"Returning to God - or Faking It"
Hosea 14:1-19 July 23, 2006
The Folly of Over-Confidence
When I was knee-high to a grasshopper, my grandmother and uncle, who lived across the road, took a trip to California. When they returned, they put a poster on their wall of the giant sequoia trees. Perhaps you've seen pictures of these: they can grow for over a thousand years, and are large enough for vehicles to drive right through holes in the middle of them. When we took our own children to the west coast a dozen years ago, we were similarly impressed by the giant redwood and Douglas Fir trees, which can stand hundreds of feet tall.
Just considering these wonders of nature should humble us. What's a human life-span compared to a tree over 1300 years old?
Yet God uses such large trees as examples of what He wants to accomplish in our lives. The Bible says of people who trust in God, "Like a cedar of Lebanon he will send down his roots; his young shoots will grow." (Hos 14:f) The Lord is excited and eager to do things in our lives that are just as amazing as those huge evergreens.
But that requires co-operation. Too often we get tempted to go our own way rather than God's way. Rebellion is a recipe for disaster. We can place too much confidence in ourselves and carelessly cut ourselves off from what God would grow in us.
This week I was using our fairly new weed-eater to trim around the fences, flowerbeds, and shrubbery. Because it's "fairly new", I'm still "fairly new" at handling it, as well. For a couple of years now we've been nursing along a string of 5 young pines at the north edge of our lot. Most of the time I've used a lawn mower and there hasn't been a problem. But this time I figured I might as well use the weed-eater, as for everything else. I tried to be careful, cutting a circular swath around the stem...but something grabbed, the machine jerked sideways, and suddenly there was the top, severed completely from the base. (Sigh) I felt very bad about it - and a little mad, for a fleeting second; but mostly just bad. As I say, we'd been nursing these along for some time, and suddenly - it's no more. No chance of repair - now there'll be a permanent gap. There was a tinge of, "How could I be so stupid?! Why wasn't I more careful?" but mostly just a sense of loss, grief, feeling sorry, and wanting to undo something that couldn't be undone. Not to mention a hint of shame at the thought of having to confess to Yvonne I'd butchered our baby pines!
Hang on to that feeling - perhaps you can think of a similar mini-tragedy that made you feel the same way. These moments are humbling. They make us realize we can be over-confident, and that coupled with carelessness is destructive. Now our fledgling pine will never be as magnificent as a giant sequoia, or redwood, or cedar of Lebanon - or even just an ordinary spreading pine. Cut off from its roots, it will never be nurtured, flourishing, or fruitful.
As we wind up our look at Hosea, we hear God through the prophet urging people to truly repent, cut themselves off from the elements of sin in their lives, so they can be planted in God and discover the abundance and fruitfulness that life in Him brings.
Superficial Repentance Doesn't Cut It
Repentance or making a spiritual about-turn is difficult; it cuts across the grain of our proud and selfish human nature.
A little lad named Johnny had trouble pronouncing the letter "R" so his teacher gave him a sentence to practise at home: "Robert gave Richard a rap in the rib for roasting the rabbit so rare." Some days later the teacher asked Johnny to say the sentence for her. He rattled it off like this: "Bob gave Dick a poke in the side for not cooking the bunny enough." He had evaded the letter "R" completely! ...Likewise, many people go to great lengths to avoid the "R" word of "repentance".
We've seen in previous weeks how doom was forecast for the northern kingdom of Israel if it didn't change from its corruption in worship, in politics, morality, and commerce. Perhaps Hosea's warnings didn't fall completely on deaf ears; at the beginning of chapter 6 we hear them making some noises about returning to God. But as we look closely we detect it's superficial; no one really wants to do what's necessary according to 5:15, that is, "admit their guilt". The first 3 verses of chapter 6 records a somewhat - but not totally satisfactory - confession: "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."
Not a bad start - but the Lord isn't swayed. What are some weaknesses that make this hurried and half-hearted lip-service? For one thing, it presumes a lot on God. "He will heal us...He will bind up our wounds...He will revive us...He will, He will, He will..." 6 times in 3 verses the speakers presume God's going to take action because they're taking action. "We say 'jump', you say, 'how high?'" The Lord Almighty is sovereign and free, and not bound to take any action in response to human appeals.
There are a couple of other indicators that this is too hasty. "After two days...on the third day" is another way of saying 'soon', meaning a short period of time. Minimizing the gravity of punishment that was due. Also note "as surely as the sun rises, He will appear"; coupled with the "He wills", this conveys the attitude that God's deliverance should be automatic. It's all a little too mechanical, trite, not from the heart, not treating sin seriously or gravely. This is how Baal religion worked: you went to the sacred place, performed the rites with the pagan priests and associates, and thus fertility for your land was supposedly assured. Put in your loonie, get out your pop. Do you see how this treats God like a dispensing machine? Like the Godfather-type gangster who goes to confession then marches out of the church ready to kill again. It's just a little too convenient, puts God on a "fee-for-service" basis, at our beck and call. Or perhaps you prayed a prayer once and figure from now on you're just going to hold God to the contract. Or you think that if you go to church regularly on Sunday, you can live like the devil the rest of the week! No, it's not real repentance, it won't cut it.
