Married to God
The Fourth Sunday After Trinity
Married to God
A Mormon woman ended my infatuation with Dr. Laura.
Some years ago I listened to her faithfully each day as I ran. She was no ordinary radio host. I found her uncommonly wise, full of sage advice on relationships and boundaries and, well, on life.
But one morning a woman called and explained her dilemma. She was a Mormon born and bred, the wife of a Mormon man and the mother of a couple of Mormon kids. Recently, she had been reassessing the teaching she had so long accepted. And now she found it false.
Because her husband was a hyper-committed Mormon, there could be no consideration of moving as a family out of Mormonism and into orthodox Christianity, which she now saw as authentic. The only avenue open to her was taking her children and separating from her husband.
Well, Dr. Laura didn’t just read her the riot act, she called her sanity into question. Mormons are rock-solid family folks and the caller had never suggested her husband was less than a stellar provider and father.
A convert to Judaism, Dr. Laura held coherent, healthy families to be the highest good and she would hear nothing of fracturing one in the interest of embracing a more compelling doctrine. She virtually commanded the woman to stay put, and that was that.
It’s an interesting problem. The woman on the other end of the phone had entered into a covenant relationship. What’s more, she and her children had prospered under its terms. They inhabited a stable home and enjoyed a comfortable life through the labors of an undeniably moral man who was a fine role model.
What, then, is the force of a covenant, and when may its terms be abrogated?
At the gut level, I take the side of the wife. She had discovered that the covenant relationship into which she had entered was grounded in a lie. Mormonism is a Christian heresy. Like every viable heresy, it contains kernels of truth. But those only make it more deadly.
This woman appeared to have more than a right, she had an obligation, to remove her children from that community and to raise them in the truth. Even had she been childless, I would want her to leave for the purpose of living out her belief in the truth of the life-saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
Except for one thing. There’s a troublesome passage in the seventh chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
“If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.
“But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?” (vv. 12-16).
So here we encounter the first rule of covenants, albeit one not much in fashion today: Once you’ve entered into one, you’re bound by its terms – all of them. And especially when the other party to the covenant is God Almighty, the cafeteria plan won’t pass muster.
From Adam’s day until ours, God has governed His people under a covenantal arrangement. He is not one of those capricious deities who leave their people in doubt, forcing them to guess how to please that aloof divine being up there. Not our God.
The Hebrew word for “covenant” appears nowhere in the creation story. Neither do we find it in the account of the fall in chapter 3. Just as I could spin a yarn about a luscious red fruit without ever using the word “apple,” though, the concept of covenant is unmistakably present.
In the ancient world, there developed a legal instrument called a suzerain-vassal treaty. The suzerain was frequently the greater of the two parties and he often dictated terms of the agreement.
The vassal, usually a lesser king, received protection for his fiefdom in return for performing certain duties, such as collecting taxes and passing on most of the take to the suzerain.
Many contemporary Bible scholars believe the final book of the law, or Torah, Deuteronomy, is set down in the form of such a treaty. Moses delivers it to the Israelites as they are poised on the east bank of the River Jordan, preparing to take possession of their Promised Land.
The book lays out the conditions of their stewardship of the land their suzerain is giving them, repeating for this generation many of the particulars of the code God handed their parents in the book of Leviticus. They must know the terms under which they will inhabit the land.
In the first book of Torah, Genesis, God plants a garden in Eden which will serve as the home of the first humans. He places Adam, already created, in the garden and then removes a piece of his side and forms Eve from it. Their job is to tend and keep the garden.
And they must expand it. They are to subdue the territory outside their garden and take dominion over it. These are God’s sub-regents, exercising autonomy in His creation while serving at His pleasure.
This leafy setting is their abode, given them by God, who as suzerain stipulates a condition for their continued habitation and mandates a sanction for violating it. They must not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If they do, they will surely die.
They get the run of the place, they get access to their Creator, and on intimate terms at that. They must simply perform the pleasant work given them and observe this one little regulation regarding that one tree. They have much more than enough food, wholesome food, without the fruit of that particular tree.
