February 18, 2018, Lent 1, Till Death Do Us Not Part – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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As a priest, I have officiated at a handful of weddings. Weddings are joyful occasions on the whole, but I can’t help feeling a deep concern every time for these two people standing their in their wedding finery making enormous promises to one another in the presence of absolutely everyone they know. I always feel a bit like a mother hen must feel when she’s watching her fluffy little chicks emerge in all their utter obliviousness from the safe environs of the egg into the big, scary world of cats and foxes and hawks, not to mention deep fryers and KFC. Because this world of ours is not an easy one in which to maintain the faithful purity and enduring strength of a marriage relationship.
The problem begins right on the big day itself, even as these two very in-love people make their promises to one another. They come to the ceremony in the heady passion of what they fondly imagine is true love, but what is more often a confused brew of love and hormones and the intoxication of having another human being profess their love for you. I am often concerned that what many people are actually professing as they stand before me, or whoever the officiant might be – no matter what they are actually saying with their mouths – is the white-hot intensity of their feelings at this particular moment, for this seemingly perfect person standing across from them.
But the crucial truth is that the promises we make at our wedding aren’t about how we feel about each other on this one much-anticipated day. They actually aren’t about feelings at all, and they aren’t about this one day. The promises of the marriage ceremony are for the next day, and the next month, and the next year, and twenty and thirty and forty and fifty years down the road. The wedding vows are two human beings professing, in the sight of God and their future mother-in-law, that they will be there for each other, no matter what happens. And we all know that a whole heck of a lot happens in this life.
There is a beautiful song about marriage by Andrew Peterson, called “Dancing in the Minefields.” The title gives you some hint that the song is about the incredible difficulty of maintaining our promises to another human being in the course of a marriage. “…we’re dancing in the minefields/We’re sailing in the storms/And this is harder than we dreamed,” the song goes. “But that’s what the promise is for.” The purpose of those promises all we married people make to one another, with half our minds on the words and the other half on the reception plans or the wedding night or the way our shoes are pinching – all those promises about richer or poorer, about sickness or health, about till death do us part – well, somewhere down the road those barely-remembered ideas become realities and marriage becomes hard. And scary. And tedious. And messy. And that’s what the promise is for. Because it’s certainly not our feelings that will keep us going when the going gets rough. It’s the marriage covenant, the keeping of those promises we made to one another, if we hold them fast, that is the bond that brings us safely through the minefields.
And it’s that lasting, unconditional commitment of the marriage covenant that is one of the main pictures God uses to describe his love for us. It’s no coincidence that we find God matchmaking right in the garden at the dawn of time. Marriage, and the whole concept of covenantal love and commitment, that’s been God’s modus operandi, God’s way of doing and being, for as long as there have been creatures for him to love and be committed to (and actually, infinitely long before that, within the loving unity of the Trinity). Marriage on a human level is never perfect, and sometimes marriage promises are broken in ways that are irreparable. But the design of the marriage Covenant is perfect, because our God is a God of steadfast love and grace.
Sometimes we like to say that the Bible is God’s love letter to his people, and that is true. But it’s much more than that, just like the promises we make in marriage are so much more than expressions of our feelings for one another on that one day. In reality, the whole story of the Bible is the story of the God who says to us, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” It’s the story of God’s marriage vows to us, the story of his promise to keep faith with us for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to the day of our death – and even beyond death, because we’re talking God here, and his promises are bigger than any human can promise.
Today, in the Old Testament passage from the Book of Genesis, we read about one of God’s Covenant promises to his Creation – one the first marriage vows, you might say, that God made to his creatures in the sight of himself and all the hosts of heavenly beings. Theologians call this the “Noahic Covenant” but it’s important to notice that God didn’t just make this vow to Noah. This Covenant promise was given to Noah, and to everyone who would be born to Noah in the generations to come. And the promise was also to the creatures that God had commanded Noah to take into the ark with him – to the elephants and the bunnies and the lions and the grasshoppers. The promise was to “every living creature of all flesh”. And lest we think that God only made his promise to the “good people”, Peter tells us in the New Testament reading today that when Jesus died he brought the promise of salvation even to those lost souls who had been drowned in the waters of the flood. Christians are frequently in danger of thinking of our relationship with God as a kind of exclusive, “us and God” thing – as if salvation is just a sort of limited-edition spiritual transaction between God and the souls of nice, respectable sinners like us. But God’s Covenant promise is much bigger than that, much messier than that, much harder than that – much, much better than that.
In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul even tells us that God’s Covenant extends to every created thing – not just people and furred and feathered beasts, but trees and rocks and mountains and clouds and tomato plants. “The whole creation,” Paul wrote, “waits with eager longing….to be set free from the bondage of corruption…. to obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
When Noah and all the creatures had come out onto solid ground after a whole year in the ark, Noah offered up a burnt offering in thanks to God. And God, smelling the sweet aroma of Noah’s well-meaning offering, made this promise: ““I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.” This vow that God made after the flood was more than just a promise that there wouldn’t be another big flood – as if he were announcing that the next time he had to destroy all living things he’d think up something new and different. God was making a promise to the whole creation that he would never again respond to mankind’s sin with wholesale destruction. And the reason for that was not because Noah had proved his righteousness. Not at all. God makes this promise to mankind, and to the whole creation, first and foremost because left to his own devices, man is a hopeless mess. The message of the Covenant is that our hope, and the hope of the whole creation, lies purely and entirely on the grace and faithfulness of God. Even though the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth, God promises, I will remain faithful. For better or for worse.
And God went on to pledge his faithfulness to the creation. “While the earth remains,” he promised, “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” Not only was God promising to withhold his well-deserved anger at man’s sinfulness, he was promising to nourish and cherish all of creation, “till death do us part”, so that his creation would continue as he had ordained for all the days and seasons and rhythms of life until the end of time. A lot of times, you hear people claim that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath and retribution, but in his Covenant promises we see God’s true nature, which from beginning to end is love – truly he is the God who shows himself to be “gracious and full of mercy, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.”
It is the custom in marriages for us to exchange rings as a tangible symbol of the promises we make to one another on that day, something we can see and touch as a reminder that goes forward with us into the ups and downs of married life. It’s something we need as creatures of flesh and blood, something to remind us when the going gets tough. And so, as we all learned way back in our Sunday School days, God gave us a tangible sign along with his Covenant promise – he set the rainbow in the heavens, that glowing arc of every color, to remind us that he will certainly keep all of his promises to us. Just as the heavens opened up and the glory of God appeared when Jesus was baptized, and the voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, my beloved.” so when we see the arc of the rainbow in the clouds, God is reminding us of his Covenant promise, and renewing his vow to every created thing, “You are my beloved. I will never leave you. I will never forsake you.” Even when it seems like we’re dancing in the minefields, surrounded by dangers on every side; even when it seems like we’re sailing through storms, blown off course, knocked down every time we try to get up; even when life seems harder than we dreamed – that’s what the promise is for. Our God is the God of the Covenant, the God who loves us and who will keep his promises to his whole creation – and even death itself is not able to separate us from his love.