Proper 22 – Series B
Paul and Peter and James all encourage us to restore the sinner gently (Gal 6:1, I Pet 4:8, and James 5:19-20.) Love covers a multitude of sins, they say. Today, Jesus gently welcomes children after he brutally makes children of us all. There is a great temptation to which the church and its people often succumb, it is the temptation of a haughtiness and pride when it comes to sin. The disciples succumb to this temptation today as they would keep the children away from Jesus. The Pharisaical among us do the same as we would keep certain sinners away from Jesus.
It is totally groundless, if we look at it. Christians are no less prone to sin than the rest of the population; in fact it could be argued that the devil works harder to tempt the Christian than anyone else. Recent news about Roman Catholic problems should not give us comfort but cause us grief and put us on our guard. We are not better. But we are not truly rational and we rarely consider our own actions with the scrutiny they deserve. It is just so easy to look at the sins of another and think that I have at least not done that.
The preacher will have to work overtime this week to avoid that, or even of giving the slightest scent of smugness. Our culture is primed to see it, and thereby to reject what the speaker has to say. If we are not going to punt away from the readings this week, we will have to assert very carefully that this is a sermon about us too, about how all of us are helpless before our sins and child-like in our dependency on God.
In short this is a sermon which has to be preached from a visible and profound humility. I can offer the preacher no recipe for such humility, only the reality that it is a gift which God gives for the sake of his people.
We hear much about marriage in the public sphere these days. Every minor protest against the dominant orthodoxy of legalized gay marriage and the full acceptance of homosexuality is met with the crushing weight of societal opprobrium. There is apparently no room anymore for one to think that the law of the land a mere fifteen years ago was even legal or in any way morally acceptable. The speed of this transformation has been breathtaking.
We don’t hear so much about divorce, however, a scourge which has afflicted too many of us, our families, our friends, our co-workers. That said, the failure of heterosexual marriages is wreaking far more damage than the face of homosexual marriages or the denial of homosexual marriages to the tiny fraction of society that wants such a marriage for themselves.
If we are to come with Christ’s love, we have to acknowledge that every marriage, gay or straight, has grounds for God’s judgment therein. But by the grace of God, by the love of God, some marriages don’t end that way. The fact that I am approaching my 28th wedding anniversary next summer is a gift from God, not a credit to my relational skills. We cannot look down the nose at another whose marriage has failed, but must find in him or her a brother or a sister, whose sin has manifested in this way, just as mine manifests in another way. I am just as much at the mercy of my sin as any other sinner. 2
That is why preachers wear those black shirts. It is there to remind us that we are also people in need of this same Jesus, needing and receiving the same forgiveness. But we also wear those little white tabs at our throats, right over the voice box. We have a precious word to speak. This is the other part of this sermon that might be hard. We really do have a good thing to say to even the most ugly and painful of situations. It is so easy to avoid marriage and divorce as a subject. It seems that we can do so little to fix this problem. And it is true, we can do so little, but God can do much. The preacher has to come to the conversation with a measure of confidence, a confidence which is not born of his own solutions, but of God’s grace, mercy, and peace.
God loves divorcees, you see. He even loves the homosexual couple who have sought legitimacy for their relationship in “marriage.” Often times the divorcee and the homosexual don’t think God has any love for them. That is likely because we have spent a great deal of time telling them how wrong they are when deep down they likely know it much better than we do. Too often the church has doubted whether God can love such a person as well. But he really does.
This raises a question which we have considered at this point in the past. How do we preach the Law of God?
Preaching Law – What works to make the Gospel possible
1. It has to convict the hearer – it paints a picture which grabs the hearer. He/she has to buy into it.
2. It has to be “relatable” to the hearer.
3. Often dramatic events which have already grabbed the hearer – a tragedy or disaster, will present a great opportunity to preach the law which convicts the hearer.
4. The Rhetorical Hook is a good way to achieve self-conviction – get the hearer in the sermon to do, think, or imagine something which they think is right, but which the Word of God will quickly point out as wrong. Paul does this in Romans 1-3.
5. Effective preaching of the Law gets the hearer to see what he/she already knows, but to see it in the light of Christ, that this is something for which Jesus died.
6. Preaching the law consists in much more than simply saying “You are all sinners!” or some variation of that. It is getting the hearer to say that about themselves.
If we would preach the blessings of marriage, preaching the good we want to see instead of against the problems which we preach against, what would we say?
1. Ephesians 5 – This is a picture of Christ and the Church – our marriage is a reflection of God’s loving relationship with his people, the giving of the whole self to one another. It is simply a holy thing.
2. Community – is it not good for the man or woman to be alone. While some are not suited for marriage due to the brokenness of sin and we do not condemn them, at the same time,
it seems that the wholesome health of the human being which God has in mind involves a community for which we were designed.
3. Marriage completes us. This is not to say that a man or woman who is not married is not fully human, but at the same time we were made for one another. Our sexuality is designed for that other. Marriage unites us with one who fits us.
4. Marriage is a place for children to be born and nurtured – it is part of God’s care for the little ones who have occupied the texts for the last several weeks.
5. To love someone, unconditionally and completely, is a very good thing to do. Marriage is a relationship in which forgiveness, care, and compassion can find beautiful and the most fulsome expression. In this, marriage gives us an opportunity to embody the very best of Christian love.
