Across the confused and vicious years of political upheaval and conquest, across the terrain of tyranny, anarchy and the abandonment of the ways of sacred law and all things just and holy, Hosea brings a very special message of God. And it is simply and most profoundly a message of love.
When Israel was a child … I loved him … out of Egypt I called him … my son … but the more I called the more he went from me.
When Israel was a child … then I loved him. The verb is a direct impulse. It means that God as parent learned to love. God held them in holy gaze, created them, chose them. Historically of course it was the persuasion of this, it was the theologising of this, that made Israel, and formed all their distinctiveness and character, and enabled them to transform as a people from nomadic tribal life to a centralized and later a monarchical community of faith. Here we see that all of that started from the memory of two facts: God loved them, and God called them. This was an unfailing conscience, a remarkable etching of belonging that served an unquenching hope of a destiny even in their direst days of defeat and scattering. And it is here expressed as sonship, and of course we of the Christian faith have taken hold of that and reinterpreted that in and through Jesus, that in and through him, we share in this love and calling, that in and through Jesus we inherit something of that grafting that Hosea details for Israel, such that in faith we can boldly so we are children of God. And that belonging is described clearly by the writer in the letter of John: ‘Behold, what manner of love the Father has given us, that we should be called the sons/daughters of God’. 1 John 3:1-24
The love that Hosea talks about is a deep love … I called them and I loved them … but love is complicated. The more I did the further they went from me. What should strike us about this chapter 11, is that it gives us a real window into the heart of God, a window into the deep wrestle where God agonizes over the people’s abandonment of the sacred ways, and where God becomes angry at their deceit, and then reveals in a most profound way how God will act and how God wants the people to be midst their abandonment – to see and embrace love spite of everything. It is pure poetic passion.
I have given so much … I took them in my arms, I led them with chords of human kindness, bands of love, I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks, I bent down and fed them …. But my people are bent on turning away from me …
Yes how could they … but how could I? God is murmuring and wrestling, heartbroken, anguished, torn. They have turned from me, but how could I bring wrath on them. How can I recoil from them … how can I hand them over …
And in this deep place God vows not to allow anger to work itself out in destruction I will not be angry … I will not destroy them … for I am God. Compassion overwhelms God ..the will to love overcomes the desire to punish. I will not destroy them … I will return them to their homes. Love … in spite of.
It is a message of hope, but it is also a plea. Hosea is urging the people to embrace the faith again. To know that God will not abandon them even though they have turned away. And in that Hosea is inviting the listeners to partake of this love, to know that they are anchored in an eternal freedom, that they belong, and to return to their allegience of service and sacrament. To live out the same love that is given to them by God.
On our holidays I had some free time. I was in Darwin and Margaret and our daughter were doing some girly things – getting their nails done and spending time together. I went for a walk and I happened by the surf shop on the beach at Darwin. And there was a book exchange, like what we have here at the Centre. And one of the books caught my eye. It was entitled ‘Proof of Heaven – A neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife’ by Dr Eben Alexander. It was a New York Times bestseller so I took it and read it and was for the next hour or two completely engaged in it. Now, I am not really one for talking about the afterlife, nor even near death experiences. And nor was Dr Alexander who, as a Harvard trained academic and neurosurgeon, thought he had covered everything about the brain. Until 2008 that is when he became seriously ill with a rare form of meningitus from which he was induced into a coma. When he woke up from the coma seven days later, he claimed to have experienced something of the afterlife and experienced something so real and powerful that it changed completely how he thought about brain functioning and consciousness, but more significantly how he thought about faith the soul and the idea of God.
I focused on what was his actual experience. He writes in his book in some detail what could be summarized as a genuine out of body experience where he said that he transcended into another realm, a world above, where time was irrelevant, and where out of a muddy darkness there appeared a brilliant green gateway which proceeded to what he said was the Core. At the entrance of the Gateway he said he saw beauty but he also heard words which ran something like: ‘You are loved and cherished. You need not fear anything. You are loved’. And with that he wrote ‘love is without doubt, the basis of everything. Not some abstract kind of love but the day to day kind that everyone knows – the kind of love we feel when we look at our spouse or our children or even our animals. In its purest form, this love is not jealous or selfish but unconditional’. And he wrote this: ‘It is the reality, the incomprehensibly glorious truth that lives and breathes at the core of everything that exists or that ever will exist, and no remotely accurate understanding of who or what we are can be achieved by anyone who does not know it, and embody it in all of their actions.
And this bizarre experience, which many people who have experienced near death share, impacted him. Dr Anderson said it enriched a faith and in it he said he discovered a purpose and a meaning that he had never embraced in his life before as an academic. He is now something of an apologist for the faith and he writes quite convincingly and clearly that we need to recover more of that larger story … of faith and of love … that science doesn’t contradict what he learned … that science and spirituality can coexist … but he is of the view now that the true spiritual self is our deepest self and that there is another part of our consciousness … and in faith we can enliven it and in death we are all destined to recover it and see it but until that day, he says, we should do everything in our power to get in touch with this miraculous aspect of ourselves – to cultivate it and bring it to light. This is the Being living within all of us right now, he says, and that is the being that God truly intends us to live by.
You are loved. In spite of everything. You are loved.
I am not sure that I can fully talk about what love really is. It is something very complex, and not easy to define. We can feel it more than we can understand it, we can describe its attributes more than pin it to an easy formula. It is that something that drives one to risk his or life for another; it is that something which emerges after years of devotion, or even in a first time glance; it is that something that inspires us, warms us. True love does not condemn – which we have heard in recent weeks from those who parade the notion of religious liberty and speech. I suggest to you that true love is expansive, open, generous, tolerant.
In the Pastoral Committee we talked a bit about a chapter provided by Belinda called Aging as a Spiritual Practice and we tossed around a few ideas what that spiritual practice might be particularly for the over 50’s though really for everyone – things like getting out into nature, eating properly, but we discussed how isolated and disconnected we can become sometimes particularly as we grow older, and what faith might say about that. What faith and spirituality might say when we feel we can’t do what we used to do, what it might say when we feel exhausted, or when we feel physically or even spiritually frail such that we can’t pray any more. When doubt emerges. Perhaps the answer is the continuing and abiding sense that God is ever present with us, that in spite of ourselves, whatever age or state we are in, God’s deep love remains with and for us. In spite of ourselves, love. You are loved.
Those are the words from Dr Alexander from his experience and whether you agree with him or not, whether you are skeptical about this notion of near death does not concern me, but what I suggest we can take from it, is the message that resonates most powerfully with that from the ancient prophet Hosea. God Loves Us … loves us in spite of. And this love awaits us all and invites us all. Today let Hosea challenge us to know what God demands of us, but also what God invites us to … to experience this embrace of love not in terms of theory or knowledge but in the deep place of our heart. To truly know that we belong, and to fervently believe there is something that can be experienced within us and beyond us.