Hosea 11:1- 11:11
11When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. 3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4I 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. 5They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. 7My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
8How 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? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. 10They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. 11They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
"Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’"
My two month old son has some nasty reflux. It’s pretty common for babies. At least human ones. Although many animals are born ready to walk and eat and face the world, babies are some of the most helpless creatures on the planet. They can’t hold their heads up, they can’t control their bodies, and in my son’s case, he can’t even nurse without spewing half of it back out onto the comforter, the couch, my third shirt of the day. It’s a mess. And I’m forever grateful to have a washing machine and dryer in my basement. On several occasions, I’ve picked him up to kiss him on the cheek, and as his eyes get big and his smile gets wide as we come nearer, surprise! A nice little present right in the eye. I’m one of those nursing moms who just isn’t phased by baby puke. I probably should take a look at my shoulders to double check that I’m not covered in it right now.
And I don’t even know if my son knows if I exist. I mean, he knows when he’s hungry, and he knows that some lady with dark hair and glasses comes and fixes that. But does he really know that I’m the same person who fed him just twenty minutes ago? Probably not. He doesn’t have object permanence yet. If he can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. So if he can’t see me, then I must not exist. It’s pretty rational, really. So, I question, does my son “believe” in me? Probably not. He’s a Momma atheist. An “a-motherist.” Or at least an agnostic.
Our Hebrew Scripture passage for today is simply amazing in this way. God describes Godself as a tender mother - one who teaches Israel to walk, who takes them up in her arms -- she kisses their boo boos, and stocks up on Buzz Lightyear bandaids, and swaddles them with love and kindness. She is “to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.” She bends “down to them and [feeds] them.” Does Israel even realize what God has done for them? If they are infants, they won’t even remember. They have no idea where their care is coming from. They just know what they need, and they cry out when they need it.
This passage is a description of God’s very nature. Who is God? God is like a mother. A mother who cares for her children and raises them up herself. A mother who chases her kids even as they run away from her. A mother who, although it’s painful, lets her kids make choices that will hurt them. And a mother who grieves every time she sees Israel destroy itself. And finally, God is a mother who, like a lion, will roar so fiercely that her children will not be able to help but come back to her. Even if her children have no idea that she exists. Even if they have no idea where their milk comes from.
This is an intimate God. A God who feeds and teaches and swaddles and chases. A God who is embodied. A God who gets puked on.
There are some days when I feel like throwing my kids out the window. Just a few nights ago, around three in the morning my son was crying and crying. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I’d try to nurse, and he’d refuse. I’d rock, and he’d cry even harder. I changed his diaper, still screamed. I found myself wondering why in the world I signed up for this - again. My nerves were frayed. I was exhausted. I was tapped out. My heart was pounding, I was breathing hard and fast, sweating from the stress. Luckily, I’m not in this alone, and Dan was there to take him and bounce him and give me a break.
But, God, God’s not like this. God’s a much better mother than I. God’s got patience. Enough patience to drag an entire people out of Egypt, even as they wander through the desert whining and complaining and demanding to go back to slavery. God has enough patience to call after them, even after they worship other gods. Enough patience to hold them in her arms and nurse them and lift them to her cheeks, even while Israel is yet to develop “object permanence.”
This is a God who is slow to anger - literally, in the Hebrew, God is “long in the nose.” Now, it’s a common Hebrew idiom that describes divine anger as being “hot in the nose,” or God who has a “burning nose” -- and God’s divine patience is described in the length of God’s nose. In the Hosea passage, God says, “I will not execute my fierce anger” - literally, my “charone api” -- “my burning nose.” Our God breathes slowly and deeply. Our God is “long in the nose.” Even God’s patience is embodied, expressed through nostrilled fleshiness.
This is an interesting contrast to verse seven. And you might need to crack the spines of those ancient pew Bibles and check out the verse in order to see it. It says, “My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.” Wait. I thought God was the Most High? But not in this passage. That which is “Most High” are the Ba’als, the false gods, the ones whose shrines are way up in the mountains.
