O N JUNE 24, PHILIP AND I CELEBRATED our 10-year wedding anniversary. Ten years ago, we stood here in the sanctuary, with both Pastor Mark and Pastor Toby Mueller presiding. One of my fondest memories is when my father and I came through those doors, and I saw Philip standing up front with his black tux and broad smile.
As my dad and I waited for Carolyn to begin playing, I looked up at my dad and whispered, “You’re standing on my dress.” And he responded, “I love you, too, honey.” | “Yes, but Dad, you are standing on my dress.” Now keep in mind that when the pianist begins the entrance music, most everyone turns around to look at the bride about to come down the aisle. So with some 300 people watching, my dad, “Karl with a ‘K,’ ” leapt up, saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” I treasure that moment that my dad and I, and 300 of you, shared. This is not just a sweet story; it does have something to do with today’s message. I promise.
† † †
The (first) marriage
You see, long before I met Philip, in a faraway land called Connecticut, I was married to someone else. This was during my desert years, as I’ve mentioned before, when I didn’t know God, I didn’t own a Bible, and I went into churches only for funerals and weddings.
I was dating a man and we decided to buy a house together. I didn’t want people to judge us for living together without being married, so we agreed to get engaged.
And once we were engaged, that kind of took on a life of its own, and, so, we planned a wedding. It seemed like the thing to do.
The day of that wedding, as my dad and I stood together, ready to walk down the aisle, we didn’t exchange any words. But I remember thinking: Well, if it doesn’t work out, then we can always get divorced. As embarrassing as this is, this is a true story.
The marriage wasn’t all bad, and that man wasn’t always wrong. I think it was about a year into the marriage when I began “the list.” First it was just mentally, but soon it went to paper. I kept track of everything that he did wrong. And everything he didn’t do that he “should” have done. It wasn’t that I wanted to get divorced at that point. I just wanted him to change. I know now, that if you are getting married thinking you can change the other person, you ought to reconsider. And as the years went on, the list grew longer. And it’s not like I kept this list to myself. Oh, no, I updated him regularly.
Eventually, I moved out of that house we had bought. He filed for divorce. On paper, we were married just over 10 years. And I wish I could stand here and tell you that I was never married before Philip. I wish I had listened to the look on my parents’ faces before I married that man. We weren’t called to be together by God — but, ironically, by caring about what I thought other people might think. I wish I had cared more about what my parents and family and friends thought.
Mostly, I wish I had a relationship with the Lord long before I ever considered any relationship with any man.
† † †
Marriage without God
Now, it wasn’t all bad. And, what did not go well was as much my fault as it was his. (However, my mother will argue with you on this point.). There were so many things that went wrong in that marriage, and I truly believe only one thing that could have made a difference. I’ve seen a sign that was posted on a church message board: Loved the wedding. Invite me to the marriage.
We did not invite God to the wedding or the marriage. How could we? Neither of us even knew him. We had an outdoor service with a justice of the peace, and not one guest that I know of was a minister.
† † †
In sharp contrast, one of the weddings I attended recently included a visual display of what I will call a covenant marriage. A marriage between two people, in which God is present. It was a beautiful, outdoor ceremony, presided over by the bride’s uncle. You may know the couple. The groom’s father rode 100.29 miles for the children of the Presbyterian Home for Children yesterday.
As part of the ceremony, while the handbell choir played, the couple went to a board that had three ropes on it, and they began to braid the ropes together. Three ropes: one representing the groom, one representing the bride, and the middle rope representing God.
Although this braiding-of-the-ropes imagery was used as this couple began their married life together, the meaning can work for most any relationship. Two sisters, each holding one rope, braiding in the third rope, representing God. Friends, parents and young children, adult children and their parents, even acquaintances. Think of a relationship that you may have had — or are having — a struggle with.
Now, listen to these words from Ecclesiastes 4:
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
A cord of three was not only missing in my first marriage, but in many of my relationships. And when I don’t include God in a relationship, even now, my one piece of rope leaves me pulling on it more like a tug-of-war than as a loving, Christian.
