Flamingos on Dorothy’s lake

This blog post is based on a sermon I preached at St Mellitus College at Liverpool Cathedral earlier this year, which was focussed on the following Bible passage:

Hosea 5:15-6:6

15 I will return again to my place
until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face.
In their distress they will beg my favour:

A Call to Repentance

6 ‘Come, let us return to the Lord;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
2 After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
3 Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.’

Impenitence of Israel and Judah

4 What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
5 Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgement goes forth as the light.
6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

The photo above is from 2011 on a trip to Kenya for my good Friend Mike’s 50th Birthday. We went to walk up Mount Kenya but spent a few days acclimatising first in Naivasha. We stayed in Dorothy cottage. She had been an influential Methodist Missionary who had met Mike about 20 years earlier when he was based in Kenya as a palliative care doctor, and they had subsequently become good friends.

The lake in the photo was Dorothy’s private lake, a seasonal lake that only appeared after the spring and autumn rains. We got up very early before dawn one morning and went down to Dorothy’s Lake. It was eerily quiet and cold as we were high up in the Naivasha Hills. On the lakeside the silence was suddenly broken when the light started to appear behind the hills and the flamingos began to croak and squeak. Soon the mist could be seen on the lake as the sky changed from gold to yellow to red over the space of just a few minutes, and the noise from the flamingos got louder and louder. I can still hear it now.

About ten minutes later the massive red sun came into view as it rose over the hills behind and very quickly the temperature increased; soon the sky began to turn blue as the sun accelerated into the sky and the temperature increased to a much more pleasant level. Within half an hour the mist had lifted; the flamingos were wide awake, noisier than ever, periodically taking off one by one, flying a loop of the lake and landing again. It was one of those moments you simply can’t forget.

There was something really quite special about Dorothy’s Lake that connected me to the passage from Hosea; I was struck by the various images of creation that are used metaphorically to describe God and the Israelites: dawn, showers, rain, cloud, dew. But looking at Hosea more widely I was also struck by the extent of unbelief and separation from God that there was back in Hosea’s day and the similarities we see in our societies around the world today. Jill Duff (former head of St Mellitus North West and now Bishop of Lancaster designate) has described this separation from God in the UK as a ‘blanket of unbelief.’ What can be done about that blanket of unbelief we have today?

The first of the twelve Minor Prophets, Hosea wrote his prophetic text approximately 760 BC, at around the time of the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Book of Hosea denounces the worship of gods other than Yahweh, the One True God, and it metaphorically compares Israel’s abandonment of Yahweh to a woman being unfaithful to her husband.

In the first half of the book up to our reading today, the relationship between Hosea and his unfaithful wife Gomer is set out in parallel to the relationship between Yahweh and his unfaithful people, the Israelites. The eventual reconciliation of Hosea and the adulterous Gomer is a hopeful metaphor for the eventual reconciliation of God and humanity.

Hosea prophesied during a dark and depressing period in Israel’s history during the era of the Northern Kingdom’s decline. The Israelites had turned away from God to worship Baal, the Canaanite storm god, and Asherah, a Canaanite fertility god. Because of this turning away from God, unbelief had become socially acceptable; it had become the norm.

In Chapter 4, verses 1 to 2, speaking the word of the LORD, Hosea says:

‘there is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery.’

The leaders in Hosea’s day were not setting a good example either, with Hosea adding in verses 7 to 9:

‘The more the priests increased, the more they sinned against me; they exchanged their Glory for something disgraceful. They feed on the sins of my people and relish their wickedness. And it will be: Like people, like priests.’

The Israelites and their leaders had found themselves unable to turn back to God; they had gone too far with their unbelief and as a result God withdrew from the Israelites. However, that withdrawal would only be temporary and as Hosea’s prophecy builds towards the first verse of today’s reading, we hear that God is angry but that he

‘will return to this place.’

However, that will not be until

‘in their distress’

the Israelites beg for the LORD’s favour.

God’s withdrawal was so that the people would come back to him.

In the first three verses of Chapter 6, Hosea prophesises the response from the Israelites to God’s call for repentance. As I read those verses though, it seems to me as though they are rather flippantly assuming God will come back without the need for true repentance. There is no real sense of regret.

In verse three, the Israelites just want to

know the LORD,’

they don’t seem to want to love the LORD.

And looking at these verses through a New Testament lens we know that God does indeed come back but not until Jesus enters the world to save the Israelites and the rest of humanity. Through dying and rising to be our advocate in heaven, Jesus gives us the way to true repentance; Jesus gives us the way to truly turn back to God. Jesus’ appearance in Bethlehem was, as possibly prophesised in verse 3,

‘as sure as the dawn.’

And I think the ‘showers’ and ‘spring rains’ referred to in that verse point us towards the action of the Holy Spirit from Pentecost onwards. Just as the rain falls where it is needed, so the Holy Spirit acts where the need is.

