[Due to a technical difficulty, the audio quality of this sermon is poor. Sorry about that.]
Today we begin a four part series called Together. This series is about building a robust, resilient community here at Cities. We want resilient marriages, resilient friendships, resilient families, and a resilient church. And we know that resiliency comes when we’re together, when, as Colossians says, “love binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Or, earlier in Colossians, when Paul prays that the Colossians would have their hearts encouraged, “being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:2-3) Or in Ephesians 4, when we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (4:15-16). How can we as a church help each other grow up into this maturity together?
We begin this week with marriage. Marriage in our culture isn’t keeping it together. Marriage as an institution is fragmented, scattered, beaten apart. And I’m not mainly referring to our current challenges with the attempted redefinition of marriage by the Supreme Court. That is simply the latest assault on the oldest human institution. However, almost all of the damage done to marriage in this country was done by heterosexuals. Adultery, easy no-fault divorce, cohabitation, prolonged adolescence, pornography, bitterness and competition between the sexes: it’s these sins that have gotten us to where we are today.
But I don’t mainly want to talk about the problems marriage faces in the broader culture, or even in the broader church. I want to drill into marriage as it relates to all of you, in this congregation. Of course, we can’t silo these issues off. Because of the larger decay of marriage, many of us have a difficult time imagining what a healthy, happy, holy, enduring, resilient marriage looks like. Our own families have been shattered by divorce and adultery and persistent bitterness and frustration. And so we wonder, “What does marital godliness over the long haul—for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow—what does enduring marital godliness actually look like?”
Before turning to the passage, it’s worth giving a basic definition of marriage, so there’s no confusion. Marriage is a comprehensive (meaning body and soul), exclusive (meaning monogamous), lifelong (meaning no divorce) union of two sexually complementary persons (meaning a man and a woman) who seal their relationship through a procreative act (meaning an act designed to beget children).
Now the passage before us mentions the mutual obligations of marriage. A wife is to submit to her own husband. A husband is to love his wife. And this reality—headship and submission—is crucial in answering this question. However, in my judgment simply emphasizing these obligations, this structure, without reference to a larger imaginative picture of what marriage is and in which these obligations reside, will only be marginally helpful. In other words, the main thing we need is not a list of applications of these two verses, but an imaginative framework within which these commands can be not only true, but good and beautiful.
So what I’d like to do in this sermon is to offer three images (not original to me, and I believe all of them rooted in the Scriptures and in Christian theology) and within each of the images to draw out what it means to be a husband and a wife. Here are the three images: Marriage is a home. Marriage is a dance. Marriage is a garden.
Now what I want you to do first is solidify the images in your mind. Picture a home. Not just a house. Not just a building. A home. A happy one. A bright one. A cozy one. Maybe it’s a country cottage. Maybe it’s an urban townhome. But imagine a home, in winter, but it’s warm inside because there’s a fire going. And it smells amazing because we’re about to have a big family meal, with all the fixin’s. And after we fill our bellies, we’re going to curl up around the fire and share stories and memories and old jokes, and the walls will echo with our laughter. And when it gets late, we’ll all drowsily walk down the hall to our rooms; we’ll snuggle up in our warm beds, pull the comforter up to our shoulders, and drift peacefully off to sleep. Marriage is that home.
Now picture a dance. Not the awkwardness of a junior high dance. Not the sad desperation and craving of a rave at a club in Uptown. An elegant dance. A man in a suit and a woman in a gorgeous dress, gliding around the dance floor. A ballroom dance on a shining floor with chandeliers overhead. Maybe a waltz. With twirls, and pauses, and smooth movements, sometimes swift and sometimes slow, but always in sync, always together, always graceful. Marriage is that dance.
Picture a garden. Lush, green, vibrant. Colors bursting from every corner: reds, yellows, blues, purples, and all the combinations that I can’t even pronounce or distinguish. Vines twisting up stone walls. Trees with branches bending with fruit. Berries ripe and ready to be plucked. Rows of vegetables ready to be harvested. Birds flitting about. Bees buzzing around. Fragrant smells and aromas from every kind of flower. Sun shining with a gentle breeze. Marriage is that garden.
Now you’ve got the images. What does that have to do with husbands and wives? I want to take each of those images and talk about what it means for a husband to love his wife within them, and what it means for a wife to submit to her husband within them. And in the process, I’m going to try and bring in relevant themes from Colossians 3:12-17 to give it more texture and color.
Marriage Is a Home
So what does loving, godly headship mean if marriage is that home? It means that the husband is the foundation: secure, stable, firm, unmoved, upon which the house is built. The husband is the frame, the structure, that holds up the walls and the ceiling. He’s the exterior walls and roof that protect the inside of the house from the snow and the sleet and the cold. He’s not pretty. He’s not always seen on the inside. He may not even be thought about all that often. But he’s present. He’s there, and he’s what creates the possibility of that home.