Are there more? Most likely. We need to keep holding up the good and the blessing of marriage as much as we preach against the abuse, distortion, and corruption of marriage. Have we misunderstood so much of marriage? A google search tonight revealed that arranged marriages have a worldwide divorce rate of something like 4%. We locate so much of marriage in our romantic notions of finding and choosing just the right person. Does that affect our ability to love the one who is right in front of us?
Collect of the Day
Merciful Father, Your patience and loving-kindness toward us have no end. Grant that by Your Holy spirit we may always think and do those things that are pleasing in Your sight; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
We appeal to the Father’s mercy, patience, and loving-kindness. One rather gets the idea from all this that we are pushing things here. One does not start noticing these sorts of things in a prayer until you really need to notice them. Mercy is needed for our condition. God’s patience has been sorely tried and we have probably pushed His loving kindness past the point where we thought we would come to its end. Sometimes a prayer like this, in attributing these things to God simply shows me my own failings. Does the parent hear this prayer and self-convict himself – God’s patience and loving-kindness are so unlike the way I treat my own children.
But we want God to grant us now that we might always think and do the things that please him, so we don’t need his mercy any more, we no longer try his patience and his endless loving-kindness simply defines our very being.
Of course we have the ever present problem of not exactly knowing what those things are that we are supposed to do, those thoughts and deeds which are ever pleasing in his sight. But presumably that is part of the gift giving as well.
The fact of the matter is that this is an old prayer. We have been praying it as God’s people for a very long time. I suppose Adam and Eve as they were chased from the garden and turned around 4
to see that angel with the flaming sword guarding Eden’s gate and asked God to help them do better next time. The new clothes was already scratching their skin which had never worn such things. But ever since that fateful day we have had a serious problem with doing God’s will. We just cannot seem to get it right. So God must look on us with mercy or destroy us. He cannot ever run out of patience with us, or we are done for. The loving kindness can have no end, or if we find its end, we are really in trouble.
Even in this we must have God’s help. Can we really be that helpless? Surely, if God just shows us the way, we can follow a basic road map? Surely, if He starts us out on the right path we can follow it to the end? Surely, if we really want to do the good work, that should achieve it; if we just set our mind to the task? Don’t be so sure. Yes, the Holy Spirit is given, but a quick check of humanity, even those that sit in pews on Sunday does not reveal much of a track record for getting life right. God will exercise his mercy, patience, and loving kindness until the end of time.
Does the preacher need to remember something here? Some years ago we saw a need to launch into a discussion of objective justification and subjective justification at this point in our discussion. Here is a quick and dirty summary, but of course there are many and much better treatments of this.
Objective justification is that truth that God loves the whole world with an inexhaustible love. No sin can ever be bigger than God’s love, and no sinner is so far lost that the cross of Christ is not for them. That includes every nasty person you can ever think of.
Subjective justification really asks the faith question. Do you have that relationship with God in which his Son’s death is for you? Did Jesus shed his blood on that cross for you? That is not just an intellectual assent to a historical fact but it is a matter trusting that. This is a dangerous question for the preacher to ask. What sounds like Gospel to me will be cruel Law to another.
18 Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” 19 Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. 21 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said, 5
“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”
24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
We have this text because of the quotation of it in the Gospel lesson, but pay some attention here. This is foundational material for us. It is interesting that marriage and this relationship is part of God’s original plan and estate for mankind. Most of the things we encounter in life, be it schools, jobs, government, even the Church, is really a reaction in some way to the fall. It is part of the stop-gap solution God has given and we have contrived, with God’s help, to deal with the effects of mankind’s sinfulness. Even the clothing we wear is not part of the original plan. Not so with marriage. This institution belongs to our very being. It is part of who we are.
That said, marriage can surely be tainted by sin. Because it is so integral to our very selves, its destruction is often the most painful thing a person will ever endure. But that said, marriage was the way it was supposed to be with us before sin came into the world. It is the one institution we regularly encounter that was always part of God’s plan for us. That bears mentioning and proclaiming.
The “not good” in the first verse of this pericope is the first time God says those words about his creation. Until this point all has been good or very good. But even a perfect creation is fulfilled in community. The man was not built to be alone. He is a communal creature. He needs that community.
God first brings to the man all the animals of the field, the beasts whom he created from the ground. Augustine would find much to say in those words about “from the ground” but we really must let that pass. Adam names those animals. Naming something is a way of expressing ownership or dominion over something. I name my children, I could name my house if I was so inclined. If I discover a new species of frog or am the first sight some remote mountain, I might get to name it. Adam is discoverer of the world, its owner and rightful lord.
Then God puts him to sleep and, from Adam’s own body, brings forth a helper suitable for him, one who “complements” him or completes him. (Notice this is not compliment – when spelled with an ‘I’ that means to tell him he looks good in that suit.) The old KJV uses a help-meet which sounds strange to us. It literally said that the help which the woman was to him was the perfect fit, her strengths and weaknesses perfected meshed with his, so that they were designed for each other.
Adam immediately recognizes his help-meet and Moses gives a little commentary at the end, making this something of an etiological story. This is why men and women get married, why sons leave their parents and form a new home with their wife, start a new life together. There is something that is beyond social contract going on here, but a mystery, a mystery which Paul 6
explored a few weeks ago in the ending chapters of Ephesians. The mystery of communion and relationship is a picture of God, it is, at least in part, the image of God which was given to the man. It is not good for him to be alone, you see.
This story has seen a great deal of interpretation of the years. A traditional interpretation of this story runs like this: The woman is created from the rib, not the head that she should be above him, nor the feet that she should be below him but from the side, in order that she should walk beside him.
