Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Perfect Marriage

Texts: Hosea 2:2-20; Luke 11:1-4, 9-13

YOU’VE HEARD THEM BEFORE, those sad love songs they play on the radio.

I’m thinking especially of the ballads from the ’50s and ’60s. Like the Supremes singing in "Baby Love":

But all you do is treat me bad,
Break my heart, and leave me sad.
Tell me, what did I do wrong,
To make you stay away so long?

Or the Hank Williams’ song that goes:

Today I passed you on the street
And my heart fell at your feet;
I can’t help it if I’m still in love with you.

Somebody else stood by your side,
And he looked so satisfied.
I can’t help it if I’m still in love with you. **

When I was a kid I thought heartbreak songs like this were sad in a romantic, far-off sort of way. Singing them was a bittersweet indulgence. But then I got older and found out what heartbreak was all about, first hand. I found out that real heartbreak was about as sweet and indulgent as starving or being smothered to death. I found out that the pain in songs like this wasn’t sentimental and romantic, it was ugly, miserable, and hard.

The Old Testament book of Hosea is that sort of heartbreak song. It’s the story of love gone bad, of a good husband done wrong and hurt mortally by his no-good, cheating wife.
It’s about a wife who only loves her husband for the luxuries he can give her, and when she thinks he’s not keeping her in the style she wants, she finds other lovers she thinks will. It’s a song about a woman who’s unfaithful because she doesn’t have faith in a husband who is always faithful to provide her everything she needs, about a husband who loves her too much to finally let her go.

The book of Hosea is a heartbreak song about God’s love for His people Israel. The marriage of the prophet Hosea himself was that heartbreak song acted out for all Israel and Judah to see. God said to Hosea, "Go, marry a woman who is known to be promiscuous." Hosea obeyed, and married Gomer the daughter of Diblaim, and she started having children that didn’t look like him. I imagine people laughed at the prophet, and said, "Well, what did you think would happen if you married a slut like her? Aren’t you the sentimental fool!"

But those people were the fools. They and their countrymen were the faithless, adulterous wife who’d cheated on their husband, the Lord God of Israel. Our passage cries out with Israel’s sin. She has been shallow, vain, greedy, and selfish. She is faithless, because she had no faith in her husband who was always faithful to her.

Verse 5 says,

She said, "I will go after my lovers,
who give me my food and my water,
my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink."

But in verse 8 the Lord says,

She has not acknowledged that I was the one
who gave her the grain, the new wine and oil,
who lavished on her the silver and gold."

The Lord was taking care of Israel all along! All along, God was keeping His covenant promise to provide for His people and make them prosperous and strong. But Israel hankered after the gods of other nations. They wanted gods they could see and carry about and touch. They wanted gods they could control and bribe, gods like the Baals, who were gods of the forces of nature, gods of wind and rain and fertility.

The Lord says,

[I] lavished on her the silver and gold--
which they used for Baal.

They used God’s gifts to serve Baal!! You married people, those of you who are engaged to be married-- how would you like it if, say, you gave your spouse an expensive car and he or she took the keys, picked up a lover, and drove off to Cancun? Gentlemen, how would you like it if on top of that, your wife called that lover her "master and husband"? After all, that’s what the word "Baal" means! You’d be hurt, heartbroken, and angry, wouldn’t you? And ladies, you’d be angry and upset if your husband did the equivalent thing to you.

These days, the adult thing is for you to control yourself, keep calm and try to work out a reconciliation. If that doesn’t work, you get a quiet divorce and get on with life without the one who was so unfaithful. Only the socially immature engage in revenge and public jealousy.

And that’s right for us humans. Because when any marriage goes bad, the right and wrong are never all on one side or the other. Any stones we throw at our spouses are likely to bounce back and hit us.

But when it comes to the marriage between God and His people, God has a right to be publicly angry. He has a right to punish. The Lord our God is completely faithful and true. He is the source of all goodness; He is Goodness itself. No matter how difficult our lives become, we cannot honestly say, "God, I stopped worshipping You because You abandoned me." God never turns His love from those who belong to Him. He never stops being faithful to His covenant with His people.

But willful sin on our part is not part of the covenant. God’s holiness will not let Him put up with sin. If God’s people are going to do evil and throw it in His face, He has to do something about it in order for the marriage to go on.

The Lord says,

Therefore I will block her path with thornbushes;
I will wall her in so she cannot find her way.
She will chase after her lovers but not catch them;
she will look for them but not find them.

