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Good morning, everyone. Please go with me in your bibles to the book of Matthew, chapter 19. I wrote this sermon mostly in a car driving between New Orleans and Shreveport as Phil and I went to interact with a ministry model in Shreveport called the Hub which serves people who are in homelessness and who are being trafficked, and the Hub is coming to visit us within a month to begin working together with us, advising us. Homelessness is not hopelessness in Christ—it’s so easy to throw your hands up at the deep need we meet here downtown and say, what can really be done? But God’s desire is to redeem every person who is destitute, who is being bought and sold here in our city. Our church has an important role to play in this, and by God’s grace that role is starting to become clear.

We’ve been talking about some possibilities for a while of things our church could be a part of here downtown for the sake of the kingdom, and God is providentially knitting together the work of our church with that of the Friendship House and Inward Ministries, two ministries given entirely to work among those in the sex industry. I’m excited. I could spend this whole time talking about it, but I won’t, because God’s word is far more important than our plans. I just want you to know that I’m very excited for the next chapter of the ministry of our church, and I’m excited for the people and expertise I’ve seen God providentially bring together into this space.

Instead of plans this morning we’re going to talk about one of the most difficult things we possibly could talk about; namely divorce. As a pastor, convictionally, unapologetically but compassionately, I always want to preach the passage at hand, because I would rather you hear God’s truth in his word each Sunday rather than my own thoughts or opinions. The reason we often preach through entire books of the Bible rather than picking and choosing topics is because I want to allow the Holy Spirit to choose what we talk about rather than using my own judgement.

Divorce is a difficult topic because so many of us have been through it, or have been hurt by it, or its one of our deepest fears. So often these things remain unsaid, which isn’t healthy. In all of your relationships—church, family, your relationship to God—I would tell you: never have things you can’t talk about. I have not faced divorced, but many people I deeply love have. I am preaching this morning, not from some high place looking down, but alongside, from a place of deep care and concern for people I love who have been through pain and shame.

Hear me: Christ is enough to redeem your pain. Christ able to carry your shame when it is too heavy for any of us to bear. My sincere hope this morning is that each and every person here would leave this morning having been set free by the truth of God—not heavy burdened, not afraid, because his burden is light and God’s perfect love casts out fear. As I pray each week, God’s truth—God’s truth, when it is spoken in love always and only sets us free.

I was talking with Joshua this week about this: there aren’t very many opportunities in our culture to have difficult conversations, so I’m grateful for this moment, and I’m thankful to God for his word not shying away from this conversation so we can know the truth of it. Jesus could have rolled his eyes at the Pharisees and asked for the next question, or shouted them down. He could have responded as they did with the letter of the law, devoid of the spirit of the law, but instead what we see Jesus do in this passage, and in so many other passages, he doesn’t answer their question. He answers, instead, the question they should have asked, which is to say he answers the true heart of the matter. Let’s read it. Stand if you will, Matthew 19, vs. 1-12. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

Years before I was pastoring here, I was working for the Greer-Heard institute at the Baptist seminary here in town. The institute used to hold a large debate each year called the Greer-Heard forum, and they would invite two different sets of experts, one arguing for a Christian worldview, and the other expert arguing against it. One of my jobs was always to pick up the experts who were here to argue against Christianity from the airport and show them around, and I would usually take them at some point to the French Quarter. Which is how I found myself years ago as a young seminary student walking past the church I would later pastor with a renowned physicist, an atheist, and his wife debating the merits of Christianity.

For both of them, it was their second marriage. The whole time we had been walking and driving around, the physicist—maybe he was just argumentative, or maybe he was warming up for debate, but he was asking me theological questions and trying to poke holes in whatever I was saying. And if you know me at all, you know I was loving every second of it. But right as we walked past the doors of this church, his wife spoke up for one of the first times with a theological question of her own. The whole time we were talking she had been quiet, until this: she asked, “Do you think divorce is a sin?”

