Lessons from Bad Religion (Hosea 9)

Marriage vows presume that both spouses know, with all that biblical innuendo, and love the other; however Hosea described God as a jilted lover—unloved by the people He covenanted to be with, Israel. There was no knowledge of God in the land (cf. Hosea 4:1c). Hosea named the people’s wanton abandonment of God as the root of their problems, though clearly Israel had other sins (e.g. violence, injustice). Derek Kidner observes”Sin can be against oneself (1 Cor. 6:18) and against one’s neighbour; but the flouting of God is always the length and breadth of it.”1 The big sin of Israel was their bad religion: the worship of idols.

Politics and religion weren’t easily divided in the Ancient world. Kings were masters of coopting religious language to effect their imperial aims (not much changed there). Priests—purveyors of religious devotion—called afternoon showers signs of God’s blessing instead of speaking truth-to-power and naming where things went amiss. But kings and priests were not alone in rejecting their covenant God. The people of Israel likewise rejected YAHWEH and chased after the gods of the nations.

N.T. Wright writes, “You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship.”2 One of the problems with idolatry is that we become bad versions of ourselves. Bad religion makes us bad people. We are as in danger of spiritual malformation as Israel was. Hosea 9 begins with this snapshot of religion gone bad:

Do not rejoice, O Israel!
Do not exult as other nations do;
for you have played the whore, departing from your God.
You have loved a prostitute’s pay
on all threshing floors. (Hosea 9:1)
Threshing floors were large communal properties, flat ground, where the farmers gathered to thresh and winnow the grain. Because of the economic importance of agriculture, these threshing floors doubled as open-air facilities for religious rituals, business transactions, and public gatherings. The Ancient Near East worship of the surrounding neighbors took the shape of fertility cults. Temple prostitutes were employed for their services—drunken orgies of delight were meant to appease Baal and ensure the fertility  and prosperity of the land.
Israel was simultaneously obsessed with sex and their own economic security. Imitating the nations, their worship employed sex with prostitutes as a technique to ensure a good harvest and prosperity for the nation. But economic security was meant to be a byproduct of faithfulness to Yahweh, and not a result of religious technique and ritual. False worship led to using people (in this case, prostitutes) to achieve economic growth. The unhappy result for Israel was crop failure and famine (9:2), military defeat and exile (9:3-7, 15-17). Hosea warned of the coming judgment but Israel decried this prophet as a mad fool (9:7).
We may cringe at the particulars of ANE religion, but are we really that far removed?  Are we not, as a nation, likewise obsessed with sex and economic security? We just elected a president who promises to fix our economy and bragged on video about sexually assaulting women. But Trump’s presidency is merely symptomatic of our American idolatry.   One curious feature of our democracy is that our government of the people, by the people and for people elects a leader every four years, which reflects the soul of the nation. We may decry Trump’s orange glow, petulance and his tiny hands forming a Vitarka Mudra, but he is a mirror to us of our own inner life. Like our president, we are fearful and angry at the world, worried about the economy, distrusting both the media and the establishment, and we prefer our own alternative facts to the true truthiness of truth.
If Wright is right and we are becoming like what we worship, what does this say about us? Israel’s worship of idols caused them to forgot their God which also caused them to forget the image of God in their women. They used them for sexual pleasure (and to procure financial gain). What is the god envisioned in America’s cultural landscape? Is it the god of the prosperity gospel, promises riches to those where to sow the right seeds? Is it the hedonist god of celebrities—narcissistic and decadent? Does the god of our nation value the dignity of all human persons as co-bearers of God’s image? Or are some humans viewed as less worthy than others? Does our god thwart justice for women, orphans and aliens dwelling in our land?
It is not enough for us to assert we are a Christian nation. In the years leading up to Israel’s exile, when they were an Assyrian vassal state, Yahweh was still nominally Israel’s God.3 In reality the people (and their leaders) were worshipping at a different altar. If the God who is revealed to us in Scripture was at the center of our national life, our priorities (political or otherwise) would look vastly different. Like Israel of old, bad religion has poisoned the well and there will be reckoning.

God break down our idols that we who are made in your image, can represent you and be your Presence on the earth. In our hearts and in our land, let us make You great again.


1. Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 15, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 208
2. N.T. Wright, Simply Christian (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), 148.
3. Interesting to note that the oracle of Hosea 9, never mentions Baal worship, just bad religion.