God was going to make unfaithfulness so frustrating to Israel that she’d get sick of it. He was no longer going to let it pay. The Lord declares that He will show Israel it was His hand that had really given her all her good things:

I will ruin her vines and her fig trees,
which she said were her pay from her lovers;
I will make them a thicket,
and wild animals will devour them.

In the day of His judgement He will take all her luxuries and sustenance away, and no so-called Baal will be able to keep her from losing it all.

A human husband would have no right to do what the Lord does to Israel. A human husband would have sins of his own to atone for, whether his wife had cheated on him or not.

But God has the right to punish us for our sins, down to the last unspoken evil thought. He made us, He keeps us alive, He determines the exact length of our days.

But does God punish Israel’s sin because He’s standing on His rights? No, God punishes Israel because otherwise He’ll lose her to the false gods altogether. She has to be shocked into realizing that He has been her provider all this time. Israel has to learn that her covenant with God isn’t about getting stuff out of Him, it’s about knowing and loving God Himself. It’s about the faithfulness the Lord would show to Israel His bride and the utter trust she should have in Him, about the perfect marriage she will have if she lives with Him in faithfulness and love.

And so, after punishing her, says the Lord, He will court Israel all over again, as if they were back in the wilderness in the days of the Exodus. He will speak tenderly to her, and she will again sing Him love songs of pleasure and joy.

"In that day," declares the Lord,
"you will call me ‘my husband’;
you will no longer call me ‘my master.’"

That is, Israel will no longer call Yahweh "my baal." Technically, Yahweh was Israel’s particular divine master or "Baal." But when they called Yahweh their ‘Baal,’ it was too easy for them to confuse Him with all the other ‘baals,’ with all the other so-called masters or gods of the nations round about.

This was not to happen any more. The Lord God was and is the only lord, and His people are not to confuse Him with any other deity, ever again. Never again shall they call Him ‘my Baal.’ From now on, they are to call Him ‘my husband.’ In Hebrew this word is ‘Ishi.’ And in everyday Hebrew this simply means ‘my man.’

I call this astounding. The Lord will not play the domineering master to Israel His bride; no, He will be ‘her man’! As it says in verses 19 and 20,

I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the Lord.

That is, Israel will know Yahweh her God--and it’s significant that this word ‘acknowledge’ or ‘know’ in Hebrew is also the word for the knowledge a husband and wife have of one another in their most intimate moments.

But now, what about us? Are we just looking at someone else’s marital troubles, that have nothing to do with us? Is the song of Hosea like those golden oldie love songs we listened to when we were very young and didn’t really understand?

No, what God says to Israel He says for our benefit. When He talks to Israel, He speaks also to us, His Church. When He rebukes Israel for her unfaithfulness, He rebukes us also for going astray after other gods. When He promises to bring her back to Himself in faithfulness and love, He makes that promise to us as well.

How can this be? I’m sure it hinges on that one little word, "ish,’ or man. God said His Bride was to call Him "my Man." And so we do. God Himself came down to all humanity as the Man Jesus Christ, who was and is the Lord God in human flesh. And we are His bride, the new Israel, the Church. We have not replaced the old Israel the Jews; no, we have been joined in with them and made new and clean by the gift of Christ’s human blood, shed on the cross. We have been engaged to Him by His perfect obedience and love.

Christ the Son of Man came to us to show us that ultimately, life with God is about more than the good things God can give us: the grain, the wine, and the oil, the wool and the linen, the cars and the houses, the continual health. It’s about knowing Him in faithfulness and love. It’s about trusting Him to give us the highest gift, the only gift we really need-- which is Himself. It’s about the bliss of perfect unity with Him.

And so, in Luke’s Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. "Lord, teach us how to ask for the things we really should ask for."

And Jesus teaches them the prayer we pray over and over, the Lord’s Prayer we so often rattle off and take for granted. See what our Lord is telling us to ask for. This prayer is for the things that will keep us in faithful relationship with God and our neighbor. This prayer trusts God to give us what we really need: Food for our bodies, protection from sin and wandering after false gods, and most of all, a joyous knowledge of who God is and of His gracious will.

Jesus says, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find." Too often, we think that means "ask for obedient children or a bigger car," and immediately, that's what we'll have.

Well, maybe God does want you to have obedient children or a bigger car. Maybe. But focussing on that in these verses is like ancient Israel treating the Lord like one of the Baals, using Him only to get earthly physical stuff. No, when Jesus tells us to "ask and it will be given to you," He wants us to trust God for a much better thing than that.

Jesus likens it to a human father looking out for his son. He says, "If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

That is the gift God wants to give us: The gift of the Holy Spirit. That is the gift we are to desire and pray for: The gift of knowing Him personally, truly, intimately, and faithfully, like a husband and wife know one another in a perfect marriage.

