We’re broken people living in a broken world. That’s not a message we like to hear, but it’s true. Marriages, families, relationships, communities, nations, the world itself, seem to be broken. Like a virus that eats away at our inner being, every aspect of human life is vulnerable to this malignancy of the human spirit, including the most intimate of human relationships.
It’s no secret that marriage is an institution in distress. Divorce rates continue to rise, while young people either delay marriage or give up on it entirely. By today’s standards the twenty-three years Cheryl and I have been married is a long time. Of course, that’s nothing compared to those of you who’ve been married fifty years or more. I doubt I have any words of wisdom to offer anyone about how to keep a happy marriage, but I do know that every relationship, even the best ones, have their bumps in the road. I wish I could tell you with a straight face that Cheryl and I have never argued or disagreed, that we’ve never hurt or disappointed each other, but if I said that, none of you would believe me!
DIVORCE AND THE IDEAL MARRIAGE
Divorce might not seem like an appropriate subject for a sermon, but it’s a subject Jesus dealt with, and so here we are! It seems that even back then divorce was a touchy subject, and the local religious authorities were divided on how to deal with it. Some of them took a hard line, and others were more lenient, but both groups wanted to know where Jesus stood on the issue. But, instead of getting involved in their debate, Jesus decided to focus on the ideal. He basically said, the Law might allow divorce, but that’s not God’s ideal.
Jesus reminded them of what it says in Genesis; that "from the beginning of creation `God made them male and female'." And, "for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." One flesh, for life, that’s what marriage is supposed to be.
This is a wonderful ideal, but what does it mean? I’m pretty sure that Jesus doesn’t mean that we should go find that perfect soul mate who will fulfill our every need. That search tends to get people in trouble, because we quickly discover that our partner isn’t perfect. But that doesn’t stop people, especially since the coming of the internet. If you go to Match.com or E-harmony they’ll help you find that perfect person. You know, it’s funny how people got along pretty well before the coming of the computer. I guess we just didn’t have such high standards back then!
I’m not sure there is such a thing as a perfect match, and even if there is, it still takes hard work. A marriage relationship is a living thing. It is, Walter Wangerin says, like a baby. It starts out small, weak, and cuddly, but in time it grows and becomes stronger. A couple’s oneness demands everything from them, but marriage is more than a merging of two people. That relationship itself is a distinct entity, which is God’s gift to a couple. That’s why Jesus says: "What God has joined together, let no one separate." If you’re in a relationship, invest yourself in it. Nourish it and respect it. Because it’s a living entity, just like a baby.1
THE THREAT OF BROKENNESS
When Cheryl and I got married in 1983 we promised "to love and to cherish [each other] from this day forward -- in times of poverty and times of prosperity, in times of sickness and times of good health -- to love and to enjoy until death shall separate us." Now that promise is easier to make than to keep, because reality often clashes with the ideal.
Every couple that stays together for the long haul has to work through difficult times. Because we’re broken, we bring our brokenness into the relationship. Walter Wangerin tells how his own marriage was touched by brokenness. He wasn’t unfaithful or anything, but in trying to be a good pastor he neglected his relationship with his wife, and as time passed she became angry and bitter. After carrying this bitterness inside herself for months and letting a wall of silence develop, she let him know what was going on. This didn’t end the silence. They continued living together, but without either love or forgiveness. Wangerin confesses that his wife couldn’t forgive him, because his "sin was greater than her capacity to forgive, had lasted longer than her kindness, had grown more oppressive than her goodness." His sin, he writes, was the "murder of her spirit, the unholy violation of her sole identity -- the blithe assumption of her presence, as though she were furniture."2
This relationship experienced rebirth and she found the strength to forgive him, but unfortunately there are relationships that become so distorted that there is no way to repair the damage. The only option is divorce, and when this happens, it’s kind of like a death. Except that in this case it’s not the couple that dies, it’s the relationship. The only thing you can do at this point is grieve the loss of something precious and then let God's grace heal you.
Though I strongly believe that marriage is for a lifetime, I also recognize that things don’t always work out the way hope. Maybe that comes from being the child of divorce. I’m hopeful, but I’m also realistic. Our brokenness can so badly mess up a relationship that it can’t be put back together, and when that happens, all we can do is trust in God’s grace and receive healing and newness in Christ.
Jesus’ words sound kind of harsh, but I think he offers couples a word of encouragement. He calls on them to take their relationship seriously and to nurture it. Never take it for granted, because this relationship is a gift from God. And to those who have experienced the brokenness of divorce, Jesus offers a message of healing. It’s not the way things are supposed to be, but sometimes that’s the way it is, and God’s grace is sufficient to bring wholeness to our lives. It might not undo the past, but it does offer a way forward that brings healing and wholeness to our lives.
1. Walter Wangerin, As for Me and My House, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), 44-46.
2.Story told in passim in Wangerin, pp. 65-91.
Preached at First Christian Church, Lompoc
18th Sunday after Pentecost
October 8, 2006