Hear God's exasperation and rebuke of such shallowness in the verses that follow: "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. Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth..." (Ho 6:4-5)
God's Spirit cuts through the fog to the core of our hearts, by the sword of His word. Hebrews 4(12) says "the word of God is living and active.Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." He can tell when we're faking it, doing religion for show or the wrong reasons. In the last book of the Bible, when Jesus reveals Himself in glory to John, He's described as having "a sharp double-edged sword" that comes out of His mouth; and He threatens to fight against false teachers with that sword (Rev 1:16; 2:16).
Never underestimate the seriousness of sin. Never treat as something light or inconsequential, as "little white lies" or "moral indiscretions" or "mid-life fling". If you've blown it, own up to it. Thanks to the cross of Christ, your condition isn't hopeless, but it is serious.
Chapter 14 offers a more realistic picture of repentance. It begins: "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."" (Ho 14:1-2) The Hebrew word for "return" is also translated "turn, turn back". There's a change in direction. Admit you've been heading the wrong way: you need to stop and find the course God would have you travel. Isaiah 55(7) says, "Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon." Leave off the old paths, the old habits, and seek God's view about things.
There may be some spiritual housecleaning required - getting rid of idols and committing certain areas to God you had ignored before. The prophet Samuel some time earlier said to Israel, "If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines." The account concludes, "So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the LORD only." (1Sa 7:3-4) Note those change-terms: rid, put away, commit, serve only. There's a definite break in attachment to what's been influencing us.
Scripture identifies three main sources of evil: the world, our flesh, and the devil. Don't try to blame it all on the devil! Look closely at Hosea 14:3 and you can see hints of all three. "Assyria cannot save us; we will not mount war-horses. We will never again say 'Our gods' to what our own hands have made..." Here "Assyria", the dominant empire of the day, is analogous to temptation coming by 'the world'. Israel attempted to secure their future by initially paying tribute and making treaties with Assyria, which later weren't honoured. Repentance involved acknowledging, "Assyria cannot save us." (5:13; 12:1)
"The flesh" refers to our own fallen carnal nature, our tendency to try to handle everything on our own, relying strictly on our own resources, our own strength, instead of needing God. Israel since Solomon's time had shown an inclination to rely on 'war-horses'; as well, they strengthened their fortifications and built a large army. But these proved useless against the Assyrian invasion. They needed to learn the attitude of David in Psalm 20(7), "Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God." So today, we must come to realize that it's not right to be always trying to broker our strength, or smartness, or beauty to our own advantage. The flesh is always endeavouring to promote SELF rather than waiting on the Lord. Repentance means coming to declare, "We will not mount war-horses."
Besides the world and the flesh, there's also the Devil as a source of evil. V3 refers to the idolatry the nation had fallen into: "We will never again say 'Our gods' to what our own hands have made..." Hosea's contemporary prophet Micah outlined how God would bring judgment upon some of the ways the nation had become spiritually off-track: "I will destroy your witchcraft and you will no longer cast spells. I will destroy your carved images and your sacred stones from among you; you will no longer bow down to the work of your hands. I will uproot from among you your Asherah poles and demolish your cities." (Mic 5:12-14) Today much spiritual self-improvement literature and programming in North America is tainted by Eastern religions: yoga, meditation, martial arts training. Witchcraft, wicca, mediums, spirit-guides are gaining in acceptance or at least sympathizers. And advertising constantly tantalizes us with idols of silver and gold - the next new generation of vehicle; a group of guys I was with recently were anticipating the re-introduction of the Dodge Challenger, a 70s muscle car. Chrysler president Tom LaSorda says, "We haven't seen this kind of spontaneous, passionate response to a car since we unveiled the Dodge Viper concept in 1989." That "passionate" response to something shiny and material can open the door to controlling spiritual forces from the enemy. Can we instead with the prophet promise never again to allow something man-made to become a god in our lives?
Repentance involves letting God be God, humbling ourselves to let Him be in control, magnifying His name and nailing our own pride to the cross. One Sunday morning in 1818 General Andrew Jackson travelled from his home, the Hermitage, into downtown Nashville to attend a Methodist Conference. Peter Cartwright, the famous circuit-riding preacher, was to speak that day. The pastor of the church had invited Cartwright with misgivings, for the evangelist was unpredictable. He had been known to knock a sinner down and literally drag him to the throne of grace. But interest had been high, and it seemed that everyone in Nashville had come to church that Sunday to see the eccentric Cartwright. His text was: "What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?"
