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Sermon: Not So Fast. February 24, 2021

February 24, 2021

Today’s Dispatch is the sermon I preached for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer on Wednesday, February 24, at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, IL. You can view the services and the bulletins here. The image is Prophet Hosea, Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311 (public domain). Be well, friends. You are loved.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace this day in the name of God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. The Old Testament prophets are more than mere prognosticators; they are forth-tellers of God’s truth more than they are foretellers of the future. Nevertheless, our passage from Hosea today calls to mind a contemporary predictor, and one of the pigskin variety at that. I’m thinking of Lee Corso, cohost of ESPN’s College GameDay. Part of what he and the other hosts do is predict the winners of that day’s upcoming games. Corso likes to pick last. After the other anchors make their predictions, Corso will, with gusto and flair, make his own prediction for the game, often donning the costume of that college’s mascot. This is the most fun when he disagrees with his cohosts, leading him to exclaim, “Not so fast, my friend!” Oh, you think that’s how it’s going to turn out? Well, not so fast.
  2. Our text from Hosea today has just such a “Not so fast!” moment within it. But first, some background. Hosea was a contemporary of Isaiah and Amos; if you were present for Danny Carroll’s adult education session this past Sunday, you know the sorts of sins Hosea and Amos were speaking against. It was a time of palace takeovers, political instability, and economic exploitation of the poor at the hands of the rich. It was a time during which the elite classes took advantage of the poor and convinced the poor that it was good for them. Hmm. One can hear the prophetic judgment echoing across the ages. Hosea’s prophetic call was to denounce the duplicity, faithlessness, and foolishness of the elite establishment. In Hosea’s eyes, the scholar Alice Keefe writes, “the nation had violated the nation’s covenant with YHWH.” To make matters worse, the religious system of sacrifice was no longer anything more than an extension of the royal administration. Corrupted religion underwriting political oppression? Not the last time that song has been sung throughout history!
  3. All of which brings us to today’s text. By the end of chapter five, Hosea’s oracles of doom and judgment have begun to have an effect. Doom is coming? We should repent? Ok, let us return to the Lord. Our first three verses today are put in the voice of the people, who suddenly remember that they need religion. Let us return! God will heal us, revive us; God’s appearing is as sure as the dawn and God’s grace will pour upon us like a spring rain. It’s at this point that the prophet drops the voice of the people and puts on the voice of the Lord: Not so fast my, friend! You think you can put on religion, make a sacrifice but not amend your living, and this will make me change my mind about your doom? Not so fast!
  4. God wonders in verse 4 is, “What shall I do with you?” God sees the people preparing to make sacrifice but knows it’s motivated by self-interest and self-preservation, not to better keep covenant with God or care for the poor in their midst. God says, in language beautiful but condemnatory, “Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early” (emphasis mine). God says that judgment will still go forth, for God isn’t all that interested in sacrifice and burnt offerings right now. God desires their hesed, their steadfast love. You think religion can get you off the hook and out of the dock? Not so fast, God says.
  5. Our religion can no more save us than it could the ancient people of Israel and Judah. Don’t get me wrong. Our worship, like that of the God’s people in the Old Testament, is good, holy, and ordained by the Lord. We are meant to gather in worship; we were created to worship God. Worship is good. The problem is not with our worship; the problem is when we use our worship to mask or cover our sin. God didn’t send the prophets to tell the people to stop making sacrifices in the Temple; God sent the prophets to proclaim to the people that their sacrifices didn’t mean that it was okay for them to keep sinning. They were to repent, to return with hesed to God and to stop using their religion as a tool and excuse for oppression
  6. The Lord, it seems, is not sure how to respond to the people’s call to repentance. God has kept covenant with them but tires of their failure to hold up their end of the bargain. As the ancient Israelites hid behind the system of sacrifice, we sometimes hide behind a religion of cheap grace, of forgiveness and love dished out by a toothless deity, of divinity reduced to a warm mush we call love. Such a god demands nothing of us, but such a god is not the God of the Bible, neither of the Old Testament nor the New. The prophets remind us that God is angry becauseGod is love. God loves the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, and God is angry at how the rich and religious treat such people. Spring rains and healing? Not so fast! Bring me your steadfast love.
  7. Ultimately, the people couldn’t do so. Neither can we. We have failed, fallen too far to return. We cannot repent; we cannot return to the Lord on our own. The beauty and mystery of this God who keeps covenant is that it is God who finally upholds both sides of the deal. As Pastor Costello points out in today’s devotion from Habits of Grace, Israel’s return is possible because of God’s return. Yes. The people can only return to God because God returns on our behalf as one of us, the Christ who fulfills the Law for us. The Jesus with whom we journey this Lent is leading us back to God, showing that the way finally is not through our sacrifices but through his sacrificial death, not through our religiosity but through his righteousness. God decides what to do with us by becoming one of us and, for the sake of that One, welcoming all of us home. God saves us from death by dying for us and, on the third day, rising again.
  8. The Christian life, Martin Luther reminds us in his 95 Theses, is a life of repentance. This has two broad themes (at least). The first is an honest confession of our sinfulness. We have not gone a little bit bad, like mayonnaise kept too long at the back of the refrigerator. We are fully mired in guilt and sin, just as capable as the people of Hosea’s day to use our religion as a shield against God and a weapon against our neighbor. Repent! Cling to Christ, in whom alone we find salvation. And second, to repent means to change one’s life. Clinging to Christ, we trust God will spare and save us, and that God’s Holy Spirit will work newness of life in us. To repent is to change the way we live. We will not be perfect, but God calls us to commit to work for the healing of this world. Hosea’s words here are quoted twice by Jesus, who proclaims that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. In this context, Jesus tells the Pharisees that the physician comes to heal the sick, not the well. Just so, he has come for the sinners, not the righteous. The righteous, in this sense, are the religious who think they’ve held up their end of the bargain while really just holding others down. Sinners, Jesus knows, have a shot, because someone who knows they’re a sinner is at least on the road to knowing the need to repent.
  9. You think your religion will spare you the doom your sin has created? Not so fast! Our hope is not in what we do, religious or otherwise. Our hope is in Christ alone. In him is the steadfast love of the Lord revealed, the sacrificial love of God shown forth. Cling to him, knowing that grace and mercy are gifts we do not deserve. Worship him, sending forth songs of praise and adoration. Live for him, with the hesed of God at the center of all you do, showing forth your love for God by showing mercy, care, and love for those most in need. And be fast about these things, my friends. Christ leads the way back home to God; the time to repent is now. Amen.

And now may the peace that passes all human understanding keep you hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

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