Marriage matters. Marriage is not just a piece of paper, any more than a bank note is just a piece of paper. I have here a £10 note. And here is a piece of plain paper – just the same size. Why is one valuable and the other worthless? Because this piece of paper has nothing on it. But this £10 note has a promise on it. It says, "I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of £10", and it's signed by the Chief Cashier for the Governor and the Company of the Bank of England.
What gives it its value is the promise that goes with it, and the fact that we can rely on the promise to be kept. Even in the unlikely event that the Bank of England decided not to keep that promise, the whole weight of the political, social and economic structure of this country would enforce it and make sure that the Bank of England did keep the promise. Otherwise, the economic life of this nation would go into meltdown. It would be a national catastrophe and massive long-term suffering would ensue. It is vital that promise is kept. The Bank of England must keep faith. Thankfully, we know that it will. We don't have to lie awake at night worrying whether our bank notes will be worthless by morning.
Here is my marriage certificate. It has been signed by Vivienne, by me and by witnesses. This certificate confirms that Vivienne and I made promises to each other on 28 March 1981. I depend on those promises of Vivienne's every day of my life. This is not just a piece of paper.
When a nation's family life is healthy, then if people do toy with the idea of not keeping their marriage vows, the whole weight of the political, social and economic structure of the country co-operates to enforce them and to make sure that the marriage promises are kept, for the good of everybody. Otherwise, the whole social fabric of the nation begins to go into meltdown. It is a national catastrophe and massive long-term suffering ensues. And that's what's happening around us. We are perilously close to the tipping point at which the meltdown will become unstoppable. We need to cry to God for mercy, and for a turn of the tide.
Why does marriage matter? Let's hear God's perspective on this, through the prophet Malachi – Malachi 2.10-16. God is speaking to the people of Judah. This is after the return from the Babylonian exile and about 400 years before the coming of Christ. It was a time of spiritual decline, scepticism about the word of God, neglect of God's commands and widespread breakdown of family life. In other words, they were in a situation disturbingly similar to our own in this country today.
I have four points to make from these verses.
1. God's People have Broken Faith with One Another
"Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?"
The people Malachi are addressing here are the Jews – the covenant people of God. So when he says "Have we not all one Father?" he's thinking primarily in that narrow sense. In our terms, from a New Testament perspective, he's talking to the wider church – those who call themselves Christians and claim allegiance to Christ. And let's remember that constitutionally this country claims to be Christian and to live under the rule of Christ. However, in another sense, all people are God's people in the sense that God is the creator of us all. And that's very important when we come to think about marriage and family, because marriage is not just an institution for believers. It is a creation ordinance – a gift of God to everyone. Hence the foundational family life texts in the Bible come in Genesis 1 and 2.
Marriage and the family life that flows from it is built into the very fabric of creation as God designed it. And he commanded it because he wanted us to know his blessings. That is right at the start of the Old Testament. What is the situation by the time we come to the end of the Old Testament, to Malachi? God's people – that's us – are faithless to one another. What does that mean? It means breaking promises, breaking trust, being unfaithful. How is that happening here? Verse 11:
"Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god."
We have married the daughters of foreign gods. Now let's be clear, the issue here is not race. The issue here is idolatry, because the Lord had warned them that marrying those who worshipped false gods would drag God's people into the same idolatry – and he had been proved right. But there is another underlying issue: this was forbidden, so these relationships were entered into in clear breach of God's commands. What's the equivalent for us today? Certainly the issue of believers marrying unbelievers remains. But there is also the wider application to relationships that are contrary to God's clear commands. Casual sexual relationships, homosexual relationships, and co-habitation without marriage all fall into that category.
Back in Judah, even where the marriages were in line with God's will in the first place there was a problem. So, verse 14:
"…the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant."
What's a covenant? It's a binding promise. You've broken the promise you made to your wife, God says. Verse 15:
"…let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth."
But in all these ways, we fall under the same rebuke as those Jews 2400 years ago. A century ago there were a few hundred divorces each year in the UK. In 1961 there were 25,000. In 2004 there were more than 100,000. God's people have broken faith with one another. That's the first point.
2. When we Break Faith with One Another we are also Breaking Faith with God
We are "profaning the covenant of our fathers" (verse 10). We have "profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves" (verse 11). The sanctuary is the temple. In New Testament terms, the temple is both Christ himself, and the church which is the body of Christ. So in exactly this context of sexual immorality, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6.19:
"… do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you … You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body."
And as Ephesians 5 makes clear, marriage reflects the relationship between Christ and the church. Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. When we are faithless, we are dishonouring Christ and desecrating his body and his bride. We cannot isolate the way we treat one another from the way we relate to God. When we are faithless to one another, we are faithless to him too. That's point two.
