Posted by: owizblog | July 29, 2019

Hosea and Gomer: Sermon 28/7/19 United Church of Bute


Hosea 1: 6-10


I did something this week that I’m a little bit ashamed of. You’ll have noticed, perhaps, that that reading, from the book of the prophet Hosea, began at verse six. Perhaps you found it hard to make sense of, as though you were missing something. You’ll have found it harder, anyway, because of those distracting Hebrew names that poor Isabel had to wrestle with: Lo-ruhamah; Lo-ammi; “No mercy”, “Not my people”… “There’s a back-story here,” you may be feeling, “that I’m just not getting…”

And you’re right. And it’s what I’m feeling a bit guilty about, because it involves me having done something I’m usually very disapproving of.


This is Dr Thomas Bowdler. He died twelve years before Queen Victoria came to throne, but he did something that set the tone for Victorian respectability, and faux-prudishness. And he bequeathed us a word – BOWDLERIZE -because he wrote a book, one of those awful, awful books which deserves only to be remembered by its title, by its blurb, and with derision:

“The family Shakespeare, in one volume; in which nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”

Bowdler censored Shakespeare.

And this morning, I censored Hosea.

I did it, not to suppress what Hosea says, not because I don’t think that you are adults, and don’t think you can process adult themes, like prostitution and its fragility, vulnerability and destructiveness, and compromised, wounded love.

I did it because I didn’t want you to be distracted. I did it because I wanted to deal with all of that now, where we can make time and space at least to start.

But still I felt bad, because still I felt like Bowdler.

Is there anything we can say in his defence?

He’s writing within the limits of his society and culture, of course. And it’s tempting to add “We all do…” But that’s not quite right, is it?

There are people who think and write at the very limits of their culture, to challenge it, to provoke it to see itself critically but also creatively, to open up possibilities that might lead beyond stuckness. Good writers will think and write all the way up to the boundaries of their cultures, touch them, and stretch them. The best writers go beyond the bounds; in fact, they do two things at once. They dig deep into their cultures and societies, and immerse themselves in their contradictions and their dark places.

And they manage, from the particularity of their own societies and their cultures, to say something about the darkness and contradiction of human nature.

Dostoyesky did.

Orwell did, and in ways that bear directly on the society and culture we now inhabit.


Hosea did.

Or rather, Hosea didn’t write. The great prophets of the Old Testament didn’t write, they preached, and they preached in verse, and verse is easily remembered and transmitted even among people who are conventionally illiterate, and it can be written down years later and preserved that way.

In other words, prophecy is preached, and prophecy is lived.

And yes there is such a thing as prophetic writing. And just mentioning Dostoyevsky and Orwell helps us understand that most difficult of concepts connected with prophecy: “foretelling”.

We imagine that “foretelling” is to do with forecasting the future, a bit like the legendary Gypsy Petulengro, on the front in Rhyl, who is supposed to be the model for all those jokes about the fortune teller whose unexpectedly-closed booth had a sign outside saying “Closed Due To Unforeseen Circumstances”.

The Old Testament prophets did foresee, but their insights into the great currents of history weren’t magical, or mystical, but moral. Their prophecy derived from the insight that God is moral – the huge tweak that the prophets gave to Israelite religion, starting with Amos in 845 BC, is known by scholars as “ethical monotheism”: the insight that God is profoundly moral, and that God’s demands are moral and ethical, that this is how the world is made, and that when people go astray, individually and collectively, when ethics go to pot and the life of society is allowed to run on deeply immoral lines, lies become truth, and it’s dark at midday, because terrible things are hidden in plain sight.

So Amos, so Orwell, so Hosea.

But there’s another dimension to “foretelling” that’s every bit as much prophecy as that, and it derives from the etymology of the word, too. It’s “forth-telling”, speaking out, uncovering the dark complexities and realities that are usually carefully, if ridiculously, hidden.

Bowdler was bowdlerizing seven decades before the high Victorians were putting antimacassars on piano legs to avoid the temptation to lewd thoughts. And they did! They really did. To my amazement, and somewhat to my horror, I actually googled for “antimacassar piano leg” and among the hits got several images of prostitution. Thank goodness I always have “Safe Search” on.

But we all know that one of the most famous exemplars of the faux respectability of Victorian society in the fascination he generated,was Jack the Ripper, and one of the deepest explorations of the split in human nature between light and dark, rationality and sheer appetite and drive, before Sigmund Freud, was Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, written in 1886. Split mind. Split being. Darkness visible, glimpsed o a moment, then piously denied again.

Jeckyll and Hyde. More prophecy. Bringing light to shine into darkness, then “forth-telling.”


And that’s what Hosea does, by living, then preaching, the contradiction of his people’s shared life, their society, their culture.

He marries a prostitute.

And that’s the bit I left out. That’s the bit I didn’t ask Isabel to read, by excising the first few verses of the Lectionary reading.

