David A. Davis
June 11, 2023
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Plucking a few verses to read from one of the books of the Hebrew prophets is sort of like walking into the middle of an ongoing conversation, often a tense conversation. Imagine yourself walking up to two of your friends at a party. It’s one of those times where the two say hello and give you a nice smile but they clearly have no intention of changing whatever topic they are talking about. So, you just listen for a while, feeling a bit awkward standing there with your plate of cheese and crackers. The conversation seems a bit intense, but it takes you a few moments in their exchange to have any idea what they are talking about. Soon enough you catch on that they are airing differing opinions, differing strong opinions. The topic itself could be almost anything: news from the front page, politics, a local school issue, the starting lineup on a kids’ soccer team, or parenting. Once you figure out what they’re talking about, you start to scan the room for another face, another snack, you plan your exit strategy because this conversation was not how you planned to spend a Friday evening.
Reading our text for this morning from the prophet Hosea is sort of like finding yourself in the middle of a tense conversation. But the talk is not about a topic, or a disagreement. The conversation is about the relationship. You’re invited over to a friend’s house for dinner. You watch almost in slow motion without any ability to stop it as Lizette, your best from high school, and her mother start to hash out more than a few things right there at the table you wish you could crawl under. You’re out at a restaurant with a couple you’ve known for years and the evening starts to turn. A comment here, an attempt at humor there and you watch a depth of brokenness and hurt rise to the surface. Those kinds of moments when you can sense the tension in the room before the words come out. The kind of encounter where you realize there’s more going on than you can really know; that there’s a whole more here than meets the eye, or the ear.
The book of Hosea is about relationship, faithfulness, unfaithfulness. It’s about figuring out relationship amid all kinds of outside distractions. It’s about attending to relationship when there are numerous challenges and complexities that are tearing away at that primary love and devotion, when there are objects and forces and others competing for such love and devotion, when the everyday and often harsh realities of living in tumultuous times threaten even the best of relationship, and its love and devotion. Hosea is a book about relationship written at a time when Israel’s religious life was again threatened by idolatrous practices, politics, and the ambition and power of world leaders. As one commentator put it, “the nation was without a moral compass and headed in a disastrous direction.” This morning you and I are walking into the middle of a really tough and tense conversation between God and God’s people. A conversation that happens at a time when the world around is falling apart around and the relationship between them is hanging by a thread.
It’s God we hear first. “I am going back to my place until my people acknowledge their guilt and seek my face. In their distress, they are going to beg for my favor.”
Then comes the response from the people. “Come, let us return to the Lord. It is the Lord who has torn and the Lord who will heal. God who has struck us down, God who will bind us up. In two days God will revive us. On the third day God will raise us up so we can once again live before the Lord. Let us know, let us press on, let us press on to know, let us press on to know the Lord. God’s presence is as sure as the rising sun. The Lord will surely come to us like showers, like spring rains. Come, let us return, let us sing, let us pray, let us adore the one who waters the earth!”
“What am I going to do with you? What am I going to do with you? What am I supposed to do”, says the Lord. “Your love, it’s like a morning cloud that burns off as the sun comes up, like a morning dew that goes away so early. What am I supposed to do with that? What am going to do with you?”
In the drama of the Book of Hosea, the Lord breaks the fourth wall and now turns to those of us who are quickly becoming uncomfortable as we listen in. God turns away from those expressing what must be fleeting devotion with empty words and God addresses the audience that now finds itself unable to turn away from the awkwardness. God turns to those of us who are leaning in. “I have snipped, trimmed, and cut them back by the prophets, just about killed them with my words, my judgment could not be more clear, it goes forth like the light. What am I supposed to do? And now speaking, pleading, to any and all who would listen then, now, and forever, God proclaims, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings”. Steadfast love and not sacrifice.”
Like a lover who knows that their Beloved is just not getting it, God shakes a head, and with a broken heart, whispers and repeats just about forever, “steadfast love…steadfast love….steadfast love.” God forever repeating “steadfast love”.
According to Matthew, Jesus was at dinner in a house with many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this dinner party unfolding before their holy eyes and they said to the followers of Jesus, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus, of course, heard their grumbling, It wasn’t because Jesus had miraculous, messianic ears that he knew what they said. It was because most self-righteous, arrogantly pious people are really unable to whisper. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a doctor, but only those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” I desire mercy, not sacrifice. Jesus quoting Hosea. God repeating forever, “steadfast love”, mercy, in Hebrew, hesed.