Going back to verse 2, some of the commentaries I have read on Hosea suggest that

‘after two days he will revive us, on the third day he will rise us up’

refers to Jesus’ death and his resurrection three days later but there is no consensus on this because the word day here is translated from the Hebrew word yom, which could be a day or refer to a longer period of time. Maybe the use of the number three to signify wholeness is more significant here, with Hosea pointing towards God’s plan to reconcile everything in creation to himself ultimately; to bring wholeness.

But either way, in Hosea’s day God was not happy with the Israelites half-hearted and arrogant attempts at repentance. He knew that their faith would evaporate

‘like a morning cloud.’

What God seeks above all else is

‘steadfast love.’

God wants love that will last not superficial action. He wants a relationship that comes from the heart.

In his book ‘Take Heart,’ Matt Chandler reminds us that God has a plan. And just as the Israelites and their unbelief of God in Hosea’s day were part of that plan, so the situation we face today is part of God’s plan too.

Chandler says that God isn’t

‘sitting around wondering how this whole thing is going to play out…
it’s no mistake that we’ve entered the age of unbelief, it’s all part of God’s plan.’

But, Chandler says that we are now uniquely placed in the church to have a truly significant impact. Trusting that God does indeed have a plan, what is needed is Christian courage in the face of the unbelief we see today.

In the photo of Dorothy’s Lake, maybe:

the dawn is like Jesus’ presence; reliable, steadfast and true.

the temporary lake filled with the spring rain is like the effect of the Holy Spirit; going where it is needed.

the morning mist over the lake is like the mainstream society we live in today; one that has had an evaporating faith; a society needing to turn towards God; to repent; a society of predominantly unbelief.

But how can we tackle the unbelief we see today? In the photo are flamingos, lots of flamingos.

We, as Christians, are like the flamingos, and we are an important part of the answer to my question.

As the morning mist continues to evaporate we need to remain at the lake; reliable, steadfast, courageous and true to Jesus’ teachings. We need to croak and squeak loudly like the flamingos!

As the sun rises just as the flamingos periodically fly around the lake; we need to go to where the Holy Spirit needs us whilst also sticking together; keeping in close contact so we can support and encourage each other.

In many ways the society we live in today is very much like the one Hosea lived in but today we have Jesus and the Holy Spirit on the scene and on our side. Just as we seek repentance through walking with Jesus and allowing the Holy Spirit to work within us, we have the immense privilege of being able to inspire others to do the same.

It’s so exciting to imagine what God has in store for us all. And we can see and feel God’s plan starting to come across the country. Exciting times are ahead! Let’s be like the flamingos on Dorothy’s Lake and help God dramatically lift the blanket of unbelief!

Information on Matt Chandler’s book, ‘Take Heart:’

Meet the Shakespeare Boys

Meet Puck, Othello, Hamlet and Bottom, the Shakespeare Boys. We’ve had our four teenage donkeys for nearly four and a half years. They were abandoned and we adopted them from Bransby Horses in Lincoln through their ‘Friend for Life’ programme. The folk at Bransby Horses have a great sense of humour – hence the Shakespearian names!

When feeling a little stressed they look at me and I hear them say, “take it easy, eat some grass!”

Let’s pray this prayer, remembering Saint Francis, the Patron Saint for Animals, in response:

God our Heavenly Father,
You created the World
to serve humanity’s needs
and to lead them to you.
By our own fault
we have lost the beautiful relationship
which we once had with all your creation.
Help us to see
that by restoring our relationship with you
we will also restore it
with all your creation.
Give us the grace
to see all animals as gifts from you
and to treat them with respect
for they are your creation.

We pray for all animals
who are suffering as a result of our neglect.
May the order you originally established
be once again restored to the whole World
through the prayers of Saint Francis
and the merits of your Son,
Our Lord Jesus Christ
Who lives and reigns with you
now and forever.

Bransby Horses:

Photo courtesy of Charles Waller Photography: https://www.charleswallerphotography.co.uk

God’s Abundance

Cunnery Wood in Halifax is my favourite place for spotting the first spring bluebells, and this was the scene this morning – an abundance of bluebells! I’m supposed to be writing an ethics essay today but I’ve decided to enjoy some sunshine this morning while Amy is at her music group. As the bluebells came into view I was reminded of Henri Nouwen’s meditation email for today:

“God is a god of abundance, not a god of scarcity. Jesus reveals to us God’s abundance when he offers so much bread to the people that there are twelve large baskets with leftover scraps (see John 6:5-15), and when he makes his disciples catch so many fish that their boat nearly sinks (Luke 5:1-7). God doesn’t give us just enough. God gives us more than enough: more bread and fish than we can eat, more love than we dared to ask for.

God is a generous giver, but we can only see and enjoy God’s generosity when we love God with all of our hearts, minds, and strength. As long as we say, “I will love you, God, but first show me your generosity,” we will remain distant from God and unable to experience what God truly wants to give us, which is life and life in abundance.”

