By Linda Rex
October 3, 2021, PROPER 22— What does it mean for you and me to accept the kingdom of God as little children? As Jesus embraced the little children who were brought to him, placed his hands on them to bless them, they received with humble, innocent trust the blessing placed upon them. Their open, obedient receptivity to the self-offering of Jesus forms a pattern for our own. Are we willing to allow God to be who he is and trust he loves us, seeks our blessing, and desires to do what is best for us?
Next year it will be twenty years since the divorce papers were signed on the dotted line. I have often asked myself what it was that drove me to make this decision I swore before God I would never make. Jesus was so right when he said that these types of situations arise out of our very human hardness of heart—our inability to and/or unwillingness to yield ourselves to the will and purposes of God. I believed I was doing the right and best thing at the time I made that decision, but it was not God’s ideal for us, not by any stretch of the imagination.
It takes two to make a marriage more than just words on a page. Both my husband and I have wrestled with the brokenness that caused us to take that road so many years ago. I believed I was doing the most loving thing possible for both my children and my husband when I filed for divorce. But the consequences of that attempt to be loving was great pain for my children, my family and friends, as well as my husband and I, even though we eventually remarried to one another. I do not wallow in guilt or shame about it today, but I grieve and regret the past and present suffering that resulted from this decision on both our parts to go against what God ordained our ideal marriage relationship to be.
In our passage for this Sunday, when approached by the Pharisees who were seeking to trap Jesus and cause him harm, Jesus avoided the current cultural debate as to a strict interpretation of the divorce law or a more lenient, culturally acceptable one by asking what Moses commanded. When they responded with Moses’ concession to the cultural practice of divorce (rather than a commandment), Jesus took them back to God’s original intent. Jesus, as God present in human flesh, explained God’s ideal of intimate union and communion between two unique yet equal persons who were so closely and permanently joined together that they could and never should be separated.
When taken in the context of the entirety of God’s word, we find that marriage was to image the relationship between God and Israel (which these Pharisees were violating). And since the Spirit was sent after the resurrection, it models the relationship between Jesus, the Bridegroom and the Church, the Bride. It can also be said to image what happened in the very person of Jesus Christ in the incarnation—the joining of God with man, it being God’s intention from before time began to unite himself with humanity through Christ in the Spirit, no matter the cost—even to the cost of his human life.
When we contrast God’s ideal with the reality of life in a world of brokenness, we find ourselves often at difficult crossroads. What does it mean to accept the kingdom of God as a little child when all of the decisions facing us seem to be extremely painful grownup ones that have no obvious answer? How do we wrestle with issues like genetics, gender, abuse, PTSD, and so many factors we have no control over? What do we do in the face of impossible situations when there seems to be no way out?
What about the pain and devastation that is caused when a man abandons his wife? How is she supposed to move on with her life or care for herself and her children? And what about the man whose wife is never faithful, even when she tries? What about the wife who discovers her husband is a dangerous man who might very well kill her someday in a violent rage? The real, everyday life decisions we face because of our broken humanity need answers. And normally, the only way we know how to deal with it is to make adjustments to the law so that we don’t feel guilty about doing what we feel we need to do to survive or to find some peace. The law, so often, is impossible to keep. The Pharisees—and even Moses for that matter—found themselves needing to make concessions.
The reality is that God isn’t the one who gets us in these situations—we as broken human beings are the ones, who through hardness of heart, find ourselves in impossible places, needing to work out some solution, since doing it the ideal way doesn’t seem to work. Pain is pain. Abuse is abuse. Adultery is adultery. Unfaithfulness is unfaithfulness. These things happen because we are broken human beings. We are all sinners. Does God turn away from us when we are in these desolate places? Where did he go when I was facing having to do what I never, ever wanted to do so that I could protect myself and my children?
The comfort is, Jesus became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. He has taken our place. He stands in our stead. In these painful and difficult situations, as we remain open and receptive and trusting, we discover that Jesus is just where he always has been—present by the Holy Spirit. It has more to do with how open and receptive we are to the kingdom of God present in this world by the Holy Spirit, as Jesus Christ in us leads us, directs us, and offers us his love and grace. How willing are we to allow Jesus to guide and direct our decisions, and to heal our broken hearts and broken lives?
I look back now and thank God for the journey he took me on when I felt led to divorce my husband. I see now how much I needed to grow in maturity, dependency upon God, in humility and in so many other ways. My husband needed to grow as well. God used this crucible of pain to grow us both up in ways we did not know we needed to grow up in. Was it the ideal situation? No. But when offered to God, it became a time of growth, reconciliation, renewal, and transformation. As we received and responded to Jesus in the midst of it, it became a participation in the kingdom of God.
God is still healing all the people and places that were broken due to our turning away from his ideal with regards to marriage and family. We are still working out the differences that are a natural part of two unique persons bound together in a permanent union before God. I am still learning to trust Jesus and to allow him to bless me and care for me the way he desires, even in a new and challenging way through this blessed gift of a husband who loves and wants to obey and serve his Lord. This journey with Jesus, and thankfully, my husband, will continue on into eternity. For this is the fundamental purpose of our existence—life in intimate relationship with our God as Father, Son, and Spirit, both now and forever. And life in union and communion with one another.
Where are you in your journey with Jesus? In what ways has your life fallen far short of God’s ideal? Have you offered this up to Jesus and allowed him to use it to refine, heal, and transform you? May you experience great grace for the journey as you walk in the Spirit and trust in Abba’s perfect love, allowing Jesus to hold you in his embrace and speak his blessing over you.