One day on the Sabbath, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grainfield. The disciples are hungry so they began to pluck the heads of grain and eat. In the narrative, the Pharisees miraculously appear like paparazzi not there to take pictures but to speak for the law and for all things religious. “Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” Jesus gave them a piece of his mind; mentioning David, the temple, priests, the sabbath, and the Son of Man. “If you had only known what this means,” Jesus says, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’, you would not have condemned the guiltless.” Jesus didn’t stop there with just his words. He leaves that field, goes straight to the synagogue, and heals the man with the withered hand. He heals him on the Sabbath! (Mt 12) Mercy, not sacrifice. Jesus quoting, living the prophet’s words. God repeating forever, “steadfast love”, mercy, in Hebrew, hesed.
Hesed. As in the words of the psalmist: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for God will speak peace to God’s people, to the Lord’s faithful, to those who turn to God in their hearts. Surely God’s salvation is at hand for those who fear the Lord, that God’s glory may dwell in our Land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.” (Ps 85). Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet. Hesed and faithfulness will meet. Hesed.
As in the prophet Micah: “The Lord has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Love kindness. Kindness. Or in Hebrew, hesed. Kindness. Mercy Steadfast love. God repeating forever, to God’s people, to the followers of Jesus, to the church, to you, to me…steadfast love. Hesed.
Professor Kathi Sakenfeld suggests in an entry to a dictionary of the Old Testament that hesed pretty much sums up the Ten Commandments in one word. My friend Rabbi Adam Feldman once told me that hesed is kindness in action. Not just a one off, not just kindness here and there, but kindness over and over and over again. At a time when the world around is falling apart around and the relationship is hanging by a thread, God calls God’s people to kindness, to mercy, to steadfast love. Hesed.
Twice in Matthew Jesus quotes Hosea. In the New Testament Greek, the word translates as “mercy” or “compassion”. Interestingly, if I have done my homework right, the term “steadfast love” never appears in the New Testament. It is as if the New Testament writers, the translators, they knew that “steadfast love” was best understood in the life, ministry, healing, mercy, love, and compassion of Jesus himself. That when it came to “steadfast love” they could only point to him. Jesus as the embodiment and definition of steadfast love. In Christ Jesus, God repeating forever, “steadfast love”. I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice.
The Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, is absolutely full of “steadfast love”, of hesed. The Book of Psalms overflows with steadfast love almost always in reference to the steadfast love of God. Hosea, Micah and the other prophets make the turn to call for the steadfast love, mercy, and kindness from the people of God. At first blush, it would seem strange to suggest that love, kindness, and mercy is prophetic. That love, kindness, and mercy is a threat to the powers of the empire, the principalities of the culture, and those who so deftly distort the gospel for their own gain. That when the faithfulness of the people of God was being threatened by idolatrous practices, politics, and the ambition and power of leaders, that the prophets of God would boldly, clearly, prophetically call for steadfast love, mercy, and kindness.
Who would have thought that steadfast love on the loose among God’s people was prophetic? But it is. At a time and in a world and in a nation where hatred and vitriol and bigotry and calls for violence rule the day, often by those who invoke the name “Christian”? Yes, standing for steadfast love is prophetic. At a time and in a world and in a nation where voices of blasphemy can be heard in pulpits, on airwaves, and in the halls of government invoking the evil idolatry of Christian nationalism? Yes, kindness in action over and over and over again is prophetic. At a time and in a world and in a nation where 11 million children live in poverty, and as Matt Desmond cites in his new book Poverty, by America, 1 and 25 Americans over the age of 65 would have to double their income to make it to the poverty line? Yes, an infectious mercy that inspires a will to work for the common good is prophetic. At a time and in a world and in a nation where the right for women and girl’s to have full access to healthcare and privacy has been weaponized and used to demonize, where the right to love and marry who you want isn’t only under siege once again it may be a threat to your safety, where teaching American history including the teaching of what the patriotic song “American the Beautiful” refers as “thine every flaw” can get an educator fired or worse when it comes to the vigilantism of social media? Yes, an ardent call for steadfast love for all people is prophetic.
Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” The Apostle Paul wrote “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” You and I bearers of the steadfast love of Jesus Christ into the world. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet”, the psalmist writes. At this time, in this world, in this nation, it seems to me that your life of discipleship and mine is all about how and where his steadfast love and our faithfulness meet.
The only thing more awkward than walking into the middle of a tense conversation about a relationship is walking in on a conversation and realizing it has everything to do with you.