3. God Finds Breaking Faith Repulsive
That is literally true. When we break faith with one another and we break faith with God, our relationship with God is cut off and we are repelled from him. A gulf is created not just in our families but between us and God. God finds breaking faith repulsive. When we break faith, it is watched closely by God. Verse 14: "the Lord was witness". It is a detestable thing. Verse 11: "abomination has been committed in Israel". It is a desecration of what God loves. Malachi 1.2: "I have loved you," says the Lord. God loves those he witnesses being wounded by unfaithfulness. Verse 12:
"May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob any descendant of the man who does this [that is, rejecting God's command by marrying a pagan woman], who brings an offering to the Lord of hosts!"
It's no good putting up a good spiritual front, coming to church, saying all the rights things, whilst blatantly and unrepentantly disobeying God. Breaking faith is hated by God. And he hates the violence – both physical (sometimes) and emotional (always) that is involved in being faithless. Verse 16:
"For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts."
Because God knows what is best for us all, and wants what is best for us all and commands us to live in a way that is best for us all, when we reject his commands and break faith in family life, we cause great suffering as a result of what you might call our emotional violence. You can see that happening here in Judah – verses 13-14:
"And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord's altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favour from your hand. But you say, "Why does he not?""
Life is going badly for them. They're miserable. They are suffering. And they're blaming God. But the reason for their suffering lies in the breakdown of marriage and family life brought on by the fact that they are faithless. Verse 14:
"But you say, "Why does he not?" Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant."
And we experience the same thing all around us and in our own families too. The environment is tough for parents. Much on the media is promoting promiscuity, maligning marriage, and encouraging illegitimacy. And what is the result of it all? Everyone gets hurt – and especially the children. God witnesses all of it – there is nowhere for us to hide from him. And God finds breaking faith repulsive. And yet, despite all that, he never breaks faith with his people. In fact, that is why he hates it so much. It is utterly contrary to his character. Malachi 3.6:
"For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed…"
Then the final point is this:
4. God Calls Us to Return to Him
Because God himself keeps faith, there is always hope for us, whatever we have done. There is always forgiveness in Christ if we return to him. And not just forgiveness. For us as individuals, for us as a church in this country, and for us as a nation, there is great blessing to be found in returning to God and in living in obedience to his word and his ways. That's wonderfully expressed in Malachi 4.2:
"But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall."
And again in Malachi 4.6:
"And he [the coming prophet] will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers…"
That is, when we turn back to God, broken family relationships will be restored. There is great blessing in obedience. But if we don't return, the suffering will simply intensify. So verse 6 goes on:
"…lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction."
We have to be quite clear that there can be no restoration of our relationship with God without also a renewed commitment to obedience to his commands. So Malachi 4.4 says:
"Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel."
And now after the coming of Christ, we need to add: Remember the words of Jesus – not least on marriage and divorce. And learn to be faithful. Faithful to God. Faithful to one another. Faithful in singleness. Faithful in marriage. Faithful to our families. Malachi 2.16:
"…So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless."
On 26 April 1986 one of the reactors of the nuclear plant at Chernobyl in Ukraine exploded. There is still an exclusion zone the size of Greater London. Thousands of people have died. One survivor, Ekaterina, said she remembered the sunny day back in 1986 when tragedy struck: "I know lots of widows now because of the accident. So many lives were destroyed by Chernobyl. It's a terrible waste."
The Chernobyl disaster, it seems to me, is a good illustration of the catastrophe that occurs when breaking faith in marriage and family life reaches epidemic proportions. The sun still shines. The buildings in the towns and villages still stand. Plants grow and animals are oblivious. But human lives are devastated. And the impact of it reaches across the world and down the generations.
Sex is a powerful thing. When it's contained by faithfulness within marriage as God made it to be, and when it's channelled according to his design, then it's a tremendous blessing. The warmth that's generated within family life powers the whole nation. But when those God-given restraints are burst open as more and more people break faith in marriage and family life, that power that should be such a source of blessing instead lays waste vast swathes of society.
None of us is unaffected by the explosion of faithlessness that's been taking place over the last generation. Some of us have been directly on the receiving end. Some of us, no doubt, have broken faith ourselves. Others have been caught up indirectly in the fall-out. All too many of us carry the scars – or the still open wounds.
For all of us, there is hope. And that hope is found in Jesus. Where forgiveness is needed and asked for, Jesus gives it. The debts to God that we have amassed because of our failures, he has already written off at the cross. Where emotional healing is needed, Jesus provides it – though healing takes time. As Isaiah said prophetically of Jesus (Isaiah 53.5):
"… upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed."
So we don't need to be afraid. But as a church and as a nation we do need to return to God, by faith in Christ. And we need to commit ourselves to keeping faith – in our singleness, in our families, in our marriages. And then we'll know God's presence, and we'll be on the receiving end of his faithfulness to us. And by the grace of God, the tide will turn and the sea of suffering caused by breaking faith will recede, and the blessings of faithful family life will spread more and more widely once again.
Let's be praying that it will be so. And let's be working for it to be so. We need to be a distinctive community. We need to bear witness to the society around us that there is another way. By what we teach and by how we live, we need to show that faithfulness hand in hand with forgiveness works.
"So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless…" (Malachi 2.15)