Let me start by saying why I don't want to speak on sex and relationships.
I don't want to because it reminds us all of our failures and guilt and struggles in this area. And I don't want to because it reminds us of our sadnesses in this area – whether that's unwanted singleness or unhappy marriage or unwanted feelings for the same sex or divorce or whatever. And I don't want to because it's easy to do it clumsily and insensitively, however hard you try to think yourself into other peoples' shoes.
But on the other hand, I do want to speak on it – or rather, want God's word to speak on it – precisely because of all that. Because we need to hear God's word of forgiveness – that however we've messed up, God can still accept us and help us begin again with him. And we need to hear his word of design for this area of life – which he wants us to be blessed by, not hurt by.
Would you turn in the Bibles to Genesis 2.24 – because that is the key verse on marriage in the Bible. It says this:
"Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and they shall become one flesh."
Have you ever wondered why marriage has such a high profile from the very start of the Bible? After all, Genesis 1 gives the grand scale account of creation, then Genesis 2 zooms in on what it means to be human – and half of that is about marriage. And at one level, that's because marriage is the key to the human race filling the earth, as God tells us in chapter 1. But at the deepest level, that high profile is because marriage is the Bible's number one visual aid to help us understand the relationship with Jesus on offer to us.
So the New Testament quotes Genesis 2.24 (see Ephesians 5.30-31) and says (I am paraphrasing), 'If you're trusting in Jesus, that's a picture of your relationship with him.'
So on my wedding day, I stood at the front of church and promised to love Tess '… for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part.' And that's a picture of Jesus' commitment to love us, despite our ongoing sinfulness, forever. And if we struggle with how he can do that – especially given our failures in this area of sex and relationships – the answer was pictured in another thing I said to Tess that day. Which was, 'All that I am I give you, and all that I have I share with you.' Because in the one-ness of marriage, everything the other person is and has become yours – and vice versa. So I got Tess's new Toyota Corolla and she got my geriatric Ford Focus. I got her substantial savings and she got my less substantial ones (that's not why I married her; I didn't know about them – it wasn't the Jane Austen plot of poor curate marrying rich lady.) And she got my wardrobe of bachelor clothes and I got her dress-sense – which is why most of my clothes were very soon in second-hand shops.
And that's a picture of what happens when we put our faith in Jesus. Because on the cross, he anticipated every sin of yours, past and future, in this area and all others – including looking at pornography, going too far physically, having an abortion, marital unfaithfulness – whatever is on your conscience. And he paid for the forgiveness of all of it, so that the moment we put our faith in him, he gets our sin (and gets rid of it forever), and we get his acceptance with God – we share in his standing in his Father's love, forever.
That's God's word of forgiveness, which we all need tonight, for this area of our lives. So please don't think anything you've done is unforgivable, or that he can't help you start again with him from where you are.
Then for the rest of the time we're going to hear God's word of design for this area of life, from Genesis 1 and 2. And I guess the world would say, 'But Genesis is completely out of date, irrelevant and ignorant of everything we now know about sexuality.' To which my answer is: 'Do you believe Jesus was and is the Son of God?' For some of us the answer will be, 'No – at least, not yet, I'm still thinking.' (And that's great if that is you.) But if you do reach that conviction about Jesus, it means accepting that what he said on every area is true. And, as we heard in our New Testament reading (Mark 10.1-12), Jesus quoted Genesis 1 and Gensis 2. Which means he was saying it is true. He was saying it is God's Word – so it will never go out of date, it's completely relevant, and it comes from someone who is ignorant about nothing.
And the first thing it says about this area is:
1. Remember Your Number One Relationship is With God
Look down to Genesis 1.26
"Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.'"
There's no time to unpack what it means to be in God's image. But the key thing it means is that we, uniquely, can relate to God. So the key thing to remember is: that's our number one relationship, whether we're single (plus or minus boyfriend or girlfriend), married, divorced, widowed, whatever.
And that means we need to look to God as our primary source of worth. So one single woman in our church family wrote in an email to me:
"I don't think the marrieds have a clue what it's like to watch friend after friend get engaged and married, and to wonder what's wrong with you."
