Monday 27 November 2023

A right Jeremiah!

A Sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 
3 December 2023
First Sunday of Advent

Jeremiah 33.10-11, 14-18

Have you ever heard the expression,
            where someone is described as being ‘a right Jeremiah’?
As someone who has a generally sunny and optimistic disposition,
            I don’t think it is something that’s usually said of me,
but I’ve occasionally thought it about others!
If you’re not familiar with the phrase,
            calling someone ‘a Jeremiah’ is saying that they’re, to put it kindly,
            a ‘glass-half-empty’ kind of person.
A ‘Jeremiah’ is someone who is pessimistic about the present,
            and foresees a calamitous future.
A bit like Eeyore, you might say,
            or Marvin the Paranoid Android,
            or Kreacher the House Elf.
One of the things about someone who’s a ‘Jeremiah’,
            is that they can often annoy those around them,
            often because they are right!
I mean, you only have to look at the way Greta Thunberg
            has been vilified in certain strands of the media
to see how little people like to be told
            that the climate crisis is real and imminent.
And certainly, the Jewish prophet of doom
            from the 7th Century BCE, Jeremiah himself,
made something of a career
            of annoying people with his dire predictions.
Like Private James Frazer in Dad’s Army,
            Jeremiah spent years telling his fellow citizens of Jerusalem
            that they were all doomed.
Their good life under King Zedekiah wasn’t going to last,
            because the Babylonians were coming.
At one level, Jeremiah’s predictions of Jerusalem’s downfall to the Babylonian army
            could have been simply a case of him reading the political landscape,
                        and seeing something in the wind
                        that was going to turn into a whirlwind of destruction.
And if that had been all there was to it,
            he might not have made himself quite so unpopular.
I mean, saying,
            ‘Look, there’s a large and powerful army getting closer,
                        I think we should be prepared for the worst’
            is not hugely controversial.
But what Jeremiah did that annoyed everyone so much
            was that he pointed to the large Babylonian army
                        gathering on the distant horizon,
            and then told King Zedekiah of Jerusalem
                        that it was his fault the disaster was coming.
Jeremiah wasn’t just a prophet of doom,
            and he wasn’t just right in his predictions,
he was also annoying
            because he firmly pointed his finger at the king as the one responsible.
By Jeremiah’s understanding, Zedekiah had led his country
            in a way that had taken it away from where God wanted it to be.
He had prioritised war over peace,
            nationalism over cooperation,
                        and he was about to reap the consequences of his actions - said Jeremiah.
So, by the time we get to the passage that is our reading this morning,
            Jeremiah is languishing in the palace dungeon in Jerusalem,
            where Zedekiah has dumped him in an attempt to shut him up.
And it’s so often the case, isn’t it,
            that those who hold political power
            will go to extraordinary lengths to silence those who critique their power.
And yet the prophetic voice refuses to be silenced.
Eventually, truth will out.
            Oppression, bigotry, and powerful vested interests
            don’t get to silence the uncomfortable voices of the prophets forever.
One of my favourite Paul Simon songs, and I have many,
            is called ‘The Sound of Silence’,
and I don’t know whether Paul Simon had Jeremiah in his prison cell in mind
            when he wrote this song, but he certainly could have done.
I’ll read the words of the last verse now,
            and my invitation is to hear this as the cry of the silenced prophet in any age:
"Fools" said I, "You do not know
            Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you
            Take my arms that I might reach you"
But my words like silent raindrops fell
            And echoed
            In the wells of silence.
And the people bowed and prayed
            To the neon god they made.
And the sign flashed out its warning
            In the words that it was forming,
And the sign said, "The words of the prophets
            Are written on the subway walls
            And tenement halls"
And whispered in the sounds of silence.
My apologies if that’s just planted an ear-worm
            that you’re going to be stuck with all day.
But Jeremiah, and those like him, will not be silenced,
            despite the fact that they are rejected
                        for proclaiming a message
            that is not only pessimistic,
                        but which requires a change to society’s destructive patterns of behaviour
                        if the disaster is to be averted.
The thing is, the masses hate a Jeremiah,
            and we all love an optimist.
