Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Divine Romance

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body."

Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom."

Matthew 26:26-30

It was Passover, and like good Jews, Jesus and his disciples were celebrating this holy day and festival. See, every year, Jews commemorate how God saved them from slavery in Egypt. If you remember the story, Moses came to the Pharaoh with a message from God and said, “Let my people go.” The Pharaoh said no, and there were nine plagues. You know how people often ask, if you could live at any time in history, which era would you pick. Well I would not pick this era, because I definitely would not want to be around during the plagues of lice, or flies, or locusts, or boils! No thank you!

And then the tenth plague. The Jews put blood from a lamb on their doorposts, so that the Lord would pass over them, while the firstborn sons of all the Egyptians died that night. And following this plague, the Israelites were able to escape their captivity, so there is a festival every year to celebrate this. And it was that time of year.

So the disciples are eating this great feast, and Jesus had just told the disciples that one of them would betray him. And then he did something odd. He lifted up the cup, and offered it to his disciples to drink. And they looked at him like he was crazy. Seriously, picture their confused faces. Excuse me, Jesus, have you lost your mind? Do you know what your saying? Now here in twenty-first century America, we aren’t confused, because we know what to expect in the story. We know that Jesus’ blood will be shed for the salvation of mankind. But these Jewish guys were seriously confused, because when Jesus lifted up that cup, they heard him say, “Will you marry me?”

Now do you get their confused and possibly distraught faces thinking, “Uh, Jesus, you’re not exactly my type…”

I did a little bit of research on Jewish marriage traditions. Here’s how it would go:

The process of betrothal would start out with the prospective groom and his father going to meet with the prospective bride’s father. They would sit down and figure out the marriage contract, including the dowry and the terms of marriage. I once heard it explained this way, “When a Hebrew man decided to take for Himself a Hebrew woman, he’d go to his father and say, “Her, Dad. I want to make little rabbis with her.”
So then the dad would go to her dad and they’d talk camels, or sheep,
or whatever the payment was going to be.”

Then when the terms of the marriage were agreed upon, the groom could formally “propose” to his bride.

He would present her with a ketubah, a beautifully decorated formal document that specified the marriage terms and stated his intent to consecrate himself to his bride-to-be. The groom then would offer her a gift of great value, which was symbolic of his esteem for her and his willingness to sacrifice on her behalf. Often as you might be able to guess, this gift was a gold ring because the circle symbolized eternity.

Then the groom made a ritual statement, formally consecrating himself to his bride.

Finally, the groom poured a cup of wine for the prospective bride. Jewish law stated that a woman could not be forced to marry a man that she didn’t want to marry, so she got to choose whether or not to accept the groom’s proposal. If she drank the cup he offered, they were betrothed.

The groom would formally accept his bride with another ritual statement, often “Thou art set apart for me according to the law of Moses and Israel.” Interestingly, the same word for “set apart” was also used to describe a dedicated temple; the bride was considered a temple now set apart for her husband.

Now do you get what is going on here in Matthew 26? Jesus holds out the cup, saying “Take this and drink,” and in their Jewish tradition, this was the equivalent of getting down on one knee, and popping the question. And the disciples now had the choice to accept or reject this proposal. So they passed around the cup, and as they took a drink, they were saying, “I will marry you and be set apart for you.”

The next step in Jewish betrothal tradition is really interesting. The bride returned home, and from that point on, she was known as “the one who was bought with a price.” That was her name as she began preparing for the wedding. And she would not know exactly when the time would come for the wedding.

As for the groom, his main responsibility during the betrothal was to build a mansion. Actually, the Hebrew word for mansion really means apartment, and in reality was an addition onto his parent’s house. Their first house would be with the in-laws. And this process took a while, six months to a year. He didn’t know exactly when it would be finished, because here’s the catch, the only one who could decide if the house was finished was the father. So the son would go to his father, “So what do you think, Dad? Is it done yet?” “Not yet son.”

