This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Malachi 2:10-16
Sermon prepared by Rev. Bert Slofstra, Abbotsford BC
Two men were talking about the wedding that was coming up for one of them. The one who was engaged said to his friend, “You know, it’s weird, but now that I’m engaged I’m actually starting to feel nervous about getting married.” His buddy responded, “Yeah, I know what you mean; it’s only natural to be nervous. Marriage is a big commitment - 6 or 7 years can be a long time!”
That would be funny, if it wasn’t so sad – and if it wasn’t true. But we know it’s both: sad and true. You can quibble about exact numbers but these days, on average, half of all marriages end in divorce. We used to argue that that shouldn’t really come as a surprise since, if people marry without the Lord, what is there in the long run - through all the trials and conflicts that are part of every marriage - that can sustain or renew their love?
But it’s no secret that broken marriages are a fact of life in the church today too. There was a time that the very subject of divorce was taboo, something you just didn’t talk about in public. But no more. As divorces began to occur within our church families, the unthinkable became thinkable. And though we don’t approve of divorce, we’ve come to accept it - because it happens. Because marriages between Christians, within the church – the circle of God’s covenant people – did and also do break up.
Then again, it’s a problem as old as time. Not only does the prophet Malachi raise the subject in a dialogue with God’s people that took place roughly 2400 years ago, there have been marriage problems ever since Adam and Eve. That has never changed. More importantly, however, neither has God’s Word about faithfulness and loyalty in marriage. And that’s the heart of our text.
In a series of dialogues that took place about 400 years B.C., the prophet Malachi addresses a very frustrated group of people. Frustrated, because it’s already been some time since they had returned home from exile in Babylon, and they just weren’t experiencing the covenant blessings that the Lord, through various earlier prophets, had promised his people. In a series of 7 dialogues, each involving a different issue, the people of Israel ask 7 times: what has happened to God’s faithfulness and loyalty? And 7 times they are told: you’re asking the wrong question. The right question, God’s question, is: what has happened to yours?
Today’s reading is the fourth of these conversations, and the issue is marriage: its beginnings, and its endings. Israel was breaking faith with God when it came to choosing marriage partners, and they broke faith with God and with each other when it came to ending their marriages through divorce.
Now we need to add 2 notes of caution right from the start, because one or both of these issues may, for many of us, be very sensitive ones.
The first note is this: neither the Scripture reading nor this message is intended to cause pain to those who live with an unbelieving spouse. Maybe you became a Christian after you were married; maybe you didn’t know what God’s will was until after you married; and maybe you did knowingly and willingly ignore God’s will - which really describes all of us in one way or another – and now you find yourself in a situation where you are married to an unbeliever.
The second note is this: neither this Scripture reading nor this message is intended to cause more pain to those who have gone through a divorce. Maybe you didn’t become a Christian, or you didn’t fully understand God’s will for marriage, until after your divorce. And maybe your marriage broke up because you or your spouse did know better but, for whatever reason, just could not do better to save your marriage. The Bible and the church recognize that, sadly, marriages are broken because of sin.
In either case, whatever our past – and, as sinners all, we all have our own particular pasts – we are forgiven by grace and through faith in Jesus Christ. And in Christ we are always able to make a new beginning. So this Scripture reading and message is not intended to judge or condemn anyone who lives with an unbelieving spouse or who has gone through a divorce. It is intended to encourage and teach and warn, as necessary, anyone presently dating and perhaps thinking about marrying an unbeliever, or anyone presently thinking about divorcing his/her present partner.
The first item on God’s agenda was that of mixed marriages, that is, a marriage between a Christian and an unbeliever, between a person who worshiped the living God and one, says Malachi, who worshiped “a foreign god.” Such marriages are referred to, in no uncertain terms, as “profaning the covenant of our fathers” and “a detestable thing.” Yet it had become such a common thing in those years following the exile that 2 other prophets, Ezra and Nehemiah, also had to address this matter at great length.
Please understand that the issue here is not, and never was, one of race. You only have to think of Ruth, a Moabite, who made a commitment to make the God of her mother-in-law Naomi her God. She married Boaz, a Jew, and became the great grandma of King David, and is included in the family tree of Jesus. Then there’s Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho, a Canaanite. She helped Joshua’s spies because she worshiped the Lord God of Israel, and also got included in Jesus’ family tree.
The issue was and is idolatry, because the basis of any marriage relationship, the Bible teaches, is spiritual. The foundation of the relationship between a man and woman in marriage is to be their relationship to God. But how can an Israeli husband worship the Lord while his wife worships Baal, and expect to be able to have any unity or purpose of direction? They are going in two different directions.
So why did they do it, even though they could and should have known better? We can only guess that there were many different reasons. There weren’t enough women among the covenant people to choose from. Or they had gotten so used to living among unbelievers in those years of exile, and had learned to make so many compromises, that the line between right and wrong had become blurred. Perhaps some argued, “Isn’t the main thing in marriage that we love each other?” Or, as some no doubt said, “Sharing our love and life might also bring my partner to share my faith.”