It’s so much easier to vote for the confident sunny disposition
            of the person promising easy answers to complex questions,
than it is to admit that reducing geopolitical and economic complexities
            to binary options is dangerously simplistic.
And those who offer optimism in place of realism,
            denying the warnings of the prophets,
            and silencing the voices of concern,
too often resort to the easy option of placing Jeremiah back in his dungeon,
            and hoping desperately that it will all work out OK.
But Jeremiah and those like him will not be silenced.
            And denying the problems they proclaim
            doesn’t make them go away.
And so Jeremiah continues to speak,
            from his dungeon beneath the palace.
But what is so interesting,
            is that the words he issues from his confinement
            contain a surprising message of hope.
Sometimes, I find myself almost in despair at the world,
            I worry about global warming,
                        I worry about the rise of the far right in Europe,
            I worry about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,
                        and I worry about terrorism,
                                    about mass migration,
                                                and about oppression and injustice around the world.
Sometimes, even sunny optimistic Simon,
            can find himself becoming a bit of a Jeremiah.
How about you?
So what does Jeremiah say next?
            Does he continue with his message that ‘we’re all doomed’?
Well, yes and no.
There’s no escape for Jerusalem from the Babylonian army on the horizon,
            the city will be besieged, overthrown, and the people taken into exile.
But nonetheless Jeremiah explores a sense of what hope might look like
            in the face of the depressing message of imminent destruction.
Jeremiah’s message is both deeply troubled,
            and deeply hopeful.
At the time of his imprisonment,
            where we meet him in chapter 33 of the book that bears his name,
            there are no obvious signs of hope.
The Babylonians are coming,
            and despair and destruction are coming to his beloved city.
But still he speaks of hope,
            which comes not from a denial of the realities before him,
            but from a deep grappling with despair.
And I find myself thinking here about a depth of spirituality
            that can embrace both hope and despair.
Too often my experience of church life over the years,
            has been that we are converted from despair to hope,
as if despair were some kind of sinful or shameful state,
            from which we need salvation.
Well, Jeremiah offers us a more integrated model here,
            as he holds hope and despair together before God.
The hope he proclaims from the depths of despair,
            is something that challenges the realities of the present;
something which alters the way in which one lives in the here and now,
            by articulating a new, transformative, way of being.
So, he says, one day… one day that is surely coming…
            God will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David.
Understanding quite what he means by this
            requires us to know a bit about the Jewish story.
For the Jews of Jeremiah’s time, their security was tied up deeply
            with their monarchy was a gift from God.
So the stories of David, their archetypical king of ancient times,
            defined their nation,
                        their understanding of who they were,
                        and who they were called by God to be.
For the Jews the time of the Babylonian invasion,
            the stories of King David functioned a bit like the way
            the stories of King Arthur functioned for Victorian England.
Just as the legend of Arthur, Merlin, and Uther Pendragon,
            forged the mythology that sustained the English Empire,
So the tales of Saul, David, and Solomon
            undergirded the ideology of Israel as God’s chosen people.
And in the face of the Babylonian invasion,
            that ideology was being shaken to its core.
If Zedekiah was to be killed, if Israel was to lose its king,
            then all God’s promises would be questioned.
This wasn’t just a political crisis that Jeremiah was living through,
            it was a crisis of faith.
And so, he says, just as a new branch can spring from the stump of a felled tree:
            even if Israel is toppled by the Babylonians,
                        God has not forgotten the promises made in olden days,
            and a new branch will spring up for David.
Jeremiah wasn’t the only prophet to use this image
            of a branch of David arising from the roots of a felled tree;
we find it in Isaiah as well,
            who uses the name of Jesse, King David’s father, and says:
Isaiah 11.1, 10
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
            and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
            the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
