Direction - Getting back to God
Direction—Getting Back to God
When we make a move toward God, He is making a move toward us. And.... will abundantly restore us.
Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God.
Your sins have been your downfall!
Take words with you
and return to the Lord.
Say to him:
"Forgive all our sins
and receive us graciously,
that we may offer the fruit of our lips.
Assyria cannot save us;
we will not mount war-horses.
We will never again say 'Our gods'
to what our own hands have made,
for in you the fatherless find compassion."
"I will heal their waywardness
and love them freely,
for my anger has turned away from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
he will blossom like a lily.
Like a cedar of Lebanon
he will send down his roots;
his young shoots will grow.
His splendor will be like an olive tree,
his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.
Men will dwell again in his shade.
He will flourish like the grain.
He will blossom like a vine,
and his fame will be like the wine from Lebanon.
O Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols?
I will answer him and care for him.
I am like a green pine tree;
your fruitfulness comes from me."
Who is wise? He will realize these things.
Who is discerning? He will understand them.
The ways of the Lord are right;
the righteous walk in them,
but the rebellious stumble in them.
During the Korean War some ten million families were divided and displaced. Families were torn apart. In 1983, thirty years later, the Korean Broadcasting System tried something extraordinary to reunite them. A long telethon was aired that showed at fifteen-second increments those who had been separated from loved ones. Each segment showed the faces of these people holding a plaque that listed their names, the circumstances under which they disappeared, and where they might be contacted.
It was a national phenomenon. Immediately, 3,000 people were restored to relationships that had been dead. And it all happened right on the television screen—reunions filled with screams and shouts and sighs and tears. Even the host of the program couldn't keep from crying. The telethon was watched by 78 percent of the viewing audience of the entire nation. The demand was so great that the telethon was continued for several more days and now, several years later, this telethon of reconciliation is still being run every Friday night.
There is something in the human heart that loves to see people coming home, getting back together. Think back to the last time the nightly news told of a long-lost sister or mother or son being found. How often we've seen television films of such reunions at some airport's terminal gate. Maybe that is why there is a timeless appeal about the story of Hosea, a man who lived over 2800 years ago.
Hosea was a simple Hebrew man who loved his wife Gomer. Yet one day she left him to become a prostitute. Hosea would not accept that decision on her part and vowed to use every means in his power to get her back. Sure enough, one day he saw her for sale at a slave market and bought her back. Gomer, though she was soiled merchandise, was gladly, freely taken back by Hosea as his loved and cherished wife.
The analogy between Hosea and God may be obvious. It is assuredly the reason this story is in the Bible. But the analogy is a wonderful one. In essence, God is more like Hosea in his quest for reconciliation than Hosea was. There is no length to which God will not go to see that we are back with Him. Our God, our loving God, receives us just as unconditionally, on just as simple terms as Hosea did with Gomer.
There are times in life when we find ourselves separated—away—from our Lord. We somehow lose direction, look away for a moment that turns into days, then weeks and months. For some, it is even years. On the day that we wake up to our separation from Him, we experience the sinking feeling that maybe we are too far away to ever come back.
There is a time for coming back, though. And God is a Hosea pursuing us, even when we act as if we want nothing to do with Him. It's difficult for us to believe that when we've strayed so far. But it's true. The Book of Hosea convinces us of this truth in several ways.
God actively longs for us to return. The very first word of this chapter of Hosea is "Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God.
Take words with you and return to the Lord." Fifteen times in the Book of Hosea the word "return" is used. In Hosea's language it is a word that came to mean to backtrack to where you left God until you are back where you belong.
Jeremiah uses the word "return" a hundred times in his prophecy. The Book of Hosea continues the same loving appeal. The door is open from God's side—if we'll come back He'll receive us. It is a book about love that simply wants a chance. Hosea kept telling Gomer that if she would give his love a chance he'd show her that she could come back. He kept telling Gomer, "The door is open." And as Hosea told his story, he came to realize that God is like that, too.
This isn't a warning to those who are about to slip. This is for those who have already slipped. Hosea's original audience was the Old Testament Israel that had already faced disaster and calamity. The nation was ruined. At this time, the final invasion of Shalmaneser V, the awful conqueror had ruined Northern Israel. Hosea believed God to be saying: "Israel, even though you are already broken and ruined, if you will come back to Me I promise we can start over again together."
Why is it that we hesitate at such an invitation? We are living in such pain and missing the growth such a spiritual reconciliation offers. We know we can come back. Yet we hesitate. Isn't it because every mile we go down the track away from God makes it harder to come back—because we fear that reunion?
