For several years when I was a young pastor, I taught a fifth and sixth-grade Sunday School class, and I would often ask my students if they knew what a covenant was. "A covenant is a promise," they would answer, in unison--those kids had been well taught! "Just any kind of promise?" I would ask. "No, a special kind of promise," they would answer. "Can you give me an example?" I would ask. "Like a wedding," they would answer.
And they would be right.
A covenant is like that very special promise made by two people when they get married. "John," the minister asks, "will you have Jane to be your wife?" "I will," John answers. "Will you forsake all others and be faithful to her only as long as you both shall live?" "I will," he says. "And Jane," the minister continues, "will you have John to be your husband?" "I will," Jane answers. "Will you forsake all others and be faithful to him only as long as you both shall live?" "I will," she says. And at the end of the ceremony the minister pronounces them husband and wife.
It is not unlike that covenant made between God and his people at Mount Sinai, that "wedding in the wilderness," where God took Israel by the hand and said, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not bow down to idols or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God (Ex. 20:2-5). Do you understand?" And the people of Israel, like a bride blushing behind her veil, said, "We do."
They made a covenant, and the covenant between God and his people, at its simplest, was this: "If you will be my people I will be your God." But it was a conditional covenant. It began with the word if. Another way to say it, then, was "If you will not be my people, then I will not be your God. Understood?" "Understood," the people said. "We will be your people and you will be our God." And off they went, God and his people, toward their honeymoon in the Promised Land.
But it didn't last long.
Even before they got there, God figured out how things were going to be. In the thirty-first chapter of Deuteronomy, in one of those private moments with Moses, God said: "Soon you will lie down with your ancestors. Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going; they will forsake me, breaking my covenant that I have made with them" (Deut. 31:16). And, sure enough, that's just what happened. By the time we get to our text for today, some 500 years later, the people of Israel have worshiped every foreign god they can find, as if their lives depended on it, and it's probably because they thought their lives really did.
If the rains didn't fall, if their crops didn't grow, they wouldn't have anything to eat. And if they didn't have anything to eat, they couldn't last long in the land that God had given them. When they entered the land of Canaan and learned that there was a local god, Baal, who was responsible for rainfall, they figured it couldn't hurt to toss a prayer in his direction, the way you might toss a coin into a wishing well. And when they learned that there was a fertility goddess named Anath, they figured it couldn't hurt to light a candle at her shrine, either. Who knew? It might just help the crops grow. But don't miss the significance of what was happening. Although it might seem like a harmless flirtation with foreign gods, it was the beginning of the end of the marriage. Because when the people of God began to bend their knees to other gods, they were saying in essence, "You, Yahweh, are not enough god for me. I can't count on you to provide for me, to fulfill my needs. So, I'm going to worship these other gods as well, just to be on the safe side, just to make sure."
But what may have begun with a casual prayer or the lighting of a candle soon became an orgy of idol worship. If one prayer was good, two prayers were better, right? And if one candle seemed to help, why not try a half dozen? And if the rains hadn't come or the crops were in danger, the people would head for the hills to "worship." They would spread their blankets beneath the trees and engage in fertility rituals that went on for days, hoping to inspire the gods by their behavior. It broke God's heart, not so much because of what they were doing, I think, as why they were doing it--because they didn't trust him to provide for their needs. In the fourth chapter of Hosea, he says: "There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. My people consult a wooden idol and are answered by a stick of wood. A spirit of prostitution leads them astray; they are unfaithful to their God. They sacrifice on the mountaintops and burn offerings on the hills" (Hosea 4:1, 12-13a, NIV).
What will God do with his adulterous bride? According to the terms of the covenant, he has every right to abandon her. He had said, "If you will be my people, I will be your God." But they had not been his people. They had behaved like prostitutes, as he says, chasing after every foreign god who walked down the street, batting their eyelashes at Baal, hanging on the arm of Anath, offering themselves to any god who would give them a taste of the good life. "If you will not be my people," God might have said, "then I will not be your God." He could have thrown them out of the Promised Land. He could have locked the doors and left them weeping on the threshold. He would have had every right. But that is not what he did.
Instead God went to Hosea and said, "I want you to do something for me. I want you to go and marry a prostitute, and I want you to have children of prostitution, because my people have prostituted themselves by worshiping other gods" (Hosea 1:2). It's not every day that you get such an assignment from the Lord, but unlike his fellow Israelites, Hosea was a faithful follower of Yahweh: what God said, Hosea did. And so he went down to the red light district of Samaria to look for a wife, and it was there that he found Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim. Some people say Go-MEHR, which is probably correct, but I say GO-mer, because I used to watch that television show. We can only hope that she was prettier than her name, which I found in a list of Hebrew baby names followed by the warning: "You find it difficult to say 'no' and mean it." So Gomer was just a girl who couldn't say no. Can you imagine how things went when Hosea proposed?
