First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
July 28, 2019
“What’s in a Name?”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith

Hosea 1:2-10 (NIV)

When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.” So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim (dib’ lay-im), and she conceived and bore him a son.

Then the Lord said to Hosea, “Call him Jezreel (jez’ ree-uhl), because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel. In that day I will break Israel’s bow in the Valley of Jezreel.”

Gomer conceived again and gave birth to a daughter. Then the Lord said to Hosea, “Call her Lo-Ruhamah (loh roo-hah’ muh) (which means “not loved”), for I will no longer show love to Israel, that I should at all forgive them. Yet I will show love to Judah; and I will save them—not by bow, sword or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but I, the Lord their God, will save them.”

After she had weaned Lo-Ruhamah, Gomer had another son. Then the Lord said, “Call him Lo-Ammi (loh-am’i) (which means “not my people”), for you are not my people, and I am not your God.[a]

10 “Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘children of the living God.’

 

Our names are important. They’re what we use to introduce ourselves to new friends, colleagues, employers and more. We love hearing them whispered by loved ones. We look for them to be printed on key chains and necklaces in souvenir shops. Some of us have names that have been passed down through generations. Others are given names because our parents like the way they sounded or because they are popular.

Because I’m one of those whose name has been handed down through the family, I’ve never really paid much attention to its meaning or where it came from other than my grandfather, who passed it on, in sorts, to my mother, who along with my father handed it on to me.

After reading about Hosea and Gomer’s offspring’s names, I wondered what mine might mean. So I went to the source of all knowledge (Google) and found a website that offers the meanings and history of names: behindthename.com[1]

Turns out my name not only comes from my grandfather, much before that it came from the Welsh word for “lake.” Having discovered that, I checked out a few other names.

My husband’s name “Greg” or “Gregory” means “Watchful” or “alert.”

My dad, Kent: Comes from the Coastal District of a particular part of England

Our Grandson, Eli: Ascension

Our Granddaughter Kayla: is too complicated to get into right now

Our Granddaughter, Ella: Comes from a Germanic word meaning “other”

Our Pets

Hank (Henry): Home ruler

Sara: Lady, Princess, Noblewoman

In looking at the meaning of names, I’ve never known if the meanings are supposed to describe or prescribe who we are. Are the meanings of our names something that somehow mysteriously reflects who we are or is it something we should strive to become? In other words, is Greg automatically watchful and alert because he’s named Greg or is it something he’s supposed to strive for? And for those of us whose names are connected to geography… what does being named after a word for “lake” have anything to do with what kind of person I am or I’m supposed to be? So, how much really goes into the meaning of our names? Maybe not much…. Unless you’re a biblical character and your name is used to tell the story.

Which is what happened with Hosea. As we heard from Hank, Hosea is told by God to marry a promiscuous woman named Gomer and when they have children, God instructs Hosea what to name them:

Jezreel – a place where God’s people had committed evil, referring to a terrible massacre of the descendants of Ahab as accounted in 2 Kings 9. Apparently, God wasn’t happy with that and indicates through the naming of the first son of Hosea and Gomer that there will be consequences to pay.

Then, they have a daughter whose name “Lo-ruhamah” means “No mercy.”

Then they have a second son whose name Lo-ammi means “Not God’s people”

Certainly, the people of Hosea’s time paid considerably more attention to the meaning of their children’s names than we do now.

To make better sense of things, we have to go back to the history of Israel… what came before… why was Hosea so distraught, so hopeless, so angry, so willing to become a part of a metaphor about marital infidelity?

Sometimes when infidelity is referenced in the Bible it’s infidelity between people. Yep… someone cheats on their spouse. It happened then just like it does now.

But many of the times that infidelity is referenced in the Bible, it’s about the lack of faithfulness to God by the people of God. It’s about humanity’s breaking of the covenant established between God and Israel back in the time of Moses.

Throughout scripture, there seems to be two things that will get God’s ire up: (1) worshipping other gods and (2) mistreatment of the poor and vulnerable. It all goes back to the time the people were slaves in Egypt and God heard their cries, showed them mercy and brought them salvation. The salvation God brought to them was freedom from slavery and tyranny. Wouldn’t that be something worthy of worshiping the one who made it all happen?

