In 1624, or thereabouts, the priest and poet John Donne wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent”. He is reminding us that all human beings depend on one another, none of us is completely self-sufficient. Total isolation is not natural for us. After all, one of the cruellest punishments devised by human beings is the punishment of solitary confinement. We need each other In so many different ways. We need to give to one another and to receive from one another. There are the people in our immediate circle – our family, friends and neighbours. My sister gives me her welcome and her care; my neighbour and I swap eggs and vegetable plants over the fence. Then there are the people who try to make life better for us: the scientific geniuses working away in the University labs in town, and all the doctors and skilled staff in Addenbrookes Hospital. The people who educate our children for us, the people who deal with our household waste, the farmers who grow our food, the places of work where we can use our gifts and skills and bring home a pay packet. And if any of these relationships breaks down or disappears or ceases to work we can find it hard to cope. Just think of the isolation of bereavement, the break up of a marriage, the loss of a job. John Donne went on to say “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”.
So supposing someone asks us, What is the most important, the most precious, relationship in your life? What would we say? My children? My wife? My partner? My father? My possessions? And bearing in mind our commitment as Christians, where would we place our relationship with God, on a scale of one to ten in importance: not very important? Quite important? Very important? Most important, most precious of all? The answer is up to each one of us.
Then supposing we were to take our courage in our hands and to ask God, what is the most precious, the most important relationship to you? Might he say “the relationship between “you, my child, and me”? What an answer that would be, full of hope and assurance. The Old Testament reading we have just heard from the Prophet Hosea (11: 1-11) explores the possibilities of such a relationship. We see a picture of God’s inextinguishable love in the face of Israel’s ingratitude whose children have turned away and rejected him for other gods.
“When Israel was a youth, I loved him; out of Egypt I called my son.” God is speaking of the Exodus from Egypt when he rescued his people. But they were not grateful for what he had done. “The more I called, the further they went from me; they must needs sacrifice to the baalim and burn offerings to images”.
In other words, they didn’t care about God and broke the first commandment, because they thought the god Baal was a better bet. Then God speaks poignantly of the love and care he gave his people as a parent would give to a beloved child. “It was I” God says, “who taught Ephraim to walk, who took them in my arms”. A picture of God taking us in his arms. What relationship could there be closer than that? And God remembers how he tried to keep them safe as little toddlers “But they did not know that I secured them with reins and led them with bonds of love”. And he says “and I lifted them like a little child to my cheek”. Most of us know that feeling of picking up a little one in our arms and holding them close to us. “That I bent down to feed them” says God. God himself bending down to a little child, to humanity, to feed it. But in spite of God’s love and tender care, his children turned from him.
Then in one of the most moving passages in the Old Testament, God struggles with himself and the anguish of his love for his children who will not listen to him. “My people are bent on rebellion, but though they call in unison to Baal he will not lift them up”. And God for a moment thinks of destroying his people whom he loves, and his suffering is clear to see:”How can I hand you over Ephraim, how can I surrender you, Israel? How can I make you like Admah and treat you as Zeboylim?” These were two cities, utterly destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah. God says “a change of heart moves me, tenderness kindles within me. I am not going to let loose my fury.” This does not negate the promise of God’s judgement, but means that the prophet Hosea sees it as not final, and a way of encouraging faithfulness to God.
Then we come to God’s amazing words “for I am God, not a mortal; I am the Holy one in your midst. I shall not come with threats”. Up to now we have been thinking of God in terms of very human analogies, particularly loving father, with all the problems and responsibilities of parenthood. Hosea is reminding us that God is God and his love, in the last resort, is very unlike human love. Human love has its limits and indeed can die. The love of God, says Hosea, has no such limits. And God’s title ‘The Holy One’, reminds us that to be holy means to be set apart. Here it underlines the total difference of God from human beings.
Nevertheless, through Jesus, the Son of God, we can claim our relationship with God the Holy One, and call him Father. And God will gladly lift us up in his arms. He will guide us with his love, and he will help us to build our relationships with one another. Above all he will teach us to build and treasure our relationship with him. After all, no one of us is an island, entire of itself.