What does one do with this in light of the recent Supreme Court decision to legalize homosexual marriage in the US? The ripples of this are flowing out. Do churches which operate with tax-exemption and as corporations which are filed in the county courthouse need to abide by this? If a cake baker cannot deny service to a couple because they are homosexual, can a church? Can a pastor? Our Synodical president and others have suggested that the Church should get out of the marriage business. We can bless a marriage, but should we make one? That is a model which operates in many other countries, including places where Lutherans are found.
On the other hand, is such a stance really retreating from this text? It is God who makes a marriage, not the people involved. It is not what two folks have done, but God who has united them into one flesh. Isn’t that a place where we ought to have something to say? Isn’t that a moment when God’s Word and his community need to be present? Is letting the state take over marriage entirely really just buying into the dominant view of marriage that this is a voluntary contractual arrangement entered into by consenting adults. Does marriage have a sacred element?
This is compounded by our own issues. We have elevated the homosexual sin to such an extent that we have lost the ability to tell such a person that they are a beloved creation of God. Our anti-homosexual position has drown out our proclamation of the Gospel and that means we have failed as Christ’s witnesses. If we want to bring this into the sermon today, we need to be awake to the fact that the real word of Law may be directed at us for our treatment of the homosexual.
Do we not have a bit of a double standard? I know more than one preacher who has been a drunk, a liar, an embezzler, or slept with the organist and they are still in a pulpit. We are all poor miserable sinners, and if we lose sight of that fact, we have opened the door to a nightmarish pharisaical righteousness.
This culture has a very warped view of marriage and that has often affected the way we as a Church have dealt with marriage. Culturally we imagine marriage to be something which only obtains as long as I like it, as long as it serves my needs/wants/desires. The moment that I don’t feel those needs being met, marriage can be simply cast aside. But this is an impoverished view of marriage. We need to reclaim the divine view of a holy thing, a true unity which divorce cannot simply “undo.” While I limit Sacrament to something which conveys the forgiveness of sins, Roman Catholicism sees it differently, calling things to which God has attached a promise a Sacrament. For that reason Catholics call marriage a sacrament as well. Roman Catholic 7
authors, include Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor have spoken at length and eloquently on this subject. Francis is struggling to articulate a means to speak the Gospel to the many inside his fold whose marriages have failed. Will he succeed or will he simply follow the Protestants down the path which has brought us to this point? I don’t know. Some are criticizing him for going soft on sin. Others are hailing him as a true pastoral heart.
Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways! 2 You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.
3 Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. 4 Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD.
5 The LORD bless you from Zion! May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life! 6 May you see your children’s children! Peace be upon Israel!
Here is God’s beautiful picture of human happiness. It is relationship, it is connected to children and family and through those things experiencing the very blessing of God. It is a good thing to gather at thanksgiving with children, grand-children, and more. God smiles when that happens.
Hebrews 2:1-13 (14-18)
1 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
5 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 6 It has been testified somewhere, 8
“What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? 7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, 8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12 saying,
“I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
13 And again,
“I will put my trust in him.”
“Behold, I and the children God has given me.”
14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Hebrews is an odd book that makes for some tough preaching, but the preacher who works through it with a congregation will be rewarded with some excellent and sturdy foundational material that will serve him and his parish well as they face the challenges of the 21st century.
The writer to the Hebrews, and we don’t know who that is, has a twofold argument to make to his audience. The first two chapters are dedicated to the idea that Jesus, God incarnate in man, is superior to angels. We are not exactly sure why he needs to make this argument, but here is the best guess. We guess that his audience is a learned community of Jews, likely out of the priestly families. We say that because he never explains any of the rituals or obscure Old Testament references that he makes. He assumes the reader can follow that. We know that the Jewish communities at the time were heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism, a dualist approach to life in which the world in which we live, the physical world, is a shadow of the heavenly reality. 9
This made sense for them of the temple rituals, which were then seen to be reflections or shadows of the heavenly temple in which God was actually to be found.
This had a tendency to diminish the value of the physical world in which we live, and the humans who live in this world with us. In this schema the real life is found in heaven, not here. This idea can still be read in a great deal of Christian popular thinking and writing. Any time someone says that a person is better off dead, they may in a small way subscribe to this Neo-Platonist idea. To the Christian, heaven’s superiority is only realized at the point of resurrection, when with body restored we are given to enjoy heaven’s repast. The idea that a disembodied spirit is somehow a superior existence to a bodily existence is actually quite alien to the Bible and seems to be what the writer to the Hebrews has in his sights.
The audience seems to pine to be like the angels, but the writer to the Hebrews reminds them that Jesus shed real live red blood on the brutal arms of a physical wooden cross for flesh and blood. He shared with us in that physicality and that renders our physicality superior to the ethereal existence of the angels. Yes, in one very real sense we are lower than they are. But since the incarnation, we are united to Christ physically, and that makes our physical bodies terribly important.
For the Christian that has some very important implications.
1. The body is not to be scorned. We should not neglect the physical life of Jesus or ourselves in pursuit of some angelic truth, some spiritual truth which bypasses this body. The whole world was subjected to the Christ who came into the flesh.
2. That makes our suffering different. The savior of the world was “made perfect” or in Greek brought to his completed fulfillment through the mechanism of suffering. Our suffering may cause us to desire to flee the things of the body, but is also the very mechanism of salvation.
