Marriage and Divorce

Delivered April 14, 2002 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Sermon Text:
Matthew 19:1-12

Let me share with you a little internet joke that came over the wires. A funeral service is being held for a woman who has just passed away and at the end of the service the pallbearers are carrying the casket out when accidentally they bump in to a wall jarring the casket. They hear a faint moan and they open the casket and they find out that the woman is actually alive. She lives for ten more years and then finally dies. Again, in the same place and a funeral is held and at the end the pallbearers again are carrying out the casket. As they are walking, the husband cries out, “watch the wall”.

My apologies for that joke. I would have thought that husband would have been grateful for those extra ten years, but what makes us laugh is our universal understanding that marriage is not always easy. And sometimes, even relationships that start well, don’t end well. We live in a day when general expectations regarding marriage are not very high. Distinguished historian Laurence Stone writes, “the scale of marital breakdown in the west since 1960 has no historical precedence and seems unique. There has been nothing like it for the past 2,000 years and probably much longer”. Again, I don’t want to go in to a whole lot of statistics, I know you have probably read or seen the statistics. In fact, my guess would be that there is not a person sitting here who hasn’t in some way been affected by marital breakdown, divorce, separation, and the pains that go along with them. But permit me this one. Between 1970 and 1994 the number of divorced persons in the United States quadrupled from 4 million plus to 17 million plus, making it the fastest growing marital status category. And even if all of the statistics are not accurate, we could agree on this: We feel increasing levels of pain in the Christian community as we see increasing numbers of our friends and our family member’s struggle in or walk away from their marriages.

Now I would like to share a couple of disclaimers with you. Number one, this is too broad of topic to try to squeeze in to a 20 to 24 minute sermon. And so afterward, if you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing or wanting to add or subtract, that’s okay. I don’t want to discourage conversation, but I am just going to say, “disclaimer number one”, okay?

Disclaimer number two is this: The person speaking to you is a child of divorce. But also I have been the beneficiary of a very satisfying marriage for now almost 29 years. Yet even with this being said, there have been times in our relationship that we have been unpleasantly surprised by; times of anger. In every relationship there are these kinds of times. Bitterness, estrangement, etc. which has sometimes frightened us, disillusioned us and illuminated how disturbing marital discord can be, even for a brief time. And I can only imagine that if that distress, apart from God’s grace had been allowed to continue, what a painful reality it would be. So if you say today, “Pastor George, you just don’t understand.” I would say, “you’re right”. At some levels I don’t understand, but I would also say you are wrong, because I know what it is like to grow up in a home of divorce and I know we are not perfect. And so in some ways I do understand.

Now because the whole topic is too broad, I am confining my message to Matthew’s text. And the New Testament lesson is found in Matthew, Chapter 19:1-12. And basically I am going to walk you through this. I think I have just about read every text of scripture in the last couple of weeks that has to do with marriage and divorce and it could just go on forever. So I am just going to try to stay within bounds of Matthew 19, although there is much more that could be said of course. But let’s read it together as an act of worship and then we will talk about it a little bit.

“When Jesus had finished saying these things he left Galilee and went in to the region of Judaea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female and said for this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife. And the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one.” Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate. “Why then” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness and marries another woman commits adultery. The disciples said to him, “if this is a situation between a husband and wife then it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “not everyone can accept this word, but only those for whom it has been given”. For some are eunuchs, because they were born that way, others were made that way by men and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Now I like the fact that this passage starts with a reminder of Jesus’ healing ministry, because some of us who gather today need the healing touch of Jesus when it comes to our marital relationships or when it comes to a past marital relationship. And I could list all kinds of categories, but I won’t. I pray that God will bring some level of healing today if there is still lingering guilt or regrets or pain or anger or bitterness and that God will start to break in to that. And even for those who say, “hey our relationship is pretty good”, there is a challenge that God might have for you today as well, because everybody could be a little stronger in their relationships. So, we are reminded Jesus is a healer and he can heal the most broken of things, even those that can’t be put back together. But as Jesus is doing his ministry of healing, there are some who introduce a bit of pain. And so in verse 3, the Pharisees come to test him. And they asked him this question. Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason? Now what I find interesting is that they didn’t come and ask him the question from a more positive perspective. They didn’t come to Jesus and say, “Lord, how can we have a fruitful and fulfilled marriage?” Now if they had, Jesus could have probably said all kinds of things.

