Fishes and Snakes, Eggs and Scorpions
Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay
July 29, 2007
Hosea 1:2-10 Luke 11:1-13
Well, then, that Hosea passage is quite a text, isn’t it? “Go, take yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom.” It’s more than just a little jarring. It’s offensive, actually. Rude, woman-bashing, frightening—nasty stuff.
This is not the only time that the term whore has been used in the Old Testament, though, and like most of the other situations, it’s used to speak of Israel’s being unfaithful to God—hanging around with other gods, giving honor to other religions. I don’t honestly know whether the term then didn’t have the same shock value that it has now or whether the passage really was meant to be this jarring. But it certainly is. And God directs the naming of the children. Jezreel, meaning “God sows,” for God is sowing the seeds of the destruction of the
This is not the God we like to think of—all-knowing, all-powerful, gracious and forgiving. This is God angry. This is God saying, “Daggone it! If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times—stick with me! You only get yourself in trouble when you go hangin’ around with all those other gods! I’m fed up, I’m telling you! I’ve had it with you!”
Whew! But lest we get stuck with this angry God, rejecting God’s covenant people, let’s look at the final verse in this passage: “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’” Hosea is telling us that God is disappointed, dejected, angry … and he’s also telling us that this fury won’t last—God won’t abandon his people.
But even with this final verse, there’s a huge contrast between the God we see in Hosea and the one Jesus talks about in our passage in Luke, which Ann read earlier. Here God is not an irate husband but a generous father—one from whom we can expect good things and good things only.
Of course, both of these lectionary passages raise the issue of God as Father. And it is an issue for many people. For we all know of husbands who have chosen “wives of whoredom,” for whatever reason, and then have made their wives’ lives miserable with their suspicions and their rages. And we all know of fathers who have rejected their children. “You’re gonna cry? I’ll give you something to cry about!” There are people for whom the God in this chapter of Hosea is frighteningly close to reality. Husbands who swear that it is their wives’ fault that they are so blisteringly angry, so coldly rejecting. Fathers who say, in their words and actions, “You’re a symbol of what’s wrong with the world. I have no pity for you. You’re not my child.”
And for people who have experienced that kind of father, God the Father is a difficult image. Because that kind of father is frightening. That kind of father is unpredictable—likely to fly into a rage over a wet bed, a salt shaker not on the table, a missed turn on the highway. That kind of father needs to be placated or avoided whenever possible.
That kind of father is at odds with the father in this section of Luke. If you’re stuck in that image of father, the father to whom Jesus prays is suspect. “Uh-huh, now he’s nice, but just wait …”
But let’s look at this father. When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, he says to begin with “Father.” Did you know that Jesus’ referring to God as Father was pretty scandalous at that time? In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is only rarely referred to as the Father, but even then, it’s father sort of in the sense that George Washington is called “Father of the Country.” In the Hebrew Scriptures—our Old Testament—God is sometimes seen as having fatherly characteristics (and sometimes motherly characteristics!), but God is too awesome, too far away, to be called Father. Actually, to this day devout Jews avoid calling God anything. When we say Yahweh, we’re giving voice to letters that the Jews have seen as unpronounceable. The most common appellation for God was ha Shem, meaning “the name.” (For those of you who’ve read Harry Potter, it was a little like calling God “He who must not be named”—only without the evil of Voldemort! Maybe some of the scariness, but not the evil.)
But here is Jesus saying Father. Now, my dad never wanted us to call him Father because, he told me, there were kids in his neighborhood growing up who were required to call their dad that, and that dad was a bully and a tyrant. But when Jesus says Father—and when he uses the Aramaic Abba—he’s implying a comfort, an intimacy, a loving closeness that the ancient Hebrews never had with ha Shem. And he’s talking right to God, with God. It’s a new way of relating to God—a paradigm shift. Jesus is saying, When you talk to God, imagine yourself sitting on God’s lap … or riding on God’s shoulders … or learning how to hammer a nail, with God guiding your hands. There’s safety there, and guidance and comfort and love.
Now, some people have wondered why Jesus didn’t refer to God as Mother instead of always as Father. (And a lot of us think that it would have been mighty handy if he had.) There are several possible answers to this question. The first is that, by gum, God’s a male. And God is referred to as male in most of the Bible. But we have to remember that both Hebrew and Greek are languages in which all nouns are given gender, like many languages today. And in languages like that, where tables may be feminine and books masculine—or, as in German, a young women—Mädchen—is neuter—gender doesn’t have quite the significance it has in English. And of course, in Genesis 1 we read, “God created humankind in his image, / in the image of God he created them; / male and female he created them.”
There are also those who argue—perhaps a little facetiously—that in a patriarchal society like that of first-century
But in the end, we need to remember that what Jesus was saying to his disciples was that God—the God of thunder and might, the God who created the entire world and all that is in it—God is as close to you as one of your parents. You can talk to God. And so I’d say to you that when you pray, you can start with anything that gives you that sense of intimacy with God. Daddy. Mother. Auntie. Uncle God. Father. You are God’s beloved child, and you are safe in God’s arms.
And God expects that you will talk with God and that you will have blessings that you want to ask from God. “Give us each day our daily bread.” Give us—not just me, but us—what is necessary for life. “Forgive our sins.” And by your grace, oh loving parent, don’t wait until we have managed to forgive the people who’ve sinned against us but show us how to be forgiving. “And do not bring us to the time of trial.” Keep us safe, all of us.
God, that loving parent, wants us to pray. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Now, we’ve all had experiences when we’ve asked and not received what we wanted, searched and not found what we were after, knocked … and knocked and knocked … and finally given up when the darned door stayed shut. So what are we to do with this promise?
Well (and some of you are smiling—you know this), “everyone who asks receives”—not necessarily what they asked for, but something. “And everyone who searches finds”—even though it may be something unexpected. “And for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Maybe not the door we expected, maybe not in the way we thought was best, but a door will be opened.
And in the last bit of this passage, we have both an assurance of the kind of parent we’re talking about and another answer to the question of what it is we receive when we pray.
“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil [for we know that as humans, good as we might be, in comparison to God we are pretty terrible sinners—if you …] know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give …” Wait, what does it say? The Matthew version of this text says, “How much more will your father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him,” but the version we have here in Luke says, “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
This isn’t a kind of celestial “bait and switch” here, folks. The idea of giving us what we need—fish and eggs and daily bread—is still there, but we are also promised something even more wonderful. For the Holy Spirit is our comforter and our advocate—the Holy Spirit is the presence of God with us all the time. What this is saying is that when we turn to God in prayer, we get the Holy Spirit.
We are like children calling out in the night, “Mommy, Daddy! I need a drink of water.” And what we get is maybe a drink of water or maybe not, but the presence of our parent in the dark, which is what we really wanted in the first place. And we don’t need to worry about this parent bringing us castor oil to drink—or calling us “Not Pitied” or “Not My Child.”
Whatever words you use when you pray to God, pray. For everyone who asks receives, everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. And you will receive not snakes and scorpions but your daily bread. And the Holy Spirit will be with you.
© Jeanne E. Gay, 2007