King's Acre, 11 February 2001

Needing Rules

1. Introduction

We are dealing with two very perplexed men in our readings today. Hosea and Paul. Hosea is finding it all but impossible to understand why Israel won't turn to God, and Paul can't understand why the Galatians need to hedge their relationship with God with all sorts of rules and regulations.

2. Hosea

Firstly, then, Hosea. Now, you probably know that Hosea seems to have been a contemporary of Isaiah of Jerusalem, the one who was all undone when he saw the Lord in the Temple. He became a prophet at the end of the reign of the nation's last powerful king, Jeroboam II. He prophesied for the next forty years, until just before Samaria fell to Assyria in 722 BC. And during that time the country went rapidly down hill. People rejected God, and adopted pagan practices; you can read all about the time in 2 Kings 14:23-17:41. But the fact that after Jeroboam's death Israel had six kings in just over twenty years, and four of them assassinated their predecessors, gives some idea of the state of the country. Not healthy - and, as we know, eventually they were invaded and the tribes dispersed.

Hosea is the one, you may remember, who married a prostitute and used his experiences as a metaphor for God's love for his people. But they just didn't listen to him. As our passage points out, they are beginning to reap what they have sown. They make a great show of religion, but their hearts are moving further and further away from God. Their only king, even their only god, is the calf-image at Bethaven, which will be destroyed. They can't worship God and the calf, and if they don't want to be God's people - well, with infinite sadness, God will let them go. But there is still time to come back, to seek the Lord while he may be found. To "Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you," as verse 12 puts it.

For Hosea, this seems to be the obvious thing to do. Sadly, as we know, the Israelites didn't do so. They just weren't interested in anything more than a formal religion, one that didn't meet them where they lived. They didn't want to have righteousness rained upon them; they wanted to go their own way. And, of course, in the end they were allowed to do just that, and disaster followed.

3. St Paul

The Galatian Christians, too, seem to have been prone to hiding behind a wall of formality and rules. Paul simply can't understand this. I think he must have grown up to believe that religion was a matter of rules and regulations, and one of the things Jesus did was to release him from that. He tells us, indeed, that he was once a Pharisee, and you know how that was their way of being God's people. But Jesus freed him from all that, and he simply can't understand why the Galatian Christians seem to want it. They may have been led astray by other teachers, who taught that circumcision and following the Jewish law was necessary, but he would have thought that they would have already known better, having accepted Jesus through faith.

But they seemed not to. They seemed to want rules and regulations, to observe special festivals, to mark themselves out as God's people by their behaviour. And Paul writes to them in really anxious terms - he is terrified that they will lose, or never find, the freedom he has found in Christ.

4. Needing Rules

In Hosea's day, the Israelites had retreated to a formal religion that did not impinge on the way they lived their lives. The Galatians seem to have been in danger of doing the same thing, relying on their behaviour to keep them right with God, rather than on their relationship with God. It is, of course, so much easier that way!

One of the first books I read when I ever became a Christian, so you can imagine how old it was, was called I wish I had known, and was an IVF publication of interviews with various fairly mature Christians of things they wished they had understood when they first believed. I found another copy of the book in a jumble sale some years ago, and pounced on it. At that time, one of the stories really stuck in my mind. The person in question, and I've no idea who she was, had somehow misunderstood the whole point of Christianity, and felt that if only she believed the right things about Jesus, she would be saved. With the net result that it was many years before she realised that actually, Christianity involved knowing Jesus as a person, and it didn't really matter what you actually believed! I seem to remember that, being the kind of person she was, she felt obliged to rush round and tell all the people she had converted to her particular belief system that they were doing it all wrong, but then, I've been there and done that and that particular T-shirt is hanging in my wardrobe, too!