But God gave them something more. He gave them each other. Hear the man’s cry of wonder and joy when God brings the woman to him: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.”
We have just looked in on the first marriage, right here in the beginning, and from this point forward, throughout both Old and New Testaments, marriage of man and wife will be the picture the biblical writers use to portray the relationship between God and His covenant people.
God will instruct His prophet Hosea to take a harlot as a wife and endure the grief and shame of her infidelities as an object lesson revealing how Israel is treating her covenant Husband, Yahweh.
Our Lord Christ, enduring still another of the Pharisees’ tedious attempts to entrap Him, will resort to the Genesis creation story in His answer regarding terms for a justifiable divorce. Because of their “hardness of heart” Moses had allowed divorce, but divorce was not part of God’s original, eternal plan.
In fact, if a man divorced his wife, except for adultery, and married another, he became guilty of adultery. This practice, which has been called serial adultery, is epidemic in our country today.
If we trifle with the covenant of marriage we splash black paint on the picture of our loving Father’s marriage to us, His church.
And, sure enough, as we have watched the institution of marriage erode over these last decades we have seen Christian understanding of the meaning of belonging to our Lord’s church trampled in the process.
Many centuries ago, the Roman Catholic Church included marriage among her seven sacraments. To this day, a divorced person may not approach the communion table.
The Catholics look back to our creation story as well for their rationale for prohibiting married couples from using artificial methods of birth control – which remains dogma even today, officially. God did command us, did He not, to be fruitful and multiply?
We remain under the cultural mandate, obligated to fill the creation with worshipers of the one true God – within the confines of holy matrimony.
This, beloved, is an area of grace as delicate as a snowflake. Marjorie and I have been married for 37 years. I was married once before, decades before I came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Some Protestant denominations would deny me ordination on those grounds.
I am eternally grateful – I use the word “eternally” in the literal sense – to the Reformed Episcopal Church for allowing me the ministry I have among you today.
And you won’t hear me say very often that I feel strongly both ways, but at the same time I am loathe to say the Catholics are wrong for imposing such stringent requirements on marriage.
Whether we look at this institution through a natural or a spiritual lens, it is vital to civil order and to the order of our Lord’s church on earth and we should treat it with utmost respect.
Our narrator shows us a wrinkle in his declaration that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
Ancient Israel was not only a patriarchal society; it was a patrilocal one. A man did not leave his parents’ home when he married. The bride left hers and joined him in his. For that matter, such is still the practice among conservative Jews in Palestine today.
When Marjorie and I took a holy lands tour, as we traveled around Israel we saw many houses from which rebar extended in anticipation of adding another room when the next son married. Each house is a bet ab.
The Hebrew term bet means “house of.” It comes into English as “beth.” Bethsaida is “House of Fish” and Bethlehem is “House of Bread.” The bet ab is “house of the father.” The wife leaves her parents’ home and enters that of her husband’s father.
Some scholars resolve the matter by translating not “leave” his father and mother but “forsake” them. This is akin to the New Testament language about the need to hate one’s parents to become Jesus’ disciple – over-the-top words used to drive home the idea of utter fidelity.
I’ve read one intriguing explanation that maintains “leave” is the right word and that it is used for shock value.
If I told you, “The sun rose in the west this morning,” you would either call me crazy or, more charitably, I hope, understand that I was calling your attention to some stark contradiction. Well, everyone knows it is not the man but the woman who leaves home; therefore, the author must be using the word “leave” in some special sense.
He is describing not a physical departure but a psychical one: The man must put his wife before all others. No matter how we rationalize it, we arrive at the conclusion that the husband’s commitment to his wife must be so radical that it eclipses his loyalty even to his parents.
In the tribal cultures of the ancient world – and this remains so in many areas in the Near and Middle East today – the bond of child to parents, and the father in particular, is the ultimate loyalty. Not so for Israel, says Yahweh. Man and wife “shall become one flesh.”
