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The metaphor of marriage to describe the relationship between God and God’s people here on earth is not always a good one. Nor is it always bad. Yet, it can often be useful in comparing the difficulties and hard work of marriage relationships over a lifetime with the trend for God and God’s people to drift apart and find themselves with little in common, or with much in conflict.

In what Christians have called the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible as used by Christ and His Church initially as their own “scriptures”) there were 12 prophets alongside four others (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel) whose words were recorded as if speaking for God as a messenger to God’s people. One of those, named Hosea, was having rather serious marital problems so was advised by God to use his relationship with his wife, Gomer, the mother of his children, as a metaphor to illustrate God’s relationship problem with the people of Israel.

Upon reading the book of Hosea, we learn that the marriage between Hosea and Gomer is distressed by her tendency to sleep with other men and then come home to Hosea expecting support for her bastardized children. Because Hosea was beyond tired of that happening, he was able to know better than most just how God felt about God’s bride, the Hebrew people living in the northern Kingdom of Israel. Gomer’s adultery mirrored Israel’s idolatry.

Hosea had a problem with his unfaithful wife, Gomer, but bigger than his problem was his love for her. He kept taking her back, despite her unchanged habit of sleeping with other guys. And he imagined God’s love for Israel in similar terms. “The Lord said to me, ‘Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.’” Hosea 3:1

Yet Gomer, for all her apologies and regrets, remained unchanged and unrepentant. She kept sleeping around. And, where Hosea was concerned, sorry just wasn’t cutting it anymore.

If we can imagine Hosea commiserating with God about this marital problem, it’s possible he even asked God in his own way, “How can I make her understand that I love her and all I want her to do is forget the apologies and instead just STOP cheating on me?” To which God may as well have replied, “yep. Sounds just like me and my own bride, Israel.”

Leading up to these words from Hosea speaking as if from God: For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6 (NKJV)

Unpacking this verse helps us see that God was used to hearing the equivalent of “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. It’ll never happen again.” Burnt offerings were a daily ritual for the Israelites. Not just yearly, monthly or weekly. Those were the equivalent of daily “sorry” lines. Empty. Devoid of any real repentance or change. And after awhile, God was as through listening to Israel’s empty apologies as Hosea was in relation to his bride, Gomer. Echoes, here, of what God also impressed upon another prophet, Isaiah (see also Isaiah 1:11-17.

Mercy, not sacrifice.

Knowledge of God, not burnt offerings or insincere daily “sorry” apologies. Knowledge (the word da’at in Hebrew) meaning accurate understanding. As in “so understand this: your sacrifices mean nothing, your obedience means everything.” Actions speak louder than words.

So now we fast forward to the New Testament and the book of Matthew. In his parable of the wedding banquet, Jesus offers an allegory in which he is a bridegroom whose father is preparing a feast for the groom and his bride, only to find his guest list turned inside out. And later his parable of the Ten Virgins in which, also by allegory, Jesus is the bridegroom who comes to his wedding banquet and finds half of the wedding party with their lamps burned out. (As if taking advantage of the open bar and then leaving the hall before the bride and groom even arrive.)

Before either of these parables, however, Matthew tells about his own calling by Jesus to serve as one of his disciples after having had a corrupt career as a tax collector. While hosting a perhaps farewell dinner before leaving his fellow tax collectors to work for Jesus, Matthew witnesses Jesus getting an earful from the local religious leaders. You might say leaders in the offering of burnt offering sacrifices and empty apologies to God. According to Matthew 9:13, Jesus tells these religious leaders, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (New King James Version)

Okay. Let’s hit fast forward again, but this time all the way to the present time. Nearly 2 millennia have passed. Suppose we continue to imagine Jesus in the role of bridegroom and the church in our role as his bride. How’s the marriage working out so far?

Are we as the marriage partner doing as Jesus did, acting like him, showing mercy, going out and healing the sick, feeding the hungry, bringing in the children, including the outcasts, helping the helpless, forgiving the guilty? Or are we spending more of our time instead talking about some sacrificial death on the cross and using that as our daily burnt offering of ritual apologies that have nothing to do with actual obedience to our partner’s Greatest Commandment and Great Commission?

Do we have accurate knowledge and understanding of what Jesus even wants from us as his marriage partner? Are we even listening? Or have we, as his bride, mostly shut off our communication?

Many marital vows fall apart at the point of what amounts to gross miscommunication or misunderstanding. A colossal failure to listen and to then act out loving behaviors……..instead of simply voicing empty apologies.

So how are we doing as the bride of Christ nowadays? How well are we listening? Acting? Following?

Perhaps today’s most popular approach to marital communication problems involves the best selling book by Gary Chapman, “The 5 Languages of Love: the secret to love that lasts.” Judge for yourselves, but it kind of looks to me as if Jesus Christ has a primary love language that centers around his sending of the Holy Spirit to live within his bride and to lovingly create more offspring. Jesus launched the marriage using the Spirit to offer loving influence to all people of all languages and locations. Let’s say pro-create.

That was the honeymoon.

Then came the church and her own primary love language centered not around the Spirit but instead the Book. Groom speaks about the Spirit. Bride speaks about the Letter. Groom focuses on what’s in the heart. Bride focuses on what’s on the page.

The honeymoon’s over.

The Spirit is all about bringing heaven into people here and now before we die. You know, on earth as it is in heaven. That requires our own obedience. The Book, and the Letter, is all about taking people from earth into heaven there and then after they die. That requires someone else’s blood sacrifice. Someone else’s grace.

Sorry, Jesus. With all due apologies. Appreciate your grace. Glad I’m saved. Hallelujah!

What, then, does that say about our commitment and our communication? The Christ and the Church. Bridegroom and the Bride.

Is it time to renew our vows?

Again, judge for yourself. I’d say it’s the perfect time to go back to the beginning. Redo the courtship and call, only this time let’s have an honest to God understanding or “knowledge” (da'at in ancient Hebrew) of what the Bridegroom is actually saying and expecting from this marriage. Let’s check out the groom’s proposal and, dare we say count the cost (borrowing his expression), before saying “Yes” and even considering any vows.

Jesus is not, in my humble opinion as a pastor (albeit technically retired), asking us to fall in love with the institution of marriage. We may indeed love being a bride, but with all due respect that’s not his proposal. We may envision Jesus inviting us to live happily ever after with him, but that’s not the invitation. In fact, I dare say Jesus isn’t inviting or proposing anything to do with making us happy. Jesus, if I understand his invitation correctly, is calling us to provide a family for the children of God……i.e., the human race. Black, white, brown, gay, straight, trans, capitalist, socialist, right, left, everybody. That’s all this marriage is about. It’s about getting the Spirit into us, bringing the Kindom of heaven here to earth in a way that lovingly lasts forever, even after we die.

It’s about obedience, not sacrifice. It’s about our going out and baptizing and teaching the world about how to love God by loving people…..”them” the same as “me” and “us” the same as God.

Are we ready to say those vows? And mean them? And stick to and live with them forever?

If so, great! Let us so communicate in the primary love language of Jesus as in that glorious Pentecost yet again.

And if not?

If we insist on doing it our way by the Book and by the Letter, not the Spirit, then no. If asked for my advice, then no. The Christ and the Church are not yet ready to renew our vows.

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