So reads the welcome page of the web site for an organization called "Tough Love International." ¹ The organization describes itself as, "a self-help organization that provides ongoing education and active support to families, empowering parents and young people to accept responsibility for their actions.
The Web site is operated by people who have been through a lot of pain with people they love. Promise after promise was broken. Money was borrowed... sometimes money was stolen and lives which were close knit at one time were drawn into a relentless downward spiral.
A part of the "tough love" approach with people we love whose lives have gotten out of control is to allow those persons to suffer the consequences of and accept responsibility for their own actions. Even when it hurts us to see the suffering that comes to them. A part of "tough love" is knowing that all of our efforts to bail someone out of their self imposed difficulties is doomed to failure. Though we still love them, we can not save them from themselves.
The good news for people of faith who find themselves in this position is this. God knows exactly how you feel!
God too knows how it is to love those who break promise after promise and turn away form all that is good to all that will destroy them. The people God called out of Egypt and away from slavery, the people who were the object of the most amazing divine love were now in the grip of a inexorable downward spiral.
In our scripture reading from the prophet Hosea, there is an amazing glimpse into the heart of God. There are three movements in this symphony of unrequited divine love.
First God says, "I will withdraw from helping my children until they acknowledge their wrongdoing and come to me begging my help."
Then there is a brief interlude where the voice of God's rebellious children is heard as though they had truly come to their senses. There is a poignant tone to the words because they are not actually the words of the fallen child, but the words imagined in the heart of a parent who longs to hear a child come home in genuine sorrow for their wrongful deeds. Expressed in contemporary terms, the words go something like this. (If you have ever had a prodigal child, you know exactly what it is like to have a heartfelt desire to hear something like this.)
"Let's go back home and ask to make things right." No parent who honestly and truly loves their children could turn away from a child who come with a heartfelt desire to make things right.
But alas, it was not the children speaking at all - it was the repentant children's voices we sometimes hear in the desire of our own parental hearts. It was what God was always seeking and hoping to hear from the children who turned away from the only love that could ever make them whole.
Finally come the words we are all familiar with. "What in the world shall I do with you?" God cries out to children whose love is terribly fickle. It comes and goes like the morning mist dissolves under the glare of the sun. Such love is not love at all. God is not looking for religious behavior like bringing sacrifices and offerings, but rather for consistent love and knowledge of the will and the ways of the Lord.
A few words about the person of Hosea the prophet and the turbulent times in which he lived can help us understand the text.
Hosea was the last in a line of great prophets who brought God's word and warnings to Northern Israel. Ever since the civil disruption that split Israel into North and South, the spiritual history of the North was all down hill. They sank deeper into idolatry with each passing year. Self indulgent living was more important than knowledge of God. The patience of God had been exhausted and Hosea's ministry heralded the very end of his people's national existence.
At the very beginning of Hosea's prophecy he is asked by God to do something unthinkable: "When the LORD began to speak through Hosea, the LORD said to him, "Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD." Hosea was called to live out in his life the anguish in the heart of God over the children of God who had become unfaithful.
Throughout his prophetic ministry, Hosea portrays the broken heart of God who stands ready to forgive and restore Israel if only they will come home to the One who created them.
The lesson of Hosea extends throughout the ages - before and after the time of the prophet. In the Psalm appointed for today, God calls out to the people of Israel that true sacrifice is the sacrifice of thanksgiving and honest "vow-keeping". "Call on me in the day of trouble," God says, "I will deliver you and you shall glorify me." In the well known parable of Luke 15, God is portrayed as a brokenhearted father who daily watches for the return of a wayward son. Jesus said, "...there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." [Luke 15:7] Our epistle reading from Romans drives home the point that it was Abraham's authentic and persistent faith that put him in a right relationship with God.
The key message in our readings for today goes to the heart of the whole biblical drama of redemption.
Isaiah 55:6-7 captures the urgency of God's tough love. "Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon."
As the Apostle Paul talks about the tenacious faith of Abraham who trusted God above everything else, even in the toughest of times -- he concludes with the point that the whole story of Abraham was not simply a tale of a man's faith, "Way back then." It is a tale of faith for all persons of all time. Paul says that the story is for us too. Authentic faith in God's actions on our behalf will put us in right relationship with God - even as it did Abraham.
