Sunday, July 29, 2007

Prophet, Pimp, and Prostitute - Hosea 1:2-10

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” So he went and took Gomer, daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.
And the Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little whole 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.”
She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the Lord said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, 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.”
When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said, “Name him Lo’ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.”

I realize this morning, as you look over the sermon title in your bulletin, that I am getting quite a reputation for myself. I know some of you drove by the marquis and said to yourself, “A.J. must be preaching this week.” Someone about six rows from the back of the sanctuary nudged their neighbor and said, “Look, he’s talking about sex again.” You didn’t think I heard you, but I did. And, a few of you assumed that my parents must be visiting.

Let’s sort all this out. Yes, I am preaching this week. No, despite what you’re wondering about the title, I am not preaching about sex. And no, my parents are, to my knowledge, still at home in New York.

Our text this morning is not one with which most of you will be overly familiar, so I encourage you to hear it with fresh ears. May we pray.

Summer is wedding season. I have performed a few weddings already this summer, and I will perform another one this coming weekend. Most of us have been to enough weddings that we sorta know the routine. It’s usually a hot afternoon, and the wedding doesn’t even start until 3 or 4. The guys have squeezed into a white shirt, a tie, and a suit, and you know it takes an act of God to get us to dress up on a Saturday. Everyone is milling around in the foyer, and you get in line to sign the guestbook. A young man wearing a tuxedo escorts you to your seat, and you begin to take notice of the other guests. Everyone exchanges polite glances and little hand waves. If you’re single, you’re scoping out the other single guests and trying to determine which one you’ll be asking to dance first when the reception really gets going, while playing a mental game called, “Is that her boyfriend or her cousin?” Finally, the groom walks in, led by the pastor who nobody really notices because she or he looks pretty much like normal. But the groom looks nothing like the immature kid you remember. His hair is nicely trimmed and he’s even used product in it, he appears to have shaven this morning, and he’s wearing so much cologne the guests in the first four rows are gasping for air. The bridesmaids glide gracefully down the center aisle. Then, the organ swells, and everyone rises to their feet, and the bride comes in. Her dress is dingy, and her hair slightly unkempt. Her lipstick is a little too red, and she’s wearing a little too much blush. She stops in the middle of the aisle and grinds her cigarette into the carpet. As she walks by, the unmistakable scent of cheap liquor lingers behind her. The groom is still radiant, blissfully unaware that the guests sense something is amiss. This has to be the strangest wedding you’ve ever been too, including your hippie second-cousin who got married in a cranberry bog.

This is the wedding of the prophet and the prostitute, of Hosea and Gomer. Here we find two people whose lives and backgrounds could not have come from further extremes. Hosea and Gomer: the prophet and the prostitute, the man of God and the woman of the street, the respected and the rejected. To be certain, it’s an unlikely pair.

When it came to prophets, Hosea was one of the big ones. He was a household name, and tens of thousands of people a week tuned into his nationwide television broadcasts. Every preacher has a hot-button issue, and for Hosea, it was sexual sin. The people were constantly violating the boundaries given to them by God – sleeping around and even having sex with prostitutes who hung out near the main entrance to the temple.

And Gomer? She was one of those temple prostitutes. Let me offer a footnote here. Prostitution is often described as the world’s oldest profession, and we find prostitutes all over the world. Most begin young, and most sell their bodies for money, not for sex. In poor families around the world, there is no inheritance for the daughters to receive, and the daughters grow up and head off to the market for the day, and then return at night with food. Nobody talks about it, but the daughters have sold their bodies for food. I imagine Gomer was similar to these tragic people all over the world – a dejected shadow of a person for whom life had steadily gone from bad to worse. The lowest people in society used the services of prostitutes – the prostitutes themselves were viewed as something slightly less than human.

Hosea will marry Gomer, and she will bear him a son, but it’s a tenuous relationship at best. Before too long, Gomer will desert her husband, and have two illegitimate children. Her family will beg her to stay with him, but her life will continue to sink lower and lower, down into the pits of despair, so far below rock bottom that you and I have no way of understanding her condition.

In the following chapters, we find her being sold into slavery at an auction. Can you just hear the taunts of the people around her? “She’s finally getting just what she deserves. She’s made her bed, and now she can lie in it. Her bad choices are catching up with her and her types.”