And this passage from Isaiah, together with our reading from Jeremiah,
            stayed with the people of Israel through their time of exile,
            and sustained their hope through the years of despair.
And then something interesting happened,
            because even though the exile eventually came to an end,
                        and the exiles were restored to Jerusalem, with their monarchy re-established,
            the hope that a better time, a better leader, was coming,
                        didn’t go away.
What we are seeing here, in our reading from Jeremiah,
            and it’s parallel in Isaiah,
is the birth of what became the Jewish hope for a coming messiah.
You see, even though the end of the exile marked a partial restoration,
            the extent of Israel’s borders never got back
                        to where the stories said they had been in the time of King David;
            their kings never had the political strength and autonomy
                        that the stories of David eulogised and lauded,
            and instead the restored Israel existed as a puppet nation,
                        ruled by puppet kings,
            controlled and at the mercy of whatever empire was dominant,
                        from the Babylonians to the Greeks to the Romans.
So the seed of hope for a righteous branch for David,
            planted by Jeremiah and nurtured through the despair of exile,
grew into the hope for a coming messiah
            a son of David who would restore Israel’s faith and dignity before God.
But I’m jumping too far….
Let’s stay with Jeremiah for a few moments longer,
            and re-join him in his dungeon in the palace in Jerusalem,
            with the Babylonian army on the horizon.
Because Jeremiah tells us, from the literal pits of despair,
            what this hope will look like.
For Jeremiah, hope looks like justice, and righteousness,
            which are nowhere to be seen in his world.
He articulates a hope that someone will come,
            who will embody justice and righteousness.
This is a mind-altering moment,
            and it sets the agenda for everything that follows.
What, he asks, would it mean
            for God’s justice and righteousness to be embodied and enacted?
What would it mean for someone to live out
            God’s eternal intent of setting things right?
What would it mean for the kingdom of Israel,
            to become the Kingdom of the Lord, who is righteousness and justice?
It is an astonishing articulation of hope,
            in the face of overwhelming despair.
In Jeremiah’s world, righteousness and justice are gone,
            and for him to assert that God is righteous, and that God is just,
            and that God has not yet finished with his people,
is a narrative of hope that has the capacity to change the world.
But here’s the thing,
            Jeremiah says all this, when the reality of it is nowhere to be seen.
And to leap forward now to the coming of Jesus,
            (we are, after all, now in Advent),
it is not immediately clear that God is putting things right by sending a child,
            who will be born in difficult circumstances and flee his home as a refugee;
it is not immediately clear that God is putting things right
            through the horror of a crucifixion and the rumour of a resurrection.
And yet, Jeremiah says that he is so certain of his hope,
            that Jerusalem itself will be renamed,
            and it shall be called ‘The Lord is our righteousness’.
The hope that Jeremiah proclaims is not dependent on any human activity,
            it is dependent on God’s action.
He is saying that it is always God
                        who gives new life in place of death,
            and that it is only God who brings new righteousness and justice
                        into the very heart of the place where despair is most deeply felt.
If Jerusalem, the city of death and destruction in Jeremiah’s time,
            can be the place where hope enters the world,
then hope can come to anywhere that despair is at its worst,
            whether that is lonely solitude of the human heart,
            the corporate victims of an act or terror,
            or the communal hell of a besieged city in Gaza.
And so, because it is Advent,
            we come at last to Jesus;
who asked his disciples, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
            and his friend Peter answered him, ‘You are the messiah’ (Mark 8.29)
Within the Christian story,
            the hope of Jeremiah and Isaiah is fulfilled in Jesus,
who embodies God’s righteousness and justice,
            bringing hope to all those whose lives are lost in despair.
And for those of us who find ourselves living in turbulent times,
            not knowing who to believe, or where to go for truth,
the living hope that is Jesus,
            made known to us by his Spirit,
and encountered in one another as we gather in his name,
            gives us a hope that will sustain us
And so we pray, again, the Advent prayer
            of longing for a world transformed.
“Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”

