God as the Bridegroom
Sermon preached by The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley 18 January 2004
In the reading from the Gospel this morning we hear of Jesus attending a wedding at Cana and indeed gracing the occasion with his first recorded miracle. Clearly marriage was high on the list of things that Jesus, who loved life and people and a party, approved of. In the Old Testament reading we also hear about God and marriage. God’s relationship with His chosen people is described in terms of a marriage and also mentions the delight that God takes in us. “ as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride so shall your God rejoice over you”. This passage brims over with joy and optimism, but why did God inspire the writer of Isaiah to use this language to describe His feeling for humanity?
The Old Testament is full of long and gloomy passages where prophet after prophet rants on about how disappointed God is with His chosen people, how humanity has failed and has broken the covenant . And so this lovely passage in Isaiah is all the more precious to us and worth trying to interpret properly. The key to the passage is understanding the meaning that marriage had in those poor desert communities where there was often famine and premature death, where life was hard and survival difficult. Marriages were about feasting, and music, laughter and celebration and provided a welcome respite from the hard slog of subsitence farming. It was and is about preparation, anticipation, bustling about choosing new things, organising a celebration. Marriage in every age before this was not a personal matter, not just about romance between two people. A new bond was forged between whole families and their clans. As today, it meant the possibility of children to carry on the faith and the family line, it meant hope for the future, and a sense of renewal. When you think of marriage in this way you can see that describing God as a bridegroom was a powerful metaphor about joy, and hope and love.
As people prepare for a marriage the community holds its breath with excitement, expectation and hope. Hope for the future happiness of the couple and hope that they find in each other all that they need. In 1 Corinthians 13:13 St Paul tells us of the three gifts of the Spirit, faith, hope and charity. Since he goes on to say that the greatest of these gifts is love or charity, the second virtue is rather ignored. If we think of hope at all we tend to understand it as meaning our hope in God’s mercy and love. We need our hope in God to sustain us through painful and difficult times, it is the rock of our endurance on the path to salvation. But is hope a two-way emotion in our relationship with God? What of God’s hope for us? Of course He knows all things and understands every aspect of us, so God’s hope is based on loving knowledge. Perhaps we should ask, what is God’s estimation of humanity, What does God look for from us, his created beings?
The reading from the Epistles is equally full of optimism. It is usually interpreted in other ways but why don’t we read it like this – as God speaking about the people He has made with joy and pride – like a parent bragging that her child has excelled at maths, drama and music. “ To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines”. Perhaps God is thrilled by our gifts and abilities, perhaps He exults over how clever we are. Perhaps God watches us with delight to see what we are. Humans are full of potential to do great things. Not only to invent scientific things and make the world better, not only to create beautiful things, but we have the potential for love, for generosity of spirit, for mercy and tolerance. All these things that God knows are in us must make Him glad. And it is up to us as humans not to disappoint God, as we have so many times done before. As we regard a new married couple with hope and wish to believe that their dreams and ours for them will be fulfilled, we simultaneously acknowledge the tough realities of married life and the possibility of failure. So perhaps does God see humanity, God’s hope is like ours, it rejoices in the expectation of a perfect and exceptional love but knows at the same time that that love will be tested in the difficulties and failures of real life. But I think the point of seeing God as the new bridegroom, is that the relationship between us and God remains fresh. God is not cynical. His hope in us remains forever fresh and optimistic. We can always embark again on a new phase of life with God. He never stops believing in us. We must make sure that we believe in ourselves.