The concluding words of the epistle lesson drive home the point of God's tough love in a powerful statement:
Try to get hold of the power of this concept. Throughout the biblical story, God reaches out and human beings are fickle in their response. They cry out when in trouble, God comes to their aid over and over again -- and yet the people of God continue to wander away. Hosea stood on the threshold of the Northern Kingdom's demise. Jeremiah who is called the weeping prophet, is swept away with the Southern Kingdom (Judea) two hundred years later.
All because they would not return to the God who made them a people and offered them life. Hosea's words on behalf of God who longs to hear the words, "Come let us return to the Lord..." Never come to reality. The nation dies as the words churn away in the heart of God.
Here's the essential message for us today.
Because people could not get it right... and because even the best of us can not keep ourselves in a right relationship with God... God had to do it for us. The words are a mystery to our intellect and a challenge to our best theological thinking -- but they are spiritually powerful for our souls:
These words describe the absolutely incredible lengths to which God will go to bring us to our spiritual home. Think of it this way... "He was handed over for me!
God's divine love for us is a deep love -- yet it is a tough love. There is nothing God will not do to call us safely back to the divine arms for time and eternity. But there is also nothing God can do to overrule the choices we make. Listen once again to the paraphrase of Hosea's words. The words God longs to hear from us:
May we receive grace and mercy to choose the love of God.
¹ Tough Love International is a very helpful Web Site for people who need help in holding their younger or adult children accountable for their actions while reclaiming control of their own lives. Bookmark this site for persons you may counsel regarding children or other persons in their lives whose lives have become unmanageable.
Connections in the Texts
Beginning with this second Sunday after Pentecost, the NRCL has two options for the Old Testament texts. (See Lectionary Note on Quarterly Resource Page.) If you are choosing the second option, Hosea 6:6 will relate to the first portions of the gospel reading from Matthew. ("I desire mercy, not sacrifice.)
The key connection in the NRCL, however, is the issue of faith which we take up in our sermon material for the day. Looking through the texts, we encounter the faith of Matthew who decides to follow Christ, the synagogue leader who dares to ask Christ for healing, the woman who had suffered for 12 years, and Paul's discussion of Abraham who packed up lock, stock and barrel to follow the promise of God. Faith is the hinge of our relationship with God -- it holds us close to the Lord. We may at times swing away and at other times swing toward -- but always it is faith that connects us and allows God access to our lives.
Hosea, on the other hand, reflects the broken heart of God when the people of God refuse the divine love and turn away from the life only God can give.
Matthew 9: 9-13 & 18-26
One possible direction for the gospel reading is to deal with the incredible way Jesus goes about breaking down social barriers and prejudices. He calls a tax collector to follow him, allows a hemorrhaging woman to touch him and himself touches a dead body. The grace of God is genuinely for "whosoever will" and Jesus' every action reinforces that.
I served a church once that said in its call to me that the number one priority of the church was "new members" -- namely growth. And we grew. Hurting, broken, needy people found our church and joined in with us. They brought their friends and their children. Within a couple of years, the deacons called a meeting to discuss the fact that "not everyone" was pleased with the people who were coming. "I thought the church wanted to grow," I said. "We do," one of the deacons said, "But not with just these kind of people." He caught himself and began to backtrack -- but the deed was done. His misfortune was simply that he expressed what others dared not say, yet thought quite freely. This was simply a modern version of Matthew 9:11. "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
Jesus came for these kind of people. If you take this direction, you can also use the Romans passage to show how Abraham is the father of Jew and Gentile believers alike. (Romans 4:16-17)
Some commentators (i.e. Thomas H. Troeger in Fortress Press: New Proclamation for Series A, 1999 Easter and Pentecost) suggest that the girl in this text is "presumed dead" (p.110) This would follow the direction of rationalistic interpreters of Jesus' miracles who look for "explanations" of Jesus' miraculous deeds. Yet the text is clear. A funeral process has begun with the required musicians and mourners. The crowd laughs at Jesus who says the girl is "not dead, but sleeping." The text certainly leaps forward to the conviction that those who die in Christ are "sleeping." Whether an "ex-eventu" affirmation of the church regarding the resurrection power of Christ -- or a harbinger of the resurrection which was yet to be revealed in the Risen Lord. The intent of the gospel is clear. A girl who was dead is now alive.
