Tough Love (a sermon)

This sermon was written and preached in May 2017 for a Homiletics course at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. An adapted version of this sermon was delivered at Eldersville UMC on May 14, 2017, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

Hosea 11

Do you remember the moment when you felt God’s love for the first time? Many of us grew up in the church and have been nurtured in this loving environment for our whole lives, but even still, there was likely a moment when we realized the weight of our sin and the power of God’s grace. I remember when I experienced the power of God’s grace and love for the first time. I was twelve years old and I had been sent off to summer camp by my parents at a place called Wesley Woods. For the first time, I began to read the Scriptures for myself and learned about my faith through Bible studies with my counselors and conversations with my friends. Then, about halfway through the week, we gathered for worship and I felt the presence of God in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I heard about what God had done for me through Jesus Christ and began to know of God’s love and mercy. After worship, we had a time of prayer—an extended altar call of sorts—and I prayed that Jesus Christ would take away my sins and guide my steps for the rest of my life. I became a child of God—part of God’s family. Though I’ve been through many trials and joys in my faith journey since then, that moment is still special for me because it was the beginning of my spiritual history.

All of us have a spiritual history, and if we think back, we can see all the ways that God was present in our lives. Likely, many of us can remember that first experience of God’s grace. But our story of faith is not just an individual story. The words of our Lord through the prophet Hosea remind us today that we are part of a bigger story of faith, extending back thousands of years to a singular event that changed the world: Israel’s exodus from Egypt. God, the loving parent of Israel and all of us, reminds the people, “when you were a child, I loved you and called you out of Egypt.”

If you could only turn to one text in the Old Testament to show how much God loved his people, the story of the Exodus would be that text. Sure, God had appeared to Abraham and promised a multitude of descendants and blessings, and he certainly provided, but at the end of Genesis and the beginning of the book of Exodus there was trouble. Joseph, who had a good relationship with the Egyptians, had died and a new king had come to rule in Egypt who did not know Joseph and his family. This new king was determined to oppress the Israelites so that they would not pose a threat to his rule. Yet, God had not forgotten his promise. The God who is merciful and gracious, and abounding in steadfast love, saw the plight of our ancestors of the faith and called Moses to lead them out of Egypt. Nothing could be more merciful than this.

The first verse of Hosea 11 brings all this to mind for us, but verse 2 reminds us that God’s children quickly turned from his guidance. You remember, as Moses went up the holy mountain to receive the law from God, the people grew tired of waiting and asked Aaron to build them a golden calf to worship. Yet, Hosea reminds us, God continued to show mercy. God taught Israel how to walk on their own, leading them through the wilderness even when they wanted to turn back. God healed them and led them with cords of kindness and bands of love. God bent down to them and fed them with manna and quail. God’s mercy was steadfast. The more God’s children turned from him, the more he showed them mercy.

We all know about this mercy of God in our own lives. We know that God didn’t just save us from our sins and leave us alone. Since that first moment of faith, we made mistakes and started going the wrong way, but God continued to show us love and mercy! After all, we are here today in the presence of our God to worship and remember what God has done for us. We have gotten far more grace and mercy than we deserved.

Yet, mercy is not the only way that God shows love to his children. In God’s words of self-revelation in Exodus 34, we hear not only that our Lord is “merciful and gracious” but also that God “will by no means clear the guilty.” So, in the message of Hosea, there is a quick turn in verse 5 from the reminder of how God has shown mercy to a declarative statement of impending judgment: “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because my people have refused to return to me.”

A quick glance through the book of Hosea tells us why this harsh judgment has come. Israel has called out to other gods, trusting in themselves and forgetting their identity as God’s people. They have sought protection through alliances with the king of Assyria and the king of Egypt rather than trusting in their God. Since God’s people no longer see God as their loving parent, they will no longer be called God’s children. God has shown them a bit of tough love, causing pain for both the parent and the children. Had they remembered God’s law, they would have been safe and secure. Instead, they have turned to call on others who have no power to raise them up. As a result, they are going “back to Egypt.” The cords of kindness and bands of love have been loosened, and the people have gone back to their own way. Perhaps we remember times in our own life when we have faced the natural consequences of thinking that we know best.

Yet, judgment is not the end for God’s people. Judgment can never be the final word. Just as God looked upon the Israelite slaves in Egypt with mercy, so too does God look upon these people who have been enslaved by their sin with compassion and mercy. But I think, having wrestled with the pain of punishment, we have to see God’s mercy a little bit differently. We have to see the pain of God’s love that remains with us even when we are facing the consequences of our actions. After all, God really is like a loving parent who remains with his children through trials and joys. God shows mercy as a parent shows mercy to a child who has made the wrong choice.

In the final word of hope in our text from Hosea, we are given an image that sums up what it means to understand God’s mercy after coming through judgment: the image of a lion. In his book “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” C.S. Lewis draws on this image of the lion to express the complex nature of God. In the magical land of Narnia, a witch has cast a spell which makes it always winter, but never Christmas. As the characters search for a way to save Narnia from the witch, they hear of one named Aslan who has even greater power than the witch.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, you might remember the conversation that Susan has with Mr. Beaver, as he tells her about Aslan, this lion who will come to save them from evil. Susan responds to the revelation that Aslan is a lion by saying, “I thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” Mr. Beaver responds, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

How true that is! Our God may not be safe. The word of the Lord may be challenging to us, as was the harsh word of judgment for Israel. If God is like a lion, we probably should not try and test God. After all, God has power over our life and death. But God is profoundly good! God is merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love. That is what it means that our Lord is “God and no mortal.” It means that we receive far more grace than we deserve.

Since our own personal exodus moment, we’ve made a few mistakes. We’ve found ourselves stuck in the depth of our own sin on more than one occasion. We’ve found ourselves face to face with the terrifying lion that is our God, but remember in good times and in bad: God loves his children. Remember the story of Israel’s exodus and your own exodus from sin. Remember the ways that God has rejoiced with us in good times and has had compassion for us in bad times. Best of all, remember that God will lead and guide us with cords of kindness and bands of love until we enter the eternal kingdom. Amen.

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