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6th November 2022

God’s Never Ending Story: Romance

Passage: Hosea 14; 1-8


When you think of “romance” what comes into your mind? Mills and Boon books? Red Roses on Valentine’s Day? Love films that have you reaching for your handkerchief?
Or is there a note of cynicism? My father lectured our church youth group on boy/girl relationships with a genuine concern but no tact whatsoever: “you may think you are head over heels in love now but just wait until you are sixty, looking like your grandparents.” Ouch… But the Beetles said much the same with “will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four.” There are always warnings that the thrill of romance when you are going out on special dates, wearing your best clothes, will die when you share a home and fight over whose turn it is to take out the rubbish.

I looked up the word “romance” and this was a definition:” a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement and remoteness from everyday life.” The word “mystery” reminded me of what I was saying last week- that there are some things about life which do not have a purely scientific explanation. Science can explain the physical attraction we have for each other and the relationships we create. It uses terms like reproduction of the species, the herd instinct, survival of the fittest, all of which are proven to be true: that is what we are about. But it is not all we are about. There is more to human relationships than this.
People fall in love with the last person you might predict; they do remain in love long after a physical relationship has died down; they care lovingly for a frail partner, when all hope of recovery has gone; they cross boundaries of race, culture, religion and prejudice to befriend. There is a mystery about love, which science alone cannot explain.

In the second half of the Old Testament, we find books titled with men’s names: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, and so on. These men were called prophets, having deep insights into the life of the nation and the reality of God. It is clear from their writing that they were all having a hard time. Their nation of Israel had started out centuries earlier as a slave race escaping from Egypt; had travelled for years through the desert until they reached and occupied the land known as Canaan. After more years of turbulence, they had finally, under two great Kings, David, and Solomon, achieved prosperity and security. And this, they believed, was because they were God’s people. God had made a covenant with them. So long as they respected and obeyed him, He would look after them and their land would prosper. Fair enough. It worked. But now, prophets began to see that it was all falling apart.

Super-powers were looming on the horizon and Israel was vulnerable. The prophets warned their people: you are ignoring God; you are disobeying his commands; you are not looking after the land or its people. Terrible things will happen if you do not change your ways. But most people simply refused to listen. Some Kings even had the prophets silenced. In time, the inevitable happened: the kingdom fell; the land was laid waste and those people who had survived were carried off into exile.

The prophets were right. The only way a small nation can hope to survive in the advance of super-powers is if every citizen is totally, passionately and sacrificially committed to the ideals of that nation. You could say the same of Christian churches in our advancing secular culture- they will only stand a chance of survival if every single member is totally, passionately, and sacrificially committed to their faith and faith community. The people of Israel had lost their passion and commitment, meaning that their nation was bound to fall. The prophets yelled at them and then wept for them.

Where does this leave God? That was the question the prophets struggled with. Yes, at first sight, it appeared obvious: the people had broken their covenant with God, so they could no longer expect God to protect them. It was over. Prophets hurled recriminations, telling the people it was all their own fault and it probably was but where do you go from here? Was it the end of the story, so far as God was concerned?

Hosea, we are told, had a turbulent personal life, with a wife who was consistently unfaithful to him. And in his little book we trace the emotions of bewilderment (But I loved her) anger (how can she do this to me?), righteous judgement (she has asked for trouble) and rejection (I don’t want her back). But Hosea looks into his own heart and acknowledges the truth- I still love her. I cannot abandon her. And this gives him a powerful insight into the nature of God.

God must surely be a far greater being than Hosea. (Yes?) And if love is a virtue (Yes?) then God’s love must be infinitely greater than ours. Which means that God will find it impossible simply to abandon his people to their fate. He cannot do it. He will come looking for them. He will rescue them from the trouble into which they have fallen. Not because they deserve it, not under the terms of the agreement, but because God is God. More than one prophet describes God as a shepherd who will travel miles searching for his straying sheep. He will treat their wounds, carry the frailest in his arms and lead them safely back home. Hosea sees God as the husband who will pay whatever it costs to set his wife free from the slavery of prostitution. Love changes everything. All the rules we make are broken wrote Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Yes, there are scientific laws explaining human relationships. Yes, there are sound rules of acceptable behaviour in relationships. But love can still exceed all of this and there lies the mystery.

But is it a mystery? Or is it as near as we can get to proving the existence of God? If we are more than the physical laws governing our existence, where does this “more” come from? If we find ourselves capable of love which exceeds all widely acceptable boundaries, where does this capacity come from? Why did German citizens put their own lives on the line to shelter Jews from the Nazis? Why is Britain finally looking back in horror on a nation made wealthy by the enslaving of other races? Why are white people supporting Black Lives Matter? Why are straight people standing up for Gay Pride? Maybe it is here, even in a widely secular culture that we see the face of God; the love that transcends all barriers; that reaches out to wherever it sees need; that accepts all humanity as brothers and sisters, meaning surely acknowledging a shared father?

It took the prophets a long time to work their way through all of this and it took the people even longer. Many still wanted to be a privileged people in the eyes of God, justified by their own high religious and moral obligations. But Jesus proved what Hosea had discovered: that God could not and would not abandon the people he loved. As they reached out to him, so he would reach back. As they presented him with broken lives and promises, so he would pick them up and restore them. And, as they sold themselves into evil and despair, so he would pay whatever it took to set them free. Then, it would be in love that they took up religious, social and moral commitments. It would be in the awestruck delight that they were loved beyond all reason, beyond all merit that they would worship God.

The old covenant was broken, and it needed to be broken because it was governed by laws which could not constrain either God or his people. The new covenant was infinitely more powerful because as St Paul was to say, not life nor death nor trouble nor persecution, nor suffering or hardship, nothing now can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

So romance: ”a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement and remoteness from everyday life.” In other words, going the extra mile, transcending everything you thought was possible, delighting in the inexplicable concern you come to feel for those who have no “legitimate” claim on you. Recognising love as the very presence of God in you, in your everyday life. Realising that this is romance: the exciting mystery that keeps life extraordinary; the exciting mystery that turns ordinary people into saints.
“Return to the Lord your God,” wrote Hosea. “Let him heal you, love you, bring out the best and the finest in you.”
Seek out, find, be happy in this, the great romance in your life.