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In one group, a rabbi broke the ice by saying, "I'll begin by sharing one of my most disturbing problems. Occasionally I slip out of town and give in to my craving for pork - I stuff myself with bacon, sausage, ham, pork chops, and sometimes even baby back ribs."
At this point a Roman Catholic priest confided he, too, had a similar problem during Lent and occasionally slipped away to enjoy a medium-rare T-bone steak.
There was a long pause broken by the Baptist preacher who finally said, "On rare occasions when I am having difficulty preparing my sermon, I dig down in my file cabinet, bring out a bottle of Jack Daniels and drink a jigger or two. I try to justify my actions by telling myself `the use of alcohol seems to add a spark to my sermon,' but I know down deep that it is not true."
At this point all eyes turned to the Presbyterian pastor who had not said a word. After shuffling his feet a time or two, straightening his tie, and clearing his throat several times, he said, "I have never admitted this to anyone before, not even to myself, but without a doubt my greatest weakness is...I just love to gossip. And...what is worse, the way I feel right now, I just cannot wait to get back to town."
Ah, yes. People do love to talk...especially about each other's troubles. (Thus, the national fascination with Gary Condit and Chandra Levy right now.) The most popular topics for gossip generally involve sex, and the amount of talk is typically in direct proportion to its unexpectedness. Example - if the town derelict has some trouble with his wife, folks would not say that much. No surprise. But what if a problem develops between the minister and his wife (or, these days, the minister and her husband)? Now that IS news, because it is not supposed to happen. (Remember Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye?)
Now, not to worry. No trouble in your minister's family, thank goodness. But the story I bring to you this morning is one of trouble in a manse that was so overwhelming that it provided a mirror-image of the trouble being faced by an entire congregation. The preacher's name was Hosea and his congregation was the nation of Israel.
It was almost 800 years before the birth of Christ. The chosen people had been led out of bondage in Egypt; they had conquered the land of Canaan; they had set monarchs over themselves to run the government. As to their worship, they had gone hot and cold through the years in their allegiance to the divine. In bad times they had turned to Yahweh for deliverance; in good times they turned to whomever they pleased. Hosea came to the people in the midst of relatively good times, so his message was "Get back in line or the BAD times are just around the corner."
Now, there is no question that Israel had given Hosea a lot about which to preach. His various sermons that we have recorded in scripture in the book that bears his name deal with swearing and falsehood, murder and bloodshed, robbery, wicked priests, widely prevailing adultery, perversion, false dealing, oppression, idolatry, drunkenness and utter heedlessness of God. No trouble finding pulpit topics from week to week.
Hosea's problem was different. His was in his home...his wife. Her name was Gomer. Apparently she had had a pretty good life by the time Hosea met her - active, outgoing, fun-loving, the life of the party. It probably struck her circle of friends as the height of something or other when, all of a sudden, she up and married a preacher, but she did. She packed her belongings and moved into the manse.
For a time things seemed to work out all right. She was content to have done with the lifestyle she had left. She was settling into her new role and doing very well. Hosea and Gomer even had a baby. They named him Jezreel.
But apparently Gomer began to get tired of the routine. Hosea was never there - he was always off preaching someplace. Her main social contact was always having to have his diapers changed. Gomer began to long for some of the excitement of days gone by. Finally she decided, "Why not? What's the harm in spending time with old friends? Who cares if Hosea objects? Who died and left him king over me anyway?" So Gomer began to accept some invitations. It was all innocent enough at first, but...as they say, people who play with fire are bound to get burned.
Suddenly, Gomer was pregnant again. Hosea was not as happy about it as he might have been. He had heard the rumors...the preacher's wife steppin' out. He probably would have discounted them as malicious gossip had they not come from so many sources...sources that were not inclined to gossip, sources that Hosea knew had his best interests at heart. The baby turned out to be a little girl and she was named Lo-ruhamah (which in Hebrew means "not loved"). It was not the CHILD Hosea did not love - he did not love the situation.
Things went from bad to worse. The coming of the baby made no difference. Gomer resented more and more the fact that she had married that crazy preacher. He had ruined her life. It had been one big party before he came along, and now it was all diapers and cooking and cleaning and drudgery. What a way for the life of the party to end up! So, as soon as she was able, Gomer took up with her old friends again.
Life of the party INDEED...to the fellows anyway. Gomer's vocabulary seemed to lack the word NO. And if her vocabulary did not lack it, her character did. Sure enough, she ended up pregnant again. This time there was not much question about who the father was NOT - Hosea named the baby boy Lo-ammi (which means "not my people" or "no kin").
The preacher could not ignore the situation any longer. People were beginning to think more about what was going on in Hosea's house than about the message he was trying to bring. Painful as it was for him to do, he told Gomer that she would have to leave. He could not let God's word be compromised by trouble in the manse.
