Where in Scripture do you turn for encouragement? How many would give the Old Testament prophets as their answer? I’ll wager that many of us would say we find their poetry hard to understand and their words of judgment—well…something other than encouraging.

However, the prophets always matched their message of judgment with a promise that God would restore His fallen people, and I believe their words were preserved so we can take them for our own and give them away.

The title for this message is taken from Hosea 14:2: “Take Words.” I believe a good way to understand the life and mission of the church in the world is to take these words of Scripture, first to God in worship, then to one another in Christian nurture and formation, and finally to the world in ministries of evangelism, compassion and justice. In short, the prophet Hosea’s words are gospel words—they are too good to keep for ourselves.

The conclusion of the Hosea 14 is not very long, nine verses that take a little more than a minute to read. It is compact and dense poetry, marked with signposts that point to all that has gone before in the book, yet it still finds a way to say something of its own in the final crescendo. It is structured as a call and response: First the prophet urges the people to repent and gives them the words to say. He then turns to announce—maybe sing—the Lord’s gracious reply. When we think we’re finished, there is a coda, an afterword that provides a key to interpreting the entire book for all who return to it again and again. Hosea’s message was crafted to remind the people of Israel who they were as God’s sons and daughters, a message no less essential for God’s people today.

I.  “Take words and turn”: God used the prophet to lead the people in returning to the Lord (Hosea 14:1-3)
Many of us are familiar with the opening chapters of Hosea, the story of the prophet who was instructed to take a wife of whoredom and father “children of whoredom…for the land has committed great whoredom in forsaking the Lord” (Hosea 1:2). We may recall those children were given symbolic names: Lo-Ruhamah, meaning “no compassion,” and Lo-Ammi, meaning “not my people” (Hosea 1:6-9).

The rest of the book records Hosea’s words of judgment on the people of Israel for their worship of other gods (idolatry) and failure to treat one another fairly (injustice). As did other prophets of Israel, he knew one invariably leads to the other. This downward spiral, said the Lord, is like adultery—promising to love one and then turning to another.

The simple word for their sin, turn (Heb. shub) appears in a series of wordplays four times throughout the chapter (Hosea 14:1-8). The first here is the simple call to return (Hosea 14:1):  Israel turned away; the people had come to know the pain of judgment, and now it is time to turn back. They would have to get up from where they have fallen—literally, they had stumbled. “You have tripped over your iniquity.”

“Bruised and broken by the fall,” the prophet tells them to “Take words with you, and return to the Lord (Hosea 14:2).” “Do you need help?” the prophet seems to ask. “Are you out of practice in talking with God—or just out of practice in telling the truth when you do?” So Hosea the prophet became a coach, giving them the words they needed to speak truly and rightly before the Lord.

What kind of true and right speaking is this? Let’s look at the threefold confession in Hosea 14:3:
1. “Assyria will not save.” Hosea, whose name means “YHWH saves,” had chided them again and again for making alliance with Assyria as a means of survival in wartime. Ancient Israel had its own concerns for homeland security with the great empires of Egypt and Assyria on either side waiting for the chance to swallow up the little nation. It seemed to make good sense to side with one against the other until they came to learn “the true identity of the great King has been discovered, and his palace is not on the river Tigris.” (D.A. Hubbard, vv. Hosea 5:13; Hosea 7:11; Hosea 10:6).

2. “We will not ride on horses.” They also would not make any other sign that they thought their own military strength could help them. Then as now, people could be deluded into equating strong defense with security (Hosea 10:13-14).

3. “No more will we say, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our own hands.” They could have added, “Your prophet has convinced us the Baals and calves we made never did a thing for us. We said, ‘Our gods, our gods,’ until we were out of breath, but dumb hunks of metal and wood that they are, they never replied. Now we know that even our worship can become more focused on our own doing the work of our hands.” (vv. Hosea 4:12-19; Hosea 8:1-6; Hosea 11:2; Hosea 13:1-2).

How would a paraphrase of this confession sound? “Our fears caused us to look everywhere and to everyone but You, even while we called on Your name. We made an idol of our own security. You called it adultery, abandonment, turning away…and so it is. We will speak of these no more. No more will words such as these intrude on our worship. We will turn back. Now we understand there is no one but You. We will call on You, and You alone.