The Pharisees come to Jesus and ask him much the same, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” And why do they ask him this? Given the tone of their questions more generally through the gospels, we can say they aren’t asking Jesus the question because they want to know the answer. Jesus gives them the answer, but only because he graciously gives them what they need, not because an answer is what they want. They’re asking to try to trip him up. They want him to make a political mistake in front of a large crowd. They know Moses said a husband would be able to send a woman away with a certificate of divorce. They want Jesus to disagree with the law, and they think, for once, he might. Why?

Because the good law of God is interpreted and practiced in evil ways by the hearts of men. In their time and place, women had very few opportunities open to them. I know we read about several women with careers and wealth throughout the New Testament, but most of them are Roman. Jesus is back in Judea, in this passage. He’s in the Bible Belt of his day, and the Bible Belt in his day didn’t allow women to work or inherit property, for the most part. Their stability in life was wrapped up in marriage.

At the time, culturally, it was completely acceptable as a man, if a wife displeased him, to send her away. If she was barren, for instance, or if she had a miscarriage. Or if he met another woman he would rather marry instead, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees in our passage, would allow it. And I know in our culture maybe we’re used to this. Men and women leave each other all the time, and with very little to no reason. It’s called no fault divorce. I saw a billboard the other day advertising no fault divorce for a clean $500, like it was a pair of shoes.

Back then, the custom didn’t go both ways. Men could send away their wives, but wives weren’t able to send away men who displeased them. Oftentimes women were expected to stay and endure all kinds of things—abuse, neglect, adultery, abandonment. With basically no legal recourse. If they went to the Sanhedrin, to the Pharisees we see in our passage, they would tell her she must have done something wrong, and she needed to work to please him more. If he sent her away, though, they would tell her to leave her home and go wherever she had left. A relative’s house, maybe.

As you can imagine, this was the cause of a lot of shame and hardship for the women who were sent away. I’ll use the word abandoned. This law caused a lot of shame and hardship for the women who were abandoned like this. In our day, I’ve seen both men and women sent away like this, with paperwork but not a lot else. No real reason. No cause, just pain and confusion.

Divorce isn’t allowed so that you can discard every spouse who displeases you. Jesus did not approve of the Pharisees’ lax view of divorce, and neither should we approve of lax views of divorce today. I hear people talking about falling in love and falling out of it, like love is a pothole, or an emotion. Love is a verb, and it is a choice. Love is service and submission. People don’t fall out of love, they choose to stop loving their families, and Jesus says making that choice is just like making the choice to sleep with someone else. This isn’t shoes.

Back in Jesus’ day, without a whole lot of opportunities for employment, if a girl didn’t have family left, or if her family rejected her, she usually wound up either going to whatever man would take her, or she may become a first-century version of homeless. And I think that’s why the Pharisees thought Jesus might disagree with Moses, because it was a cruel practice, and they knew it. That’s why they’re pushing on this specific pressure point. They think, even though the law allows it, Jesus won’t be able to stand it. He’ll side with the hurting, against the law, which would allow them to arrest him, and they were looking for any excuse.

The physicist’s wife was asking me basically the same question that day fifteen years ago in the French Quarter, but with a very different motive. I could tell from her posture and her tone of voice: she wasn’t trying to trap me. She, herself, had been ashamed because of her divorce. I don’t know the details. Maybe she grew up Catholic and was taught that divorce was a mortal sin. Or maybe her former husband had heaped blame on her for the divorce, or maybe she cheated and carried regret, I don’t know. But I could tell, she felt damaged by what had happened, less than, so, thinking of this passage, I tried to answer her the way Jesus answers the pharisees, not by answering her question as she asked it, by but by answering the question she should have asked, by speaking to her heart as far as I could discern it.

When the Pharisees asked their question of Jesus, I wonder how many many women in the crowd had been abandoned. The passage said it was a large crowd. I wonder how many were living in abusive relationships just to avoid the shame of it, or for the sake of the kids. I wonder if the woman caught in adultery, for example, whom Jesus refused to stone or condemn, was still following Jesus, and I wonder if she held her breath that day at this question. Jesus’ answer is as much for the crowd as it is for the Pharisees.

