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Mark 10_2-16

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TITLE:  A Remedy for Hardness of Heart           Scripture: Mark 10:2-16

Our Gospel lesson today puts it all together -- marriage, divorce, children.  It is a painful scripture and a joyful scripture at the same time -- painful as it talks about marriage and divorce -- joyful as it talks about children.

It's a challenging text for a preacher these days.  Divorce has become so common.  The word "family" used to mean Mom and Pop and two kids.  Couples used to stay together even though they weren't happy, because people just didn't get divorced -- or "for the sake of the kids."  But that is no longer true.

So we preachers find ourselves looking out at congregations that include more than a few divorced people -- most of them either remarried or hoping to remarry -- and all of them seeking to strengthen their relationship with God, or they wouldn't be here.  So what's a preacher to say about this text?

First of all, the preacher has to honor what Jesus said -- has to acknowledge that God created us for marriage -- and that God intended marriage to be permanent.  Ideally, we would grow up, remain chaste until marriage, get married, and stay married to the same person until "death do us part."  That was God's design -- God's intent.  Jesus made that clear when he said:

      "From the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.'  'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,  and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate."

That was God's design, and it was a beautiful design -- it IS a beautiful design.  There are a number of couples here today who have been married to the same person for many years, and they can attest to the fact that is a beautiful design.  It's a wonderful thing to see an older couple devoted to each other after decades of marriage.  I see it often -- older couples holding hands -- helping each other -- laughing together. 

I saw a poster somewhere that expressed it well.  It showed an elderly couple -- they must have been in their late 70s.  As I recall the poster, the old man and woman were holding hands or perhaps they were just helping each other.  The caption was "True Love." 

That caption surprised me.  When we think of true love, we tend to think of a young couple walking along a beach -- incendiary passion -- that sort of thing.  But that poster reordered my thinking -- gave me a new appreciation for love that stands the test of time -- that endures even though the fires of passion no longer blaze so fiercely.  True love!

That's the way we would all prefer it to work out, but that isn't always the way it does work out.  There are a host of reasons why that is so.  Jesus summed them up with the phrase, "hardness of heart."  In his world, men had the right to divorce their wives, but Jewish wives did not have the right to divorce their husbands.  It was only under Roman law that a woman could get a divorce.

Some rabbis said that the only ground for divorce was adultery.  Other rabbis said that a man could divorce his wife if she bungled the preparation of his dinner -- or if he found someone more pleasing. 

If a man divorced his wife, he put her in a very difficult situation.  If another man would marry her, she would be all right.  Otherwise, she could expect a life of real hardship.

Men knew that the Book of Deuteronomy permitted divorce, and they assumed that God was happy enough with that.  Jesus said, "No!"  He said that God's plan from the beginning was that "a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."  That language comes from the creation account in Genesis (2:24).  It tells us how God designed marriage -- how God intended marriage to be.  God didn't design it that way to make us miserable, but to make us happy. 

God wants the same thing for us that we want for ourselves -- a happy marriage.  That is what people intend when they get married, and those who get divorced are almost universally disappointed that it didn't work out.  Disappointed isn't a strong enough word.  Brokenhearted describes it better.  I grieve for divorced people, because I know that their hearts have been broken.

I think that God's heart has been broken too.  You know how it feels when you design something -- and then someone mars your design. 

-- Maybe it's when you are decorating a room and your spouse stops by to put in his or her two cents.  You had a vision for something beautiful, and suddenly it doesn't seem so wonderful anymore. 

-- Or maybe you had a good idea at work, but your boss turned it over to a committee.  By the time your idea was implemented, it was completely unrecognizable. 

It's hard to see our beautiful vision marred.  For God, it began in the Garden of Eden.  God designed the garden as a paradise -- a place where nature cooperated with humans instead of fighting them -- a place where "a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground" (Gen. 2:5) -- a place full of trees "pleasant to the sight and good for food" (Gen. 2:9).  That was the design, but the man and woman insisted on eating the fruit of the one forbidden tree -- marring the design -- and they lost the right to live in the garden.  

And we have been marring God's design ever since -- in a thousand ways -- not just with regard to marriage.  There isn't a person in this sanctuary who hasn't marred God's design -- and that includes me -- I just overheard my wife say "Amen."

Paul tells us that we are all sinners and have all come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).  Most of us break God's heart with some degree of regularity.  The hardness of heart that Jesus mentioned appears frequently --not just with regard to marriage and divorce.  There might be a handful of saints here who are not afflicted with hardness of heart.  I might even point to one or two if I wouldn't embarrass them -- but the rest of us are in serious need of some heart softener -- some stain remover -- some sin forgiver. 

Our Gospel lesson today consists of two portions -- one about marriage and divorce and the other about children.  People were bringing their children to Jesus so that he might touch them --that he might impart his blessing on them.  Jesus' disciples tried to stop them.  A great man like Jesus has better things to do with his time than to deal with a bunch of kids.  But that isn't the way that Jesus saw it.  He rebuked his disciples, saying:

      "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you,  whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child  will never enter it."  "And he took (the children) up in his arms,  laid his hands on them,  and blessed them."

That's a beautiful story.  I especially like the ending, where Jesus takes the children in his arms and blesses them.

But as I thought about that story, I thought that it might contain a remedy for the brokenness that we adults bring to life.  I had to ask myself:

      "What is it that makes children different? 
      If Jesus wants me to be childlike, what would that look like? 
      What do I need to do to become more childlike? 
      What is there about a child that fits him or her for the kingdom of God?"

Jesus doesn't answer those questions, but simply calls us to become more childlike.  I have given the matter some thought, however, and I would like to take a stab at answering those questions: 

      "What is it that makes children different? 
      If Jesus wants me to be childlike, what would that look like? 
      What do I need to do to become more childlike? 
      What is there about a child that fits him or her for the kingdom of God?"

There are a number of things about children that endear them to us.  I suspect that it is those same things that endear them to God.

-- For one thing, children come to us with nothing in their hands.  They don't try to bargain with us, because they have nothing to offer.  They bring us their need and give us the opportunity to take care of them.  I think that is one of the things that God finds most endearing about children and childlike adults.  No false pride!  No pretense!

-- And then children are trusting.  They come to us in the faith that we will help them.  Children are believers.  They aren't sure how Mom and Dad will manage it, but they are confident that Mom and Dad will take care of them.  That is surely one of the things that God finds endearing about children and childlike adults.  God wants us to come to him in faith -- to believe that he can and will help us.

-- And children respond to love instead of money or power.  Children aren't impressed by college degrees or titles.  They don't care whether you are a clerk or the CEO.  If you love them, they will respond to your love.  That unquestionably is one of the things that God finds endearing about children and childlike adults.  God loves to love -- and God loves to be loved in return.

When I read these two stories -- the one about the Pharisees with hard hearts and the other about children coming to Jesus for a blessing -- it occurred to me that the children's story might suggest a remedy for hardness of heart. 

If we will only orient ourselves to God as a child orients to his or her parents
    If we will only trust God
        If we will only have faith that God will help us in our hour of need
            If we will only respond with love to God's love

Then we will become less fearful
    Less grasping
        Less desperate to force our own solutions on the world
            Better able to let God steer us through life's rapids.

And then I believe that we will feel our hearts soften
    And will be able to accept that God has forgiven our sins
        So that we might be able to forgive the sins of others
            And begin to live in harmony as childlike adults.

The only way I know to do that is to do it
    To start
        To pray daily that God will help us
            And to live in the faith that he will.

That is what I invite you to do this week.
    To start
        To pray daily that God will help you
            And to live in the faith that he will.

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