Which illustrates the way we do receive a good deal of our worth from our human relationships – which is as God meant it. But that email also reminds us that we need to find our sense of worth primarily in God's love for us, and in his creation of us as the people we are, rather than the people we might wish we were (more attractive, more clever, more whatever-it-is-for-you).
And we also need to look to God as our primary source of purpose. So another single person in our church family wrote to me:
"Being married and having children provides a purpose and shape to life for others, whereas I feel I lack that completely."
And marriage does, of course, provide purpose – but it's not the ultimate purpose or goal in life. Because whether we are married or single, God has bigger, over-riding purposes for us. Like growing in our knowledge of him, and making him known to those around us, and building his church into the family he wants it to be, and influencing the world for good in Jesus' name.
So that's the starting-point: remember your number 1 relationship is with God. The next thing is to:
2. Accept that God Has Created You Either Male or Female
Look on to Genesis 1.27:
"So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them."
Which means that sex (in other words, gender) is binary – we're either male or female – and it's something given to us, not decided by us. Which means that, like everything else about the way God has made us, we need to learn to accept it.
Now at this point, we need to remember that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 tell us how God made things and meant things to be, before the fall. The fall was then when humanity turned away from God in sin – and said, 'We don't recognise you as Creator or recognise the design you've built into creation.' And that means we're all disordered in every area of our lives – in our thinking and our desires. And so accepting how God has made things is now hard for us.
For example, we can be reluctant to accept our gender and its implications. So I know one Christian woman who was a lawyer. She married with huge reluctance to have children – she didn't like the thought of motherhood at all. She then agreed with her husband to try to start a family. And up to the birth of their first child, she had huge misgivings. But from the moment it happened, she's been a different person: she's loved motherhood and accepted that gift and that role wholeheartedly.
Another example of the effect of the fall is that what was meant to come naturally to us, as the gender we are, may not do. So one Christian man said to me recently that he just doesn't feel a sense of attraction to women, which is why he has stayed single – and may well continue to be. For others here, it goes further, and you feel a sense of attraction for the same sex. And it is important to say that that attraction – just like heterosexual attraction for things outside God's will – is not in itself sin. Desires for what lies outside God's will only become sin when we pick them up and run them into practice. But same sex attraction does raise big questions of how to live inside God's will, while still finding the friendship and love we all need. And if that's what you're working through, two things to recommend are: the Christian website www.livingout.org and Ed Shaw's book 'The plausibility problem: the church and same sex attraction' – which is really a book on working out a positive way of single life, which actually any single people would find useful.
But then the transgender movement is the most obvious reaction against accepting that God has created us either male or female. It would take a whole talk to engage with that. There's only time now to say two things. One is that, hard as it is for every individual suffering it, diagnosable gender dysphoria only affects a very small number – 1 in 20,000 says one British expert in this area. So they need caring for without creating this catastrophic culture of encouraging everyone to question their gender. And the other thing to say is that, biblically speaking, it has to be said that whatever problems we have with our gender as fallen people, denying the reality of God's creation-order is never the solution.
So, accept that God has created you either male or female. And then next:
3. Welcome the Fact That One of God's Purposes For Sex is to Have and Nurture Children
Look down to Genesis 1.28:
"And God blessed them. And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'"
We'll see later that having sex is for marriage only (by which, like the Bible, I mean heterosexual marriage). And that's partly because only marriage gives the context and nurture of biological father and mother, which children need. But we'll also see later that having children is only one of the purposes of sex – it's for expressing and strengthening married love, too.
Having said which, having children is one of the purposes of sex. Which means we need to welcome that, when much of our culture wants childless sex and sees children as a burden rather than a blessing. It also means we should see a commitment to marriage as a commitment in principle to parenthood – unless God over-rules differently and we can't have our own children. That of course isn't to say we shouldn't marry if we're unable to have children or too old to have children. But in that case, God would still want us to say, 'In principle, I'd have welcomed parenthood if it could have come my way.'
And can I say: those of us – single or married – who can't have (or adopt) children can still be part of God's purpose of nurturing them. So, for example, our three children are blessed by many more people than Tess and I who nurture them – in their church groups, as godparents, as honorary 'aunties' and 'uncles', and so on – and most of them are single.