He goes back to the garden, back to the beginning before the fall, and points to this marriage relationship unstained by sin. Can you imagine a marriage without any kind of brokenness? What a joy that would be? That’s what’s God wants for marriage, Jesus says. He wants to give each and every person the joy of being fully known and fully loved. God created marriage to bring us together and give us a taste of his own unity, family, and love; he didn’t create marriage to tear families and lives apart.

So when they physicist’s wife asked me that day if I thought divorce was a sin, I told her about a friend of mine who was going through a divorce at the time. I talked about his pain, and how much shame he felt about his wife leaving him for another man, as though his love and their years together were worth nothing to her. How he felt damaged from it, like it was a stain he wasn’t able to get out of his life, one that anyone who got to know him would eventually find and think less of him for it.

I told her that sin isn’t only mistakes you make in your life. There are also sins committed against you, and sin also means the general brokenness of a world twisted and broken by the fall. The word sin literally means distance; sin is the distance between what God wants for his creation and the way it is in the midst of everything in the world that’s gone so wrong. Sin is the distance between what God wants for you, his beloved child, and the way your life has actually gone, will actually go. So no matter if you walked down part of the road yourself, or if you were carried—usually in relationships its some mixture of both—sin means either way you’re far from home, and anyone who’s been through a divorce can tell you, more than anyone, about the distance between their hopes for the relationship and the way it actually went. Jesus says in our passage, it’s not what God wants either, for things to end this way. “It wasn’t this way in the beginning.”

Divorce is like war. Sometimes it may be called for, but never is it right. Sometimes to go to war is honorable, even brave, if there is some great violence being done in the world, but never is war something to hope for. Never is it something to celebrate. Individual responses to the conflict can be commended, honored, celebrated, but the conflict itself is a thing to be mourned and decried.

So it is with divorce. There are many times I’ve been amazed at the courage of people walking through a divorce, amazed and grateful for the character of people willing to forgive so much wrong. Some folks are heroes in my estimation for how they met cruelty with grace. Sometimes I’ve even recommended divorce as a pastor, like Jesus says, in matters of adultery, or like Paul says in 1 Corinthians, in cases of abandonment. In cases of abuse and trafficking, our church actually does a lot to help people escape such relationships. But even though I’ve advised divorce and helped facilitate it, I’ve never celebrated it. Divorce is always wrong; it’s far from the garden, far from anything God would call good. Even though I admire the bravery of heroes who have been to war, I wish their sacrifices weren’t necessary. I wish they could have stayed at home in peace with their families. That’s where they really belonged.

The Pharisees ask Jesus, if divorce is not according to the will of God, why then is it allowed in the law? And Jesus answers, basically, that the law doesn’t always relate to the ideal, and neither should our ethics. If your system of ethics only works in an ideal world, then your system of ethics is largely useless in our world. God teaches us about the ideal, but he also comes to us in the midst of severely inideal scenarios in this world. The law, and Christian ethics, oftentimes encourage us to act in ways that make the best of a bad circumstance, to respond with good character to a situation we probably wish we could have avoided.

The physicist’s wife that day agreed with me, she said the divorce she had gone through was far from ideal. But listen—I’m not just commenting on ethics this morning. Merely recognizing fault does nothing to redeem it. Jesus telling everyone in the crowd who had been abandoned that it wasn’t right what had been done to them was true, and certainly more than what the Pharisees had offered, but admitting something is wrong doesn’t erase the pain of living through that kind of brokenness.

In the passage, Jesus says, what does redeem that kind of loss and shame is the coming kingdom of God, in which there is no marriage or giving in marriage, in which we are all one family, the family of God. Ultimately the purpose of marriage is fulfilled in the marriage of Christ and the Church, which Paul admits elsewhere, is a mystery. But it’s a mystery we can believe will redeem all of the pain of our broken and missed relationships.

For those of us this morning who have experienced this pain, both those who have gone through divorce and those who are children of it, I would tell you—God is able to redeem that pain. Like a master author, he can take that part of your story and write a narrative in and through your life making that pain pale in comparison with the joy and beauty of eternity. For those of you who have been through this, hear me say, in Christ you are chosen and precious, so that even if you were to leave, you could go to the other side of the sea, to the depths of Sheol, and God would be there chasing after you.

