Promises, promises - A different understanding of marriage - Malachi 2:13-16

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 4th June 2000.

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Promises, promises - A different understanding of marriage

It was a hit movie, with breathtaking scenery and two of the most well known stars of Hollywood - Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. The film was ‘Out of Africa’. In one scene the two stars were sitting on the beach talking. She wants him to marry her. Redford’s response is: ‘Do you think I’ll love you more because of a piece of paper?’

And it has to be admitted that such a view of marriage is becoming increasingly popular. Marriage is seen as little more than a piece of paper, an empty, and some would say, expensive formality. Perhaps more articulately and certainly more forcefully Tania Kindersley in her book ‘Don't Ask Me’, puts the case against marriage in these terms: ‘Love should exist for its own sake, not because of legal ties or ceremonial obligation. If I ever consider spending the rest of my life with one person, I should like him to stay for me, not because he said so in front of a crowd of people, not because divorce is expensive. If you can say to someone: ‘Here is the door, it’s open,’ that is a real sign of love and trust. Surely that is real security.’

The statistics support the contention that a significant shift is taking place away from the traditional view of marriage in the direction of cohabitation, that is a man and woman living together within sexual union without that union being formalised legally by marriage. In the early 70’s 1 in 10 marriages were preceded by cohabitation, in the early 90’s it was 7 out of 10, now it is approach 4 out of 5. For most couples it is a transitory phase, so half of the cohabitations last less than two years. But also 52% of those living together do eventually get married. This obviously has an effect on the experience of children. Some 17% of babies born are now born to those couples cohabiting, and it is estimated that within the next year or so only half of all children will spend their entire childhood within a traditional married family. So the times, as they say, are a-changing.

Now the chances are that there are some here this morning who have decided on ‘living together’ or are at least thinking about it. And I wouldn't want to question that such a decision has been made for most genuine and sincerest of reasons. Maybe some have experienced as children the traumas of divorce and so in wanting to avoid the mistake of their parents want to check things out first. Some for economic reasons feel it is the best option. But this morning I would want to ask us all to stop and pause to see if there is in fact a better option. It will come as no surprise to you to hear that I think there is and it is the biblical alternative of marriage. You know, so often marriage doesn’t get a good hearing because no one has ever taken the time to explain what it really involves, that it is something far more than a piece of paper, it is something woven into the very fabric of our existence. Neither is it pointed out that living together can very often have its downside. What is more, if marriage is something which God the loving creator has instituted, then it follows it must be for our best and I hope to show that is so.

Now I don’t want to give the impression that marriage is going out of style. It is still the case that 82% of 16 - 17 year olds expect to marry and only 14% of people think it is an outmoded institution. And as I began by referring to two actors, here is one actress who gives a big ‘thumbs up’ for marriage, Nanette Newman who has been married for over 40 years, she says ‘It is terribly sad that today people think having the same husband for your whole life is dull. It’s much more intriguing than having affairs.’ Nonetheless, marriage is under considerable strain.

So how are we to understand marriage as God intends? Well, in the reading we had from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus takes us back to the very beginning of creation, quoting the Book of Genesis, for the foundation of the basic principles of the married relationship between men and women.

First of all it is a created relationship as we see in v 6, with Jesus referring back to Genesis 1: 27 ‘But at the beginning of creation God made them male and female.’ This is not simply how God planned it, this is the way God made it. It is not a social construct which we can unmake and remake, it is a divine institution, a way of being as much as the change of the seasons and the revolving of the planets. And God had two purposes in mind which marriage is meant to fulfil. In the first instance it is meant to be the place where we fulfil our natural desire for companionship. That is spelt out in Genesis 2: 18 when having made Adam God said ‘It is not good for man to be alone.’ Now that doesn't mean that the single life is never fulfilling - look at Jesus - or that every marriage is. But the setting in Genesis makes it quite clear that it is God’s ideal provision for our inbuilt need for companionship at the deepest and most fundamental level of our being - having a ‘better half’. In the second place the married relationship provides the ideal setting for having and raising children, providing the secure and stable environment in which they can grow and learn to act responsibly.

