LIFE ON THE VINE:
Being a prophet seems like a privilege. It seems a special gift to hear Gods voice. But consider poor Hosea. The Lord's first words to Hosea were brutal: Go marry a prostitute, and some of her children will be born to you from other men. Why isn't the Lord a little more sociable? There's no welcome to the life of a prophet" speech. There's no small talk to break the ice, not even a simple "hello."
Why would the Lord ask such a thing? Didnt he read the Bible? It is not right to marry a fornicator or adulterer. Why would the Lord ask someone to do this? God's explanation is that Hosea is supposed to do this so that his life will become a living illustration of Gods relationship with his people. You see, Gods wife has not been very faithful to him. Gods people have been unfaithful to him even though he has been faithful to the covenant.
So Hosea marries Gomer. He will remain faithful to their vows even though she will break them. On the day of the wedding she marches out to Here comes the bride and she is already making eyes at the groomsmen. In short time the couple have children and Hosea has to wonder if they are all his. Two of his children are named "Not Loved" and "Not Mine." Two innocent children stuck with names that are drenched in sin. If the story is breaking your heart, then you get the point: Gods heart was breaking because his people were unfaithful to him although he was faithful many times over. Hosea embodies the faithfulness of God in his life and preaching which reveals to us some very important truths about faithfulness and the faithfulness of God:
First, God binds himself to the people and creation He loves. The LORD is not the unemotional, logical God of the Greeks and philosophers. He is passionate about the people and the world he has created and he binds himself to us in a relationship of love. God instructs Hosea to embody this same covenant bond with his wife, Gomer. We might say that Hosea has scriptural cause to divorce his wife, but rather than follow his legitimate right to divorce his unfaithful wife, Hosea redeems her and takes her back: Then the LORD said to me, "Go and get your wife again. Bring her back to you and love her, even though she loves adultery. For the LORD still loves Israel even though the people have turned to other gods, offering them choice gifts." Hosea 3:1
Hosea does this to illustrate the faithful character of God who binds himself in covenant love to the people he created. God himself says of his unfaithful people: Oh, how can I give you up, Israel? How can I let you go? How can I destroy you like Admah and Zeboiim? My heart is torn within me, and my compassion overflows. 9No, I will not punish you as much as my burning anger tells me to. I will not completely destroy Israel, for I am God and not a mere mortal. I am the Holy One living among you, and I will not come to destroy. Hosea 11 This reveals to us that God is faithful even when we are unfaithful. Hosea takes Gomer back. And God, because of his faithfulness and love, takes back the people who have unfaithfully cheated on him. I will show love to those I called `Not loved.' And to those I called `Not my people,' I will say; `Now you are my people.' Then they will reply, `You are our God!' Hosea 2
Faithfulness is the character of God. This isnt a unique quality of Gods relationship with Israel. This is the way God treats all of creation. This is the way God treats us even when we are unfaithful. The New Testament affirms: Some of [the Israelites] were unfaithful; but just because they broke their promises, does that mean God will break his promises? Of course not! Though everyone else in the world is a liar, God is true. (Romans 3:3-4) If we are unfaithful, God remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself. 2 Timothy 2:13
Gods faithfulness is not self-centered. It is faithfulness that is directed toward the other. It is directed toward us. We are called to cultivate the fruit of the spirit in our lives and our life together. Consider what this means. This means that we are called to live in faithfulness to God and also with one another. But we know this is difficult because we have all been touched by the pain of unfaithfulness in some way. Why is it difficult to cultivate faithfulness?
We live in a culture of disposables. One day in 1954, an industrial desinger named Brooks Stevens spoke at an advertising conference in Minneapolis. The title of his talk was Planned Obsolescense which he defined as the strategy to "Instill in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." Stevens has not given his talk much thought and was essentially speaking about ideas he had been advancing for years, but that talk in Minneapolis caught on. Manufacturers and marketers began to see the profit in producing items that designed to be obsolete very quickly or even disposable. So what had originally been an abstract concept that Stevens had pulled from his hat had now become a concrete theory.
We now live in a culture fully entrenched in this theory. Rather than service those items that serve us we just throw them away. We have disposable napkins, plates, razors, diapers, contact lenses, cameras, cell phones. Even the space program was disposable to a certain degree! Even items we dont think of as disposable have become disposable. Why service a car to last for 20 years when we can just keep trading in a car for the latest model? Who buys a computer thinking that it will be something to pass down to the next generation? It was obsolete when you bought it. We enjoy disposable because it is convenient. These items are useful because they are short-lived. They are not artistic or beautiful, they are utilitarian. Items are not even built to last. They are impermanent. And we have no sense of faithfulness to these tools and goods. That would contradict the convenience of being disposable.
