The Symptoms, the Disease, the Cure

Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 22:15 mark.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is easier, obviously, to see the symptoms than to see the disease. We can see the symptoms, but unless you have a high-powered microscope and special equipment, you can’t see the disease. And in recent times, we’ve heard a lot about “asymptomatic” people, or people who have a virus but they don’t show any symptoms. And sometimes we think that when we’ve gotten rid of the symptoms, we’ve gotten rid of the disease. But even if you take some medicine and your nose is not running, or your headache is gone, or your fever is down, that doesn’t mean the virus itself is gone.

When it comes to the disease that has infected the healthy body of marriage, some of the symptoms are easy to see. The Church is pretty good at seeing some of the symptoms: We look around at the world and we notice and talk about homosexuality. We know about sex on television and in the movies. What a shock it would be if two people got married and then had a sexual relationship! We know about—though we may not talk about it enough—the scourge of pornography.

But then the Church seems to think that it is asymptomatic when it comes to the disease afflicting marriage. The symptoms are there, of course, but we seem almost completely to have blocked them out. We have all but ignored divorce and “living together,” which we used to call fornication.

And sometimes we think that if we can, loudly enough and long enough, denounce the sins against marriage we see in the world, then we will have gotten rid of the disease. But of course we haven’t. That is not going to happen until marriage is, in the new creation, no more.

The Pharisees hit on one of the symptoms of the marriage disease. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they ask Jesus. We’re not so far from that question: is it okay? Is it allowed? Can we get away with it? But the Pharisees don’t seem to care too much about the actual answer to the question. They aren’t asking because they’re curious. They’re asking, tempting Him. They want to get Jesus to say something that they can use against Him. Is it lawful? Well, Jesus says, if you’re asking about the Law, what did Moses, the giver of the Law, say about this? They say that Moses allowed, Moses permitted, us to write a certificate of divorce and divorce her, to send her away.

Jesus points out that they are starting too late with their question. They’re only talking about a symptom of the disease. In order to find out how things should be, you can’t start with the diseased body; you have to go back and start with what is healthy and whole and good. Then you can compare and see what the disease looks like. Jesus says that Moses gave this command because hearts are hard. Human hearts are hardened against God and against one another; that’s why Moses permitted divorce. But hearts were not always hard. From the beginning of creation it was not so. If you want to see what the healthy body looks like, go back to how God created it. From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female, and for this creation reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. They are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together—what God has yoked together, like two oxen pulling a plow through the same field—let no person separate.

It is far too easy to notice the symptoms, and come up with various medicines that we think will deal with the symptoms. But we need a cure for the disease. And we’re not going to find it in the world. We’re not going to find it by haranguing unbelievers about all the things they’re doing wrong. What do we expect unbelievers to do? Why would we expect sinners to do something other than sin? What good are we doing by telling people how many things they’re doing wrong? Why should those who have no god hear what God has to say?

St. Paul says, “What do I have to do with judging those outside [the Church]?” Let God judge those who are outside! And St. Peter says that it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God. It is time for judgment to begin with us. And that is much harder than yelling about sin out there in the world. But it is we who have to pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.

And what if judgment begins with us? What if the Church were to get its own house in order, take out the planks that keep us from seeing clearly? To do so, we have to stop looking first at the symptoms, and look at the healthy creation body, which the disease has infected. We have to know what marriage is and what it is for, and we’re never going to find that in the world. The world thinks that marriage is basically a business contract entered into by two willing, independent parties. And when the terms of the contract are not met, even if those terms are only in our heads, then we dissolve the contract and go make another one. When the feelings you had at the beginning are no longer there, you go looking for those feelings somewhere else. Because being “happy,” however you define that, is the most important goal in life.

