Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 3, 2021
Genesis 2:18-24, Mark 10:2-16
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
When Herod divorced his wife in order to marry his sister-in-law, John the Baptist preached against his marriage as unlawful and adulterous and ended up imprisoned and then beheaded. Today we hear the Pharisees luring Jesus into a conversation about marriage, hoping to get him in similar trouble with the crowds and the authorities. Needless to say, I’m a little nervous about preaching this morning!
The truth is, Christian teaching on marriage has always been countercultural. For the Romans, marriage was primarily about power and establishing lineage. For the Victorians, marriage was often about consolidating wealth and status. In modern times, marriage is often seen as being about little more than desire and self-fulfillment. For the Pharisees, at least in the question they posed to Jesus, their only concern about marriage was what was legal.
While Christians of all eras have often had their perspectives on marriage skewed by the culture they lived in, the Christian teaching on marriage goes much, much deeper than any of these cultural perspectives – as we see in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees.
In Christianity, marriage is rooted in creation. Jesus acknowledges that divorce is permitted under the Mosaic law – it is right there in Deuteronomy 24, verse 1 – but Jesus goes deeper. He goes back further to look at what God’s original intention for marriage was and is. “But from the beginning of creation,” Jesus says, “God made them male and female.” And then he quotes directly from Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh, so they are no longer two, but one flesh.”
Jesus ties marriage to creation, to God’s intention, God’s design. God created men and women, equal but different, and called them into this special relationship of oneness called marriage. They become one physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They become one with their bodies and with their hearts and with their souls. And from this union, husbands and wives join God in the sacred task of bringing more human life into the world. The two that become one often then become three or four or five! As a professor of mine put it this week, “The future of the world comes out of our beds,” and so God seeks to protect and preserve the special relationship from which human life springs forth. Jesus fences the sacredness of the family by being brutally honest about what happens when a marriage ends in divorce. It is not just a legal contract being broken, but more like a body being torn in two.
And so, related to this, in Christianity marriage is considered a covenant, a life-long commitment. Divorce may have been allowed under Mosaic law, but it was never God’s intention. And for those who were seeing that concession in the law as a loophole, as an opportunity to ditch your spouse when someone more exciting or interesting comes along, Jesus says, “No!” Just because you’ve done the paperwork doesn’t make it okay. Marriage is not a legal contract cooked up by human beings, it is a life-long union established by God. And so Jesus says, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”
In Christianity, marriage is also rooted in the cross. As St. Paul says in Ephesians, it is about loving your spouse with the same kind of love Christ has for the church. It is a love that goes beyond warm feelings and romantic attraction to sacrifice – dying to yourself for the sake of your spouse. Joy in marriage is a byproduct of this. You can’t find joy in marriage by aiming for it directly! People sometimes talk about how marriage is a burden, about how their spouse is a ball and chain, that it limits their freedom. And while I would never call my wife my ball and chain, they are, at least in a way, right! Marriage takes effort! It is hard sometimes! It involves sacrifice, usually on a daily basis. But that sacrifice, when offered up in Christian love, gives way to a joy much deeper than any so-called freedom. As Jesus teaches us, it is by losing our lives that we find them. This is particularly true in marriage.
And so Christian marriage is rooted in creation, in covenant, and in the cross – and when it is done like this, it is beautiful to behold!
Maybe you’ve been to a wedding reception where the DJ invites all the married couples out on the dance floor. They all dance to some classic waltz by some crooner, and then the DJ says, “Everyone who has been married less than 10 years, please sit down.” So a few couples leave the dance floor, and then the DJ says, “Everyone who has been married less than 20 years, please sit down.” And on and on it goes until they get to 50 years, and then 60 years or more. They get to that last couple or two who have been married the longest. They might not dance well with their creaky old bones, but they have an easy grace about them. They smile at each other, still fascinated with one another. And as you look around at everyone else who is seated, you see people with beaming smiles. Some wipe away tears, but they aren’t sad! It is just deeply moving to see. Everyone, whether they are married or single or divorced or struggling in their marriage, everyone knows they are in the presence of something good and true and beautiful.
I know we have people here this morning with a wide variety of life experiences when it comes to marriage, and my hope is that everyone here can see God’s intention for marriage in our readings today like those people watching those elderly, long-married couples on the dance floor. I hope we can all see God’s Word here as good and true and beautiful.
But I know this won’t be easy for everyone. My job as your pastor is to tell you the truth about what scripture says, even when it make you uncomfortable, even when it might get me in trouble. But my job is also to put the good news of the gospel in your ears – every Sunday. So bear with me here, as I think this needs a targeted approach this morning.
For those of you who are single – either by choice or by circumstance – know that you are as beloved of God as any married person. Both Jesus and St. Paul were single, and both of them affirm singleness as a Christian calling too.
For those who are widowed, all this talk about marriage might be painful. It might rip the band-aid off your grief. Go easy on yourself today. Maybe find a way to remember and give thanks for your spouse. Call me or call a friend if you need to talk. And know that you are never closer to your beloved spouse of blessed memory than when you are up here at the altar receiving Holy Communion, where the church on earth joins the hosts of heaven, and the veil between heaven and earth is so very thin.
For those of you who are children of divorce, and who may have felt like you’ve needed to hide your pain because it makes certain people feel guilty, or it upsets their narrative about how resilient you are, you can bring that pain to Jesus. You can find healing in him. And if the broken family you’ve experienced has made you cynical about marriage, know that Christ can open a new future for you. There is hope in him. You aren’t destined to repeat the mistakes of others.
For those of you who are struggling in marriage, who have a hard time seeing your relationship as something good and true and beautiful, don’t hide your struggles. There is no shame in them. Reach out for the help you need. Too often people come to their pastors when a decision to divorce has already been made. Don’t be shy about asking for help before it gets to that point. Your struggles are nothing to be embarrassed about and are more common, even in Christian marriages, than you might think.
For those of you who are divorced under one of the allowances in scripture, which include adultery, abandonment, and abuse, know that Christ Jesus has nothing but compassion for you. Sometimes divorce is the choice of the other spouse or is necessary for one’s safety. Jesus had compassion on people in all kinds of situations in scripture. Trust that he has nothing but compassion for you.
For those of you who may have been the adulterer, the one who left one spouse to be with another, there is grace for you too. Recall Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery. When everyone else was ready to stone her to death, Jesus forgave her sin and gave her another chance. When everyone dropped their stones and left, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.” Repent and receive his forgiveness. As St. Paul says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
For those of you who have remarried after a divorce, this gospel reading probably weighs especially heavily on you. But know that Christ died and rose again to give you a new life. And when you lay that failed marriage at the foot of the cross, you are free to rise to a newness of life which can include another shot at something good and true and beautiful.
The Bible begins with a wedding, and it ends with one too. And all of us can rejoice today in the wedding that the book of Revelation calls “the marriage feast of the Lamb.” This is the wedding between Christ and his church. Whether you are on the dance floor in a happy marriage, or sitting in the crowd looking on, no matter what your marital status or life circumstances might be, you are already part of this marriage relationship. Even now Christ Jesus takes you into his loving arms and blesses you, just as he blessed the children. He promises to love and care for you, to have and to hold you, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, not only today, but forever.
And there is nothing more good and true and beautiful than that.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church