Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb"

Message preached October 5, 2003
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Mark 10:2-16 & Revelation 19:6-9

Order of Worship

            "Let the children come to me." An invitation. In reality, a command spoken sternly by our Lord. "Donít stop them," Jesus told his disciples when they became uptight over the disorder we frequently associate with children. "Allow them to freely come," he said. With open arms Jesus welcomed and blessed them. "If you want to know about being receptive to what God is doing all around you, take a hint from these little ones. The truth is, nobody enters the kingdom of God without a childlike eagerness to just come and receive."

            Next Sunday weíll pay attention to what immediately followed this episode, as the story of Jesus is told by Mark, Matthew, and Luke. In it a rich young man sought out our Lord. Funny thing is, when this man came to the "good teacher," no disciple questioned whether he should be bothering the Lord, unlike those unruly children. But ... Jesus welcomed him, anyway, and his question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Can you hear echoes of what our Lord had just spoken in relation to those children? "If you donít receive the kingdom as a child would, with expectant eyes looking up, you havenít a clue about your inheritance."

            The placement of these episodes in the gospel story as weíve received it has significance. I donít believe that those who pulled the stories of Jesus together into these four running accounts of those awesome years in Palestine were operating in a haphazard fashion - just cutting and pasting without a sense of purpose. No, they were inspired to tell the whole story, each in their own unique way. As Iíve said, itís interesting that right after this episode of Jesus receiving and blessing the children comes this story of the rich man. Did it happen historically in just that order? Good chance. More important, though, is that this is how it is remembered. There was a purpose in connecting these episodes in the story as we have received it.

            How interesting, then, that what Jesus had to say about children, according to both Mark and Matthew, immediately follows some rather harsh words concerning divorce. When it comes to ending a marriage, the truth is that more is involved than separating a man and a woman. Especially when children are involved, divorce is not an easy answer to the problems of a marriage. Yes, children are resilient. They are more flexible than adults. They come through such things far better than we think they will. However, the pain they experience in the process runs deep and can be a stumbling block to future relationships. Too often, children are the forgotten collateral damage of divorce. And Jesus said, "Let the children come to me..."

            Now, I step carefully through these words of Jesus on divorce, knowing that many of you have personally experienced what divorce is all about, having gone through it as an ex-husband or wife, or as a child of divorce, or as an extended family member who wonders if and how a piece of paper can break every relationship that a marriage creates. Yes, a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two become one in the act of marriage. But there is a joining of more than two people when each says, "I do." The marriage supper is a family affair.

            I step carefully through this scripture because it is my experience as a pastor that those who have gone through this wrenching apart of a relationship know why the Old Testament prophet Malachi once declared, "I hate divorce, says the Lord" (2:16). This cure for an unhealthy marriage is often worse than the disease.

            Of course, I also know that there are relationships that are downright toxic and need to be terminated. Too often our words within the church about divorce are taken to heart especially by those caught in abusive relationships. Those being abused keep trying to be a better wife or husband, even as their spouse continues to hurt them, physically or emotionally, sometimes in ever-escalating ways. We in the church fail to complete Malachiís sentence. "I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel, and covering oneís garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless (2:16)." Does not an abusive spouse cover the "garment" of their relationship with violence?

            The "garment" we call "marriage" is sacred ground. It is a covenant between a man and a woman, which should not be confused with a contract. A contract is based upon things that are to be done. When we sign a contract, we are agreeing to do, or have done for us, certain actions. If these things are not done, this contract can be torn up - declared null and void. A marriage, however, is not a contract. Of course, it involves a lot of doing. Love is a verb, after all - it requires of us actions and not just words. The "I do" at the heart of it, though, is not based upon this doing. It is a covenant which goes far beyond what we do or fail to do.

            From the perspective of our faith, the covenants we make with each other are grounded in our covenant with God. Our relationship with the great "I am who I am" is not a contract, thatís for sure. If it were, we would not have this library called the Bible. As we read through it, we discover how many times promises have been broken. From the very beginning in fact, "I do" has ended up with "I donít." And the story is repeated over and over, as the human end of this covenant with God is tossed aside. Itís like a broken record, or - for you of the CD generation - itís like a track that keeps repeating itself. Godís people donít live up to their end of the covenant. And yet, the covenant remains. If this were a contract, God would have torn it up long, long ago.

