I’ve been on the search for something all my life. I used to look for hidden Christmas presents beginning this time of year. There were the standard spots my mother favored, under the beds and in the backs of closets. But as I got older, she had to try harder to find places I wouldn’t think to look. One year the PJs she hid high above the wall ovens neither of us found until Easter.

Hosea 1-3

When I came to faith, I began looking for God’s words of love in the Bible. Sometimes I feel like I’m panning for gold when the mine has played out. While I know there’s love in the passage, the nuggets can be hard to find. But in the reading today in Hosea, I feel like I’ve hit the mother-lode, like I’ve stumbled into the mines of Ophir from which King Solomon brought back gold by the boatload.

We’ve backed up even further from the history of Jerusalem’s fall by by 175 years, about 150 years before the time of Daniel. The time is two generations after Solomon, when the nation of Israel has been divided into two kingdoms, northern and southern, with Samaria the capital of Israel and Jerusalem the capital of Judah.

Jeroboam II was king of the northern kingdom during the time of Hosea, the prophet. His reign was marked by peace and prosperity, as well as rampant idol worship. God allowed the northern nation to flourish to a point near Solomon’s splendor. In Jeroboam’s day, like in Solomon’s, God’s people quickly forgot him.

But God hadn’t forgotten them. Their idolatry was as painful to him as a husband’s whose wife becomes a whore. And rather than suffer their adultery silently, God sends Hosea to demonstrate to them what God’s experiencing.

What is the demonstration? God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute and to have children with her, “because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord.” So Hosea marries Gomer and has a son, Ho 1:2-3.

Just as Hosea suffers his unfaithful spouse, God suffers the same from his, times tens of thousands. His suffering is beyond bearing. It’s through Hosea’s relationship with his wayward wife and the naming of their children that God dramatizes Israel’s flagrant faithlessness and his own extravagant, redeeming love.

God’s first words for his people have to do with the names of Hosea’s children. God tells Hosea to hame his first son “Jezreel,” because God would soon punish King Jeroboam II’s illegitimate house for destroying all the heirs of the legitimate house in the valley of Jezreel. God names his second child, a daughter, No-Mercy, because God says he will “no longer show love to the house of Israel, that I should at all forgive them.” God names his third child, a son, Not-My-People, because God says Israel has turned from him and is no longer his, 1:4-8.

The names of Hosea’s children would have been constant reminders to Hosea and everyone who heard them of God’s judgment of their king, their own failure to be his people, and God’s response to them. But these kids are also Hosea’s, his babies who he must have dearly loved. How would he love a daughter whose named meant “no love”? How would he forgive a son in day-to-day living whose name personified future avenging? How would he father a son whose name means “he’s not mine”–and likely wasn’t?

This is exactly God’s point.

He says, “I will not show my love to her children, because they are the children of adultery. Their mother has been unfaithful and has conceived them in disgrace.” God feels as distraught over his people’s illegitimate relationship with him as Hosea feels of his own children’s. In every way–emotionally, spiritually, physically–his feeling would have been, “These aren’t my children–they’re the bastard offspring of adultery!” Ho 2:4-5.

As hard as loving his kids might have been, loving his wanton wife would have been impossible. It’s not that Hosea marries a former prosititute, who has seen the error of her ways and is repentant. He marries one who continues to return to prostitution after they marry, while he continues to provide for her.

Whether out of boredom with him or greed for luxuries or just habitual lust, she goes back to prostitution again and again. At one point when she’s run off, he goes to find her and buys her, his own wife, in order to bring her back home to live with him, Ho 3:1-3.

Why does he bother? Because God tells him to. This is what God does, over and over with his people. He, too, seeks after wanton people who continually stray away and use the good gifts he gives them to serve their idols.

At the end of this section about what the children’s names mean, God gives them an unexpected, undeserved peek into his future blessing for them. He never leaves his people hopeless, even when his words are brutally truthful.

God tells them he will make them multiply like sand on the seashore that can’t be counted and in the very place where it was said, “‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’ The people of Judah and the people of Israel will be reunited, and they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel. Say of your brothers, ‘My people,’ and of your sisters, ‘My loved one,'” Ho 1:10-11.