The two become one while remaining two. This is the only portrait vivid enough to represent the covenant relationship between God and His people. It rests on the very nature of God Himself.
In the incarnation, God takes on flesh, assuming a fully human identity while remaining wholly divine. He is fully God and fully man, His two natures perfectly merged in one Person. He has become two while remaining one.
In the Trinity, each Person has a distinct identity and specific functions. The Father sends, the Son saves, the Spirit seals, and so on. At the same time, the three remain one God, perfectly related each to the other two with no tension or contradiction among them.
This mystical union within the Godhead is the platform on which human marriage is built. As Father, Son and Holy Spirit trust and love one another implicitly, so should husband and wife.
“And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed.” Elsewhere in the Old Testament – which is to say, after the fall – nakedness is associated with shame. In the garden, however, it expresses the delight Adam and Eve take in one another.
They were lovers, best friends and brother and sister begotten of the same Father. They were equipped to serve as mediators between Creator and creation and their union then could represent the covenant relationship between God and His people.
In the ancient world, the bond between a deity and his subject people was seen as part of the natural order, a link forged in the creation myth. Not so for Yahweh and His creatures. Their joining would be grounded in a choice, and one God initiates.
He would sing His song of songs to His beloved and she would answer by giving herself freely and fully to Him, forsaking all others. She would choose the One who had chosen her. In order that she might know His expectations and the precise nature of their marriage, they would establish a covenant.
And what is the nature of the first covenant? Some have called it a “covenant of works.” After all, they reason, Adam and Eve would earn God’s blessing or His curse by what they did or did not do. The relationship was straightforward and transactional: Eat the fruit of those trees but not of this tree.
In my humble, accurate opinion, they’ve got it all wrong. They have made grace simplistic.
That one statute regarding the trees prescribes not just a diet but a comprehensive ethical system. A loving and gracious God wanted from Adam and Eve what He wanted from that stiff-necked and disobedient people Israel who wandered in the wilderness and what He wants from us today.
He wants us to respond by the faith He supplies to the grace that is the effusion of His love. Yes, that response involves obedience . . . but not a mechanical, even robotic, adherence to a rule. God simply wants His people to love Him back.
By their observance of one little rule, or the breaking of it, Adam and Eve would answer myriad questions:
Did they love God? Did their love entail obedience? Did they respect Him? Did they acknowledge His sovereignty over His creation?
Did they covet knowledge reserved to him? If one decided to eat the forbidden fruit, how would the other react?
Most importantly, did they see themselves as different from Him in their being? For the Creator-creature distinction is at the heart of the covenant. We may only approach God if we know we are of an essence different from His.
And that last matter would become the stumbling block for Adam and Eve. Aspiring to gain knowledge reserved to God and so to become gods, they tumbled downward through a bottomless black hole and into death.
But they lived. Much is made of the garments God provided them to cover their nakedness. The previous owner of that fur became the first animal sacrificed, foreshadowing the system of burnt offerings on Israel’s altar under the Mosaic Covenant.
In His grace, God did indeed establish a system of substitutionary animal sacrifices by which His people could maintain and be restored to covenant cleanliness. But it was another form of death that hounded Adam and Eve out of their paradise and into a hostile world of hard labor, pain in childbirth and much more affliction besides.
They died in their separation from God, the Giver of life. That was the terrible penalty for breaking covenant with their Creator.
But, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” (Psalm 103:8, ESV). He would create a way of salvation and restoration. Under a covenant.
So, Dr. Laura was right for the wrong person. Her caller remained bound to her husband not because he was a good guy but because the covenant is sacrosanct. As I can testify, the living witness of a godly wife availeth much. God can and does use it to bring the unbelieving partner to saving faith.
Because a covenant is a vital and precious thing, we must choose wisely and well our covenant partner . . . and, finding the right one, commit to that one body and mind, heart and soul, becoming one flesh. Amen.Posted on: July 21, 2016Ed Fowler