Cartwright had just read his text and had paused to let the words sink in when General Jackson entered the church and slowly walked down the aisle. Every seat was taken, and he stood for a moment, leaning against a pillar. Peter Cartwright felt a tug at the tail of his coat. "General Jackson has come in!" the Nashville pastor whispered excitedly. "General Jackson has come in." The whisper was audible to most of the church. Peter Cartwright's jaw tightened, and he gave the pastor a look of scorn and shouted, "Who is General Jackson? If he doesn't repent and get his soul converted," he continued, saying in effect, "God will damn his soul to hell as quick as an unconverted pagan."
After the sermon, preacher Cartwright was advised to leave town immediately, for Jackson was known for his fiery temper and his deadly duels. Instead, the evangelist accepted an invitation to preach at a church right next to the Hermitage. Jackson invited him to dinner!
Here we see fruit of repentance on two parties: Cartwright, in his brave readiness to preach the gospel without fear of man; and Jackson, in his humility and willingness to host someone who challenged the power of prestige and high profile.
Faithful, Fragrant, Fruitful
Once we've turned back to God and are on the right track, His goal is for us to become faithful, fragrant, and fruitful. What's that mean, positively? What's our life to turn into rather than just away from?
Hosea 12:6 associates certain characteristics with returning to God: "But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always." (Ho 12:6) "Love" here is checed in Hebrew that we talked about last week - steadfast covenant-love, kindness, mercy. Justice would mean we act fairly and truthfully in our dealings. Waiting for God means not pushing our own agenda but allowing Him to guide things as they unfold.
Hosea 6:6 is another key verse that is brought forth into the New Testament: God says, "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings." (Ho 6:6) Mercy is what God wants - that's "checed" again! And acknowledging Him - putting Him at the top of the page, over your plans and to-do list. Don't grumble when He interrupts you with a special mission, but yield to His leading and timing. Jesus cites this verse on two separate occasions to the Pharisees when they're exalting their traditions above their relationships to Christ and other people (Matt 9:13; 12:7).
So God wants us to be living in faith - focussed on covenant-love, justice, waiting for Him and acknowledging Him. He also wants us to be fragrant. Hos 14:5f speaks of the transformation God seeks to bring about in the lives of those who are His (remember that pine tree and the giant redwoods we started with?). "I will be like the dew to Israel; he will blossom like a lily. Like a cedar of Lebanon he will send down his roots; his young shoots will grow. His splendor will be like an olive tree, his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon." (Ho 14:5-6) We still use 'pine scent' fresheners in our vehicles and homes today. If you've ever walked through an evergreen plantation when the air is still and the pungency fills your sense of smell, that's the type of pleasant and unmistakable 'fragrance' our lives can transmit to others in the Holy Spirit. Paul talks about Christians spreading "the fragrance of knowing Jesus...the fragrance of life" (2Cor 2:14,16).
And God wants to make us fruitful. 14:7-8 say, "Men will dwell again in his shade. He will flourish like the grain. He will blossom like a vine, and his fame will be like the wine from Lebanon. [God says] I am like a green pine tree; your fruitfulness comes from me."" Where does our output, our fruitfulness come from? What's our 'source' that can give us generativity? Are we running dry from trying to manage on our own steam? This reminds me of Jesus saying in John 15, "I am the true vine...you are the branches.If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." As our poor little pine casualty won't amount to anything separated from its roots, so we need to keep plugged in to Jesus through the Spirit to bear the fruit of love, joy, kindness, and so on.
As we close our look at Hosea, the final verse reminds us, "Who is wise? He will realize these things. Who is discerning? He will understand them. The ways of the LORD are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them." (Ho 14:9) Hosea called the nation back into relationship with God, that they might benefit from walking in His right, just, loving ways.
On June 1, Mark and Angela Hutchinson of Chilliwack BC became owners of Blessings Christian Marketplace Ltd., Canada's largest Christian retail chain. It has 27 locations across Canada. But Mark sees it more as a ministry opportunity than just a business enterprise. He says it's something that brings together business and church life for him. He says, "I see Blessings as...somewhere that I can fulfil the abilities God has given me from a business perspective - to show we can really run a good business, a large business using Christian morals and ethics and standards - and then to do the ministry coupled with that."
One of the ways they honour God is by not offering Sunday shopping hours. Hutchinson notes, "I can definitely say I will not ever, ever consider opening on Sunday. I will not entertain it at all. Yes, we are a business, but it's not all about the money." You can tell he's guarding against that idol! He adds, "...at the end of the day, it's all about stewardship. Everything I have is God-given, therefore what I have isn't really mine, it's God's. It's up to me and my family and those who are working with us to make sure we give back to the community and live out the Great Commission."
Plug into the One who can make you flourish and fragrant as a cedar of Lebanon - then others will enjoy the shade of your justice, loving-kindness, and reliance on the Lord. Let's pray.