Littlewell
Christ Centered Church Resource Site

You are a letter of Christ

Hosea 2:14-23
2 Corinthians 3:1-6
Sun, February 27, 2000
Rev. Ed Searcy
This morning's epistle brings us face to face with the
impossible task of theological education in a theological
school ... and, for that matter, in every congregation. "Not
that we are competent of ourselves", writes Paul, "to
claim anything as coming from us; our competence is
from God". Competence ... anyone who has been hanging
around the Vancouver School of Theology for any period
of time over these past three decades knows all about
competence. It was the 'competency model' of education
that originally thrust VST into the forefront of North
American Theological Schools. You see, graduation from
this school is an unusual feat. Here graduation does not
depend upon passing a set number of courses or
obtaining a fixed quantity of credits. Instead fitness for
ministry in the church is to be shown when a student
demonstrates competencies in a wide variety of skills and
areas of knowledge.

Yet, here I am, two decades after proving my
'competency' for ministry feeling utterly incompetent for
the task at hand. Faced by the charge to proclaim the
gospel as it is announced by Paul and by Hosea within a
span of something less than twenty minutes I am
overcome by a great sense of incompetence. It is not
unlike the incompetence we felt as we gathered here
yesterday and pondered how we might possibly fulfill the
immense calling that we have on this campus. Looking at
our relatively sparse resources we could not help but feel
more than a little overwhelmed by it all. So, with Paul,
even those of us who have been officially 'approved' as
competent by the degree from our theological school or
by our election to the Official Board of this Congregation
can rightly plead incompetence. Surely our competence
can only come from God.

Now a fascinating thing occurred this past week on the
UBC campus. The non-Christian guests of VST and of
Regent College who came to speak here both urged the
church to use its divine competence with more confidence
in the world. Stephen Lewis was forceful and dynamic in
his call for the church to lose its shyness and to once
again find its tongue. He decried the "anxious isolation"
of the church on the sidelines of current cultural and
political debates. He used his considerable rhetorical skill
to call the church back to its prophetic role in Canadian
society. Lewis was the epitome of a revival preacher
reminding the people of God of their responsibility to
seek God's justice and God's peace in the world.

Neil Postman encouraged a similar recovery of voice.
Postman spoke philosophically about the culture and its
current losing battle with the gods of technological
wizardry. He convincingly portrayed a world which too
easily forgets that technological improvements do not
necessarily equal steady advancements in human culture.
It is not technology, he argued, but our great true stories
... the large narratives like Christianity ... that provide
meaning, coherence and hope for the world. No wonder
an evangelical school like Regent College would invite a
non-Christian professor of communication to be their
guest in Vancouver for three days. He, like Stephen
Lewis, is eager for the church to reclaim a lively,
courageous and creative voice in western culture at the
turn of the millennium.

Then we come here to open our Bibles on Sunday
morning and find Paul's encouraging news. He writes to
a congregation strikingly like the one gathered here and
says:"You yourselves are our letter ... to be known and
read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ ...
written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God,
not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts."
This is really quite an astounding claim for Paul to make
... especially when you consider all of the troubles of the
little church in Corinth. Infighting. Immorality.
Unfaithfulness. This is a dysfunctional congregation if
there ever was one. Yet Paul says that, in truth, its
troubled life is a letter of Christ written with the ink of
God's Spirit and addressed for all the world to read. Even
the seemingly incompetent church at Corinth is, to our
great surprise, competent to deliver the good news of
Jesus Christ. It seems like a text that is made to order for
Stephen Lewis and Neil Postman as they exhort the
church to address the world with the inspired message of
God.

But here's the rub. These two powerful speakers who
would have us confidently addressing the world with the
inspired message of God assume that we have received
this inspiration ... that the Spirit has already written the
Word on our hearts ... that in our correspondence with
the world we are not simply reading, and enforcing, some
ancient letter of the law. Stephen Lewis seemed genuinely
surprised to discover that the church in Canada has, in
his absence, become a marginalised community.
Nonetheless, upon judging this to be true, he had words
of friendly advice from one who has been in the minority
and on the fringe for most of a lifetime. "Get some
issues", he said, "don't accept defeat, speak boldly and
the people will come". Well, perhaps. Or perhaps our
story is not the equivalent of a political party trying to
rebuild before the next election. Perhaps, instead, we are
like the people of Israel whom Hosea has in mind.

Perhaps you've forgotten Hosea ... one of those ancient
prophets that Stephen Lewis spoke of last week. Let me
refresh your memory. Hosea's message is the
announcement of a cosmic divorce. He arrives in the holy
sanctuary to deliver the bad news that God has found
Israel out ... that her illicit affair with other gods is a
secret no longer ... and that the marriage is over. God is
through with Israel because she has broken her promises
to be faithful ... not kept their sacred ten commandment
wedding vows ... and has now shacked up with the gods
of fertility and technology and consumption. Israel no
longer trusts in God. Instead she has wedded herself to
the prosperity of a rising gross national product and to
The security of national defense arrangements. Hosea
finds an entire people for whom 'doing whatever we
choose to do' has replaced 'doing what God would have
us do'. With us Israel likes to give its children names like
"Grace" and "Joy" or "Matthew" ('gift of God'). Now the
prophet names the illicit offspring of Israel's idolatrous
affair 'Loruhama' (which means: 'Not pitied one') and
Lo-ammi (that is: 'Not one of mine'). And then God gets
to the consequences of Israel's unfaithfulness ... finally
Gog gets to the dreaded 'therefores' in the divorce court:
"Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns ...
therefore I will take back my grain" (Hosea 2:6 & 9). The
relationship is over. The divorce is final. What's done is
done. Or so it seems.

