I was encouraged to preach four messages on Hosea after hearing Ian Parry of the Bay Church in Cardiff preaching three conference addresses at the Evangelical Movement of Wales Ministers’ Conference in Bala in the summer of 2014. I have obtained permission from him to use his material especially in the first two messages and hope it will be as much a blessing to you as it has been to me.
Hosea 1:2&3 “ When the LORD began to speak through Hosea, the LORD said to him, ‘Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD.’ So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.”
Hosea lived in hard times for true religion. He was nick-named the ‘death-bed prophet.’ He read the nation’s last rites. Assyria had declared war on this obstinate rebellious people. Israel was contemptuous of Assyria, but Israel was also contemptuous of the Lord. It had no respect for God or man, and so to chasten his people God finally permitted the Assyrian army to march on them, heading for their capital in Samaria. And we know what happened subsequently, that this northern kingdom was utterly destroyed, de-covenanted, taken into captivity in that kingdom of darkness. Those ten tribes were annihilated. “The lost tribes,” we call them. They disappeared from the planet, absorbed into the Assyrian empire never to return to their northern kingdom again. Israel had sowed injustice and inequality and paganism and blasphemy and so they reaped condemnation and the loss of God.
But the message of Hosea was still a beseeching word; “Let us press on to know the Lord.” The biggest battle we ever face is to keep this at the centre. Everything in your life . . . everything in your service of God . . . things in the professing church . . . everything in our culture will conspire to bury that. There will be no end of other things . . . decent things . . . important things, which will come in and push this out, or marginalize it. They will all be good things, but they will not be the one thing that is essential, and here we are confronted with the message of Hosea and the one thing that we must do, and so we are going to listen to him for a few messages.
Hosea catches most people by surprise, the people who refuse to recognize God, who say that he is distant and unknowable, people who have the vaguest relationship with God, who are clamping down on the truth about him which is visible in creation and speaks to them in their consciences. But Hosea confronts them and the first thing he has to say to us is that we have a broken relationship with God. That is what Hosea brings to these people. He could have pointed to many aberrations, false worship, muddled thinking, religious syncretism seen in their worshiping Jehovah as well as worshiping the Baals. He could have raised critique after critique just as we can in our day. But Hosea majors in this one critique; he says that their relationship with the Lord is broken and so lots of other problems come into their lives. That is what is wrong with Israel, not their circumstances, not the Assyrian threat, and not their domestic relationships.
Now I am saying that this is precisely where Wales is today. That is what explains us and our lives. We are estranged from the God who made us, the Creator who daily blesses us, the God whom we don’t acknowledge. The world as we see it is rubble; it is like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. We are looking at the consequences of what once happened, a great rebellion against our Maker took place, and today we are eking out some existence in a groaning universe. Men are rebels and so they take rifles and they shoot and murder 125 largely young Parisians whom they have never, never seen before that day. But men are also made in God’s image and so they will bravely lie down to cover their girl-friends to take the bullets and lay down their own lives to spare those whom they love. Greater love has no man than this that a man will lay down his life for his friends. Man made by God and for God is nevertheless alienated from God. Hosea says that that is fundamental to our understanding of why what happened last week in Paris did occur in all its cruel horror. The bottom line is that man’s relationship with God is broken.
The challenge that comes to me is how can I say that so that all of you are convinced that it is so? How can Hosea help us? He teaches us this . . .
i] Man’s broken relationship with God is told sinner to sinner. When Hosea spoke about sin and a broken relationship with Jehovah he wasn’t dealing with a dogma or ideas or theories. When Hosea was considering Israel’s sin then it was a painful reality. At the heart of this prophecy that he wrote is his actual marriage to a woman called Gomer. He got married to this woman who in the future was going to be hopelessly unfaithful to him, and sleep around, as they say. So his painful and broken marriage was a living parable. It was God who commanded him to take this woman and warned him of the pain that lay before him but God linked it immediately to the fact that he was the spokesman to this people and they were a guilty and spiritually adulterous nation, in that they had departed from the Lord and fallen in love with other lords and lusted after other gods. Then God said to him, “Hosea I’ve got good news for you, I have a wife for you,” and that was a great message for a young prophet. Romance in the manse! Great! “Who is it Lord?” “Her name is Gomer. She’s the girl for you.” “Great!” “But there is one thing else you need to know. She is going to break your heart as Israel has broken mine.” “What do you mean, Lord?” “She is not going to be faithful to you. When she gets pregnant you’re not going to be sure that you are the father. Now go ahead and marry her.” And Hosea does. It’s amazing how brief conversations can have lifelong repercussions in our lives. In the Bible the conversation between Eve and the serpent, or the conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus, or the conversation between the rich young ruler and our Lord – none of them lasted longer than five minutes, yet what far-reaching consequences for all of them.
