Today we are in week 3 of our 4-week ‘Bless This Mess’ family series and today we are focusing on Marriage. And is marriage a huge topic or what? There is no way that I can cover even a small slice of all that can be said about marriage in 30 minutes… but before I even begin trying to tackle some of this big topic I want to let everyone know that I’m not a ‘marriage expert’ per se. I am a pastor. Now, I have been married for almost 43 years, I have married somewhere around 300 couples and I’ve walked with many other couples dealing with marriage issues…. But most of what I know about marriage is from experience. My personal ‘marriage story’ is relatively simple. I married my high school sweetheart, Jennifer, when I was a young man of 21 and we’ve built a wonderful, adventurous, eventful life together on the foundation of love, respect, faithfulness and commitment. I do not have a single complaint. We raised 3 children who are now all grown and very independent. And now we are empty nesters and I count it as one of the God’s greatest gifts to me that I am spending these years with my best friend and soul mate. That’s who I am; any expertise I may have about marriage comes from these experiences. I just wanted to be honest at the start of our time and say that this will mostly be a heart talk today… a heart talk from one of your pastors. Initially, I thought seriously about pulling together a lot of statistics about the state of marriage today and then addressing the social pressures that can make marriage difficult. But in the end, I opted against that approach. Most of us know in our bones what statistics on marriage will tell us: they’ll tell us that ‘marriage carnage’ is everywhere and I didn’t feel like I needed to emphasize the obvious. So, in the end, I decided that I should only focus on a couple of simple things… Simple things that have spoken to me… simple things that I pray will be helpful in getting our arms around this huge topic of marriage… And those simple things are these: First, I will be talking, at a very high-level, mind you, about what the Bible has to say about marriage. And secondly, I will be sharing some of the ways my marriage has been shaped by what the Bible has to say… my hope is that this will be helpful as we talk about one of the messes that clearly needs blessing. And one other note… I know that many of you are not married; you may not have found a marriage partner, your mate may have died, or you may be divorced and are now single again. I realize there is always this tension when we talk about marriage. The discussion can leave a lot of people feeling like they are on the outside looking in. My prayer is that our approach today won’t leave anyone feeling this way. And just so you know, next week we’ll be talking specifically about single adults and their place in the family. So, again, my hope is that what I say today will be helpful for all of us whether single or married. (Pray)
What does the Bible have to say about marriage? Let’s start with the Old Testament… and the truth is there aren’t a lot of places where any of the Old Testament books speak directly to being married. Now, we do often see weddings and marriages as a part of the stories of the Old Testament, but as far as I can tell there is never a point when the Bible says, ‘The following story is a picture of what a marriage should look like.’ That said, we do get a peek into what God intended marriage to look like in the second chapter of Genesis… It’s in this chapter right at the beginning of the Bible where we meet Adam and Eve, and they are pictured as having been literally created for one another. Adam’s response to first meeting Eve was something like, ‘At last! Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!’ He was really excited and I’m sure that much of his excitement came from his realization that Eve was the one creature in all of God’s creation that he could relate to in common, deeply meaningful and soulful ways. And the author of Genesis calls this relationship being husband and wife… being ‘married.’ I also think it’s important to note that Adam and Eve were given common, meaningful responsibilities, as well… responsibilities that they could only achieve together: their first responsibility was to be fruitful and multiply… they were to fill the earth with children… and that obviously took both of them to accomplish. And their second responsibility was caring for and overseeing God’s creation… and this, too, was a job that could only be accomplished if they worked together and trusted in one another’s unique talents. This is why they were called ‘suitable helpers’… they were people who were created specifically to accomplish important things together. And as God watched their life together as husband and wife, it so pleased him that he called what he saw ‘very good.’ I talked a lot about this in our second Origins sermon in September; I would recommend listening to that sermon if you want more details from this important chapter in Genesis. But, as great as this sounds, the truth is that we see very little of this ‘very good’ relationship in the Genesis story. After sin enters the world in Chapter 3, God does tell Eve that she will long for the relationship that she’d had with Adam before their fall, but we have to make assumptions about what the details of their relationship looked like; the Bible doesn’t tell us much other than their life was ‘very good’ and ‘without shame.’ Now, we can assume that their shameless life together must have been characterized by things like respect, honor, dignity and selfless love, but it isn’t stated directly. And sadly, what we see in the Book of Genesis following Adam and Eve’s disobedience and the world’s slide into brokenness, is that marriage slides into brokenness as well. In fact, the chapters that follow Adam and Eve’s disobedience are filled with marriages that look nothing like Genesis chapter two’s ‘very good’ marriage. And as we read about the lives and the marriages of the people in the Bible following the fall, we must keep in mind is that just because something is in the Bible doesn’t mean that God approved of it. For instance, when we see that Abraham, the father of the entire Jewish nation, had 2 wives… well, really a wife and a concubine… or that Jacob, the father of the 12 sons who founded the 12 tribes of Israel, had 2 wives and 2 concubines, we should never assume that God is fine with polygamy. And when we read about arranged marriages in the Bible, marriages where romance played no role at all… and the vast majority of the marriages we find in the Old Testament are marriages that were arranged by fathers for their