But Malachi calls it what it is: breaking faith. Breaking faith with the God and Father who called and redeemed his people by grace to be a chosen people, a people belonging to God, and who show that in every part of life. But in the important matter of choosing a marriage partner they ignored their identity, and ignored God. They looked for a unity in all kinds of things that do matter - love, intellect, interests, and what have you. But they ignored the one thing that matters most: a unity in love for, faith in, and worship of the one and only true God and Father.
And this isn’t just Old Testament stuff. The New Testament speaks the same language. In I Corinthians 7:39 Paul wrote to Christians in Corinth that if a woman’s husband dies “she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.” In chapter 6:14-16 of a second letter to the same church he wrote: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers…what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God.”
In other words, God reminds all of us who aren’t married yet but hope to be, and who do love the Lord Jesus, that the choice you make in this part of life must be directly related to your faith in the Lord. If you do really love him, you will only ever arrange a marriage in which there is love for each other and in which the most important goal of our lives as God’s children can by pursued: the goal to love, serve and obey that one God and Father, who made a covenant of love with you, together, in Jesus Christ.
That is not to say that if you are married to an unbeliever you should get out. Several hundred years after Malachi there were Christians in Corinth who wondered about that, and Paul made it clear in I Corinthians 7:12-13 that “if any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.”
Nor is it to say that it’s impossible for an unbelieving husband or wife to come to faith in Christ. By the grace of God that can also happen. The apostle Peter, in chapter 3:1-2 of his first letter, addresses believing women married to unbelieving men. He encourages these women to live to make that happen, so that their husbands “may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” But you can’t use that as an argument for marrying an unbeliever in the first place. God often brings good out of evil, but that’s no excuse for doing anything that is evil. Evangelical zeal is great, but marriage as ordained by God was not meant to be a missionary program.
God’s revealed will is plain: if you’re looking to marry some day, settle it in your mind right now never to marry anyone that does not love the Lord Jesus with all of his or her heart. When it comes to dating and to marriage, there is no room for compromise between children of God and children of the world. There is no neutral ground between believers and unbelievers. If our relationship with God is the most important one there is in life, how can you within that partnership also have a life-long partnership with someone who has to be called a son or daughter of a foreign god? How can you give an idol a place in God’s family?
Question is, do we remember that also within our Christian marriages, that our marriages should reflect the relationship, called covenant, that God made with us? That our marriages are only a shadow of what the Lord ultimately has in mind: the marriage of Christ and his church? In heaven, Jesus said, there will be no marriage, because marriage is not an end in itself. It’s a gift of God by which a husband and wife, in a closeness that is just a foretaste of all our relationships in the new creation, may enjoy and encourage each other and learn together to love and serve the Lord Jesus, and to build God’s kingdom in the church and in our society. But that all begins in our homes and families.
And God’s people in Malachi’s day had forgotten that. Malachi writes that the people flooded God’s altars with their tears, because he didn’t respond to their sacrifices with his blessings. As though you can buy God off with gifts, and he’ll overlook any other unfaithfulness. Because they were just as disobedient when it came to ending marriages as they were at beginning them, because neither priests nor people even cared anymore for what reasons people got a divorce.
“Till death do us part” had been replaced in their vows with the words “till divorce seems convenient.” They had turned a covenant – a relationship of love and faithfulness as long as our lives shall last – into a contract, a temporary commitment, with all kinds of escape clauses and buy out provisions, as long as our love shall last. You are not blessed, says Malachi, “because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.”
The first and foremost goal of marriage is to form a covenant together in which together you serve the God of the covenant. And in which you reflect to your family and society the relationship between Jesus and the church he loves more than his own life. What does the Lord want? Malachi reminds us: “Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring.”
That is, it’s not just the unity of marriage intended by God that is important, it’s also that out of that unity God looks for godly offspring. God gave marriage also so that covenant children might be born and taught to serve him, so that his grace and truth might be proclaimed in every new generation and all peoples on earth be blessed by God’s people. And out of that came finally the birth of Jesus Christ, the mediator of the new covenant.
Still today in the church God wants godly offspring, children who love him and confess the name of Jesus and declare his faithfulness through all generations. And divorces among God’s people affect that, too. For how can children learn the love of God when parents don’t live the love of God?
And suddenly the Lords just blurts it out: “I hate divorce.” I hate it. Who doesn’t? And in many cases those who are second in line to God in hating divorce are those who have gone experienced a broken marriage and have gone through a divorce.
The sad truth is that it happens, for all sorts of reasons. There are as many reasons why marriages fail as there are marriages that fail. We bring different personalities and temperaments to working through the challenges of life together. Some couples face very few problems but just can’t seem to make it, while others face enormous complications which only draw them closer.
