Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Jesus, the Bridegroom of the Church
We read in the prophet Isaiah, God said to His people: '...your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the LORD has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you," says the LORD, your Redeemer' (Isaiah 54.4-8).
As most people know, women have gotten a pretty raw deal much of the time, in their relationships with men. Whether it be the current notorious conditions for women in the Islamic world, or in the developing world, or historically, in centuries past (including biblical times), women have often been neglected, disadvantaged, disenfranchised, deserted, and abused. For many women it has always been a matter of 'men – you can't live with 'em, and can't live without 'em'.
When marriages suffer or are destroyed by men and women, God's word tells us it is our fault, our sin, that presents us with this sad state of affairs. When men are unable, or unwilling to be good husbands, they stand before God guilty of violating His word. Likewise, when married women are unwilling to fulfill their God-given vocation, because of sin on their part, they fall short of the mark, too.
So, given that marriage is so characterized by sin, failure and pain, why does God use it as a metaphor to describe His relationship to His people? A few reasons that spring to mind are the fact that the imperfections and flaws that we see in marriage from this side of the Fall, do not detract from the fact that marriage was – originally - a good and perfect thing prior to the Fall.
At the same time God use flawed marriage after the Fall, to depict His relationship to us sinners, with Him being the innocent party and we being the guilty party. As such, the marriage metaphor is as instructive to us as it is descriptive of how the love of God is willing and able to overcome the imperfections in our relationship and, indeed, to heal them. In this God gives us a great example to imitate, as well.
The biblical picture of God, as the faithful husband, restoring our relationship to Himself to the point where we are as good with Him as Eve was with Adam before the Fall, also gives us a picture of the blessedness to come when God restores His fallen creation in the new world to come, a paradise that will never fall again.
Ultimately, marriage is a great illustration, since we get the concept of wife and husband, bride and groom. This is why we can learn so much from it about our relationship to God.
For example, where our Lord Jesus says, (as we say last week), that husbands are to love their wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her – husbands are to love their wives, as their own bodies; We who know Jesus can see why this is His expectation of husbands. Because Christ Himself is the Groom, who loves His bride, the Church – and is willing to treat her, not as her sins deserve, but according to His great mercy as our Redeemer and Saviour.
And, what a passionate picture Scripture gives us of how God's unfaithful people are like an unfaithful wife! Many, many times in His word, God describes his people leaving Him to run after 'other gods' as 'adultery'. In the Old Testament, worshiping other gods is called 'adultery' almost as often as it is called 'idolatry'. As a particularly vivid illustration, God even told one of his prophets (Hosea) to marry a prostitute to serve as an object lesson for the way that God's people had been unfaithful to Him by worshiping other gods.
God makes the case in His word, that our sins against Him have given Him grounds for divorcing us. It is written in the Old Testament laws of Moses that a man could obtain a divorce from his wife on many grounds.
"If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance" (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
Yet, even though God's case for divorce against us is a strong one, and even though it would 'bring sin upon the land...' if He did divorce us and then re-marry us, that is what God was prepared to do out of love for His fallen people. Remember the words of tonight's first reading? '...your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the LORD has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you," says the LORD, your Redeemer.
When did God hide His face from His people because of their sins? Isaiah referred to the fact that God had used the Babylonians to take God's people away in exile from the land. And then there was the whole period of time between the last Old Testament prophet, and the arrival in Israel of John the Baptist, the final prophet to prepare the way for Christ.
But don't forget, what we learned last week: that Jesus Christ embodies God's people Israel, and that when in that moment of dereliction on the cross, when His Father forsook His Son for our sakes, there God 'hid His face' from Israel, and deserted Israel, that He might gather us in and have compassion on us with everlasting love for the sake of Christ, who was forsaken for us.
Ultimately, that period of separation came to an end when the Bridegroom did arrive in the person of Christ, to 'leave His Father and mother and cleave to His wife' – the Church.
When he walked among us, Jesus of Nazareth said of His presence on earth, 'the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. (Mark 2.19-20).
'While I am in the world, I am the light of the world', Jesus once said. Now He is saying, while I am in the world I am the groom who is with my friends and will soon be joined to my bride.
And when did Jesus leave His mother? When, from the cross He looked at His mother, weeping there and the disciple He loved standing with her (St. John). ' Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home' (John 19.26-27). And when did He leave His Father? When Jesus, for our salvation came down from Heaven, left His Father's side, descended from His Father's throne and went to the throne of the cross, where he bled and died there.
In that place of execution our Bridegroom gave Himself up for His Bride, the Church and shed His blood that He might cleanse her and wash her from sin, so that she might be cleansed and presentable to Himself, 'without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish' (Eph. 5.25-27). Christ was forsaken by His Father – 'the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God' (1 Peter 3.18).
In this is the love of Christ, the Bridegroom for His Bride, the Church revealed: As that well-known hymn puts it, 'From Heaven He came and sought her, to be His holy bride. With His own blood He bought her and for her life he died'.
Therefore, we should take the picture of Christ as the Church's loving Bridegroom as both instructive and illustrative for us as we live out our daily lives in relation to God and to each other.
This illustration, this metaphor of something we so commonly see every day, is useful for us as we contemplate the love of that which is not seen. As St. John writes, ' Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world' (1 John 4.11-14). Amen.