            The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. Thatís another way of saying that God remains true to this covenant. Even when Godís people have not kept faithful to this relationship, God keeps the faith. That faithfulness lies at the heart of the Bible story, which is our story. The Lord does not give up on us. From the perspective of our Christian faith, we behold how far God will go in remaining true. While our marriage vows may state, "til death do us part," the cross reveals that even death will not break our covenant with God. In fact, it is the very death of Jesus which binds us to this God who fiercely loves us forever. We call what God has done in Christ Jesus a new covenant, a new testament. Not that the old relationship is torn up. God doesnít deal in contracts. This relationship is made new in Jesus Christ. Itís a brand new garment.

            Marriage, we believe, is grounded in this covenant. What this means for marriage, as well as for all our other relationships, which are also sacred ground, is that there is always the promise of renewal. There is always hope. "Behold, I make all things new," Jesus continues to say to us. Even when relationships appear a dead-end, behind tomorrow lies all the possibility of the kingdom of God. Even when you have done everything you think you possibly can do, or even when you have failed miserably at doing what you know you should have done, remember that ultimately everything depends upon Godís faithfulness, not our own. God will not disappoint.

            Of course, we may wonder at times what the Lord is up to, or where God is in the middle of the muddle. The Bible has plenty of stories of Godís people crying out for answers or relief, stories which sound all-too-familiar to many of us. Even so, God remains faithful. You see, my sermon today is not really about divorce between a man and a woman. To be honest, every time a friend or relative goes through a divorce, a part of me dies. I hate it. Donít you? Doubts arise about how lasting marriage really is. Relationships in general seem to be more cheap. I donít say that as a judgement upon anyone. Itís just the truth. But there is a greater truth.

            For, you see, my message this morning is about our relationship with a God who will not divorce us. Can you grasp the magnitude of those words? Now, I donít want to allow this truth to get lost in a theological argument, because I know questions remain about our end of the relationship. I mean, if we donít do what weíre supposed to do, will God still remain faithful? The whole point is this - the good news is ultimately not about what we do. Itís about God, about what God has already done in Jesus Christ, about what God is doing even now to make all things new, about Godís promise for the days ahead. Iíll tell you what God wonít do. God wonít divorce us.

            When those Pharisees came to Jesus with their question about whether "it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife," there was - as it says - a "hardness of heart" behind the issue. For one thing, that "hardness" was an upper-class disease. The majority of families back then could not have afforded to divorce. Just like today. Divorce too often leads to poverty. Thatís a fact! Sometimes it is necessary, as when a spouse is abusive or has broken the faith irreconcilably. Even then, however, divorce leaves a family, especially if there are children involved, worse off.

            In Bible times, it was a rich manís option to simply write a "certificate of dismissal" and get rid of what he perceived to be a piece of excess baggage. He could afford to do it or, perhaps, could fool himself into thinking he could. In most cases, the one considered to be "excess baggage" was left in dire circumstances... In the abundance of the kingdom of God, my friends, there is no "excess baggage." Each person is of tremendous value. Only a hard heart sees it otherwise. Only a hardened heart is blind to the possibility of what God can do in a relationship.

            "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." Those words apply to more than gaining entrance to heaven after we die. At issue is the state of our heart and the ability to receive now what God wants to provide. Is it Godís will that marriages and families should crumble? Of course not. The ties that bind us together run deeper than we know. And the One who will not let us go, who will not divorce us, even when we mess up big time, is with us - as promised - to heal what is broken and create something altogether new out of the ashes of past mistakes.

            And Jesus said, "Let the children come to me..." Those words arenít just about the little ones among us. Theyíre about you and me. Jesusí arms remain open to all Godís children, no matter how old they are, even those who have messed things up real good. Open your heart and receive what God wants to give.

            Our final hymn sings out these words at the end of each verse, "earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal." Do you believe that? Then stand and sing #497. Let it be a song of joy, not of sorrow. Emphasize those last words.

online resources for: Mark 10:2-16, Revelation 19:6-9

For commentaries consulted, see Mark and Revelation.

©2003 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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