Third Sunday in Advent: December 14
a faithful love
A Faithful Love
Scriptures: Hosea 11:1-4 and Galatians 4:1-7
preached by Tracey Leslie on Dec. 14, 2014
There is a story of a missionary family many years ago; living in a remote village in a country rife with political instability. One afternoon, a group of soldiers arrived at their home and informed them they had 48 hours to depart the country. Should they decide to remain beyond that time, their safety would be dubious. They were informed they could take with them 200 pounds of belongings. Anything in excess of that weight must be left behind.
Having young children, the missionary couple heeded their warning. They quickly, frantically, began to pick through their personal belongings and furniture, placing each item on a scale to determine its weight. It was a grueling process. There were professional items and resources necessary for their ministry wherever they might serve; they did not want to leave those behind. There were a few personal items they’d brought with them from the states that were sentimental and irreplaceable; they did not want to leave those behind. Likewise, there were gifts they’d received over the years from villagers who’d come to Christ and formed strong bonds with them; they did not want to leave those precious expressions of their gratitude behind. There were items related to their ministry that they considered holy; they did not want to leave those behind. And there were items, typical things that parents keep, to commemorate their children’s infancy and childhood. Laying the items out in piles on the floor, they moved things from stack to stack as they struggled to decide what to take with them and what to leave behind. They worked nearly non-stop through the 48 hours, sifting through their personal items while also preparing themselves and their children for this sudden and, potentially dangerous, departure.
After 48 hours the soldiers returned. They inquired, had the couple weighed their belongings carefully? They confirmed that they had. Then the soldier in command asked, “What about the children? Did you remember to weigh the children?”
The couple was stunned. They’d not considered that in that country’s culture, children were like property and, no, the missionary couple had not weighed their children. And in that moment, the painstaking work they’d done over the past two days was meaningless. Not a single belonging held any value for them now. They would leave it all behind gladly. All that mattered were the lives of their children.
If you are a parent, you know, there is nothing you wouldn’t do for your children. There are no words to describe or do justice to the love a parent has for their child. As most of you know, Britt and I do not have children. But, through my years of ministry, I have seen parents do heroic and dubious things, all in an effort to protect their children.
I knew a mother who, over a period of years grew increasingly distraught over her daughter’s behavior. Initially, it was disrespectful mouthing off at home and disengagement in school (nothing too unusual about that). But, it grew to become physical altercations between her and her sisters. She began failing in school. She ran away from home for periods of time to bunk with older friends engaged in all sorts of nefarious activities. Her behaviors became increasingly risky and harmful to herself and others. When she was 17, I tried to encourage mom to admit her to a residential rehabilitation program. Time was running out and she would soon be a legal adult. But, so fearful was mom of her daughter’s rejection, she simply could not do it.
Children tear at our hearts when they reject our love, our nurture and our values.
The book of Hosea is found in our scriptures as the first of 12 short prophetic books. Sometimes we think of prophecy as “fortune-telling”; but that’s not really an accurate understanding. The prophets were called by God to deliver his message to his people. Those messages were, most typically, an announcement that God was displeased with them because they had rejected him. And, they had rejected him in two ways. First, they had rejected his love for them by worshipping other gods, rather than placing their full trust in him. Second, they’d rejected his love for them by disregarding his values; his commands to be just and merciful with one another and to protect those most vulnerable, like widows, orphans and foreigners.
And, at the root of it all, was a breakdown of relationship. God loved them and wanted to care for them; but they rejected the relationship. And to make clear that this is about relationship – and not just a bunch of rules and regulations – God, speaking through the prophet Hosea, uses two relational metaphors to communicate his love. The first, which is most prevalent in Hosea but not one I’m terribly comfortable elaborating on during worship, is the metaphor of a husband with an unfaithful wife. As a sign/act, the prophet Hosea is told by God to marry a prostitute named Gomer. The message is that God’s people, Israel, had been “stepping out” on him with foreign gods and idols.