But our disposable culture has influenced more than material goods. We now have a disposable workforce. Workers are hired on an impermanent basis to provide additional labor as needed. The advantage is that there is no long-term commitment given to these disposable workers. Our culture understands the notion of disposable income throwaway money that is not faithfully committed to any purpose but is just spent frivolously. Now is it any stretch to recognize that we often have disposable relationships? Everything from friendships based on mutual benefit to sexual partnerships. Even church relationships might be regarded as impermanent and people may leave a church when it no longer meets their needs. Why not keep our options open? Why commit to something that may not work whether it is employment, community involvement, or relationships.
As much as we might like to imagine that relationships like marriage, family, church, work and community are impermanent and disposable, they still hurt when they fall apart. Because of this, our culture tends to avoid commitments. Think of how often we come across the words no obligation. And these words are always a good thing. No risk, no obligation. Just try it for free. No strings attached. Why is this appealing? Because obligation and commitment seems to complicate our lives: Years ago, a friend once told me how much he feared getting married because it would mean the loss of his self-identity. I fussed with him at the time and tried to tell him that this wasnt true. Now I know that he was right and I was wrong. Commitment is always directed toward the other. My friend knew this. But heres what he and I both needed to learn that a life directed toward others is more in line with the image of God. God made us as communal creatures not to be alone! But when we safeguard our independence and autonomy at all costs we cultivate unfaithfulness.
Ways of cultivating faithfulness:
Establish a positive definition of faithfulness. We tend to define faithfulness in negative terms (like we do when we define goodness as not being bad). When it comes to marriage, we assume that we are faithful as long as we do not cheat on our spouse. But faithfulness calls us to do more than avoid dissolving the marriage. This doesnt say anything positive about marital faithfulness. We need to cultivate a positive meaning for faithfulness. In Eph. 5:21-6:9, Paul describes relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, even masters and slaves. The model for all the relationships is Christ. Everyone is called to submit to one another out of respect for Christ. That is a positive, active definition of other-directed faithfulness. Not simply faithfulness by default since we havent been unfaithful.
One writer has said that what people are really longing for is a truthful community. But it is necessary that we talk about our sins and weaknesses without fear of being totally rejected. This is why faithfulness is so important. If I am faithful to you then we can both help each other become more than what we are today. If we are faithful to one another because we know how God has been faithful to us and we are faithful to him, then we know that we are all striving to become what God wants us to be.
- Cherish the power of promise. Early in my ministry I was frequently asked to perform church weddings for people who are not a part of any church. I was puzzled. I wondered why people who had no commitment to Christ or church wanted a church wedding. And why were they asking me? I found out that they asked me because other ministers and churches refused them. This led me to realize that people inside the church and outside the church viewed a church wedding as a sort of magical rite that sealed a marriage with divine power. I wasnt comfortable with this at all, for if it were true, the power was ineffective 50% of the time. This experience led me to write something into my wedding ceremony that I consider very important and biblical. It is based on Jesus teaching in Matthew 5:33-37. Rather than swear ritual oaths, Jesus says, Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. So at every wedding I speak of the power of a promise kept. Keeping a vow made before God and the church is more powerful than any so-called magic. When you see a couple that have let their Yes be Yes through hardships and trials and even sin, then you know that faithfulness involves cherishing the power of a promise.
- Tell the truth. Have you ever had a friend you could be completely honest with? You are able to be so honest because you share a bond of faithfulness that looks past the failings. But more than that, the honesty of the relationship demands that we become more than what we currently are. This is the way it is supposed to be in the body of Christ. We speak the truth in love but not to judge or condemn. We tell the truth in the context of loving faithfulness to God and one another so that we might become more like Christ. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.
The only way you and I can cultivate a culture of faithfulness is to imagine and remember the reality of Gods steadfast love and faithfulness being recreated among us every day. Hosea did this in his marriage. And another prophet who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem imagined this faithfulness and renewal when, standing among the smoking rubble of the holy city he sang out:
Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The unfailing love of the LORD never ends! By his mercies we have been kept from complete destruction. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each day. I say to myself, The LORD is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him! Lamentations 3:21-24
West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 27 November 2005
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