How to Be Good

February 10, 2019

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson using Hosea 1 and Colossians 3:1-22, at Mattins on Sunday 10th February 2019, the Fourth Sunday before Lent.

When the prophet Hosea took on the job of being a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BC, he probably didn’t expect that marrying a prostitute was part of the role description. ‘Experience with prostitutes’ is not what you expect to see in the person specification of a prophet. But this is how the book opens: the Lord commands him to marry a prostitute and he gives each of their first three children names that probably gave them psychological scars for the rest of their lives.

The first is called Jezreel, the home of the wicked king Ahab and his wife Jezebel who worshipped Baal and led Israel away from God. Their daughter is called ‘Not Loved’ because God will no longer show his love to his people Israel. The third child is called ‘Not my People’ because God rejects the people of Israel: they are not his people and he is not their God.

These names, and the prostitute wife, are symbols of God’s relationship with the nation of Israel. The prophet uses them to communicate his message.

Fast forward 2,800 years and we find similar symbolic acts happening today. I was driving into work on Friday morning listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 when an economics professor from Gonville & Caius College in Cambridge was interviewed naked by (the soon to retire) John Humphries. Her message is that Brexit leaves Britain naked and that the country has been sold the Emperor’s new clothes.

The apostle Paul also uses the imagery of clothing to make his point to the church in Colossae. ‘Take off your old self’ he says, ‘and put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.’ (Col 3:9,10). The old self is characterised by sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language (Col 3:5,8). Instead, ‘Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience… bear with each other, and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you’ (Col 3:12,13).

I heard the other day that someone was so angry that the only way she felt she could deal with her anger was by writing a nasty letter. Forgiveness obviously did not appear to enter her mind. Sometimes such people are even regular church-goers. It is a sad truth of Anglicanism that going to church may not make you a better person. Our characters can be fiercely resistant to the grace of Christ.

The apostle Paul makes some suggestions as to how we might be characterised by virtue. The most important piece of clothing we can wear is love. ‘Over all these virtues, put on love,’ he says, ‘which binds them all together in perfect unity.’ (Col 3:14). Unity is perhaps what is most lacking in our society as we face the countdown to 29 March, and we are never going to find that unity if we continue to trade insults and have arguments with each other. Love for the other, for the person who is different to myself, is where I am going to learn the most.

Paul continues: ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’. Sometimes remembering a piece of Scripture, a verse, is a good way of letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly.

I remember as a child underlining passages of Scripture in my bible and committing them to heart. Proverbs 3:5, for example, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding’.

Paul’s advice to the Colossians provides another great verse to commit to memory: ‘Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things’ (Col 3:2). This is a great verse to remember when you’re tempted by lust, or anger, or greed.

Be that as it may, much as we try to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, we only get so far. We cannot become better people through our own endeavour alone. There are no easy lessons in how to be good. We continue to fail those closest to us, and ourselves.

The gospel according to Hosea comes in the middle of the book in chapter 6 verse 6, where God says, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’ Don’t come back to me after your failures with your religious penance, but come back to me with a heart that is seeking mercy and a desire to know me better. Come back to me with yearning in your heart, that only I can satisfy.

The final chapters of Hosea in 11 & 12 speak of God’s enduring love for Israel, that he will never, in fact, carry out his threats to cut his people off, and refuse to be their God. ‘How can I give you up?’ he says. ‘I will not carry out my fierce anger’.

Our failures and our characters can only be turned around by God’s forgiveness. That is why the greatest act of love is God’s giving of himself in Christ’s death and resurrection. Because of Jesus’ birth and life, death and resurrection we can come repeatedly back to God asking for his forgiveness, no matter how many times we fail to live a virtuous life. It is perhaps, by being forgiven not seven times, but seventy seven times, that we begin to experience Christ’s transforming grace and how to be good.