A sermon by Steve Cooper
I’d like to take a risky step this morning and talk about marriage. It’s risky for a number of reasons. One reason is that for many people their experience of marriage is messy and painful. Another reason is you may not be married, and you may wonder whether the subject of marriage is relevant for you. A final reason why it’s risky is that in our social and political climate in Australia many are confused and uncertain about what marriage is.
But, despite the risks, I’m convinced we need to think freshly about marriage. In the opening book of the Bible, Genesis chapter 2, we are introduced to God’s plan for marriage. It’s a breathtaking and attractive plan! It’s important for us all to consider our Creator’s wonderful design for marriage, and think through what it means for us in our relationships.
In the opening chapters of Genesis we are introduced to the great essentials of our existence: God, humanity, and then the relationship between God and humanity. At the end of Genesis 2 the focus is on a relationship between people. The particular relationship described at this point is the one that all our lives depend on: that between man and woman in marriage. Genesis describes and celebrates marriage, and the picture it paints is deeply attractive. The LORD God sees the man, alone in the Garden of Eden, and from his side makes a woman. The man is thrilled, and the chapter ends on a note of intimacy and openness between the pair of them.
Which of us does not want real, deep happiness in this area? The trouble is that the reality of our experience is often so very different. Love, delight and openness are what we long for, and we may experience much of this; but many people’s stories are also of heartache, guilt, secrecy, loneliness, confusion and even hatred. And that can make it hard for us to listen to Genesis 2. What does Genesis 2 have to say to us, in the messy realities of our existence?
The New Testament answer is: a great deal. The great importance of this account is that here, in the Garden, we are in the world before the corrupting effect of sin, where ‘what is’ is the same as ‘what ought to be.’ If our lives now are like the bits of a jig-saw puzzle scattered on the table, Genesis 2 shows us the picture on the box. Comparing the picture with the scattered bits – the contrast with our present lives – will show us, with tragic clarity, just how devastating the effects of sin are.
But the picture on the box is also a beautiful and practical blueprint for living. For the New Testament tells us how Jesus Christ has come to bring us back to God; and, having brought us back to God, he restores and repairs the lives of all who trust in him. He does this by making us back into the people we were made to be; he brings us back to the Paradise way. This is why the New Testament takes these verses from Genesis as the foundation for all its teaching on marriage. In a world where there is so much confusion in this area, the value of this ‘picture on the box’ is incalculable.
So, what does the paradise pattern look like?
The story in Genesis 2 begins with God’s goodness and provision. The account reads: ‘The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him”’ (v.18). God forms a woman – and she’s just the right companion for the man. So Adam bursts into a song, whose lyrics go like this: ‘This one – at last! Bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. I shall call this one Woman for from man she was taken, this one!’ (v.23) She’s the one! She is like him, yet she is not the same; she is woman, not man. Together, they can serve God, look after the Garden, and love other people.
So marriage is a wonderful gift of a generous and good God. We don’t need to be nervous about marriage, and scared of the commitment. Marriage works; it’s a great thing! If you are already married, thank God for his provision for you. You and your spouse are, as Jesus put it, ‘what … God has joined together’ (Matthew 19:6).
This morning we’re considering the subject of marriage. Genesis 2 describes God’s plan for marriage – and it’s a breathtaking plan! The LORD God makes a woman, and brings her to the man. Marriage is God’s provision for us, designed to bring real intimacy and openness in relationship, and together the married couple can love and serve God and others. In verse 24, Genesis takes the pattern of this first marriage and applies it to us: this is how it will be. It reads: ‘That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (v.24). This summary verse is seen as very important in the New Testament, where it is quoted four times. Perhaps more than any other verse in the Bible, it helps us understand what marriage actually is. It gives us the components of marriage; and it does so in a deliberate sequence.
First, ‘a man leaves his father and mother.’ Marriage means a change of relationship with one’s family. In law, next-of-kin have been their parents; now, it is their spouse. A new relationship of great closeness is formed: the two ‘become one flesh’, with a loyalty which supplants even that wonderfully close relationship of parents and child. We need to heed this. In many families, the parents and in-laws can strangle the marriage. Some parents aren’t really ready to let go and recognize the formation of a new relationship.
This truth helps explain the difference between marriage and just moving in with your lover. In a relationship as powerful and intimate as that between man and woman, others are also involved – parents, and, by extension, society as a whole. In our privatized, me-only world-view, we tend to think that all that matters are two consenting adults. But these wider relationships matter, too. Marriage is a device common to all societies that gives this relationship the public recognition that it needs because others are involved. It’s this public recognition, stemming from here in Genesis, that is the all-important difference between marriage and co-habitation.
