The Holy Marriage of Brittney Nicole Close and Thomas Herskind Petersen
June 24, 2017 A+D
St. Matthew 6:33
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Adam plunged the world into crisis by his rebellion, but God still loved Adam. That love moved Him to action. Love, in the Bible, is not an emotion or a feeling. It is an action. It promises and it does something. So it is that the wedding rite will ask these two today to make promises about what they will do. We will not ask them to make any promises about what they will feel. Right now they feel in love. That, like rented tuxes, is likely misleading and almost certainly temporary. It will pass. To some degree that is not in their control. There will likely be times when they simply don’t feel happy about one another or are bored with one another or angry with one another. They can’t quite control or predict how they will feel. But they can control what they do and therefore they can promise to love, to honor, and to keep one another even in times of sadness and anger and disappointment.
God’s love for Adam was not expressed by God sitting in heaven swooning over him. His love for us then and now is not a happy feeling of contentment and safety. We do not make God feel good about Himself. We are not fun to be around. We don’t amuse Him. His love was and still is a response to our need. He has real affection for us, to be sure, but it is not the stuff of greeting cards and after school specials. His not only moved Him to act but the act itself was love.
That love was costly. For He loved the world by giving His only begotten, innocent Son to be tortured and killed for crimes that He did not commit. He handed Him over to the judgment that stood against us for our sins. He made Him a Holy Substitute for us, offering Him up as a whole burnt offering in our place so that we would be spared and not face the accusations against us. In this way, He satisfied His own wrath and law, reconciling Himself to us so that He would not be our enemy, opening heaven to all believers. He is and has been faithful to us, loved us, even 0in the face of and despite our unfaithfulness.
He joins us to His Kingdom in the forgiveness of sins. He declares us to be righteous when we believe that Christ has suffered for us, that He has loved us, that He does love us and will not quit. So it is that when we trust that for His sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us, they are.
This defines what human love was meant to be and should be. St. John writes: “By this we know love, that [Christ] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16, ESV).
Here is the open secret that we all find so hard to learn. Love is not a zero sum game. It is not lessened when it is given away. Love does not hoard itself up or feel the need to ration out its gifts any more than it needs to be earned. A mother with many children doesn’t love any of them any less for their number – as though she only had so much love. A mother with many children probably loves her children all of them more because she has more experience and is better at being a mother and also has less time for herself. Love gives freely, with abandon. Love begets love. The more a person loves the greater and more abundant his love becomes.
Hoarding love destroys love. The one who seeks first of all to save his life, to be happy, shall lose it. He will be unhappy. But he who is willing to lose his life, to suffer unhappiness and boredom, to give up his own interests and even rights, to lay down his life, he shall save it. He who would find himself at the end of life with the fewest regrets and would find satisfaction and meaning in the sorrows that he has endured must seek first not a happy marriage or a successful life but the Kingdom of God, and then all these other things shall be given unto him as well.
The word “happy” in modern English is a mewling and immature word. It describes pleasant, positive emotions. And if that is all we mean by “happy” then God does not want you to be happy. He might not mind it if you are happy now and then, but that is not His goal or His plan for you.
How many families have been ruined because one or both of the spouses vainly crowed, “I just want to be happy?” I am not surprised that people feel that way. Who doesn’t? But I am surprised that anyone could be so self-absorbed and insensitive as to mouth such drivel out loud. It is like a toddler’s tantrum, a child crying because she is too full to eat a huge piece of chocolate cake and she wants to eat it and since she can’t she is furious and feels that she is the victim of a terrible injustice. That is not attractive in 2 year-olds. They need to be trained out of it, to grow up. How shameful when it shows up in adults!
This obsession with happiness is largely the reason our country and culture currently find themselves in this particular handbasket racing toward a fiery end. The first lesson for today is: give up on happiness; embrace hardship and suffering. It is worth it. There are many things far worse than unhappiness and discomfort and even sadness.
This sounds harsher than it is. Though we rarely reflect upon it, the fact is that even as God doesn’t want us to be happy, none of us wants our children to be happy either. Nor do we want them to have easy lives. We want them to have productive and useful lives. We want them to be virtuous. Parents aren’t happy if their children grow up to be happy racists or happy child molesters. What parents want is for their children to be good, to be good husbands and wives, good fathers and mothers, good citizens.
The goal of Holy Marriage is like the goal of a marine: perpetual faithfulness. Holy Marriage is a tactical and strategic response to a dangerous and corrupt world. God intended for us to live in this way: for one another, giving ourselves, sacrificing ourselves, for our spouses and our children. Holy Marriage is meant to be a place where you can hide from your enemies and the world, but not from yourself. You are to be accountable to one another, calling one another back to repentance and faith, to Christian virtues. It is hard for a single man or woman to tithe, to come to church every week, to have daily Bible reading. We need spouses from whom we cannot hide in order to encourage us in these things and keep us humble less we become delusional and self-righteous. So also children are good for this. They break our stuff and empty our bank accounts to keep us from idolatry.
The sacrificial requirement of love can be painful and frustrating, but there is some good news in this. For while we cannot produce a happy marriage or life on an assembly line or seize it by seeking it and planning for it or demanding it on our terms, we can receive a happy marriage and life when we are seeking something greater than a happy marriage or life. When we give ourselves away in love, when we are willing to suffer and endure unhappiness for the sake of others, we find ourselves strangely satisfied and content. A man becomes a husband and a father not by seeking it directly but by seeking the welfare and goodness of his wife and children, by giving himself away, by seeking first the Kingdom of God.
So again: he who would find himself at the end of his life with the fewest regrets, who would remain married his whole life, who would find purpose and meaning in what he has suffered and done, he must seek first not a happy marriage or a successful life but the Kingdom of God. Then all these other things shall be given unto him as well. If his conscience is freed through faith by the grace of Christ from the guilt of sin, then he will be free to love and serve his wife, to give up his life for her as Christ has given up His life for him, and in doing so that husband will find himself fulfilled and content, at peace. That is far better than happy. The Bible calls it joy.
We can do this because God is love and He first loved us. His love frees us to love Him and to love one another, to love our neighbors, our spouses, and our children. In Him and by Him who laid down His life for us, who is ever eager to forgive the penitent and restore the fallen, we learn to lay down our lives for one another, and to be actually and truly tolerant of one another’s weaknesses – not excusing sins or allowing abuse to continue, not dismissing sin and calling it something else – but learning instead to rebuke sin in love and to look past flaws in one another. We learn to see the lovable in the unlovable, for we learn to see that even as God gave His Son for our lives so also He gave His Son for our neighbors. Everyone is struggling. Everyone is hurting. You never know what people are going through or why they do what they do. But God does and He loves them anyway. In Him, we can also.
Thus shall a man leave his father and mother as the Son left heaven and took up flesh to make Himself a worthy sacrifice for us, to lay down His life for us. And a man shall hold fast to His wife, as Christ holds fast to us, even when we are unlovable and rebellious, loving us to the end, suffering for us and with us, making us lovable by loving us. And a man shall become one flesh with his wife, even as Christ makes Himself one flesh with us and joins us to Himself in the Holy Communion.
Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and even a happy marriage will be added unto you.
In +Jesus’ Name.
Some of the ideas and language from the two paragraphs above were inspired by some paragraphs social and theological criticism of the United States and Western civilization in Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery Publishing, 2017) 189-190.