In practical terms, this means that a husband is called to establish and support his marriage, to establish and support his wife. Men, you were built to hold things up, to be the part of the house that bears the heavy load. In Colossians 3:15 we’re told to “let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts.” This peace, this calmness, this settled confidence in God’s goodness is the stability of the home, and it emanates first from the husband. In order for a husband to love his wife rightly, he must be deeply rooted in the peace of Christ, in the gospel. His labors of love must flow from his settled identity in Christ. “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” He’s at peace with God, and therefore at peace with himself, and therefore peace is ruling in his heart, and therefore, he is able to be the foundation and walls and roof that provides the stability and structure of his home.
What then is the wife? If the husband is form and frame and foundation of this home, the wife is the warmth and beauty of it. A foundation, frame, roof and walls is not much to look at. And you certainly wouldn’t want to live there. But with that foundation, a wife is free to make that building, that house, into a true home. If the husband creates the possibility of a home by establishing its roots through his gospel identity, a wife actualizes the home by responding and filling the home with life and light through her gospel identity. She is the warmth of fire; he keeps the warmth inside. He keeps the rain out of the living room; she makes the living room worth living in.
In saying this, I’m not mainly talking about the wife as the one who decorates and makes an actual home attractive (though that certainly is an extension of what I’m talking about). I’m saying that a godly wife is the warmth of a marriage. And like her husband, that warmth comes from her gospel identity. She too labors, in word and deed, in the name of the Lord Jesus, filled with gratitude to God. This means that all of her efforts as a wife, as a partner in marriage, are rooted in and flow from deep, rich gratitude to God.
(Now it should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. The peace of Christ should rule in a wife’s heart. And a husband should abound in thanksgiving; indeed, part of his calling is to establish that thanksgiving in his home. So don’t hear me as restricting these commands to one person or another. I’m trying to paint a picture, to leave an impression.)
Marriage Is A Dance
Let’s move to the dance. In the dance, the husband leads the way. His hand gently, almost imperceptibly, moves the couple around the room. He’s guiding; he’s leading; he’s anticipating. And he’s doing so in such a way that most of his influence will be entirely unnoticed, and for the express purpose that no one will be watching him, and all eyes will be on his bride. His goal in the dance is to honor her, to showcase her, to allow her to flourish. This is what Paul means in 1 Corinthians 11, when he says, “woman is the glory of man.” A wife is the glory of her husband; she is his crown. Which means that, in general, we can and should judge his leadership by her flourishing and fruitfulness. Is she glorious? Is she beautiful? (Again, the physical is an extension of and pointer to this, but I’m talking about something more fundamental.) Is she holy and happy?
Practically speaking, this means that a husband honors his wife with his words and his actions. He doesn’t demean her in public; that’s like throwing your glory in the gutter. It means that headship isn’t about barking orders or being the boss or putting your foot down (when you do that, you just step on toes and ruin the dance). This means, for example, that a godly husband will most often be the one to take initiative in reconciliation. He will say that he is sorry first, even when she started it, or bears more of the blame. He will own his sin; he will repent first; he will take the initiative and show her the way. Headship, husbanding, means knowing where you are on the floor, knowing where you are going next, and taking initiative, applying the gentle and firm pressure necessary to get both of you there, together, while looking good doing it.
What then about the wife? What is her role in the dance? Well, she follows her husband’s lead. She submits to him, because that’s fitting in the Lord (and in the dance). Her responsiveness to his leading is what makes it a dance and not two people yanking each other around a shiny floor. But in thinking about marriage in this way, it ought to become obvious that responding to your husband’s initiative isn’t about being passive, as though being a good wife means sitting there while he does all the work, as though following a man is somehow easy and mindless and demeaning. I read a good line about this earlier this week: Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astair did, except backwards and in heels. There’s no passivity here. The kind of responding and receiving that a wife is called to is lively and active, not limp. She’s firm, alert, and responsive.
Practically speaking, this means that she seeks to answer his initiative, his steps, his honoring of her, with her own return honor. Following her husband’s lead, a wife should likewise speak honorably to him and about him. If he is seeking to make her shine (by taking godly initiative), she ought not belittle or mock or despise his efforts, even when he’s clumsy. It also means that she may be moving in a different direction from him, while still being connected to him in the dance (as when a man spins his partner out and pulls her back). The fact that she’s actively responding to him means that she initiates some of the movements in the dance. He presses her hand, and she moves her leg. In other words, the fact that he is the lead partner doesn’t mean that she must wait on him to do everything or initiate everything. She ought to feel free to initiate conversations, give her own ideas, express her own opinions, initiate sexual intimacy, all in the context of his overall leadership.
Marriage Is a Garden
What about the garden? In this garden, like with the house, the man could be seen as the wall that protects the cultivated land from the wilderness beyond. But I actually want to focus on the fact that the man is the gardener. It’s his job to work the garden and guard the garden. He’s on the lookout for weeds and destructive insects and terrible storms that would devastate the garden, and he’s willing to labor and break his back to pull out those weeds and get rid of those insects and build shelters to protect the plants. Or, to draw a little more from the Scriptures, if there’s one thing that we learn from the early chapters of Genesis, it’s that gardens always attract snakes. They attract dragons. And therefore, this gardener must take up his sword and kill the dragon. And the most important dragon that he’ll face is the one that lives in his own heart. And the man who refuses to fight the dragon, to kill the dragon, will become the dragon himself. Fighting this dragon is no easy task. But you were built for sacrifice. You were built to live, to fight, to die so that others might live, so that the garden might flourish.