Finally, she is on the auction block. The auctioneer cries out, “Who will buy this woman as a slave?” There is silence. Nobody wants her. She’s used up. She has no value. Finally, at the back of the room, one hand came up, and a voice said, “I will buy her. I will buy her back.” It is Hosea, and he is buying her back. The tongues were surely wagging. Here is this prophet, this man of God, buying a whore. But, she happens to be no ordinary whore – she is also his wife.

One way the preacher gets a handle on a particular text is to look at it from the perspective of the various characters and see how we might relate to the story. It would be easy for me, at this point, to say, “Therefore, let us be like Hosea, and show love to people the world has forgotten.” To be sure, this is something I feel we’re called to do. But there is some honest soul-searching that needs to take place first.

I quickly realized that, in this story, we’re not Hosea. We’re Gomer. The Church is filled with people whose lives are messed up, who don’t have it together, who make enormously bad choices and then must live with the nasty consequences. Now, we may pretend otherwise. We may put on our smiling Sunday faces, our perfect appearances, our images of having it all together, but we are a deeply flawed people. We are not right with God and we are not right with God’s people. Yet Christ chooses us, of all people, to be his bride.

Geoffrey Wainwright, theology professor at Duke, was talking about all the flaws in the church as it exists today. Someone asked why he still chooses to be part of it, knowing all the things that are wrong with it. He looked at my classmate and said, “The church may be a whore, but she’s also my mother.”

Why does Christ choose to stick with the church? I can almost hear him saying, “The church may be a whore, but she’s also my bride.” In spite of our imperfections and our shortcomings and our flaws, Christ chooses us. In spite of our inability to keep our promises, Christ chooses us. In spite of our brokenness and our deep hurts, Christ chooses us.

This is a story of pure grace, of pure sacrifice, of pure love. This story reminds us that God loves imperfect people. It’s a crystal clear view of God’s love and grace for people who don’t have their act completely together – people like us. We have been conditioned to think of love as a warm gushy feeling. Movies, television, and music all reinforce this idea. In reality, love has very little to do with a certain feeling, but it has everything to do with a commitment.

In the early-90s, when my grandparents were starting to celebrate their second half-century together in marriage, Grandma began to develop signs of Alzheimer’s. Papa, then in his mid-80s, became her primary care-giver, and took care to dress her, feed her, take her to the bathroom, fix her hair, get her medication, and tuck her into bed every night. With personality and memory changes, she was barely a shadow of her former self. Even so, Papa would gently stroke the back of her hand as they sat on the couch together, and tell her several times a day just how much he loved her. It was a love that remained faithful to a vow to cherish and keep her, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, and he kept it until they were parted by death.

This is a love that is patient and kind, that does not seek its own way, that endures all things.

How much more, then, will God keep his vows to us? When everyone else has given up on us, when everyone else has said that we’re worthless and are good for absolutely nothing, when everyone else is ready to throw us away, God is still faithful; and lavishes upon us a love we don’t deserve.

There is a mindset that became very popular in some Christian circles that you had to get your life in order before you could even think of approaching God. You had to clean up all that nasty stuff – the attitudes, the behaviors, the bitterness, the resentment – before you were worthy to be in God’s presence, some people would tell you. From the outside, so many churches have projected themselves little enclaves of perfect people – a place where the children are always well-behaved, and where everyone is always nice and pleasant.

But the problem with portraying an outward appearance of perfection is that we never have a chance to acknowledge our brokenness. And I can tell you, keeping up an appearance of perfection is awfully hard work. It’s sort of like constantly applying makeup to a gaping wound, hoping that you can cover it up. Sure, for awhile you might be able to do a decent job hiding things. But eventually, you can’t keep up with it. What’s worse, the whole time you were covering up the wound, it grew larger, became infected, and is now a much more severe problem than it would have been if acknowledged in the first place. Here’s a simple truth: wounds are ugly. It hurts to open them up. It’s painful to clean them out. And they take time to heal. But when we are able to acknowledge them and deal with them, we end up healthier in the long run.

Friends, we are an imperfect people. But God loves imperfect people. That’s what this story of Hosea and Gomer – the prophet and the prostitute – so readily reminds us. Christ is the perfect groom and the Church is the imperfect bride. Christ looks lovingly on the Church, broken and bent and utterly unattractive, and immediately we know what grace is all about.

The church is a place we come together in all our brokenness in order to be made whole. And I am convinced that God calls us and uses us, not in spite of our brokenness, but because of our brokenness. We all have scars, but each of those scars tells a story – a story of God’s healing and redemption in our lives – a story that can help another wounded person. Our wounds can be used to offer healing to others, in the name of a wounded healer who has offered wholeness to us.

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