For Gomer it was one of the happiest days of her life. Once and for all she would be RID of that blue-nosed preacher. She would not have to worry about what the little old ladies were saying when they gathered for tea in the parish hall. She would not have to worry about living up to some impossible holy standard because she was the pastor's wife. She would be HER OWN PERSON, and NOBODY would be able to tell her what to do.
So, Gomer went back to her old friends and her former life. It was fine for awhile, but time had taken its toll. She was no longer the fresh flower she once was. The men who sought her out were not looking to court her in the same way the boys of her youth had done. There were no flowers or candy. To put it bluntly, all they wanted these days was her body. As has been the case throughout all of history, there are girls who DO and girls who DON'T, and everybody knew, Gomer DID.
One thing she did learn though...she did not have to GIVE it away - she could SELL it. So Gomer did...she became a prostitute. In her eyes, she had no choice. After all, the opportunities for the ex-wife of a prophet in Israel would be virtually nil. As much as she had looked forward to getting away from Hosea, Gomer would not have chosen this.
Finally, she got tied up with a really unscrupulous character...a pimp. All he cared about Gomer for was the amount of money she could turn in a night. When she was no longer of any use to him, he got rid of her - he put her up for sale as a slave. "Turn out the lights; the party's over."
Meanwhile, Hosea had kept on with his work. To be sure, having to care for three small children at home all by himself was a problem, but he had managed. The neighbors had been helpful. They knew the situation and had supported him as much as possible. But Hosea had to keep going. The nation had wandered far from their God. The people had sunk to the depths of immoral behavior. They needed to be brought back. Hosea was God's man for a critical hour. He could not let personal tragedy dissuade him from his work.
For him, the message was supremely clear: sin leads to ruin. There was living proof of it right in the preacher's own home. Hosea had taken Gomer as his wife with all the high expectations of any new bridegroom. Here would be one he could love and cherish, one with whom he could share joys and sorrows, one with whom he could raise a family that would walk upright in the presence of the Most High God. It had gone well...until sin entered in. The dream was destroyed. All that was left for Hosea now was an empty bed and memories.
The saddest are these:
It might have been.(1)
Perhaps as he lay there alone at night the parallel came to him...the parallel of God as husband and Israel as the wife. It had all begun so beautifully - Yahweh had miraculously delivered the nation from the hands of the pharaohs. Granted, there were a few problems in the beginning - the golden calf in the wilderness, the grumblings about when the people would get the things they had dreamed of. But those things can be expected. After all, every marriage needs a period of adjustment. But then Israel DID get what it wanted - the nation was set up in a home that had everything, a "land flowing with milk and honey." Then, in spite of all the benefits, they caught Gomer's disease...the roving eye. They began chasing after other gods. Sad.
The story could have ended there...both for Gomer and for Israel. But in one of the most grace-filled parables in all of scripture we learn that, one day, Hosea got word of Gomer's predicament...that she had gotten herself involved with some low-life who cared so little for her that he was putting her up for sale on the open market. The prophet knew what he would do. He scraped together his savings (such as they were on a preacher's salary) and went off to try to reclaim her. He might not have loved what she had done to him, but he did love HER and wanted to give her another chance.
Jesus told a similar story years later. A foolish and headstrong son decided he would establish a new life away from his father. It did not work. That father had every right to say, "Too bad...you made your bed, now lie in it." But that was not the father's nature. The father in Jesus' story became the paradigm for the ages of unselfish and unfailing love.
As it turned out, Hosea DID have enough saved up: he was able to pay the price needed to redeem Gomer. So he bought her back and brought her home. He had redeemed her, not because he could accept what she had done, but because he loved her. At least now, she would know for certain to what lengths her husband would go to do anything he could to help her. If she were tempted, she could come to him and let him help her overcome it. If she were sad, she could come to him for comfort. If she were weary, she could come to him for rest.
As he thought about it later, perhaps Hosea realized the parallels between his own home life and the relationship between God and God's people - it would not be complete without that same step: the step of redeeming love. Hosea must have realized it because the closing verses of his prophecy are full of hope. "I will love them freely...They shall live again beneath my shadow; they shall flourish as a garden."(2) That became the prophet's message.
No doubt the tongues did wag again when Hosea brought Gomer back home. That had to be big news over tea in the parish hall. But this time the news was good. It was news about an incredible display of love and grace that would find itself repeated hundreds of years later when the same thing was done for a wayward and sinful world. One dark, clear night, God sent Jesus to begin the process of redeeming people who had been enslaved to sin, a process that would come to a climax at Calvary.
Do the tongues continue to wag about that today? Does yours? Lord, I hope so. Because this is one story that NEEDS to be told.
1. John Greenleaf Whittier
2. Hosea 14:4 ff. (NRSV)