TEXT: Exodus 20:14; John 8:1-11
We’ve been making our way through the Ten Commandments and this is the week we get to the difficult subject of adultery. It’s not difficult to define, unless you’re Bill Clinton, but in our sexually charged culture, it is difficult to talk about because it deals with volatile emotions and an area of life that we want to keep very private. But God thought the issue was large enough to put in the top ten, so on to adultery we go, and since adultery breaks the marriage vows, we’ll start there.
As you know, marriage and I have not been easy partners. I am in no position to say, “Do this and your marriage will thrive.” I have never been in a marriage that thrived, and therefore have no authority to talk about that, although I can offer a very good catalog of marriage-killing mistakes. But my own troubles have led me to deep prayer and searching about what this whole marriage thing is supposed to be.
Since I can’t have children, it seemed unfair that it would only be about procreation, and obviously it isn’t necessary to be married to fulfill God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. Once as I was struggling with this, God led me to Isaiah 54. It began “Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child,” the words leapt off the page. It went on... “Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. For your Maker is your husband the Lord Almighty is his name...The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit–a wife who married young, only to be rejected, says your God.” I don’t know how long I cried.
For me that night, it became clear. Human marriage was meant to be a mirror of our relationship to God...the God who loves us for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health. What I have come to believe is that faithfulness in an earthly relationship is both the way that we learn to be faithful to God and the way we proclaim God’s faithfulness to us.
I debated long and hard about which Gospel lesson to use this morning, the one that we read from John or the one from Matthew five where Jesus expands the adultery commandment to include lust and indulged fantasy. The Matthew passage makes an important point. It’s not about what you technically have or haven’t done. It’s about what is in your heart. All the commandments, and I would say all of Scripture come down to that--God looks on the heart.
You don’t have to be a pastor long to learn that faithfulness in marriage is a real struggle for a lot of people. A lot of good people. There was a time in one church when I wanted to stand up on a Sunday morning and say, “Okay, is there anybody out there sleeping with the person they’re supposed to be sleeping with?” It seemed like every day there was another confession coming into my office--Men, women...adultery is not gender-specific. Many people struggle with it, and the effects of losing the struggle are devastating on all sides.
But there are millions more who have been physically faithful to one person yet have given their heart and soul to someone else. We tend to think that latter group is being faithful, since they have not physically crossed the line. We often even romanticize the tortured soul who is married to one person while truly devoted to someone else. Books and movies, drama and poetry often lift them up as heroic and noble. Not so, says Jesus. Faithfulness is ultimately a matter of the heart. If the heart strays, so do you. It is still adultery.
The passage from Matthew has a lot to think about. But I decided on the passage from John, because I also want us to remember that, as with all sin, adultery can be forgiven. When we recognize the nature of our sin and truly repent before God, God will not hold it against us. Others may see us as a monster, and there may be any number of human beings who will not offer us forgiveness; but God will see us as He sees everyone--as a sinner saved by grace. In this culture all of us would do well to remember that God forgives sexual sin as readily as any other when we repent. God forgives adultery, but how much better to have remained faithful in the first place.
Remember the first and greatest commandment--You shall love the Lord thy God with all your heart with all your soul with all your might. God first, God above all else. When we put something else before God and devote our hearts and souls to something else, we are being unfaithful--we are committing adultery. The problem is, it’s not easy to be faithful to God. Not only because there are lots of other demands and desires, but also because God is spirit. It is much harder to learn to relate to an invisible God than to a flesh and blood human being. God doesn’t generally talk in a way that our ears can hear or touch us in ways that we feel with our skin, and it is easy to forget or ignore the things that aren’t readily available to our senses.
I think God knows how hard it is for human beings to relate to a God who is spirit. That’s one of the reasons that Jesus came as a flesh and blood human being. It is also, I believe, the reason that God gave us marriage. In relating to each other in marriage, we learn to relate to and love God. It’s a sort of training ground. Fidelity is hard and God needs a way to train us in it. It is not easy to devote ourselves completely to one person, especially when that person is so different from us--they do things we don’t really understand and even after 50 years of marriage they can still manage surprises. And yet, if we can’t learn to navigate that with another human being, we will never be able to do it with God. That’s not to say it will be possible with every human being, but it is a call to find at least one who can afford us the practice.
