Persistence (Hosea 1:2-10; Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13)
The Bible is full of stories set in specific times and places that tell of the work of God in the world. One of the difficulties of reading and understanding these stories is that, while they are all specific, at least in their origin, as generations of communities, first of all, transmitted them, and, then, read them, the stories have come to be understood in more general or even universal ways. To take the most obvious example for Christians, the coming of a specific, real Jewish baby named Jeshua (Jesus in Greek) at a certain place in the land of Judea in the ancient Mediterranean world, has been read for 2000 years by Christians (including me) as having world-wide significance. Well, that’s just the tip of the biblical iceberg. The Old Testament is full of particular stories with universal significance – at least for people of faith like us.
To take another example, the Prophet Hosea lived around the middle of the 8th century before the Common Era (the 700’s) in the Northern kingdom of Israel, the capital city of which was Samaria. This nation came to an end 30-40 years later. He saw that Israel was headed for big trouble, and he did what he could to remind the people that the reason why was that they had not been persistent in keeping their covenant responsibilities toward God and others. Now, nobody lives (or writes) in a vacuum, isolated from their life experience, and that was certainly true of Hosea, whose thoughts about God and Israel were shaped in the crucible of his own rocky domestic life with a woman named Gomer who had a hard time staying with Hosea – and he with her. The way the story is told it was because she was unfaithful to him. Now, although stories never tell the whole story, the way the story is told here says that Gomer was a prostitute and always had been. None of this counted for Hosea because he fell in love with her. It may have been dumb. It may have been something a good, clean prophet should have known better than to do. Didn’t matter. We’ve all had at least little experiences with loving things or people that weren’t good for us. I think that the story in the first chapters of this book began as the product of Hosea’s reflection on his life and love long after it all happened and he’d had some time to chew it over and stew about it, and work some things out about it.
The book still shows signs of having been the product of pain and stewing, because, for one thing, it’s structure is a mess, there’s very little logic to it. It’s, in many ways, like a series of sobs, and few people sob in logical outline. Even after years of reflection, persistent memory still stabs at Hosea. And don’t we got that, too? We story tells of their three children. Hosea was the father of at least one of them, maybe more. We also read that, children or no, later on, Gomer left Hosea for another – or maybe many others. But Hosea – dumb as it may have been – simply loved Gomer, and he did his very best to get her back.
It’s hard to know why, but what Hosea finally came to when he thought of all that family heartbreak was not himself and Gomer, but God and Israel. Israel, like Gomer, had been unfaithful in a remarkable number of ways, and for a long time. But the fact is, as Hosea simply loved Gomer, God simply loved Israel – bad character, stupid lifestyle and all. And a lot of what Hosea says later in his book is centred on that persistent love of God in spite of everything.
As we reflect on that specific story to hear it in a more general way, the heart of the Book of Hosea, and, really the beating heart of our God, is found in the fact that God loves us more completely than we can imagine, and surely than we can earn. One things I have said to my students about God in the Old Testament is that alienation from God is something that God neither wants nor tolerates easily and God is persistent to get back together with alienated people. Not a bad lesson, that.
I could tell as I was reading the Epistle Lesson from Colossians that some of your eyes were glassing over with all the talk about new moons, Sabbaths, visions and all that. There’s no doubt, frankly, that this text details many 1st century issues that need not detain us this morning. The basic matter of this text is what brings people and God together. I hope I’m not simplifying too much to say, simply, that abstract thinking and rule-keeping do not get the job done. Rather, we are brought together with God by God’s own work through Jesus on our behalf. It is by following Jesus, not by jumping through religious hoops (anybody’s religious hoops), that we grow and learn to live an appropriate life in God’s presence. The lesson for us today is that none of the hoops we think we have jump through gets us together with God. What does that is God’s persistence loving action on our behalf, which never gives up on us, but keeps seeking us and keeps treating us better than we live. It’s that same love we found back in Hosea’s love for Gomer which reflected God’s love for Israel. Again, God neither wants nor tolerates alienation easily. Being together with God starts, simply with accepting that we have been and continue to be loved by one infinitely greater than we. There’s something else, though. Since we have been loved into being better than we live by being brought near to the beating heart of Hosea’s God, and since we have been brought together with God and others through Jesus, how should we respond and live? Here comes the Gospel.
Luke was interpreting Jesus’ teaching to a community toward the end of the first Christian century. This community was concerned about the ways it could follow Jesus fruitfully and survive in its world. Luke’s community was having its struggles, as has been common with Christian communities since then, too. So, it’s no accident that Luke has Jesus say to that struggling community, at the climax of today’s Gospel Lesson, that the greatest gift God gives is a Spirit of God-likeness (or holiness) to help folk keep on asking, seeking, and knocking – to help them be persistent – at heaven’s door.
