This sermon text is a bit unusual for a Christmas Eve sermon. One of my kids said, “You say that about all of your sermons, Dad.” But this one is a bit unusual, and it’s not the sermon text that’s in your bulletin.
What we know from 1 John 5, just to show you how memorable my sermons are, I picked that five, six weeks ago and I was hunkering down to study it this week and was looking over some notes and thought, “Oh, this is really good. This seems familiar.” Then I double checked – I preached that two years ago, right from this very pulpit, and I didn’t remember. So I maybe could have done it and you wouldn’t have remembered either.
But I changed tracks and doing something a bit different, out of the box, for Christmas Eve.
I want you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Hosea, the Old Testament prophet, Hosea chapter 1. It’s an unusual passage for a Christmas Eve sermon and, I’ll read it in just a moment, it’s actually an unusual passage all by itself. Especially it may seem odd on a night like tonight. But I trust that by the end of these 15 minutes or so you will see that this weird text has everything to do with Christmas.
The passage is Hosea, chapter 1. We don’t know much about Hosea. He has a prophet. He ministered in the 700s B.C. Just to put that in context, that’s perhaps around the same time that Homer was writing The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Most of the book of Hosea contains his prophecy, but this first chapter introduces us to his strange family. It is an odd family with some unusual names. We’ll pick up at verse 2. First off, we’re going to meet Hosea’s wife.
“When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to 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,” it was a girl name back then, “Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.”
Strange, to say the least. “Go, take for yourself,” the ESV translates it, “a wife of whoredom.” Lots of commentators struggle with what exactly this meant. Was this just an allegory, a symbol, not to be taken literally? Was it simply to say that she was, like Israel, a spiritual adulterer? Or was it to say, well, she would prove to be a prostitute, unfaithful? Or did the Lord actually say, “I want you to go marry a prostitute”? Which is not the normal course of action, not normal life advice, but God often asked the prophets to do very strange things.
Whatever exactly was the case, she’s called this because she was a woman apparently with a history of immorality, and the point was that she is like God’s bride, the people of Israel. Whether a literal prostitute or not, maybe a spirit of that, it conveys her character. Go marry a loose woman named Gomer, is that the Lord is telling Hosea.
Next up are their children, and they are given some unfortunate names. In the Bible, names are very important. Names often communicate something about the person’s character, purpose, mission, identity, destiny. The name established in a powerful way what the person’s identity was.
We don’t usually think of names in the same way. We name our children for a variety of reasons. Maybe we look them up and we saw what they meant. Kevin means gentle, handsome, and kind, I’m told. [laughter] Obviously. Maybe we base our names on tradition, a family name, a Bible name. We just like the sound of it. Or often names ride on the waves of pop culture.
I like looking at the end of each year, beginning of the next, the popular baby names from the past year. These were the most popular baby names in the United States in 2022. Top five girls – Olivia, Emma, Amelia, Ava, Sophia. Top five boys – Liam, Noah, Oliver, Elijah, Mateo. What’s really fascinating, you can go and look on these sites, and they tell you which names have gotten much more popular and which ones in just the past year have gotten much less popular, and often the ones that go up and down ride on these waves of pop culture.
For example, some of the much more popular names this year – Mirabel, Isabella, Bruno. [laughter] 500 places Mirabel shot up, 134 Isabella, Bruno 50. Of course, all from Encanto. Up 375 places Zendaya. Am I saying it correctly? From Spiderman and everywhere else. I’m not familiar with this, but Dutton, I guess that’s the last name of the family on the show Yellowstone. Not telling you to go watch it. That’s up 1800 places since 2021. Also up, not surprisingly, Maverick.
Down in the past year, Smith, Will, Jada. All from the slap heard ’round the world. [laughter]. Johnny slightly up, Amber way down, if you followed the Amber Heard/Johnny Depp. Amber is at the lowest spot since the 1960s.
Also down 450 places, Elon. [laughter] Perhaps the biggest drop of all, 3410 places down, Kanye. [laughter]
Our names in this country can be faddish, fickle. They just ride on these waves.
Naming in the Bible was serious business, especially the names God told Hosea and Gomer to give their children. Look at child number one, verse 4.
