When we knew that this evening’s service was to be a Memorial Service for Rosemary Fiedler, I thought at first that I would preach a sermon apropos a Christian’s death. But, then, it occurred to me that no subject would serve as well to remember Rosemary as a sermon on marriage and, in particular, marriage as a relationship of love, our subject tonight. So we continue with the series of sermons begun last Lord’s Day evening. I am proposing, therefore, to consider tonight the question: why will Rosemary be missed so keenly? Why do we form such deep attachments as those between parents and children and husbands and wives? Where does this love come from and what does it teach us about life?
We noted last week from these early chapters of the Bible that marriage is one of the institutions that God established for the life of mankind along with work, the Sabbath rest, and family. We call marriage a creation ordinance and its original and central place in God’s grand plan for human life explains why you find marriage everywhere and always in human society. And we said that the fundamental importance of marriage was that it created a new family out of two people who did not share the same flesh and blood but who were fitted by their creator for this very particular kind of intimate, personal, and permanent relationship with one another. The woman was created “like opposite,” that is, as a complement to the man, and God brought her to the man to be his wife. Simple statements like these in Genesis 2 explain the world as we know it. We take for granted the remarkable fact that marriage creates a family, but that this was God’s intention is the point upon which emphasis falls in Genesis 2’s account of the institution of marriage.
Tonight I want to turn again to Genesis 2:23-24, verses so important that it should come as no surprise that we find in them, at least in a nutshell, almost the Bible’s entire doctrine of marriage. The fact that these verses are quoted both by Jesus in Matthew 19 and by Paul in Ephesians 5 (the two most important statements about marriage in the New Testament) is some evidence of how fundamental they are to the Bible’s teaching concerning marriage. Tonight I want to return to the statements “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” and “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife.” That verb, translated “hold fast,” we said last time might be more literally translated “stick to.” A man shall leave his father and mother and stick to his wife.
The sense of thrill and delight and satisfaction conveyed in Adam’s “This, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” and the sense of passion and permanence conveyed by the Hebrew verb “stick to,” both combine to describe marriage in terms of what we universally call love! As commentators have often pointed out, the history recorded in Genesis 2 and its account of the institution of marriage is etiological; that is, it provides information meant to answer a question, to explain some fact of life that we know or observe. And what needs to be explained is where this unique and special relationship between a man and a woman that we call marriage comes from. How did it happen that men and women are so powerfully attracted to one another, that they wish to form such an exclusive relationship, and that this relationship of husband and wife should be the foundation of human society? And the answer is that God made men and women “like opposite” one another, as complements of one another, especially fitted to be life-partners, and that, as a result, they form together a bond stronger and deeper even than that between parents and children.
We call that bond “love.” Everyone does. If you look up the word “love” in a dictionary, you will find a variety of meanings, but, in fact, they are not different meanings so much as different dimensions of the wonderfully complex thing designated by this one word. True enough, we use the word in many contexts, from the sublime to the ridiculous: I love God, I love my wife, I love my children, I love iced tea, I love to have my back scratched, I love the mountains, I love my dog, I love Calvin’s Institutes, I love some Dave Barry columns and Gary Larsen panels, I love a good joke, I love my country, and so on. This reminds us of a fact worth paying more attention to than people give it; namely that love in one way or another, to one degree or another, is the source of most of our happiness in this world.
What is more a man can love a woman or vice versa, in a certain way that justifies the use of the word, but nevertheless not love her in all the ways he should. He can love her even as he betrays her. That is how universal the concept of man-woman love is in human experience. Shechem loved Dinah, we read in Genesis 34, and Amnon, son of David, loved his half-sister Tamar, we read in 2 Samuel 13, but both of those men terribly abused the women they are said, even in the Bible, to have loved. Love can mean this or that, but at its best it means a lot of things at the same time. Love can be given and received better or worse and still we recognize it as love of some sort. That is further evidence of how universal love is in human experience, how much every human being loves and wants to love, even if, as sinners, they love badly or poorly or incompletely. Love is also the source of most of our deepest unhappiness in this world: love lost or never found, love broken, love betrayed. We would not know what love is if there were not also such a thing as hate. We are at our best and at our worst as human beings as lovers, as those who love and those who ought to but fail to love.