Let's now jump to Genesis 2 for the next point, which is:
4. Understand God's Creation-Design For the Sexes
Look down to Genesis 2.18:
"Then the LORD God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.'"
Now that doesn't primarily mean that he was lonely and needed a companion, and that marriage is the only solution to loneliness. It is true that good male-female friendships, and ultimately good marriages, give a unique quality of companionship. But it's not true that they're the only source of companionship and friendship and love. An old uni friend of mine – and not a Christian – has been single all his life and he once said to me, 'You can live without sex; you can't live without friendship.' And that's right.
So Genesis 2.18 isn't majoring on the issue of loneliness, because the Lord doesn't simply say, 'I will make him a companion' (the solution to loneliness) but "I will make him a helper" (the solution to having a task that you can't do on your own).
And don't feel uneasy about that word "helper" – because, in the rest of the Old Testament, it is mainly used to describe the Lord as the "helper" of his people. So it can't imply inferiority. And that word "helper" also shows that what Adam needed was not just company, but help in his task – which, as we've seen in Genesis 1, was: to nurture the next generation, and to have dominion over God's world – to rule it and shape society in line with God's will. That's what you could call our creation task. But then this side of the fall, there's also our salvation task – which is to play our part in the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church.
And the point is: if you marry, your marriage isn't just to serve your little purposes – like doing up a house together, or bagging all the munroes in Scotland together. Your marriage is primarily to serve God's over-riding purposes – that creation task and that salvation task. That's why, elsewhere in the Bible, the Lord says his will for you if you're a Christian believer, is that you only marry another Christian believer – because only then can you both pull together in marriage towards those God-given purposes.
So the Lord says,
"I will make him a helper fit for him."
And the word translated "fit for him" literally means 'like-and-opposite-to-him' – in other words, equal but different. Now our culture gets suspicious when you talk about the difference between the sexes, because it assumes you want to use that to create inequality. And our culture also seems to be saying that men and women will only be equal when we have 50/50 men and women in every role and job. But that's a wrong view of equality, based on making men and women identical and interchangeable – which they're not. Actually, our equality is based on our creation in the image of God. And once we've grasped that, we can embrace our differences – such as the greater emotional intelligence of women – and benefit from them. So for example, if I'd not listened to Tess in that department and trusted her wisdom about our relationship, we wouldn't be married now.
Onto Genesis 2.19-20:
"Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him."
So imagine the scene. Something rubs Adam's ankles and he looks down and says, 'I'll call you a cat.' Then comes a slobbering, tail-wagging bundle of affection and Adam says, 'You're a Labrador.' Which are both great pets – but not the partner he needs. So why does the Lord put him through that wait? I guess: so that he feels his need, and so that when it's met, he appreciates her. Which is one reason the Lord still often makes us wait longer than we'd like for marriage. Because as someone has said, 'The easiest thing to do to those closest to us is to take them for granted.' Is that the story of your friendships, or your going out, or your marriage right now?
"So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man."
So here's a picture of what was happening in Genesis 2.21- 22:
Something was taken out of Adam, so that when he came together with the woman in marriage, it would be not just a union but, in a profound sense, a re-union. So look on to Genesis 2.23:
"Then the man said,
'This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.'"
So notice first how he says that. It's poetry – the first human poetry in the Bible – so he's excited. And it's easy for teaching like this to sound the exact opposite as it plods through bullet points on the purposes of sex. But God's Word is saying here: there's meant to be excitement and attraction and chemistry and romance and sexual desire. And the Bible book Song of Solomon celebrates that. It's also a poem about courtship and marriage. And here are some lines from the guy in it as he romances his girl which you could tuck away for future use:
"…Your hair is like a flock of goats
leaping down the slopes of Gilead."
[Song of Solomon 4.1]
"Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
That have come up from the washing…"
[Song of Solomon 4.2]
So there's meant to be excitement and attraction and chemistry and romance and sexual desire. But if we're led by those things alone we'll end up hurting others and ourselves – because we're fallen people whose thoughts and desires are disordered and untrustworthy. Instead, we need to be led by God's creation-design. We need the revealed lines of his Word to channel our sexual drive in the way that is right and good, just like a river needs its banks.
So, Genesis 2.23 again, Adam says,
"This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh…"
So there's that picture again.
