‘Our Father in Heaven’ we pray, ‘hallowed be your name’, but what does it mean for God to be our father? Well, I’m sure you've got plenty of ideas, after all it’s a very familiar theme, but it’s a theme that I’d like to explore a little from perhaps a slightly different angle, and source, I’d like us to consider it for a moment from this Old Testament Passage as found in Hosea 11. It begins with these wonderful words that ‘when Israel was a child I loved him’. It’s wonderful isn’t it to think that even at this moment, before the advent of Jesus Christ, God is being described as a God who loves. In fact there is no religion in the world that describes God in any other way as their primary thought, at least not out of those religions that think of God as a personal entity which we can relate to. There is no religion that says in the first instance, that its adherents believe in a God of anger and hate, and anything that that you might see on the television or hear about on the news that suggests the contrary is a fundamental abuse of that basic tenet. So those who kill in the name of God with a smile upon their face, as we sadly heard about recently, do so, in complete contradiction to the god that they espouse.
But who is it in this passage who is being loved – who is the child? Well, of course it’s the people of Israel who are being spoken of in this way:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
(Hosea 11.1 / NIV - Anglicised)
‘Out of Egypt I called my Son’
I’m sure you appreciate the reference to Israel being in Egypt refers back to the time of Moses, when the people of Israel were badly oppressed and were slaves to Pharaoh. And you’ll remember that God heard their cry and called Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand their release, and what was he to say. Well in Exodus chapter 4.22, we have the answer:
22 Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I told you, “Let my son go, so that he may worship me.
(Exodus 4:22–23 / NIV - Anglicised)
‘Israel is my firstborn son’, and this is where some of the inclusive language translations get into a bit of a pickle, because they want to be fair to us all, describing the language in a way which is both appropriate to men and women, after all both sexes made up the people, but then if you then go on to say something like ‘Israel is my first born child’ you’ve lost something of the tremendous significance of this passage as we shall see later.
Israel is God’s son, whom he loves – passionately. Which is quite remarkable really, because they are a very wayward child. Their behaviour is extremely rebellious and far from loving.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 But the more Ia called Israel,
the further they went from me.b
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.
3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realise
it was I who healed them.
4 I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love;
I lifted the yoke from their neck
and bent down to feed them.
(Hosea 11.1–4 / NIV - Anglicised)
We speak of God as ‘Our Father’ don’t we, but there is something almost motherly here. God loves his children and cares for them. He has of course lifted them out of slavery, he has removed the heavy yoke of slavery from their shoulders and has like a little child wearing toddler reins, taught them to walk, he has led them with ‘cords of human kindness; with ties of love’. It was God who led them, healed them and fed them but they did not appreciate his actions or even recognise him. They have turned their back on God and disowned his parentage. And perhaps if we are honest there are parents amongst us today, who can recognise something of this in their own relationships with their children, either today or at some point in the past - and of course when it happens, it hurts! It’s terribly sad and bitterly disappointing.
But of course this parent is God, he’s naturally holy and righteous, and he cannot turn a blind eye to their sin or let it go unpunished, like any parent he needs to discipline his child and perhaps severely. And sometimes the punishment is of their own making, if they won’t allow God to lead them then they are very much left to their own devices, and who knows what will happen! Perhaps the unthinkable! Look at verses 5-6.
5 “Will they not return to Egypt
and will not Assyria rule over them
because they refuse to repent?
6 Swords will flash in their cities,
will destroy the bars of their gates
and put an end to their plans.
(Hosea 11.5–6 / NIV - Anglicised)
Return to Egypt! Can you imagine that? Return to all that bondage and slavery – who in their right mind would possibly want to do that? But that is precisely, the sort of thing that will happen if the people turn their hearts away from and their backs on God. It’s a tragedy of immense proportions because the people are ‘determined to turn away from God’ (7) and refuse to repent (5).