3. This also means that we are united with Christ in flesh and suffering. Christ has come down and into the physical world of our bodies but in ascending has brought us up with him. Now one of us sits on heaven’s throne, bringing humanities prayers to the attention of the Lord of the Universe.
4. What is more, now that One who both speaks and hears those prayers is sympathetic to our plight. He has endured temptation; he has endured pain and suffering beyond even what we have endured. He knows what we are going through and thus deals mercifully and kindly with us.
So do not pine for some “higher plane” there is no higher plane. Jesus, in walking on this dusty earth, breathing our polluted air, dying our miserable death, has made this physical life we have a very, very good thing.
But how will we make a sermon of all this?
Mark 10:2-16 10
1 And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them.
2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 5 And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
How can Jesus sound so harsh and so gentle all in the span of 15 short verses? Why does he seem to be so lacking in compassion for the divorcees and what makes those children the sort of people who receive his welcome and the very kingdom of God?
I believe the contrast between Jesus’ words in the first 11 verses of this text and his deeds in the last verses is absolutely intentional. A quick comparison of the three gospels shows us that the Gospel writers were less interested in a chronological biography of Jesus than they were in giving us a picture of what he is and what he had come to do. They arranged the various words and deeds of Jesus life by themes, into structures like Mark’s triplets or Matthew’s grand scheme of five parts in a deliberate reflection of the Torah.
That means we need to look at how the gospels are arranged as much as the words and events they portray. Here we see harsh words of Jesus about divorce right next to this tender scene of him welcoming the children to his embrace. In his words on divorce, Jesus accepts no excuses. (This is another feature of having four Gospels which is often disquieting for those who read overly literally, when Matthew tells this story, Jesus allows for divorce in a situation of marital infidelity, see Mt 19) As Mark relates this story, he is doing something with this story. The very contrast between Jesus’ words and deeds is part of the point, in fact it may be the real point here. Jesus seems to be saying that there is no justification for what we are or have done. It is sin. We are broken and broken hearted. But then Jesus turns around and does what the Law and its justification could not do. He embraces the helpless child. 11
Jesus has just spoken, in last week’s reading, about the reality of sin. If we could cut it off, even at the expense of a hand or a foot or an eye, we would do that, but we cannot. The one handed man will still find a way to sin. At the same time, last week, we heard again how important little people are to Jesus. The one who causes them to sin will have to answer to God for that. Better to be drowned in the sea than that!
Today Jesus renders a certain class of people truly helpless before their sin, and the example he uses is brutal. We tend to think of divorce as a modern scourge, but it has a long and bitter history in the community of mankind. At roughly the time of Jesus there was a significant debate which was raging in the Jewish community. Rabbi Hillel and Akiva argued that burnt dinner or even a better offer from a more attractive woman might be grounds for a man to divorce. Rabbi Shammai on the other hand, said that the bonds of marriage could only be sundered in the event of infidelity. (This is a rather famous debate and a quick Google search of these names will turn up multiple hits which might give you better insight.) This debate was raging when Jesus spoke these words. What is not so well known is how prevalent divorce was in the population. We know a little more about literate Roman society at the time. Divorce was discouraged and considered a moral problem, but that hardly put the brakes on it. Many a wealthy Roman put away his wife because another woman offered the possibility of social advancement. (Very few Roman marriages were for love – usually about being connected to the right family. Here is a link to a very brief article on this: http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/weddings.html.) We know far less about the slaves and other working class Romans. For all their famous census taking, Augustus and his successors kept precious little sociological data on the lives of the empire’s citizens.
I have heard one study which suggested that divorce rates in the first century may have been as high as they are today. I think that unlikely. It is quite possible, however, that many of the people in the crowd who heard Jesus that day were divorced, most likely that all of them were touched by it, just as all the people to whom you preach today will be touched by the divorces of friends, children, parents, siblings, and neighbors. This was a very contemporary issue then too.
From our own experience with divorce we know that it is a brutal rupture of a person’s life, even of the person him/herself. Remember that marriage is woven into our very being. It was part of God’s plan for us from the very beginning of creation. Every time I have encountered divorce as a pastor I have found that the people involved are hurt and defensive and ashamed. Jesus knows that too. We have all had the experience of friends who get a divorce and who both come to us for some support, asking us to agree that their actions were justified and the “right thing to do.” They need some sort of validation for what has happened. It seems that when people get divorced they almost have to justify it.
Jesus will not give that validation. He won’t admit a single excuse, not even for infidelity, at least not in Mark. Why not? Clearly he did do this elsewhere; Matthew records it, Paul speaks of abuse and abandonment as grounds for divorce (I Cor 7). Why does Mark portray Jesus so harshly? I think it is absolutely intentional. If my friend comes to me asking me to understand 12
their divorce, I may assuage their conscience a little, but I cannot mend their broken heart. And let’s face it, every divorce has multiple broken hearts at the center of it. I think Jesus has his eyes fixed firmly on the fact that every divorce breaks people’s hearts and hurts them terribly. That is why he is so hard on it. No one stands up on their wedding day and plans for this. God did not either. He knew that you faced challenges and that this would be hard, and it might not work. He offered love, forgiveness, and patience and mercy aplenty, but he also knows how stubborn sin is. God wanted this thing to work, he wanted you to be happily married, he wanted your marriage to be a blessing to you and now it is lying in ruins at your feet and your heart is broken and so is his.
