The Mercy of God
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This past Sunday I had the privilege of preaching at St. Margaret's United Church of Zambia congregation in downtown Kitwe. This sermon was written with March 8, International Women's Day, in mind. It applies across all contexts, so please read.
“Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. On that day, says the LORD, you will call me, “My husband,” and no longer will you call me, “My Ba’al.” For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD.”—Hosea 2:14-20
The Mercy of God
This passage, taken alone, is quite beautiful. It is a declaration of matrimonial love. The LORD is calling the people of Israel back—renewing the covenant of marriage and promising peace and prosperity. We can picture a married couple standing in the beautiful wilderness, speaking tenderly to each other, and recalling the days when they were young and full of passion. The scene climaxes and closes with a renewal of their wedding vows. “And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD.” It is beautiful, isn’t it?
So, if we take this passage alone we see a God who has forgiven the transgressions and unfaithfulness of a spouse. We see the mercy of God.
BUT if we were to take this passage alone we ourselves would be the unfaithful ones. For, we would be unfaithful to the text. In reality this beautiful picture we have comes at the end of a very ugly scene. It is a scene of horrifying, public spousal abuse. It is a scene of extreme violence against women. It is a scene that actually makes me ask, “How can we talk about this God and mercy in the same breath?”
You see, this passage is in the book of Hosea. In order to understand the text, we must understand what it means to be part of this specific book. Hosea is a prophet with a very blunt, performative method of prophesying. He delivers his message by enacting it in the drama of his life. He publicly marries a woman named Gomer, who is described as a prostitute, and she is to represent the northern kingdom of Israel. They then have children bearing names of extreme shame. Their firstborn, Jezreel, was named to show that God would sow the seeds that would destroy the kingdom of the house of Israel. Their second born, Lo-ruhamah, was named to show that God would not have pity on the house of Israel nor forgive them. Their third born, Lo-ammi, was named to show that Israel was no longer the people of God. For their entire lives they would have to carry the full shame of the kingdom of Israel in their very identities. Can you imagine what this would do to these children? Can you imagine their psychological and emotional trauma? Again, I find myself asking, “How can we talk about this God and mercy in the same breath?”
And then we get to the text which contains today’s passage. Hosea tells his children that they are to carry a message to their mother. In this message he threatens to strip her naked in public, to build walls to keep her away, and even to kill her by depriving her of water. He also says that he will have no pity on the children because they are the children of prostitution. These are the very same children who are to deliver the message.
This week we will be celebrating International Women’s Day. On this day we recognize women’s achievements and accomplishments both at the macro-level of the world and the micro-level of our families. We recognize women’s contributions to politics, science, healthcare, the arts, education, and every other vocation of which we can conceive. In short, we recognize the awesome power of womanhood. The key, though, is that we recognize the awesome power of womanhood in the face of the social reality and systemic evil of patriarchy. We honor the fact that women have not only survived but have thrived while having to battle sustained, severe oppression at the hands of male domination. And I can truly say that I stand in awe of the women in this congregation. For, not only have you thrived in the face of patriarchy, but as black women you have also had to deal with a history of colonization and oppression. Now I know that St. Margaret’s UCZ will be having Women’s Sunday soon (next week?), a day on which you will honor women and hear the voices of women. I say without hesitation that that will be a powerful day, especially for a congregation that carries the name of a sainted woman, a hero of our faith. In preparation, I will use today to address the patriarchy, the male domination that has oppressed women throughout all of history. In doing so we will try to discover what form the mercy of God takes in such a human system of evil.
Violence against women has been institutionalized in every society across this world. It is physical, it is emotional, it is sexual, and it is structural. By structural violence I mean that governments, corporations, and religious bodies have created systems of written and unwritten laws and rules that give men power over women. And that is the key to all forms of violence against women: men feel like they are entitled to have power and control over women. This is why we see Hosea thinking that it is somehow fine to marry a woman and then use her to make a point. This is why we see Hosea thinking that is somehow fine to impregnate her and use the children also to make a point—even saying that he will have no pity for them. This is why we see Hosea thinking that it is somehow fine to threaten to strip her naked in public, build walls to keep her out of her home, and kill her. All of these actions are born from a man’s feeling of entitlement to power and control over a woman.
