Then a voice came from the throne, saying: ‘Praise our God, all you His servants, you who fear Him, both small and great!’
Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: ‘Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.
Then the angel said to me, ‘Write: `Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’ And he added, ‘These are the true words of God.’
Max Lucado tells a wonderful story in his book ‘When Christ Comes’.
“The story of the prince and his peasant bride. A more intriguing romance never occurred. His attraction to her is baffling. He, the stately prince. She, the common peasant. He, peerless. She, plain. Not ugly, but she can be. And often is. She tends to be sullen and sour, even cranky. Not the kind of soul you’d want to live with.
But according to the prince, she is the soul he can’t live without. So he proposed to her. On the dusty floor in the peasant’s cottage, he knelt, took her hand, and asked her to be his bride. Even the angels inclined an ear to hear her whisper, ‘Yes.’
‘I’ll return for you soon,’ he promised.
‘I will be waiting,’ she pledged.
No one thought it odd that the prince would leave. He is, after all, the son of the king. Surely he has some kingdom work to do.
What’s odd is not his departure, but her behaviour during his absence. She forgets she’s engaged!
You’d think the wedding would be ever on her mind, but it isn’t. You’d think the day would be on the tip of her tongue. But it’s not. Some of her friends have never heard her speak of the event. Days pass – even weeks – and his return isn’t mentioned. Why, there have been times, perish the thought, when she has been seen cavorting with the village men. Flirting. Whispering. In the bright of day. Dare we wonder about her activities in the dark of night?
Is she rebellious? Maybe. But mostly, she is just forgetful. She keeps forgetting she is engaged. That’s no excuse, you say. Why, his return should be her every thought! How could a peasant forget her prince? How could a bride forget her groom?
That’s a good question. How could we? You see, the story of the prince and his peasant bride is not an ancient fable. It’s not a tale about them, but rather a portrayal of us. Are we not the bride of Christ? Have we not been set apart as a pure bride to one husband? Did God not say to us, “I will make you my promised bride forever?”
Last week we looked at the challenge for the Church to get outside of the walls of our buildings and how God calls us to make a difference in the world around us. Most Churches take up that challenge, with varying degrees of success.
One of the dangers though, is that we become so involved in the world, that our distinction as the Church can become rather fuzzy, and we forget just who we are, and whom it is we represent.
One of the most striking images of the Church is the concept that the Church is Bride of Christ. It is an image which see throughout Scripture.
There is a prophecy in Isaiah 62:5 where God says “as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”
There is also a wonderful message in the book of Hosea. God commands Hosea to marry a woman who is an adulteress. Even though she is unfaithful and leaves her husband, God tells Hosea to purchase her back from the slave market. This is a parable of God’s love for His people.
In Hosea 2:19-20 God promises, “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord.”
If we are to understand just what this is all about, it’s important that we have an understanding of traditional Jewish weddings. Before the marriage was consummated, there was a time of betrothal. We might call it the time of engagement today.
Usually marriages were arranged by the families of the couple to be married. After the betrothal took place, the couple was considered husband and wife, but they still remained apart. This is what we see in Matthew 1. In today’s world verses 18 and 19 are a bit confusing, but in 1st century Israel, they made perfect sense: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”
Joseph and Mary were not ‘legally married’, but according to Jewish custom, they were betrothed to each other at the time, so they were considered to be husband and wife, even though there had been no physical contact before then.
So a man and woman would be betrothed to each other, at which stage the man would go and prepare a new home for his wife. Then, at an unknown time the groom would return to claim his bride. That is when they would celebrate with the wedding feast, the groom would take his bride home, and they would live together and begin their life as a family.
During the betrothal period both the groom and the bride to be were supposed to remain faithful to their betrothed. And of course the time leading up to the wedding was filled with anticipation and excitement as the couple prepared for their union.
This imagery is important when we turn to the New Testament. Several times we see this picture of the wedding between Jesus and the Church.
Paul encourages the Church in Corinth to be faithful to God, despite the challenges they were going through. In 2 Corinthians 11:2-3 he writes, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to Him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
And then in Ephesians 5, Paul gives instructions about how a husband and wife are to relate to one another. He challenges Christian couples to live in such a way that the wife respects and submits to her husband, and the husband is to love the wife “as Christ loved the church.” In fact, several times in Ephesians 5 Paul draws parallels with the relationship between the husband and wife to the relationship between Christ and the Church.
