First Reading: Hosea 5:15-6:6
15I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me.
1“Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. 2After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. 3Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.” 4What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. 5Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light. 6For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
65O Lord, you have dealt graciously with your servant, according to your word. 66Teach me discernment and knowledge, for I have believed in your commandments. 67Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. 68You are good and you bring forth good; instruct me in your statutes. 69The proud have smeared me with lies, but I will keep your commandments with my whole heart. 70Their heart is gross and fat, but my delight is in your law. 71It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. 72The law of your mouth is dearer to me than thousands in gold and silver.
Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25
13For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. 16That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring — not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
Gospel: Matthew 9:9-13
9As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. 10And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Returning, Real or Ruse?
One of the disadvantages of us using the 3-year lectionary is, at times the reading or readings can seemingly leave you asking more questions than they answer. At times, the lessons seem to start in the middle of a thought, and without some sort of context, it’s hard to fully grasp the intent of the readings. The opening verse of our Old Testament reading for today is a good example: “I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress they see me, saying, ‘Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn, that he may heal us; he has stricken, and he will bind us up.’” Almost immediately we find ourselves asking, who is the I that is speaking here? Is this a threat of abandonment by the prophet himself, or is this a warning by God through the prophet? To answer this question, we must turn back to the beginning of chapter 15.
Hosea, whom God called to prophesy to the Northern Tribes of Israel, begins this sermon by saying, “Hear this, O priests! Pay attention, O house of Israel! Give ear, O house of the king! For the judgment is for you; for you have been a snare at Mizpah and a net spread upon Tabor.” God, through His prophet, is addressing everyone in the northern 10 tribes, from the king, to the priests, to the people: Hear this, pay attention, be warned everyone, judgement is upon you. God, in this warning, isn’t addressing the faithful few, He’s giving fair warning to all the unfaithful.
One of the things that often bothers pastors, is that some of the sermons we preach are directed at the wrong audience. The faithful come to church each Sunday and Bible passages of warning are read and the pastor preaches. And many times, the message is really intended for those not in attendance. We seem to be preaching to the choir as it were. But what you, the faithful, need to remember is that the sermon is meant to be shared with others. God’s message each Sunday isn’t intended to be listened to and then discarded. God’s message each Sunday is intended to be shared over and over. It’s intended to apply to those who hear it given, and those to whom it needs to be shared. So, it is with the words of our Old Testament prophets.
As I mentioned before, context is important, and this is the case with today’s Hosea reading. The greater part of God’s chosen people had once again abandoned their promise to God to serve Him alone. Once again, they had turned their back on God, and instead chased after the gods of the nations around them. As was their habit, they refused to recall what God had done for them in the past, choosing instead to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. This is why God instituted the feasts and celebrations, to regularly remind them of all He had done for them.
Their festival days such as the Passover and the Festival of Booths were intended to remind them of how God had brought them up out of Egypt and placed them in the Promised Land. A land that was rich and fertile, filled with houses they didn’t build and vineyards they did not plant. Reminders of how God had fulfilled the promise He made to Abraham and affirmed to their forefathers and of how time and time again they had turned their backs on God. God, for a reason, commanded them to remember the past, so they could consider all God had done on their behalf.
The Brit Bein HaBetarim, or “The Covenant of Parts,” is one of the most important events in Jewish history. This celebration recalls how God first made a covenant with Abram and Sarah, and from them came the promised son, Isaac. Through Isaac came Jacob who had 13 sons, from each of whom came the 12 Tribes of Israel. Now you’ll need to come to Sunday School to find out how that math works on that! Then, years later, when the foretold famine came, God rescued His people through Joseph and settled the 70-person family in the very best land in Egypt. Fast forward 400 years. Because of God’s blessing, this 70 persons family grew to be so numerous that the Egyptians feared them, so they enslaved them. Then, when the people cried out, God sent Moses and liberated them from the land of their enslavers. You know the rest of the story.
God brought them dry shod through the Red Sea, provided them with food, water, and protection, and despite their repeated unfaithfulness, and after 40 years of wandering in the desert, God led them into the Promised Land. But even with all God had done, the people neglected their festivals and celebrations and time and time again rebelled against God and would chase after the false gods of the surrounding nations. Makes you wonder if the tribal leaders considered themselves “woke” during these times of turning away? God then sent them judges, kings, and prophets and yet the people never seemed to learn. It always amazes me. Anytime people turn their back on God, what do they do? They try to replace serving the One true God with false gods. Don’t believe me, look around.
