St Michael’s and St Matthias, 27th September and St Barnabas, 4th October 2009
Can I ask, before I start, have you ever heard a clear, relevant and practical sermon on marriage before?
In the 2001 census there were in Plymouth:
193697 people aged 16 and over of which:
- 58477 were single and had never married
- 77154 were married (it’s good to know this is an even number!)
- 16572 were re-married
- 5382 were separated
- 19392 were divorced
- 16720 were widowed
And whatever you make of those statistics, it seems to me clear that here is a massive subject on which the church should be speaking more frequently and with a clearer voice. I am also aware that behind every statistic there is a personal story, and that indeed we have a wide range of stories here in this congregation today.
So how do we begin to tackle this subject? Well, speaking very generally, the church has tended to divide into two camps on the subject. The first simply restates the teaching of the Bible and offers very little in the way of grace and mercy to those who for whatever reasons fall short of the standards contained therein. So if, for example, you are a single mother or a divorcee, well, you might just be tolerated in the church, but you certainly won’t be made welcome. And I know there have been hurt by this attitude, and who perhaps understandably wouldn’t ever come near a church again. But then there’s the second camp who maybe in reaction to the first downplay the teaching of the Bible and seemingly take on board anyone, regardless of what relationship they happen to be in. They pride themselves on being inclusive and tolerant, and superficially their message is very appealing. But the reality is, and this is the reality the church faces today, their actual position on marriage becomes confused, and there is little evidence in people’s lives of repentance and renewal.
My conclusion on the subject – and one I’ve reached after a lot of thinking and soul-searching - is that both attitudes are at heart fundamentally lazy and simplistic. The one commendably upholds the Bible, but refuses to engage the reality of the world today. While the other one takes today’s world as the starting point, and tailors the Bible to suit its message. If we want to really engage with the issue of marriage – or any other issue for that matter – we have to look both at the world of the Bible and the world around us, and work out how the two might relate.
Why did God make both men and women?
First of all, I wonder if you’ve thought why God made both men and women? I mean, wouldn’t it be just so much easier if we were all one sex, and we could reproduce like worms or bacteria? Think how many arguments, how much stress could have been avoided this way! On the surface it sounds like a whole lot simpler arrangement, doesn’t it? But then we read in Genesis 1:27 these hugely significant words – So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Just think about this for a moment. What the writer of Genesis is saying is that for humanity to reflect the whole image of God it was necessary to create both men and women. Which is a very easy statement to say, but which has huge implications. To begin with, it tells us that the mark of a healthy, well-ordered society is one where men and women relate to each other in productive, mutually supportive relationships. Some of those relationships will involve marriage, others will involve friendship and partnerships at work. But whatever the individual relationship, the key point is that both men and women are treated as precious, and as equal in the sight of God. How far, I wonder do our communities, our neighbourhoods, our streets reflect this God-given ideal? The fact that Jesus reiterates these words in Mark 10:6 should make us all stop and pause for thought.
And of course this statement also completely blows out of the water any idea that women are second-class citizens, or any less worthy of receiving things like education or healthcare or a decent wage. It used to be the Pharisees who would thank God each day that they had not been born a woman or a Gentile, and while we might smile at that attitude, we have to nonetheless recognise that part of our sinful nature often involves deep seated prejudice against the opposite sex. The Bible’s revolutionary message, and one we don’t preach about often enough, is that in the sight of God men and women are equal, and both reflect His image.
What does equality look like?
But what does this equality look like in practice? The next statement about male and female comes in Genesis 2 where for the first time we come across something that is not good in the lovely world that God has made – namely, that man is lonely. And as we all know the Lord’s answer is to make a woman. Genesis 2:18: The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him”. So the question is – what does that word helper mean? Well, if like me, you’re partial to a bit of Hebrew, then you’ll find it translates a unique phrase, which literally reads, “Like opposite him”. Now I know that sounds double-Dutch and it takes a bit of getting your head round, but once you have grappled with it for a bit, you begin to understand just what the Lord is saying about equality. Yes, men and women are equal in the sight of God. Both reflect His image. But the role they are created to play is designed to be opposite and complimentary, rather than in conflict and competitive.
After all, there are obviously physical differences between men and women. There are some things a man can do, which a woman can’t, and vice versa. There are also differences between the way men and women think. And the way men and women relate to each other has to reflect those differences. A few years back there was a popular book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Actually, the Bible says, men and women are both from God and they are given an equal but not identical role to play in life.
And it’s important to understand this if we are going to have a right understanding of marriage. Because I know that the whole issue of marriage is frequently attacked as a way of promoting male dominance and disempowering women, and a form of relationship set up by a repressive, man-led religious institution. But the reality is actually completely the opposite. Marriage is given for two people to come together to reflect the wholeness of the image of God and to assert their equal but complimentary roles in loving and serving Him. In this light it should be seen as all about helping people realising their God-given potential rather trapping them in a formal and restrictive relationship. Which is of course a very different message about marriage from the one you get from watching East-Enders or reading Hello magazine!
Why have marriage at all?
But why have marriage in the first place? Why can’t a young lad simply fall in love with a young lass and move in together, as usually happens nowadays? Well, this is where we need to go back to our reading, to the next verse Jesus quotes from Genesis: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. What’s the significance of all this?
First of all, marriage is all about the creation of a new social unit. That’s what it means to leave your father and mother. It’s about the man leaving the nest, no longer going home to have his washing done and shoes cleaned, and setting up a new home where he takes responsibility for himself and his beloved. Because as far as the Bible is concerned, the family is the absolute bedrock, the basis on which society is formed. And deciding to spend the rest of your life with someone else is not simply a decision between two mutually consenting adults, it has implications for everyone else around you.
