St. Philip Lutheran Church
31 July 2022 + Lect. 18c (Pentecost 8)
Rev. Josh Evans
Who among us isn’t guilty of looking back at the past with a certain sentimental nostalgia? Usually those moments come during especially difficult times in the present. When the going gets tough, we open up the mental scrapbooks and reminisce about the “good old days” – when everything seemed perfect and we had not a care in the world.
Those were the days, right?
But were they really?
God’s parental love letter in Hosea hearkens back to the story of the Exodus, arguably the most definitive story of God’s people in the saga of the Hebrew Bible. It’s a story that reminds us at every turn of God’s special covenant relationship with God’s people:
From its very beginning: “I have heard the cry of my people who are in Egypt.”
To Pharaoh’s court: “Let my people go!”
And the promise of freedom and new life: “You will be my people and I will be your God.”
This story would become a definitive moment of national and religious identity-making for God’s people, called as God’s own son/child out of Egypt, and led with cords of human kindness and bands of love into freedom and life.
And yet almost as soon as they leave, the people yearn for Egypt. The going gets tough, and they turn to their mental scrapbooks of life in Egypt – or at least the parts they want to remember: “We had water in Egypt – and meat and bread! Have you brought us into the wilderness to die? If only we were back in Egypt … those were the days!” But were they really?
In Hosea, even God is guilty of yearning for the “good old days”:
When God rescued the people, when the sea parted in two and the people cautiously, nervously, excitedly crossed through on dry ground, their Egyptian pursuers not far behind. And when the last Israelite was safely on the other side, the Egyptians inching ever closer, when the waters came crashing back down, and the people sang their song of praise for God’s victory.
Those were the days … when God felt needed. When the relationship that God longed to have with God’s people was reciprocated.
Those were the days. It’s the same story, the same shared history, but two very different perspectives.
By the time of Hosea, the Israelites looked around at their present circumstances, the threat of foreign invasion looming. They thought they could save themselves, and they sought alliances and rescue from everyone but their God.
To a degree, it’s understandable: They so desperately yearned for the safety and security of the “good old days” when at least they knew what to expect and so much wasn’t uncertain. As though they had forgotten their identity-forging history as God’s people.
Meanwhile, God watches on, as God’s own people seek safety and refuge in others, and God is moved to intense jealousy and bitter sadness: “The more I called them, the more they went from me…”
God yearns to call them God’s own people, like in the “good old days.” God yearns for a reciprocated loving relationship, where the people know their help and deliverance is in their God.
Hosea’s metaphors underscore the severity of the strained relationship between God and God’s people.
Last week, the marriage metaphor showed us a relationship that was in trouble. The people had abandoned God and God’s covenant. These were a people who were not to be pitied and who were no longer called “my people.”
The relationship was in trouble – but not beyond hope. As God promised: Their number shall be like the sand of the sea, and those who were called Lo-ammi (“not my people”) shall be called children of the living God.
Indeed, no matter how bad the relationship had gotten, no matter how far the people had strayed:
God would never stop loving them, even if it didn’t make any sense.
Here, in a different kind of family metaphor, the promise digs deeper and holds on tighter. Here, the metaphor becomes a tender parent-child relationship – severed by forgetfulness and by a people wanting more than all that God has already given them.
Hosea’s family metaphors underscore the severity of the strained relationship between God and God’s people.
But these metaphors also illustrate the depth of God’s love for them, and the lengths to which that divine love will go to make things right.
Hosea makes it clear that the people have done nothing to deserve God’s second chance: They are “bent on turning away” from God.
And yet, here is grace: “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.”
God has a change of heart. The suffering of God’s people is just too much for God to bear. God is moved to gut-wrenching compassion. God who taught God’s people Ephraim how to walk and led them cords of human kindness and bands of love cannot and will not give up on them that easily.
Imagine another, familiar father pacing back and forth, spending sleepless nights wide awake, worrying about his younger son we would come to call “prodigal.” That father is the parent in Hosea, with the same kind of passionate longing to embrace their child, to welcome them home, to let their anger and jealousy instantly melt into gut-wrenching compassion and love the moment they spot even the speck of their child on the horizon while they are still far off, thinking “can it really be?” – first walking closer, then quickening their pace, and finally outright sprinting to welcome them home and bring them back.
This is God’s parental love letter to God’s people – a love rooted in nostalgia.
When present circumstances seem bleak and the going gets tough, we have this tendency to look backwards in our mental scrapbooks. And when we look backwards, we see what we want to see. We see the “good old days” when everything seemed so much better.
Those were the days.
But were they really?
That’s a tricky question. Some things may indeed have been better. Other things, not so much. Surely even in those memories we look back on now with sentimental yearning, there are also moments then where we longingly looked back even further.
When we look backwards, our perspective is limited. There’s a sense that we can find the answers we need all on our own – making a way forward all by ourselves.
When God looks backwards, God sees things differently. God’s reminiscing reminds God’s people of our childlike dependency on God and of God’s deep love and tender compassion for us.
God’s reminiscing reminds us that we can’t – and don’t have to – do it all ourselves.
Even if we could do it all ourselves, then what are we doing here today? Why do we keep showing up and coming to church? If we could do it all ourselves, wouldn’t it be easier to just give this all up?
But the truth is, we can’t do it all ourselves. We need to keep coming back here again and again, to receive the good news that God is with us and that we are a part of something greater than ourselves.
“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?”
We know that we need God, but here’s the extra amazing part: God needs us too. God cannot and will not give us up.
There’s nothing wrong with looking at our mental scrapbooks of the past.
But look at those memories the way God sees them:
Memories that point us to a God who has loved us from the beginning, who continues to love us in this moment, and who will keep on loving us into the future, whatever the future might hold.