sons and daughters, usually as business deals of some sort, mind you, we shouldn’t assume that God was happy about this either. I believe that God had something very different in mind for marriage than much of what we see in the Old Testament. The Old Testament is just being honest about what actually happened, even if it isn’t what God ultimately desired. What this tells me is that God is willing to work with the situations our folly creates, but it doesn’t mean he approves of our folly. Can I tell you something that’s a bit of an aside? I am very thankful that there is a little book in the Old Testament called the Song of Solomon. This book is a poem about love… love between a husband and his wife. It’s a bit adult. But it’s a lot romantic. And there is something reassuring to me that God made certain that there is a book in the Bible that clearly says it’s okay to fall in love with someone special and want to spend your life with that someone. I believe God wanted to make sure that there was some counterbalance to much of what passes for marriage in the Old Testament. What I have found is this: The Old Testament is something of a mixed bag on marriage. We do see God’s wonderful, initial intensions… but we also see marriages filled with human foolishness; we see people who are married to one another following cultural rules, rules that often doomed women to difficult lives and we also see men and women who love one another celebrating their lives together. It’s all over the map. But I believe the reason marriage seems to be all over the map in the Old Testament is because marriage, no matter what century you are talking about, is generally all over the map. The Bible is just being honest about what really happens in life. The Bible is always honest about what happens in real life: good or bad. And so, I hold on to this: God had his intensions for men and women when he first created us… and those intensions were for our lives together as husbands and wives to be ‘very good.’ And I am confident that he still has these same intensions for us today: I am confident that God not only still wants our relationships to be as ‘very good’ and ‘without shame’ as is possible, he is still working to help make our lives as very good as is possible and this gives me hope.
When we get to the New Testament, the part of the Bible that tells us about Jesus and the beginning of the church, we do begin to get more specifics about what marriage should look like, but not much from Jesus. Jesus wasn’t married. Jesus being 30 and single would have been unusual in his day, but it wasn’t unheard of. Jesus did rescue a bride’s family from seeing their wedding feast turn into a big social debacle by turning water into wine. So, he was clearly okay with people getting married and celebrating marriage. We do know that Peter, one of Jesus’ original 12 disciples was married… the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever. So, Jesus was fine with married people following him. Jesus did say that divorce is only an option in cases of marital unfaithfulness, but this was at a time when a man could divorce his wife for literally any reason. All a man had to do was hand his wife a note that said, ‘I’ve divorced you.’ And yet it was virtually impossible for a woman to divorce her husband regardless of the circumstances. Jesus’ words on divorce were a huge shot across the bow for a whole host of unjust, patriarchal, anti-women rules that he knew weren’t God’s desires. But otherwise, Jesus is silent. The best we can tell is that he approved of marriage and longed to see married men and women living lives of equal dignity and faithfulness.
Then there are the New Testament letters of Peter, Jesus’ disciple and Paul, one of the early church leaders. These two men wrote 4 passages in their letters that speak to relationships between husbands and wives. Paul wrote about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7; Ephesians 5:21-33; Colossians 3:18-19 and Peter wrote about marriage in 1 Peter 3:1-7. I wish we had the time to break these verses down together. There is so much that we could say about each one of them. But I believe if you look carefully at these passages you will see that Paul and Peter are calling husbands and wives to three essential things. First, they both say that husbands and wives should respect one another and that husbands and wives should set aside their own will for the sake of honoring their mate. Now this message was completely contrary to the givens of the culture at that time; respecting someone else’s wishes over your own and submitting your will to the will of another person was not considered a virtue… especially for men. Maintaining one’s pride and staying in control were important to first Century men. Why even the rabbis worried that men even taking their wives thoughts into consideration when making decisions was destructive to a healthy society. And yet Peter and Paul both say it is the duty of husbands and wives to respect one another and submit their wills to one another. Secondly, they both emphasized the longevity of the commitment married couples make to one another… and they lived in a world where long- term commitment to marriage was almost unheard of; men divorced, abandoned and cheated on their wives in epidemic proportions. Truth is, no 1st Century women (except for the few that were fabulously wealthy) had any security whatsoever in marriage. Women often found themselves on the street in an unexpected heartbeat. And Paul, in particular, said, ‘Think carefully about what you have vowed to one another because you made these vows before God. Your words of commitment to one another should never be taken lightly.’ And thirdly, Peter and Paul both speak of Christian marriage as being a means to show the fallen world the truth about God… that the love of two people, two people committed to one another, respectful of one another and faithful to one another is a powerful picture of God’s heart. The love of a husband and wife can show the world that God is a God of respect, faithfulness and honor and that he has this kind of love for everyone. This would have been equally unheard of in the first century. Most first century people believed that the world was controlled by a multitude of gods and these gods weren’t interested in the slightest in relationships with people… and they certainly weren’t interested in having people represent them in the world. But this is exactly what the New Testament tells us God wants: he longs for husbands and wives to live lives of love and mutual submission because when they do, others take notice, God is honored and the world changes.