But, the second metaphor for God and Israel’s relationship that we find in the book of Hosea is this morning’s passage at the beginning of chapter 11. It is the parent/child metaphor. Here, God describes through the prophet in detail, all that he has done through the years to care for Israel by describing the behavior of a faithful, loving parent. Such a parent provides for the child’s needs, teaches the child, and shows them affection. That is what God has done for his people, but they – and we, also, at times – have been rebellious children; “running away from home,” so to speak and engaging in a lifestyle that is risky and harmful.
God makes clear that such behavior will have painful and horrible consequences. And yet, even as God announces his punishment, God cannot reject his children. God simply cannot cross us off his list because we are his children and, when a parent loves their child, no amount of bad behavior can ever destroy or corrupt that love. And so, God’s love for us is incorrigible and beyond our ability to fathom.
In this passage of scripture from Hosea, the images of our heavenly parent are passionate and affectionate: God takes us in his arms; lifts us like a parent lifts an infant to their cheeks to kiss them; God bends down toward us.
And never was that more fully expressed than in the coming of Jesus. In Jesus, God bent down from the heavens, so to speak, to be right here with us; to make his incorrigible love for us tangible and real in a way that we could comprehend.
It is as the writer of Galatians tells us:
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,
born of a woman… so that we might receive adoption as children.
It is as John proclaimed in his gospel introduction – in his own distinctive account of the nativity:
God’s Word became flesh and lived among us...
[and] to all who received him, who trusted in him, he gave power to become children of God.
John further says that, through Jesus, “We have all received grace upon grace.”
You know, years ago I was naïve enough to assume that people in church understood how much God loved them. After all, we talk about it every week, more or less. But what I’ve learned through the years is that, while people may believe that “God so loved the world,” it is sometimes hard for them to trust in God’s love for them, specifically. God doesn’t just love the world in some cosmic, abstract sense; God loves you.
My husband and I have done this thing with our dogs, a little silly; but, we will pet one of them and cuddle them and say, “Oh, you’re my favorite dog.” And, of course, five minutes later, we can be petting the other dog and say to them, “you’re my favorite dog.” Obviously, the dogs don’t have a command of English like we do so they perceive no inconsistency in what we say. All that they know is that, when we use that word “favorite,” we are always doing something nice to them – petting them, cuddling with them. They live in the moment and happily receive the “favor” we show them.
If you were in church last Sunday, you might remember me saying that, just as the virgin Mary was “favored” by God, so too, are we favored by God. In the language of our New Testament, that is the same word we translate as “grace.” And that grace of God finds its fullest expression in Jesus, the Word become flesh, the one who offers us “grace upon grace.” We are each one of us, God’s beloved and favored children.
And, just like ancient Israel, God wants us to accept his love by placing our trust in him and by making God’s values our values. That is what our Advent theme, “A Different Kind of Christmas,” is really all about. We’re challenging you to scale back on your Christmas spending for family and friends and match that spending with giving to those in need... and, truth be told, it might wind up costing you a little more in the long run. And it will likely be an impossible challenge for you to accept unless you place your trust fully in God and make God’s values your values. You see, if we trust fully in God, we won’t be anxious or worried about our own security. We’ll trust and believe that, even if our giving to those in need is a stretch, God will be faithful in his love for us and his care for us. And, if we make God’s values our values, we will be just as concerned about that child in need that we don’t even know as we are about our own children… because we will understand that we are all God’s beloved and favored children.
Now, sometimes we wonder how much people we help deserve it. We have concerns that people might be “playing the system.” And, it certainly is wise to funnel our giving through reputable and experienced ministries like LUM or our United Methodist Children’s Home or the Salvation Army. And yet, at the end of the day, all of us – each and every one of us – are in need of God’s grace; and each and every one of us is God’s favored child.
Well-known southern preacher and story-teller Fred Craddock tells of the first church he served as a student pastor. In his book Craddock Stories, he writes:
They had a fund called the Emergency Fund and had about $100 in it.
They told me I could use it at my discretion, provided I dispensed the money
according to the conditions. So I said, “What are the conditions?”
The chairman of the committee said, “You are not to give the money
to anybody who is in need as a result of laziness, drunkenness,
or poor management.” I said, “Well, what else is there?”
As far as I know, they still have that money.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. – John 1:14, 16
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