I wonder how many households have a baby-name book? Quite a lot I suspect, because even if prospective parents don’t buy one themselves, they are likely to get given one. Chantal and I were solemnly presented with one soon after getting married – clearly ten months was seen as too long to wait.
Books like this are a mine of information – they tell you that Jonathan means ‘Gift of God’ and that Jemima was one of the daughters of Job after he emerged from his troubles. Names aren’t always significant, I once came unstuck at a baptism when I preached on the baby’s name – and found the parents had just chosen it because it sounded nice.
In some cultures, names carry great weight. My wife knew an Indian girl whose parents had wished for a boy, so they called her ‘Not wanted’. Imagine growing up being called that. But then ‘Not wanted’ came to Christ, discovered that God wanted her, and changed her name to Rebecca.
I rather feel for the children in today’s reading from Joel chapter 1. The Old Testament prophets often gave their children symbolic names. Isaiah’s son rejoiced in the name ‘Maher shalal hash baz’ – presumably ‘baz’ for short. But we probably shouldn’t imagine his mum calling out ‘Swift to the plunder, come in, it’s time for supper’ – these prophetic names might have been extras, in the way that eldest sons today are sometimes given an ancestral family name as their middle name.
The point is the meaning. So in v.4 Jezreel refers to the place of a famous massacre, and on account of this the government will fall. And then poor little Lo-Ruhamah means ‘no pity’ because God’s judgement is coming on Israel. ‘Lo Ammi’ in v.9 means ‘not my people’ because God says ‘you are not my people and I am not your God’. It’s kind of like a broken family, the names are all wrong, they don’t speak of love because God is saying that his people have decided walk away from his family.
Last week we heard from Amos about the injustice in Israel, how the people had turned away through cruelty. Hosea’s point is different. It’s about faithfulness. God’s people have been unfaithful to him by turning to idols – and the astonishing about Hosea is that he enacts this by marrying a prostitute. He demonstrates what happening through his own family life.
The prophet marries a ‘wife of whoredom’ as our translation rather quaintly puts it. After a while she gets bored and returns to her old ways. Hosea has to go after her and pay a ransom to get her back.
As it explains in v.2 ‘the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord’. Quite often the Old Testament prophets use the picture of a failed, adulterous marriage to describe how Israel’s relationship with God has broken down. God had loved his people, committed himself to them, cared for them, but they had run off after other gods. Can we imagine how that might feel? Can we see how that speaks of a great passion and an immense pain in the heart of God?
These passages aren’t easy for us to read in the twenty-first century. We might notice that God is always imagined to be the man in the relationship, so unfaithful Israel is always a woman. And in that patriarchal society sometimes love and faithfulness are in view, at other times the woman is more like the property of the man.
But if we can get past that cultural setting, we’ll see that Hosea has a lot to say to us. Firstly he speaks of the passion of God. In this book, God is a husband, a lover. God is betrayed, let down, but love makes him forgive, makes him vulnerable. Hosea shows us that God passionately loves us Jesus told us the parable of the lost sheep – the shepherd going after the lost. But arguably Hosea goes a step further.
In our culture, God is often imagined as a distant, headmasterly figure. Many people think of God as strict but fair, respected from afar, enforcing his rules through a system of prefects. He isn’t that engaged with day to day life but if you are summoned to his study you tremble with fear.
That is not the God of the Bible. Yes he is the awesome Creator, the judge of all the earth, and you must take off your sandals in his presence. But God also loves intensely with a great passion. He burns with desire for his people, he longs after the lost, he hates injustice because he loves so much.
Secondly, God wants to be with his people, he wishes to be Lord of our lives, he desires to know us and for us to know him. That’s why worship and prayer are so important – they are not sacrificial offerings to please a distant deity. They are given to us for a different reason.
Prayer and worship spend time in God’s presence, build our connection with him. Sometimes they are a duty – and we need duty to carry us through the dry periods – but they can be a joy because through worship and prayer we encounter God. It is so important to make them a priority.
Thirdly, because he loves us so much God hates it when we turn away to idols. How does it feel when you love someone but know they are giving their love to someone else? And when that someone else will not respect her, will not treat her well, but will ultimately let her down and cast her aside? That’s how God feels about idolatry – he knows that he alone can give us life but sees us giving our loyalty to lesser things.
Do we do that? Well I haven’t noticed gilded statues on the street corners of Sherston and I don’t imagine many of you have a shrine to the household gods back at home. Perhaps when on holiday someone might invite us to visit and join in the ceremonies at the local temple…Perhaps we might want to find out a bit about the RE curriculum – does learning about other religions ever turn into participating in their worship?
But idols are much more than graven images. An idol is anything which takes the place in our lives which rightly belongs to God. We commit idolatry when we place anything else at the centre, where God’s throne ought to be. The classic three examples are money, sex, and power. They often become idols, and people devote their lives to their pursuit.
Yet idols can be much more subtle. Money sex and power are blatant, have obvious potential to corrupt, whereas other idols can be harder to see. We can learn to recognise them though, by asking ourselves some questions: What are the good things to which we might be tempted to give too much importance? For often an idol is not bad in itself – it’s just that we’ve put it in God’s throne. It can be a good thing in the wrong place.
What do we pour resources into? Where does all the money go? … When we think about praying, what is it that pops into our minds instead? … What are the unquestioned assumptions in our society, the rules and structures and organisations that everyone sees as a good thing? … What are you not allowed to speak against? What would we think most odd if someone said ‘that’s an idol’?
These are questions that take some time to discern. The temptations each of us face will be very different. So I suggest we could take some time in prayer reflecting on this and asking God to show us if there is any risk of idolatry in our lives. I did come up with some examples.
For instance, family. How can love for your family be an idolatry? It’s remarkable how many people say that their kids are their world, even their religion. That’s not a healthy expectation to put on them – the children won’t be able to live up to it. When we seek from any person the security, love and meaning that can only be found in God, then that is idolatry.
I’ve seen marriages fall apart under the strain of working long hours and shuttling kids here and there in the pursuit of the best education. Community can be like the Emperor claiming his pinch of incense when there is an overwhelming pressure for everyone to join in. Tolerance can be an effective way of shutting out the claims of Christ.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that family, education, community, tolerance are bad things. Far from it – all are positive assets to our society and God’s gifts in creation. But just as the people in Hosea’s time took wheat and cows and made gods out of them, so people today can take the best things and enthrone them in the place of God. Our ultimate security and identity should not be in our jobs or houses, but in God. Only God can be in God’s place, only he can bear that weight of being the foundation for the rest of our lives. If anything else, anyone else, no matter how good, occupies that place, that thing or person will eventually crumble under the load and let us down.
What then can we do? We could tear the idols down. They did that from time to time in the Old Testament – but it never lasted long. Something else always popped up in their place. And so it will, if God is not in the centre. That is the way to deal with idolatry, that is the way to ensure that everything occupies its proper place. If God is the foundation, then all the good things can be built up on that base. If we worship and trust in God alone, if we find our security and meaning in him, then everything else can be enjoyed in its right way. Let us pray