He may have said some of the things that some of America’s top divorce lawyers might say. I read an article recently about divorce lawyers who are always facing the pain of separation and divorce. And who themselves have really strong relationships for many reasons because they are always reminded of what it takes to work on a marriage. And in this article, I will just take a few phrases out of this article and if anybody wants it, I will give it to you. But these are some of the things that America’s top divorce lawyers advise and maybe these things could have been words of the Lord:

Realize that love isn’t simply romance.
Communicate; take the time.
Don’t place unrealistic expectations on your spouse.
Don’t let your career become more important that your marriage.
Expect the best of each other.
Serve your spouse in sacrificial ways, because love at its very core involves sacrifice.
Respect is everything.
Be as mannerly to your spouse as you are to your business associates.
And the article goes on and on. But the Pharisees didn’t ask Jesus, what does it take? They said, “how can we get out of it?” that’s basically what they are asking. There were two schools of thought. The Shammites and the Hillelites. And these two schools varied over the reasons that people could divorce. The Shammites only for moral reasons.; only for things like unchastity and infidelity. The Hillelites said any reason – burn the dinner, don’t like her looks, couldn’t have children, whatever. They could just write a certificate and let it be known publicly, okay I am not married anymore. She’s not married anymore. Now Jesus knew that at worst, he was dealing with people who were trying to justify the unacceptable treatment of women on the basis of some legal pink slip. And at best, he was challenging those who even legitimately offended, felt like their only course would be divorce. Jesus tried to lift their eyes to a higher standard and to God’s creative work and that’s what he does in verse 4. He says, “haven’t you read.” I could take five minutes on haven’t you read, but he replied, ” that in the beginning the creator made them male and female.” Notice what he does. He then takes a verse from Genesis 1:27 and he ties it in to Gen. 2:24 and he says, “for this reason a man will leave…” and so forth. Jesus ties the creation of men and woman in to what God has done in the covenant of marriage. In other words, the covenant of marriage is in some way to be reflective of the image of God. A covenant is a relationship of the deepest union. It unites two parties in a relationship of inter-dependence. We don’t know what the image of God really is, but we know Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We know that there is some beautiful level of interdependence there and in some way there is a mirror in the marital covenant to show unity and separateness and healthy ways and wholeness and that is to be reflected in the covenant. And this covenant Jesus says is marked by endings and promises. In verse 5 he says leaving of parents is a mini-death as it were, that must take place. How many marriages suffer and struggle because at some emotional level, a leaving has not happened. But then he says that when that is successfully done and going out from the families of origin happens, then there is a cleaving or a uniting that speaks to the act of commitment of the will towards each partner as they take vows.

Last night I participated in a wedding downtown and there again the bride and groom took vows, the two were committing life long vows to one another, although that is not always what is in the mind of a couple. I remember talking to one fellow who was in a former congregation and he said, “Pastor George” (he had been divorced and he remarried and he became a Christian) he said, “Let me tell you. When I got married the first time, literally I was standing in front of the alter at the head of the aisle, consciously thinking that if this doesn’t work out something else might come along.” Unbelievable! that that could be thought of in the mind at such a time, but yet it is. It completely misses the point of what Jesus is saying here, if that in any way is the idea in someone’s mind. Jesus is saying that cleaving is a commitment and a promise to life long fidelity. Then he goes on to say that the two become one flesh. This just doesn’t talk about sexual union, this talks about the two people now are a new family, a new kinship and all of the families take second place, this family becomes priority and that union is now sealed and symbolized in sexual union. And so the covenant of God of marriage is the place of confinement for the expression of sexual union.

Now I know that we live in a world that doesn’t acknowledge that, believe it or abide by it, but that’s what Jesus is saying. And he goes on to say that this covenant is as much God’s doing as the creation itself. That God has created something dynamic and mysterious just as he has created the whole word. And so what God has created and joined together, let nobody separate. One man, one woman, one God ordained relationship.

The Director of Student Ministries stuck his head in the door this past week and he said, “George, guess what. Tony Evans is preaching on divorce and remarriage this week.” And I said, “Oh Bill good, what did he say? Maybe I could use something you know.” He said, “well the only thing that I caught was he was talking about one man and one woman, and God didn’t create any spares in the garden, in case it didn’t work out.” You’re stuck with what you got is the message from that. So work at it because God’s intention is never for divorce. That’s his intention for those entering the covenant of marriage. And what this further teaches, is that our true significance comes first from God, then from our partner. And sadly, many do it the other way around. They seek another human to tell them that they have worth or significance and then when treated badly they mistakenly believe that they are not valuable or lovely. No, the covenant begins with a relationship with God.

And so in verse 1-6 Jesus completely shifts the question about divorce to the positive nature of God ordained human relationships, because God knows the harm and the pain that can happen because of divorce and he seeks to protect us. But I know what’s going through some of your minds, but what about all of those relationships that just don’t work? And that’s exactly when we come to verse 7. Why then did Moses command that a man gives his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away? I could just see it. Jesus may be saying under his breath, “you guys are always taking about commands.” He says, “Moses permitted divorce, this wasn’t a commandment, like you shall not commit adultery. This was a command that affirms human weakness. It was a permission.” And here it is folks – the answer that Jesus gives as the bottom line for every ruptured relationship. He permitted this because of hardness of heart. Now what does that mean? The basic melted down meaning. I think it just means selfishness, a lack of concern over the needs of another, maybe downright human meanness. See Moses knew that it was better for some person to give a certificate of divorce to someone versus allowing that person to be brutalized. He realized that there may be some instances when divorce is the lesser of two evils. I think about that myself in my own experiences. Sometimes I think there was a lot of pain in my parents’ divorce, but you know I wonder if there had been more pain if they hadn’t. And so Moses understood the human heart and so does Jesus and he still doesn’t negate this. But he says it wasn’t the plan from creation. It’s not God’s model. Because God doesn’t wish to see people harmed, because of divorce. And so that’s why we get to verse 9, the reason that God is so stringent, because in his culture you have to understand the way that women were treated. Women 99% were always in a dependent mode. They were always in the one down position and only a man could initiate divorce. And if that person initiated divorce, to not marry again was a terrible prospect for a woman. And what it meant usually was she would grow old with no children, she would have no social standing whatsoever, and would appear and live as though she were a total failure. Many times the only recourse was prostitution. Many times if maybe a woman did marry again, a new husband would keep her in that you know “you’re damaged goods” kind of mode. And so in essence Jesus is saying a woman is being forced into adultery when a man thinks he can just make up a pink slip of legality. It means nothing Jesus says.