But when we use the term to describe the bond between husband and wife — at least in a healthy marriage, the kind of marriage John and Rosemary enjoyed these last fifteen years of their life — we mean many things at the same time: a state of mind, an emotion, commitment, shared experience, passion, and so much more. Love of this kind is deep affection for and delight in one another; it is appreciation for one another; it is loyalty to one another; it is a strong attraction to one another; it is erotic pleasure in one another; it is comfort in one another; confidence in one another, and probably a great deal more. And it is all of that all together in such a way that we don’t think or speak of various loves but of one love, one all-encompassing passion for a man or a woman, a passion sufficient to persuade us that we are happy to spend the rest of our lives in the intimate company of this one other human being. Love, when you think about it, is a mysterious and remarkable thing, the way it gathers up all goodness into itself!
In the compact and somewhat subtle fashion so common in the narrative of Genesis this love is pictured here more than explained or defined, assumed more than made a subject of discussion. But no one hearing these words expressing Adam’s delight in Eve or those explaining that a man will leave his parents and stick to his wife would have failed to realize that what is being described is married love. As one commentator beautifully summarizes the movement of thought from v. 15, where we first hear that it is not good for the man to be alone, to v. 24, where we read the description of the meaning of this marriage that God has just created: “[Man] will not live until he loves, giving himself away to another on his own level.” [Kidner, 65] The chapter ends with perfect ease and comfort between the two: the man and the wife were together, as Miles Coverdale, the 16th century Bible translator put it, “in the Paradise and Garden of pleasure.” [Cited in Packer, Quest for Godliness, 261]
Indeed, here, as elsewhere in the Bible, the love that binds a man and a woman in marriage is likened to the love that binds parents to children, a bond so powerful and, at its best, so beautiful that it is hard to imagine one stronger still. So, it is no surprise that the Lord compares his love for us to both the love of parents for children and the love of a husband for his wife.
Throughout the Bible the love of man and woman first leading to marriage and then happily enduring through the long years of a faithful marriage is a matter of observation and celebration. Consider such examples as these.
- Isaac’s lie about Rebekah his wife — that she was his sister — was unmasked, we read in Genesis 26, because the king who had taken Rebekah into his harem, thinking her a single woman, happened to look out his window one day and observed Isaac caressing her. The ESV reads that Isaac was laughing with Rebekah; but the term, which more literally means “playing” — rendered by the KJV “sporting” and by the NIV “caressing” — clearly refers to conduct appropriate only to husband and wife. That is, we expect husbands and wives to caress one another, to indulge in physical ways their affection for and delight in one another. The Bible assumes this to be the nature of the relationship between a husband and his wife.
- In Proverbs, especially in chapters 5 and 30, we find remarkably frank celebrations of the pleasure of married love. In 30:18 this pure romantic and erotic love is the thing that the wise man says is “too wonderful for me…something that I do not understand.” And in 5:18-19, the father tells his son that one of the greatest blessings of life is for a husband to rejoice in his wife, to be delighted to love her, and to be intoxicated by her love. Strong statements made about married love in the book of the Bible devoted to the everyday observations of human life!
- Then, in the one book of the Bible whose sole subject is married love, The Song of Songs, we find the most unabashed celebration of the longing, the delight, the passion, the pleasure, and the fulfillment of this love of one man and one woman. It is a book full of kisses, of deep pleasure in one another’s company, of the joy of making plans together and anticipating their lives as husband and wife, and finally of the joy of the wedding and the wedding night. And how perfectly that beautiful book has described the experience of untold numbers of couples as they fell in love and as they planned to marry.
I read not so long ago a biography of Hudson Taylor, the celebrated English missionary to China in the 19th century. He had fallen in love with a young English woman, Maria Dyer, a member of the missionary community in China in those days, and, Hudson hoped, she had fallen in love with him. But in the straitlaced world of Victorian society even making one’s feelings known was a complicated affair. In their case there were relatives and friends, all of whom felt free to make their opinions known and some of the most important of whom were decidedly against the match. To make matters worse for Hudson, other Englishmen in China were smitten with Maria and since he was often elsewhere pursuing his gospel and medical ministry, he lived with the fear that some other man might displace him in Maria’s heart. In fact there were a number of young men who proposed marriage to Maria. Most of their communication had to be by letter, they were almost never allowed to be together in the same room much less together by themselves.