Wednesday 22 November 2023

Rebuilding the House of God

A Sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
26 November 2023

2 Kings 22.1-10, 14-20; 23.1-3
I have a question for us to consider this morning, and it’s this:
            ‘What God lives here?’
            ‘What God dwells in this place?’
Or, to put it another way:
            What is the nature of the God we worship in this place?
            What kind of God do we embody in our relationships with one another?
And how does this God call us to behave
            in our engagement with the wider world?
These are profound questions,
            as they take us right to the heart of what it means
            for us to be the people of God called to this place, at this time.
It’s been a tough few years, in many ways.
            The long term impacts of the pandemic are still with us,
                        and they affect everything from Sunday attendance
                        to the way we enact our mission in the world.
The answers to the question of who we should be
            as the community of God’s people,
answers that we knew well before the pandemic,
            are not the answers that serve us now.
We need new answers,
            we need a new vision of what it means
            for us to be the people of God in this place.
We need a fresh encounter with God’s word,
            as we hear God’s calling and purpose
            on our lives and for our community.
Well, so far, so revivalist sermon.
            You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again I’m sure.
And whilst it’s all true,
            we still need to work out what this actually means for us?
How does one have a fresh encounter with God’s word?
            How does one hear God’s calling and purpose
            on our lives and our community?
Where do we go for our new answers, for our fresh vision?
Well, the lesson of Josiah might suggest
            that we start with a building project,
a bit of sprucing up the house of the Lord,
            maybe a renewed basement,
                        with a sprung floor and some good air conditioning,
                        and a classy glass screen…
After all, that’s basically what Josiah was doing
            when Hilkiah discovered the book of the law.
Josiah had become king at the age of 8,
            and his coronation came on the heels of the long reign of king Manasseh.
The books of Kings love to characterise their rulers
            as either a ‘good king’ or a ‘bad king’
and Manasseh, in addition to being
            the longest reigning king of Judah, at 55 years,
            is also definitively a ‘bad king’.
We’re told that he persecuted the prophets,
            promoted the worship of other gods,
            and enacted violence with ease, on one occasion killing his own son.
Certainly by contrast to his predecessor Manasseh,
            Josiah is a ‘good king’, he’s pious, careful, and a fair ruler.
When he was in his mid-20s, he decided to embark on a project
            to restore and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem,
            which had fallen into disrepair.
No expense was to be spared,
            and Josiah commissioned the High Priest Hilkiah to carry out the work.
This is when things get interesting, of course,
            because Hilkiah discovers the scroll of the Law.
Now I’m afraid that our recent renovation work at Bloomsbury
            hasn’t unearthed anything nearly as exciting;
although we did find some newspapers and cigarette packets from the 1970s…
But Hilkiah found what seems to be part of the book of Deuteronomy,
            a book we know as the fifth book of the Old Testament.
The book of Deuteronomy has a very specific understanding
            of how God works in relation to human beings.
In a nutshell, it describes a system of reward and punishment,
            where those who are ‘faithful’ to God are rewarded by God,
            and those who are ‘unfaithful’ to God are punished by God.
This perspective on divine blessing and cursing
            lies behind the books of Kings
            that we’ve been reading in recent weeks,
and it informs the assessment it offers
            of which kings are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’.
A good king is one who obeys the law of the Lord,
            and a bad king is one who is unfaithful.
And the proof of whether a king is good or bad
            is found in whether their reign is a success or a failure,
because, according to the theology of Deuteronomy,
            God rewards the faithful and punishes the faithless.
Well, this discovery of the law scroll clearly affected Josiah deeply,
            and he realised that the law of God
                        had been neglected in the land for generations,
            through all the long reign of Manasseh.
And as a bright young ruler with ambitions to rule long and well himself,
            Josiah embraces this theology,
            and institutes a widespread set of sweeping reforms.