Jesus will not accept any word that suggests that this divorce is a “good” thing. It is not. The dissolution of any marriage no matter the reasons for that divorce is always the scene of bitter tears, tremendous heartache, and causes lasting scars. Jesus doesn’t want to hear your excuses, he doesn’t want to hear how it was “the right thing to do.” He wants to put his arms around you and let you weep into his shoulder. The excuse making rather gets in the way of that. He wants to comfort you, not listen to your puny justifications. If indeed your spouse was unfaithful, that simply means that your heartache is greater. If you were abused, he wants to hold you in his gentle embrace and let your fear flow into him. If your life as a husband or a wife had become an empty, barren thing because your spouse was evil to the core, that doesn’t make your hurt any less, in fact it is greater. Jesus won’t let us be distracted by the excuses which we think we need to offer. If your divorce is your fault, if you cheated on your spouse or you were just a really bad husband, does that make your heart any less broken? It isn’t that divorce is such a morally wrong thing to do, it is, but the bigger problem is that it does so much harm to us, whether we are victim or perpetrator.
And so, I want to read this discussion of divorce with the discussion of sin which came before and the three instances of children which surround it – two before, one after. I believe that Jesus renders us helpless before our sin here, child-like in our helplessness. He does this because in a moment he is going to welcome children into his arms. He welcomes little ones into his embrace, helpless children, to whom belongs the kingdom of God, not because they are innocent, but because they are utterly helpless without him, just like the divorcee is utterly helpless in their sin.
We make all sorts of excuses for why a marriage has fallen apart, but the excuses change almost nothing. The heart is still broken, you still have an “ex” hanging around. You are not really back to that place you were before you got married. You are still defined by the vows you took on the day of your wedding, whether your divorce was excused or not. The divorcee is utterly helpless to change any of this. Childlike, he or she must turn to another for help, like a child must lift up hands to one who can help and simply be picked up and held. The excuse-making which marks so many lives post-divorce is really a way to appear to still be potent, in control, or justifiably divorced. It is not so. Just be helpless. But it is not just the divorcee we are talking about. Christ has made children of all of us before our sin. Now he welcomes children, helpless little stinkers 13
that they are. He takes them on his lap, blesses them, and declares that the kingdom of God is for just such people, broken, helpless, and needy.
For Mark’s original audience, this seems to have played a critical role. When under persecution people tend to think that there must be something that they have done wrong. God must be angry at them. In a sense, this passage deals with the fear that what has befallen me is because God is exacting some just punishment on me. Mark portrays divorcees, clearly a sinner, and then has God welcome the children.
You can see how pernicious the Victorian era conceit that children are innocent has warped this. If you preach the innocence of children and that this makes them worthy of heaven’s kingdom, you are cruelly treating all your members. For as soon as you say this, they are remembering their impurity, their lack of innocence, their sins. The divorcee is crushed, but so too is the liar, the lout, and the lustful. All of us are quick to remember that we are impure and in no way innocent. But it is just for such helpless people that Jesus has come.
I also find it interesting that it is the disciples who would prevent the children from coming to Jesus. How often isn’t it the case that when a divorce happens inside a congregation, and they do, that one or the other no longer attends church there? They are ashamed and embarrassed, and feel like the “holier than thou” types will look down their noses and reject me. It might even be true that they will do just that. How far that is, however, from what Mark proclaims here in Jesus. Divorcees should find in their church the very embrace of Christ for their broken hearts; instead, too often, they find words of judgment and condemnation. We are uncomfortable with that person there and so they are uncomfortable with us. And soon they stop coming altogether. Perhaps that makes us feel a little less uncomfortable, but that is not what God had in mind. It is the disciples who are rebuked here, the followers of Jesus, who are keeping the helpless ones away from Christ’s embrace. Do our congregations need that rebuke for keeping folks away from Jesus if their sins re not the “right sort” of sin. I have never encountered a divorced person who needed me to tell them that divorce was wrong. Even the hyper self-justifying divorcees who cannot be quiet about the reasons they got a divorce are in a way acknowledging that this is not a good thing. The book “Unchurched” outlines the impressions of young people inside churches and outside, both categories find that these young people think of the Christian church as being judgmental. Are they right?
I am sensitive to the argument that this may seem to open the door to an “anything goes” sort of mentality. I would never advocate for that. I believe that divorce is a sin, in fact I think it is much worse than we actually treat it. But that was also the charge leveled against Luther. Without penance, purgatory, and the whole system of merits, people will just do whatever they want. They are only motivated by the reward of heaven, the fear of hell, and the discipline of a harsh task master who makes examples of some, consigning them to hell as illustrations of what happens to the fallen. Luther rejected that logic and I do as well. Marriages succeed because God is there, filling sinners with his unconditional love and forgiveness. He by the way gives that gift to all married people, not just Christians. Marriages fail, not because people are insufficiently aware 14
of the problems of divorce and its sinfulness, but because God’s love is shut up and never given a chance to live in that place.
1. This life sometimes really stinks. We get sick, we lose our jobs, our house falls apart, bills keep piling up, the family is a wreck, the marriage is on the rocks, the Iranians might have the bomb, and we are all soon to be working for some Chinese tycoon. What is up with all this? Does God just have it in for me?
2. It is the family and the marriage thing, however, that really pains us. You can always get another job, you can rebuild a house, you fix the car, but when the marriage goes south, it is misery and pain. When your kids are going through a divorce or your best friend, your heart breaks for them. It is amazing how much the people we love and are closest to can hurt us.
