The title of this evening series of sermons is Godly Living and our subject for tonight is Sex and Marriage. Now I know these are subjects that make many feel uncomfortable. For example, in a number like this, there will be one or more who are feeling bad over an abortion or causing someone to have an abortion Or you are feeling bad about sleeping around. Here's an older woman looking back:
"As a fourteen-year-old girl going out with an older boy, I felt that having sex was what was expected. It was not a great relationship and ended in two months. I am now 28 and still feel the pain and regret of having given away something so special to someone who was not in a position to treasure it. Looking back, he has shared something of me that I should never have chosen to give him."
Or you may have an addiction to pornography. Or you may be among what our government's Office of National Statistics this year tell us is the 1.1% of the population who are same-sex attracted and sexually active, and you know in your heart of hearts that things are not right. Or when it comes to marriage, you have messed up and are divorced and remarried. Behind all the glitz and glamour, President-elect, Donald Trump, will know the terrible pain from his messing up in this area. Or as a child you have suffered parents splitting up and you don't want to be reminded of the pain. I know there are people present tonight, for whom, in one way or another, sex and marriage, is a sad subject. For beginning in the second half of the 20th century and coming to fruition in very recent years in the 21st century, a total sexual revolution has occurred. And what is its essence? It is simply the ongoing de-stigmatization of all varieties of non-marital sexual activity. It has been called,
"the reduction of sexual relations in general to a kind of hygienic recreation in which anything goes so long as those involved are consenting adults."
You see, genital intercourse used to be understood and protected by laws and taboos as exclusively a sacred marital bond. That was for the health of the family of a mother and father with their children, committed together for life as a fundamental and essential building block of the wider society. But now non-marital sex is treated by too many, particularly in the West, almost like another contact sport! And there is a huge fall-out. Pitirim Sorokin, one of the greatest 20th century sociologists, was the founder of the University of Harvard's Department of Sociology. Exactly 60 years ago, in 1956, he published a short book, The American Sex Revolution. In it he showed that what he called "sex freedom" and "sex anarchy" were linked with a range of social ills. These included rising rates of divorce, illegitimacy, abandoned and neglected children, mental disorders and much else. And intercontinental-wide research ever since has confirmed those findings and found matters are often now far worse than 60 years ago.
So how are we to respond to this sexual chaos as Christians? This is where I want us to look now, especially at our New Testament reading, Revelation 2:18-29. And I have five headings, first, Nothing New; secondly, Sexual Chaos Not the Last Word; thirdly, The Problem at Thyatira; fourthly, What did Jezebel Teach?; and fifthly, The Consequences of Jezebel's Teaching and then there is a conclusion. First:
Look at verses 18-20:
"And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: 'The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze. 'I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practise sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.'"
Throughout history there have been periods and cultures, like today, of sexual chaos before reforming movements bring back sexual order. These verses remind us that the Roman world of the New Testament age, was such a period of chaos. So ours is not unique. We know a Roman Empress in AD 50 was a common prostitute. We know that of the first 15 Roman Emperors, 14 were practicing homosexuals or bisexuals. A little later, the Bible translator, Jerome, tells us of a woman marrying her 23rd husband, she being his 21st wife. And this sexual culture was especially evident in ancient Corinth as you can see from Paul's letters to the Corinthians. In his first letter (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) he writes this:
"Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality… will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."
There is nothing new about our period of sexual chaos. But, secondly:
Sexual Chaos is Not the Last Word
Look now at Revelation 2:21-22:
"I [the risen Lord – this is one of seven letters of Christ to ancient churches in Asia Minor (modern Turkey)] gave her [Jezebel] time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works."
The sexual chaos in Roman times was changed as people repented through the preaching and teachings of the good news of Christ by his Apostles. They went around teaching Jesus' ethic of marriage and repentance of sins for new life through faith in Christ. But tragically, in Thyatira this woman Jezebel, although given time to repent (v21), refused to repent of her sexual immorality. In Corinth, however, there was a different story. People at Corinth had repented. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 6:11 (as we heard):
"And such [sexually mixed up] were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."
Paul is saying you may be totally mixed-up sexually or maritally, like those ancient Corinthians. But they admitted the mess they were in. They heard the message from Paul that Christ died to sort out such messes, if only people would turn to him and commit themselves to him, seeking his forgiveness. And that forgiveness is still available. Paul taught the Cross of Calvary meant you can be justified or freed from your guilt. For in your place Jesus Christ bore the punishment your sin (all sin not just sexual sin) deserves. And that commitment to Christ by the Corinthians was made definite by being baptized and being strengthened by the Holy Spirit to help resist temptation – or being "sanctified" as Paul says. So, to repeat, after referring to the "sexually immoral, adulterers and men who practice homosexuality", Paul could write in verse 11, - words that have been a spiritual life-line to many:
"And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."
Who needs to hear that message tonight? That brings us to our third heading,
The Problem at Thyatira
There is especial trouble when sexual chaos is inside the church and not just in the pagan or secular world. And this was the case in Thyatira. It is a problem in many churches in the West today. So when you hear that synods or clergy are proposing the rightness of homosexual sex and homosexual marriage or transgender blessings or polygamy or whatever, sadly that also is nothing new. But how are you to respond to such situations? The risen Jesus' words in Revelation 2:18-29 couldn't be clearer. But, first, look again at Revelation 2:18:
"And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: 'The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.'"