Marriages fail because of infidelity and adultery, or because of boredom and bickering. Things happen, and people change - but not always together. A child dies, and the stresses and the blaming tear the marriage apart. Sometimes we have to talk about the tragedy of a mismatch, when a failure to find common values drives a wedge between 2 people who thought they had so much in common. Sometimes it’s just plain immaturity: he wants to go out with the boys drinking, while she is expected to stay home each evening and watch romantic movies on TV.
Sometimes there is mental or physical abuse, and as a church we need to say to a husband or a wife that the Lord doesn’t require them to remain in a relationship where there is unrepentant and willful abuse of one kind or another, because the Lord doesn’t require that. But whatever the reason, God hates divorce, and compares it to an act of violence that leaves one covered in blood.
That is not to say that God hates divorced people, not even the one who – as the case may be – is most responsible for a marriage breakdown. In God’s mind and intent, marriage was forever – entering into a covenant and trying with all your heart not to mess it up. The Bible is very strict about forbidding divorce when, as Jesus taught, neither unrepentant adultery is the issue nor, as Paul taught, an unbelieving spouse’s refusal to live with a spouse who becomes a believer. At the same time, Jesus would also be the first to understand the humanity and limitations of each person, the hurts we suffer, sometimes the hurts we inflict, and surely the promises large and small that we have broken.
Reading the gospels, we know that Jesus would be the first one to urge us to get on with life, to forgive and seek forgiveness, to do the best we can to reconstruct our lives and be at peace. In all of his encounters with those hurt in and by life, Jesus had a way of helping people pick up the pieces and go on. Think of the story of John 8 about the woman caught in adultery. Or the story of John 4 about a woman who had been married 5 times and was living with another man. Think about Jesus’ own dear friend Peter who denied him and whom he restored to fellowship. In each of these encounters grace always triumphed over judgment. So while we need to be grateful for good marriages, we also need to encourage and stand by and pray with, not just for, those who fail.
God’s point in Malachi’s prophecy is that we may never use any excuse, no matter how reasonable, to make divorce look good, acceptable or normal. Marriage is a covenant, meant to be forever, and it hurts God, and us, when we fail with our covenants. It hurts God, and us, when our words and actions don’t stand in the same way that God’s do. For our God is the One who will never break that covenant to be our God, no matter how bad or wrongheaded or stupid we are. As long as we come to him to in truth, owning up to our failures to him and to each other, and seek his grace.
The bottom line here is that those of us who are married need to recognize that our marriages are covenants within our covenant with God in Jesus Christ. And in Christ, who knows our weaknesses, there is help and grace in time of need. When there are tensions and failures in marriage, we don’t just give up but we turn together to the Lord who never gives up on us, and by whose Spirit and power we can experience forgiveness and make new beginnings.
So if your marriage is in trouble and you need help, turn first to the Lord and then also to the church - to a trusted church leader - because they are there to help you find help. Because where there is commitment because of covenant, and even small beginnings in the self-denying love we’ve experienced perfectly from Christ, any old relationship can become a brand new adventure.
Malachi closes the dialogue with one final warning, and he says it twice: “So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith…” Guard yourself in your spirit, because that’s where divorce so often begins: in the thoughts, the imagination, in the heart. We’re surrounded today with so many things that tempt and encourage us to forsake the wife or husband of our youth. Think of the slick pornography sold at every corner store and freely available on the internet, or the looks and clothing intended to excite, or some of the articles in the respectable and popular magazines we receive at home, or the media with which we’re confronted and bombarded everyday. In so many ways and places, sexual immorality and bedhopping is proclaimed to be the rule rather than the exception of normal life.
None of us is immune to the temptations to break faith with our husband or wife. Paul’s warning in I Corinthians 10:12 needs to be taken seriously by us all: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”
What, then, does the Lord want to see in the families of his covenant people? In one word: faithfulness. Faithfulness to him in choosing a marriage partner; and faithfulness in living with our marriage partner. Faithfulness is the one word that best describes who God has been, and is, and always will be for us.
Keeping covenant with him and with each other, may we proclaim his faithfulness from generation to generation – God helping us.
Suggested Order of Worship
Welcome and announcements
Call to Worship: Psalm 105:1-4
All sing hymn: PsH #625 ‘Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying ’
God's greeting: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth, and who redeemed us through the blood of his Son. May the grace and peace of God our Father and of Jesus Christ, his Son and our Lord, be upon us all.”
We greet each other
Hymn of praise: PsH #475 ‘Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven ’
Call to confession: I John 1:5-8
Prayer of confession
Assurance of forgiveness: I John 1:9
God's will for our lives: I John 4:7-12
Hymn of rededication: PsH #264 ‘Lord, I Want to be a Christian ’
Prayer for understanding
Scripture reading: Malachi 2:10-16
All sing hymn: PsH #280 ‘Blessed Jesus, At Your Word ’
Message: ‘Keeping Covenant’
All sing hymn: PsH #556 ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness ’
All sing hymn: PsH #178:1,4 ‘What Shall I Render to the Lord’
God's parting blessing: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all. Amen.”
Doxology hymn: PsH #593:1,2,5 ‘My Song Forever Shall Record’