The way Luke fashions the story, Jesus went about encouraging this community to work at living in God’s presence by prayer. You could tell that this is Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer that we’ve already said together this morning in Matthew’s more familiar, but not necessarily more original, version.
It may seem strange to us that Luke would sum up the basics of the life of faith with a prayer, or as a prayer. It’s another example of a particular example of God’s universal work. Luke’s purpose was not just to report Jesus’ words so we’d know them, or give us words so we can say them, but to give us a vision that can shape our lives. The goal is to encourage people to be persistent in their practice of faith so as to live into it.
The central focus of this prayer is God, but God addressed as Father. Let me just take a breath here and say that this term, though traditional, has caused many of my friends difficulty because it has suggested to many that that God is of the male gender, and so that maleness is more important and godly than femaleness. I find that, when things give my friends trouble, they give me trouble, too. “Father” is a figure of speech that is not to be taken literally. The misunderstanding of this word picture has done a good deal of harm to both women and men in the church, as some of our conceptions of God have been stuck in aggressive, warlike, and “in your face” kinds of thoughts we, wrongly, associate with “maleness.” That has been called godly. What is important in this figure of speech is the familial and protective relationship that good fathers (really good parents) have to children. That’s how Jesus would have us think of God. But there is a further definition of God here: God also is holy. This word is intended to be shorthand for all that God is. God is like a good parent, but infinitely more. God is not tainted by the weakness and selfishness that often undoes you and me. Everything else in this prayer flows from its focus on God.
What follows deals with our physical and spiritual needs, but focuses on the God who meets these needs, not on what we get to have them met. We are invited to pray for enough bread for the day, not enough cake and champagne for six months. The focus, again, is on God, the Giver. The questions that we have about unanswered prayer often boil down to “Why didn’t I get what I wanted”? That kind of question comes from focusing on what we get and not on what God gives. Praying this prayer in earnest would make us persons that depend upon God, and understand that, whatever may be involved, what we have is not what we deserve or have worked to get, but is a gift from God.
As we pray for our daily physical requirements, we pray for our daily spiritual requirements. What would be your list of spiritual requirements for godly life? It’s interesting that Jesus chose to teach his disciples to pray for forgiveness as the first of only two spiritual requirements. This prayer would have us to be the kind of person who asks readily for forgiveness both from God and others. Jesus goes on to give a rather confident sounding statement: “For we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Do we always, or often, forgive everyone indebted to us? Probably not, even financially, which is not the kind of debts Jesus is speaking about. In the Jewish mind, the things we do to injure others (whether intentional or otherwise) are spoken of as debts we owe to them. That’s the primary meaning here. When we follow Jesus’ way, we pray that our hearts might want us to be the kind of people who depend upon God to give us the grace to accept forgiveness and to forgive others. Perhaps, if we are persistent enough in such prayers, we will begin to do them through God’s grace. As we pray that our daily physical sustenance be given, so our daily spiritual sustenance is being forgiven and forgiving. I have told you all a number of times of Charlie Taylor, who was one of our remarkable colleagues at Acadia University. He worked in counseling, and introduced Clinical Pastoral Education to Canada. His specialty was working in prisons. He founded many programs for prison reform and working with prisoners. As he worked with these wounded children of God, one of the things he often said was “We’re all more alike than different.” If we remember that, we’re more likely to forgive, I think. If I remember that I’m more like the people who do horrible things, who do stupid things, who do thoughtless things, than I am unlike them, maybe I’ll approach them differently and forgive them more.
That’s one basic spiritual need into which Jesus would have us live. The only other one is future oriented: “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” This is a better translation than “Lead us not into temptation,” because Jesus knew that spiritual life was more than not succumbing to temptation. He had in mind any occasion where our integrity and our fidelity would be challenged or tested to the break-point. He would have us ask God that we would be delivered from a failure of integrity. We pray for the gift of courage to be “up to” the tests in the strength of the God who loved Hosea and Gomer, and loves us, and who has done the work to bring us together with God and each other.
One of the lessons that we found in both Hosea and the Epistle Lesson from Colossians is that God never gives up on us, but keeps on loving us into living better than we are. God is persistent with us. Jesus is saying, be persistent in your prayers to be like that, not necessarily just to keep asking for what you want God to do for you. Luke comes back to God’s persistence at the end. Some humans may actually like to be estranged from others, but God is not like that. God wants to respond with goodness and blessing. Weak and normal human parents, most times, don’t respond to their kids’ requests for good gifts with bad ones. So how much more will our loving God, the model of all good parents, and holy to boot, give the greatest gift of all: a Spirit of God-likeness or Holiness to empower us to live a life like Jesus!
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.