I dislike having to admit this, but I read Jesus’ words and I think, "Yeah, Lord, the Holy Spirit is great, but give me a high-paying job first." And I see just how unfaithful and mercenary I am.

May the Lord forgive me for that, and may He forgive us all when we want anything or anybody more than we want Him.

The good news is that Jesus knows our weakness. He knows our greediness and our lack of faith. He took it all on Himself on the cross. He covered Himself with our sin and God in that one terrible eternal moment turned away from His Son the way a good man would turn away from his sluttish, cheating wife. But Jesus’ obedience and goodness overcame your sin and it overcame mine. Jesus engages us to Himself in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. He joins us to Himself so fully that when God looks at us, He sees not our sin, but the faithfulness of His crucified and risen Son.

God does want to give you good things. He wants to give you everything you need to bring you to His side to live with Him forever. Most of all, He wants to give you a perfect marriage with Himself. That is His will for us; may it be done on earth, as it will be done in heaven. Amen.

*"Baby Love," by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Edward Holland, Jr., 1964

**"I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)" by Hank Williams, 1962 (?)

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Water from the Rock

Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; John 7:37-44

HOW MANY OF YOU HERE came to Vacation Bible School last week?

This message is for you. But we’ll let the grownups listen in, won’t we?

It was a wet week, wasn’t it? You explored the "Great Bible Reef"!

On Monday, you learned about how the mother of Baby Moses put him in a basket in the Nile River so he wouldn’t be killed, and how he was rescued by the daughter of King Pharaoh.

On Tuesday, you heard how General Naaman was sick with a terrible skin disease, and how God healed him when he plunged seven times into the Jordan River.

On Wednesday, you discovered how Jesus sat in a fishing boat and taught the people on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And how afterwards, He told the fishermen to let down their nets to fish. And how an enormous catch of fish came up, so the fishermen were really scared, and Jesus said, "Don’t be afraid, but come with Me, and I’ll teach you how to catch people!"

On Thursday, you saw how Jesus healed a blind man by putting mud on his eyes and having him wash it off in the Pool of Siloam.

And on Friday, you found out how if you build on sand, the floods will come and wash your house away. But if you lay your foundation all the way down to rock, your house will stand firm. Was Jesus just talking about houses to live in? No, He was teaching us how to live. That if you listen to God and do what He says, even if you do have trouble, He will make sure everything comes out all right for you. But if you don’t, the bad things that happen in life will crash down like a terrible storm and your life will be ruined.

So what is that? Two rivers, one lake or sea, one pool, and one terrible flood. That’s a lot of water! And you had one rescue, two healings, one calling of disciples, and one lesson on how to listen to God and live. That’s a lot of things happening with water!

But do you ever think about what it would be like to go without water? I mean, to have no water at all?

You might say, "I’d drink Coke or Pepsi instead!" But what if there was no water to make Coke or Pepsi? What if there was no water, so the cows all died and there wasn’t any milk? What if the trees all dried up, so there was no orange juice or lemonade?

That would be horrible, wouldn’t it? You’d be so, so thirsty! And if you didn’t get something to drink, you’d die, too!

Well, a long, long time ago, God’s people Israel were really thirsty. They were afraid they were going to die. I’ll tell you how it happened:

Remember Baby Moses in the Nile River in Egypt? The Egyptians were really mean to God’s people. The Israelites had to work as slaves all day in the hot sun. They didn’t get to rest and their Egyptian masters whipped and beat them and treated them cruelly!

When Moses grew up, God told him to go tell King Pharaoh to let God’s people go free. Moses foster-mother Pharaoh’s daughter was dead, and her father the old Pharaoh was dead, and the new Pharaoh didn’t want to listen to Moses and he didn’t want to listen to God. But God did all sorts of awesome and marvellous miracles and He showed the Egyptians He meant business! So Moses led God’s people Israel out of Egypt.

God promised that He would bring them to a new country were they would be free and have everything they needed. But first, they had to go through the desert. A great, dry, terrible desert. The Israelites couldn’t find water anywhere. No water for themselves, or their children, or for their cattle or their sheep.

So they complained. And griped. And moaned. They said, "Moses, why did you bring us out of Egypt to make us and our children and our livestock die of thirst?" They were so mad, they wanted to kill Moses!

Would you have complained, too? Would you have been mad because you were thirsty? That would have been very foolish! All those people knew what God can do! He defeated the Egyptians, and the Egyptians were the strongest people in the world back then! If God can do that, He surely can get His people a drink of water!

