Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
The Agonie – George Herbert
As a way of drawing our attention to the importance and meaning of what you both are doing here today, I want to focus on the way marriage captures God’s answer to two things that accompany every man and woman throughout the course of their married lives – sin and love.
George Herbert knew that sin and love are the true riddle of human existence and that they likewise pose the greatest questions to any account, philosophical or otherwise, of what we are doing when we pledge our lives to each other in the bonds of marriage as you are about to do in a few moments. As you well know, our culture, in many quarters, views the vows you will be taking and the theological realities that undergird them as at best foolishness, and at worst, a form of oppression. How distinctly un-modern and parochial! Why would two free and independent people willingly surrender their freedoms by vowing to live each for the other for the rest of their lives?
I think it is an excellent question and we need to answer it. But to do so we need to take a step back and start at the beginning, with the first wedding and the communion of love intended within it. From there we will be able to see our way clearly to the Bible’s answer to Herbert’s riddle of sin and love.
Our reading from Genesis comes at the end of creation week after God had spread out the vast panoply of heaven and filled the earth with teeming life of all shapes and sizes. It comes after God had surveyed his work at the end of each day and saw that it was good. Suddenly, on the final day, just before the dawn of Sabbath rest, God speaks the first malediction recorded in scripture; it is not good, He says, for man to be alone. Man alone is not good.
Now, this isn’t simply a commentary on bachelors, though much could be said about that, it is rather a larger truth about Adam’s design. He was made to be completed by the communion of others. Genesis says Adam was designed to be helped, to be sharpened, to be transformed to even greater glory; not by himself but by the gift of another. And it is through the instrumentality of his final creation of woman, His masterpiece, that God provides what Adam lacks in himself. Even the names God gives man and woman point to this purpose.
God made Adam out of the earth. His name, adamah, means dirt. But when God makes Eve he puts Adam to sleep, and from a wound in his side, fashions a woman whom he names ishshah which comes from the word “fire.” But what is most striking is the way God gives Adam a new name at the same moment he creates woman. The text tells us he is no longer dirt-man, but ignited by the glory-flame that came from his side, he becomes a man on fire, ish, fire-man.
Not only is he completed by his new bride so that he is no longer alone, he is also transformed by her glory. And when fire-man speaks, the result is poetry in the superlative degree, “This at last”, Adam says, “is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” And Genesis tells us that in the two becoming one, the whole creation is lifted to its greatest glory. In the communion and completion of married love, “God saw all that He had created, and behold, it was very good.”
To put it succinctly, the Bible shows us that men and women find their purpose and fulfillment in living for their Maker and for their neighbor, in being consumed in the glory-fire of self-sacrificial generosity. Adam had to descend into the sleep of death to give life to Eve, and likewise Eve was made to give her glory-fire to complete Adam. When living in the joy of self-giving they express in the most powerful of ways what it means to bear the image of God Himself. And their self-giving, like His, results in deep communion and mutual transformation. In the Bible there is no glory that is solitary, for glory is always found in community; it can only be given and received.
Yet in the very next chapter, Adam and Eve are driven from the garden cloaked in the shame of their own rebellion. Instead of walking in the glory of God’s gifts, they reached out to take what God had not given. Rather than joyful submission, they chose independence from the One who had given them life. Suddenly, the freedom of communion was shattered by the consciousness of shame. And the garden, once the place of openness and friendship, became the first place of hiding from God and from each other.
As the chapter continues this fountain of shame grows to become a mighty river of alienation. Adam and Eve are separated from every unity they once enjoyed: from the earth, the animals, from each other, from their God, and finally from their home. The Bible has a name for this condition: exile. And now, east of Eden, we are all exiles, all alone, enslaved to ourselves.
Martin Luther described this condition of alienation and slavery as man “incurvatus in se.” Literally, as man curved in on himself; self-seeking, selfish, alone. He says “our nature is so deeply curved in on itself that it wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks to use all things, even God our Father, for its own sake.” So too, St. Augustine says our pride is self-love reaching the point of contempt for God. The curse of sin is the hopeless derangement of our loves so that they become destructive, because they require everything and everyone to serve the self. C.S. Lewis points to this self-centeredness as the opposite of Paradise, the very principle of hell opened up in us. And Sartre said it best: now hell is other people.
This is the tension Herbert spoke of in His poem, The Agonie. The self-centeredness of our sinful hearts now makes the love of the beloved a threat. We all know this, and it’s why the idea of marriage makes us uncomfortable. We’re afraid of commitment not, as some would have us believe, because we don’t know how to commit, but rather because we are deeply, trenchantly, and unshakably committed already to ourselves. For all our culture’s praise of infidelity, there is one marriage, one bond, that may never be questioned: As Polonius, the fool, said to his son: “to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” The bard would, I am certain, not want us to miss the irony.