The first child born to them, Jezreel, was fathered by Hosea, but it is perplexing to know whether the prophet was the father of the second child, Loruhamah, or of the third child, Loammi. As the story progresses it became clearer that Gomer is a serial adulteress, she descends into prostitution and the marriage ends in divorce. All the tension of a marriage on the rocks is passed over – the arguments, the expostulations, the agony of wondering where she was that night, the waiting up until dawn for her to come home. My point is that Hosea knew what sin was not so much by a word-study and a catechism answer as essential as such things are. He knew the pain of sin and its process and its killing work in a relationship, and its shame and the tears it causes. All I am trying to point out is that Hosea teaches us to bring our own brokenness to our testimony to the world. We’ve all had falls; we’ve been crushed by the strength of a temptation, and we know the consequences for ourselves, and it’s crucial that we bring this to bear on our sharing the gospel with others. There is a fine missionary I know. I remember him when he was a student. His mother was an alcoholic. He told me that fact with much hesitation and shame. Now he has to bring that experience of broken promises and grief into his preaching and counseling, which he does, and that has made him a finer and more helpful preacher-pastor. We speak sinner to sinner. We speak with words that don’t begin at our mouth and lips or even that come up from our larynx, but with words that come from our heart and affections and memory. We can’t forget the grace that lifted us up and delivered us and sustained us.
Now, of course there is a problem for us here. People don’t come to church because they think it is for the righteous and for the self-righteous. Good people go to church and people who think they are good go there. If that is the culture we are in then we have a problem. The world thinks that we think that we are better than they are, we are different from them that they are not the right sort of person to come and would stick out like a sore thumb. That is one problem.
Another problem coming in part from this is that we don’t help ourselves by our stance. In my preaching I am interested in the text, and in its context, but there is also the sub-text, and that is what is in my own heart, and affections, and attitudes, and it will always creep out! I won’t be always talking about it but if there is overmuch self-righteousness in my heart inevitably it is going to show. It is going to come across and the congregation is going to get a feel for it. There’s always a sub-text. If I am thinking that I’m OK and you are not and you need to become like me then it’s going to come out in the way that I speak and talk. Truth will out. That is behind M’Cheyne’s comment that a holy minister is a fearful weapon in the hands of God, and he could have added that a self-righteous preacher is a useless weapon in God’s hands. I am saying that things that I feel deep down are going to colour everything and shape everything. So preaching sinner to sinner is not as easy as you might think it is. There is a context there and the only way you can do it is when you feel it in your own heart, not just as a feeling but as a reality.
When we are sensitive to the world around us then we feel that many people are aware of their brokenness. They don’t understand it, and what they do not want is condemnation from the self-righteous. They need light from fellow sinners who know where they are coming from and have been where they are coming from, and that spirit needs to my sub-text. Remember the woman of Samaria who said, “Come and see the man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” That’s the sort of sub-text I need, “Come and see.” Come and find it for yourself, and so as we think about this first point if we are going to preach to a broken world, sinner to sinner, then maybe we ought to give ourselves a good dose of Romans 1, 2 and 3. You know how it starts with the terrible behaviour of the Gentiles. Look at them! See what they’re up to! Look at their dastardly behaviour. Wretched lives, and then he turns to the Jews and he says to them that they are no better. With their education, and their clean lives, and their moral values – they are in just as bad a state as anyone else in the world. Hypocrisy, pride, self-righteousness, smugness, contempt for all those who are not Jews – it is just another way of being lost. And then he comes to the great climax of chapter three that we are all sinners. The standard by which we are going to be judged is the glory of God and we have all come short of it. Whether you’ve got the Romans 1 sort of sins, or the Romans 2 sort of sins it really doesn’t make any difference. You’ve simply in one or other cabin on the Titanic. So our message is told sinner to sinner.
