Eighth Sunday After Pentecost: August 4, 2019
When our kids were toddlers one of our favorite books to read to them was The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown. To this day it is still one of our favorite baby gifts when our nieces and nephews have children. Maybe y’all remember it: a little bunny tells his mom that he is going to run away, and she replies that if he runs away, she’ll run after him. And then they exchange “ifs”: if she runs, he will become a fish; if he becomes a fish she will become a fisherman; if she becomes a fisherman, he will become a rock on a high mountain; if he becomes a rock, she will become a mountain climber; and so on until finally the bunny has no recourse but to just stay at home and be his mama’s little bunny, to which she replies, “Have a carrot.”
I thought of this story right away when I read the first few lines of Hosea, chapter 11:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.
Just as the runaway bunny keeps trying to flee his mom, Israel keeps running away from the Holy One of Israel and to other gods, especially to the Ba’als, the indigenous gods of Canaan, which God gave to Israel when he liberated them from Egypt. In this chapter, Hosea describes God’s feelings for Israel in the most tender terms of a mother’s love for her child, a mother who, like the runaway bunny’s mom, cannot bear to see her child run away and will do anything to keep him in her arms.
I don’t generally like Hosea, I find it hard to like a man who would deliberately marry a prostitute and then criticize her infidelity, or give his children names like “Not pitied,” and “Not my people.” Prophets often took extreme actions like these to make it crystal clear to Israel what God was trying to say to them. In Hosea’s case, he married a prostitute as a symbol of God’s fidelity even in the face of Israel’s infidelity. And he gave his children their names to symbolize God’s harsh judgement on Israel for turning to other gods.
But in chapter 11, Hosea addresses Israel with descriptions of the most intimate care a parent can provide a child:
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; . . . . 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.
In this passage, God is a tender mother and Israel a beloved child, but like most kids who threaten to run away, Israel has no understanding of just how much they depend on God’s loving, tender care. And so when they do turn to other gods, God does what good parents do, what is often the hardest thing for parents to do: God lets Israel suffer the consequences of their choice:
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. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
As hard as it is to see our children suffer from their own bad decisions, sometimes it is the best gift we can give them. And a wise parent gives that gift with the clear message that when their children are ready to return, they will be welcomed home with love and tenderness. “If you become a tightrope walker and walk across the air to me, I will become a little boy and run into a house,” the runaway bunny says in his last ditch effort to escape his mom. “’If you become a little boy and run into a house,’ said the mother bunny, ‘I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.’”
In the end, God too remains steadfast in God’s love for Israel:
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? [(Two of the cities on the plains of Sodom and Gomorrah that were destroyed with these cities.)] My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9 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.
[Israel] shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, [God’s] children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
“’Shucks,’ said the bunny, ‘I might just as well stay home and be your little bunny.’ And so he did.”
It is deep in human nature to be restless and unfaithful. We always seem to be on the lookout for a better life and a better god. But it is even deeper in the nature of God to be steady and faithful. And when we finally come running back home, God catches us up in God’s arms and hugs us and feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation. “Have a carrot,” said the mother bunny.
God who loves us a mother loves her child. Forgive us when we stray after other gods who cannot satisfy. Turn our hearts back to you. Give us the wisdom to repent and to learn from our mistakes. Do not execute your fierce anger, but return us to our hearts’ true home. Amen.