And so Josiah is declared by the Jewish historian writing the books of the Kings
            to have been a Good King, a faithful and consequently successful ruler,
            who pleased God and was rewarded accordingly.
And I just want us to stop and think for a moment
            about whether we think God really works in this way?
Does God always reward faith and punish disobedience?
            Certainly many of us will have been brought up
            to believe that this is the case…
The theology of Deuteronomy is alive and well
            in the contemporary Christian church,
and it takes various shapes,
            from the more extreme gospels of wealth and prosperity
            to the moralising crusades of those who would demonise the LGBTQ community.
The temptation to equate success with God’s blessing is always before us,
            but when we stop for a moment and think about it
we know, don’t we, that sometimes good things happen to bad people,
            and that bad things happen to good people?
Read the book of Job if you’re in any doubt!
So what are we to make of this story from ancient Israel,
            of a Good King who reforms the religious life of his country
            in search of God’s blessings?
Well, I wonder, what are we hearing God say to us
            as we ‘fix up’ our own house of God?
What word of the Lord will guide us in the coming years?
            What wisdom will we uncover that will shape our community going forwards?
What we will not hear, I hope and pray,
            is a message of fear,
where God is poised to bring down divine judgment
            on those who get it wrong.
We need a word for our time,
            and our time is not Josiah’s time.
I do not believe that reform in our time
            will be a purging reform focussed on scapegoating the supposedly sinful.
But there’s an interesting cameo in Josiah’s story,
            which can I think point us in a helpful direction:
and that’s the visit Hilkiah the High Priest makes to the female Prophet Huldah.
We cannot underestimate how significant it is
            that the religious elite go to consult this holy woman.
In a male dominated culture,
            and in a biblical text where women are hardly even named,
            and when they are it is usually in the context
                        of them being property, wives, or mothers,
            we meet the Prophet Huldah who speaks for God
                        into the highest levels of society.
As we discern God’s call on our community,
            as we seek to hear God’s message for our time, and our building,
we need to listen to the marginalised, the excluded, and the oppressed,
            because it is likely that God’s voice will be heard through their voices.
As we learn to listen to the least, and to put God first,
            we may begin to discover a religious reform for our time,
where the competing loyalties of our age,
            the economic, social, and political forces that clamour for attention,
are relativized before the God who calls us to follow the counter-cultural path
            of radical love, radical inclusion, and radical justice.
The book of Deuteronomy contains the great command,
            that echoes down to us directly from Josiah’s temple,
            via the voice of Jesus himself:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.
            You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart
            and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deut 6.4-5 // Lk 10.27 //s)
Putting God first never goes out of fashion,
            because it has never been fashionable to do so.
But if we want to hear the word of God for how we live our lives,
            how we spend our money and resources,
            and how we interact with one another,
then it is, in truth, the only place to start.
And so I do think we need to recover the word of God in our time,
            and I think we need to remember that when God speaks,
            what God speaks is a person.
As the opening of John’s gospel tells us,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
            and the Word was God. 
He was in the beginning with God. 
                3 All things came into being through him,
                and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
            and the life was the light of all people. 
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.
When God speaks salvation,
            God does not speak a text but a person,
the divine Word is the Word made flesh,
            and word of God we need to recover, to rediscover,
            is the God of love and justice revealed in the person of Christ Jesus.
So, to return to my question from the beginning,
            of ‘What God lives here’, of ‘What God dwells in this place’,
The answer, I hope we will discover together,
            is the God of love made known to us in Jesus,
            revealed to us as we are attentive to the least and the lost.
The question that Josiah may well ask us,
            is whether we are listening carefully enough?