ii] Man’s broken relationship with God is explained close and personal. Now for Hosea there is no doubt that sin is the breaking of God’s law. There are great tracts of this prophecy where Hosea becomes the prosecuting counsel and he’s bringing charges to bear on the people of God for breaking the ten commandments. He is bringing the curses of the broken covenant upon them. There is plenty of that legal stuff here, but that is not what you bring away with when you read and re-read Hosea. He doesn’t portray to Israel their conduct in terms of the breaking of God’s law but in terms of the betrayal of God’s love. It is not so much an emphasis on the rule book broken (and so you need to pay the fine, do your time and move on). It is that, yes, but it is more. In the way that he talks about sin all through this book Hosea is saying, “Oh Israel, you’ve not simply forgotten God, you’ve replaced him.” He speaks about their idolatry, their falling down before idols and worshipping them, and he says in the fourth chapter, “A spirit of prostitution is leading them astray.” They were being unfaithful to their loving, merciful God. There didn’t seem to be a hill left in Israel which didn’t have a shrine and an altar to Baal on it and under its trees, both oak and poplar, were groves dedicated to Baal. They had forgotten God and replaced him with idols of wood and stone. But these weren’t simply straight-forward idols, there were also the subtle forms of idolatry.
In chapter 5 Hosea casts his eye on surrounding nations, and alliances, and the seduction of power sharing. He says, “When Ephraim (that is Israel) saw his sickness, then Ephraim” . . . turned to the Lord? No. Then Ephraim turned to Assyria, sending its ambassadors to the Emperor for help. The idol of political power had got them. That is the kind of idolatry everywhere in Wales today, wealth and power and self and all the worship that centres on that. I was at a funeral this year and in the tribute given to the woman who had died we were told that there were two things that were her life (besides her family whom she loved deeply) and the two things important to her were the TV Soaps which she didn’t miss, and shopping, which she delighted in. In Chapter 12 and verse 8 we hear the people of Israel saying, “I am very rich; I have become wealthy, with all my wealth. They will not find in me any iniquity or sin.” That kind of idolatry had made them confident that all was well between them and their god, because they had committed no crime and they had not stood in any court of law they thought they were sinless.
Augustine described sin as disordered love; Calvin talked about the heart as an idol factory, and Luther said that whatever our hearts cling to and we rely upon that is our god. We seem to be made to be dazzled, always, “Did you see it . . have you been there . . . did you hear it . . . have you eaten there . . . have you heard the latest . . . do you know where I got this outfit?” There is a need in a fallen world to be dazzled by something; it is unavoidable, and this desire and reflex we have to fix onto something and enthuse on something, we take it and we elevate it, and we design ourselves by it. It grips us. Why does money have such a hold on us? Because it is not just money it is pleasure . . . it is hope . . . it is security . . . it is identity . . . it is salvation. It’s pretty scary.
And we take that on board and examine ourselves and our desire for church growth and our own congregation to grow, and why? Is it for God’s glory, or is it for personal vindication, and our being honoured? We think in our heart of hearts that unless we have ministerial success then we’re a nobody. So then that’s the soil in which grows resentment, and self-pity, and anger, and depression. How inward and spiritual and personal it all is. In chapter 11 the climax of the prophecy is the disappointment of God with his people. That’s a challenge isn’t it? Is God disappointed with me? Was the Lord Jesus disappointed with Peter? Was he disappointed with the luke-warmness of the Laodicean congregation? Hosea starts by speaking to this agricultural community in terms of the disappointments of farming, for example, when the grapes are not sweet; when they are bitter like sour gooseberries, or a cow might be stubborn, refusing to be domesticated and be quiet at milking and refusing to move from one pasture to the next. You farmers know from your work what disappointment is. But then Hosea moves more intimately in expressing God’s sorrow with Israel speaking as Israel’s father and Israel is his child. “I loved him . . . when he was in Egypt in slavery I loved him then and determined to redeem him, out of Egypt I summoned my son. But the more I entreated them, the further away from me they moved. He says, “My people are determined to move from me” (v.7), and that is one of the great pictures God uses, God as a Father of his people – quite unusual in the Old Testament. His love has been snubbed and ignored; he has been abandoned like the prodigal son left his father and his home. That is up close and personal not just something noted on page 41 in a rule book. Are you a sinner? How much of a sinner? Have you seen yourself a mini-prodigal son? You . . . you are the younger son in Jesus’ parable in Luke 15 . . . you are the heart breaker . . . God so good and you so indifferent to his goodness.
Then Hosea has a bigger way to say it right here in the opening chapter in the account of his painful marriage. Sin is also the betrayal of a husband by his wife. So we are back to Gomer. See what Gomer did. She didn’t just forget her husband when she went off for a few days to the Mediterranean coast. She disdained his love, make light of it, and took different lovers with her. She turned to prostitution. She became totally permissive and promiscuous. And what Hosea is saying through his preaching and what God is saying to Israel through this prophet is that that is what your sin is like. You haven’t got to the bottom of it until you have moved on from the rule book that is being torn up to understand a precious unique relationship that is being destroyed. You are a son who has broken the heart of your father. You are a wife who has betrayed your husband. You haven’t understood what sin is until you have seen this. That is what Hosea is saying as he takes the law of God and personalizes it and internalizes it and applies it to the affections of his hearers so that he can reach their consciences in a way that a bare knowledge of the ten commandments has not done so far.
