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Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Things that Really Matter

Some years ago now I went into my father’s study, and found him reading his Bible. I enquired what he was reading, and he told me that he was looking ­ up the passage he had heard in Church that morning, as it struck him that it must have been written for people who owned more than one dog: “The more I called them, the more they went from me!”

Dogs do that. Puppies, especially. And so do small children – if you chase a puppy or a small child, it will run away, in the case of the child usually laughing hysterically until it falls over, at which point it howls. If you’re serious about getting either child or dog to come to you, you need to stop calling, turn round, and pretend you’re going to go away, at which point dog and child will usually come running.

This is a lovely passage, one of the ones in the Old Testament that shows us God as a loving parent, and helps us to understand why Jesus said to call him “Abba”, or “Daddy” - children today who speak Hebrew as their first language usually call their fathers “Abba”, and their mums are “Ima”.

Anyway, the person who wrote this passage, Hosea, was a prophet in Israel in the 8th Century BC, so ten thousand years ago. Which is a very long time indeed, but nevertheless! In the Armenian church, they celebrate Hosea and the other so-called “minor prophets” today, 31 July.

Hosea was one of those people who did things to illustrate what he believed God was saying, as well as saying them. He married a woman, Gomer, who was a prostitute, and she continued to go with other men even after she was married to him. This was to illustrate God’s sadness and disappointment that Israel was going after other gods and not worshipping God any more. And there are all sorts of doom-and-gloom prophecies, you know the kind of thing, saying that the people will be taken away into slavery if they do not repent and turn back to God.

­But Chapter 11, the chapter we read today, is a little different. The metaphor changes from a husband-wife relationship to a parent-child one. And God laments, loud and long, that his children will not come back to him. Verses 3 and 4 are maternal in their love for Israel, or Ephraim as it is also known: 
“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
    I took them up in my arms;
    but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
    with bands of love.
I was to them like those
    who lift infants to their cheeks.
    I bent down to them and fed them.”

The image is of God as mother, breastfeeding her children, who then grow up and turn away, doing the things they know their mother hates. And suffering the consequences, too. And God also hates that:
“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, O Israel?
. . .
My heart recoils within me;
    my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
    I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
    the Holy One in your midst,
    and I will not come in wrath.”

God’s own law says that Ephraim must be destroyed, but God’s heart revolts against the implications of that law, and refuses to destroy a beloved child. The Israelites did go into exile, as promised/threatened:

“They shall return to the land of Egypt,
    and Assyria shall be their king,
    because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
    it consumes their oracle-priests,
    and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.”

The King of Assyria was put on the throne, and the tribes were lost. Admah and Thingummy – Zeboiim, I think you say it – were two of the Cities of the plain that were destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah.

But God didn’t cease to love Ephraim, even though Israel made its own plans, worshipped its own gods, and refused to turn back to God. That didn’t matter to the great Father-heart of God.

In our Gospel reading, we hear about someone else who made his own plans and they went astray. The rich farmer decided to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to store his crops so that he would be comfortable in the future. But do you notice, it’s all “I, me, mine!” “I will build bigger barns to have more room to store my crops”. There appears to be no question of his giving away his surplus this year – no, he plans to be rich!

But then – the heart attack, the stroke, the ruptured artery, and bye-bye rich farmer! And who are all those crops going to belong to now? asks Jesus, cleverly coming back to the question that started it all: “Tell my brother I want my fair share of my inheritance!”

It is not earthly goods that matter. Not in God’s eyes, anyway. Elsewhere, Jesus tells his followers not to store up treasure on earth “Where moth and rust corrupt, and thieves break in and steal”, but rather to store up treasure in heaven. And that’s pretty much what he is saying here, too.

But what does it all mean for us, and how do we relate it to the passage in Hosea?

It’s about what we value ourselves by, I think. All of us here are pretty well off, by the standards of much of the world – I expect we are all wearing clothes and shoes – and if we are barefoot, it is from choice. We probably have a change of clothes and of shoes at home, and we can wash in warm water each morning and have drains to dispose of used water and other waste. We are going home to eat enough food, to homes that keep out the elements and are warm in winter; we probably have a television and a telephone, and may well have the Internet.

Now, there is nothing wrong with any of those things, as long as we don’t start to value ourselves by how much we have. And as long as we realise that most of the world doesn’t have these things, that millions of people have been forced to leave their homes due to war or famine and to live in makeshift camps with no running water or proper facilities for disposing of sewage, with no jobs, no residents’ permits, no real hope. If they have been lucky enough to be admitted to a European country they still can’t work while their request for asylum is being processed, and even though they get a small allowance, it isn’t really enough to live on, and certainly not enough to lead a comfortable life.

The farmer in Jesus’ story was valuing himself by his possessions, by how much he owned. It is a seductive temptation, isn’t it? Even the Jews were inclined to believe that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, and poverty a sign of the reverse. And we have all heard of “prosperity theology” which claims that God wants you to be rich – and so God does, but not necessarily in material possessions! In fact, they are of least importance, when moth and rust can corrupt and thieves break in and steal.

It is the treasures in heaven that God wants us to store up. Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions”, and we know that values in God’s country are totally different from values here. But it is in God’s country that we need to store up our treasure!

So we need to stop valuing ourselves by our jobs, or by our income, or even by how hard we work for the Church. We need to value ourselves because Jesus values us. Because Jesus died for us on the Cross, and God raised him from the dead. Because we are loved so much that God found a way to keep us with Him.

“The more I called them, the more they went from me”, said Hosea. “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you,” says God to the rich farmer.

What are you valuing yourself by? And incidentally, it’s no good valuing yourself by how much you pray or use the other means of grace. Because it is only through the grace of God that we have any value at all in God’s eyes – but in God’s eyes, our value is enormous! Amen.

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