I won’t tell the whole story but by a happy accident the two of them found themselves alone in a living room and could speak their love directly to one another. He recorded in his diary, “She gave me a sweet kiss that would have alone paid for a dozen… this has done me more good than half a dozen bottles of quinine, port wine, or any other strengthening medicine could have done — in fact I never felt in better health or spirits in my life…” He wrote to his sister, “I was not long engaged without trying to make up for the number of kisses I ought to have had the last few months.” [Roger Steer, J. Hudson Taylor: A Man in Christ, 159-160] There it is again for the umpteenth time: Adam’s “at last,” the wise man’s “something too wonderful for me,” and the Song of Song’s “faint with love.”
This love, together with all the other beautiful loves of human life in this world — the love of God supremely, the love of parents for children and children for parents, the love of siblings, and the love of friends — is something we all know from our own experience. We know the power of this love, how true and beautiful love is, how impossible it is for us to deny it or to regard it as merely the firing of neurons in the brain. Love is supreme in human life. Everyone knows it. It is the purest, the best, the strongest, and surely the happiest part of ourselves, that we can love and that we do. Love is not sentimentality. It exists in the full realization of the moral realities of this life, of the fact of death, and of love’s disappointments, that is, of our own imperfections and those of others. Real love truly is, as we read in the Song, “strong as death.”
What is more, love invariably ennobles a life. This is everyone’s experience and observation. The life without love is necessarily small, withered, shriveled in its outlook on life. But as the ancient mystics used to say: “Ubi amor, ibi oculus.” Where love is there is the eye. To really see the world as it is, really to see other people, and really to see yourself requires love. We all know this, the more love a person has, the better that person is, the wiser, and the more he or she will be loved in return. [Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 105-106]
But it is also true that, in death, in such a death as we are remembering tonight, love increases pain. The pain of loss is the price of love. People die every day, 7,000 a day in the U.S.A, but their death does not break our hearts because we did not love them. But the loss of those we love brings sadness, loneliness, and despair of unique power. I read in an article in the Atlantic several years ago a reminiscence by a writer by the name of Joyce Carol Oates, a woman who, sadly, had no access to the consolations of the gospel in the hour of death. She was describing the devastation of her soul in the aftermath of the death of her husband, Raymond, after 48 years of marriage. Friends tried their best to console her, but, she said, the best advice and the most liberating she got was from another heartbroken widow: “Suffer, Joyce, Ray was worth it.” [Supplement Fiction 2010] That is the reality of love. Its power is and must be felt in both life and death. If not, it is not love. A friend encountered the Scottish theologian James Denney, then in his old age, on a Glasgow street, his hat in his hand and tears on his cheeks. He said simply that it was on that very spot that his beloved wife had felt the first pangs of the illness from which she eventually died. They said of him that his last years, still full of valuable work, were the labors of a broken heart. [Letters of James Denney to W.R. Nicoll, xliii] Is that a bad thing? Of course not. It is the most beautiful sort of thing, a demonstration of the reality of love.
Love cannot so easily be set aside; nor should it be. Suffering for love’s sake is the purest suffering of human life. What is more, so beautiful and powerful is love that we cannot help but agree with the poet that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. And, of course, for Christian husbands and wives, the hope of eternal life, of seeing the loved one again, is powerful, perfect comfort because it is itself the fulfillment of love. It was Tennyson who said that unless we can be sure of love’s immortality, a blight would come on love, it would be, he said:
Half dead to know that it could die.
It is the very nature of love, as we instinctively realize, to last, to continue, to endure.
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! It is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken.
At least we all know that is what love should be and what the truest love must be. Without making this point explicitly in his recent book, it is this universal experience of human life that the NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel argues the theory of evolution does not and can never explain: the deeply moral, emotive, personal experience of love in the consciousness of a man or woman. We know, we all know, that this of all things cannot be reduced to biology, chemistry, and physics. Listen to the American Puritan Anne Bradstreet’s description of her love for her husband.
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee.
If ever wife were happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women if ye can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persevere,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
Did that, does anyone really think that love — beautiful, pure, powerful, intimate, and unshakeable personal loyalty that it is — came unbidden up from the pre-biotic soup? Never; never that love that is the subject of most every great novel, of so many songs, and of most films, however dimly Hollywood still understands the thing or can picture it.
No, without a doubt, there is such a thing as the love of man and woman and it harks back to the very headwaters of human life. It is in so many ways the spice of human life. It is one of those things that demands to be explained and accounted for. And we can account for it, those of us who have a Bible in their hands. God made us for this love and gives it to us, as he gave Eve to Adam.
But we can say more. Why does the world ring with love? Why do we long to love and be loved in this way powerful, personal, exclusive, and intimate way? Why, when we find such a love do we feel that our lives have been completed and fulfilled? Why do our daily lives wax and wane according to the strength or the condition of this love? And why, when we lose the love of our lives, does life itself seem so terribly diminished?