How powerful is a man’s idol or a woman’s idol. What foolish and evil things a woman will do because of someone she idolizes. She will leave her husband and leave her children utterly infatuated with the one she has fallen for and idolizes. That is what Israel has done towards Jehovah. Hosea calls it adultery all the time. “Your adultery is idolatry.” Of course they are parallel; they are both covenantal relationships, with your husband and with your God, but surely there is more. Isn’t he saying that the desire we have to worship something is as powerful as the way we are drawn to be with someone we get infatuated with. The desire for worship is as inevitable as your desire for companionship and friendship, that you as a human being will always be in the arms of something, of the Soaps, of the shops, of sport, of the pub. You will always be reaching out to hold onto something, to be with something. Your heart is a magnet always being drawn one way or the other. There is a reflex, a drawing of my affections every moment for something I love and want. You’d better know what that is today, this year, at this stage of your life.
So sin is something up close and constant and it is seeking for something or other to worship. My heart is restless and it is seeking something to give it wonderful rest. My heart is bored and it is seeking something that will stimulate and excite it. I am saying that every unbeliever, every non-Christian, is aware of their brokenness. They are saying to themselves, “Is this what life is all about? Just this?” and they don’t understand themselves. But they have an incredible defense mechanism to justify themselves. Everyone hurt in a criminal action, in a terrorist attack, is described by the family and friends in the most saintly terms – “He would do anything to help anyone.” What need do such persons have to become religious? To be saved? There exists in the natural heart an incredible ability to justify oneself. “At least I am not like that guy. I always do my best and God can ask nothing more from me than that I do my best. And who’s to say what is right and what is wrong?” Relativism is everywhere. You don’t have to do any philosophy. The Christian men and women working tomorrow across the town in the biggest of the three November fairs at the book trailer will inevitably get locked into the most sophisticated justifications for people’s unbelief. They are so crafty in wriggling out of an absolute standard given by a holy God that tries men and searches men and condemns men. It is a talent every natural man possesses.
Hosea is saying that our sin is betrayal. It is a betrayal of all that a loving God gives to every one of his creatures. In his immeasurable kindness he gives us every good and precious gift, and we take them all and we ignore him and make a god of something else. Can you imagine your son marrying a girl and working hard to make a home, building their house, working long hours, even starting a business and doing an 18 hour day motivated by love for his wife and three children. The business grew and you were thinking of how he could hand it on as a thriving concern to your grandsons, and you baby-sat and you gave them money, while all the time, unknown to you, she was going off when he was away and sleeping with this man and with that man. What would you feel about such a betrayal? What damage did it to do your son and your grandchildren – this betrayed love.
That’s us! That is what Hosea is saying. That is the issue. God has not simply provided health and strength and prosperity and peace for us. God has loved us personally. That’s the point. He is not simply a benevolent and kindly financial adviser or banker who has set it up for us. He is the father who has nurtured us. He is the husband who has wooed us and won us and boasted to his customers that he was the luckiest man in the world. He sent us little loving messages, tweats and phone calls and Emails in the morning and in the afternoon when he was away. He says often, “I love you more than I loved you yesterday but not as much as I’ll love you tomorrow.” God is like that husband, and he is not looking for your money, or your work, or what you can do for him. He is looking for you yourself. That’s what he’s after.
In Isaiah 62 and verse 5 you get that amazing statement where he doesn’t merely say that God is our husband but that God is our bridegroom. Now the wedding day is a far more intense moment with your wife than when you have been married to her seven years. There is far more hype and anticipation on that day when your bride comes into the church on the arm of her father to become your lawful wedded wife. The groom is electrified. There is the thrill and the joy; there are the family and best friends, and the cameras are flashing and the videos are recording that moment. God says to his people, “That’s how I feel about you. I rejoice like a bridegroom rejoices over his new bride.” Now that is what we have sinned against.