If that’s not agonizing enough, the tradition was that during this period of betrothal, the bride and groom were not allowed to talk with one another! Can you imagine? Well, actually, they had one outlet for communication—the best man. He’d be the messenger for them during this time apart.

Let’s go back to Matthew 26. Jesus proposes. Then naturally, he tells them that they are going to have to be apart. Jesus has to go build a house for them to live in. In John 14:1-3, Jesus tells his disciples, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” The groom has to leave, but he wants his bride to know that the best man is coming. Later in John 14, he tells his disciples about the Counselor who is coming. The Holy Spirit will be with them sending messages so they can communicate during this time apart.

When the home was finally approved of, the groom could gather up the bridal party, and they would all march into the bride’s town. It was even customary for the groom to arrive suddenly and late at night. As the probable time of the wedding approached, the bride and her sisters, cousins, and friends would wait together each evening in anticipation of the groom’s arrival. When he got to her house, the groom and his friends would carry the bride through the streets to her new home in a jubilant procession accompanied by music, torches, and well-wishers. At the wedding house, they would meet under the wedding canopy, which would symbolize God’s presence blessing the union, and they would complete the marriage.

If you still have your Bible opened, flip back to Matthew 25, the parable of the ten virgins. This parable gives us a look at this tradition.

"At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

"At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'

"Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.'"

'No,' they replied, 'there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.'

"But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived.

The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

"Later the others also came. 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door for us!'

"But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.'

"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour the bridegroom will come.

See, it was a surprise when the groom arrived, and he would announce his presence with a sound of a trumpet, and the bride would have to be ready to go and marry him.

Does this sound like what we are expecting for the Second Coming of Christ? In Revelation, the last part of the wedding is completed. Revelation 19:7 says, “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.”

But throughout the Bible, the metaphor of marriage is used when talking about God and his people.

Let me give you a quick run-down of one of my favorite stories in the Bible. This is the story of Hosea, but prepare yourself, because it is probably a way you’ve never heard it…

-Hosea!

-Yeah, God?

-Hosea, it’s time.

-It’s time? Oh, yeah, God! I know what that means! Just tell me one thing. Is she hot and holy? That’s all I want in my wife—hot and holy!

-Well, Hosea, I don’t really know how to tell you this, well, yes I do because I’m God, but she’s not exactly what you’ve been expecting.

-Excuse me? Oh, ok, I see what you’re getting at, she’s even hotter and holier than I was expecting!

-Actually, she’s a harlot.

-Har-la-what?

-Harlot, prostitute, lady of the night…

-Yeah I know what it means, I said har-la-what?

-She’s going to cheat on you with other lovers

-She’s gonna do what?

-And she’s going to have kids with other lovers

-She’s gonna do what?

-And you’re going to take her back, and you’re going to love her

-I’m gonna do what?

-You’re going to love her, because that is how I love my people.

-What’s her name?

-Gomer

-Aw, man!

So that’s pretty much a summary of what happened in Hosea. Hosea was God’s prophet, a really righteous man, and God asked him to marry a prostitute. And did you catch why God wanted him to marry her? Because that is the way God loves his people.

Hosea 3 says, “Then God ordered me, "Start all over: Love your wife again, your wife who's in bed with her latest boyfriend, your cheating wife. Love her the way I, God, love the Israelite people, even as they flirt and party with every god that takes their fancy." I did it. I paid good money to get her back. It cost me the price of a slave. Then I told her, "From now on you're living with me. No more sleeping around. You're living with me and I'm living with you."

The Israelites were God’s chosen people, and they had turned away from him. Yet he still loved them, even though they were his adulterous wife. That blows my mind to think of.

And the thing I most often forget about God is that God feels. In Ezekiel 6:9 God says “I have been grieved by their adulterous hearts, which have turned away from me, and by their eyes, which have lusted after their idols.” The English Standard Version says it even more strongly; God says, “I have been broken over their whoring heart that has departed from me and over their eyes that go whoring after their idols.” God is broken and grieved over his people who are unfaithful to him, the same way Hosea grieved about his wife who was unfaithful to him. The Creator God of the universe can be broken over us, and our unfaithfulness, because Gomer’s dark, sinful, unfaithful blood runs through us, too.