I was talking with another pastor on Tuesday, and he said he received a bulletin from another Lutheran church of another church body, and he said he was surprised by what was happening. Instead of celebrating Holy Trinity Sunday last week, they instead began celebrating “creation month”. Instead of acknowledging and worshiping our Triune God, this gathering of people, and I hesitate to even call them a church, have chosen instead to worship creation. How is this any different than being a Pagan, a Wiccan, a Pantheist, or an Animist? Anytime you remove God from your life, you’re driven to search for something else to fill that void.
As I mentioned last Sunday, we were created to be in a relationship with God and anytime we neglect that need, we will try to fill the void with the things of this world. But you and I both know that nothing in this world can replace our need to be in a relationship with God. So why do we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again? The answer is simple, we never learn from the past. Anytime we neglect our study of scripture, we cannot know or heed the warnings of the past. The Israelite people are prime examples of this.
The Old Testament is filled with the accounts of God rescuing the Jewish people only to, once things are going well for them again, turn their backs on Him and then get in trouble all over again. How is any of this different than what’s going on in our society today? People have turned their backs on God and are now chasing after and searching for anything to fill the void that’s left. We must learn from the lessons of the past and we must return to God, not only as individuals, but as a nation as well.
A woman was filling out an job application. When she came to the line marked “age,” she hesitated a long time. Finally, the personnel manager leaned across his desk and whispered to her, “The longer you wait, the worse it gets!” The same is true of repentance and returning to God. The longer you put it off, the harder it is to do. Hosea uses bold images of God – he pictures God as a ravaging lion and even as a man who absents himself from His disobedient people. God warns that He will withdraw from those worshipers who thought they could do things for selfish reasons, thinking that they could treat God however expediency dictated.
The point is, even though God is never absent, anytime we reject Him, He will allow us to suffer the fate of our own choosing. The Lord may choose to withdraw Himself from us until we recognize our guilt, return to Him, seek His presence, and return honestly and sincerely to Him in our time of need. We must accept that the power of God isn’t available to us for selfish exploitation.
The answer to our problems lies in the words of the next verse of our Old Testament reading which gives us the response that God longs for: “Come, let us return to the Lord.” With bold faith, the people were implored to turn for healing to the very One who allowed calamity to come! The good news for us is, that God the Chastiser is also God the Healer. There is only one true God. There is no opportunity to make an appeal to a second deity. Anytime we return to the One true God, we must always acknowledge our guilt, and be aware of God’s judgment – but we can also depend on the love and healing power of God! It all hinges on our attitude when “Returning”. We must acknowledge that there are two ways of returning, one improper and one proper. The improper way is to return without repentance.
The question we must ask, when reading these Old Testament stories is, were God’s people returning to Him simply in the hope that God would immediately restore them to their former prosperity, all the while they were hoping they could remain in their selfish excesses? Were they truly sorry for their sins, or were they sorry only because they’d been caught?
Was their repentance a result of reaping the pain and wrath their actions had brought upon them, or because they lamented having angered a holy God? Was it all just a “wordy” ruse to escape judgment for their sins, with the hope that they could still live as they jolly well pleased? Too often, the aim of the Israeli people wasn’t to wholeheartedly return to the Lord, but to remove the inconvenience that God’s anger had caused them. Their concern was to “get what they could” from a rich and powerful God, and then return to the old ways. Thus, we must always ask, is our repentance genuine, or for the sake of an easy way out?
A man went to an old friend to ask for a loan of money. He didn’t have any collateral, and he didn’t want to be charged interest. The friend said he didn’t think their friendship was close and strong enough to justify such a claim upon it, and so he refused to make the loan. “But, John,” the man said, “how can you say that, how can you refuse me? We grew up together. I helped you make it through school. I even saved you from drowning once. I helped you get started in business. I persuaded my cousin to marry your sister. I can’t believe you’d say we’re not close enough for you to give me a loan!”
