosea.

3rd January 2016 GEOFF THOMAS