And it's of two complementary parts making a whole new thing that wasn't there before – rather than just two of what was there before, two of the same thing. It's like the complementary colours that, when you bring them together, make up white light – a whole new thing that wasn't there before. And that's something which same-sex relationships cannot do. That's not to say they can't be committed and faithful. It's just to say: they don't create this whole new thing, this reunion of two things designed especially for union.
Onto Genesis 2.24:
"Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and they shall become one flesh."
So what does marriage involve? Well, firstly:
"…a man shall leave his father and his mother…"
So he and his wife become a new family. Which doesn't mean he neglects his parental family – but he 'leaves' them (as she needs to, as well) in the sense that his new family takes priority. And that needs to happen publicly, because sexual relationships are never just a private matter. They affect existing families, and society as a whole, for good or ill. Therefore, marriage involves public commitment so that there is accountability and support and protection for it from those around it.
Next in Genesis 2.24, it says he shall
"…hold fast to his wife…"
Literally, 'he shall stick permanently' to her. And that's the covenant-making word to describe promising to love one another faithfully for life. Which is why at a wedding we don't ask the couple, 'Do you love each other?', because that's about feelings – which may bring people together but won't hold them together. To hold them together takes promised faithfulness. And that's why we ask, 'Will you love one another… for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death you do part?' And, looking at the end of Genesis 2.24, only after that does it say:
"…and they shall become one flesh."
Which includes sexual union – but is much more: "one flesh" means the complete union of two lives, two people into one.
And the sexual union part of that does two things (other than the purpose, God-willing, of having children). On the one hand, it expresses the union of lives – so it's the body language of married love. We use body language all the time, don't we? So a handshake means, 'friendly but formal', a hug means you're good friends, or siblings – or Tellytubbies. So what does having sex mean? What is sex the body-language for? Well, one Christian writer says this:
To be naked with another person is a symbolic demonstration of perfect honesty, perfect trust, perfect giving and commitment, and if the heart is not naked along with the body, then the whole action becomes a lie… the giving of the body but the withholding of the self. (The Mystery of Marriage, Mike Mason)
And so if we use sex before or outside marriage, there's a complete disconnect between what we're saying with our bodies and what we're saying with our whole lives. So if you're going out, you will have strong desires to go further and further physically, but it's not good to say more with your body than you really mean. You don't want to be telling a lie with it. But this applies just as much inside marriage, because it's saying that in the closeness and gentleness and commitment of making love, it's good to ask ourselves, 'Is this the kind of closeness and gentleness and commitment I'm expressing to my wife or husband all the time?' Or is there a disconnect between the two?
But sexual union is also given to strengthen the union of lives – it's the bonding agent of married love. Now having sex doesn't by itself create a marriage. But it does bond people in marriage – because having sex is profoundly bonding. And that's why it's not for relationships that are not life-long – because you're taking something that, relationally speaking, is superglue, and using it as if it was blutac. Which is another reason God doesn't want going out relationships to involve sex. The reason is that having sex is so bonding that you become so emotionally involved and therefore can't step back to make a free and wise and good decision – either about whether you should keep going out; or, ultimately, whether you should marry or not. And you don't want the misuse of sex to cloud your judgment on that most life-affecting of decisions.
And it's not just full, sexual intercourse that bonds people. All the intimacies leading up to it – including nakedness, or just sharing a bed, or even sharing a room – are all profoundly bonding and all belong to the territory of marriage. And so they will only hinder you in the business of trying to work out whether a relationship should lead to marriage or not.
So that's what I didn't want to speak on – because I've reminded us of our failures and guilt and struggles in this area. And because I've reminded us of our sadnesses in this area. And because, with the best will in the world, I may have spoken insensitively to the issues on your mind, and trodden on numerous toes – in which case, I apologise.
But I hope we've seen God's word of design for this area of life – and not just the lines he has drawn, but the wisdom and love behind those lines.
But above all, let me finish where I began – by reminding us that if we're trusting in Jesus, then he is like a husband who has said his 'I will' to us loud and clear on the cross – as we'll be remembering in communion. Which means that, as we struggle and fail in this and every other area, he's ready to forgive us whenever we need it, and he's committed not to give up on us – ever.