3. Perhaps worst is that when marriages go south the church gets nutty. Are we so afraid of catching the divorce bug that we quarantine them? We feel so helpless before a broken marriage that we don’t want to talk about. Or if we do talk about it, all we can do is tell each other how unavoidable and “right” it was. But you can’t forgive a divorce that is justified. If it was the right thing to do, why does it hurt so much?
4. This is not what God had in mind for us. It is not good for the man or the woman to be alone, but we have often made sure that we end up lonely and alone. I only have myself to blame really, for all the broken relationships that litter my own past. I cannot seem to help myself.
5. Sometimes I just want to go to heaven and be done with all this. I am weary of this life, I am weary of the sin. I long for the day when I will be freed of this earthly life.
6. And so, I am sure I want to live this way. Eternal life doesn’t actually sound so good if it means simply growing more and more isolated. It had better be different, perhaps radically different. Do I really want to go to heaven? I guess it beats the alternative, but this life is sometimes so painful it hard to be excited about immortality.
1. No, God does not have “in for me.” Such a sentiment really makes too much of my sin. The truth is that the morality by which I see so much of my life is not the big deal for God. It is not that my sins have somehow sullied the whole universe, but my sins have made a wreck of my life. God gave the law to me to initially to be a way of a joyful, blessed, meaningful life. Yes, I have tried his patience, but I have not outrun his love. The trainwreck that is my life is something which grieves him too and he wants to help me.
2. God’s grief today is expressed in his great sorrow to see so many people, including his own Christian people, going through so much heartache, pain, and suffering in divorce. He does not need to tell them that they have a problem, they know that very well. He mostly wants to tell them they have a loving, caring God who wants to hold his dear children his loving arms.
3. And so he equips his people with a marvelous gift. There is no sinner bigger than the forgiveness we have to offer. We don’t have to shy away from divorce or its consequences in the lives of people. We can face it straight on, because we have forgiveness, the very authority from God to say to any sinner, no matter how big the sin, that God has died for this, he has forgiven it, he loves you. We don’t need to excuse, we can forgive it, which is much, much better.
4. Yes, we have made a wreck of our lives, but that does not mean that God is not still working for our joy and happiness. God’s plans can never be thwarted by Satan, not really. God can work great joy out of sorrow, victory from utter defeat. Just look at Calvary and how it turned to Easter joy. The embrace God has for sinners means they might just find joy despite their past. Second marriages can be and are blessed by God. Though they may have been rooted in sin, as so much within life really is, God can embrace his child and love them still.
5. Jesus has not grown weary of my life. Yes there is much that is wrong with it and my experience, but he has never grown tired of humanity or my humanity.
6. And so God offers us a different vision for heaven than simply a continuation of this broken life. I may only get a little taste of that in my forgiveness and a second chance at life, and that is only the merest whiff of heaven’s banquet. There every tear is dried, there are no lonely people, everyone is welcome, everyone belongs, everyone is filled with inexhaustible joy. The most casual relationship in heaven is better than the longest and most stable marriage on earth. You know the couple, they have been married so long they share a brain and complete each other’s sentences. They still love each other dearly. That 50 year long marriage will seem cold and distant compared to the relationships we have in heaven. I can’t wait! It will be the same physicality I know here. Jesus has shed real red blood for me and for all.
1. For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these (That the hearer would believe that he/she is such a person as Jesus takes into his arms today, not because of some imagined innocence but because God loves his whole creation and every part of it, including you. He hates to see it hurt, broken, dying, or in any way marred.)
This sermon will want to take on the whole idea that innocence is the way into the kingdom of heaven. Yes innocence, but innocence that is a gift from God. The Church messes this up when we would say to anyone that you have messed up so badly that you are out. It assumes that I have an innocence that you do not have. The fact is we are all helpless before our sins. There is no innocence – there is no “better than you!” there is no “good enough.” There is only with Jesus or without Jesus and today he welcomes the helpless. This is the second sermon. But our human tendency is to see all scripture as moralization. But God is not a moralizer. He is a lover of his creation and our broken hearts and lives are his concern. How they got broken is not nearly as important as the fact that our hearts are hurting.
A poem by Howard Nemerov
In a sense
In no sense
The Pharisees of Jesus day thought that innocence was what this was all about, and they were wrong and so are we if we hold to it. The truth of it is, Jesus came for sinners, to save them, to rescue them (Lk. 19:10, Mt. 9:13, et al.) These children are the sort of people to whom heaven belongs not because they have not sinned, but because everything they have they have by the gracious gift of someone else. They are needy, they are helpless, they cannot clothe themselves, help themselves, feed themselves, or anything else. They are incapable. That is their primary attribute in first century culture. The idea that children are innocent is deeply ingrained in our culture. We have so understood sin to be only moral, and that of a moral agency/decision making processes, that we cannot imagine that children are capable of real sin. If Sin is simply moral, then I too would say that a newborn infant has none of that. But the Bible says that the wages of sin is death – if sin is only moral, why do new born children sometimes die? Did they do something wrong? No, the world is broken, and their brokenness has manifested in this tragic way. They were helpless before it.
Indeed, so low on the totem pole were children at the time that they could be exposed at the side of the road without penalty, left to die. They simply did not have any rights. But God’s people, following Jesus’ example and words said otherwise, and praise God that the public education system, division of family services, and the like which often make our culture and society so much better is a fruit of that transformation. Christians went along the roads, found these abandoned children and brought them home. Pretty soon you have twenty kids at home and you are running an orphanage.
