Sermon: 19th Sunday after Pentecost 4th October 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping  7am, 8am and 10am

Readings:  Job 1:1, 2:1-10, Psalm 26, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

This is going to be difficult. Our subject today is divorce. Even raising the subject will no doubt cause some pain to someone here today and for that I apologise. However, I don’t think we should never talk about it. I think that would be unfair. Today in Australia, divorce touches everybody. Almost half of marriages in Australia end in divorce. There is hardly a family anywhere that has not been affected by it. And it doesn’t matter whether we are inside the church or out of it, whether we are lay or ordained, the rate of divorce is just the same.

If we are going through marital difficulty we might want to turn to the Bible for comfort and direction. But if you do that you will find it hard to find either. Divorce is a big topic, and often when it is raised in the Bible it concerns a particular issue, a particular context, which will probably not be relevant to our situation.

Actually, this gives us the opportunity to think about how to read the Bible.

When I was in a Youth Group we used to tell a joke about a man who employed the “Open Plonk” method of reading his Bible. Each morning he would turn to his Bible for guidance for that day. He would open his Bible to any place at random and with his eyes closed, plonk his finger down on a verse and read. Then he would try to live according to the teaching that verse for the rest of that day. Unfortunately, one day he opened his Bible and found the verse from Matthew 27, verse 5 “So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.” When he thought about it he realised he couldn’t meditate on that verse so he tried again. This time he got Luke 10:37, “And Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise!’” That was no help so he tried one more time and came up with John 13 verse 27. “And Jesus told him, ‘What you are about to do, do quickly.” At that point the man gave up.

The point is you can’t read Mark 10 and automatically apply it to your life and circumstances. That will only cause pain and frustration. We need to dig a little further. First, we should note where Jesus was. He was in Judea just near the Jordan, just near where John the Baptist had exercised his ministry. Second, we should note verse 2. Jesus was not about to talk about divorce until the Pharisees raised the subject. And notice what verse 2 says, “the Pharisees raised the subject in order to test Jesus.” This was a trick by the Pharisees. At that time divorce was not a major social issue in the Jewish community. Its rules and regulations were not a subject of debate except in one particular circumstance. This was the Jordan. This was where John the Baptist preached. One of his major criticisms was of King Herod who had married the woman who had divorced his own brother. The King had married his sister-in-law. How much pressure he had placed on her to do this thing we don’t know but it looked shady and John the Baptist had preached against it and he was jailed and executed because of it.

And so now it was Jesus’ turn. Would Jesus also criticise the King? The Pharisees wanted to find out. So Jesus gave the Pharisees two answers and both of them are very general in nature. First he is pointing out that like everywhere else in life people don’t always behave at their best. So it is also true in marriage. Nothing can destroy a marriage faster than a hard heart. Therefore, Moses provided a certificate so people wouldn’t be locked into the arrangement forever. But in Moses day the danger of divorce was the social impact of it upon the woman. Usually, a divorced woman became an outcast. She could not return to her family home. She could not get married again. Divorce meant disaster for almost any woman and was best avoided.

Second Jesus takes the Pharisees to Genesis. The Pharisees and Jesus both treated Genesis as a book written by Moses and so both regarded it as authoritative. Here Jesus makes a positive statement about what marriage should be. Marriage is very good, marriage is a great blessing and so as our wedding service says “it should not be entered into lightly or selfishly, but responsibly and joyfully.” And so once joined they should not be separated. And of course, very few people ever enter into marriage with the attitude of, “Well, if it doesn’t work there is always divorce.” Though there are always exceptions.

So Jesus balances out here the ideal with the sad realities of life. But with the Pharisees he only speaks in general terms. He would not refer to King Herod. He would not put his life at risk. But the shadow of Herod hangs over the entire dialog.

But when we think about marriage today it is a very different thing to what it was two thousand years ago. For us, marriage is in the context of the nuclear family. I don’t know how many weddings I have attended which quoted Genesis 2 verse 24, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” We use that verse today in a way it was never intended. We take it to mean the husband and wife both pack their bags, leave the homes they grew up in and move to a new physical location far away from the in-laws and begin their marriage in a household of two – until the kids come along. It was never meant that way. In the ancient world when a couple married the wife would pack her bags and move into the family home of her husband. Their marriage was a new relationship but in the context of the husband’s extended family. There were no pressures to set up a new household with new accommodation. Ideally, neither of them were required to work for the first year of their marriage, they were supported by his family, so they could spend time together, helping the relationship to develop, with the whole family available for support.

We also should consider that people did not live as long as they do now. At the turn of the nineteenth century in Australia, men who could afford to marry usually married about three times because their wives died either in child birth or because of the many other incurable diseases around at the time. Marriage lasted until death us do part, which often meant about ten years. How many people in our congregation have celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary? It is quite common these days. But one hundred years ago it was almost unheard of. So the demands upon marriage these days are very different to Bible times.

So what do we do? Surely, we need to be careful how we read the Bible and remember the culture it was speaking to. Just because we read something in the Bible doesn’t necessary mean it should apply directly to us. Of course, we should never forget the ideal for marriage and we should enter a marriage with the intention of working as hard as possible to make it work. Along the way we should take advantage of any assistance that might be available to enrich our marriages. As well, in the middle of our busy lives we must give our marriages the time they need. So many of us today are time poor. But failing to give our marriages the time they need is probably one of the greatest threats to our marriages, far more than the cute new secretary in accounts or the erotic nonsense on the television.

And at the end of the day, we all make mistakes, we all need forgiveness and we all need to be forgiving. This is true in all human relations and specially in marriage. No husband, no wife is perfect. Forgiving and forgiveness need to be well practiced activities in any marriage. And we also need to trust the God who gave us this gift of marriage that he will empower and strengthen our commitment to faithfulness, that we will be able to fulfil the promises we made in that wedding ceremony in who knows how many years ago.

The Reverend Ross Weaver