August 26, 2012

Rev. John Watts

NampaFirst UMC


Hosea 11:1-9

Today’s title comes from Brother Lawrence.  He lived in Francein the 1600’s.  He was born Nicholas Herman.  He took the new name when he became a priest and entered the monastery.  He made his vows to God assuming that these vows meant he was giving up all the things he loved about life.  But he was willing to forsake earthly happiness in order to serve God.  And then he discovered how wrong he had been.  In the monastery he found a happiness deeper and stronger and more wonderful than he ever dreamed possible. And that’s when he said to God, “You have outwitted me.”

Brother Lawrence’s story reminds me of a poem that may be familiar to you.

I asked for riches that I might be happy;

I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;

I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;

I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered.

In other words, “You have outwitted me.”   In other words, God knows best.  Some of us are old enough to remember that old television show, “Father Knows Best.”  Our Heavenly Father really does know best!  We think we know best.  We think we know what we want and need.  We think we know how to direct our own lives.  And God lets us think that.  God even lets us throw our lives away.  But God is determined to keep after us, to not give up on us, to rescue us from ourselves, and to show us the path for our lives that truly is best.

There was young man whose father was a doctor.  The father wanted his son to be a doctor, too.  The son went to medical school not wanting to let his father down, but knowing this just didn’t feel right.  He graduated but then wasn’t able to pass the boards to get his license.  Three times he tried.  Three times he failed.

By now he’s 25 years old.  He cut himself off completely from his family and his friends.  He became addicted to drugs.  He was living on the streets ofLondon, starving.  It was a prostitute who rescued him and gave him shelter.

His family eventually tracked him down and convinced him to get treatment for his addiction.  It was while his life, that had hit rock bottom, was started finally to climb out of that pit, that Francis Thompson wrote that famous autobiographical poem that he called, “The Hound of Heaven.”

I fled him down the nights and down the days

I fled him down the arches of the years;

I fled him down the labyrinthine ways

of my own mind; and in the mist of tears

I hid from him, and under running laughter

up vistaed hopes I sped

and shot, precipitated,

Down titanic glooms of chasmed fear

from those strong feet that followed,

followed after.

But with unperturbed pace,

deliberate speed, majestic instancy

they beat — and a voice beat

more instantly than the feet:

“All things betray thee, who betrayest me.”

The Hound of Heaven.  That’s what God is like.  Hounds are often used in hunting.  I don’t know much about hunting so I called Rick Thayer and he helped me.  Hunting dogs are used especially to track down bears or mountain lions.  It’s quite a process.  They set up a bait station that draws the animal in looking for food and in the process acquiring a strong scent that the dogs will recognize.  There’s a lead dog who is given a whiff of this scent.  He will recognize this scent and he will follow it wherever it goes.  Typically the chase ends with the animal up a tree, or as you see here, in some other place that is a dead end (picture on screen of mountain lion backed up against the edge of a cliff).

The chase doesn’t usually end well for the animal being hunted and often it doesn’t end well for the dogs.  The Humane Society I understand has some issues with hunting this way.  So this isn’t a perfect analogy.  Please don’t think of God as a pack of wild dogs out to tear you to shreds!  Think of God maybe more as Lassie, bound and determined to find a way to get to Timmy if Timmy needs help.   God is the “Hound of Heaven”.  God is after you.  God will not give up on you.  God loves you way too much to ever let you go.

We read this morning from Hosea.  This is one of my favorite passages of scripture.  It’s beautifully written.  It reads like poetry.  But more than that, it reveals to us a truth about God that simply boggles the mind.

In the days of Hosea, and we’re talking about 800 years before the time of Christ, God was feared more than God was loved.  It was just assumed, it was conventional wisdom, that God was remote and distant and uncaring and had as little to do with human life as possible.  After all, why would God Almighty, Creator and Ruler of the universe even bother himself with a tiny nuisance of a nation calledIsrael?

Hosea told his people that their conventional wisdom was wrong.  God does loveIsrael.  God won’t letIsraelgo.  Why?  The covenant.  Hosea says, “Don’t you remember the covenant that God made with our fathers, with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob?”  Actually God made the covenant with their mothers, too.  With all their people, with the whole nation.  God said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”  The covenant, according to Hosea, is the secret to understanding God.  Not all the adjectives we associate with kings — transcendence, power, sovereignty, judgment.  But loyalty, faithfulness, patience, forgiveness, trustworthiness —  all the adjectives we associate with . . .  Ready?  With marriage.  That’s how we are to think of God.

Hosea was the first prophet to have the courage to say that.  The covenant was made by God withIsraelas if God andIsraelwere married.  And so in the early chapters of Hosea we see thatIsraelis like a wife that has run away from a marriage.  Under the law, the husband would have every right to let her go.  Most husbands would do that, especially in those days, and nobody would blame them.  But here’s the truth about God that is so stunning:  God won’t do that.  God honors the covenant.  Even though the wife has dishonored her end of the covenant, even though the wife has run away, the husband won’t give up on her.  Because they are still married.  God made a promise and it’s a promise God will keep.  God will never give up onIsrael.  God will be forIsraelthe Hound of Heaven.

Once we get to chapter 11 we see the metaphor has shifted.  It’s shifted to a covenant that is even stronger and deeper than that between husband and wife.  He’s talking now about the covenant between parent and child.  Hosea says God is the parent.  This could be either mother or father.   Any parent who’s had a child can relate.

The child inIsrael’s case has been a handful, to put it mildly.  Rebellious, disobedient, disrespectful.  So what’s a parent to do?  God agonizes over this:

WhenIsraelwas a child, I loved him, and out ofEgyptI called my son.  The more I called them, the more they went from me; yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.

