God is the Best Parent
This morning we are beginning several weeks of readings from the Old Testament prophets. We often think of prophets as people who tell the future. In the Old Testament a prophet was most often someone who was called by God to just “tell it like it is,” someone who refused to play along with fake news or put their head in the sand. Someone who spoke out about what was really happening in the world around them. Often that led to these men and women also speaking about what would happen if society kept going along the same path. It was a prediction, but one that everyone should have been able to see if they were paying attention and being honest.
When we last read a story about the ancient Hebrews, it was a story of King David uniting all the tribes into one nation. And although David was the best king Israel ever had and is remembered as a man after God’s own heart despite his personal weaknesses, the unity of the nation didn’t last long. In fact it only lasted two generations, through David and his son Solomon. After that the nation split into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and neither one of them remained faithful to their covenant of loyalty to God. The Old Testament records the words of prophets to both the north and the south, and Hosea was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel. The northern kingdom went downhill pretty fast and the prophets don’t mince words in their explanations. Poor people are being exploited by rich people. The courts are corrupt. Society is violent. And most of all the people have stopped trying to follow God’s ways and are worshipping idols. They have forgotten who they are and whose they are and have fallen into the temptation of doing what the nations around them are doing. The prophets warn them over and over and over again that if they insist on being like everyone else, God is going to allow that. And the way that’s going to play out is that they will be invaded by one of the other nations and their way of life will be wiped out. If you want to be like everyone else, then you will literally become like everyone else. But obviously, that’s not what God wants for them. And although the words of the prophets are often harsh as they tell it like it is and warn people about consequences, Hosea also records some of the most loving and comforting and beautiful feelings that God has about God’s people. And that is what we are going to hear this morning.
“So let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.
“Will they not return to Egypt
and will not Assyria rule over them
because they refuse to repent?
A sword will flash in their cities;
it will devour their false prophets
and put an end to their plans.
My people are determined to turn from me.
Even though they call me God Most High,
I will by no means exalt them.
“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come against their cities.
They will follow the Lord;
he will roar like a lion.
When he roars,
his children will come trembling from the west.
They will come from Egypt,
trembling like sparrows,
from Assyria, fluttering like doves.
I will settle them in their homes,”
declares the Lord.
This is the word of God for all people.
You will not be at all surprised to discover that Sam and I have been thinking a lot recently about parenting. Not only about the physical process of bringing a child into the world, although I’m kind of anxious about that part. But also about how in the world we are going to bring up a compassionate and responsible adult. I suspect that as hard as this pregnancy has been, this is the easy part.
So it should also come as no surprise that what first stood out to me in this verses we read this morning is all the parent and child imagery. When the Bible describes God’s relationship with people, both individually and as a community, it usually does so in the most intimate of family relationships: the relationship between spouses, and the relationship between a parent and a child. Hosea contains both of those images and lots of others too actually, but this morning we have this gorgeous and tender description of God as parent.
These verses start by saying that from the time that the ancient Hebrews were just a little baby nation back in bondage in Egypt, God has been loving them, calling them, teaching them, healing them, leading them, picking them up, carrying them, and feeding them. Just like we do with our little ones. God has been providing for them. God has been helping them learn what it means to grow up well, how to live as God’s people in the world.
I think this image of God as parent is one of the most helpful ways for us to understand our relationship with God, no matter what age we are. No matter how old we get, we are always children and God is always our parent. To me it doesn’t matter whether you prefer to think of God as a Father or as a Mother; they both work. When we remember that we are always children, it encourages us to walk humbly with God, to acknowledge that there are going to be things that happen in this world that we do not understand, that God’s ways are higher than our ways and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. It doesn’t mean we are stupid or that we don’t deserve to know. It just reminds that we are never going to have as full a picture as God does. We are always children to God.
And when we remember that God is always a parent, it encourages us to see all the facets of what God is trying to do in the world. It reminds us that God’s foundation for us is always love. But that if we insist on living in ways that are destructive to ourselves and others, God is not always going to protect us from the natural consequences of that. Eventually children need to learn that choices have consequences, and a really good parent, one who loves their child and wants the best for them, will allow the child to lie in the bed they’ve made. Or, the parent may even be the cause of the consequences. Sometimes parents point out what’s happening and decide what will happen if the behavior doesn’t change. That’s a pretty fair definition of punishment.
No parent I’ve ever met gives punishment lightly. In fact, it is often the hardest thing for a parent to do. How many of you have ever said, or have had a parent say, “This hurts me more than it’s about to hurt you”? So whether we understand what happens in the Bible as natural consequences or whether we understand it as punishment, we trust that God does not do it lightly. Sometimes it breaks God’s heart when punishment happens.
Now that’s not to say that God never gets frustrated with God’s people, or even angry. We can’t deny that kind of emotion shows up in the Old Testament. Parents do get angry. When you have invested years of love and time and energy, it’s hard to see a child make really bad choices. It’s hard to be deliberately disrespected. You hate to see your child messing up their life and it feels a little personal. Anger is understandable. But good parents try really hard not to let the anger drive the punishment. And God is not just a good parent; God is a great parent. God is the best parent. Which is why I love these verses so much because we get to see God as a mother wrestling with her own anger and how she wants to react.
She has recounted the years of care and love she has had for her child Israel. But Israel seems determined to make the kinds of choices that will return them to bondage like they knew way back in Egypt. And God is frustrated she is with Israel’s choices. But then God says, “How can I give you up? How can I destroy you? My compassion is stirred up. I remember that I’m dealing with my beloved child. I will not react in anger.” What an example, not only for those of us who are parents but really for all of us humans, not to simply react with our first instinct. I also take this as reassurance that whatever happens to Israel after this—whatever God “does” or allows—it is not done because God is angry. It still happens, but the reason it happens is not because God is mad.
Like a good parent, God’s goal is always restoration. No matter what God does or allows in terms of discipline, it is not abusive. It is not sadistic. When we as individuals or societies are going down a destructive path, God’s goal is always to bring us back to a way of health and peace and collective flourishing, what the Hebrew Bible refers to as “shalom.” God is not out to get us. God it out to save us from ourselves. Amen.