What does any of that have to do with how it was from creation? How there was not a match for the man in all creation, and so God put him in a death-sleep and built from his side another, who was of his flesh, but not him. And when the man saw the woman, he said, This, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh! One flesh, made two, made one again. And there is a very literal consequence of that one-flesh joining. It is not a coincidence that immediately after Jesus speaks of marriage, parents start bringing Him children for Him to lay on His hands—a healing motion—and to bless those children. “One flesh” is not a metaphor; it is a literal creation from two others. A child belongs with the two who became one flesh and made her.

We are not talking about all the things that have gone wrong, and the solution to those problems. We are talking about how it was from the beginning of creation. And we are talking about how it should be. But why? Did God just do something random because He thought it would be nice to have the union of a man and a woman? We think marriage came first, but it did not. When Paul in Ephesians 5 gets done talking about all the things that our world hates, about wives submitting to their husbands as to the Lord, and husbands being like the Lord and laying down their lives, after all that, he says, “This is a great mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the Church. It wasn’t marriage that came first, but God and His people, Christ and the Church. And then God made marriage in that image. It wasn’t the idea of people that came first, and then Jesus. It was the Son of God, who is the Image of God, and then people were made in His Image, that Son made flesh. It wasn’t fathers who came first, and then we came up with the idea of God as Father. It was God the Father, and then fathers were made.

And when we look at the health of that body, and if judgment is to begin with us, it is not good. We have not given the world of unbelievers anything to aspire to, except in rare instances. We have failed; we have distorted and corrupted the image of Christ and the Church in our marriages and in all the ways we’ve sinned against God inside and outside of marriage. Our hearts have been hardened against God and against each other. We have essentially agreed with the world that marriage is simply a written contract that can be dissolved at will. And we are going to judge those outside the Church for their failures? No.

And so we are here not because we have done so much better than the world, but only because we know that marriage is healed by the true Bridegroom. He has not found a perfect, pure bride; He has had to make her. And He has made her as Eve was made, from His side in a death-sleep. Blood and water flowed from His side and a Bride was made, holy, purified, without blemish. We will not be holy by making sure we do all the right things in marriage. We can’t go back and make right what we have said and done, sometimes very literally. Anyway, that would be like thinking we had gotten rid of the disease by getting rid of the symptoms. There is only one answer for our failures, and it is the Bridegroom taking our failures on Himself and giving us everything that is His. Christ for the Church, the Bridegroom for the Bride, the cleansing of God for His people. The faithfulness of Jesus toward His unfaithful wife. The one who never breaks or goes back on His promises, who never seeks another bride, who makes holy the one whom He has chosen.

That’s how our hard hearts toward God get put right. But there is still our hard hearts toward the world, and our love for one another. And that happens in work for the sake of the other. If you are not married, do not pretend you are, lest you mess with the image of Christ’s commitment to His Church. Carry out the vocation God has currently given you, whether you get married or not.

If you are married, do not get divorced. If you are married, be faithful to the one spouse whom God has joined with you. We are yoked together. It is hard work to plow this field where God has put us. By the sweat of our brow we will eat our food. The ground is under a curse, and it often brings forth thorns and thistles. It is not easy. And so we should not be “different-yoked,” or unequally yoked, as the translations have it, with unbelievers. How hard it is to plow the field we’ve been given, and how much harder to plow when the oxen are not headed in the same direction.

And if you are divorced and remarried, stay married! Under the mercy of God, stay married. And “above all, keep loving one another earnestly.” Love is not the feelings you have for someone, although the feelings may often be there. That’s probably how God gets us into these messes! By the feelings. That’s all good, but love is not those feelings. Love is the daily, the hourly, the yearly choice to consider others more highly than yourself, to serve the other person as Christ has served us. To forgive the other person as God in Christ has forgiven you. To deny ourselves for the sake of the other person.

And what if, before we ever said a single word about the sin of the world, judgment began with the household of God? What if, before we said a single word, we got our own houses in order? What if, before we said a single word, we repented, confessed our sins, forgave one another, and lived in humble thanksgiving with the person to whom we are married? What if, before we said a single word, we bore witness to Christ and the Church by how we treat marriage, whether we are married or not? What if we did that?

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/1/21

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