Preaching for Sunday, October 7, 2012
Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Five years ago one of my younger brothers shared the news with the family that he and his wife of 16 years had separated and begun the process of going through divorce. This is the first time divorce has entered into the entire history of my family, so it has been significant all around. The proceedings took three years, involved lawyers and courtrooms and mediators in two of these fifty states, and included the sad necessities of losing a beautiful home and my brother’s eventual declaration of bankruptcy, not tom,entioj the unquantifiable human and emotional toll. Their two wonderful daughters at the start of this process were in their early teens. The slow and contentious process of divorce was hard on both of them. But so, more and more, had been the living in a home filled with irreconcilable differences.
Marriage is a beautiful thing. Jesus speaks in powerful terms today of its origins in the heart of God, in God’s desire that we not be alone, that we live life shared and fulfilled in one another in the sight of God. That beauty and happiness is God’s desire for us. In fact, whether any individual one of us ever marries or not, it is God’s will that we live life together, that we be a part of a community of care, that we be known and valued and loved. That goes for all of us.
And yet, as one novelist has noted: “The first task of a couple in marriage is to console each other for the fact that they cannot not disappoint each other” (Anita Brookner). This means many things, two of which I want to point out. First of all, it means that we all will inevitably disappoint one another. That is part of the human condition, not only after sin entered the world in Eden, but even in continuing fashion since salvation was achieved on the cross at Calvary. It is still and always true. Love me with all your might if you desire, but know that I cannot help but disappoint you, sometimes, in some ways. Secondly, it means that every human relationship, even that powerful and beautiful and exclusive one we call marriage, is fraught with the possibility of failure. In other words, humanly speaking, we must be constantly and absolutely realistic about what we can and cannot be for one another in this life. We can be friends and lovers and lifelong steadfast companions. But we cannot be saviors of one another. Only one is Savior of all.
When Jesus is challenged as to whether divorce is permissible in God’s eyes, he goes all the way back to Eden, to the roots of God’s loving intention for all of us. And, if we know some of the crucial differences between marriage and divorce in Israel 2,000 years ago and marriage and divorce today in the developed nations of the Western Hemisphere, we would recognize that Jesus is making important statements about the equality and the importance of women – in culture and within the marriage bond.
Back then only a man could declare a marriage over. A woman was powerless. Her husband was commanded by law to give her a writ, a certificate of divorce, because without it she would be entirely unable even to explain her status alone in the world – and even with it she would be in danger of losing much of what makes life worth living for the rest of her days. Further, if a man committed adultery, he was understood in those days to have committed that fault against his wife’s father and family – not against his wife. Why? Because the wife was the husband’s property, as truly as his house and his slaves were his property – and a citizen could not commit a crime against his own property.
There was more to it than this as well, but this is enough to show that when Jesus says that a man who commits adultery has done so against his wife, and when he says that a wife is even capable of committing adultery against her husband, Jesus is speaking in revolutionary terms of God’s vision of the man and woman as equals in marriage, as partners in life, each one fully belonging to the other.
When Jesus corrects his still obtuse disciples, and welcomes the little children as those of greatest value in the Kingdom of God, he is making the same principal point. It is this: those whom the world considers of little worth, with little or no voice – these are the primary citizens of God’s Kingdom. Women, even women suffering the loneliness and the confusion and the pain of divorce, are of primary worth in God’s eyes. Children, as little as they are and as little as they contribute in their littleness to the gross domestic product, are of huge worth in God’s eyes. And men who suffer the pain of the partition of the heart that is divorce: we can presume as well that God continues to value them, to love them too, and to plan for their ultimate joy.
At the beginning of the book of Job we hear this morning, this amazing tale of suffering, of trust in God, and of the ability to question and wrestle with God, God asks Satan, known as The Adversary, where he has come from and what he’s been doing. Satan replies, “From going to and fro upon the earth, and from walking up and down upon it.” In other words, God’s adversary and ours, the only real enemy you are ever going to have, is out and about watching, listening, looking for ways to make trouble. Trouble inside human hearts; trouble between friends, trouble in marriages. And there is plenty of trouble to be made. At those moments when we inevitably disappoint one another, the Adversary seeks to drive a wedge between us, and between us and God.
But, thank God, that is not the whole story – ever, for any of us. We also begin today to hear the Letter to the Hebrews. Its first lines describe Jesus in many ways. One of the primary is that Jesus is the one who offers himself – all the way to death – for the sake of us all. He is the one who agrees to become for a time the captive of sin so that we might be forgiven, and the captive of death so that we might truly live. In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is “now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
In other words, in marriage, in divorce, in every human relationship making and breaking on the face of the earth, God’s own concern is for the little ones, for those who suffer, even to the point of taking on that suffering completely himself in the Christ.
My brother, his wife, their children – none of them were forgotten by God through the pain and separation and ending of divorce. All of them were and are loved and valued and understood in their brokenness and in their preciousness in the eyes of the Divine One.
And so are we all, always.