Our enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking those whom he may devour. A man who is being devoured by the devilish lion through sexual is in the process of becoming a roaring lion himself, one who will devour his marriage, his children, his ministry, maybe even his soul. Husbands, love your wives and don’t be harsh with them and embitter them by treating the marriage bed—the bed that you share, the bed where you become one flesh—don’t treat that marriage bed lightly. Put to death adultery, and the adultery in the heart, and the discontentment that lies underneath it. Which means, as Paul says over and over in this passage: be thankful. In whatever you do, be thankful. Give thanks to our God and Father. Sing songs with thankfulness in your heart. Regularly find things to thank God for in your wife, including things that may frustrate you in the moment, like when she calls you to live up to your own standards, or initiates a conversation about an area where your leadership is lacking. Thank God that you have a wife who cares enough about you and your marriage to say something.
One last thought word for husbands here: being the gardener means anticipating needs. It means knowing the hottest months of the year and planning ahead to provide water to the garden. It means at any given hour, day, week, month, season, are you anticipating what’s to come and taking steps to protect and to provide for your wife and children? Are you attentive to them, so that you see danger signs early (browning leaves, strangling weeds, spreading mold)? The garden will not flourish without your efforts. So be a faithful gardener. Kill the dragon. Get the girl.
Where are wives in this garden picture? Wives are the earth, the land, the ground. They are what the gardener tends in order for the two of them—the gardener and the land—to make a beautiful garden. Thus, a wife’s responsibility is to take her husband’s efforts and make them great. He is to sow seed and pray for rain (or bring the rain); you are to turn those seeds into plants and flowers and fruit. This is true at a very basic biological level. A husband sows seed; his wife bears fruit. As Paul might say, this is a great mystery, and ought to instruct us. A wife’s role is to receive his good labor, his attention to her and to their home, and multiply them, to transform them, to nurture them so that they become glorious. A husband who sincerely repents of a harsh word spoken in anger is a beautiful thing; a wife who responds with grace and forgiveness takes that beauty and makes it more beautiful.
So how do you respond to your husband’s repentance? When God is in the midst of de-dragoning him, do you help him along, or to you put more obstacles in his path? When he sows repentance, do you, like Paul says here, bear the fruit of forgiveness because you’ve been forgiven? I don’t mean that you necessarily trust him in the way that you did. A husband who breaks trust must earn it back. As one friend put it to me this week, it’s not “forgive and forget.” It’s “repent and restore.”
What else does it mean if a wife is to a faithful and fruitful land? It means she ought to be patient and bear with his clumsy attempts to lead well. All of us are born with a limp. We may have a brown thumb, rather than a green one. To return to the dance, we may have two left feet, and therefore, you may have ten sore toes. But Paul calls us to patience, to bear with one another. So honor your husband’s attempts at leadership. Encourage him, like with words and deeds. When he gives you thoughtfulness and attentiveness, honor it with a return gift of your own. For almost all husbands, one of the best return gifts you can offer is your own availability, eagerness, and desire for physical intimacy with him. It may seem odd or strange to thank your husband for cleaning the kitchen by getting to bed a little early, but it’s no more odd than a man digging a hole, dropping in a few specks, and finding himself happily eating apples under a tree a few years later.
Labor With Joy and Gratitude
Much more could be said about marriage, about these images. I hope that they provide a framework for discussions between husbands and wives, and within Life Groups as husbands seek to exhort other husbands, and wives seek to encourage other wives. I encourage you to use the images as a way of talking about successes and failures, conflicts and tensions, dangers and graces. I don’t pretend that it will be easy. My wife and I have regularly said to each other over the years, “Did you ever imagine it would be this hard? Did you ever imagine it would be this good?” Building a home—from foundation and walls to fireplace and table—is work. But it ought to be happy work. Dancing well—elegantly moving around the floor—takes effort and discipline and concentration. But it’s a glad effort. Tending a garden is laborious, and it seems like there’s always more to do. But labor to labor with hearts full of gratitude. Whatever you do in marriage, in word or deed, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
That brings us to the table. A home, a dance, and a garden can help us to picture marriage. But the Bible tells us that marriage itself is a picture. It’s a great mystery, a profound parable. But the love of a husband for his wife and the submission of a wife to her husband is a glorious image of the relationship between Christ and the church. The one-flesh union of marriage displays the spiritual union of Christ with his body, the church. The church is his temple, his home, the place where he lives. We follow his lead, as he guides us through this life in order to make us glorious. And he is the true gardener, who killed the dragon to get the girl. And this table is a reminder of how he got the girl. Christ is a true husband. He loved us, and love means dying. And so he suffered, he bled, he died, that he might be the cornerstone of a new house, with us as the living stones.
And so we eat, at this table of sacrifice, this table of love, so that we might be bound together in perfect harmony, so that we might grow up into the head, into Christ, and that each part of this body might work properly, so that the whole body is built up in love.