“We will stop talking about other powers and other gods and start using words about You—biblical words. Here’s what we will say: ‘In You alone the orphan finds compassion’ (Hosea 14:3). You gave us those words; we recited them in Your commandments (Deuteronomy 10:18); we sang them again and again in numerous psalms (Psalms 10:14-18; Psalms 68:5). You gave us these instructions to do as You do for the orphan and the widow, but we did not remember. We turned—conveniently, we forgot. We worried about our own well being and forgot about the needs of the orphan.

“Therefore, You made us orphans with those names: Lo-Ruhamah, (“No compassion”); Lo-Ammi (“Not my people”). Now Your prophet has brought back these forgotten words so we can make a new start: In You the orphan finds compassion.”

Let’s back away a bit and look more closely at this teaching. We could say this line sums up all of Hosea’s judgment of idolatry with a word of grace. The people forgot the orphan, and so they were treated as one of Hosea’s orphaned children. Yet the same prophet reminds them the orphan finds compassion in God, even wayward Israel.

Today, idolatries of every sort grab our attention; but we soon learn they are rooted in self-interest. We forget about loving our neighbors and caring for the needy, and we are not known for our compassion. Therefore, we need Hosea’s word to expose the idolatries that attempt to hide in our thoughts and actions. We need to ask how God might say that we do not deserve compassion and do not behave as God’s people.

Thanks to God, there is more. We need this gift of repentance every bit as much as we need to breathe. We also need Hosea’s coaching in words of repentance if our churches are to be healthy. In the same way, preachers and congregations together can coach their communities. In other words, together Christians learn this language of returning so we can invite others to speak this word with us.

So often we hear Christians are known for what they are against. The common perception is we think we are better than everyone else. Judgmental is the word we hear, and it means people experience judgment coming from us. What if the people around us in our surrounding communities heard us making confession, accepting the judgment that comes to us? What if they overheard us saying we know we are inclined to pride, envy, greed and every other form of self-centered living?

I like the weekly practice of confession that in some traditions usually comes near the start of the service. Sometimes it is silent and individual, sometimes it comes as a corporate litany, but always it is answered with the word of grace from the worship leader: “Brothers and sisters, in Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.”

We believers need words of repentance, we need a coach. We need preachers and worship leaders who will help us find the words to say when we are together. We need these words for our lives together, and we need them when we are apart from one another in our communities. We need to use them in our places of work and play so we can invite others to find new life with us. “Take words,” the prophet says, because true words, real words, are words that return us to our true home in God.

II. “Take words…I will love them freely”: God used the prophet to restore and replant, to speak God’s words of healing and love (Hosea 14:4-7).
Here is the part we long for, hearing God’s words of love to the one who has come home. Once again, these words of love come to us as God wipes away the tears of repentance.

In verse 4, the Lord answers Israel’s repentance with promises to heal and love freely, reassuring them His anger has subsided. Hosea told them God wanted to heal (Hosea 7:1), but Israel resisted. Now having spoken words of repentance, Israel is ready to listen. A literal translation would bring out the play on the word turn: “I will heal their turning away, I will love them freely, because My anger has turned away from them.” Notice how God says, “I will love them freely.”

The Hebrew word for freely is used most often for the freewill offering, a sacrifice given without requirement or compulsion, but it also appears in Psalms 68:9 as abundance: Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad; you restored your heritage when it languished. God gives rain freely when the land badly needs it, which leads us to the song of Israel’s replanting (and watering) in verses 5-7.

So these people turn from the wilderness and desolation to hear their loving God will send dew, life-giving moisture. They will blossom as the lily and strike deep roots as the cedars of Lebanon, sending out shoots and delightful fragrance. They will be as beautiful as a flourishing olive tree (Hosea 14:5-6).

These people of Israel know that in Lebanon, there is abundance and that “they will live like new grain, blossom like the vine” (Hosea 14:7). They will come to a tree that gives shade to a garden. All are good gifts from the one who loves freely, abundantly. What more could these people want to hear than their lives are not the dry stuff of the wilderness, but are well-watered, shaded and luxurious gardens. Here is love freely given, love freely returned.