The truest answer to all of those questions is that we have been made in the image of God who is himself love. This is one of the principle demonstrations of the fact that God is triune, that he lives always in beautiful relation to others. How could God be love, eternally and unchangeably, if there were no one for him to love? What love be without another? But it is likewise the explanation of the fact that to be made in the image of God is to be made to love and to find the fulfillment of life in the love of others. Marriage is a concentration of life. It is not the whole of life by any means. There are many other loves than the love of man and woman in marriage. But that the most fundamental and constitutive relationship of human life should be preeminently a relationship of powerful love, should be born in love and should continue in love, is proof that we have been made in the image of one who is love itself. If we were made in God’s likeness, no wonder that we should have been made to love and for love.
This love in the interior life of the living God — the love of Father for Son and Spirit, the love of Son for Father and Spirit, the love of the Spirit for the Father and the Son — personal, powerful, immutable, and beautiful as it is, has been imprinted on the very nature of human beings. That is why our lives are so profoundly life in relation to others and why at their best that relation is always love. That and only that can explain the supreme place of love in human life, the craving for love that every human being experiences, the capacity for love that every human being finds within himself or herself, and the fulfillment and delight in love that is the capstone of human life.
It is because God is love that we love and it is because God’s love is personal that ours is personal. And it is because God is love that love can endure beyond death, beyond its crushing loss. It was none other than Jonathan Edwards who described heaven as “the world of love.” There we will live in fellowship with God, our love for him and for others will never be diminished or betrayed by our sinful failures, for our sin will be no more, and in that perfect world love will come into its own. Could it be otherwise, asks Edwards?
“There…in heaven dwells the God from whom every stream of holy love, yea, every drop that is, or ever was, proceeds. There dwells God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, united as one, in infinitely dear, and incomprehensible, and mutual, and eternal love. There dwells God the Father, who is the father of mercies, and so the father of love, who so loved the world as to give his only-begotten Son to die for it. There dwells Christ, the Lamb of God, the prince of peace and of love, who so loved the world that he shed his blood, and poured out his soul unto death for men. There dwells the great Mediator, through whom all the divine love is expressed toward men, and by whom the fruits of that love have been purchased, and through whom they are communicated, and through whom love is imparted to the hearts of all God’s people. There dwells Christ in both his natures, the human and the divine, sitting on the same throne with the Father. And there dwells the Holy Spirit — the Spirit of divine love, in whom the very essence of God, as it were, flows out, and is breathed forth in love, and by whose immediate influence all holy love is shed abroad in the hearts of all the saints on earth and in heaven. There, in heaven, this infinite fountain of love — this eternal Three in One — is set to open without any obstacle to hinder access to it, as it flows forever.” [Charity and its Fruits, 327]
So you see, the love of a loving marriage, such a marriage as we are remembering tonight as we remember the wife of that marriage, is a sign, an image, a picture, an anticipation — however imperfect — of the world to come and of the life that through faith in Jesus Christ men and women can live forever. It is a life of pure and powerful love. What a loving husband or wife feels and knows in the love of his or her marriage is a foretaste of the life to come. The pain that he or she feels in the loss of that loved one, the grief and the loneliness, all of this is the proof that we have been made for love, made to rejoice in love and for a love that does not end. The God of love would never have given us in this way the taste of a perfect life were such a life impossible to attain. We were made to love and love we shall, forever. It is God’s gift to those who love him and who trust in his beloved son. No wonder then that our first experience of heaven is described in several places as that of a wedding banquet.
How beautiful and wonderful God is not only to be love himself, but to have made us for love and to have given us such loves as he has in this world and to have promised us such love and still greater love in the world to come.
Dante concludes his Paradise and so his Divine Comedy with that thought. The last four lines of one of the greatest poems in all of human history:
“Here vigor failed the towering fantasy:
But yet the will roll’d onward, like a wheel
In even motion, by the love impell’d
That moves the sun in heaven and all the stars.”
When the Lord describes his love for us in terms of the love of a bride and groom or a husband and wife, he seems to be acknowledging that no love so teaches us the beauty and the power of his love, its goodness and its worth, as the love of marriage, that love between a man and a woman, that love that is pleasure and affection and desire and longing and satisfaction and fulfillment and loyalty and passion all compact. A loving marriage and heaven have more in common that we often realize!