It is so very much easier to think of Christianity in terms of something that we do. A matter of believing the right things, for instance, or doing the right things - going to Church twice on Sundays, for instance, or "religiously" reading our Bibles every day. Whatever. I have even heard people talking about their Bibles as if it was the Bible that saved them, not God. And we are all apt to speak as though we believe our salvation in something we do, not something God does! We talk of being saved by faith, when, in fact, we are saved by what Jesus did for us on the Cross.

But then, how much easier it is! We don't particularly want God to rain righteousness on us, any more than the ancient Israelites did. We like to remain in control of our own salvation - and, of course, of other people's. We can dictate who is in and who isn't; we tend to refer to people according to whether they are Christian or not. The writer Sara Maitland coined a memorable phrase to describe a friend who was going to try her vocation as a nun: did she want, Maitland wondered, to limit the amount of God crashing in on her?

To limit the amount of God crashing in on her. I think we all want to do that. We hedge God off by our own personal rituals, whatever these may be. As I said, we can make matters worse by assuming responsibility for our own salvation, and thus for other people's, rather than allowing that to be God's problem.

Don't get me wrong, of course. Some of the rituals we impose on ourselves actually help us to be God's people; what Wesley called the "Means of Grace" - prayer, the Sacraments, Bible Study and so on. We can misuse them, and use them to keep God away from us, but that's not what they're designed for! And of course we want our friends and loved ones to share what we have found in Jesus - and some of us, too, are called to go and share the Good News with perfect strangers. But I don't think it's for us to say who is "in" and who is "out" with God.

5. Conclusion

So what can we do? The answer, of course, is merely to let go and let God. To allow God to be in charge, to be responsible. Not to feel that we can do anything at all to affect our salvation, and not to feel guilty when we find that we are doing all we can to minimise our relationship with God. Because, after all, being God's person, being totally surrendered to God, is dead scary! God is love, and God loves us infinitely, but that doesn't mean that God is undemanding.

A friend of mine has made something of a study of autistic-spectrum disorders, and how best to help children who suffer from them. He was telling me of a film he saw about an Indian woman whose son had one of the worst sorts of autism, the kind where they live totally in a world of their own and simply can't relate to other people. And this woman just didn't accept that. She insisted, quietly and without getting upset, but firmly, that the boy did as he was told. She just carried on repeating what she needed him to do, whether this was to do his sums, or to get dressed, or whatever. She accepted his occasional need to go and twirl around or do a soothing ritual to relieve his feelings, but then he had to come back and do the job. My friend commented: "A very remarkable woman. She was so gentle and intelligent and totally remorseless, because that is what he needed. Love at its best."

And that, you see, is what God's love is like. Gentle and intelligent, and totally remorseless. Because that is what we need. We may fence ourselves off from it, we may hide behind our rituals, as an autistic child hides behind his repetitive movements, his twirls, but in the end, in the very end, God will have his way. Or else he will say to us, as he said to the ancient Israelites: "All right then, have it your way."

It's not a question of doing it right, or doing it wrong. It's not a question of changing our rituals, or abandoning long-held principles. It's a matter of letting go, and letting God. And, honestly, it is not easy. But it must be possible, or St Paul wouldn't have managed it! To the point where he simply couldn't understand the Galatians' failure to do so. Hosea managed it, to the point where he identified the Israelites' failure to do so with the pain of an unfaithful spouse, a pain he knew all too well in his own life. So it has to be possible.

The thing is that when people stop believing in God, they start believing in anything. The Israelites were terribly religious, but what they really believed in was the calf-idol at Bethaven. The Galatians were terribly religious, but they were trying to rely on ritual and festival, not on God. And we? What of us? What are we really relying on? Are we desperately trying to limit the amount of God crashing in on us? Or are we trying to hide from what God is calling us to do? Or are we simply living in a loving, trusting, obedient relationship with God, the kind of relationship that it seems God longs and longs to have with us?

Only you know the answer. And only you can re-commit yourself to being God's person. Let's use hymn no 685, "O love that will not let me go", to make that re-commitment. Hymn No 685.

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