I did it because I wanted to approach a theme that’s still incredibly difficult for us today, when we understand how prostitution is to do with iniquity and domination in a society, with exclusion and marginalization, with desperation and vulnerability. Now, we understand. Now, since the experiences of a huge proportion of the females of the planet all through human history have been made inescapable by huge forces which have brought this truth to light in things such as the “Me Too!” phenomenon, we can understand that Gomer, Hosea’s wife, represents more than just “naughty ladies”, “wicked women”, “women of the night…”

Hosea’s expression of this is two thousand eight hundred years old, so it’s pointless to expect it to express understandings that, even for us, are barely a decade old, in their fulness.

But there’s one thing that is completely missed, if we think of the story presented in the Book of Hosea as the story

of a good and innocent man put through hell by the fragilities of a wife who can’t be a good wife.

Hosea loves her.

It’s the love that persists where faithfulness has been impossible.

He loves her despite what she is, and if love really is love, that means that he loves her as she is, and for all that she is. It isn’t – as some, theologically conservative interpreters would still have it – that he marries a prostitute to make a point  and teach a lesson, like some unbelievably sick and grotesque teaching aid for childish adults.

It’s not that he marries a prostitute. It’s that he marries Gomer, and loves her, and understands more and more of what she’s like, and where he can’t understand, still loves her. It’s that a man marries a woman, just as a woman marries a man, and discovers those things that are far from rosy, far from perfect, that don’t just irritate, but wound, sometimes deeply – and still loves. It isn’t about how we can love those who hurt us, and wound us. It’s about the miracle that we can hurt, and wound, and still be loved, and love can be undiminished.

Because that’s what love is.


And that’s what God is like.

And that’s not to say that hurt and pain and humiliation that’s aggressive, and destructive, and lethal, and murderous should be borne with.  I remember a wedding reception at which the Best Man recalled hearing that when the Groom, a young man of the old school, went to the Father of the Bride to ask for permission to propose, the response was “Of course! I’m delighted! What took you so long? And, by the way – if you hurt her, I will kill you…” He overstates, of course – but which father of a daughter hasn’t said “If anyone who shares your life raises a hand to you, run, and don’t look back…”

We are called to love as God loves us; but none of us is Jesus Christ.


Yet there is more to be said here. Love is transformative. Out of this deeply troubled biblical marriage, two thousand eight hundred years ago, two children were born whose names really are crude object lessons for a society. “No-mercy”. “Not my people.” And yes there’s a weirdness, and even cruelty here, because – we must not idealize – Hosea was clearly a weird, troubled individual, and we can only understand his story by taking the distorting lens of Hosea’s weirdness into account.

But he – or someone reflecting on his story as they wrote it down – grasped something that changes everything. The unloved, unlovable, can be loved. Where there seems no access to salvation or redemption or mercy, where there is no pity, or possibility of pity – there, the impossible possibility suddenly appears. Mercy. Hope. A future. Because there is love, and where there is love, there is God.

And sometimes, even if we lose sight of God, the presence of love even in desperation signals the unseen, inaccessible reality of God, who is nevertheless there.

People spend so much time discussing the existence of God, in universities and pubs, or at dysfunctional dinner-parties, where two men, usually, commandeer the conversation, and have at like two rutting stags. Actually, that’s just what we’ve seen happening between the acolytes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on the one side, and arrogant fundamentalists who don’t know their limitations on the other. God doesn’t exist. Yes, he does. Yah, boo. Oh, and listen to me demolish your argument with mine in a debate that became deadlocked two hundred years ago, because I’m so clever that I don’t realize that I’m just rehashing clapped-out aguments from long ago…

God doesn’t exist. God exists.

It’s just reinventing the wheel. Except that this wheel was always square, and would never take us anywhere.

“God exists!” “God doesn’t exist!”

The great Danish philosopher Kierkegaard taught us that God does not exist, God is eternal. And that’s the point.


The point is not whether God exists. Horses, pianos, cars, antimacassars and the Rothesay Pavilion exists, and they wear out, and need to be restored or replaced. God isn’t like that.

The point isn’t whether – in inverted commas – “God exists…” God is unimaginably beyond that. The point is that God is there. And God is here. And love is the symptom of the presence of God, which transforms everything.

Listen to the author of Colossians – it isn’t Paul, but someone who knew his theology petty much inside-out, and developed it for the next generation of the Church – talk to people just like us, who need to know how much God loves them.

“[W]hen you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us… erasing the record that stood against us… Therefore do not let anyone condemn you… Do not let anyone disqualify you…

This is the impossible possibility, that can only appear when God is here. That’s how we know that God is here…

There is love. We are loved.

Listen to the Gospel reading. Listen to Jesus’ words: ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

God is love. God will give, perhaps far beyond our asking, certainly differently to our asking. And God will give where we thought there was no asking, where there was no possibility, no hope. Because God is the impossible possibility. We are loved, we are set free from what was, and hope comes from the future.

Love makes everything different.

And the truest sign that we know, on some level, even when we feel unlovable and utterly lost, that we are loved, is that we just ask.


Colossians 2:6-19

Luke 11:1-13





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