Monday 6 November 2023

Sorrow and Love

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
12 November 2023 – Remembrance Sunday 

Hosea 11.1-9

Friends, we just sung a great truth,
            one which we need to hear on a day such as today.
Did you notice it in the words of the hymn?
            “Sorrow and love flow mingled down”
This wonderfully evocative line from Isaac Watts,
            invites us to reflect on the emotions of the crucifixion.
And the next line takes us deeper into the juxtaposition:
            “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet”
‘Love and sorrow’, ‘sorrow and love’:
            the anguished finality of death,
            and the absolute faithfulness of God.
Today we gather today on Remembrance Sunday,
            to remember and honour the sacrifice of so many in war,
            and to commit ourselves once again to the Christ-like path of peace,
and I think this combination of ‘sorrow and love’
            captures for us something of the tragedy of lost lives,
            the heartbreak of lost loved ones;
            the cost of war on all who live and die under its shadow.
But it also invites us to enter into the deep emotions of loss,
            to consider our own experiences of tragedy and bereavement,
as they merge into the deep theological tragedy
            of God’s own child dying before his time.
It evokes for us feelings of hopelessness, futility, and grief,
            overwhelming yet somehow contained
            within an overwhelming moment of divine love.
There is a deep mystery here:
            ‘sorrow and love’,
            tragedy and hope,
            futility and faith, flowing mingled down.
And the mystery of the Trinity, I think, can help us here,
            as we seek to understand
                        that the cross is not God sending the Son to his death;
            but rather that in the death of the Son,
                        God too suffers and dies.
The cross is God’s entering into the depth of human suffering,
            God becoming at one with us in our most vulnerable moments of mortality,
            God dying as we all must one day die.
As Jurgen Moltmann memorably put it,
            on the cross we meet ‘The Crucified God’.
Let me read a quote for you from this wonderful book,
When God becomes human in Jesus of Nazareth,
            God not only enters into the finitude of what it means to be human,
but in his death on the cross
            also enters into the situation of humanity's godforsakenness.
Jesus … does not die the natural death of a finite being,
            but the violent death of the criminal on the cross,
            the death of complete abandonment by God.
The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment,
            rejection by God, his loving parent.
God does not become a religion,
            so that humans participate in him
            by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings.
God does not become a law,
            so that humans participate in him
            through obedience to a law.
God does not become an ideal,
            so that humanity achieves community with him
            through constant striving.
Rather he humbles himself
            and takes upon himself the eternal death
            of the godless and the godforsaken,
so that all the godless and the godforsaken
            can experience communion with him. [1]
This way of understanding of the cross tells us that God was present
            at the Somme, at Ypres, and at Passchendaele,
not as a divine General directing the troops
            to die in the name of a higher purpose,
but as a Tommy in the trenches,
            facing the enemy with intermingled fear and courage,
            doing his duty with love and sorrow.
‘Sorrow and love flow mingled down’:
            this is the God of the cross.
And this phrase from the hymn
            also captures some of the complexities
inherent in our reading this morning from the prophet Hosea. [2]
Here we have another poet,
            also writing a hymn to reflect on where God is,
            in the face of human frailty and suffering.
The poet Hosea, from ancient Israel,
            draws on imagery from across the spectrum,
as if grasping desperately for a metaphor, however inadequate,
            to capture the turmoil brewing in God’s heart.
And so in quick succession he introduces us
            to Israel as a recalcitrant son (v. 2),
                        as one who is idolatrous (v. 2),
            as an ungrateful patient of the divine healer (v. 3),
                        as wandering livestock (v. 4),
            as recipients of divine tenderness (v. 4),
and ultimately, as one hell bent on turning from God (vv. 5, 7).
All of this imagery,
            piled quickly upon itself in the opening verses of Hosea’s song,
is used to communicate one thing:
            that despite God’s history of tender care and concern for Israel,
the story of God’s people
            is of those who consistently reject that tender care
            in favour of following their own inclinations.
Hosea’s poem begins with a painful recollection
            of times that God has previously showed love and tenderness to his people,
            only to be rejected time and time again (vv. 1-5).
Ancient Israel’s “childhood” is recalled,
            with the prophet remembering that God called his son out of Egypt (v. 1),
a line we will be hearing again in a few weeks
            when we get to the Christmas story
            and we recall God’s son Jesus going to Egypt with Mary and Joseph.
But here it is referring to Israel’s release
            from the oppression of the Pharaoh,
the wanderings in the wilderness,
            and the entry into the promised land.
In Hosea’s poem, the sweetness of this experience of liberation,
            is quickly soured by Israel’s subsequent acts of disobedience.
The text summarizes Israel’s story in this way:
            The more Israel was called by God,
            the more they rebelled against God (v. 2).
So blind had God’s people become
            that they couldn’t even recognize who was healing them (v. 3).
And I just want to pause for a moment here, and hear that again.
So blind had God’s people become
            that they couldn’t even recognize who was healing them.
This surely is a perfect description of human sin,
            the inability to perceive one’s redeemer as anything but an enemy!
And just as with all of us, sin brings consequences,
            so and in ancient Israel’s life
                        their turning away from God’s will and ways
            triggered the rising up of the nations against them (vv. 5-7):
                        foreign domination ensues (v. 5),
                        with the raging and devouring sword afflicting them (v. 6).
For even Israel, God’s chosen and beloved people,
