Trinity 13: August 21st 2016
Isaiah 58.9- 14 , Hebrews 12.18-29, Luke 13.10-17
One of the advantages of being the established church is the recognition of the sacrament of marriage, with the incumbent of the parish having legal status as a registrar. So a marriage in church sees God’s law and civil law combined, and many people who come to ask for a church marriage are pleasantly surprised when I assure them there’s no need to book a registrar, as inevitably they’ve been told they have to by well-meaning but ignorant friends and family who have been married elsewhere.
We are well into the wedding season at the moment and what a joy it is to welcome young (and to-so-young) couples who want to begin married life by making their promises to each other in God’s house; and when I ask them why they want to marry in church all sorts of responses come up, ‘It doesn’t feel right anywhere else’, ‘this is our family church. Everyone has got married here’; ‘we want to be married in God’s eyes’. I have yet to hear anyone say ‘because it’s pretty’, because if people are really only bothered about setting, then there are plenty of prettier and more spectacular civil possibilities out there.
Right and proper may be difficult to define, but couple who are planning marriage do recognise the enormity of what they’re embarking upon, lifelong vows to remain faithfully together whatever might befall them in the future – and they also recognise that this can’t be done without love and support from family and friends, and God’s strength to carry them through. So the actual act of marrying happens in two ways, first the priest: I declare that they are husband and wife…those who God has joined together let ne-one put asunder and then the signing of the register, the legal requirement. The couple is given a marriage certificate, a legal document which states that they got married on this particular day. Before that of course, both groom and bride will have made a solemn declaration expressing their wish to marry by responding I will to the question which encompasses so perfectly what marriage is all about…Will you….love, comfort, honour and protect and forsaking all others be faithful as long as you both shall live? In other words, marriage is defined not by a piece of green paper, but by the relationship declared in the sight of Almighty God.
In his ministry, Our Lord Jesus Christ is relentless in his teaching of the right understanding of the relationship between God and his erring people. Like the prophets before him, he warns time and time again of the consequences of people straying away from God’s pathway. One of the worst manifestations of this was the grip of the people by the scribes and lawyers, with whom he has many clashes, those whose job it is to interpret the law of Moses. So in our gospel today, the application of the Sabbath laws are exposed as being far from God’s intention when he handed the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Here is a woman bent double, afflicted for eighteen years, a faithful member of the community and a daughter of Abraham, who Jesus dramatically frees from her captivity, helps her to stand upright and changes her life forever. Immediately, we are told, she praises God – and yet the leader of the synagogue, far from joining in the praise and thanksgiving with her and the crowd, chooses to harangue Jesus, accusing him of breaking the Sabbath laws. Jesus’ reply is swift and uncompromising, for the man is exposed as a hypocrite. Here is a stark reminder that God’s law is not about strict and narrow interpretations, adherence to the letter at all times; it is fundamentally and unequivocally a holy law of love. It is to be summed up, as Our Lord tells us elsewhere, as love of God and of each other. And if our actions do not comply with these two commandments, even if they appear to fulfil what is written, then they are contrary to God’s will and intentions.
In our Old Testament reading this morning, Isaiah warns of trampling the Sabbath by going your own ways, serving your own interests, pursuing your own affairs (which is just what the leader of the synagogue was doing). Instead, if we really want to follow God’s law, we should remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil; if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom shall be like the noonday. It is the spirit of Isaiah which Our Lord is seeking to evoke, Isaiah whose prophecies bring the message of the reign of peace, love and reconciliation to be heralded by the Messiah, who comes to show to his people the right way of doing things God’s way.
In marriage, we have the opportunity to live out this law of love. The preface to the marriage ceremony speaks of marriage as a sign of unity and loyalty which all should uphold and honour…it enriches Society and strengthens community. The marriage vows are made til death us do part…..according to God’s holy law. And while here is an ideal which we collectively fail to live up to in all sorts of ways, because we are flawed humanity, yet it is an aspiration within our grasp, made so by the example of Our Lord Jesus Christ whose love was so perfect and so unconditional that it couldn’t be defeated, even on the cross.
With the wonderful stories of St Luke, I often find myself wondering what happened next. In our story today, was the hapless synagogue leader drummed out of the village, or did they all find some way of healing the relationship within that troubled community just as Our Lord had healed the nameless woman? We would hope the latter of course, just as we would hope that those present will have rushed out to tell everyone about what they had witnessed, not Our Lord breaking the Sabbath laws, but how he fulfilled the law of love with his gospel of compassion, healing and reconciliation. So with our married couples; as the strains of the Wedding March die away, we continue to pray for them that they will remain true to their promises, and that in the words of the prayer, they will come at last to the end of the their lives with hearts content and in joyful anticipation of heaven. That much is, as ever, in God’s hands.
We have so much to celebrate today – Bert and Maureen, married here, who visited us on Thursday on their Diamond wedding anniversary, two couples, Steve and Kelly and Freddie and Stacey, starting married life this weekend, and of course Mandy and Terry, here in thanksgiving for thirty years of marriage and being prepared today to remind themselves, and us, of what they promised in the sight of God all those years ago. And this is what these vows are about – not to be renewed, but to be revisited, so that when tougher times come along, as inevitably they do, we can go back to those ancient promises, knowing that God will always help us to keep the vows made according to God’s holy law, the law of love, the very best for his children.
So let us all resolve to follow that law of love to the best of our ability. And in the words of Isaiah, Take delight in the Lord…ride upon the heights of the earth…for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Amen.