“God’s Inner Conflict” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune

Listen to the sermon from Sunday, July 31, 2016 titled “God’s Inner Conflict” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.


Some years ago in a children’s sermon Gina asked the children to describe God as she drew a picture on a dry erase board.  An impossible task, of course, which was the point.  But try as she might, she couldn’t get the children to describe God in any other way than as an old white man in flowing robes with a long white beard!

I’m sure our exceptionally gifted UBC Kids couldn’t escape Michelangelo’s depiction of God on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.

Thankfully, the movies have advanced our image of God since then.

But most people – even nonbelievers – have trouble thinking of

God in any other way than that old man with the long beard.  The Bible, of course, forbids us from making images of God.  But it gives us many verbal images that lead us to imagine God as a kind of superhuman. These anthropomorphic (human shaped) images help us to relate to the unknowable Mystery by analogy to what we know.  The Word comes from God’s “mouth.”  God “walks” with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  We hear of God’s “outstretched arm” delivering Israel.  The priests bless the people by calling for “God’s face to shine” upon them, but Moses must avoid looking upon God’s face.  When God gets angry the Hebrew idiom is that “God’s nose turns red.”

The very idea that God gets angry points to the anthropropathic (human-feeling) language of the Bible.  God has the full range of human emotions we do: love, hate, pity, compassion, anger, grief, and so on.  The biblical God is a passionate, personal God.

The Bible has many images of God.  Not all of them are male.  Not all of them are even human.  But the strongest image, universal and deeply connecting, is the family imagery applied to God.  And the foundation of that imagery is found in the story of Hosea and Gomer.

Last week we heard the story of Hosea’s call.  “Go and marry a prostitute!” God tells him (Hos 1:2).  This is surely Hosea’s reflection after the fact.  Gomer was unfaithful to Hosea.  They had three children Hosea gave symbolic names, one daughter and two sons, one of whom was named “Lo-ammi” – “not my people.”

Gomer broke Hosea’s heart.  They were eventually reconciled, but as Hosea wrestled with his own heartbreak and inner conflict over whether to stay with Gomer, he had an “aha moment” about God’s relationship with Israel:  Oh, so this is what God feels like with Israel’s incessant unfaithfulness in chasing after other gods.

Our text today follows in this family imagery.  Hosea eleven has been called “the prodigal son story” of the Hebrew Bible.  No one can hurt us more than the people we love.

As you know, Gina and I raised three children at UBC.  Parenting young children is a joy, but also a challenge.  It takes a village!

The problem is that they turn into teenagers and then young adults.  The whole family endures “adolescent rebellion” (which we now call “adolescent individuation” because children have to find their own way and take ownership of their own lives as parents learn to let up without letting go.  The whole family has to renegotiate from parent-child to adult-adult relationships.  Parents have a hard time moving from their role to socialize and discipline to trusting their children to make their own decisions.

Our children are all doing well, thank God, for which I do not claim credit.  Even so – and every parent can tell you this, no on has the capacity to break your heart more than your own children.  Even though they are doing well as young adults, I think about them every day, carry their worries deeply, and do my best to stay out of their business unless invited.  And I know so many parents and children who still struggle with their family relationships, whether close or broken.

In Hosea eleven Hosea shifts from the marital metaphor of his relationship with Gomer to a parent-child metaphor.

Even if they were not his own, Hosea loved Jezreel, Loruhammah, and Lo-ammi.

And then they became teenagers.  We don’t the backstory as well, but it would seem Hosea and Gomer had some problems with at least one of their sons.  This also gave him insight into God’s heartbreak as our Divine parent.  Only, and this is surprising, Hosea uses strong maternal rather than paternal imagery to describe God’s heartbreak with Israel.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.”

When we go through problems with a teenaged or adult child, we always remember those days when they were sweet and cuddly and all their problems were small.

“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.”

“I bent down to them and fed them.”  This imagery of God as a mother breastfeeding her child is one of the most intimate pictures of God as our Mother in the whole Bible.  But suddenly we come to the present painful moment of rebellion, and we hear the pain and anger of God over such ingratitude and unrequited love.

They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.”  Israel has broken God’s heart like a rebellious child, and God takes the course of tough love.

But the broken-hearted God has a change of heart. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim?”

Addmah and Zeboim were two cities destroyed in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their breach of the ancient law of hospitality with the messengers God sent them to turn from their ways.

Rather than use the more familiar names of Sodom and Gomorrah, Hosea uses Admah and Zeboim, which many of his listeners might not even have remembered, which according to one commentator, suggests God might not only allow them to fall into ruin but forget about them altogether.

But no.  We might be unfaithful to God, but God is still faithful.  “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim.”  This powerful family imagery and dramatic literary back and forth gives us a profound insight into God’s inner conflict in dealing with humanity.  And this is where the metaphor breaks down.  “For I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”

Every human metaphor of God eventually breaks down, because God is not human.  The New Testament equivalent is Jesus telling the woman at the well “God is Spirit, and must be worshipped in Spirit and Truth” (John 6:24).  That is why we must use all of the images the Bible uses of God and speak of God with inclusive language lest we lead our children to think of God as purely male.

But stop and consider for a moment this picture of God as feeling.  God is not the unmoved Mover of classical philosophy.  Pure reason.  Only logical.  All in the head.  God has a heart, if you will.  God cares, and because God cares, we have the capacity as God’s children to give God joy or to break God’s heart.

You know God does not give up on humanity, even though the history after Hosea is one of repeated attempts at reconciliation and nurture.

Finally God comes in a specific person, jesus of Nazareth, God in our own flesh, a God with a skin face we can relate to.  Jesus comes to assure us God loves us no matter what, and that God will not give up loving us even through the cross.

To be sure, we have many images of who God was in Christ, and those can be confusing.

Jesus himself uses unusual imagery of God, like a woman looking for her lost coin, or even a mother hen with her chicks.  But all of these images offer us a picture of a God who loves us and will not give up on us.

So however you image God in your mind, remember this.  God has given you God’s heart.  Why don’t you give God yours?  Amen.  May we pray?

Forgive us, O God, for all the ways we have turned from your love to follow other gods.  None of those idols love us like you do.  None of them offer us everlasting and abundant life.  We love you God.  Help us to love you more, in the name of Christ.  Amen.

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