So, here is my conclusion about the Bible and marriage: while the Bible doesn’t major on marriage, it certainly gives marriage a place of honor and calls those of us who are married to high standards… standards that go against the grain of many culture givens no matter what culture you are talking about: ancient/modern… Western/Eastern… you name the culture and the Bible’s bar for married men and women is high… but I believe the bar is high because so much is riding on men and women who have committed themselves to one another through marriage. Marriage isn’t simply a way to find individual happiness; a ‘very good’ marriage can be a beacon of God’s light in a very dark world. And this is profoundly important. So, I’ve been thinking. Thinking about things I’ve learned in my many years of marriage and from what the Bible does have to say about marriage… things I wish everyone knew…
The first thing that I wish everyone knew is that a huge part of my showing respect to Jennifer has been always assuming that whatever she does, even if it seems whacky to me at first, my default is that she is doing what she thinks is best for both of us. Rather than immediately jumping to my own conclusions about why she did this or bought that, I default to a place of honor toward her… I assume that her motives always are to do what is best for us and she isn’t acting out of selfishness or thoughtlessness. I’ve found that so often people jump to ‘What were you thinking?’ or ‘Are you crazy?’ or ‘That’s ridiculous!’ and out goes trust and in rushes shame. I’ve found that letting her explain herself before I say anything is always best for both of us… even if in the end we have to do something differently. I wish everyone understood how far this default assumption can go to making things so much easier… and making sure I never shame Jennifer.
The second thing I wish everyone knew is how important it is to continually breathe new life into your marriage by focusing on becoming what I call a ‘tribe of two.’ I said earlier that we are empty-nesters. I often hear people say that they worry about the coming empty nest because their lives have been so wrapped up in their children’s interests for so long that they wonder if they actually know who their mate really is any more. I can say with great pride that we never allowed our relationship to become secondary to our children’s worlds… and our children were vibrant, active, and successful young people whose lives demanded a lot of time and energy; but we never let that overshadow what we knew would bring the best to our family: and that was focusing continually on things that would bring vibrancy to our marriage. We became a tribe of two and we still are a tribe of two now that our children on their own… and I just wish everyone knew how wonderful life can be when you wake up one morning and find that the only person in the nest with you is the that one special person who knows you, loves you and wants to be with you more than any other person on the planet.
And the third thing that I wish everyone knew about marriage is how quickly the years pass… and how important it is to make each day together as meaningful as possible. I don’t know what eternity will look like when it comes to my relationship with my Jennifer… I’ve heard a lot of speculative scenarios but that’s all they are: speculative scenarios. But what I do know is that I do have right now and I don’t want to waste a moment of this life with my wife by being selfish or unkind or unfaithful or rude to the one person who was made to be my suitable helper. I’m hanging on to every moment and if there are times that I seem to be in a hurry to get home… it’s because I am in a hurry to get home. All three of these things… the way I respond to Jennifer, the way we have built a secret and sacred life together and the way we work to make each day count all come from what the Bible has told me about the importance of respect, honor, dignity and selfless love. In fact, these things were the source of some admonitions that I say in some fashion to all couples I marry… and I make no apologies for saying these things in each marriage that I perform because I believe with all of my heart that these admonitions come directly from God’s heart and his word… they express what he wanted for us from the beginning of creation. And I know from experience in my own marriage that keeping the following things in mind can make all the difference in the world. Bride and Groom… husbands and wives… children of God, remember to always speak kindly to one another. At all times, in all places, especially in the home, show one another the greatest possible degree of respect. Cherish each other as special and unique individuals. Remember to be forgiving and to not hold grudges. Never allow shame to enter your home. Be certain to guard against even the hint of jealousy. Remember that you are one another’s helpmate, friend and guide, given to one another so you can face the problems of the world bravely together. Never forget that each moment you share together is a gift and while it may seem strange to here at the beginning of your lives together, these days together will pass far too quickly; hold on to them and make each moment count. And these simple, yet profound virtues: gentleness, respect, honor, patience and trust will make each moment you share together all the ‘very good’ that God intended for you… and they will bring blessing to the mess.