Sunday, September 18, 2011

Earth's Wrongs and Heaven's Rights

Texts:  Isaiah 61:10 - 62:5; Matthew 19:1-12

          WHEN I WAS A KID, ONE thing my dad would always say was, "Two wrongs don't make a right."  He'd catch me doing something I shouldn't, and I'd plead, "Well, Big Sister did it, too!" but it never worked.  Two wrongs didn't make a right.

    Sadly, in our denomination, and indeed, in our whole culture, people do make the argument that two wrongs make a right.  We're all aware that homosexual rights groups are lobbying relentlessly for same-sex marriage throughout America. The arguments in favor of it have come from all angles.  People say that marriage is a good thing, and no human being should be deprived of it, no matter what their sexual habits are. On the other hand, it's also argued that "You can't really say that the marriage bond is sacred, since heterosexual couples get divorced and violate it all the time.  You heteros have already trashed it.  So it's not going to hurt anything if homosexuals get married, too."

    We can't say, "No, that's not true!"  Divorce rates are skyhigh in America, even among those who claim to be committed Christians.  These days, any and every cause seems to be a reason for husbands and wives to split up.

    So do we give in to the proddings of the homosexual rights groups and let two wrongs make a dubious right?

    No, we don't.  We can't.  For heaven has a say in this question as well as earth, as we see in our Gospel passage from St. Matthew, chapter 19.

    A group of Pharisees come to test Jesus.  They ask, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"

    When the Pharisees ask Jesus if easy divorce was "lawful," they're thinking of a command of Moses recorded in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and a current debate among various rabbis over allowable grounds for divorce.  One group said divorce was only allowable for sexual lewdness, the other that a man could divorce his wife for about anything, bad cooking or body odor or simply because the man saw someone else he liked better.  However He rules, the Pharisees figure Jesus will get Himself into trouble.  For one thing, easy divorce was popular with the people-- the male half, at least.  But Jesus doesn't waste time weighing in on this debate over allowable grounds.  No, He goes straight to the heart of the matter.  He upholds the basic integrity of marriage as recorded by the Holy Spirit in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24.  He says,

    "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,' and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'?  So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

Do you see what our Lord has done here?  In one fell swoop He  has managed to offend or wrong just about everybody, His original audience and us living today.  He offends the Pharisees by implying they don't know how to interpret Scripture.  He offends the homosexual rights advocates of our day by reminding them that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, instituted by God since the beginning of Creation.  He offends all of us who think marriage is for our personal fulfillment or convenience, by pointing out that in the marriage bond, especially in the relations of the marriage bed, husband and wife are no longer themselves, but together they are a new creature, one flesh.  He offends all of us, married or single, who regard marriage as something we can define and do with what we will, by asserting that God is the active agent in marriage, and when God has joined a man and woman together in matrimony, no human person, not even the spouses themselves, have a right to break that union apart.

    A pastor at my home church once preached around this by saying that if a marriage ends in divorce, that means that God didn't actually join that couple together and the marriage wasn't a real one according to Genesis and Jesus.  I spoke to him after the service and said, "Thank you very much, Pastor, you've just declared my sisters and brother and me to be illegitimate children."  I don't recall how he answered me; it was pretty lame, as I recall, and not worth remembering.

    We can't get this out of what Jesus is saying!  God joins couples together wherever and whenever a man and a woman get married, whether they're Christians, Jews, or pagans, whether they acknowledge Him as the Creator or not!  In this word, Jesus convicts us all of wrongdoing, and at the same time, He asserts heaven's right. 

    The Pharisees think they've got Jesus after this.  And if you've ever been through a messy divorce, you might be secretly cheering for the Pharisees at this point.  "Oh yeah, Jesus?" they retort, "then what about Moses' command that a man should give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?"

    That's Deuteronomy 24:1, and the Pharisees have twisted the text into a pretzel.  You'd think God wanted men to find excuses to divorce their wives!!  Bur Moses never commanded men to divorce their wives, he didn't even command them to give the women certificates to show they had been divorced.  Moses merely takes it for granted that as sinful human beings sinful, marriage-breaking things would happen between husbands and wives, and he passively allows the break-ups to proceed, since the evil of divorce was perhaps less than the evil of a cruel and miserable marriage.  As Jesus says, Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of people's hearts.

    But earthly wrongs never make heaven's right.  This custom of divorce is not the way God planned it, it's not the way God wants it, it's not the way God ordained it from the beginning.  In His will, it has always been one man, married to one woman, for life, till death did them part.  And so Jesus tells us, "Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."

