Posted by: 15shekels | December 1, 2009

Playing in the mud

Nothing compares to that initial realization. For some of us it strikes like lightning; for others it is a gradual brightening, like walking toward a lamp from across an enormous room. Either way, nothing compares to it—the first time we become aware of God, not as impersonal power force or karmic genie, but as lover, father, pursuer. The first time we realize that He has never left us, has never given up on us, has never wavered in love. Now I look back on those years of shutting Him out, plugging my ears and telling Him He probably didn’t exist, and I can see the steady courtship. I can see that He placed clues in my path. I can see that as I sunk like a lost sheep into the mud of sin and hopelessness, Jesus the shepherd had followed me, and was waiting patiently for permission to throw me on His shoulders and bring me home. The persistence, the loyalty, the desire—it is romantic, humbling, strengthening. And we never forget the first time our eyes are opened and we see it.

Why is it that we celebrate Jesus’s pursuit of lost sheep, but we are tempted to grumble about His pursuit of His children? Seeing Jesus the Savior approaching on the horizon delights us, but sometimes we wouldn’t mind if Jesus the Lord delayed his visit. I confess that at times I have wished that Jesus would hand me my ticket to heaven and then retreat back up there, leaving me to run my own life. Again and again, I catch myself treating Jesus as a means to an end, as a get out of jail free card, instead of as companion, parent, and—yes—Lord. This is not only incorrect and insulting to Him, but it lands me in practical trouble, as I find myself again and again trying to live my way and hurting myself and others. No, I am no longer in danger of eternal death, but I can certainly still make a mess out of my life, even as a Christian.

“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” -C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Why do we think we can do a better job directing our lives than God can? We always choose the mud! In my foolishness, at least, I am in good company (i.e. all of humanity). The Bible is filled with honest, not-so-flattering accounts of men and women who are in covenant with God, yet are doubting and rebelling in their day-to-day lives. It is important to note here that I am in no way suggesting that “being human” is an excuse to become complacent in our sin. However, I want to provide a glimpse from scripture of how God’s pursuit of his children even after they accept the gift of salvation is a crucial and exciting (if at times painful) gift.

I want to zoom in on one story in particular, the story that inspired the title of this blog. The book of Hosea expresses God’s grief over the unfaithfulness of the Israelites. Despite God’s continual faithfulness, forgiveness and provision, the Israelites perpetually turn to other gods, worshiping a host of idols (like Baal, pictured right) and betraying their covenant to worship only Him. To convey to the people how much their disobedience angers and upsets Him, God commands the prophet Hosea to marry Gomer, a woman who is unfaithful to him over and over, and who eventually sells herself into slavery, despite her husband’s faithful love. God sends Hosea to the people as exhibit A—this is how your spiritual promiscuity grieves me. I am a husband with an unfaithful wife. The book contains extremely harsh language, as God shouts through Hosea to wake His people up:

“[Israel] has been unfaithful…She said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink.’ Therefore I [God] will block her path with thornbushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way. She will chase after her lovers but not catch them; she will look for them but not find them.” -Hosea 2:5-7

God is angry, and He has every right to abandon the Israelites, just as Hosea has every right to divorce his adulterous wife. The truth is, as Christians we have an advantage over the Israelites, because the wrath we deserve has been poured out on Jesus on the cross. Jesus died not only for our past sins, but for the sins He knew we would commit throughout our lifetimes, including those we commit after becoming Christians. We are not in danger of God withdrawing His gift of salvation. And yet knowing how much our disobedience and adultery grieves God, we are certainly called to take idolatry and sin seriously, and flee from it.

The problem is that we are guaranteed to fail at times. And the beauty of the cross is that God doesn’t just send Jesus to pay the price for sin and then leave us to muck around in it until judgment day. Jesus rises from the dead and offers to be not only savior but living Lord to each of us. We have a Lord who cares about how we live. We have the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, who convicts and guides us in this lifetime. God loves us too much to leave us in our adultery, to leave us playing in the mud. But sometimes shepherds have to knock their sheep unconscious in order to carry them safely home. Sometimes growth and discipline is painful. In Hosea, God forcefully removes Israel’s idols in order to pull the people back to Him. They don’t know it, but God blocking their path as they chase after their lovers [idols] is a deep act of love. How often do we shake our fists at Him for taking away something we care about, not realizing that He has taken away the very thing that has kept us distracted from Him and unfaithful to Him?

“She [Israel] will chase after her lovers but not catch them; she will look for them but not find them. Then she will say, ‘I will go back to my husband as at first, for then I was better off than now.’…Therefore I [God] am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor [trouble] a door of hope. There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. ‘In that day,’ declares the Lord, ‘you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.'” -Hosea 2:7, 14-16

The book of Hosea moves me first and foremost because it foreshadows Christ buying us back from the slavery of sin on the cross. But there is more to the story. The Israelites are in covenant with God, and they still stray. And even though we are under the New Covenant, we stray as well. Jesus doesn’t just pursue us as Savior; He pursues us as Lord. We cannot choose which parts of Christ we like; when we invite Him in we get the whole package. And so our God pursues us within our lives of faith, sometimes painfully removing the idols we hold to so tightly. He is a kind shepherd opening his sheep’s mouth to remove the mud she insists on eating. He removes the mud again and again and gently replaces the crown on our sheepish heads.

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