“And the Lord said to him, “Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. And on that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.””
Jezreel means God sows. By itself, it’s an ambiguous name. God may sow a great harvest of righteousness, but here it is a symbol of destruction. Jezreel is the valley of destruction where God’s people will reap what they have sown. The sin that they’ve committed will come back upon them in judgment. The valley of Jezreel is where Israel will, in a few decades’ time from this, lose its independence to Assyria. This was going to be the place of a surprising loss, great death.
So it’s like Chancellorsville was for the North or Gettysburg of the South, or Pearl Harbor, or 9-11. I want you to name your child “9-11.” That’s what He’s saying, I want you to name your child Jezreel because just coming soon will be this great loss and surprising devastation in the valley of Jezreel.
Child number two, verse 6.
“She conceived again and bore a daughter. And the Lord said to him, “Call her name No Mercy, for I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all. But I will have mercy on the house of Judah,” the kingdom had divided, Israel was in the North, Judah in the South, Judah would last another 150 years after Israel was defeated, “and I will save them by the Lord their God. I will not save them by bow or by sword or by war or by horses or by horsemen.””
First son, Jezreel, first daughter, Lo-ruhama. You can see the footnote there. Lo-ruhama means no mercy.
Imagine having to explain this your whole life. It’s not meant to be funny, but it strikes us that way until we really think about it. How dreadfully frightening this would be, this child a reminder no more mercy, no more forgiveness, no more patient second chances. It may seem harsh, but we need to understand the ugliness, the vileness, the treachery of sin. This is God’s way of saying to Israel, “You have decisively broken My covenant. Your chances are up. Your time is up.”
Some of you perhaps have had the experience of a hardened spouse, or a hardened friend, just enough, I’m through, no more chances.
Well, that is what God seems to be saying right here. No mercy.
Child number three, verse 8.
“When she had weaned No Mercy, she conceived and bore a son. And the Lord said, “Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God.””
Lo-ruhama. Now this daughter, Lo-ammi. When you consider that from Genesis to Revelation the great promise, the essential Good News of God’s covenant promise, is that I will be a God to you and you will be My people, we can understand just how devastating this was. In this moment, all of that covenant promise is in jeopardy. Not my people.
Think of the pain of a parent saying to a child, “You are a disgrace to this family and you are no longer a son of mine.” Or a son or a daughter saying to a mom or dad, “I no longer want to be counted as your child. You are not my parent. You are not my child.”
And to make matters worse with these three children and their names, notice in verse 9 God gets a new name: You are not My people, and I am not your God.
The word in Hebrew is eh-yah, which is just sort of rearrangement of the word you’ve probably heard, Yahweh. Yahweh is the covenant name of the Lord, the great I am, Yahweh. Now it’s changed to eh-yah, from “I am” to “I am not.”
Four names of judgment – Jezreel, No Mercy, Not My People, Not Your Lord.
And to think that these three children, perhaps born in the span of five or six years, the marriage Hosea and Gomer, three pregnancies, a slow and steady stream of prophetic rebuke, promises of judgment.
Some Christmas card. I know lots of you send out Christmas cards. We wrote a Christmas card last year. It was on my, still on my to-do list actually, to send that out. Hoping to send out maybe a Groundhog’s Day card this year. I love getting the cards, though. A snapshot, get to see the pictures of everybody. Sometimes you write really nice letters. Sometimes it’s just a picture and you just like to see and you usually say, “How come they’re not aging?” You take it and you get the names.
What do you think about this Christmas card here? Hosea, here’s my wife, a prostitute, Gomer. You may be familiar with her. She has a reputation. Here are my three children. I didn’t pick their names, God did. Here’s my boy, Bloody Battlefield, and my two girls, No Mercy For You and You’re Disowned.
That’s their family. Some Christmas card from Hosea and Gomer.
You may be thinking, not only come to Christmas, please, but that doesn’t even sound like God. Really? We can exhaust God’s mercy? We can run out of chances? Is there no hope for the wicked?