See, we want the far away god - the one who is “Most High,” the one who is up in the clouds or on a mountaintop or in a skyscraper who won’t meddle with us and our choices. We want the god who is distant and unconcerned. That’s why we worship things like money and success and stability and ignorance and others’ approval and the easy choice. These things will never lift us up to their cheeks. They will never swaddle us with love. Never bend down and feed us. We want the gods we have to reach up to, the gods we can climb to, the gods we earn, not the vulnerable, fleshy God who wants to lift us to Godself like a mother lifts her child. We are terrified of a God whom we spit up on. We don’t trust that God will love us anyway, will love us because of all that puke and soaked-through diapers and snotty noses and tears and temper tantrums and all our unconsolable late nights.
We don’t trust that God, who gets fiercely angry with our choices because God fiercely loves us, will forgive us, gather us back into her arms, set us back on our feet to try again. Ours is a God who wants to lift us up, who comes down to us -- not a god who demands that we climb our way up. God wants to return us to our homes, bring us back to where we are meant to be, give us rest from all this striving for what is way up there, for what is “Most High.”
The Israelites are threatened by the Assyrians and are at risk living in an occupied land, and they’re letting themselves be occupied. They are buying what the Assyrians are selling them. They are doing what the Assyrians are doing: they are worshipping the far-off gods that are up on the mountains, and forgetting about the God who has nurtured and cared for them like a mother cares for her child. And the rich man in our New Testament passage is doing the same thing. These far-off gods, whether they be the Ba’als, riches, security, status, degrees, political clout, whatever, they are not going to lift us up to their cheeks, they are not going to feed us and teach us to walk and call us back home.
Sounds familiar, yes? All around us are ads and articles and movies and cars and buildings and bank accounts that tell us that we aren’t where we’re supposed to be. We need to work harder, be more disciplined, buy whatever they’re selling, or just give up and let some substance or ideology or political perspective or broken relationship take us over and define our lives for us. We are so afraid of the mess, of being vulnerable and out of control, that we just build bigger storehouses in which to store our gods.
But God is a wild, chasing God, a God who roars us back to herself, and we cannot help but return home at the sound. God is a God who wants to grab us by the scruff of our necks and take us back where we belong.
Does it matter if we “believe” in such a God? I don’t think so. Even if, like my son, we lack object permanence, we know when we are getting fed. We know when we are comfortable and safe. We are familiar with God’s smell and the curve of the crook of God’s arm and what it feels like to be swaddled in God’s bands of love. We recognize the soft, furry, scruffy touch of God’s cheek against ours. We will know we’re home when we’re in God’s arms, even if we don’t understand who holds us, or if we can’t see more than twelve inches in front of our faces, or even if we forget what we’re doing twenty minutes later.
And we’ll puke on God. We’ll have colic and unconsolable nights. We’ll stray away, and hurt each other, and suffer the consequences. We’ll worship those things that are far away from us because we are so terrified of God’s intense intimacy. But like a lioness who licks her cubs clean, almost knocking them over with her gruff motherly care, God will call us back home. Like a Momma Bear who grows fiercely angry, full of her fierce love when her cubs are in danger and going the wrong way and bats them back in line with her big paws, or when some predator comes and threatens their safety, God will do the same.
This is an intimate God. A God who gets messy with us. A God who bleeds and nurses and has a long nose. A God who is vulnerable enough to die a humiliating death. A God who calls us back home, again and again, who lifts us up to Godself. Not the gods of the “Most High” who demand that we strive and climb and sweat up a mountain to get to some demanding, expecting, hollow and mechanical god, but a God who bends down and feeds us, who lifts us up to her cheek.
We are infants in God’s arms. Helpless. Messy. Crying. Weak. Most of us have some nasty reflux. And God is our mother whose infinite patience brings us back, sets us back on our feet when we fall, and who longs to lift us to her cheek, not so that we can “believe” the right way, or have perfect knowledge of God, or act the right way, but so that we can feel the comfort of God’s touch, so that God can rejoice in us, delight in us, we whom God has made.
Thanks be to God.