Well, by the time they got out of Egypt, it was clear that they needed some rules to follow. They were no longer under the oppressive reign of Egypt who provided all the rules. But now, they were free. Even freedom needs some rules to live by. They not only wandered in the literal wilderness, they had no communal sense of how to get along with each other and how to survive as a unique community. So God set them up with a few rules. 700 or so. At the core of all of those rules were ways to remember that they were once slaves in a foreign land and in doing so, the rules made it very clear that they were never to become Egypt. They were never to become the tyrant. They were never to become the oppressor.

The second big set of rules were about reminding them who had heard their cries and liberated them: Jahweh. It wasn’t any of the Egyptian gods that freed them. It wasn’t any of the gods of the neighboring countries.

The Reader’s Digest version of the history of Israel and their relationship with God was that God had heard their cries as an oppressed, enslaved people, liberated them and invited them into covenant, a covenant that was to be lived out through the people devoting themselves to this one God and living out what God had done for them out of sheer mercy.

Unfortunately, those two main points of the covenant were harder to keep than anyone thought. Those other gods were pretty tempting. You could actually see them – or their representations in idols. And there were a bunch of them… one for days of the week, one for every season, one for planting and harvest, one for rain and wind, one for war and one for peace and much much more. If one god is good, 8 or 10 must be just that much better. And those people they were supposed to treat with mercy… the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, and the foreigners, well, they’re just different, and they could threaten their way of life. They could take their land and their jobs and ruin their customs and bring disease and they should just fend for themselves like Israel had.

Over and over again, God reminded Israel that when they were slaves in Egypt, they couldn’t fend for themselves and God gave them mercy, freed them, fed them, brought them into the promised land and provided all that they needed. No other gods had done that.

So, if you want to get God’s anger stirred up you just need to do two things: worship other gods – rely on other things for your ultimate meaning, devoting your time and money and energy to things that have nothing to do with loving you and providing you with grace, and treat the vulnerable and foreigners poorly.

Which is exactly what Israel had been doing. Again and again and again and again. They were unfaithful. They worshiped other gods and they failed to treat the most vulnerable in their midst with mercy.

So this metaphorical promiscuous woman that Hosea marries represents Israel’s own promiscuity, their willingness to mess around with other gods. As a result, they themselves had declared that they were no longer God’s people: Lo-ammi. They themselves were without mercy: Lo-ruhami. Unfaithfulness breaks the covenant of relationship and mercy.

The names weren’t about what would happen. The names reflected what was. The people had broken the covenant with their turning to other things that they thought would give their life power and meaning. Something I’m sure never happens today. How does the saying go… If you want to know what is important in people’s lives look how they spend their time and where they spend their money. How is it that we reveal to ourselves and others that we value the covenant relationship with God?

And how about mercy? Ruhami? How is mercy revealed in our world today? Is there enough of it to make evident that we remember the mercy God has shown to us in our own times of vulnerability and alienation?

That’s the hard part about walking around with the prophets. They tend to put mirrors up to our faces to show us some things we might not particularly like to see. They are full of judgment. They are harsh. They are challenging. They are important for they remind us, as they did Israel of old that, the humans that we are, we tend to think we’re responsible for all the goodness in our lives. We tend to think we’re supposed to dole out mercy based on merit or worthiness of those receiving it. But the prophets remind us otherwise and call us back, back into relationship with the one who loves us no matter what, back into ways of mercy and justice, back to being God’s people in all things, at all times, in all places.

But the prophets do more than just the hard stuff. That’s not where the story of Hosea and Gomer ends.

Even in the midst of unfaithfulness the word of God comes through the prophet and says, “Yet… yet…” There will be more… like the sand on the seashore… you will be called “children of the living God.” No longer Lo-ammi. But Ammi. My people.

We may break this amazing covenant with God over and over and over again, breaking God’s heart and stirring God to anger. But God will never drop God’s end of the covenant. In God’s grace, God will always be connected to God’s people ready to take us back with mercy, to continue to teach us ways of love and justice, to remind us who we are and whose we are.

Last week at camp, we spent a lot of time reminding ourselves of a name that is at the center of who God is and how God sees each of us: Beloved. Hosea is simply reminding us that in God’s eyes, we are beloved and simply asks that we reflect that belovedness back to God as well as to others.

 

[1] All name meanings have been drawn from “Behind the Name: the etymology and history of first names. https://www.behindthename.com/