In the first and brutal part of this message Jesus addresses one of the great social ills of his day and ours, a problem which is so great we always want to justify it when it happens. Have you noticed that about divorce? We have to justify it. We want to make 17
sure that you agree that it was the only option, the marriage could not work, as if understanding such a thing makes it hurt any less. Jesus doesn’t want to hear the excuses. He knows that the divorcee is helpless before their pain. They cannot make it go away, he pushes the excuses aside so he can take that sinner in his arms and give them the kingdom they do not deserve. We want to think of divorce as a great moral evil, it is. Jesus however sees that divorce has broken your heart, it has crushed your spirit, it is terrible and painful and it destroys his creation. We can get so hung up on its naughtiness that we lose sight of the fact that the divorcee is a person who has endured terrible pain. Thus it is with all sin. We cannot be rid of it. Remember last week’s lesson? Cut your hand off, you still have it. You cannot be rid of it, it clings to you and sucks your life dry until you die. That is why Jesus came. For you! For all sinners, because sin is so destructive to his creation.
The example Jesus uses of the divorcee, is a stand-in for all of us. The divorcee is helpless before their sin. They cannot change this terrible and hurtful reality. But all of us are just as helpless before our sin, whether that sin is moral such as lying, or drunkenness, or greed, or that sin is expressed in the a-moral things that simply happen to us, death, cancer, poverty, or something else. Just as we cannot stop the advance of time and the ravages it works on our bodies, we cannot get a handle on this reality either. We are helpless to do anything about it.
It is that helplessness which makes us childlike. It is that helplessness which renders us the sort of people to whom the kingdom of God belongs. Jesus has not come because we got it right, he has come because we have not, because we have made a total mess of our families and our lives, and eventually sin will kill us. Jesus is not so interested in the fact that we are naughty, he is far more interested in the fact that we are hurting, we are crushed under our sin.
That of course means that we as instruments of God’s love, love that way too. Perhaps we need to think about that, but that is another sermon. In fact, it is the next sermon!
2. Let the little children come to me (That the hearer would believe that God’s love extends to all people and that we as a congregation are empowered to love anyone whom he puts into our lives, even our divorced friends, neighbors, family, and selves.)
Let’s just take this issue head on. I am a little loathe to preach a sermon which suggests congregational policy/practice. I think that is best done in a context of the governing structures of the congregation, but sometimes the pulpit is part of that too. I believe that congregations, to our shame, too often are not the places where divorcees can expect to find God’s gracious love, but they correctly assume that they will be judged, condemned, and sentenced for a sin which already weighs heavily upon them. Are Jesus words of indignation addressed to his disciples long ago also addressed to us? Do we need to hear them and repent ourselves? 18
We live in a society that has a divorce problem. It has touched many of us, if not all of us. Our friends, our neighbors, our children, our parents, even some of us here have gone through a divorce.
Jesus today calls it what it is, a sin, a serious sin. He will accept none of the excuses we use to assuage our guilt. He just doesn’t want to hear them. The fact of it is that divorce wreaks terrible damage upon his creation and he grieves to see that. We have unfortunately confused his grief with anger, and imagined that the magnitude of the sin has made it some sort of special sin which belongs in some special category of sin, as if it cannot really be forgiven.
But nothing can be further from the truth. Jesus hates divorce because of what it does to people. It robs them of joy, darkens their lives, and makes it harder for them to love. It traps people in a pit from which they cannot escape from themselves. This is the very reason that Jesus has come into the world, because all of us are trapped in our sins, include the sin of divorce.
The disciples today thought that the children whom the women were bringing to Jesus were beneath him, they did not merit his attention. Have we done that to divorced people? Do they come through these doors expecting forgiveness and Jesus’ love or condemnation and scorn? What do they actually receive? Have we kept helpless people from the table of Christ simply because we have not listened to their hurts, forgiven them their sins, and welcomed them as fellow redeemed? Too often we have seen those who go through a divorce leave the fellowship of God’s church. Sometimes they go somewhere else, often they end up nowhere on Sunday mornings. How have we expressed God’s love to them? They already know they have a problem, have we offered them Christ’s solution or simply told them what they already know?
Christ has equipped us with a love great enough to accept any sinner whom he leads into our lives. We don’t need to avoid the subject, but can talk with our friends about their divorce, even among ourselves, without accepting that it is right. We can say something better, we can say it is forgiven, that God loves the divorcee, with an undying and limitless love, the same love he has for us. How will we do that together?
3. Saved for real Life (Epistle – That the Spirit of God would move the hearer to embrace his/her calling as an opportunity for Christ’s Kingdom to come and Will to be done.)
This sermon wants to confront the “functional Gnosticism” which obtains in so many parishes today. What do I mean by that? We often imagine that Christ’s salvation only has meaning for the afterlife. We imagine that real Christianity is something we experience only in “spiritual” things, things which have no tangible sense to them. We believe that when we die we become disembodied spirits with a harp, a halo, and we sit upon a cloud, too insubstantial to fall through its vapors. 19
But Hebrews will let us have none of that. It proclaims that Jesus has not died for angels, he has died for real flesh and blood people, shed real blood on a cross, endured our temptations, and loves this physical world so much that he has united self to it. The Gospel shows us Jesus taking children into his arms. The OT lesson today shows God instituting the very physical reality of marriage before the fall into sin. The two become one flesh, we all know what that means!