I want you to see that. I want you to be confronted with the reality of God. God is light and there is no darkness in him at all, and God is love and there is no meanness or short temper or irritability in him at all. You had inscribed on the cake that Iola and I cut last Sunday on our 50th anniversary in the pastorate here these four words about God, “Great is Thy faithfulness.” His faithfulness to us is great because he is love through and through and through, and because he is also light through and through and through he cannot deny himself. His light breaks our will, but his love breaks our hearts.
iii] Man’s broken relationship with God was the best news that Israel could ever hear. How did Israel explain what was wrong? They looked to the series of rotten kings they’d had, and to the fact that they were so small and couldn’t be expected to stand up against Assyria and Babylon and Egypt, so that when those armies came rolling in they were dead in the water. So it is today; the world looks at teenagers, and students, and criminals and it tells us what is wrong, and why men treat men as they do. They can give sociological reasons for human cruelty, that it is poverty, or the failure of their homes or their schools or their bad companions or the radicalization they got in the mosque or in prison. And man is in the state he’s in because of institutional or relational reasons. So you’ve got to sort out the world around you. But that is not good news either, because it means that for ever I am going to be reforming and reorganizing and educating and legislating, for ever. I am going to tax and tax the nation in order to deal with institutions at all sorts of levels. Or I am going to be for ever on the road to look for a new context where society will be my kind of society. So there is no freedom in that, because you are a captive to your culture.
Or the world will say that there are strictly psychological reasons for the collapse. It is the legacy of the survival of the fittest, and that man has always been like this, It is the relic of the beast in us all, and there are only human contributions for any possibility of improvement. And there is some truth in both of those diagnoses, the sociological and the psychological, but the world is offering those analyses as the solution.
You think about that. Is that good news? That is bad news because the psychological takes me back and back, and I have to descend into the labyrinth of my own dysfunction. It directs me back into myself and my history and my bad choices and the bad influences that I came under. Why did I go wrong? Why am I like this? And all I have is man, mere man, to analyze and just man to suggest a remedy. I’m a captive to myself. You can’t sort it out until you have sorted yourself out. And of course I get by with a little help from my friends, because there is no one else in all this vast universe by men and women, no Saviour, no Prophet, no loving Father God, I get by . . . I survive with a little help from my friends, if I have any. Now that is not good news, that mankind has always been like this and always will be. No loving sovereign God who says, “I will give you rest. I will forgive you your sins if you repent of your sins. I will give you my easy yoke and my light burden. I will take you unto myself that where I am there you will be also.” All you have is your will and no sovereign willing God who tells me what is wrong, that I am a sinner and I must take responsibility for my sin. And I must accept the living God’s offer of grace to pardon and help me.
Then what about the great divine prognosis that I am in fact a creature made in the image of God who has rebelled against the great Father who is my Creator and so I am a sinner. Is that good news? Far better than anything that this world has to offer! Because sin can be forgiven, a stony heart can be replaced by a living heart of flesh, weakness can be replaced by divine strength, despair can be replaced by hope, and annihilation with heaven and the presence of Christ. God justified the ungodly who trust in Jesus Christ. We who were condemned in Adam are now justified through the last Adam, Christ. And because of that we enter into a new relationship with God, reconciled, no longer divorced and apart but knowing God, enjoying God in fellowship with him.
That is how you discover who you are and what life is all about. You discover it when you realize that no previous experience is necessary but you simply are straight with him. You don’t have to meet a standard before this is true for you. We can speak to anyone at any time and in any place however bad they have been and however indifferent they are now and we can tell them that we have good news for them, we have a Father who will love them, a teacher who will instruct them, a sacrifice who will make atonement for their sins and a sovereign protector who will guard them and work everything together for their good.
All you bring to God is your sin and need. All the fitness he requires is that you have despaired of anything else and you now see your need of him. We are determined to speak to you about the death of Jesus Christ the Son of God, that through him the most vile can be justified if they turn from their sins and make him their plea. He took our sin, the guilt of it, the burden of it was imputed to him so that it becomes his responsibility to deal with it in a loving, and holy and God-pleasing way. Sins like a wife’s betrayal of a husband, a son’s rejection of a loving father, all the breaking of God’s law, all the covenantal wantonness – all of that is imputed to the Lamb of God. It becomes his responsibility and he takes it joyfully because of his love for us and his desire that we should be with him for ever. He has borne the unbearable in my place. He has offered up himself to God, and that was the greatest thing that God ever did. That is our message, our sin to him, and his unimpeachable righteousness becomes ours. The benefit all becomes ours through entrusting ourselves to Christ. From now on I will trust in the Lord Jesus, in his teaching and in his sacrifice and in his Lordship, and that is good news. That is good news.
22nd November 2015 GEOFF THOMAS