Good News Lent: Wilderness Introduction

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. Mark 1:12-13

Are you in a wilderness? It could be one of your own making—sin and shame isolating you from others. It could be a wilderness hoist on you through circumstance: the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, a debilitating illness, the loss of a job. Maybe you went to what you thought was the land of promise, and found yourself in a  barren wasteland. However, you got here, you are not alone. Jesus also walked in the wilderness. For forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness is a poignant image for Lent. It is this episode from Jesus’ life that the church got the ‘forty days’ that determine the length of the season. Forty days Jesus fasted, so we fast forty days (minus Sundays). There Jesus was victor over temptation, so we take this time to pursue holiness, attentive to our proclivity toward sin. Yes, Jesus’ wilderness experience is foundational for our experience of Lent. But does the wilderness hold good news for us? Jesus faced the devil in the dry arid air of the desert. He did so, for the joy set before him. I see five reasons the wilderness was good news for Jesus, and is good news for us!

The Wilderness is Where God Wanted Jesus to Be

judean_wildernessWe are told in Mark’s gospel that the Spirit “sent” Jesus into the wilderness.   Jesus emerged from the Jordan, dripping wet from his baptism and the Spirit sent him to the desert. The NIV’s ‘sent’ is a rather tepid translation of the Greek ἐκβάλλει. The word carries the force of ‘drove out’ or ‘expelled.’ Jesus was forced out to the wilderness, there by the Spirit’s compulsion. He was in the wilderness because God wanted Him there.  Why did the Spirit want Jesus there? Matthew gives the reason, “He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by devil” (Matt. 4:1).

There was contest that needed to happen between Jesus and Satan at the outset of his ministry. The ultimate contest would come later, but this wilderness time was important. Jesus had heard his Father’s voice, saw the heavens open and felt the Spirit’s presence resting like a cooing dove on Him. He couldn’t go back to carpentry; his Kingdom mission was inaugurated. God sent him to the wilderness, but he didn’t expect him to stay there.  He went to quote Deuteronomy at the Devil and strengthen his resolve to face what lay ahead

Spiritually the wilderness is a liminal space, it is a place between places. Jesus was stepping out of the life as an obscure Galilean carpenter, to a lifestyle which included itinerant evangelism, divine healing and political rabble-rousing. This was a big change in Jesus’ life, even for the Son of God. The desert gave Jesus the space a place to transition.

Where does God have you? If you are in a wilderness right now, perhaps the Spirit has driven you there because He is transitioning you to something new, something significant. This is a time to pay attention and ask God what He is doing?

 

The Wilderness Clarifies Identity and Allowed Jesus Space to Connect to God

 

God took Jesus to the wilderness after affirming him in baptism. Jonathan Martin writes:

[T]he reason that God sent Jesus into the wilderness was not to weaken Him­—so that his showdown with Satan would become “the ultimate test”—but rather to strengthen Him and cement in His heart the truth of His identity. Fresh from hearing the words of confirmation on which His entire life and ministry would be built, there was no safer place than the wilderness for Jesus to go next. Even though His experience in the wilderness wasn’t easy—He fasted for forty days and forty nights and was confronted by the devil—the devil wasn’t the only one he encountered there. The Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness, rejuvenated with the affirmation of His identity in God’s eyes, and allowed Him to step away from His day-to-day life until the noise ad hurry of the world around Him was stripped down to the point where He could easily distinguish the voice of the accuser from the voice of the Father. The same can be true for us. [1]

Belden Lane says, “Desert and mountain places, located on the margins of society are locations of choice in luring God’s people to a deeper understanding of who they are. Yahweh frequently moves to the boundary in order to restore the center, calling a broken people back to justice and compassion.”[2] As with Jesus, so with us. We move (or are moved) into wilderness spaces to discover who we really are. It wasn’t enough that Jesus heard the Father affirm Him in baptism. He needed space to clarify what those words meant—to be moved by the Spirit, to connect with Father. He needed time out of the limelight to clarify His identity, and to hear God’s voice.

You are a child of God! The Father declares His love for you, the Spirit of God rests on all who are His. We need this space to understand what it means that we are His. We need to ‘unplug’ and take time in obscurity to cement this and to learn to discern the voice of God for us.