And this is why, secondly, marriage is about a public commitment to each other in the sight of God. It is a recipe for all kinds of chaos and confusion when other people don’t know who is living with whom, or it is unclear who has what relationship with which person. And such chaos and confusion doesn’t make for those harmonious relationships between men and women that we were thinking about earlier. And as far as Scripture goes, the making of one flesh comes after this public commitment, to avoid any ambiguity and to show the serious and depth of the relationship before God.
And thirdly – and this comes out of our reading from Mark’s gospel – marriage is the proper environment in which children are to be reared and nurtured. It is no accident that Mark places the story of Jesus blessing the children after His teaching on marriage. The two episodes are quite deliberately and consciously brought together. This has and always will be God’s design for the family, and it is striking that time after time all the secular surveys and government statistics show that children brought up within a stable marriage thrive and grow up more successfully than the children of co-habiting couples. As Christians that should not surprise us, although we might wonder why successive governments then seem so keen to keep on undermining the family unit.
So marriage is important. Marriage is good. Marriage reflects the will of God. And this is a message we need to affirm again and again. But we must also deal with the pain when marriages go wrong. And this is where we need to turn to the question of the Pharisees: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? Now the only time divorce is mentioned in the law of Moses is in Deuteronomy 24:1 when it talks about the man finding something indecent about his wife. But the problem is, what this something indecent is not clearly explained. So in the time of Jesus the Pharisees were having this big debate. Could a man divorce his wife only for really serious stuff like adultery? Or was it possible if she, for example, burned the dinner, or didn’t do the housework?
What happens when things go wrong?
Now this is one of the points where we have to recognise the big difference between the world of the Bible and the world of today. In Jesus’ time there was no social security and little opportunity for women to earn money. If the wife was thrown out of the home, she couldn’t wait years before forming a new relationship and support herself in the meanwhile by going out to work. She often had to end up marrying the first man who came along, with possibly disastrous circumstances. And it’s in that light you have to understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:32 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. He was talking about a culture where the woman was forced to enter into a new relationship simply to survive and of course such sexual exploitation is always and unequivocally wrong. And it is for the same reason he without hesitation condemns the man who throws his wife out in order to move on to a new relationship. Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. Marriage, you see, is a commitment made in the sight of God, not a lifestyle choice you can change later when someone prettier or wealthier comes along.
It’s for this reason that rather than answering the Pharisees question directly, Jesus makes this massively important statement. Verse 9: Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate. Because when it comes to marriage and divorce, the right approach is not to do what the Pharisees did and work out what you can get away with. It’s to return to God’s basic creation purpose and as far as possible uphold that ideal.
Now there’s a lot more I could and probably should say about divorce but I am trying to keep this sermon at least moderately un-long, and there’s also a lot of stuff that should probably be saved for any private conversations with folk later. But having laid out this general teaching, I want to spend the last few minutes thinking what all this means for us as a church. For I believe all this stuff – which is both basic and also hugely important – doesn’t just have implications for the couples in our midst, but ought to have a massive impact on the whole life as the body of Christ in our own particular area.
Three things I want to particularly draw out.
First of all, we have to get our message out to the young people of our church. After all, they won’t get any teaching on marriage from the school. Or from the media. Or from their peers. They will learn about safe sex, and contraception, and sexually transmitted diseases. But they will have little idea of where and how marriage fits into the big picture, and we have a massive duty to teach and support them as they grow up.
Secondly, our churches need to be safe places where we can support and encourage one another in our marriages. Traditionally the church has been very good at preparing people for the start of marriage, and picking up the pieces when marriages come to an end. But what about all the stuff in the middle? The idea of a nuclear family which lives in complete isolation from any other family is completely alien to the picture of the church we find in the New Testament. We need to build up such relationships of trust and love and prayer that we can at the right occasions and with the right people help one another in the good times and the bad.
Thirdly, marriages need to be patterned above else on the love and example of Jesus. This passage from Mark comes as Jesus is on his way up to Jerusalem to give up His life as a ransom for many. If Genesis provides the framework for marriage, then Jesus’ pattern of sacrifice and self-giving gives us the way that framework has to operate. Because if that is how Jesus loves us, then surely that is how we should love our nearest and dearest. An easy thing to say, I know, but perhaps one of the most difficult things to put into practice.
Oddly enough it was on honeymoon in Vienna that my wife and I passed a stationer’s shop with a wedding invitation that read, “X & Y have decided to solve together those problems which on their own they did not have”. Isn’t that a brilliant definition of marriage?! To solve together those problems which on your own you did not have.
But on of course to solve those problems you have to come back to the cross. You see, this is an area where we all fall short, where we all have failings. It’s a deeply personal area where we all need wholeness and transformation. And I don’t want anyone going away from this sermon feeling condemned or worthless. Instead I would urge you to listen to Jesus who died and rose again for you, to come to Him for healing, and above all else, to lay before the cross whatever faults and failings you may have so that He can do His renewing work in you. Because Jesus doesn’t give us this teaching simply in order to show where we have failed. He gives us this teaching so that through repentance and renewal we can allow His love to touch and transform our relationships, and to show a world so full of hurt and pain something of His saving and redeeming grace.
Let us pray…
Some supplementary prayers from the marriage service book …
Loving God, you are merciful and forgiving.
Grant that those who are suffering the hurts of the past
may experience your generous love.
Heal their memories, comfort them,
and send them all from here renewed and hopeful;
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Almighty God, in whom we live and move and have our being,
look graciously upon the world which you have made
and for which your Son gave his life,
and especially on all whom you make to be one flesh in holy marriage.
May their lives together be a sign of your love to this broken world,
so that unity may overcome estrangement,
forgiveness heal guilt,
and joy overcome despair;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.