Secondly, it is a committed relationship, Mark 10: 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.’ You see, in marriage we have a new family unit being established. What is more the word for ‘united’ or ‘cleave’ suggests that passion and permanence should characterise marriage. That clear understanding that whatever may happen in the future there is that determined commitment to remain faithful and stand by each other through thick and thin. Now implicit within this idea of ‘leaving and cleaving’ is that of making a promise - a vow. The Bible’s word for it is covenant, which is the background to that passage from Malachi - 2: 14 ‘The Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth.. she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant’. Now this idea might well contrast to this verse written in a Hallmark card: ‘I can’t promise forever. But I can promise you today.’ And what we have in those two contrasting statements are two mutually exclusive views of love. There is Hallmark love, the love of the 21st century, unsure, ephemeral, here today and who knows about tomorrow? It is a love which breeds insecurity for it places ourselves at the mercy of the emotional highs or lows of the other person - they fall in love and they fall out of love. Not so the love of the wedding service. Here love is not a tribute it is a promise, a voluntary, personal commitment to somebody. When the groom and the bride say ‘I will’ to each other, they don’t mean ‘I think you are the best looking babe or the beefiest hunk in the whole wide world.’ We are not so much paying the other person a compliment as making a personal commitment - a pledge. I will be true to you. And it is here that the movie line from ‘Out of Africa’ completely misses the point of a marriage covenant, for such a covenant never claims to regulate love’s intensity but only its security. The world cannot see that love which truly loves is willing to bind itself, is willing to promise, willingly pledges itself so that the other may stand securely in that love. Will this person still love me tomorrow? He or she has given their word - that should be enough.

Which leads us on to the next aspect of marriage, it is a permanent relationship - Mark 10: 8 ‘The two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one. Therefore, what God has joined together let man not separate.’ You see, this is not just a human transaction, it is a divine union - joined by God. Before marriage, they were just two individuals, now committed to each other publicly and consummating their new relationship sexually, the two become one - they become a unity. What is more this understanding sheds light on the nature of the sex act itself. You see, sexual intercourse both expresses and brings about a deep permanent union - emotionally, physically, spiritually if you will. Therefore, when it is engaged in outside the context of a permanent marriage commitment, it becomes a lie. It speaks of one thing - lifelong loyalty and yet the intention is something else - temporary mutual enjoyment. That is what is wrong with fornication. And as with all lies it damages people in the long run.

Now it is especially at this point at cohabitation seriously falls short of God’s intentions. It is a private arrangement which lacks the public acknowledgement of commitment, so there is at least an implication that it is not a lifelong commitment, there is a sense of trying things out which if it doesn't meet the test means it can be ended as quickly as it started.

In the fourth instance, marriage is a legal relationship. In that reading from Mark Jesus is being asked about divorce. Now that in itself assumes some form of legal setting within which the marriage relationship takes place. Certainly marriage is more than a legal agreement, it is a commitment in love to one another expressed in those solemn vows before God and society, but it certainly isn’t anything less than a legal relationship. That requirement of a marriage certificate by society isn't some petty piece of bureaucracy - it is for the protection and well being of the couple concerned and society as a whole. You see, it declares that the spouses are no longer available for committed relationships with anyone else. It protects any children in the marriage, establishing their identity and the responsibilities of the parents to that child. By way of contrast cohabitation is a private arrangement and does not take into account the wider responsibilities of society. And if after a long period of cohabitation and separation occurs, then the legal aspects become all the messier. And generally speaking it is the woman who is left the worse off.

Now you may say, ‘Well, all of this may sound interesting, but so what?’ It is that ‘so what’ I want to spend a few moments on now, because you see, marriage is also a relevant relationship - it is simply the best. Now this is not just because the Vicar says so, or even because the Bible says so, it is backed up by the facts. Now all the statistics I am going to refer to are based on careful research. They don't just come from Christians either. They are generalisations, and there will always be exceptions. We will always be able to point to, say, a couple living together who are happier and more faithful than say some married couple we know. But that may well be the same as pointing to someone who smokes 50 cigarettes a day who is in better health than someone who doesn’t smoke at all.

