Prophetic Enactment

If I were to ask you, “What is the strangest, most confusing book of the Bible?” I suspect that, without hesitation, most with any scriptural knowledge would respond, “Revelation.”  True, Revelation is bizarre, with its opaque symbolism, its blood and destruction, and its ambiguity about whether it is referring to something long past or still yet to come.  Even so, I contend that Revelation is not the Bible’s weirdest book.  If we gauge oddity by how diligently preachers avoid preaching on a text, the clear winner is the Old Testament book from which we read this morning: Hosea.

When I was in college, my advisor in the philosophy and religion department, Dr. John Farthing, became the global expert on the obscure Reformation theologian Jerome Zanchi by analyzing Zanchi’s commentary on Hosea.  Yes, that’s right: After almost three thousand years, Hosea is still so weird and off-putting that if you want to make a name for yourself in the academy, there’s plenty of scholarship yet to be done!  My advisor entitled his essay “Holy Harlotry.”  “Harlot” isn’t a word you hear very often.  The article was dense, but the title so intrigued me that I read it in full.  That was my own introduction to Hosea, but in nineteen years of ordained ministry, this is the first time I’ve had the nerve to preach it.

No one wants to preach on Hosea.  The poor prophet gets assiduously ignored.  Why is that?  What’s so strange about the book?  The clue is in the title of Dr. Farthing’s essay.  As we just heard from the lectern, Hosea begins his prophecy by declaring—at first, irritatingly in the third person—“The Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’ So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.”

Hosea and Gomer, depicted in a 13th century illuminated manuscript

Yes, that’s right.  God tells Hosea to seek out and marry a prostitute.  Hosea obeys.  And this is no scene from Pretty Woman.  This isn’t a tender RomCom about redemptive love.  God tells Hosea to marry Gomer as an example to the people of Israel, to set in front of the nation’s face an example of its own—as the prophet himself says it—whoring ways.

So, let’s dig in.  Historically, what’s going on here?  Hosea prophesies in the late 700s B.C., a pivotal moment in Israel’s history.  In fact, though its citizens don’t yet grasp it, Israel—that’s the ancient northern kingdom that does not include Jerusalem—is about to cease to exist.  Within a few short years it will be overrun and swallowed up by the much larger Assyrian Empire to the north and east.  A threat the Israelites cannot see, Hosea does, and as God’s prophet it falls to him to sound a clarion call for the people.

God says to Hosea that the reason for Israel’s impending destruction is that the chosen people of God have failed in their singular calling, which is to be wed in a covenant relationship with God.  Beginning with Abraham and renewed through Moses, Israel is to focus its commitment, loyalty, and love only and all to God.  And the purpose of this whole-hearted relationship is to provide a witness to the whole world that such a covenant with the Creator of heaven and earth is the foundation of all blessing.

Instead, Israel has set its heart on other things: gods, idols, wealth, status, bravado, intrigue, anything and everything but the God who is both the deep center of the soul and the fabric of the cosmos.  Hosea alone recognizes that it is this infidelity that is leading to Israel’s doom.  He wants to startle and shock the Israelites, to awaken them to their error and what needs to be done in order to set things right before it’s too late.  Words won’t be enough.  And so, Hosea physically enacts the crucial message he wants to convey.  So that the Israelites cannot miss his point about their philandering, infidelity, their cheating on God, he himself marries a prostitute. 

Yes, to us this is extreme and bizarre.  But Hosea is actually drawing upon a tactic at least as old as King David: prophetic enactment.  When all else fails, the ancient prophets dramatize, act out, embody their message as a stark and unmissable way to force their audience to take notice.  This is actually more familiar to us than we may at first realize: When an environmentalist literally becomes a tree hugger by chaining herself to an endangered redwood, or, to a greater extreme even than Hosea, when several decades ago Vietnamese Buddhist monks set themselves aflame as a prophetic symbol of the way in which the government was abusing Buddhists.

Prophetic enactment is more familiar to us than we at first realize. This tree-sitter is from near my former home of Roanoke, Virginia.

Prophetic enactment is always eye-catching and often powerful.  The problem is that, if the prophet misunderstands the message he is supposed to convey, prophetic enactment itself can quickly change from something holy to something perverse.  It is an open question whether Hosea got it right.  Undoubtedly, Israel’s infidelity to the God of grace and wandering into the arms of destructive idols was their undoing.  No doubt about that.  But whether that same God of grace would truly encourage Hosea to use Gomer, to capitalize on the circumstances that had forced her to sell her body to survive, to exploit her beyond what she had already suffered…Well, I don’t recognize that God. 

That’s a debate for biblical commentators, but what it begs of us in our own day are the questions, asked in faith and also with caution, “What is our prophetic voice?  What is God calling us to proclaim?  And what are the potent and powerful enactments that embody God’s message and make it real?”

In today’s Gospel we are given the answers to these questions, from the mouth of God Incarnate.  Today Jesus teaches us what we call, for good reason, the Lord’s Prayer, the God-given scaffolding for all our prayers.  It is as sure as any words God ever put on the lips of a prophet.  The words on our lips are to be the hope for bread for all people, that none of God’s children should suffer deprivation or want.  The words on our lips are to be for the strength from God to resist the temptation of idolatry that plagues us as much as it did the ancient Israelites, to resist the allure of bravado, intrigue, status, the self, all of which supplant God as our center and our ground.  And finally, in the words with which the Lord’s Prayer begins, we are to speak the hope that God’s kingdom will be realized on this earth as it is in heaven.

And not only speak.  This last—or, in the Lord’s Prayer, first—is what I contend God calls us to enact, to dramatize, to live publicly and as boldly as Hosea married Gomer: As Christian people, we are called to live in the world as if the kingdom has already come.  We are to enact the kingdom.  We are to interact, we are to respond, we are to engage as citizens of the kingdom.  And that means no matter how the world acts toward us, we respond in love.  When the world is brutal, we respond in love by defending the brutalized.  When the world is callous, we respond in love by extending care to the forgotten.  When the world tells us that things other than the God of grace are central, we respond in love by claiming God instead of idols.  When the world falls asleep, we jolt it awake with our fierce and relentless love.     

In this era in which words are misused and truth is upended, such prophetic enactment is so much more powerful than words alone.  Words can be twisted, but courageous acts of love are unmistakable and un-ignorable.  When we enact the kingdom, by God’s grace our very souls are redeemed.  When we embody the kingdom in our persons and in our actions, we become witnesses to God’s love, and as witness begets witness, the very kingdom we enact is birthed into reality.  This is, by God’s grace, the way we and the good world are saved.  As in Hosea’s own age, time is short and may be running out.  God is calling, and the message is clear.  The prophetic enactment of love is the hope of the world.  Thy kingdom come, and we are God’s prophets. 

2 thoughts on “Prophetic Enactment

  1. Wonderful insight. But puzzling. Put God at the center……………..how? What does that mean in our lives? We must struggle through the answers, just as the Israelites did.

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