    Jesus' standard is both beautiful and fearsome.   We gaze on that ideal and we think, "Oh, how beautiful!"  But then, we lower our eyes to the earth and see how messy and painful the reality gets to be. How can this word of Christ have any practical meaning for us?

    But this word of Christ is one that has to be preached and heard, because marriage is not just an arrangement we make for our own good.  It's not even merely a contract entered into for the good of society.  Marriage is a model of the relationship that God desires and commands between Himself and all of humankind. 

    All humanity-- not just Christians, not just Jews, all humanity--was created to be in an eternal, unbreakable, sublime love relationship with our Creator God.  As a bride marries her husband, we were all as one to be married to Him.  But as we know, humanity sinned, and was unfaithful.  So God called out Israel to be His spouse, to live in faithful relationship with Him alone, to seek no other lovers, whether they were the foreign powers of this earth or the false gods of the nations.  Over and over in the Old Testament the covenant between the Lord and Israel is described in terms of marriage; our passage from Isaiah is only one example of this.  The earthly nation of Israel foreshadowed the spiritual Israel, the Church, and we read in Ephesians 5 how earthly marriage is a reflection and model of the eternal relationship between Christ and His Bride.

     So a man who divorces his wife for any reason other than adultery is not modelling the behaviour of God who keeps on seeking humanity out, keeps on sacrificing Himself for us, regardless of how spitefully we behave.  Unlike God, he has broken the most important covenant he will ever enter into in this life.  And a woman who leaves the marriage and weds another for anything short of her husband's sexual unfaithfulness makes of herself a living picture of humanity's unfaithfulness and idolatry against God.

    This is the word of Jesus.  Whatever the cause, divorce is a sign of our failure and sin, to be repented of, not celebrated.  But here we all are, sinful, failing, and very uncomfortable human beings, thinking about all the divorces our loved ones have gone through, thinking maybe about the divorces some of you have gone through yourselves.  The disciples cry out: "If this is the situation between a man and an woman, it is better not to marry!" Maybe you're thinking the same.  Why bind yourself to a impossibility Why make promises you can't keep?

    You may have heard of the Rev. Dr. Jack Rogers.  He used to be known as a prominent evangelical in our denomination.  Several years ago I was at a pastors' training conference where Dr. Rogers was one of the presenters.  This passage in Matthew came up, along with the corresponding passage in Mark, which doesn't mention the exception for adultery.  Dr. Rogers said that the exception must have been added in by some later church scribe, and that made Jesus' standard for marriage so impossibly high, no one could achieve it.  And since heterosexuals can't avoid divorce, neither should we expect homosexuals to fulfill the requirements of Scripture and repent of their sexual sins.   The very fact that the standard was so strict, Dr. Rogers taught, gave us all leave to ignore it and do whatever we pleased. Dr. Rogers, I'm afraid, had joined the world in proclaiming two very big wrongs to equal one very non-existent right. 

    But for our Lord Jesus, the alternative to accepting the godly standard of marriage is not "anything goes," it's celibacy.  It's making oneself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven, as He puts it in verse 12. 

    But Lord, how can we accept either of these words?  Both perfect godly marriage and perfect godly celibacy are out of our ability.  After all, here many of you are, divorced and remarried. And if you're not, like me you may have loved ones who are. What's done cannot be undone!  And even if it could be, would it make things any purer or better?  No, most likely it'd just make things worse.   Two, three, or more wrongs never make a right!  But what can we do?  We can't pray God's favor on our sin!

    No, but we can receive His mercy and forgiveness.  In our Isaiah passage, Israel is likened to a bride who has been divorced.  But God her husband is taking her back.  He is rejoicing over her as His chief delight., for He has made her new.  Brothers and sisters, this is a picture of what Jesus Christ even now is doing for us.  In Christ, the right of heaven will prevail for you.  Whatever you have done in your marriage, regardless of whether you've been married once, twice, three, or more times, regardless of the sins you have committed in any area of your life, the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ washes you clean and His broken body nourishes you to eternal life.   In all the ambiguities and uncertainties of life, He can and will bless you with His grace.  You with all the Church are His beloved Bride, and He invites you to this Table to enjoy sweet communion with Him.  Will you come to Him and be stored?  Will you flee to Him to find your deep enduring love and only true joy?  He is your Lord, whose love and faithfulness endure forever, and in Him, every wrong is made right.  Amen.

No comments: