St Michael’s 10th February 2018
Readings – John 2:1-12; 1 Corinthians 13:1-7
What is love?
That is a question which has been asked in thousands of songs, plays, poems and stories over the years, and it’s one to which, it seems, we all want to know the answer. The trouble is, love is notoriously difficult to define. Scientists can’t give you a formula for it, artists can’t explain it, politicians can’t control it. Love is a mysterious force that in many ways defies human understanding – we only know we cannot live without it.
So what does the Bible say about love? Well, to answer that question fully I’d be preaching a very long sermon this afternoon. It has so much to say about God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for each other. But it seems to me that it has at least three key points which are directly relevant to us here today, as we gather to give thanks for the gift of marriage and to celebrate the passing of the years.
First of all, love is a decision.
Many years ago when you stood at the front of St Michael’s the vicar asked you, “Do you take … to be your lawfully wedded husband/wife?” and the answer you gave was, “I will.” You may or may not remember saying those words, but really they are the foundation on which any marriage stands. Because at the end of the day love is essentially a decision – a decision to carry on with the other person, for better, for worse, in sickness and in health. And the reason why you are here today to celebrate your marriage is presumably because you have resolved to stick by that decision you made at St Michael’s back in the dim and distant past.
It’s worth focusing on those two little words for a moment because I’m aware that nowadays we live in an age which lays great store on feelings. The popular attitude to life can in many ways be summed up by the slogan, “If it feels good, do it!” Now I don’t deny that love does involve emotions, but feelings alone are never a good basis for a marriage. Those cute eccentricities you so loved at first all too quickly turn into annoying habits; those little foibles you were minded to overlook soon become major sources of irritation. And sometimes carrying on loving can be a real sacrifice with an all too real cost.
But then especially at those times it is good to be reminded that God Himself knows all about the sacrifice and the cost involved in love. We are told in Romans 5, verse 8 – a beautiful verse – But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Yes, we were and on this side of heaven always will be sinners. We certainly did nothing to earn God’s love – in fact quite the opposite. Our tendency to ignore Him and go our own way risked bringing us condemnation. Yet even though we had wronged God in so many ways, God made a decision for our good, to send His Son Jesus Christ to die on our behalf. And even if we still cannot precisely define what love is, we can at least see in that act of pure, selfless sacrifice what love looks like. And we can learn from that sacrifice what it means in our marriage to show that same kind of love to our nearest and our dearest, both in the good times and the bad.
So love is a decision. Secondly, love is a covenant.
What do I mean by this?
Well, I want you to imagine for a moment that you are all an audience of A-list celebrities and film stars. (Perhaps that’s not too hard for some of you!). In the rare event that you have actually gone ahead and married each other, the chances are that before you tied the knot you signed a pre-nuptial contract, or pre-nup for short. You’re not really expecting the marriage to be “until death do us part.” So you want an agreement, a contract, to spell out how your property is going to be divided up during and after the marriage, and without that contract it’s unlikely the wedding is going ahead.
However in the truest sense of the word, I hope you can agree that marriage is not a contract. Again, when you were asked whether you would take your other half to be your lawfully wedded husband or wife, the answer you gave was not, “I will, providing she fulfils the terms of the contract we have just drawn up.” Or, “I will, providing he takes the rubbish out every Wednesday evening.” You simply said “I will” without strings, without conditions, because this was the person with whom you had chosen to spend the rest of your life here on earth.
Now we have to be careful at this point. Just because you make an unconditional agreement to love someone, this does not mean you expect nothing in return. Indeed, you have every right to expect that your other half will carry out his or her obligations – after all, they made the same commitment. But here is the difference between a contract and a covenant. A contract says, “I will commit to you only if we have already agreed terms.” A covenant says, “I will commit to you totally and unconditionally, not dependent on what you do for me.”
And once more, we can understand the covenant nature of love more fully when we turn to the character of God. God took a real risk sending His Son Jesus Christ into the world. He knew that some would choose to ignore and reject Him. But then again, true love always gives the other party freedom whether or not to respond. The danger we must always seek to avoid is merely saying “Yes” without expressing that response in meaningful deeds and actions. I think we all know what it’s like when our other half absent-mindedly responds “Yes, dear” without thinking what they’re saying. It can all too easy when it comes to God to say something all too similar like “Yes, Lord” without having any real intent of turning that response into action. No, covenant love is free and undeserved, but it invites positive commitment involving heart and mind and soul and not just words. That is true of our marriage; that is true of our worship and I suggest there is a real connection between the two.
So love is a decision. Love is a covenant. And thirdly, building on all that I’ve been saying, love is a blessing from God.
Now in our gospel reading Jesus is at a wedding. All seems to be going well and everyone is having a great time. But then disaster strikes. The wine runs out. The groom is looking embarrassed. The bride is in floods of tears. All that’s left are six water jars and they’re pretty empty as well. Yet at that point Jesus steps in. He orders the jars to be filled with water. Probably at this point everyone is wondering what exactly he is up to. No-one can be expected to drink water for the rest of the evening, can they? But then He orders the catering team to draw some out, and you know what? The party’s back on! Here are six jars each holding 20-30 gallons of the finest wine. There’s more than enough to supply the village for the rest of the evening, the music starts playing, the bride and the groom start dancing and everyone is filled with a wonder and a joy they have never known before.
It’s a lovely story, but as I prepared for this sermon, I wondered if in some ways the wine and the water represent the resources of our love. After all, we all know there are times when our capacity to love runs out, when we feel we have nothing left to give, when what we have left is weak and inadequate. It’s at that point, I believe, we need to allow Jesus to take and transform us by the power of His Holy Spirit so we have a fresh capacity to love as Jesus first loved us.
In our reading from 1 Corinthians we read those famous words that you may indeed have had at your own wedding service: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Now I am sure that over the years you can look back and remember times how your other half has been incredibly patient, kind, generous, forgiving and so much more. We are here after all to celebrate your achievement in remaining as man and wife over so many years. Yet we all know there are times when our patience wears thin, when we are not as forgiving as we ought to be, when we have kept a record of wrongs, and sometimes been a little short-tempered.
But – and I hope this is something you have already discovered to be true – when you come to Jesus and tell Him your capacity to love has run out, He is able to renew, to bless and to heal. After all, you are those whom God has joined together. Your marriage was not just something that seemed a good idea to the two of you. He was and has been there all along, in the good times and the bad, in sickness and in health, and at every stage He has been and always will be there.
Now today it might be that even as we give thanks for the past, some of us are wondering about the future. None of us are getting any younger, although as my wife says, some of us have a head start over others. Perhaps we have fears and concerns about what might lie in store. It seems to me that as we gather to remember with gratitude our marriage at St Michael’s however many years ago, today is a good time to reaffirm that decision, to renew the covenant of our marriage and to seek God’s blessing for the future. He has brought you together; He has kept and guided you; and He knows all that lies ahead. Let’s continue to offer Him our lives to Him in marriage certain of His love and His grace, trusting in Him and Him alone. For His name’s sake. Amen.