I’ll read through those verses, but before I do that, don’t get bogged down by the word ‘submit’. The context of this word in Ephesians 5 has been misunderstood for years, and dealing with it is for another day. For now though, try to hear what Paul says about the bride of Christ, and how he compares that to a Godly marriage: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, His body, of which He is the Saviour. Now as the Church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant Church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the Church-- for we are members of His body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the Church.”
What all of this means is that Jesus served and was willing to die for His bride. The Church serves and submits out of love and appreciation for the sacrifice which Jesus made on our behalf.
Another important passage where this same concept is dealt with is in our second reading from Revelation 19 today. These verses talk about what will happen when Jesus returns for His bride – the Church.
Marriage is the most intimate of human relationships. Some may say it is parenting, and motherhood in particular. After all, a child begins life in its mother’s womb, and is nurtured by its mother for years, but if you think about it, the ‘art’ of successful parenting is to bring up our children in such a way that they will eventually become independent. Of course they will always remain our children, but they need to learn to cope in the world on their own.
Marriage though, is the exact opposite. It is the first human relationship given to us by God. “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)
The more time a husband and wife spend together, the closer they become, so much so that we become ‘one flesh’. Sadly, as we know, it doesn’t always work out this way – we are sinners after all, but God’s original purpose for Christian marriage is that it would be the one place where we can be completely open and vulnerable, and that over time the connection between husband and wife would grow stronger and deeper.
And Jesus uses this model to describe His relationship with the Church because He wants us to see how deeply He loves us, and how intimately He wants to relate to us. This is not about a one night stand. Jesus calls us to a lifetime of growing closer to Him.
When Jesus says that our love is “to die for,” He meant it literally.
It was love that lead Him to the Cross of Calvary. He could have ended the torture and suffering of His crucifixion any time He wanted. But if He had, the wedding would have been off.
A wedding without the groom just wouldn’t work. Isaiah 64:6 says that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” If it all depended on us, there would be no wedding. But Jesus couldn’t bear to spend eternity without us. So with His blood He purchased a garment of righteousness worthy of a royal wedding. Isaiah 61:10 says, “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”
Of course we know that the Church is far from perfect, just like the peasant bride Max Lucado describes in his book. While there are times when the Church is faithful, in truth we rarely live up to our God-given potential. Just like the peasant bride our lack of faith lets us down, and our eyes wander. Our hearts become side-tracked and we allow things like material possessions, power and prestige to become more important in our lives than the bridegroom who loves us more than life itself.
I don’t think we will ever really understand the intensity of the love that God has for us. In eternity the picture may be a little clearer, but we simply do not have the mental capacity to fully comprehend just how much He loves us.
One of the perks of ministry is helping to prepare couples for their marriage. The preparation and the expense which goes into some weddings is mind-boggling, but it is a special day, and there is nothing wrong with wanting your wedding day to be just perfect.
Imagine then, how much more faithful we would be as the bride of Christ if we prepared for that wedding with the same enthusiasm and dedication?
We should want to look our best for Christ. We should want our hearts to be pure and our thoughts to be clean. Our lives should be marked by grace and love. We need to be prepared for His coming. And we should be doing these things not so that He will love us, but rather because He loves us. He’s already proven His love by dying on the Cross for us.
In fact, if you sit down and think about it, how could we ever be unfaithful to one who loves us so much? Why would we be satisfied with the one night stands that this world offers, when we can know the fulfilment and depth of an eternal relationship with the God of the universe?
We need to understand that we are eternal beings, and that God has prepared something infinitely better for us than what this world offers us. The first 3 verses of Hebrews 12 say “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
One of the reasons we celebrate Holy Communion is to remind us of the promises which await us in Heaven. We will be reminded in a moment of the wedding feast which waits us.
The questions we need to be asking ourselves are these: are we prepared for the feast, and are we remaining faithful to the groom?
Jesus is preparing for our arrival. In John 14 He says “In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
Jesus is preparing the wedding banquet for us. He is preparing the place that we will call home for eternity. What are we doing to prepare ourselves for His return?