So for us today Jesus has a word. He is saying, look, I am not going to dilute God’s standard. I am not going to let anybody off the hook who thinks so little of God’s plan for marriage. Divorce for convenience or for personal fulfillment, whatever that means, or simply to start over again, is like deserting during warfare. And I am not saying that it can’t be forgiven, I am just saying there is tremendous damage that will affect us for the rest of our lives when we break the covenant. Sometimes we are passive and as much as we appeal to a partner, there is no appeal and that creates a lot of pain, but Jesus is challenging us higher and that’s why in verse 10 the disciples say, “whoa, man, if that’s the way it is maybe we should really think twice.” Yeah, maybe we should.

I was sharing at the end of the last service that I appreciate what Grace Fellowship does. They make every couple who gets married (and of course the pastors here take people through pre-marital counseling), but they have a systematic eight-week program of pre-marital preparation; and then you have to go eight more weeks with a mentor couple and if you don’t do those 16 weeks, they won’t marry you. That’s on the preventive end of things. But they understood, the disciples understood the standard that Jesus was raising and then we come to verse 11 and 12. He says, “not everybody can accept this celibacy. This is a gift and not everyone is given this gift.” And that’s as confusing for us as some people thinking how confusing it is to be in life-long partnership with one person. But Jesus says in verse 12 something very shocking and I struggle to understand why it is in this text here. “For some are eunuchs because they were born that way and for others they were made that way by man and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven.” It’s a shocking verse. It is one of those Sermon on the Mount verses. You know, pluck out your eye if it causes you offense. It’s not literal, but he is trying to get across something I think is very important. He speaks of eunuchs. Now I always love explaining this part. But there may be some that say, “what’s a eunuch?” Well it’s one whose sexual parts were damaged, crushed, severed either literally or figuratively. At first I asked, why is this here? I then started to think about it and wondered you know, eunuchs according to the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 23:1 couldn’t even enter the assembly of God’s people. They couldn’t even worship together. Leviticus 22:24 says a castrated animal couldn’t even be used as a sacrifice. So why does Jesus bring this in here? I think for a few reasons. He introduces this term and image, I believe, to side with and lift up those who were scorned and written off by everyone. He knew that such might be the case in the life of the community when they were broken relationships for whatever reasons. And I wonder in his compassion if he isn’t saying, that even the most scorned are welcome in my kingdom and are welcome to service in my community. And you know what happens? The people who have suffered most as a result of marital stress become the best mentors many times, even if they have ended their marriage and remarried, for those who follow after them. I am thinking of a friend of mine who works with the very program that I just mentioned to you. A dear friend of mine from high school and college went through a terrible divorce; they have five children. He is one of the mentors of the young couples at Grace Fellowship.

For too long the stance of the church has been to treat the divorced in a semi-accepting way. More “yes we are kind of glad you’re here, but you will always be kind of second row.” I want to ask you a question. I know I’ve got to quit pretty soon. But if you discovered, and who knows in the next few weeks some real hot information might come about the new pastor, but let’s say you discover that the new pastor in every single way was a perfect match, experienced, education, preaching ability, church work, but you found out there was an asterisk at the bottom of his resume and it said previously divorced? What then? Would that disqualify him? Well I know what you’re thinking, you’re saying well it depends. When did it happen, why and all that. But for some they would say, automatic cylindrical file. See I think what God might be saying through this last verse in this text, is that nobody is discounted from service who is repentant and seeks to walk with God and learn from the mistakes that we all make and in some ways have been protected by God’s grace from. Marriage is a reflection of Christ and the Church. That is what it says in Ephesians 5. What better image of forgiveness? Where beside the Church should there be a better place to welcome those who have experienced the brokenness that comes from human relationships that just don’t work out? And so we have to be careful not to add to the pain of those who are already in deep pain, through judgment or non-acceptance. We also need to come up along the side of those who would want to take the easy way out. But we shouldn’t forget the Lord Jesus Christ who accepted everyone, even those that the community might reject. May God make Central Presbyterian a safe haven for all the people of God. Let us pray.

Lord, we thank you for your grace and love and that your grace is so amazing that we know that we can’t thank you half enough, but as we worship you in one of the most well known hymns of all times, speak a word of grace and healing to each of our hearts and help us to be soft people, even following the steps of our Lord Jesus Christ.