Just as God used Hosea to bring these words of healing and renewal to deserted Israel; today, God uses preachers and congregations to speak and sing of this love freely given. We speak and sing it inside and outside the church building. It is a song that goes out into the world, especially to our neighbors and friends.

How will we know if we really have heard and believed this good news of abundant life? We will know if we see signs of it spilling over in acts of love freely given and returned. We will know if we see it in care for the local concerns of the elderly who need someone to visit and ask if they can bring them anything from the store. We will know if Christians start to care also about the larger concerns of their communities, making sure there is access to quality education and opportunity to obtain good housing. We will know if Christians begin to speak out against damage to the environment—physical and social—and working to put a halt to the famines and genocides marking our generation. We will know if we see the love of God in the way believers freely love in turn.

My own view of preaching and mission is I believe (as did the prophets) God uses preachers and the churches who hear them to talk about this healing, this restoration, this making of all things new. Because the Christian life is grounded in the character of God, preachers and congregations together have the joyful task of proclaiming the grace of God and its overflow from our lives to others.

Here’s an example. A student at the seminary where I teach told of the time she was called across the street following an argument in her neighbor’s home. She described the scene, how she found the father packing his clothes to leave, the children huddled and crying, and the wife, her good friend, crumbling in a corner of sobs and remorse. She was an alcoholic, had just come home drunk; her husband told her if she would not seek help, he would leave for good and take the children with him. The woman found her friend repeating, “It’s no use, I’ve ruined everything. I’ve tried and I can’t change. I’m nothing but a failure as a wife, a mother, a person.”

This student had no idea at the time that one day she would attend seminary to prepare for pastoral ministry. She only knew her neighbor was in trouble, so she knelt by her side and took her in her arms. Gently she told her that her words were not true and God could make a new beginning for her. She told her friend she herself was the daughter of an alcoholic and how her pastor had led the family in an intervention that confronted her father with all the ways he had let them down. She remembered this pastor also had spoken words of hope, love and forgiveness, and her father heard them and took them to heart. Now his daughter was there to tell her sobbing friend that by God’s grace, her father had stayed true, a sober and faithful follower of Jesus to that day. So, too, this friend heard those words of hope and made a commitment to do the same.

“Take Words,” Hosea said, because words of confrontation and love from preachers and those who hear them bring healing, they call people back to the abundant life they were created to live. We proclaim this love of God to remind people who they were created to be.

III. “Take Words…Ephraim, fruitful and wise.” God used the prophet to re-call the people to their true selves (Hosea 14:8-9).
Hosea had another purpose in creating this picture of a lush and beautiful garden. He extends the metaphor as the Lord speaks to the people of Israel by another of its names: “Oh Ephraim, what do I have to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like a luxuriant cypress—your fruit comes from Me” (Hosea 14:8).

Who is Ephraim? He was the second son of Joseph who named him with the Hebrew word for fruitfulness, saying: “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Genesis 41:52). Ephraim was the younger grandson Jacob blessed over the firstborn, prophesying he would grow to become the greater people (Genesis 48:13-20). Ephraim was the tribe of Israel that became so great its name became a synonym for the northern kingdom Israel (Numbers 26:35).

To the people of Israel, now called Ephraim, God says, “I will answer when you call and look after you. I am the great tree, and your fruit comes from Me.” Let’s unpack that: “Your fruit is from Me” (that is, it does not come from idols), and that has been the issue all along, now given as a pun on the name. The Lord reminds Ephraim its identity and the name means, “the Lord has made me fruitful.” Through Hosea the prophet, God reminds the people Israel, who they were meant to be.

So for us, God’s Word comes to remind us we were created to be fruitful branches of Jesus’ vine, bearing the fruit of the Spirit (John 15:1-6; Galatians 5:22-23; Romans 7:4; Colossians 1:10). We, too, need to hear we were born to live as sons and daughters of God, born again to live bearing His likeness, created and redeemed to be fruitful. It makes a difference to remember we were meant to be fruitful with praise, fruitful with words of love and justice, fruitful to bring God’s healing to the nations, fruitful in every sense of the word.