God gives them the promise of mercy in place of “no mercy.” He gives them the promise of restored relationship with him as his people in place of “not my people.” He gives them the promise of a thriving and united nation in place of one broken by murder and theft.

This is God’s heart, not to withhold love and belonging from them but to overwhelm them with a taste of their future with him. It’s their own faithlessness that keeps them from seeing and receiving God’s love for what it is in their present day. As long as they’re fooling around with other loves—the idols they substitute for him—they’re blind to him, stumbling around in the dark and missing what is right in front of their faces: himself.

After God speaks to his people using the names of Hosea’s children, he speaks to them using the metaphor of Hosea’s adulterous wife. He tells his people, “Rebuke your mother, rebuke her, for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband.” God calls on the kids to aide him in getting their mother, his wife, to repent. He says if she won’t stop her adulteries, he will “strip her naked,” make her like a desert, and “slay her with thirst,” Ho 2:2-3.

God says he’ll “block her path with thorn bushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way.” She’ll chase her lovers but not find or catch them. Maybe when she’s destitute, she’ll go back to him, to the husband who’s been supporting her in the first place. It’s not her lovers who give her good things, after all. Everything good comes from him. “She will say, ‘I will go back to my husband as at first, for then I was better off than now,'” 2:5-7.

But she doesn’t repent. She doesn’t acknowledge that he’s the source of all that’s good, Ho 2:7-8. She thinks to move back home because she has nowhere else to go, but she doesn’t return to him with love, with all her heart and soul.

So God doesn’t receive her back. He lets her suffer the humilition of being destitute. He exposes her “lewdness before the eyes of her lovers.” He stops all her partying and feasts. He ruins her vines and her fig trees, the pay she thought came from her lovers. He sent in wild animals and briars to devour them. He punishes her because she “decked herself with rings and jewelry and went after her lovers, but me she forgot,” Ho 2:9-13.

The scene is utter brokenness and abandonment. This is what God eventually brings to Israel when he lets Assyria overtake her in just a few short years. It’s what he will bring to Jerusalem through Babylon 175 years later. It’s what he brings everyone who turns away from him to live life on their own terms. God lets people get to the bottom, to the end of themselves.

But he does so to bring them to a place of love and peace.

God’s next words are so intimate and surprising, I have to read them three times to make sure I’m understanding what he’s saying. After all of their suffering, God says he will allure Israel, his wife, into the desert where he will “speak tenderly to her.” He will give her back her vineyards and “will make the Valley of Achor (meaning, Valley of Trouble) into a door of hope,” Ho 2:14-15 (and text note). Tenderly? No reprisals? No “how could you’s?”

There she will love him as she did when she was young, “…she will sing as in the days of her youth.” And why wouldn’t she? This kind of forgiveness makes a girl sing. She’ll call him “‘my husband'” rather than “‘my master.'” He’ll remove the idols from her mind and heart, and he’ll make a covenant for her with the birds and wild animals. War will be abolished from the land, “so that all may lie down in safety,” Ho 2:15-18.

And here God will marry her again, but this time in faithfulness forever, “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord,” Ho 2:19-20.

God is poetic in his delight, saying he will respond to the skies, and they’ll respond to the earth, and the earth will respond to the grain and new wine and oil, and they’ll respond to the people. So it will be one great big ole’ circle of blessing for everyone and everything on earth, including the land and sky, plants and animals. Peace and prosperity for all without end, Ho 2:21-23.

“Jezreel” means “God plants” in Hebrew. And while God had said he would judge Israel for the murders that took place in Jezreel, here God uses the meaning of “Jezreel” to redeem that judgment when he says, “I will plant her for myself in the land,” Ho 2:23 (and text note). Rather than death and destruction, God will bring new life and abundance.

Maybe the most touching part is that he will take back the names of “No Mercy” and “Not My People” and will call them just the opposite. “I will show my love to the one I called ‘not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘not my people,’ ‘you are my people,’ and they will say, ‘you are my God,'” Ho 2:23.

