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

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