Heavenly Father, how heart-wrenching it must be for you to see us wander away from your ideal into barren wastelands full of pain, suffering, and loss! Thank you for meeting us there in Jesus and for sending us your Spirit so that we are never alone, but are always held in your love and grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, ‘Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.’ And He took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands on them.” Mark 10:(2–12)13–16 NASB
“The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” Genesis 2:(18–21) 22–24 NASB
by Linda Rex
One of the most difficult aspects of living in covenant relationship with another human being is coming to grips with the need for unconditional love and grace. Since most of our lives we work and live within the idea of making and keeping contracts, much of our culture is based upon this type of economic and social structure. So when we come to our relationship with God, as well as the covenant of marriage, it is easy to fall back upon this type of thinking and being.
This morning I was listening to Dr. James Torrance ask the question, “Is our God the Triune God of grace or is he a contract God?” His purpose for asking that question was to help his listeners consider the difference between a covenant and a contract. Most of us clearly understand what a contract is—an agreement between two people which can be broken if one or the other does not perform completely the requirements of the contract.
When we mistakenly assume that the covenant God made with Israel and humanity is actually a contract, then what happens is that we put the terms of the agreement in the wrong order: law, consequences, grace. But if we understand that God’s covenant is one of love and grace, and is unconditional, then we understand that the proper order is: grace, law, consequences.
In other words, a covenant looks entirely different from a contract. Torrance uses the example of a marriage covenant to describe the difference. If we think a marriage agreement is a contract (if you do this, then I will do that), then whenever one or the other members of the relationship fail to meet the other’s expectations, then the relationship is broken, and each person can walk away from the relationship at any time. There isn’t really anything to bind two people together if marriage is treated like a contract. You and I both know that at some point in any relationship, someone is going to fail to meet the other person’s expectations. It’s a given, because we’re human.
But in a covenant, unconditional love and grace come first. The commitment to the other supersedes all other considerations in the relationship. Two people agree to love one another no matter what may happen in life, no matter what they each might do. Then there is an understanding that whatever they may do or say to one another will have consequences for the relationship. But the binding of the two people together by unconditional love and grace keeps the relationship intact even when there is a failure at some point to meet the other person’s expectations.
This is what God did with Israel and what he did, in fact, with all humanity. God determined that he was going to draw human beings into relationship with himself. We as human beings have so often broken our part of that covenant just as Israel broke their part of their covenant with God over and over. But God has always been faithful to what he promised. He loved us prior to us loving him. He forgave us prior to us even knowing we needed forgiven. His love and grace are unconditional. This is true covenant.
This is where relationships get tough. Are we willing to forgive the unforgiveable? Are we willing to go the extra mile? Are we willing to keep loving someone who is all prickles and thorns?
You see, God loved Israel unconditionally. Over and over, he forgave his people all of their unfaithfulness to him. Were there consequences to Israel’s breaking of the covenant relationship? Yes—they experienced slavery, oppression and devastation. Even though God allowed them to experience the full consequences of their unfaithfulness to him, he, in time, laid down his life for his people, as well as for all humanity.
God’s love and grace were and are prior to any law. Law describes what a healthy happy relationship looks like and what the consequences are when people don’t live in ways that coincide with a healthy happy relationship. God’s love and grace were present and available even when Israel failed to keep their side of the covenant and experienced the consequences of it. God’s love and grace are also present and available to each of us, in spite of our failures to live faithfully and lovingly in relationship with our God.
Yes, God often allows human beings to experience the pain and devastation that comes with living in ways that break that relationship. And that is where we need to rethink how we handle our covenant relationships. It is easy to believe that in a marriage, if one person loves the other no matter what, then they have to accept whatever behavior the other person does even if it is harmful or involves infidelity or substance abuse. But we need to rethink that.
We are called to love one another unconditionally within the marriage covenant. If a person within the relationship is an addict and is causing destruction to the relationship and to themselves, is it truly loving to allow them to continue in that destructive behavior? No. So they need to experience the consequences of their behavior, but in such a way that the covenant relationship remains intact if at all possible. Love calls the broken person to healing and wholeness and provides a safe place for them to begin to get help. Love does not leave them in their brokenness and enable them to continue their self-destruction. This is when love has to be tough.
When a person is unfaithful in a relationship, there is so much pain involved. The gut level response is to bail out of the relationship. But if indeed unconditional love and grace come first in the covenant—then there must be room, if both parties are willing, to forgive and to rebuild the relationship on a new foundation of grace. When Israel was unfaithful to God, we see the language of divorce in Hosea—yet God did not divorce Israel. Instead, he came in the person of Jesus, laid down his life, and died in her place. Wow! Most of us never get to that place of self-sacrifice and forgiveness in our relationships!
To truly love and forgive is to lay down one’s life for the other so that they can be and become all they were created to be as image-bearers of God. The Triune God of grace teaches us what covenant love looks like—and calls us to live in that relationship with him and with one another. Consequences have their place in covenant relationships. Pain and sin will happen. But unconditional love and grace trumps it all.
God of grace and love, thank you for your faithfulness and compassion. Grow in us the capacity to love and forgive as you do. Teach us what it means to live in covenant love as you do with us. Through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“I will establish My covenant between Me and you [Abraham] and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.” Genesis 17:7 NASB