Monday, October 05, 2009

Sermon on Mark 10:2-12, for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, "God Joins Together"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today in the Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus addresses one of the most difficult situations in human life: divorce. It’s both an urgently relevant topic that we need to hear today, and also one of Jesus’ most difficult teachings to hear and believe. Jesus’ own disciples remarked in astonishment when they heard His teaching, that “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given…Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Pharisees and religious leaders always seemed to have a test for Jesus. Some clever question they could use to trip Him up or catch Him in His words. Today they asked Him “Is is lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” In Matthew, it adds that they were asking: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” They were basically asking Jesus to settle or take sides in a long-running debate among the Jewish Rabbi’s about what were the permissible reasons for getting a divorce. There were two basic schools of thought: those who followed a Rabbi named Hillel, and those following Rabbi Shammai. The first, the school of Hillel, said a man had the right to divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever, even for something so trivial as burning his meal. Or, for even more self-serving and adulterous reasons as that he found some other woman that was more pleasing to him. The second school, that of Shammai, taught that the only legitimate reason for divorce was marital unfaithfulness.

From their line of questioning and response, it seems that they were trying to find approval for or justification for free and easy permission to divorce. This is the situation we have in America today with “no-fault” divorce laws, where divorce can easily proceed even if it’s at the will or initiation of only one person. In other words, even if one person still wants to stay married and try to work things through, no-fault divorce laws take away their legal recourse to slow down or stop the divorce proceedings. It’s estimated that as many as 2/3rds of divorces involve an unwilling spouse. It’s similar to Jesus’ time, where the rights of both spouses weren’t equally protected (at that time it was usually the women who had no protection against divorce), and even the accountability for unfaithfulness to marriage wasn’t evenly applied.

But Jesus didn’t get caught in their trap. On the one hand He clearly rejects any self-seeking motives that would permit divorce for any reason. But at the same time He avoids giving divine approval to those who break the unity of marriage by unfaithfulness to their spouse. He doesn’t enter into the debate about acceptable reasons for a divorce. Yet He doesn’t deny the right of divorce to a person who’s spouse was or is unfaithful. He corrects their misunderstanding that Moses in some way approved of divorce, and shows instead that the divorce laws of the Old Testament were not an approval of divorce, but the regulation of divorce to prevent other worse evils. It was because of the hardness of their hearts—an acknowledgment that marriages were already broken.

But instead of accepting the level of their questioning, Jesus elevates it to a higher level. He quotes Moses again, but now from the first chapters of the Bible, to show what God’s original intent and design for marriage was. “From the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.’” Jesus quotes these two passages from the first chapters of Genesis, affirming the special creation of Adam and Eve—note this: at the beginning of creation. Jesus regarded the creation account in Genesis as actual history, and more than that—the ground and basis for marriage. God made Adam and Eve, and their union as husband and wife became the pattern for all subsequent marriages whether they happen between Christians or not. Marriage is simply by definition the union of a male and female to become one flesh.

Jesus goes on to interpret the verses He quoted from Genesis, saying that “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” There can be no question about how Jesus defined marriage here. The two become one flesh; and it isn’t just any two human beings—it’s clear that it’s one male and one female. There is no room for polygamy, homosexuality, or any other unnatural pairings. Jesus doesn’t allow the holy estate of marriage to be dragged down by the effects of sin and redefined according to human sinfulness. And He adds those oh-so-important words: “What God has joined together.” Without those words: “God joins together,” we would be tempted to see marriage as merely a human contract between two individuals, that could freely be dissolved at will. That is in effect how marriage has been regarded throughout history. From the time of Moses and probably before (Moses’ law appears to be offering a corrective against existing abuses of marriage), to the time of Jesus, till today. In fact this view is the whole basis for the Pharisees’ questioning of Jesus. It’s the whole basis for why we wriggle uncomfortably under Jesus’ words.

We wonder why does Jesus defend marriage so rigorously? Why do we blush and try to make excuses for the lofty ideals of marriage that Jesus teaches unapologetically? Have we considered that it’s because Jesus’ wants to lift our eyes above the mundane picture of marriage that the world is content with? That Jesus is guarding the highest and most beautiful expression of love between two humans in marriage? Remember those words: “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” God joins together. God is the One who gives the blessing of union between two persons. He’s the One who’s responsible for designing and blessing the mysterious union that’s more than just a physical act, but actually unites two humans not just in their body, but also in their persons. Because of the reality of this union, God commands that the marriage bed be kept pure (Heb. 13:4) and that sex be reserved only for marriage. This is why Jesus was such a bold advocate and defender of marriage, because the breaking of that union cannot help but be damaging to the partners involved in it, as well as any children involved.