It’s such a beautiful, idyllic scene with a covenant of peace with wild animals and war abolished for all, this could only be fulfilled one day in heaven, right?

Except for the desert and the Valley of Achor. Will life with God in heaven be a desert? And that valley is bothering me, too. There won’t be Valleys of Trouble in heaven will there? What’s meant by the “door” that the valley turns into? I’m stumped, and I look back in my Bible.

“Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope,” Ho 2:15. This feels familiar–being allured into the desert, the tender speaking of God, getting vineyards back. Something resonates.

I turned away from God for a time and did a full-on face plant in the mud and wallowed in sin–on purpose. When I finally got sick and tired of it, I cried out for help, and God took me to what felt like a very dry place, where I had nothing and no one but him to lean on. It was a place of great suffering–like a desert, now that I think about it. But God was with me. And he was more than enough. Over time, I grew and thrived. I got back my vineyards. Only God can bring fruit bearing vineyards in the desert.

I see now that the suffering that came in my desert Valley of Trouble became “a door of hope” for me, a door into a relationship with God I’d never known before, where he became everything to me–my One True Love, “my husband” who I adored, not “my master,” who I had self righteously served before.

So while, yes, the wonderful vision of a pure and idyllic life of peace and prosperity is waiting for us in heaven, and this passage speaks of that day, we don’t have to wait until then to have a love relationship with God. We can enter the door into God’s presence and experience fullness of joy on earth whenever we like.

Jesus said he is the door, and that “anyone who enters in will go in and out and find pasture,” Jn 10:9 ESV. This is the gift Jesus died to give. Not just eternal life with God’s lavish love, beginning at our death. Eternal life with God’s lavish love, beginning today.

This is the wonderful message of the gospel: God’s love isn’t just for one day, pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by. It’s for right now. We can experience heaven-on-earth in our relationship with God well before we get there. We do it with surprisingly common things–prayer, worship, fellowship, his word. He says when we seek him, we find him, if we seek him with all our hearts, Je 29:13-14.

I don’t know about you, but I think life on earth is pretty much like wandering around in the desert, looking for relief. But suffering in the Valley of Achor is a secret door into fellowship with God and his oasis of love, a sweet spot of joy and peace. “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort, too,” 2 Co 1:5.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field,” Mt 13:44.

Seek and search and find.

And then, dig in.

1 John 5

The last verse of this book has always baffled me: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” This seemed to be an abrupt way to end a book about love for God and others.

Reading this verse in The Message translation, along with the verse above it, helps:

“This Jesus is both True God and Real Life. Dear children, be on guard against all clever facsimiles.”

And then it hits me what’s at stake. An idol is a substitute love, a fake. Rather than give me what I seek, it will keep me on a wild goose chase for life, exhausting me and eluding me, and one day throw me on the ash heap. I don’t want that kind of life.

Jesus is who I truly seek. He is both True God and Real Life. What else do I need? Keep me focused, God, and clear-eyed, wise and on the lookout for lies.

Psalm 124

David describes an event so intense that had God not intervened, the attack would have swallowed him alive, the “torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away,” verse 4.

I’ve experienced something like this–a verbal attack.

It’s something only the hand of God can do, to turn the flood aside, to spring the trap that held, to find the escape, to fly above the fray, free as a bird. Sometimes the hand of God has taken mine and simply led me out of the room.

Who knew?

David’s response and mine is praise, “Praise be to the Lord who has not let us be torn by their teeth…Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth,” verses 6 and 8.

My take away today is God’s firm hand that led me into the desert through the valley door and into green pastures, quiet waters, away from the contempt of others, into calm pools of quiet, with joyful reminders of his presence. A daughter’s visit and a grandson’s, “I wish I could stay,” were reminders of you today.

Thank you for that door of hope in the Valley of Achor, for giving me an escape into you from the fowler’s snare, and for giving me your Spirit who walks with me and teaches me and reminds me of your love. Thank you for rewarding seeking.

Father, Son, Spirit, keep me from accepting any substitute for all that you are for me. Keep me from worthless idolatries.

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