If we are going to ascribe human feelings to God and describe him in such away, then he’s in a real emotional crisis, in the midst of a really heartfelt, heart stopping, gut-wrenching dilemma – what will he do? Well of course by rights he should punish the people, he should destroy them like the villages of Admah and Zeboiim (8) which are associated with the same lethal destruction that fell upon the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. And the people of Israel should understand this, they’ve got no excuse, no reason to plead ignorance, because in the book of Deuteronomy we find this instruction.
A Rebellious Son
18 If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. 20 They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.
(Deuteronomy 21.18–21 / NIV - Anglicised)
It’s a real dilemma isn’t it? Humanly speaking it’s a tragedy! But God isn’t human, he’s God, he’s divine. – and he is always a God of love and compassion – and neither can he or will he go back on the promises that he has made, with his people, the covenant that he has made through Abraham and with Moses.
8 “How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
9 I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim.
For I am God, and not man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come in wrath.c
10 They will follow the LORD;
he will roar like a lion.
When he roars,
his children will come trembling from the west.
11 They will come trembling
like birds from Egypt,
like doves from Assyria.
I will settle them in their homes,”
declares the LORD.
(Hosea 11.8,9–11 / NIV - Anglicised)
God, is a God of love and compassion, he’s always a God of love and compassion, and he won’t turn his back on his people nor renege on the promises that he has made with them, the covenant that he has made through Abraham and with Moses. It’s just too much, it’s just too important.
But still the hearts of the people are far from God and they are still caught up in their sin.
And so – ‘Out of Egypt I call my Son’. And this time, I’m not quoting Hosea, I’m quoting Matthew’s whose quoting Hosea.
Do you remember how it all began, when the people were back in Egypt:
8 Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. 9 “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them.
(Exodus 1.8–10 / NIV - Anglicised)
And his shrewd answer was to oppress the people even more and kill all their new born sons – and many years later, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt precisely because Herod in his fury had issued a decree that all the bay boys of Bethlehem should also be killed, with Mary and Joseph only returning once they knew it was safe to do so.
15 And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” f
(Matthew 2.15 / NIV - Anglicised)
When Jesus was baptised, the Holy Spirit descending upon and a voice called from heaven saying:
22 “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
(Luke 3.22 / NIV - Anglicised)
We are no longer thinking of Israel as God’s Son we are now thinking of Jesus. And of course the clues were there earlier, for once when Mary and Joseph had lost their twelve year-old son, they found him speaking in the Temple with the teachers of the law , and his simple response to their anxiety was ‘didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house’. My father’s house.
And this son is anything but wayward, he is perfect, he’s faithful, trustworthy, loyal and obedient. John in his Gospel puts it this way:
19 Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.
(John 5.19–20 / NIV - Anglicised)
The son is faithful, trust worthy, loyal and obedient, even unto death. Not my will but your will be done. For however much God loves us, the sins of the world cannot be forgotten or ignored for ever. And everything that we see, learn and understand about Israel is encapsulated in Jesus. He is the true Israelite and represents them in their entirety. Whatever they could have been, should have been and would have been if it hadn’t been for their sin – he is! And if you can excuse me for a moment if I just briefly go all theological:
“To detach Jesus from Israel, or the incarnation from its deep roots in the covenant partnership of God with Israel would be a fatal mistake” T. F. Torrance.
My son Samuel gave me that, he’s studying him.
The Father loves the Son, but he also loves the world.
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,f that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
(John 3.16 / NIV - Anglicised)
And so come right back to the beginning, ‘God is love’, and he loves you and me and all who put their faith and trust in him and Jesus who died upon the cross. He loves us, each of us with a passion. And perhaps never a truer word has been spoken that that – because when we simply say that God loves us for God is love, we need to be clear that we are not treating that statement cavalierly or glibly. Because it would also be true to say that just as much as ‘God is love’, ‘God is suffering’. His love for us is defined by his passion, and the passion of Jesus upon the cross. He loves us, laughs with us and weeps for us and the world, but still he loves us. Isn’t it a wonderful privilege to be able to call God our loving heavenly father. ‘Our father in heaven – hallowed be your name’.
In the name of Christ. Amen.