When I was training to be a counselor in the USA, one of my jobs was to observe a group of men who had been arrested for domestic violence. All of them had been charged with abusing their wives or girlfriends. By participating in this group they were signaling that they were ready to change. I loved spending time in this group for two major reasons. The first reason was the curriculum we used. For, we did not focus on the violent behavior of these men. Instead we focused on their entire worldview, their way of understanding life. Together we explored the idea that men’s abusive behaviors are the result of this much deeper belief in society that men should have power and control over women. We said that if men want to change their behavior then we have to change our beliefs. To go even further, we have to change the systems that perpetuate these beliefs. So not only do men need to stop abusing women, but men need to start attacking and dismantling that structural violence mentioned above. Now, we as Christians know how beautiful and life changing it can be to view the world through new eyes coming from a change in belief!
The second reason I loved this group was that I was able to witness the changes that occurred in these men. I saw their growth and transformation as they began to understand the injustice of power and control and then to change their beliefs to embracing full justice and equality with women. With this change in belief came renewed purpose in these men’s lives. They had joy and passion about the possibilities for true partnerships with women—yes romantically, but also in friendships, businesses, church, and every aspect of life. It was in the changes happening within these men that I saw the beautiful mercy of God. Some may call me heretical or blasphemous to think of Hosea, a revered prophet in our tradition, as a man who needed to attend such a group. But I do think in this way. Hosea needed to change his entire belief system.
Now, if we go back to today’s passage, it is clear that it is not just the story of a man and his wife. For, Hosea is a messenger of God. Remember, Hosea’s life was a drama meant to convey the word of God to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel. In particular, God was angry that Israel had made an alliance with the powerful Assyrian empire, the home of the infamous gods Baal and Astarte. In metaphor, Israel was prostituting itself to another husband, not YHWH their LORD. In seeking protection and power from an earthly principality, Israel was saying that they no longer trusted YHWH to be their one true protector and provider. So, not only does Hosea threaten to enact violence against Gomer, but YHWH threatens to enact violence against the people of Israel.
So the ugly truth is that the book of Hosea portrays God as a man who violently abuses his wife, in this case the northern kingdom of Israel. As we sit here today and talk about the mercy of this same God we believe in and follow, what are we to do? How do we make sense of this?
Some scholars say that the book of Hosea is a book that tries to deal with what theologians call theodicy. “Theodicy” is a term that basically means the suffering of this world does not make sense if we have a God who is all powerful and a God who IS love. In other words, it asks, why would God allow all of this pain that we go through. In light of the discussion today, I think it is safe to say that women have all the more reason to ask the question of theodicy.
At the time of Hosea’s writing Israel was suffering greatly. They had had a series of kings who brought them close to ruin. The neighboring kingdom of the Arameans had been regularly attacking them and trying to take control. Their relationship with their brothers and sisters in the southern kingdom of Judah was poor. And, as is the case in any war, the women were suffering most. They were being raped by invading armies and abused by their own husbands who were feeling the stress of insecurity. In the face of these troubles, the leaders of Israel chose to do what many of us would do in the same situation—turn to a bigger and stronger ally for protection. For Hosea this is the ultimate sin, depending on somebody besides YHWH their God. At the same time, though, Hosea is wrestling with these questions, “Why have we gotten to a point where we even have to consider this? If YHWH promised to take care of us, then why are we suffering so much?” He was trying to make sense of the theodicy.