That means we have a proclamation for this life. We dare not simply look at sin and wistfully pine for heaven. Jesus died for that sin. He loves that sinner. He died to expunge the sin and its effects, but he did so in order that the sinner might live a different sort of reality in relationship to God. Yes, we do await the consummation of this reality but we also are moved to work toward the good, pray for those in need, embrace the fellow fallen sinner, and rejoice in every moment of this physical blessing. That means we see feeding the hungry as God’s answer to their prayers. When we make a donation to dig a well in Africa or simply give a coat to the local clothing drive, Jesus was part of that. He is not simply up in heaven with some great ledger of good deeds and sins and keeping track. He is actually in our hands as we give, he is in our faces as we smile. That means we visit the sick in the hospital and know that Jesus is at work in our words and deeds. He did not shed his humanity upon his ascension, but has it still, rendering every human, and every human suffering holy by his participation in our humanity and suffering.
Each of us has received a calling from God. Some are spouses, some are children, some are parents, all are neighbors and citizens. In each of our daily spheres of life God has taken up our humanity and imparted himself to our human condition. He has thus rendered our vocation sacred, a moment for God to work, even in suffering. That empowers us to do good, flee the evil, resist the tempter, and persevere in our suffering.
4. God loves Marriage (That the preacher would proclaim and the hearer hear once this week that God loves marriage, blesses it, and works much good within it.)
We have heard much in these past weeks and this past week in particular about the relationships of people. Roman Catholicism is rocked by yet more and ongoing clergy sexual scandals which this time seem to reaching into the highest levels of the hierarchy. The hearings on Capitol Hill which attend the confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee are dominated not by his jurisprudence, his past judicial findings, or service in the White House but by his alleged assault upon a woman when he was in high school.
I am not going to wade into any of that and I think the preacher might want to avoid that too. I have no idea who is telling the truth, if anyone is, on TV anymore. I probably need to reassess whether I ever did hear the truth there. But I can proclaim a simple truth which is getting obscured in all of this. God made you and me to be people in community with one another. Marriage and family are the basic building blocks of a flourishing and thriving human life. God created, loves, and continues to bless people through marriage and family. 20
This of course means that our enemy has worked overtime to subvert, pervert, and destroy marriage and our closest human to human relationships. So we will need to be aware that the people sitting in front of us have a boatload of hurt. When we say God loves marriage, the divorced, the homosexual, and the life-long single will wince. We have to treat them and this subject carefully. God is not driving them away, so we dare not let our words drive them away. Indeed, their hurt and the pain they feel in this regard are the reason that God has come into this world in Jesus to save this world and dry every tear, including their tears.
We really need to say a number of things.
- A. God created marriage (Gen. 2) in which mutual love and service are shown to one another (Eph. 5). He did this prior to the fall into Sin which means that marriage has always been part of his plan for his creation. It is not a way we cope with sin. It is a way we fully live. This is a very beautiful and healthy thing. Therefore we reject all distortion of marriage: a. All forms of abusive behavior (physical, emotional, etc.) perpetrated by men and women upon each other. God never wanted this and condemns such behavior as sin.
- b. All attempts to commercialize sex and turn it into a transaction (prostitution/pornography)
- c. All attempts to drive a wedge between sex and a Godly marriage. Sex is not a thing I own or am and hence control and use at my discretion. It is not a way of feeling better about ourselves (sex as a necessary self-expression for psychological health.) Sex does not define me. It is a treasured gift given to marriage.
- d. All approaches to marriage which reduce it to a humanly devised, mutually beneficial contract which may be simply dissolved when we see fit. (Mark 10)
- B. Jesus has come because we have failed as human beings and been enslaved to sin. This is particularly felt in the context of marriage and family. Having bodily risen from the dead as a man, a fully human man, Jesus brings particular blessings and gifts to us in this regard. a. Jesus himself. We too often imagine that the Ascension proclaims the real absence of Christ. It does not shout his departure but his change of presence. Now he is in us. It is Jesus who looks at me through my spouse’s eyes. He speaks to me in her words of tender love and care. Through my spouse, God has answered so many of my prayers. By his presence, he renders marriage a holy thing. Not only should it be holy, but his presence constantly and effectively bestows holiness upon it.
- b. Forgiveness. While we do not compel a person subject to abuse to abide or return to such a relationship, we also acknowledge that all of us are sinners and we all fail in our relationships, including this one. Jesus has given us the authority to forgive and that authority is real. We can forgive a spouse because Jesus died for that spouse.
- c. A Broad Generosity of Spirit. Because sin has deformed this world, not every marriage succeeds and some will never marry. Jesus was regularly criticized for hanging around with prostitutes and others whose personal lives were deeply flawed. God’s love of marriage empowers a love for all people, for those who are not married, whose marriages have failed, or whose marriages are currently in distress. There is no sin in being single, but often there is great loneliness. There is sin in divorce, but sin exists in every life. We first see the hurt and pain of divorce and offer to love and console. There is shame in a marriage which is being tested and which is strained to the breaking, but God has put us inside loving and living communities of people to help one another. Sin makes marriage hard, let’s help one another with the sober awareness that no marriage is guaranteed and all marriages need help.
The world has filled our newspapers, televisions, smartphones, and other devices with a barrage of bad news about humans and the way they treat one another. We make no contest that this is so. But we proclaim today that God loves and sustains and blesses us in marriage. There is another voice and another message than the one you are hearing all week. It is good news. Jesus is risen from the dead to care for his people. He blessed our first parents in the garden with marriage, the same marriage which he blesses today.