Secondly, the man ‘is united to his wife.’ This means the married couple are bonded tightly together. Jesus picks this up when answering questions about divorce. He quotes this verse, and draws the lesson that the Creator’s intention is that marriage be permanent. His point is: ‘Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate’ (Matthew 19:3-6). That is why divorce, rather like tearing apart two bits of paper which have been glued, is so terribly damaging. It is why, when we get married, we are right to make those awesome promises of permanence: ‘For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health … till death us do part, and this is my solemn vow.’ Stick at it!
And then, thirdly, ‘they become one flesh.’ Here is the closest of all human relationships, marked, maintained and matured by sex. And notice where sex comes in the sequence: after the leaving and cleaving. Right from the start, God’s plan for sex is in the context of marriage. God has designed us so sex is most enjoyable and satisfying when it happens within the love, commitment and security of marriage – where it is clear we intend to spend the rest of our lives together.
It’s tough to keep to the sequence God has designed for marriage. Genesis 2 gives the sequence. The man and woman leave their parents, and are united in the close bond of marriage, and after that sex can be enjoyed within the faithfulness and love of a life-long commitment. This sounds tough! We find it hard to trust; we think of a thousand reasons for breaking the sequence, including ‘trying it out, to see if we are compatible’ (even though the statistics show that those who haven’t slept together before marriage are less likely to split up). Or we reduce sex to a merely recreational activity. But might it just possibly be that the Maker’s own instructions hold the key to real happiness? Our very surprise at them shows us just how much we need them.
There’s something else to notice in God’s plan for marriage in Genesis 2. God’s provision for the man is woman. This is God’s creation pattern for marriage, and therefore for sex. That is why the Apostle Paul writes that homosexual relations are not in accordance with the Creator’s intention. He describes homosexual relations as ‘contrary to nature’ and says that those who engage in them give up natural relations (see e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:10).
For Paul, the decisive factor is God’s pattern and plan revealed in Genesis 2. In the Bible, then, marriage (and therefore sex) is between a man and a woman. This is a hard thing to say in our social and political climate; the bits of the jigsaw are well and truly scattered! But we must urgently, and with all compassion, be honest about what the Bible says. Everyone will be helped, including those struggling with same-sex attraction, if we are clear about our Maker’s loving purposes.
Genesis 2 ends with an intriguing statement: ‘Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame’ (v.25). What is this – an ad for nudism? No; it’s a beautiful picture of something which matches our deepest longings: real intimacy with each other. Here is an openness in relationship, a nothing-to-hide pleasure in one another’s company. This is God’s breathtaking plan for marriage.
But we cannot leave Genesis 2 without returning to where we began, recognizing that humanity’s experience of marriage and sex is so far from this! We might crave this kind of openness and intimacy, but too often it seems beyond us. In Genesis 3 we learn about humanity’s rebellion against God. Sin’s dreadful effects are nowhere seen more clearly than in its spoiling of this relationship, scattering the jigsaw pieces.
You personally may have felt some of the pain of that, just while I’ve been speaking. That’s why it’s so encouraging that Jesus Christ has come to restore and repair the lives of all who trust in him. He brings us back to the Paradise way portrayed in Genesis 2.
If you are married, let me encourage you to meditate on God’s pattern for marriage. If you have failed, be honest with God, admit your sin, and humbly ask his forgiveness. If you are not married, also meditate on Genesis 2. You can support others who are married, you can enjoy rich relationships with those of the opposite sex, and you can serve God within the sphere of singleness, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 7.
The God revealed in the Bible is generous and good. One of his great gifts to humanity is marriage. In Genesis 2 we learn about the Creator God’s plan and design for marriage. A man and woman leave their parents, become united in public marriage, and enjoy the intimacy and openness of companionship and sex. It’s a compelling picture – and it should cause us all to thank God for his breathtaking plan.
Let’s pray: ‘Gracious God, we thank you for your generous gift of marriage. Bless all who are married, that they may follow your design and plan – loving and serving you together, loving and serving others. Give them perseverance in the hard times, forgiveness when they fail, and strength to be faithful to each other. In Christ’s name. Amen.’
Acknowledgment: Several points in this message come from Alasdair Paine’s book, The first chapters of everything: how Genesis 1-4 explains our world (Fearn: Christian Focus Publications, 2014).