“Oh,” replied John, “I remember you did all of those things for me. What bothers me is, what have you done for me lately?” Such is the ingratitude of those who only make a ruse of repentance. Repentance that’s only halfhearted at best, simply won’t do! God sees our motivations. He knows what’s in our hearts. Yes, God’s love, mercy, and grace are unlimited, but our desire for His grace must be honest and sincere. We cannot pass over our sinning so lightly. This insincere attitude is reminiscent of St. Augustine who prayed, “Lord, forgive my sins – but not yet!”
Another time Augustine prayed, “Lord, forgive my sins” – and after a pause – “except one.” The anguish in St. Augustine’s soul is revealed in his confession, “How often have I lashed at my will and cried, ‘Leap now! Leap now!’ – and even as I said it, crouched for the leap, and all but leaped – and yet I did not leap – and the life to which I was accustomed held me more than the life for which I truly yearned.”
Authentic repentance, genuine returning, is always manifested in our godly sorrow for our sins and in the resultant change in a person’s life. If we’re not truly contrite over the things we’ve done wrong, if we’re determined to remain sinners, and have no regret over the sins we commit with no intention other than to remain in our sin, then we really haven’t returned!” There has been no true repentance. However, there is the proper way to return, that is, we can return to God asking for a radical change.
A denominational bishop was once called to a church for confirmation, and the bishop asked the confirmands this question: “Will you renounce the devil and all his works?” The young lad standing in front of the bishop was so awe-struck he just looked at him. The bishop repeated the question, but still no response from the child. Finally, the bishop said once more: “Will you renounce the devil and all his works?” Then he whispered, “Say, ‘I will,’ if you will.” The boy then in a loud voice exclaimed, “I will if you will!”
Returning to God should be born of an urgent awareness of our need of His pardon. Yes, we are sinners and saints and therefore capable of turning again and again away from God – and to a disregarding of His laws. It’s wonderful to know that the mercy of God is always available! But healing and renewal have lasting effects only when they’re upheld by solid commitment. Then, and perhaps only then, do we begin to live as a “changed” person.
The story is told of a new Christian who went back to work for the first time after he had been converted. One of the workers, who had heard of his confession, decided to test him, and try out his newfound faith. He said: “I hear you got religion?” “Yes, I did,” the new convert responded. “So now you’re a Christian?” the trouble-maker persisted. “That’s right,” the new Christian affirmed. “I suppose you now believe the Bible?” “Yes, sir, I do.” The man continued to test the new convert by asking, “That means you believe all that stuff about Jesus walking on water, healing sick people, and what about turning all that water into wine? Can you believe that?” The man said, “Yes, sir, I believe all that. I don’t find it too hard to believe when I found that God has changed an alcoholic like me into a sober man, a liar into an honest man, and my wife and children into a family that’s no longer afraid of me when I come home. Yes, if Jesus can do all that, then I think I can handle the story of turning water into wine!”
Ritual repentance is easy, superficial sorrow is simple, but radical change is hard, and loving and obeying is tough and vital! God is always near and ready to meet us when we have a repentant heart. There are those who would make excuses by saying God is “all love” – and He is! But we must also remember that God is also “all justice,” as the Prophet Hosea (and Amos and Isaiah and others) remind us. God let the nation and His people decide what their fate would be, and He does the same for us. God’s desire is for all to be saved, that none should be lost to the second death, that is condemned to hell. In His eternally love, He doesn’t want this – but, if we “choose” that destiny, though it breaks God’s heart, He will still let us decide.
An American Indian was converted to Christianity and went back to his reservation to share his faith. In explaining salvation by grace alone, he found an earthworm and put it in the middle of a circle of dried leaves. Then he set the leaves on fire all around the edge. The worm tried to escape but ran into fire whatever way it went. Finally, maybe instinctively knowing the situation was hopeless, it crawled back to the center, went limp, resigned to die. At this point, the Indian convert reached down and plucked the worm from the flame and said to the people: “This is what it means to be saved. When we abandon all efforts to save ourselves, God comes to save us.”
When we return to God knowing that the only way we can be rescued from the results of our sin is to rely completely on God, God will forgive us. This is exactly what God’s great and wondrous grace, vividly portrayed in the cross, does for us. God is never absent from our world. But we must always return to God with a genuine contrition, anything less simply will not do. Isn’t it time we recall the past and learn from our mistakes? As the prophet Joel bids us, “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (2:12).