That is a parent talking!

Those of you who have had that privilege, remember what a joy it was to teach you child to walk?  Holding both hands first, then one hand, then letting go and catching as they fell, and finally those very first steps.  The child doesn’t remember that.  No parent can ever forget.  “I taught Ephraim to walk.”

Or that night when the child was so sick, maybe even in the hospital.  And you held your child to ease her suffering.  To calm the fear.  The child doesn’t remember that.  The parent will never forget that.  “I took him up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them . . . How can I give you up, O Ephraim?”

By the way, the name Ephraim here meansIsrael.  These two names are used interchangeably.

How can I give you up, O Ephraim!  How can I hand you over, O Israel!  My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy.

You read Hosea and you see God is determined to keep his promise.  That’s what a covenant is.  That’s all it is.  It is as precious as a promise, and as fragile.  God’s keeps his promise.  That’s the central truth of the Bible.  In fact, if you want to boil the message of the Bible down to one sentence, how about this?:  God always keeps his promise.  And in one sentence, the essence of faith in God:  Trusting that God will keep his promise.  And if you want to know what makes faith so difficult, in one sentence:  Sometimes it appears that God does not keep his promise.  If fact, sometimes is appears that all those people before Hosea were right.  God is remote, and distant, and uncaring, and unfeeling, and separated from us.

Forty years ago the sanctity of the Olympics was defaced forever by an act of terrorism.  1972. Munich.  These were the Olympic Games that would repair the image of the Germans.  The horrors of Nazi Germany had ended 27 years earlier.  The Holocaust.  The slaughter of six million Jews.  It was time to show the world that a new day had dawned.  In fact, to make that point as striking as possible, security for the 1972 Olympics was practically non-existent.  No more “armed camp”.  These were to be “the joyous games”.  The world would get a vision of the peace and the harmony that was possible, even in the shadow of death camps that  were now tourist destinations.

And then in the middle of the night, dressed in track suits, carrying gym bags filled with weapons and ammunition, a new evil entered Olympic Village.  Before it was over, 16 were dead, 11 Jewish athletes and 5 Arab terrorists.   Jews had again been slaughtered on German soil.

The question is often asked, Where was God during the Holocaust?   It is also asked, Where was God during theMunichmassacre?  I don’t have an answer for either question.  There are times when it appears that God has forgotten his promise.  And that’s what makes faith so difficult.

I’m sure you’ve all had moments like that.  You prayed that most basic prayer of all, “Help!”  And it was as if God wasn’t listening.  It was as if God wasn’t there.  And you wondered, Where is God?  Maybe you wondered, Is there a God?

I don’t have the answers.  All I know that in the Bible faith is not defined as having the answers.  Oh yes, there is that passage in Second Timothy we looked at last week.  But the consistent message of the rest of the Bible is that faith is more like having courage to keep going even though we don’t have the answers.  Faith means trusting God’s covenant. Trusting that God is that Hound of Heaven who is always in pursuit.  Trusting that God knows best and is always outwitting us.  Trusting that  what makes no sense today will one day make sense.

Here’s what Paul says about faith.  “We see through a glass darkly” (I Cor 13:12).  “We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist” (Eugene Peterson translation).  In other words, our ability to clearly see eternal things is limited.  But Paul continues,  “Then we will see face to face.”  Then, not now.  “Now I know in part, then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.”

That’s the covenant.  We may not understand God, but God understands us.  Biblical faith is trust that God knows us.  We may not know all the answers about God, but God knows us and loves us and will never leave us.

A.J. Ayer was a brilliant man.  He was a philosopher.  His name is associated with a whole branch of philosophy known as “logical positivism”.  If you want to know what that means, don’t ask me.

A.J. Ayer was an atheist.  He believed there was nothing more to this universe than the physical.  If you couldn’t observe it and measure it, it wasn’t real.  It didn’t exist.  It fact he was such a persuasive atheist that the story goes that when Somerset Maugham was dying he asked for A.J. Ayer to come to his bedside to reassure him that there was no life after death.

A year before A.J. Ayer died, he suffered a heart attack.  His heart stopped beating for four full minutes.  Then the doctors were able to bring him back.  And guess what?  A.J. Ayer had the same kind of an out of body experience that many believers have when they are on the threshold of death.  He said that he saw a light.  And somehow he knew that that light was responsible for the governance of the universe.  His spirit was on the way out.  He was on his way to the next world.  And then the doctors revived him and that spirit had to turn around and live for one more year in that old body.

That happens to a lot of people.  They almost die and they come back.  They tell us what it’s like.  The consistency of their stories is remarkable.  There’s a light.  There’s a wonderful feeling.  There’s a reunion.  And what didn’t make sense in this world begins to make sense.

A.J. Ayer, the world famous atheist, had one of these experiences.  But you know what he said about it?  He said the experience left his atheism in tact, though slightly weakened.  Here’s what he wrote:  “My conviction that my genuine death would be the end of me may not be true, though I continue to hope that it will be.”

But you know what he should have said?  If he had any sense of humor at all, the kind of humor that goes hand in hand with faith.  If his brain hadn’t been so scrambled by his lifelong addiction to atheism, you know what he should have said when he saw that light?  “You have outwitted me.”

God, you have our scent, you are tracking us down, and run as we might to get away from you, we’re no match for you.  We can keep running.   We can keep telling ourselves we know best.   Or we can stop, we can surrender, we can let ourselves be caught.  We can discover that being caught by you is truly the only possible way we can be free.  Speak to our hearts.  And if our heads get in the way, may we listen to our hearts.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.