Like those people of old, we need to hear God call to us as Ephraim, fruitful to know our lives are not a dry, desolate wilderness, but a beautiful garden where good things can grow, bringing joy to our own lives, as well as to our families, friends and neighbors.

There’s more. Ephraim was not only meant to be fruitful, but also to be wise. Look at Hosea 14:9: “These things are for the wise, the discerning; they know them.” Is Ephraim to be counted among the wise who will discern the right ways of the Lord and walk in them?

Of course! It is no coincidence Ephraim is called an unwise son in the previous chapter (Hosea 13:12-13), a son so foolish in his rebellion that when the time comes to be born, he does not know enough to come out of the womb.

This call to become a wise son along with the words discern, know, way and stumble in verse 9 all point to the wisdom teaching in the book of Proverbs. In Proverbs, chapters 1-9 especially, a young son is told again and again to be wise, to “get wisdom.” Proverbs 4 and many of the proverbs throughout the book speak of the unwise son who brings shame and grief to his parents (Proverbs 10:1).

In Hosea’s final words to his people, he calls them Ephraim, the unwise son has become wise from painful experience. He has stumbled and fallen, but he is not down and out. He will no longer be among the rebellious who stumble in the ways of the Lord (Note that the word stumble is in the first and last verses of the chapter—vv. 1, 9).

I wish I had time to tell you all the ways the wise son becomes the picture of what Israel was called out to be in the Book of Hosea, the Book of Proverbs and the whole Old Testament, especially in the Book of Deuteronomy (vv. Deuteronomy 4:6; Deuteronomy 32:29). In different ways, Hosea, Proverbs and Deuteronomy call readers and hearers to become wise.

Ephraim, born to be a wise son; Ephraim, born to be fruitful. In both, God tells Ephraim who he is, recalling him to his true self, a fruitful and wise son. As God did for those ancient people, so God does the same for us today who are created to be fruitful and wise sons and daughters.

We need this word of God that comes through the prophet to tell us the truth about ourselves, to lead us to the garden of grace, to tell us who we were created to be because there are plenty of other false voices who want to do that for us.

If you’ve seen the movie Blood Diamond, you probably remember this scene because, in my opinion, it is the most powerful in the film. If you haven’t seen it, this story won’t spoil the ending for you.

An African man finds a great diamond and hides it away. He has a family, and the film opens with the father getting his son ready for school. They live in battle-torn Sierra Leone, and the rebel warlord wants the diamond to buy guns. So he kidnaps the son, hoping to use him as leverage. He gives the boy, 10 years old, a gun and he plies him with drugs. With much brainwashing, the boy becomes a heartless fighting machine who raids villages and has no trouble turning his machine gun on men, women and children.

After much searching, the father finds him in the rebel camp and tries to steal him away, but the son acts as if he doesn’t know him. “Traitor!” he yells, but the father manages to grab the son and run. The warlord and his soldiers pursue. Soon there is scuffle and a gun falls to the ground. The boy grabs the loose gun and points it, first at the soldiers; then when his father yells, “NO!” the boy turns and points it at his father. The look in his eye says he is ready to pull the trigger.

The man starts to speak his words of love: “Your name is Dio. You are my son, and I am your father. You live with your family in our village where you help me with my work of fishing. Every morning I wake you up and get you ready to go to school so you can study to become a doctor. Your mother loves you and cries for you every day. Your sister cries for you, too; and even the dog goes to the place where you sleep and waits for you to come home. You are not a soldier. You are not a killer. You are my son.”

“Take words” the prophet said, and he gave the people words to say, but he did much more: He spoke God’s words of love to them. He used words of judgment and repentance, words of hope and love, words that told his people who they were and to whom they belonged.

“Take words.” That is what the members of Christ’s body the church do today. They take the words God gave to Israel and the church and call us back to our true selves. They tell us who we are—Christians, people who have Christ in them. They take these words and say, as if the Lord were saying it Himself, “You are not (fill in the blank). You are Mine!” They take those words to lost people and tell them they were born to be fruitful and wise, that their lives are not a wasteland, but are meant to be like a beautiful garden.

“Take words,” and bring them to God in worship; use them to call one another to faithful living; and let them bring their promise of new life to those God has placed in our paths. Words of repentance. Words of love and grace. Words that call us back to our true selves in God.

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