            it will seem as if God ignores their prayers (v. 7):
God’s beloved will become God’s forsaken.
Sometimes the path to liberation from sin involves a confrontation
            with the seriousness of the results of our actions.
Forgiveness is not absolution from consequences,
            and sin can open the way to hell on earth.
Sometimes there is no path out,
            merely a path through.
The psalmist of course knew this
            when they spoke of their journey
            through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps 23).
But the glory of God’s eternal love,
            is that even in the midst of sorrow,
            even in the depths of God-forsakenness,
God is still there.
And so we get an interplay in Hosea’s poem
            between God’s action in confronting Israel
                        with the destructive consequences of their sin (vv. 5-6)
            and God’s hiddenness from them at their time of greatest trial (v. 7).
It is the paradox of the cross,
            written large across the story of God’s people,
as sorrow and love flow mingled down,
            with sin and death meeting loss and pain,
            all held within God’s eternal embrace.
Judgment, in ancient Israel’s case, involves both aspects:
            God afflicts Israel through the agency of the nations,
            and God’s face becomes hidden from them.
When God hides,
            and God’s face is often hidden from us
            in moments of great human sin,
then terrors are unleashed,
            and the redeemer and liberator of our souls
            is suddenly out of reach.
This is the bind of sin;
            we turn from God,
            and we find that God is no longer visible to us.
This is the hell of war,
            as humans descend into the depths of killing,
and the only saviour we can see
            is the salvation found through yet more violence.
And yet… the message of Hosea
            is that no matter how bad it gets.
No matter how great the sin, no matter how great the betrayal,
            no matter how great the violence,
God does not give up on humanity.
Paul too grasped this truth,
            writing to assure the Christians in Rome:
For if while we were enemies
            we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son,
much more surely, having been reconciled,
            will we be saved by his life.’ (Romans 5.10)
The God of Hosea’s poem
            is the same God spoken of by Paul;
a God who chooses, quite apart from human initiative,
            to be reconciled with God’s own enemies.
In a world of enmity,
            when people fight to the death over land and ideology,
without warning,
            God’s heart is strangely warmed (v.8).
A series of anguished questions in the poem
            reveals that God’s turning away was, from the perspective of eternity,
                        but a moment (Psalm 30.5)
            “How can I give you up?” God exclaims (v.8)
Just the thought of ignoring God’s people, refusing their prayers,
            brings God out from behind the locked door of concealment,
and into the open, where God is available again
            as a God of compassion and mercy.
However deep the pit that humans dig for themselves,
            it is never deep enough to keep out the light of God’s love for eternity.
But let’s be clear:
            this shift from absence to compassion
                        was not prompted by any human deed,
            it comes from God’s resolve alone,
                        God’s free choice to be a God of compassion.
In the face of all the reasons why God might choose absence,
            all the reasons why God might choose vengeance,
nonetheless Hosea’s insight is that God chooses presence,
            God chooses reconciliation.
Between vv. 7-8 there is no change in Israel,
            only a change in God.
But rejecting hiddenness, God brings forth new promises:
            proclaiming “I will not execute my fierce anger,
                        I will not again destroy Ephraim” (v. 9).
As Walter Brueggemann has shown,
            God not only resolves to set aside God’s anger,
God in fact takes the righteous divine judgment
            into God’s own self. 
And so we’re back at the cross,
            God on the cross, absorbing into the broken body of the son
            all the pain, all the hurt, all the agony of broken humanity.
The key insight to this is found in v. 8,
            where God resolves not to give Israel up like the cities of Admah and Zeboiim,
            which were destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah
                        (Deuteronomy 29:23; cf. Genesis 10:19).
The term used to describe the overturning of God’s heart here
            is the same term used to describe the overthrowing
            of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:21.
In other words, Israel’s sin
            is here compared to the sin of the cities destroyed in Genesis 18-19,
but where Hosea 11 differs from Genesis
            is in its insistence that God would absorb the judgment Israel deserved.
As Brueggemann puts,
            “God resolves to contain the ‘earthquake’ in God’s own life.”
Israel deserved judgement, but what it got was mercy,
            obtained through a God who was willing to suffer for their sins.
And so we’re back at the cross,
            and God suffering for us and with us.
When Christians think about God’s willingness
            to suffer on behalf of sinful humans,
            they often think about Christ hanging from the cross.
But Hosea’s poem, written in the face of the consequences of human sin,
            helps us realize that the cross
                        is not a new development in the life of God,
            rather it represents who God is fundamentally.
The cross is a climactic moment,
            but one that is situated along an already existent trajectory. 
In Christ, God does not become a suffering God;
            rather, Christ makes flesh God’s eternally deep longing
                        to always be among God’s people,
            a longing that reaches back into the history of God’s revelation
                        and forwards to our own experience
                        of what it means to be sinful humans in our time and context.
God’s willingness to suffer on behalf of creation,
            is supremely seen in Christ,
who takes into himself not only sinful human rage
            but also divine absence.
The cry of dereliction from the cross:
            ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’
is the cry of every sinner reaching the depths of their fractured-ness,
            and yet it is also the cry of the one
who finds in the depths of their despair
            that God has not, in the end, abandoned them.

[1] This quote is lightly amended to correct exclusive language.
[2] This sermon draws extensively on Michael Chan’s commentary