The Wilderness is a Place of Preparation

When Jesus left the wilderness, his public ministry would begin. It would culminate on a Roman cross. Along the way he would cast out demons, heal the sick, announce good news, and challenge the religious and political structures.  He would gather a handful of followers that he would pour his life into, so that they would lead the movement in his absence. There was a lot of work to be done and it would take all of him.  Jesus spent forty days fasting and praying at the outset of his ministry.  This time in the wilderness was preparation for what lay ahead.  These wilderness spaces are our preparatory school as well.  As the desert clarifies our identity—we see ourselves in all our vulnerability, weakness, brokenness and wonder—we sense God’s call to step out in compassion for the world. The obscurity of the margins is where God prepares us for the work ahead.

Do you know what God is Calling You to? Do you have a sense of the type of work he would like to do through you? How are you being prepared for that task? Our wilderness is where we discern God’s call and gain the courage to step into it.

 

The Wilderness is a Place of Purgation

The wilderness is where Jesus is tempted by the devil (Jesus’ temptation is the subject of my next post).  This is also the space where we face those ugly bits in ourselves. The Christian tradition calls this purgation—a purification of the soul from sin. Jesus was the sinless Son of God, but even he faced temptation. The wilderness is the space where we can wrestle our demons all the way down.  We all have comforts and strategies we employ that we use which prevent us from examining our heart’s condition: we use the demands of work and commitments to crowd out self-reflection; we fill our down time with Netflix binge watches of our favorite series; we fill our bellies with a tub of cookie dough ice cream or engage in some retail therapy. We are good at distracting ourselves with work, food, and entertainment. Perhaps we self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. When all these are stripped away through fasting or circumstance, we begin to see ourselves for who we are and to deal with the parts of our soul we work so hard at avoiding.   Lane writes:

The way of purgation involves an entry into what is unnerving, even grotesque in our lives, into what quickly reveals our limits. It seems at first, like most beginnings in the spiritual life, a mistake, a false start, an imperfection in God’s planning, a regression in our own growth. Only in hindsight do we recognize it for the unexpected gift that it is.[3]

The good news of the desert is that as our defenses are stripped away and our sin is laid bare before God, He transforms us. When we emerge from this marginal, liminal space, we are made new. The wilderness is a hard place to be, but it is where God has his way in us.

The Wilderness is Where Jesus ‘Back-stories’ the Good News.

The good news about Jesus is made coherent as part of the larger story of God and Israel’s story.  N.T. Wright’s project has been to show how Jesus fulfills Israel’s messianic hopes.  Jesus does this in two ways: he recapitulates Israel and its sacred symbols around himself and he does the sort of things the Hebrew Scriptures attest that only God can do.  The Hebrew Scriptures, what Christian’s call the Old Testament, provides the backstory essential for understanding who Jesus is and why he came. When we look again at Jesus wilderness wandering, we see God reenacting Israel’s own wandering. The people of Israel went through the Red Sea and spent forty years in the wilderness; Jesus left the Jordan for forty days in the wilderness. Israel was led by God’s presence in a pillar of fire by day and a cloud by night (Exodus 13:21); Jesus was compelled forward by the Spirit. Israel was tested for forty years (Deuteronomy 8:2); Jesus was tempted by the devil. But while Israel grumbled, complained, and failed their wilderness tests, Jesus would emerge victorious.  Jesus’ reenactment showed him to be the New Israel, fulfilling covenant with God, walking faithfully with him.

Something new was happening in the Judean countryside. A Messiah was coming that would fulfill all of Israel’s hopes and longing. A man would stumble out of the desert that would embody everything Israel was supposed to be.

Jesus came. He suffered the wilderness, he overcame the time of testing and he would lead his people to the good land. Praise God that Jesus came to be what we could not be for ourselves. Thank you Jesus for going before us, marking the way through the wilderness and showing us the way forward as we trust in him.

 

Whatever your wilderness is, press into it. Jesus walked this road and there are good things in store.  God will take this time to show you who you are, to help you see clearly who He is, to guide you, to show you the way forward, to prepare you, to cleanse your heart of Sin.  The desert is harsh landscape, and these are difficult days. There are gifts here too.

[Note: I previous edition of this page, titled it “Wilderness Part I.” However I decided to break Jesus’ Temptations into several posts, and treat this an introductory post].

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Jonathan Martin, Prototype: What Happens When You Discover You Are More Like Jesus Than You Think. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2013), 51.

[2] Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscape: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 46.

[3] Lane, 27.