It is at this point ... just as God is about to slam the door
on the relationship ... when there is an inexplicable
change of mind. "Therefore" says God a third time.
Along with Israel we fully expect to hear: "Frankly, my
dear, I don't give a damn". Instead, seemingly from out
of nowhere God says: "Therefore I will now allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to
her ... there she shall respond as in the days of her youth,
as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt"
(Hosea 2:14-15). Hosea portrays Israel's move to the
margins not as a humiliating time of separation from
God. He sees, instead, that it is God who is calling,
alluring, attracting Israel into the wilderness ... away
from the centre of things ... so that here, away from the
distractions of power and the temptations of relevance
she will fall back in love with the God of her youth.

At the conclusion of Neil Postman's lecture at the Chan
Centre on Wednesday night there was a fascinating
response from Professor Craig Gay of Regent College. Dr.
Gay agreed that Postman's analysis of the dangers of
technological culture were helpful. But then he went on to
suggest that the prescription that Dr. Postman prescribes
or our immunization from infection by technological
idolatry can not cure us. It is not enough, argued
Professor Gay, to simply educate ourselves about the
dangers of falling head over heels in love with
technological change. Education will not prevent us from
treating our technological marvels like gods because we
are inevitably shaped by the ideas that are inevitably
transmitted by the technology itself. The medium, he
reminds is, is the message. Instead, Dr. Gay proposed
that God now waits for us to learn to listen once again ...
to learn to listen for the voice of God. This transcendant
voice is rarely heard in our age over the ceaseless din of
cyberspace. Like the stars, God's voice is best perceived
at the margins ... out away from the lights and noise of
civilization ... in the wilderness ... at the boundaries of the
known world. Listening before speaking ... listening for
this peculiar Holy voice may, you see, be our primary
divine calling.

Israel is shocked by the sound of this peculiarly Holy
voice. One wonders if we are prepared for what we will
hear. God's Holy love song comes totally - and
unexpectedly - out of the blue. More than that, the
hauntingly beautiful voice sings that Israel's great hope
lies in the very location where she is most afraid and
vulnerable. "From there," sings God, " I will ... make the
Valley of Achor a door of hope" (Hosea 2:15). For Israel
the Valley of Achor carries with it painful memory. On
her first trip through the wilderness to the Promised
Land, Achor was a valley of trouble (Joshua 7 & 8) where
a wayward Israel suffered a humiliating defeat. Now God
proclaims that the place of sinfulness ... the place of
Israel's horrible blundering ... is to become the way back
into the Promised Land. What was Israel's "valley of
trouble" is now to be its "door of hope". When it comes
to facing a troubled past Hosea and Stephen Lewis do not
agree on what should be done. Lewis notes that he
learned long ago from his political mentors that when
you have got a scandal on your hands the best way
forward is to find positive issues rather than to dwell on
the trouble spot. Hosea, on the other hand, points to the
scandal itself as the place where God is wooing us ... the
place where, if we will listen, we can learn to hear the
voice of God once more and, in hearing, to turn our life as
a people around.

Surely Lewis and Postman are right. The world longs to
hear the Word of God addressed in correspondence that
is written on the hearts of a people who speak it with
their very lives. Like us, the world to which we belong
wants to breath deeply the Spirit of God that gives life (II
Cor. 3:6). But such a heartfelt letter can not be found in
the printed statements of the churches (no matter how
carefully researched and profoundly written they may be)
... nor, for that matter, can the handwriting of the Holy
Spirit be detected in the manuscript sermons of even our
finest preachers. The letter that Christ is writing in the
hearts of congregations from Corinth to Vancouver is not
a work of our own. In case you hadn't noticed, we are not
competent to tell the world how to overcome depression
and despair ... never mind how to defeat the evils of
injustice and oppression. No, the letter that is God's
Word is not to be found in the 'how-to' section of the
world's pearls of wisdom. It is, instead, a wildly
passionate and deeply romantic love letter ... from a God
who will not give up on us or the world in spite of so
much blatant unfaithfulness to the ways of the Creator.
Only this living God is competent to write new marriage
vows of faithfulness ... and to inscribe them on our hearts
... the new covenant which "will abolish the bow, the
sword and war from the land" (Hosea 2:18).

Look at how the Spirit of our suitor-God romances us out
of our affair with the beloved idols of our age and back
into relationship with our one true love, the Creator of
Heaven and Earth. Here in the wilderness we discover
that even the illegitimate offspring of our idolatry ... even
the child whose name means 'not to be pitied' ... even the
orphan whose identity screams out: "does not belong to
God ... even these are adopted by the Creator of All."I
will have pity on 'Not to be Pitied", says God, "and I will
say to 'Not my People' "Your are my People". And as any
step-parent will attest - only one thing is more amazing
than this. It is that God's new found stepchildren accept
God's paternity, responding "and You are my God"
(Hosea 2:23).

It is just such a love letter as this that Paul sees enfleshed
in congregations from here to Corinth. He sees
communities of orphans, cut-off, forgotten souls ... jew
and gentile, slave and free, women and men ... broken,
forgotten and ashamed ... now, in Jesus, miraculously
adopted into the family of God. Are these seemingly
incompetent 'no-names' and 'nobodies' competent to fix
the world ... or to mend the earth? Heavens, no! But this
one thing is clear for all the world to see in the new life
that they are living together. The God who, in Jesus
Christ, is saving such as these is surely competent to love
the rest of an orphaned world back to life. Amen!