Yesterday’s sermon

I had yesterday what might be my only Sunday back at my home church since Easter, and it was very odd seeing everyone again. I almost feel like a visitor, so little is the time I spend with the people there, and so many are the new arrivals I have not even heard about. On the other hand, hearing another great Barry Seagren sermon was really encouraging (and, in God’s providence, as at all the tipping points in my life, it was directly relevant).

The text was Matthew 19:1­–12, which we should think of as positively as possible, as Jesus showing to the Pharisees and disciples how wonderful marriage is. I will briefly summarise the sermon itself after I explain my motivation for wanting to talk about it. My post is primarily not motivated by the subject of the sermon at all, but rather Barry’s style of preaching. My Peterhouse buddies know well one of the strongest emphases I have there on plain and simple reading of the bible. Now I will explain how I got there.

The two people who have most shaped my attitudes and ways of talking about the bible are of course Barry and Julian Hardyman, and I view the key characteristic of their teaching to be simplicity and gentleness respectively. Where Barry’s sermons are extraordinarily concise and uncluttered, with no magic wands of any sort, Julian’s are expansive and apply, illustrate, and expand on what is in the passage, colouring it and drawing out ways to respond and react. Both have the same soft-spoken manner, but Julian really drives home a keenness for talking passionately about living out scripture, delving and delving, and I have hugely taken this to heart, changing from a very argumentative and impulsive first year to someone generally extremely slow to speak and only then after creating the moment to speak quietly and in a heartfelt way. I am not cured of my tendencies to debate, but will at least only do it with people whose soundness I respect enough not to be deeply concerned in every conversation to warm their attitude to Jesus and his word.

On the other hand, Barry of course would approve, but in his quietness he applies his razor ruthlessly to cut away everything extraneous, so what I have taken away most from him over the years is that simplicity. I first understood and could articulate the gospel as a result of his preaching through Romans when I was about twelve. Of course he had read every commentary on the text and the Greek (he is very learned), but invoked no higher powers in his preaching. The congregation therefore saw every week modeled in front of them slow, simple, obvious exposition gently working over each word of the passage to make the hardest places feel clear and easy. That is exactly what I desire to pass on of Barry to Peterhouse, the confidence to take the bible like and know that we can really read it ourselves and love it if we approach it humbly and fearlessly.

So, it was extremely refreshing to be back hearing that again, and have him kindly hold my hand and walk me through the passage with the child-like simplicity I remembered. Actually, it was even more simple than I remembered, almost starkly or excessively shaved down to exegesis in its desire to let the passage speak, so some people there with stickier love lives (divorces) than me will have wanted more help, but it brought me back down a peg just as I needed.

Having described Julian and Barry’s styles, I should comment on the sermon itself which was of much interest. Please read Matthew 19 (unfortunately the sermon was not recorded).

The exegesis was thorough and classic. The address is made to Pharisees who are trying to trick him, clearly asking what the grounds for divorce are. Flicking back to the parallel text in Deuteronomy 24, we see that the problem is rabbinical argument over what “some indecency” constitutes (1). Jesus makes some point from creation, trying to drive at the heart of their confusion. What is it that they have misunderstood then? Well, the argument is over what the reasons are for divorce, whether trivial things, anything that displeases, may be sufficient cause, or whether something big is needed. They are focussing so much on divorce thought on the assumption that it is restricted to certain situations, but still alright, and Jesus puts them straight on the understanding that it is terrible, a mistake according to God’s initial plan. They think they have him cornered (6), but a closer exegesis of Deuteronomy gives the key: two conditional clauses explain what happens if a divorce unfortunately takes place, and do command or encourage it in any way. Instead, when men mess up and send their wife away, she does not become a “marital football” (Barry); she cannot be divorced on the assumption the man can just get her back again later, but instead requiring a certificate of divorce to be given to her protect her.

The next little while was spent on the one small magical wand: what does the except in verse 9 refer to? Either it is a genuine exception, lifting the charge of adultery in cases where there there was sexual immorality, or is more limited. The latter is not really a possible understanding from the translations, but is grammatically possible (giving ‘whoever divorces his wife, in the exceptional case of sexual immorality, and marries another’) with Barry then citing three reasons for reference, before rejecting them and coming down on the side of the first direct meaning of the passage. (The three reasons, to the best of my memory, were (1) to more clearly explain the disciples’ shock in verse 10; (2) parallel reading with 1 Corinthians 7:10, where there is not qualification; and (3) something grammatical I think.) To resolve the understanding with 1 Cor. 7, we see that the two paragraphs are aiming at slightly different things, with Jesus acknowledging the edge cases that cause separation, such as physical abuse of the children, or adultery, and many other terrible considerations which might lead sensibly to divorce, while Paul is acknowledging these implicitly in 7:11 but not straight out to focus on what is his point on the permanence and strength of marriage.

Because this is an especially authoritatively stated instruction (9: “And I say to you”), Barry explains that we really need to take notice. The next verses where Jesus comforts his disciples in their objections is really why I want to talk about the sermon’s contents at all, because the little words dropped in the explanation of there verses somehow brought them to life. Who are those to whom it is given? Those who cannot marry, those who would like to be but are not, and who for the sake of the kingdom are. So, precisely anyone in a single situation it seems is to receive this teaching, which is really the point about the permanence of marriage. Indeed, as Barry observed on adultery (9), the problem with remarriage is in that there is still some permanence in the bond even after separation. So how is this for those made eunuchs by men? Well, eunuch was as graphic and unusual then as now, but even though it most directly applies to those perhaps divorced against their will, Barry hinted that in the taxonomy here of the unmarried, it more broadly includes everyone who against their will are eunuchs. The last sentence of verse 12 would seem to suggest that in fact this is a second new saying, expanding the scope of the last.

How do those who are unmarried go about receiving it? My one thought to tack on the end is that the culmination of the group of three alternatives in verse 12 is not accidental, but points to the over-arching category: the work of the kingdom is worth being single for, and making the most of singleness means responding to that call, whether we chose it for the long term or by the choices of other men or women got stuck with it. As much as this verse and 1 Cor. 7 could be used to argue for marriage unless you have some worthwhile and unselfish cause to commit your singleness to (an argument I once used, but not so much recently); as much as it applies forwards, it gives us hope too that God has work for us in our singleness if we can seize it for as long as it needs to last.