“When the Bible speaks of love,” Tim Keller says, “it measures it primarily not by how much you want to receive but by how much you are willing to give of yourself to someone. How much are you willing to lose for the sake of this person? How much of your freedom are you willing to forsake? How much of your precious time, emotion, and resources are you willing to invest in this person? And for that, marriage vows are not just helpful but they are even a test. In so many cases, when one person, says to another, ‘I love you, but let’s not ruin it by getting married,’ that person really means, ‘I don’t love you enough to close off all my options. I don’t love you enough to give myself to you that thoroughly.’”
This kind of love, the kind that is patient and kind, that does not envy, that does not boast, that is not proud; Love that is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs, is, if we are honest, beyond the reach of us all. So how are we to proceed? What’s the answer to the enmity between sin and love?
The Bible says: the answer is a wedding.
In the long story that follows Eden, weddings don’t disappear, erased by the tragedy of man’s sin, instead the glory of a wedding becomes the hope of creation. Over and over, the Old Testament speaks of God as a patient and persistent bridegroom; undeterred by the waywardness of His bride. We see it, in the jealousy of Deuteronomy, in the poetry of the Song of Songs, in the praises of the Psalms, until it comes bursting from the lips of the prophets. Isaiah proclaims “for Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep quiet, until her righteousness goes forth like brightness, and her salvation like a torch that is burning….It will no longer be said to you, ‘Forsaken,’ Nor to your land will it any longer be said, ‘Desolate;’ but you will be called, ‘My delight is in her,’ and your land, ‘Married;’ for the Lord delights in you, and to Him your land will be married. For as a man marries a virgin, so your sons will marry you; and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you.” (Isaiah 62:1-5)
This is why the Bible says the Father sent his beloved Son to be the Second Adam and a faithful bridegroom to His people. In the face of our self-centeredness and rejection, Jesus came as the full expression of God’s favor and love. He came to reveal the glory of self-giving we had forgotten. Unlike any king of human making; he came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.
And nailed to a Roman cross, with the last, full-measure of devotion, He freely spent His life for our sakes. He was stripped naked so that the shame of our nakedness could be covered. He went into exile so that we could finally return home. He was rejected and despised of men, so that we could be welcomed into the Father’s embrace. And as the new Adam, He descended into the sleep of death, so that, like Eve, we could be born again from His wounded side.
And because we are His bride, filled with glory-flame of His Spirit, we now are free to love like Him. “In this is love,” St. John says, “not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
John, the world needs men who are unafraid to die like Jesus: Men who don’t cut and run when the costs to self run high, but men who find their glory in giving their lives for the lives of others. You know that no man, in his own strength, can do this. But you are not alone, for the Spirit of God dwells in you and has filled you with the love of Jesus. Above all things, purpose to love Medora with a love that puts her ahead of yourself in everything. Give her the love God has given you and out of the countless deaths your marriage will require, God will make her into a woman even more beautiful and accomplished than she is today. As you take your vows, make this your solemn purpose.
Medora, the world likewise needs women who are unafraid to be a glory-flame to their husbands. This will also require that you live, not for yourself, but for John. Set him on fire by honoring and respecting his sacrifices for you. Love him sacrificially, as Christ loves you, and He will use your gifts and abilities to complete John and to transform him into a greater man than he is today.
And together remember that as Jesus has set you free from your sins, He has also set you free to live. Secure in His love, you are free to forgive, free to laugh, free to love, free to sacrifice, free to eat and drink, free to see and be seen, free to know and be known, free to confront and oppose, free to comfort and heal, free to kiss and embrace, free to sing, free to dance, free build and plant, free to imagine and create.
I charge you both to walk in this perfect freedom, do not use it as a covering for the flesh, but rather as a free man and woman in the Lord, use your freedom to serve each other and all whom God gives to you. Because this is the true measure of freedom, it sets others free. May your home be a place of where the freedom of the Spirit blows continually, a place where sins are confessed and forgiven freely, and where the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control put every enemy of human flourishing to flight.
May the joy and laughter of your table point to the wedding feast to which all of creation is bound, and may the hope and anticipation of that which is not yet, fill and infect every moment of the life that He has given you now, together as one flesh. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Prayer: Let us pray. Almighty God, our Father, You are the author of all love because you are love. You have commanded us to walk in love even as you first loved us and gave yourself to be the propitiation for our sins. Teach John and Medora to love each other as you have loved them and fill their lives together with the joy, wisdom and beauty of your Spirit, through Jesus Christ Your Son, who lives and reigns with you and with the Holy Spirit, ever one God, unto ages of ages. Amen.
Joshua Appel is a pastor at Trinity Reformed Church, Moscow, Idaho, and a Fellow of theology at New Saint Andrews College.
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