Like it or not, usually the only answer that we can come up with for these questions is that somehow we have done something to deserve it. We hear this when there is a natural disaster and people say, “The inhabitants of that region had strayed away from God and become immoral.” We hear this when there is war and people say, “They deserve it because they are Muslim or they are Hindu or they are Jewish or they are Buddhist or they are Christian.” We hear this when people say, “Oh, a woman was just asking to be raped when she chose to wear a short skirt,” or, like in the case of Gomer, “She is a prostitute, so didn’t she have it coming?”
This answer of “We deserve it!” definitely makes sense according to our human systems of justice. The problem, though, as has been shown, is that our human systems of justice are in fact unjust. They perpetuate oppressions through patriarchy and colonialism. Hosea was likewise influenced by these systems of justice. So, it only made sense for him to tell the Israelites that they deserved the violence being enacted against them because they had chosen the Assyrians. Even through his flawed reasoning he saw that the people desperately needed to turn back to YHWH their God and to remember who they were as YHWH’s children. Perhaps his extreme method of proclaiming this message did get through to some people…I am guessing especially to the men.
As our theme today suggests, though, God is a merciful God. God’s justice is not the same as human justice. God weeps when we suffer and sin against one another. God wants us to be reconciled. God wants us to learn from our mistakes and to change. God wants us to transform our entire belief systems and worldviews. Now you know that this makes me think of that group of men who were charged with domestic violence. In the end the goal was NOT for them to be imprisoned for the rest of their lives or killed for their transgressions. No, the goal was for them to change their way of being and then to change the whole system of patriarchy. This is God’s justice. This is God the mother hen gathering her chicks beneath her wings. This is the embodiment of the mercy of God.
We are now in the season of Lent. This means that we are spending time reflecting upon the Passion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We are focusing on the suffering he experienced all the way up to his very last breath on the cross. When Christian theologians discuss the theodicy, the heart of the question often comes down to this suffering of Jesus. We ask, “How could God allow God’s own son, who was blameless, to suffer for the sake of the rest of the world and then to die? How could God leave Christ hanging even to the point that he would cry out, ‘My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?’” When we ask these questions, though, we once again get hung up or stuck in human ideas of justice. We say that Jesus did not deserve it, so it doesn’t make sense. In other words this is to say that everybody else does deserve it, so we should suffer and die in the most horrible of ways.
I think that instead we need to focus on the fact that Jesus himself was the incarnate God, God in the flesh. God chose to experience the full reality of what it means to be human—in all of our joy, in all of our successes, in all of our failures, and yes in all of our suffering. God in the flesh endured rejection by his closest friends when they should have been proudly standing by him. God in the flesh endured ridicule at the hands of soldiers. God in the flesh was stripped naked publicly and whipped by men who felt that they were entitled to control him. God in the flesh was left to die thirsty, without water. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? God in the flesh was suffering the same fate that was threatened against Gomer by Hosea. And it is here that we see the mercy of God. For, God was not the man enacting punishment based on human ideas of justice. No, God was the woman, the one who has had to suffer the most. God flipped the entire system on its head.
We often say that Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins. I am not here to argue against that belief. I want us to look more deeply into what was going on, though. For, I think God’s justice came after the cross, and I think God’s justice was in fact the mercy of God. After experiencing the worst of human suffering, up to even the point of death, God chose to defeat that entire system. Jesus Christ rose again from the dead! God in the flesh destroyed the system of power and control that leads to suffering and death and said, “We cannot be controlled by this evil. We will all join in the resurrection!”
It was the mercy of God that declared that life will prevail over death. It was the mercy of God that led God to choose to suffer like the women who suffer most in this world. It was the mercy of God that destroyed a system based on power and control. And, going back to today’s passage, it was the mercy of God that said, “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD.” For, this is God saying that God’s marriage with the people will be one of partnership within a covenant and one without even the possibility of violence.
Since the time of Christ’s resurrection we have rebuilt the systems of power and control, of patriarchy and colonialism. Now we are called to tear it down. We are called to practice the mercy of God. As we approach Easter, let us honor this legacy of our savior.