When we start looking at it that way, there are some pretty serious implications for our faith and our relationship with God. If I can tell you the truth, I got so excited while I was researching for this sermon, about how cool the gospel is, the way all of this ties in. And looking at the gospel through the lens of marriage has changed everything for me.

So here are the things I want to say. We here in this room, are the bride of Christ. 2 Corinthians 11:2 says, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.” Actually, over and over again in Paul’s letters, he talks about Jesus as the groom, and the church the bride.

For example in Ephesians. Honestly, I hated Ephesians 5 until I really understood it. In verse 22, Paul says, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” I don’t know, that has just always bugged me a little. But the command for husbands is actually a lot stronger. He says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Husbands have to love their wives and die for them the same way Christ loves his wife, the church, and died for her. We are Christ’s wife. Now I know that is weird for you gentleman, but as part of the church, you are the bride of Christ!

So how does this change our relationship? For me, it has been the way that I view sin. The official definition of sin, the Wesleyan definition that we hear so often is that sin is “a willful transgression of a known law of God.” But that makes it sound very impersonal. Donald Miller once said, “It’s a far different thing to break a rule, than it is to cheat on a lover.” That is how my concept of sin has changed; instead of just breaking a rule in some ancient book, I am cheating on my husband. And that changes everything! Because I want to be a wife who is faithful to my husband. I don’t want God to grieve when I cheat on him by going after other lovers, other things in my life that won’t satisfy.

This view of my relationship with God also adds so much intimacy. Suddenly, God is not a God who is far off, removed from my life. We are intimately connected by the covenant of marriage! If God can be broken when I sin and am unfaithful, that is huge! But it also means that he can experience joy in our commitment and in our relationship.

Now I have never been married. I don’t know what it is like, but a lot of people describe their wedding day as the happiest day of their life. And I’d imagine that being in love is pretty great, even joyful. And I also have heard enough to believe that marriage takes work. So shouldn’t we apply all of those ideas to our relationship, our marriage, with God?

God is overjoyed on our wedding day. I know that I still have a lot of romantic notions about what marriage will be like, but if you don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings about marriage, let me say right now, that in our marriage to God, divorce is not an option. It is not an option because he says “I will never leave you. I love you and I will always take you back.” This husband is a hundred times better than Hosea or any other man on this planet. God is overjoyed about our commitment to him.

And we can have an intimate relationship with him. He loves us as we are. We don’t have to work to get better for him, because Christ was already better for us. This frees us to come to him just as we are, even when we mess up and are unfaithful.

I kind of love that betrothed Jewish women were called, “the one who was bought with a price.” Sure, to have that as my name would be long and tedious. But I know that I have been bought with a price. My dowry with Jesus Christ cost him his very life. That is a very high price to pay. And that changes everything in my life.

I want to leave you with another quote from Donald Miller that kind of encapsulates what I want you to take away from this morning he said:

But if the gospel of Jesus is relational; that is, if our brokenness will be fixed, not by our understanding of theology, but by God telling us who we are, then this would require a kind of intimacy of which only heaven knows. Imagine, a Being with a mind as great as God’s, with feet like trees and a voice like rushing wind, telling you that you are His cherished creation. It’s kind of exciting if you think about it. Earthly love…is temporal and slight so that it has to be given again and again in order for us to feel any sense of security; but God’s love, God’s voice and presence, would instill our souls with such affirmation we would need nothing more and would cause us to love other people so much we would be willing to die for them.

Now I know this sermon isn’t really about Thanksgiving, but we are going to eat a big meal this week. And this morning, we are going to partake in the Lord’s Supper before we go have our Thanksgiving dinner together. This morning, I invite all of you to think about your relationship with Christ as a marriage. The same way Jesus asked his disciples to take the cup and drink, he is asking us to take and drink, and as we do, to say “I do” to his marriage proposal. And that changes everything.


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