Empathy with God
July 31, 2016 Maple Grove UMC
The Bible. Man, it can be a really difficult book to read and make sense of. It is ancient, it uses forms and genres that aren't really familiar to us. The New Testament can be tough enough, but when we include the Old Testament we are often at a real loss. The texts are foreign, they are rife with so many troubling aspects..., and then there are threats of violence, or religious and social intolerance that we have come largely to reject. And yet. And yet, it is the canon, the standard, for our identity as a community. The Bible contains the narrative of our understanding of God's character, God's intentions, and it serves as the guideposts by which we shape our interior life and the outward mission of our community.
I would like to offer a reading that may help us to make a bit more sense out of things.
Hosea is a book of powerful emotions. It is one of the few where we readers can readily sympathize with the emotions of God. Time and again the prophet tells of God's sadness, anger and frustration at Israel, who continually reject the most loving of God's overtures. As if to ensure that we can connect with the Divine character, God is portrayed as a jilted lover, who pours out gifts, only to be cast aside and then have those gifts used to buy other lovers. God is portrayed as a parent, who has loved and blessed their child, only to have the child reject them and use their inheritance, like a Prodigal Son, to buy pleasure and feed their addictions. These are all expressions of profound love and of the deep painful suffering that we all know. And if we have not felt these pains of love and rejection in life yet, surely we can easily imagine them. And so, again and again, Hosea tells us, God is subjected to the wounds that can only be inflicted by those who are loved most. And yet, though turning away would be simpler, less painful, God woos Israel with hopes to coax them back into a right relationship where they can know the goodness God intends for their lives. These are powerful metaphors that connect to the very deepest of human emotions, and they provide us with an empathetic connection to God that few other biblical authors achieve. And while all of us may not have had such faithful parents or lovers, surely we can find ourselves gaining a greater understanding of the depth of God's love and commitment for us. No matter how unfaithful we may be, Hosea tells us that God is deeply committed to seeing humanity have a life of goodness, wholeness, justice, peace—shalom.
And this should be so encouraging to us. Often we feel that we do not deserve or warrant God's love; we believe we have strayed too far, or sinned too much, or have just a bit too much dirt on us, to be desirable among "good church folk", much less a relationship with God. No? All right, well, maybe just me, but I have heard that this is a pretty common feeling. And if and when this is true of you, please hear that you are loved and desired by God—and if you are not welcomed by the church, then you should have been, and that church has failed its calling.
On the other hand, the Bible calls us to imitate God, and through our lives and love be a reflection of God's image to the world. Hosea's story of such passionately committed love is surely helpful for motivating us to show God's love to the world. It seems that if we're supposed to reflect God's love, we would benefit to be tapped into and sharing God's emotional life. Right? Well, what drives those passions? Is it possible for us to sympathize with God? Is it desirable? For when we look closer at Hosea and the Bible, we often run into some real difficulties: Is it simply that God longs for our attentions or affections like some needy, love-sick teenager? Are we called to emulate God's apparent jealousy, possessiveness and intolerance? It seems at times that the prophets portray God to be a trifling moralizer. Is God really sent into rages for our indiscretions? Should we be preaching judgment on the "sinners" down at OSU Oval? While I'm grateful that Hosea hears God relent from punishment, the constant threat of violence and rejection can be rather disconcerting. How do we reflect that and also reflect Christ's love?
So troubling are the emotional expressions of God, that for 1700 years, the church simply declared it a heresy to suppose that God truly has emotions. For good reason we have largely rejected this decision.
What actually causes God to be so angry with Israel in Hosea? Israel is in a covenant relationship with God. While always recalling that they were once poor slaves, Israel was to reject the oppressive and exploitative methods of Empire. They were to be different in their treatment of humans from Egypt, Babylon, Rome. Theirs was to be a society that in its differences reflected and revealed something of God's true character and intentions for humanity. Israel was to be an historical example—a microcosm—of God's care and redemption of humanity as a whole.
Now Hosea sees Israel, in an effort to guarantee their agricultural and financial security, being driven by fear and greed to engage in religious and economic practices of the Canaanites that were deeply offensive. This is no mere religious intolerance. Let me tell you: By turning to the worship of Ba'al, the Israelites were acting out fertility rituals (if you can imagine) to guarantee the fruitfulness of the land. They participated in ritualistic acts that objectified the gods (by thinking they could be controlled by magic), and objectified themselves (as players in this magic); and in all this striving for control and objectifying, they soon enough got to selling their own daughters into sexual slavery under the auspice of the cult. They treat their own daughters as chattel to be sold and used—all in the hopes of gaining economic security and social standing. This is the passion of God; This is what Hosea inveighs against. Human trafficking. Of their daughters, no less. We can understand why the prophet uses the metaphor of sexual infidelity to describe Israel's turning from God—the metaphor brings to one's heart the level of emotion that starts to match God's. But with practices like these, I'm frankly glad that this sort of exploitation makes God furious! This is the passion of God. A God who legitimates the dehumanizing, exploitation of the voiceless is no God that I wish to emulate, much less worship. No longer can we hear this simply as a story of jealousy, and sometimes petty jealousy; no longer is this the picture of a God who is simply intolerant of others receiving the attention owed him; no longer is this the moralizing rant of a prophet hoping to indict us and so control the population through fear and threat; rather we hear the prophet Hosea and God roaring out in distraught love for the horrors that the people are putting upon themselves—the very weakest among them.