Take relationship stability for instance. Cohabiting couples are almost six times as likely to split up as those who are married. Even where there are children, half of the cohabiting couples part within ten years, compared to just one in eight of married parents. Do you see how important that so called piece of paper is? Its not so much the paper, but what it represents - the promise of fidelity backed up by society. Another problem faced by those who were cohabiting and then split up is the mixed reaction of their family and friends. Here is a quote from a man whose partner of five years just walked out on him which illustrates the problem only too well: ‘The worst part of this has been the lack of sympathy. If we’d been married, everyone would have rallied round trying to help.’

God in his wisdom and love gave marriage for the well being of children - true. It is now estimated that broken cohabitations are responsible for between a quarter and a half of single parent families. There is an increasing amount of alarming evidence that break up of such partnerships and marriage is damaging to children, such that they are more likely (although not inevitably) to suffer from poor performance at school, fall ill, have behaviour problems and fall prey to solvent and drug abuse and end up in court. Now I don't say that to alarm those of us in such a situation or to make us feel more guilty than we already feel, but to face up to the situation in which we find ourselves so that steps can be taken and at least make us appreciate and work for what God has instituted for our good.

Neither is cohabitation all that encouraging on the faithfulness front. In the 1994 Sexual Behaviour in Britain report, it was found that only 43% of cohabiting men reported monogamy over the last five years, 24% reported concurrent partnerships (several at once), in comparison nearly 90% of married men reported monogamy in the last five years.

Marriage is also good for your health in a way that living together isn't. Research in California comparing differences between those who cohabited prior to marriage and those who did not found: ‘Cohabitors experienced significantly more difficulty in their marriages with adultery, alcohol, drugs and independence than couples who had not cohabited.’ And in spite of the scorn that the media may heap on those who hold a traditional view of sex within marriage, the evidence points the other way. One survey has shown that of ‘traditionalists’ (those who strongly believe sex is for marriage) 72% report high sexual satisfaction, that is 31% higher than unmarried non traditionalists, who take a more casual view towards sex outside marriage.

And so I could go on. But you get the general picture. The delicate and glorious treatment of marriage given at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis, spoken of again in Malachi, reiterated by Jesus and upheld by present research show that overall men, women and children fare best within marriage. They are generally healthier, happier and more fulfilled. And despite claims to the contrary, cohabitation is a poor substitute for marriage and an ineffective trial for marriage.

We need to get back to God’s basic design. This means more than talk from the church, it means action. That is what God was expecting of Israel in Malachi’s time and what he expects of the church today - ‘Guard yourself in your spirit and do not break faith. ’ (2: 16)Fortunately we do have those in the congregation who are involved in seeking to improve marriage preparation as well as marriage renewal. We do want to find ways of making this more widely available. And while the church will want to do all that it can to promote the ideal of marriage, it will also see itself as having a duty to support and bring Christ’s healing to those, who for whatever reason, are suffering from the effects of separation. At the very least we will want to provide that wider church family support of grace and forgiveness and strength which can be found in Christ for them and their children. Because you see, marriage is not only a divine gift from our God, it is also a divine picture of God’s grace, with Christ being our husband, and we the church being his beloved bride, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 5. He has pledged himself to us irrevocably. He has bled for us so that we might be his for all eternity, so that as Paul says, we might be presented ‘to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.’ Maybe we are here this morning feeling somewhat sullied and hurt by a broken relationship, anxious about our children. maybe we have been challenged that the relationship we are in is not right, it falls terribly short of what God wants. If so, then why not come with me now in prayer to the one who would beckon us to be his beloved, whose love will not let us go, who promises his Holy Spirit to all who would trust him and start to bring about a restoring of our souls and those of our children, as we turn to him - even Jesus Christ.

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