Bible Readings: Hosea 11:1-11 & Hosea 14:1-9

Hold on. Let go.

I wonder if you’ve ever had that deeply frustrating experience of calling after someone who just keeps walking away from you as you call. Or a pet. Have you ever had a cat that just ignored you, or even worse, seemed to take you calling as a sign to disappear even further into the bushes? A few years ago a dog called Fenton rose to international fame when a video appeared on line of him in Richmond Park, chasing the deer, with his owner calling his name more and more loudly, with absolutely no effect.

Calling someone who is ignoring you is an experience many of us have had. The emotion and reactions to that experience are ours. According to Hosea they are also God’s. Again and again the prophet uses examples and illustrations that we can connect with to show us what is happening in the relationship between God and God’s people. We’re going to look at some of these pictures today in some detail as we explore what it means to be held by God, to let go of things that weigh us down, and how that might help us to hold on to our love for others.

First, a bit of background to Hosea. He was a prophet, someone who brought God’s word to God’s people. He operated in and around the northern Kingdom of Israel, towards the end of its time as an independent nation. It is not very strong, is ripe for conquest, and the two regional superpowers of the time, Egypt and Assyria, are hovering on the borders.

As we pick up the story in chapter 11 Hosea is quoting God, who is looking back to the past, to the shared history of God and God’s people. God is remembering that time when the people of Israel did not exist. At that point Israel wasn’t even called Israel. There was just a boy, a younger son, called Jacob. He was the grandson of Abraham, the man that God had promised would be the father of a great nation. In fulfilment of this promise, Abraham had a miraculous son in old age, a son called Isaac. Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob. Despite being the younger, it was through Jacob that God’s promises to Abraham would be fulfilled, and it is Jacob who was renamed by God – Israel.

Jacob had 12 sons, each son would become the ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel. The youngest but one son, Joseph, was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers. But, God had other plans, and he rose to become the second most important person in the Kingdom, entrusted by Pharaoh to run the economy. He was in the right place at the right time when his brothers, driven by famine at home, turned up in Pharaoh’s court to buy grain. The family are reconciled, and move down to Egypt. Things go well for while, and God’s people prosper. Too much in fact. They come to be perceived as a threat, and are persecuted and employed as slave labour, until God sends Moses to free them and lead them towards the promised land.

All that story, which in the Bible takes most of Genesis and Exodus to tell if you want to read it for yourselves, is expressed in that one verse – “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”.

But – “the more they called, the more they went away from me”

But just as dogs chasing deer isn’t really funny, neither is the people of God running away from God. It’s not just that they’re running away from God, they’re running towards other things – false gods, idols, things that their own hands have made. It’s heart breaking – and God shows us that broken heart in these poignant images of parenthood – of teaching a toddler to walk, of delighting in their first steps, of tending their grazed knees, of swinging in the air for a hug and bending down sit on a picnic mat and share food together. This is the tender love that God had for God’s people, and now they’re walking away.

The consequences of turning away from God are awful. The people are going to end up back in slavery, carried away from the land of promise, off to Assyria and even back to Egypt. Their cities will be destroyed, and their plans will be ruined, because they keep on turning away from God and towards other things.

Yet again we hear God’s heart breaking, “How can I give you up?” God won’t give up. Despite the repeated rebellion and unfaithfulness of the people God will be faithful. God’s love will hold on. The lion roars and the people return. I don’t know about you, but if I heard a lion roaring I might be more likely to run in the other direction. Perhaps that’s why they’re trembling, but they do return because they recognise the love and power of the lion. The lion’s roar is the call to return to the protection of the lion, and the people are coming.

They are returning with repentance. We see this in the reading we had from chapter 14. The people are returning – confessing that the things that they had put their trust in – a strong military, political deals with Assyria, the worship of things they had made themselves – all these things had proven to be worthless. They are repenting – letting go of the things that they had trusted, and choosing to hold on to God – to trust the God in whom the fatherless find compassion.

As they return they find blessing after blessing in God’s embrace. God says, “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely … I will be like the dew … I will answer him and care for him” These are the ongoing promises of God as God’s people return to God in repentance. God never stopped loving them, never let go of them, but before they were so intent on holding on to their stuff that they were unable to receive the good things that God wanted to give them.

These promises of God were fulfilled. God’s people did return from exile in Assyria to the promised land under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra. The temple was rebuilt, and the people did enjoy the land again for a while. That was the first level of fulfilment, but there is another that is hinted at very gently in the first verse that we read, “out of Egypt I called my son”. In context a clear reference to the exodus led by Moses, but also quoted by Matthew in his account of Jesus’ life.

After the Magi from the east had visited the young Jesus in Bethlehem, he and Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt to escape the anger of King Herod. Then Matthew writes “ he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” And it is in Jesus, in his death and resurrection that these promises of God find their complete fulfilment. It is the greatest expression of God’s holding on love, that doesn’t let go despite all the sin and wrong and evil that we do, that Jesus came to deal with the consequences of it all. It is because he dealt with it that we can be free of it, we can repent, we can let go and come to God and enjoy the embrace, rather than continuing to walk away when we’re called.

I wonder what negative things you’re holding on to this morning. I suspect that there aren’t many of us who are secretly burning incense to Baal or trying to negotiate a political settlement with Assyria, but the reality is that we all carry negative stuff through our lives. Some of that stuff is made up of things that we trust more than God, that we rely on – money, education, physical strength, angels, or dead relatives. Some of that stuff is other sin that we haven’t turned away from, that we need forgiving for. Some of that stuff is made up of wounds that we’ve received that aren’t yet healed, bitterness that we can’t get free of, forgiveness that we find impossible to give.

Despite all this stuff, God continues to hold on to us. God’s faithful love persists in calling us. And this is the first brilliant part – as we realise that we safe, that we are held, that we will not be abandoned it becomes possible for us to let go of our stuff. We are forgiven for our sin, we don’t have to trust in those other things. Because we have found God to be trustworthy, we can be healed.

And then, this is the second brilliant part, as we know ourselves to be held, as we let go of our stuff, so we become more able to hold on to others in love, even when they are doing things and saying things to us that otherwise would destroy our love for them. We become more able to remain faithful in the face of mistrust as we trust in the faithfulness of God. We become more able to love persistently and consistently in the face of rejection as we receive the love of God.

This can be a painful process. Knowing that we are loved and held by God doesn’t usually stop it hurting when we are rejected or wounded by others, but it does make it more possible for us to continue to love, to hold on to them and to let go of the pain that they have caused. It’s likely that in the course of these relationships that we will have to keep choosing to do this, and the reality is that we are not God, and at some point, if the relationship becomes particularly toxic, we might have to let go, and entrust them to God’s holding. But in the main, as we work out as a community what it means in practical terms to love each other, let’s hold on to these truths:

God holds on to us despite all our stuff.

Being held by God enables us to let go of our stuff.

Knowing ourselves to be held, and letting go of our stuff frees us to hold on to our love for others and to let go of the things they do to us.

Holding on and letting go. Who are we holding on to this morning, and what do we need to let go?

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