No one needs to tell you of the hurt and upheaval that’s caused by divorce. Perhaps you have suffered that pain yourself. Probably you have close friends or family members who’ve gone through divorce. Part of the reason these words of Jesus are so hard for us is that many of us haven’t escaped the effects of divorce in our lives. And we ask ourselves, “Is God’s forgiveness for me too? Is God’s forgiveness there for my friend or relative who’s gone through divorce? Can God’s forgiveness save my marriage now? Can God repair the hurt that I feel, or forgive my guilt?” And the answers are “YES, YES, YES, and YES!” (1 Cor. 1:19-20). God is near to the brokenhearted (Is. 61:1). For those broken in heart and repentant of their sin, God forgives even this sin of divorce. He forgives those who have repented of their unfaithfulness, and leads us to make amends. His forgiveness can reach into relationships that are on the rocks and bring reconciliation to save a marriage. His forgiveness does not change God’s design for marriage, but it removes the deserved penalty for our sinful failings to follow that plan, and gives us the resource of divine love to experience the repairing of a broken heart. To experience the washing away of our guilt, so that we may once again know innocence and purity.

So with a renewed and forgiven mind and spirit, with a mended heart and a song of joy in our mouths for the undeserved love of God, we can gain a whole new perspective on Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce. We can begin to understand that He guards for us the blessed state of marriage. We can begin to lift our eyes above the fallen picture of marriage that we’ve grown accustomed to, and to see the divine pattern. We can begin to see what God wants us to enjoy when we live according to His plan. God made marriage and He knows how it works. He knows that our human marriages cannot be perfect, but if we commit to the hard work of love and forgiveness, of patience, respect and understanding, that God will richly bless us. God protects marriage because of the rich gift that He has in store for us in the shared life and mutual commitment of a man and woman.

God designed marriage because it was not good for man to be alone. Marriage gives an answer to loneliness. It provides a friend and companion for life. It gives a unique and intimate way of pleasing one another in the security of a lifelong commitment. God blesses this gift of shared love by allowing men and women to participate together in the procreation of children. The love of the husband and wife literally gives birth to new life, and gives love a new object in children. This is just a short list of the blessings that God attaches to marriage. It’s a glimpse at why He protects marriage so carefully from all the attacks of the devil to destroy or redefine it into something that is either a pale reflection or a distortion of what He designed.

God will ever stand against all sin, and we won’t find justification in His Word for the hardness of our hearts or excuses for our actions. But God forgives those who’ve felt the sharp prick of the Law on their conscience—who’ve seen where they’ve done wrong and repented of it. Jesus went to the cross with the unflinching determination to bring forgiveness of sins to us, because He saw up close for Himself all the damaging effects of sin. He experienced Himself at the cross the heart-wrenching separation of a broken relationship, when Jesus was forsaken on the cross because of our sin. Jesus shed His blood so that we could have a restored relationship with God. He shed His blood so that we could know forgiveness for our own guilt, as well as for the hurt we’ve experienced from having our own relationships broken by the abandonment or unfaithfulness of another. Whether we are married, single or divorced, by faith in Jesus Christ God joins us, the church, together with Christ. When God joins the church together with Christ, this is a relationship where we can be sure that He will never be unfaithful to us. He puts His forgiving love to work in us so that we can share His forgiveness with others. May we receive His teaching with joy, with lifted eyes to see His plan for us; and may we receive His blessing that He has prepared for us. Amen!
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at:
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1. What test did the Pharisees lay for Jesus about the question of divorce? What were the two sides of the debate between Rabbi’s about the reasons for divorce?

2. How did Jesus’ answer elevate the discussion above that debate? What did Jesus quote as the basis for understanding marriage? Read Genesis 1:27; 2:23-24.

3. Is marriage a “man-made” institution, or divine? Then who sets the terms for what marriage is? Why does Jesus protect this institution of marriage so strongly? What does God have in mind for us to enjoy?

4. Jesus acknowledged that because of the hardness of sinful hearts, divorce does happen, even though this isn’t God’s design or plan for marriage. How does the reality of forgiveness in our lives through Christ, enable us to work toward preventing divorce, and finding reconciliation? What healing is there for those who’ve been wronged by their spouses? 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Cor. 5:16-21; Rom. 5:18-6:4.

5. For a thorough study and statement on Divorce and Remarriage, see our church’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) document at:

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