And He did. He told Moses to walk ahead and take some of the elders with him. Do we have any elders here today? Raise your hands! Moses took people like that with him. God said, "Go to the big rock at Mount Horeb, and I’ll be standing there in front of you. Strike that rock with your leader’s staff, and water will come out of it for the people to drink."

Moses obeyed, and that’s what happened. Enough water came out of that rock for everyone to drink as much as they wanted, and their sheep and cows drank all they wanted, too.

God told Moses, "Every Fall, I command the people to celebrate a special holiday. It will be called the Feast of Tabernacles ("tabernacle" is another word for "tent"), because I had My people live in tents in the desert." God wanted His people to remember how He’d taken care of them in the desert.

So God’s people came into their own Land, and every year they would get together in Jerusalem and celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. This holiday lasted eight days. On the last day, the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem would pour out a great big jar of water, all down the front steps of the Temple. The people would see the running water and be happy and joyful. They would remember how God gave them water out of that rock in the desert. They would thank God for giving them rain in the Promised Land, so they could grow food and eat. They praised Him because He gave them water so they could have life.

Do you ever remember to thank God for the gift of running water? You can just turn on a faucet, and there it is! But if God doesn’t send the rain and the snow, there wouldn’t be any water in the pipes! We should always thank God for giving us water, so we can drink and live.

But God has another kind of water for us, too. He gives us water for our spirits, so our spirits can live. He calls it "living water." Do you know how to get living water? Listen, and I’ll tell you how.

One year at the Feast of Tabernacles, something very exciting and different happened. Jesus the great Teacher was there, teaching at the feast. Now, those people didn’t really know who Jesus was. They didn’t know He was the Son of God. They didn’t know He was going to die for their sins, because He hadn’t done it yet. But they knew He was special, and the people liked to listen to Him tell them about God.

Well. On the last day of the feast, the priests were about to pour the water down the front stairs, to celebrate the water coming out of the rock in the desert. And Jesus stood up and called out really loud, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink!"

Jesus was telling everybody, "I’m like that rock at Mount Horeb that Moses hit and the water came out for everyone to drink! Come to Me, and you’ll have water for your souls!"

You’re young now, and maybe you don’t know yet what it’s like to be dry and thirsty in your soul. It’s like you want something, but you don’t know what. Nothing can make you happy. You’re sad a lot. You work and work, but nothing seems to matter and nothing seems to do any good.

Everybody gets dry and thirsty in their souls, and only spiritual water can make that thirst go away.

And Jesus is the only one who can give you spiritual water. "Come to Me and drink!" He says.
Do you know how to come to Jesus? You say to Jesus, "Jesus, I believe that You are the Son of God. I believe You died to take the punishment for my sins. I trust You to love me and take care of me all the rest of my life. I believe that someday You will bring me to live with You in heaven, no matter what happens to me here on earth." Jesus is like that great Rock in the desert, that Moses hit and the water came out of. He will give you His living water, so your soul feels like you’ve just had a long drink of cold, clear water.

But Jesus promises you more than that! He also said, "Whoever believes in me, . . . streams of living water will flow from within him!" Jesus’ disciple John (he wrote our Gospel lesson today) says Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the living water we need for our souls. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to us when our hearts are thirsty and dry and the Spirit gives us life. He’s like a cold drink of water on a hot summer afternoon.

And what do you think? When the Spirit gives us Himself to drink, is there only enough for us, or is there plenty of the Holy Spirit left over?

There’s plenty left over, of course, because the Holy Spirit is God and you can never run out of God. Jesus says, "Whoever believes in me, streams of living water-- [that is, the Holy Spirit]-- will flow out of him." You get the living water Holy Spirit from Jesus, and the Spirit flows out of your heart and helps other people, too. He gives you His love and peace, and then you can tell other people about His love and peace, too.

God reminded His people Israel at the Feast of Tabernacles how He’d taken away their thirst in the desert. Can you think of two ways God uses something wet to remind us of what He has done by sending His Son Jesus to die for us?

Yes, He gave us the water of baptism, to show how Jesus washed away our sins and to remind us that He has given us the living water of the Holy Spirit.

And He gave us the wine of the Lord’s Supper. We drink it and we know that Jesus takes away the thirst in our souls. He is the living Rock that gives us the living water of the Holy Spirit, so we can believe in Him and live.

I’m glad God gives us ordinary water, aren’t you? But I’m even more glad that He gives us the living water of the Holy Spirit. Believe in Jesus. Drink the water He gives, and your soul will never have to be thirsty again.

(Preached on Vacation Bible School Assembly Sunday)