The "angel" may refer to the senior pastor or bishop of the church, but the message is for the whole church. And it starts off with revealing that the risen Christ has amazing eyes ("like a flame of fire"), that will see all that is going on. Remember that nothing can be hidden from him. And he has feet "like burnished bronze" that can trample what is before him to powder. That speaks of the fearful judgments that one day, when Christ returns at the end of history, he will pronounce. That is for real, as this Advent season reminds you, for Advent is traditionally when we remember those four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. But what then does the risen Jesus say to the Thyatiran church? Look at verse 19:
"I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first."
He says good things about the church, for they are growing in love, faith, service and patient endurance. But – and this is a big 'but' – then come those words in verse 20:
"But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practise sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols."
That was the problem at Thyatira. So, fourthly,
What did Jezebel Teach?
To answer that, we must define "sexual immorality". We can define it by considering its opposite - Jesus' teaching on the positive morality regarding sex and marriage. On one occasion, Jesus had to answer a question on divorce. You can read his answer in Mark 10:6-9, and quoting from the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2:
"from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.'"
That was like dynamite then, and still is now, for it is so profound but so sensible. It tells you that, "God made them [human beings] male and female". That is simply a fact and an allusion to Genesis 1:27-28, which says:
"God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.'"
So God created, as is often said, not Adam and Steve, but Adam and Eve. They were sexually different for the purpose of 'procreation' – or populating the world by having children. As the Anglican Book of Common Prayer puts it: "[marriage was ordained], first… for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name." But how that was to happen and the shape of marriage is then given to us in Genesis 2. So Jesus next quotes from Genesis 2, and our Old Testament reading, in what he says in Mark 10:8,
"Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh."
So, according to the Bible and Jesus especially, this is what is to happen. There is to be a leaving by a man (and so also a woman) of their father and mother. And that is a public event so it can be known that the man is now "holding fast" to his wife. And then, and only then, the two become one flesh - they have sexual intercourse, that among other things seals this leaving and holding fast. And that has to be the order - leaving parents, holding fast to your spouse, and then one flesh. Then to make things crystal-clear about holding fast, Jesus adds to what Genesis teaches, his own vital words in Mark 10:9,
"What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."
He was teaching, as the following verses in Mark elaborate, there is to be no divorce and remarriage. For marriage is life-long. And at a stroke he outlawed simple polygamy (multiple wives or husbands at the same time). For 'no divorce' was saying, 'no serial polygamy (multiple wives or husbands in succession).' And all that is because marriage is not a human construct or contract but a divine gift. It doesn't depend on the two parties involved. Yes, they have to work at their relationship, but they do that with God's help within this new life-long union, which not they, but God has created.
Now, all that morality (of sex and marriage) helps define sexual immorality and so what Jezebel was teaching. For sexual immorality is any type of becoming "one flesh" other than where there has been the prior leaving of father and mother and holding fast to your wife or husband in marriage. So Jezebel was, in effect, saying there are not only two ways to live - one, single and sexually inactive, or, two, married and sexually active. Rather anyone can be sexually active whenever they like, presumably where there is consent. And that is what is being believed and disastrously taught by so many today. And that brings us, fifthly, to:
The Consequences of Jezebel's Teaching
Look at Revelation 2:22-23. Because Jezebel refuses to repent of her sexual immorality, verse 22, the risen Jesus says:
"Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works."
This almost inevitably follows. Christian sexual ethics are simply the instructions of our divine Creator who wants the best for parents, children and the wider world. To defy these instructions and damage sex and marriage is bound to be costly, if not immediately, certainly long term. It is like driving your car ignoring the maker's instructions to put oil in the engine or tightening the wheel nuts when you change your wheel. There will be disaster. And you don't have to be a Christian to believe the value of Christian ethics and the harms from the current sexual revolution. Social science in the last 60 years has proved it. But, sadly, there is what is now called, 'the will to disbelieve'. As Malcom Muggeridge once said: "people do not believe lies [or deny truth] because they have to, but because they want to." At Thyatira this suffering may have been from a miraculous intervention in the early church. That would be like the case of Ananias and Sapphira. They were struck dead for hypocritical lying (Acts 5:19-10). Or it may have been the outworking of sexually transmitted diseases, that are all too common, as we know today. But this is not God's will, that people should be diseased or die. The Bible says,
"The Lord… is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).
However, God will not force you. If you suicidally choose to drive up the motorway in the opposite lane, don't blame God for what happens. So, finally, how does the risen Jesus conclude this letter to Thyatira and so to all succeeding generations of Christians? Well, look at verses 24-29:
"But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this [Jezebel's] teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
Time doesn't allow me to go into details, but it is clear that at least the Christians are to "hold fast what they already have". That is, they are to stick to the basic teaching of Christ and his Apostles on sex and marriage. For many of us that will mean marriage but only to a believing partner, one, to raise a family, if possible; two, to be legitimately sexually active; and three, for lifelong companionship. But if we are single like the well-known clergyman and writer, John Stott, he writes, it will mean …
"…our sexual energies [are] to be redirected both into affectionate relationships with many people and into loving service for others. There are a multitude of Christian single men and women who have been able to testify that alongside a natural human loneliness and sometimes acute pain, there can be immense and joyful fulfilment in the loving joyful service of God and our fellow human beings. You see, God has given sex this one and only context – marriage."
And things will not be easy for anybody, single or married, with all the temptations of the modern world. I close, therefore, with Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 10:12-13:
"Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed that he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."