This is the basis for God's seeming intolerance of foreign cultures and religions. We don't have time to do the full survey today, but I contend that behind the voices of the Prophets we find that God's seeming intolerance is not crass xenophobia, nor trifling moralism—The passion of God is an intolerance for social injustice—a longing for the right treatment of humans. Egypt, Babylon, Rome, all of these empires are based in a system whose success is dependent upon the exploitation of the marginal. The result is that humanity is de-humanized, brutalized, and the Empire becomes a Beast—as with Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel, or in the writings of Revelation. God is always yelling at Israel because they are seeking security by the means of Empire, and this invariably results in oppression and various forms of social and economic injustice against the weak and poor among them. But Israel—and we—are called to bear God's image and show a new way to truly be human.
It is upon this consistent rejection of the use of violence, and fear, and exploitation that Jesus' life and death and ministry make sense. Jesus clears the Temple of the money changers because they use their position to exploit the disenfranchised by charging fees to "clean up" money and provide "more acceptable" sacrifices to the poor and foreign worshipers of God. This is no mere moralistic piety—Jesus is incensed that the poor and foreign are being used as tools for gain, when the Temple was supposed to be the very place where such people were tended. This is the passion of God. Jesus heals a leper, outside of the confines of the Temple, and shows us that rather than healing being bound up in the symbol of power, which is the Temple, healing of the very most disenfranchised comes with a hug. It is a simple re-affirmation of the humanity of a person that the system said was a dirty thing—and it was a powerful renunciation of the world's systems that brutalize those who suffer most. This action will get Jesus rejected and killed. But this is the passion of God. The dignity of basic humanity will not be controlled in the halls of the powerful, nor in fear, nor in economic oppression. Not in God's kingdom. Jesus knew the passion of God, and his message of non-violence and solidarity with the poor brought the full power of Empire upon his head. When threats and fear fail, Empire has no greater strength than that of death. But Jesus' resurrection shows that God's kingdom will persist even while the most powerful of the world's Empires will ultimately self-consume.
This is the God of Hosea and of Jesus. This is the God whose passion for humanity will suffer the blows of rejection, even of violence, so that God might stand in solidarity with the weakest and long-suffering of humankind. This is the God who stands in solidarity with the poor and the weak and the voiceless. In so doing, God shows us that the way of being Truly Human is found in giving life to those whom the world rejects. There are no borders or economy to secure in God's kingdom—it is not self-interested—there is only love and the careful keeping of people in the face of injustice and alienation. And it is the passion of this God who displays omnipotence, not in might and judgment and destruction—but in relenting—God shows us an omnipotence in vulnerability, suffering, and extending love toward us, who are broken. This is God's great power; greater than a mother's passion to seek her lost and hurting child.
This is a God whose passions are driven by self-giving love for humanity. And this is the God we are called to emulate. Will you seek to know God's passions, and come to know love, peace, and contentment? Or will you be consumed in empire building, burdened by fear and greed, envy, prejudice and disdain? Would you stand as brothers and sisters in solidarity with the weak and the poor? Or would you be co-opted by a world system (whether from the Left, or the Right) which seeks first power and wealth and influence? Would you give voice to the oppressed, love to the friendless, and comfort to the suffering? Or will you ally to the system that values you for your wealth, your strength, your fleeting beauty? Be on guard: Empire is ever after your heart and it seeks to consume you, and all before it. Or will you be consumed with God's Kingdom and the love and care of others? These are fearful questions I put before us today, when you count out the cost. But we have seen what damage the world does with its promises and threats. Might we not rather seek to know the passions of God and taste and see that they are good, and life giving?
I think most of us here today resonate with a God who is impassioned for the poor, the weak, the oppressed, and the enslaved. Listen to that voice. Nurture your responsiveness to it. Know that you are sympathizing with God, and as we do, we will know God more; and in bearing God's passions, we will be able to love more than we ever imagined possible—and together we will know God's goodness as we will bring God's life and relationship to people who know too well the darkness of the world.