† † †
The new covenant
A marriage without God braided into it runs a high risk of being what some call a “disposable marriage.” People talk about the lack of commitment in marriages today, and I understand. I was one of those people, and I am one of those statistics. “If it doesn’t work out, then we can always get divorced.”
In a society of disposable marriages and friendships, I thank God that he doesn’t think that way about me. I’m glad he didn’t create me and then say, “Well, if it doesn’t work out, I can just toss her aside.”
† † †
God’s love for us is not disposable. He is our biggest cheerleader. [Share story about Gracie’s Facebook video for Pastor Keith’s bike ride.] Because of his abundant, everlasting, unconditional love for us, God sent Jesus. In the first covenant, we had to sacrifice animals to atone for our sins. With the new covenant, Jesus is the ultimate, final sacrifice.
God created us to be in relationship with him, and with one another. At first, he gave just one command: Don’t eat from that tree. So we did. When we ate from that tree, we “broke up” with God for the first time. We chose to do something our creator told us not to do, rather than to obey. We tossed God aside. The first disposable relationship. There were consequences, but God never gave up on us. In the first covenant, God wrote the law on stone tablets. The commandments. We didn’t do any better with those than we did with the tree. Again, we broke up with God.
But God did not throw us away. Instead, he took the commandments that had been written in stone, the commandments for being in relationship with God and with others, and he wrote them on our hearts. God wants us to be known by him, and for us to know him. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God filled us with knowledge of right and wrong — a knowledge that can’t be taught or learned or studied — and knowledge that is within us.
† † †
In today’s scripture …
… the Israelites thought that God had tossed them aside and they are going through dark times. They have been taken from their homeland and forbidden access to their sacred temple not only by physical distance, but because it has been torn down. They are living in Babylon, in exile, with little or no hope of a better tomorrow. Many of us today feel as though we are in exile, going through dark and difficult times. Some people questioned God’s promises to them and as individuals and as a people.
It is at this time in history that Jeremiah comes breaking into the darkness with a bright light. God has not abandoned them. God is faithful. God is about to do a new thing. The time is coming …. While the Israelites were in exile in Babylon, they were hitting bottom. And God spoke to them through Jeremiah. The time is coming … for a new covenant, written in your hearts. I will be your God and you will be my people. The time is coming … when I will forgive your inequity, and remember your sins no more.
Through Jeremiah, God reveals the new covenant he is making with his people. Listen to these words from Isaiah 43:19:
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
† † †
The time is coming, the scripture says. That means it had not happened yet, but would, without any doubt, happen. As New Testament Christians, we know that the new covenant that God spoke of has been fulfilled, in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, the son of God, who died for us on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice for all our sins. Jesus lives on in our hearts, through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
When we admit that we are no better at obeying God than our fruit-picking ancestors, and when trust in the Lord Jesus as our savior from our sinful selves, than through Christ, God not only forgives us, but he no longer even remembers our sins. One writer refers to this as “divine amnesia.”
That means that every time we mess up, God does not start a list of what we are doing wrong, or what we should be doing. God doesn’t start thinking about tossing us aside. God gives us a fresh start — every time. Because of Jesus, for everything we do wrong, we are forgiven every time. God will not dispose of us.
† † †
Forgiveness for any failed relationships
Now a word to those of us who have had disposable relationships…we start from where we are. God does not give us a second chance…he gives us a new beginning. A fresh start. Remember, he remembers our sin no more.
† † †
I told you early that I wish I had a relationship with the Lord long before I ever considered any relationship with any man. I spent about 10 years getting to know God before Philip and I met. And when we got married, we did invite him to the wedding. We didn’t braid a rope, but we did light a unity candle from our two separate candles while the congregation sang “Bind Us Together, Lord.”
And we do invite God to our marriage — daily — because there are so many things that can go wrong in any relationship. And because I do truly believe there is only one thing that can make a difference. Knowing God. Knowing that God loved us so much that he sent Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The new covenant.
As we close, I’ll share one more scripture verse. This is from 2 Corinthians 5:17:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!
— Jody Beth Melton