We are talking here about "news" that deserves to be told! And indeed, Matthew says, "And the report of this spread throughout that district."
Paul’s fairly complex and "lawyer like" reasoning is directed at a diverse Roman church where Jews and Gentiles both had come together in the Body of Christ. All of them are now related to God through faith in Jesus Christ. He gives them the example of Abraham who would, of course, be "Father Abraham" to the Jews’ way of thinking.
However, Paul; shows that Abraham is "the father of us all" – precisely because his relationship with God was based on his faith in God and not his keeping of the law.
Paul becomes almost poetic as he describes the depth of Abraham’s faith in God and his strong embrace of the promises of God.
Abraham’s faith, "...did not weaken..." and "...no distrust made him waver..." (or he staggered not)" Significant terms as "did not weaken" means literally that his faith was not "feeble – used in the sense of becoming diseased." And "no distrust made him waver" means that Abraham did "not withdraw from" or "thoroughly separate himself from" God’s promises.
Abraham’s faith and trust in God provided the doorway through which God was able to bring about the promises. Thus our point from Romans that one key dimension of faith is: Faith believes in God’s ability!"
There is a great message here on what it means to have a relationship with God. Especially an awesome God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that do not exist! A right relationship is not a matter of genetics, but of grace. As we trust this awesome God, our unwavering faith is "reckoned to us" as righteousness. The faith of Abraham (Father of all who live by faith) persists in spite of significant barriers.
More on Romans
One of the struggles of the earliest Christian church would be that between the Jewish believers in Christ and the gentiles who came to believe. The origin of the struggle between "gospel" and "law" comes in the first "Council" in Jerusalem. [Acts 15] The result was a "compromise" solution where gentiles are not asked to convert to Judaism before becoming Christian. They are, however, asked to refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols, blood, or the meat of strangled animals. [15:29] The gospel goes out freely to all who will believe, even though the struggle will continue as the letters of Paul testify. (especially to the church at Galatia)
In this passage, Paul notes that it is Abraham's faith that makes one an heir of the promise made to Abraham.
By locating Abraham's righteousness in his faith, Paul takes the issue of righteousness to a point prior to the giving of the law. Faith came before the law and righteousness is attributed to all who embrace the promises of God. For Christian persons, the promise if fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus Christ, "who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification." [4:25]
Paul's more complete discussion of the relationship between gospel and law comes in Romans 5 & 6.
A Call To Worship
Leader: With what
shall we come before the Holy One?
Prayer of Confession
Loving God, you call us to live in the abundance of faith, but we often persist in our poverty of doubt and fear. You give us the opportunity to change and be reconciled, but we often would rather defend our righteousness. You offer us the gift of new life, but we are afraid to risk the change. Help us to respond to your call, to change, grow and accept your reformation of our lives, in Jesus' name. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
Who is there to condemn us: Only Christ and it is Christ who died for us; it is Christ who rose from the dead for us; it is Christ who sits at the right hand of God and prays for us. Friends, believe the good news of the gospel, in Jesus Christ we are forgiven!
Prayer of Thanksgiving
We give you thanks and praise, O Lord, because you have called us into a life of love, acceptance and forgiveness. From our broken lives and shattered worlds, you call us to a quiet place where the Holy Spirit restores us to you.
This is your house and not ours, Christ is the Head of this Household of Faith and we are the recipients of more love and grace than we could ever imagine. The depth of your love for us is beyond our ability to reason, but within our hearts to sing.
We praise you for the grace which meets us here and follows us as we go back into the world where you guide us into new lives and gracious living.
O help us in this hour to so embrace the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that our hearts will be centered on your reign for all your children. How blessed we are to be called into divine service as ambassadors for your kingdom.
A Prayer of Dedication
What we give, O Divine Master, is but a small part of what you have first given to us. There is no gift which could ever match your giving toward us and we are blessed beyond measure as you receive the gifts we bring to you. We bring our gifts to you in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.