It must have been like that for Gomer when she sold herself the first time. It must have been hard. But the second and third time it became easier. The farther she got away from Hosea the easier the separation became—and the more impossible the return seemed. She was too aware of how she had flagrantly abused his love—and she couldn't bear the thought of seeing him face to face.
Several years ago, a sixteen-year-old Florida girl was dropped off at school by her mother. As she was getting out of the car, she waved to her mother and said, "I'll see you tonight." But her mother did not see her again for two and a half years. The girl disappeared. The girl's parents exhausted their bank account, borrowed money from friends, and took off from their jobs to instigate a nationwide search for their daughter. Finally, someone saw the girl's picture down in Georgia, called her parents, and they drove to Georgia and found her.
Do you know what her story was? She said, "I was just tired of school and I met some friendly strangers and they took me to a bus stop. I had enough money to get to Georgia, and every mile down the road I grew more fearful of coming back and facing you. And every mile further away, the easier it was to go another mile. You remember all those telephone calls that hung up before you answered? That was me." They found hundreds of letters she had written to her parents but never mailed. She didn't know that while she was running from them, they were running toward her in love.
That's the story of Hosea. Even though we may be running as this sixteen-year-old was, fearing the reunion, the moment of truth when we face God again, Hosea's story is in the Bible to tell us it is a reunion we do not have to fear. The Florida girl said if she had known that her parents loved her so much, she would have come back on her own. That may have been exactly what Gomer said, too. It is certainly what we can say.
But how do we go about coming back? What do we say? How is it done? Hosea tells us how. He says, "Take words with you and return to the Lord." Hosea's audience had drifted so far away from God that they didn't even know what to tell Him, so Hosea is saying, in essence, "Here's what to say to God. Repeat after me: "Forgive us our sins and receive us graciously.' "
Ritual Replaces Reality
To find our direction back again, our first step is to have a real, live conversation with God. We should talk to Him.
The Book of Hosea is the story of a people who had once belonged to God but allowed rituals to displace reality. They let the mechanics of a dead religion replace the meaning of a living faith. They lost direction because they mixed religion up with God. Earlier in his story Hosea stated that when these people would go with their flocks and their herds to seek the Lord, they would not find Him because He had withdrawn Himself from them. Christ quoted Hosea 6:6 to the religious leaders of His day, telling them to go find out what it meant: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and the acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings."
Hosea's generation was doing everything right, according to their religion's rituals... they were bringing their animal sacrifices, they were mumbling the right chants, whispering the right songs—but they were not having personal communion with God.
It's easy to see how ritual replaces reality, even in little things. The custom of shaking hands, a common action we take every day, began back in ancient Babylon. The king at his coronation would go up to the statue of the pagan god and shake his stone hand. Supposedly this was a transfer of power to the king. Then, in the Middle Ages, knights shook hands to show that they weren't bearing a weapon. Now, it has become a ritual without any reality to it.
Ever wonder why visiting dignitaries are given the "key" to a city by its mayor? That ritual goes all the way back to the Middle Ages, too, when there were walls around every city, and the city gates were locked. Now it is another empty ritual with no reality about it at all. It's just a gesture, a courtesy.
Little by little, if we are not careful, we can become just like ancient Israel in our religious life. We lose direction without noticing it; we drift away into aimless ritual. It can happen to anyone. This mindless emotional and spiritual wandering can separate us from God as certainly as some heinous sin. And possibly, there are many more of us who lose our direction through routine religiosity, going further and further away like the Florida girl, than there are those who lose our way through outright immorality. Hosea is saying, "Talk to God. Don't lose reality in your ritual."
But then Hosea mentions the other aspect of coming back to God. He says, when we come back, we must be willing to make a "renunciation." Hosea again gave them the words: "Azariah cannot save us, we will not mount war-horses, we will never again say 'Our gods' to what our hands have made." He states that they must make two vows of renunciation concerning dependence on other things. And so, of course, should we.
1) We must renounce ultimate dependence on everything outside of ourselves, beyond God. What does the phrase, "Azariah cannot save us," mean? At the time of Hosea Israel had become obsessed with the power of its Northern neighbors. Those neighbors were smart. They had mathematics, a thriving economy, and a strong military force. Every time Israel was caught in a corner, instead of putting their dependence on the living God, they would run to this pagan nation for help.