All of the commandments are interconnected, and this one pulls us back to the second commandment about idols. When the Jews write them on two tablets, the second commandment about idols and this one about adultery appear parallel. We might not carve statues that we bow down and worship, but we often give our heart and soul to things other than God. Adultery is taking the devotion due to your spouse and giving it to someone else. Idolatry is taking the complete devotion due to God and giving it to someone or something else. Idolatry is adultery against God.
Which brings us to the question of divorce. Because I think God intended the covenant of marriage to give us an opportunity to learn life-long faithfulness, I don’t believe that God ever intended for marriages to fail. Both Old and New Testaments bear this out. But neither do I think that God wants us to compromise what it means to be faithful just because we are not able to do that with our current spouse. Divorce should be an absolute last resort. The intent of a couple getting married should be that this is a life-long commitment and that they will both do everything in their power to learn how to love the other and to remain faithful in all ways. A good marriage does not fall from the sky. It is the reward for many years of hard work as well as pleasure.
But the reality is that if you have no sexual relations with your spouse, if there is no mutual love between you, if your heart is not continually trying to seek the best for your partner instead of yourself, and certainly if there is physical violence or emotional blackmail...you don’t have a marriage...I believe you are already divorced in God’s eyes, no matter what a legal piece of paper says.
It is that sort of break in the loving relationship that God wants us to try our best to avoid, not the legal status. If the above is true, then your marriage has crumbled...or perhaps never was. You need to seek help...both from God and from human counselors to see if a new marriage can be created between you, or whether you two are simply unable to mirror a relationship with God.
For those of us who are single, we need to remember that the call to faithfulness is a call to all human beings, not just to those who are married. Somehow, every one of us needs to find a covenant relationship where we can practice and live out that faithfulness. I don’t think it is an accident that monastic orders consider themselves married to Christ and begin their service by taking lifetime vows. That covenant of faithfulness also can be lived out in a lifetime relationship with a child, in caring for a parent, or in tending a lifelong friendship. Some find the experience in lifelong commitment to a cause or to an animal. Our very first experiences with faithfulness are often learning to faithfully feed the cat or walk the dog.
The question I want all of us...single or married...to take home and consider is, “Do I have a way to practice lifelong faithfulness? What are the things for which I am willing to sacrifice comfort and leisure...maybe even my life? Have I really learned what it means to love and to cherish someone for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health?” Somewhere, somehow, we need to learn how to be faithful. Do you have a place to practice?
Thou shalt not commit adultery. The Jewish community viewed the giving of the law on Sinai as their marriage ceremony to God and the Ten Commandments were the marriage vows that they took. They agreed to take those vows because of their conviction that God had made those same promises and taken those same vows toward them. In our faithfulness to each other we proclaim a God who is faithful to us. Our fidelity is a statement about the depth of our love to another person, but in a religious context it is also a statement about the faithfulness of God to us. Keeping this commandment is a way of telling the world what I learned from Isaiah 54. God will be faithful to us, love us, forgive us “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” Fidelity in marriage is a sermon to the world.
When we take on the name of Christ and call ourselves Christians, we associate the name of Christ automatically with all that we do. God is faithful to us; how wrong it is to take that name--the name of Christian--and associate it with infidelity. That breaks the third commandment about taking God’s name in vain.
Make an effort to be faithful...to your spouse, to your children, to your friends, to your church, and ultimately to God. It does take effort...a lot of effort. But being faithful will train us to be fit for the day when Jesus Christ comes for His bride, the Church. And it will truly proclaim the nature of the God who made us and knows us better than any husband or wife ever will. Be faithful, for God’s sake. Amen.
Sermon ©2005 Anne Robertson