I couldn’t have put that any better myself. That’s often the case with Henri Nouwen. His wise generous words live on in adundance.

See Henri Nouwen Society Website

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth

These opening words of the Bible are incredibly profound; we are told that God created the universe at the beginning of time. However, when I studied geology and ecology at university I was a sceptic, convinced that this first creation story in Genesis was mythical; something far removed from scientific understanding; something that could not possibly be true. Geological evidence had shown me that life on Earth had evolved over billions of years. Surely, the universe couldn’t have been created in six days? And if the opening chapter of the Bible didn’t tie in with my scientific understanding, why read the rest of it?

This question continued to trouble me until, during a period of family illness, I felt the need to explore Genesis again. By chance, I came across Hugh Ross, astronomer-turned theological author, who had been a sceptic too. Through reading some of his books I began to see Genesis in a different light.

Firstly, I learned that the word ‘day’ in Genesis 1 is translated from the Hebrew word yom, which can denote any period of time, not necessarily 24 hours, and could represent a significant number of years.

Secondly, I came to understand that Genesis 1 is narrated from the perspective of being on the Earth’s surface. What difference does that make? I’ll explain…

In Genesis 1 verse 2 the story shifts from ‘the beginning’ event, which would have been around 15 billion years ago, to a focus on the Earth. It was ‘formless and empty; darkness was over the surface of the deep.’ This was around 4.5 billion years ago when the planets were forming out of the massive spinning disk of debris in our solar system. At the centre was the sun but its light was blocked out.

At this stage the Earth would have been covered with water with no land visible. So, if our frame of reference for Genesis 1 is the Earth’s surface it would have certainly been formless, empty and dark. The water and other essential nutrients could have been delivered by comets to create one vast ocean: the ‘primordial soup.’

We are told that ‘the Spirit of God was hovering over the water.’ There had been ongoing geological evolution over a vast 10.5-billion-year period that resulted in creating order out of chaos. Then God intervened and added the essential Holy Spirit, triggering the start of biological evolution.

It is fascinating to follow cross references from Genesis 1 to other parts of the Bible. The Book of Job is the oldest text in the Bible, originating from probably 4000 years ago. As the Genesis narrative was assembled approximately 3000 years ago, the author of Genesis will have been familiar with the themes in the ancient text of Job. In Job 38 verse 9 we are told that God said to Job: “I made the clouds [the Earth’s] garment and wrapped it in thick darkness.” This parallels that initial period of darkness and stillness.

If we look at earlier verses in Job 38 we gain a further insight into God’s design for the Earth. In verses 4-6 God tells us that the Earth’s dimensions were accurately defined and measured. And in verse 7 we are told about divine activity: “all the angels shouted for joy” at the point before the Earth was wrapped in darkness.

The Genesis account continues at verse 3 and, following the intervention of the Holy Spirit, the atmosphere begins to turn translucent due to chemical changes triggered by biological activity. From our vantage point we begin to recognise the 24-hour cycles of light and darkness as the Earth rotates, the brightness from the sun at the centre of the solar system increases, and the end of the first ‘day’ approaches.

In verse 6, during the period of the second ‘day’ we can appreciate the initiation of the water cycle in the atmosphere with the sky ‘between the waters to separate water [oceans] from water [clouds].’ Then, in verse 7 we see the first land appearing. Volcanic activity that had previously been hidden under the ocean was now forming islands. Biological evolution spread with ‘seed-bearing plants and trees’ colonising and spreading across the land. The end of the third ‘day’ approaches.

The developing climate, with rainfall and increasing levels of oxygen from plants and trees in the expanding forests, would have gradually cleaned dust from the atmosphere. From our vantage point the clear sky enables us at last to see the sun during the day and the stars and moon at night, signifying the end of the fourth ‘day.’

During the 750 million years-or-so of the next stage, the fifth ‘day,’ we see the evolution of animals and the widespread distribution of mammals across the Earth. It has taken five ‘Godly days’ and nearly 15 billion years but now the stage is set for the sixth ‘day’ and the arrival of humanity. At the end of each Godly day God’s purposes were being fulfilled, and “God saw that it was very good.”

But note in verse 24 that God is written in the plural: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…’ Is God here being referred to as the trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Most probably written prior to Genesis 1, and again influenced by Job, is the poetry of Psalm 33. Verse 6 tells us that ‘by the Word of the Lord’ the universe was created, and in verse 9 this is reinforced: ‘he spoke and it came to be; he commanded and it stood firm.”

My new understanding of Genesis 1 has shown me that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, brought the universe into existence. Order was created out of the chaos. At the start of John’s Gospel there is a most beautiful yet succinct summary of it all: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

If the opening chapter of the Bible is compatible with science after all, might you be intrigued to read on?

Further information on Hugh Ross:
All Bible quotes are taken from The New International Version (1984).