In him, you are forgiven, you are welcomed, you are loved. You are loved, not in a general way, not broadly, but just as personally as the love you lost. If you are in Christ this morning, if you choose to seek after him, God is redeeming your shame by undoing it, by choosing you, loving you. I was talking with a friend of mine this week about how I used to think love was something based on merit. I tried to be cool enough, attractive enough, kind enough, successful enough to be loved. And the longer I’ve been married, I’ve realized that love is founded on forgiveness more than merit. Love is found in grace more than performance.

The disciples in the passage decide that if marriage is such a commitment, if marriage only ends in death or sin, it may be better not to get married at all, which is also what many people, men especially, in our culture seem to have decided about marriage. If it’s work, if it’s complicated, if it can end in such pain and shame, then maybe we should just avoid marriage altogether. Notice Jesus doesn’t agree with that statement, and neither do I. I believe strongly in marriage, that it’s possible, that it’s holy and wholly blessed, that it’s something our children need from us, but I also believe strongly in what Jesus says next.

Jesus says this teaching is given to some and not others, meaning marriage isn’t for everyone, and neither is divorce, though some of us will walk through both. Meaning, we’re going to have to walk through relationships in wisdom rather than idealizing a single estate, either marriage or singleness. Jesus saying, “this teaching is given to some but not others,” means that we need to put to death this idea that marriage is going to be our key to a happy life or healthy Christian life. Being married doesn’t make you a better person.

This teaching is not given to everyone, he says, and then he talks about three types of eunuchs. A eunuch is someone who is castrated—it was far more common in that day than ours, especially among royal servants, in order to avoid inappropriate relationships within a great household, or as a means of suppressing a people. It’s a terrible practice—he’s not condoning it, he’s using a metaphor here.

What he’s saying with that comment, made more clear elsewhere, is that marriage isn’t given to everyone. Some people are given gifts of singleness, and with others singleness is imposed upon them by their circumstances. Yet others choose, intentionally, not to have a family in order to devote themselves wholly to the kingdom. So he’s not agreeing with the disciples, meaning Jesus believes healthy marriages are possible and blessed, but that’s not going to be everyone’s experience. Some people will sin and lose their marriage. Others will be abandoned or cheated upon. Sometimes the fault lines in the relationship will come from both sides. Some will remarry, others will choose to remain single.

Phil and I spent about thirteen hours in a car together this week, and for a lot of that time, we talked about this passage and what it meant, and we talked about what we were hoping people would take away from it, and I kept thinking about a sermon I heard many many years ago, before I was married. Some of you may have heard it, too. The pastor talked about a retreat he attended as a kid on sexual purity before and within marriage, which in and of itself is a good thing, but the speaker for the youth retreat handed a rose to the young man next to him, asking him to pass it through the whole crowd of the youth retreat, hundreds of people.

By the time the rose made it to the stage again, it was damaged, missing petals, no longer lovely, and the retreat speaker held it up to illustrate his point about being passed sexually from person to person. He said, at the end of his sermon, “Now, do any of you want this rose? Look at it. Who would want this?” And the pastor telling this story remembered at the time, even as a kid, feeling like something was missing in that illustration. In short, what’s missing from that illustration is the gospel.

Probably all of us at one point in time have made mistakes, some of them bitter mistakes, or we’ve been disappointed with our relationships, battling the bitterness of having been sinned against. And it leaves you feeling like that rose, damaged, unwanted, unlovely. We ask, who would want me? Who would love me? The gospel teaches us, Jesus wants the rose. In the midst of our brokenness, in the midst of our shame, in the midst of our sins and failures, in the midst of “the new real future which replaces the imaginary,” Jesus wants it all. In him we are fully known, and in him we are fully welcomed and loved.

I would invite you to trust in Christ this morning. Marriage is passing away, and so is divorce. Our mistakes are passing away, and so is the pain of being sinned against. What remains is the grace, joy and love of Christ in his kingdom. May we seek him first, wherever we find ourselves in life, and all else will be added. Turn your eyes on him, and the things of earth grow dim.

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