Will you marry me, Gomer?
(Gomer Pyle voice) Gol-lee!
No, really. I want you to be my wife.
(Gomer Pyle voice) Shazam!
But in the end she didn't say no; she said yes. It was a small but beautiful wedding, with Diblaim weeping as he gave his daughter away, hoping that at last she would settle down. Hosea took her to the hill country of Judea for a brief honeymoon, and then they moved into a one-bedroom apartment overlooking the main street of Samaria. It was fun at first, freshening up the paint and adding some curtains, shopping for groceries together and eating off their wedding china. But eventually Gomer got bored, and one night Hosea came home to find her putting on her makeup.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"Out," she said, and that's all she said. No matter how much Hosea pried, she wouldn't tell him more. He waited up for her as long as he could, pacing the floors and looking out the windows, but finally he went to bed, exhausted. He woke up when he heard the click of the latch on the bedroom door, sometime after three. He didn't say anything--just lay there in the darkness as she undressed and got in bed beside him--but he could smell the cigarette smoke in her hair, the traces of someone else's cologne. It went on like that for weeks, for months. Gomer would sleep until the middle of the day and then, after supper, start putting on her makeup and getting dressed for work. She would stay out until the wee hours of the morning, sometimes coming home just before dawn to crawl in bed beside her husband. It was on one of those occasions that he finally confronted her.
"Doesn't it mean anything to you?"
"What?" she asked
"Our marriage," he said. "Doesn't it mean anything to you?"
"Well of course it does," she said, rolling toward him. "But Lord knows you're not going to get rich in the prophecy business, and somebody's got to make some money around here, especially since we've got a baby on the way."
"Mm-hmm. Hosea Junior ought to be here in about six months."
That was news to Hosea, and he wasn't sure it was good news. He lay there in the darkness doing the math, trying to figure out if there was any way the child could be his. He tossed and turned for a long time before deciding that even if it wasn't, it wasn't the child's fault. He would try to be the best daddy he could be. But then God told Hosea what to name the child. "Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel" (Hos. 1:4-5).
It's hard to love a child with a name like that.
But Gomer conceived again and gave birth to a little girl. The Lord told Hosea, "Name her Lo-ruhamah--'Not Pitied'--for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen" (1:6-7). And when Gomer had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said, "Name him Lo-ammi--'Not My People'--for you are not my people and I am not your God" (1:8-9). And if Hosea hadn't gotten the message before, he got it now, that God has had just about all of Israel's unfaithfulness he can stand. Do you remember the covenant? "If you will be my people, I will be your God. But if you will not be my people...."
I wonder: have you ever made a promise to God? Has there ever been a time when you said you would be faithful to him, and him alone? At your baptism or your confirmation? At youth camp, or during a prayer service, or maybe on a mission trip? One of those times when you closed your eyes and thought, "All I need is God." It's not like we don't mean such things when we say them. We do. But then we do what the people of Israel did: we hedge our bets. They worshiped other gods because they believed those gods were responsible for things like rainfall and fertility, abundant crops and unprecedented prosperity. If taking an offering to the temple of Baal would make the rain fall, why not? What harm could it do? Well, every harm! It meant that God's people didn't trust God to provide for their needs. They bowed down before other gods just to be certain, and so do we.
Sure, it says on our money, "In God we trust," but we know that if we have enough money, we don't have to trust as much. And so, through the years, we have done what we could to make more. We have bowed down before the many small gods of the Good Life. We haven't done it because we didn't love God. We've done it because we wanted to be a little more secure, a little more comfortable. We've done it because we wanted to live in a nicer home or send our kids to better schools. We have found that the Good Life can be very good indeed, but along the way our love for God has grown cold. Oh, we stay in the marriage. We maintain some show of faithfulness. But he is no longer the source of life and love for us. He is that old, tired husband we come home to when our eyes are still glittering from a night on the town.
And today, through the prophet Hosea, he confronts us. He says, "You know, there was a time when you only had eyes for me, when you couldn't wait to be with me. But now you will climb into bed with any god who offers you a taste of the good life." He says it through tears, in a choked voice. He says it like someone who has finally decided that enough is enough. What will he do? I don't know, but I think Hosea knows. Hosea, whose life was lived as a metaphor of God's life, and whose own household provided a picture of God's crazy, mixed up family. If I close my eyes I can almost see him getting up in the night for a glass of water and stopping by the children's bedroom. He checks on Jezreel, his oldest; pulls the covers up under Lo-ruhamah's chin and kisses her cheek; strokes Lo-ammi's head and sings him back to sleep. And then he pulls a chair up to the window to watch and wait. Maybe this will be the night she comes home early and tells him she's giving up her night job, that she has realized at last that he's everything she needs and all she ever wants. Maybe things will be different for them from now on.