But you have to understand that this is a specific word for Israel at this moment in history, under the Mosaic covenant, that they were going to face the covenant curses. After hundreds and hundreds of years and chances, finally, the Lord they had entered into this covenant with Him on Mount Sinai and they knew full well that the possibility of the covenant curses, should they prove finally and fully to be covenant breakers, is that they would be wiped out.
But it’s not the end of the story. You look at verse 10.
“Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be,” now here comes covenant language, “the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not My people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head. And they shall go up from the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel. Say to your brothers, “You are my people,” and to your sisters, “You have received mercy.””
How do we move from the first story, verses 2 through 9, to the second story, verse 10 through chapter 2 verse 1? Because they’re two very different stories. How do we move from destruction, no mercy, not My people, to descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore, mercy for you, you’re My people again?
Well, for starters, we need to realize we all deserve to be in the first story. You say, “Eh, well, that’s a little harsh. I mean, I’m not perfect.”
How’d you do keeping the 10 commandments this week? Not just outwardly, you didn’t steal anything big. How about in your heart? How about not just doing what the commandment forbids, but by implication, what the commandment requires? How’d you do with the 10 commandments, say, since 4 o’clock? What about the fruit of the Spirit? What about the Sermon on the Mount?
Yes, it’s easy to say, well, of course, I’m not perfect, I never said that, but I’m not really a terrible person. I don’t really know if I deserve to be in the first story.
Well, let me ask you. Would you want everything you’ve done this week, everything you’ve said in an explosive moment of anger, in a bit of sarcasm and a bit of rage to your parent, to your spouse, to your child, to your friend, everything you’ve done, everything you’ve said, how about everything you’ve looked at, and what about everything you’ve thought, just up on these two screens right here? Should we just stick around after the service, just watch that for a little while? Get some popcorn. Who wants to volunteer for that? Everything you’ve said and done and thought and felt and spoken, just from the past week. I don’t want that up there.
So you and I need to get into the second story. We better hope that there is mercy.
The sermon is a tale of two Christmas cards. Hosea, Gomer, Battle of Destruction, No Mercy, Not My People. There’s one Christmas card. There’s one family. It’s the family we actually deserve to be in.
But if you’re going to move to the end of Hosea, let me introduce you to another family in the Bible. And this husband was also told by God to marry a woman who had a less than stellar reputation. This man and this woman were also given by God the precise name for their child. Sound familiar?
Now when the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way, when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph before they came together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit, and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you shall call His name,” you know it, “Jesus for He will save His people from their sins.
Ah, there’s the mercy we need. That’s how we move from the first half of Hosea to the second half of Hosea. That’s how we get out from Lo-ruhama, Lo-ammi, Jezreel, Gomer the prostitute, to descendants like the sand of the seashore and I am your God and you are My people. We need this child named Jesus because He and only He can save His people from their sins, who can take this little slideshow that none of us want to see, and God Himself can say, “I bury that in the ocean of My love and My forgiveness as far as the east is from the west, to be remembered no more. You shall name your son Jesus for He will save His people from their sins.”
And remember, He also has another name. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and you shall call His name Immanuel,” which means “God with us.”
The only way to move to the second story, to leave this family which we deserve, is to embrace the child that we don’t deserve, this child who will forgive us from our sins, this child alone who can lay a hand on us both because He is God with us.
As I look out here with a room beautifully filled with people and lights, yet all of us by nature, children of Hosea and Gomer. Would you like a different name? Are you tired of the name Valley of Defeat? Are you tired of wearing the name No Mercy? Are you tired of bearing the insignia Not My People? How would you like to be called Holy Ones? Beloved? God’s Treasured Possession?
Here’s how you get that name. Come to the manger and bow. Come to the manger and believe. Take that child, the Christ, and take His name upon yourself, that you may be forgiven of your sins, that you may be anointed with His Holy Spirit, that you may be as beloved as He is a beloved Son and that with Him you may live forever.
Let’s pray. Gracious heavenly Father, we thank You, that You have not left us to the name we deserve, that You are not out of chances, that You are not out of mercy for us, because of Jesus, because of the child born 2000 years ago on a silent night, a holy night. So we come before Him now, we repent of our sins, we trust in Him and Him alone, and we look to Him for all the good news that we need. In Jesus we pray. Amen.