But before we shake our heads at those fickle Israelites, maybe we should try filling in the sentence ourselves:
________________ cannot save me.
What did you put in the blank? We can probably name several things we've looked to for help, placing our ultimate trust and dependence upon. Maybe it is a parent. Every time things go bad we go to Mom or Dad. Maybe it's a habit. When life gets tough, we reach for the bottle. Maybe it's work that we plunge ourselves into. God wants us to make that statement, to say and believe that no relationship outside the one we have with Him deserves our ultimate dependence.
2) Next, we are to renounce ultimate dependence on every internal resource except God. Hosea says, "We will not mount war-horses." We are not to trust ultimately in ourselves, in our own resources alone, either. Of course, this goes against the "rugged individual" concept that we Americans love so much. We lean more toward admiring the one who says, "When the going gets tough, I'm one of the toughs who gets going." But we may also depend on our talents or our connections or our charms. We believe these things are forever, to be relied upon, but we have no guarantees that any of this—our health, our talents, our fortitude—will be enough to get us through life. When we come back to God, we need to come in absolute dependence upon Him. And when we do, we'll be surprised how quickly God will run to meet us. It's as James 4:8 tells us: "If we draw near to God, God is already drawing near to us."
A pastor friend of mine once told a story about a time when he was involved in building a new educational wing in his church. He told of walking through the building, just to bask in a sense of accomplishment and pride. No one was around. The staff had gone, the construction crew was gone, and it was getting dark. He tiptoed over the debris and noticed a room he'd never entered. So he walked in and let go of the door—and then he realized that there was no doorknob on the inside of the door.
Although it was dark inside, he didn't panic. He just waited for his eyes to adjust. And that's when he saw the other man in the room with him. The pastor could barely see him. So he said, "Can I help you?" which translates into, "What are you doing here?" But the man didn't answer. That's when the pastor began to notice that the man was bigger than he was and that he looked very ugly. So the pastor prayed, "Lord, I need more light, lots more light." And then he turned straight toward the man and said, "What are you doing in this room?!" The man still did not reply The pastor thought he was in serious trouble, so he reached back for the door and when he did, he saw that he wasn't in the room with another man, he was in a room with a mirror.
We're just like that in our relationship with God at one time or another, aren't we? It seems dark, and we make a move and then worry about the moves that others will make back. And yet most of our fears are caused by our own reflection. When we make a move toward God, He is making a move toward us. And if we do that, God will abundantly restore us.
How will God act? He restores us graciously. As Hosea puts it, God says, "I will heal their waywardness or this apostasy." For centuries, the Israelites had bungled their relationship with God.
God offered not to treat the symptoms if they started that dialogue again with Him, but to touch their lives in such a way as to get rid of that wayward inclination.
Many of us have trouble with committing the same failure over and over. We figure there is no way He will take us back over and over again. But God is saying here that He can get rid of that inclination toward waywardness. He can help us start again.
The illustrations Hosea used to explain God's characteristics involved with this restoration are beautiful. First He will restore us to wholeness by giving us life where there was no life. According to Hosea, God says, "I will be like the dew to Israel." In that arid climate, dew was as essential as it was mysterious and trustworthy. Through the heat of the summer, the only thing that kept the plants alive was the dew. As little as three-hundredths of an inch of dew collects on the leaves of the plants and yet that alone mysteriously gives them life. And it shows up every morning, giving life in a mysterious and trustworthy way.
Second, God will help us blossom like a lily. The flower that Hosea had in mind was a flower that grew in the desert among the cracks and rocks and thorn bushes. These flowers are beauty in the midst of ugliness in the midst of unlikeliness. God's promise is that He can bring beauty out of our ugliness. No matter how unlikely our situation, we can blossom.
And third, God will give us stability where there has only been instability. The figure of speech used here is the cedar of Lebanon. The root system of this cedar is at least as expansive and extensive as its system of shoots above ground. In that arid country the cedar must put down an amazing amount of roots to find lifesustaining moisture. The result is a tree that is sturdy, stable, unwavering. Wouldn't we all like to be that stable? But that stability is another promise involved with God's response to our return.
And then in a wonderful summary image, God is pictured as an evergreen tree. "I am a God for all seasons," the image seems to be saying. "I am a God for all the seasons of your life. In every area of your life from this moment on, I will be your great resource." Hosea was Gomer's great resource. He brought her back, loved her, and grew old with her. He was with her through every season of the rest of her life.
And God is like that. He is searching for us, offering reconcoloation, regardless of how far away we've wandered, regardless of why we've wandered, always giving us hope for tomorrow. And this hope extends not only to the end of our earthly lives—but into the endless life beyond. The Growing Pains of the Soul prepare that soul for eternity!
Growing Pains of the Soul.