The Vow - Week One: The Promise of Priority

Several years ago, just before my youngest son was born, my wife and two other sons went on an epic road trip to Niagra Falls. 

We drove from Florida to North Carolina to stay at my in-laws house for one day and then drove to Pittsburgh where we hung out and enjoyed the city for a day or so, ate at an amazing diner in Buffalo, NY, and then made our way up to our ultimate destination: The Canadian side of Niagara Falls. 

We did all of the tourist-y stuff at Niagara--everything we could think of at least.  We laughed, played, ate awesome meals... it is easily one of my favorite family vacations ever.

Then we had to drive 14 and a half hours back home.

Did I mention that my wife was 28 weeks pregnant and had a broken foot?

Did I mention that there were two boys...ages 15 and 5... in the same car... in the back seat... of a Honda CRV for 14 and a half hours?

Did I mention that my middle kid, who was pretty little then had not pooped for five days?

And that we were driving for 14 and a half hours?

And that my wife is pregnant with a broken foot?

I didn't think I mentioned these things.

Here's what I've learned over the years: 

Relationships can have their mountaintop moments---their Niagara Falls, two-day, blissful, tourist-y moments.  They can also have their fourteen hour car rides. 

But if we have the right foundation to our relationships then we learn to love it all. 

This is the first of a two-part sermon series on Marriage and Relationships.   Think of it as one sermon, in two parts.  

Here's why I wanted to preach this mini series...  

I really believe that one of the ways that we can strengthen our society and our communities is to help couples strengthen their relationships... to help those who are contemplating marriage learn the most important things about how to make their relationship last...  and to help those who have been wounded in broken marriages and relationships find healing and restoration...  

I see so many people who are in committed relationships, who are laying the wrong kind of foundation---one that will crumble and fall when the storms of life come.

So if we want to save the world, so to speak--one of the many ways we can do that is to start by working on saving relationships and marriages that are headed for destruction.  And the best way to begin working on saving those relationships is by learning together what it means to make promises that we keep. 

Over the next two Sundays we will be studying Ephesians 5:21-33 and learning what it means to make and keep the promises of priority and partnership when it comes to our marriages and relationships.  

Today we'll be learning from Ephesians 5:21-33 what it means to make a promise to make your partner a priority and keep it. 

More on that in a moment. 

I've heard it reported in a variety of ways that in our current culture 50% of marriages end poorly. 

And I think it all comes down to desire and expectation.  

Every relationship begins with desires.

We have desires about what kind of life we will lead with our beloved.  We have desires about the kind of house we will have, when we will have kids, how many kids we will have, what kind of career we will have, how our career will dovetail into our beloved's career with no complications, what sort of car we will drive, how our finances will be handled, which holidays we will spend with which set of in-laws, what sort of clothes we want our beloved to wear, and whose friends will be invited over and when...

But at some point in the relationship, all of those desires can quickly turn into expectations, especially if we continue to live in our "Youniverse" where "I" is at the center of everything.

And when expectations aren't met, then relationships and/or marriages can suffer.  People leave when their expectations aren't met.  Or one partner becomes more dominant than the other and forces their expectations to be met, like it or not.  Or one partner decides to conform to the other--out of desperation,  frustration or apathy.

When people don't make their partner their priority---things can fall apart quickly.  

It's a good thing that we are not alone in trying to figure this out--this kind of conversation was happening in the first century as well, and the Apostle Paul took the time to address it in one of his letters to the church at Ephesus.  

He writes, 
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,  
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

I remember when I was growing up in the fundamentalist Baptist churches of my youth that this passage of Scripture was lifted up and lorded over women in triumph.  There was no conversation about context.  There was very little discussion of the role of husbands in Paul's formula.  All that was highlighted was the idea that women were supposed to submit to men--which is not what Paul said at all.

One of the things that we have got to be honest about in the Christian community is the violence that has been done to Scripture by people who decide to twist it to fit and support their worldview.

But this passage provides us with some invaluable information on what it takes to have a happy and lasting marriage.  Christians need to be paying attention to what the Bible has to say, and to listen to it carefully---rather than imposing their will upon it and ignoring its truth.

Paul begins his whole discussion of Biblical marriage by saying to the entire group: "Submit to one another in reverence to Christ."  This is where the conversation begins.  With a call to mutual submission.  

In other words--make a promise to make your partner a priority and keep that promise. 

Then Paul goes about explaining what that mutual submission looks like.  

For wives, submission is a gift, freely given to honor Christ, not necessarily to honor their husband (some husbands are clearly not worthy of their wife's honor, nor the gift of her submission).  

It is also not obedience.  Submission is a free act, that is not coerced.  It simply means, placing the will, desires, hopes, dreams, goals and needs of another above your own.  And this is done as a response to the grace of God through Jesus Christ.

For husbands, submission looks like loving their wives as Christ loved the church. 

Jesus loved the Church so much that he gave himself for it.  He humbled himself and became a servant.  He accepted shame and death so that Church could live.  But this is the call to husbands that they cannot shirk.  Paul uses 41 words to exhort wives and 116 to exhort husbands.  

Husbands are called to love their wives with the kind of selfless, sacrificial, agape kind of love that changes every aspect of her life as a result.  When a wife knows that her husband loves her beyond all love she is given space for grace, growth and freedom in Christ to be whatever she is called to be.

Both partners are called upon to make one another a priority.  

When Paul wrote this passage he was writing in a context that would have thought his words to be strange and outside the bounds of acceptable "family values" in Greco-Roman culture.  In almost every other contemporary mention of "proper" marriage relationships in Paul's day, the word "submission" would have been used in conjunction with "obedience."  Additionally, Paul's mention of "love" as a duty for husbands would have been strange to the ears of the ancients.

I read a story about a guy named Amelius, who lived in Rome.  He divorced his wife Papiria quite suddenly without any real reason as was his right.  She was known to be a beautiful woman, who was bright and capable.  She also had given birth to three children with Amelius, and was held in high esteem in their community.  When asked why he divorced such a good woman, Ameilius took off his shoe and said, "Is this not handsome?  Is this not new?  But not one of you can see where it pinches my foot."

So he discarded her like an old shoe.  Love was not a duty of a husband in the ancient world, but it was to Paul.

I found this quote some time ago, and it spoke to me then, and speaks to me still:  "Love takes on its noblest forms when it is spelled concretely in terms of self surrender, sacrifice and holy design."

So what does it look like when people are making one another a priority and are experiencing a happy relationship or marriage?  

I found the following list on what it takes to have a happy and lasting relationship from a resource site for social workers.  Apparently, it is important for social workers to be able to recognize the evidence of good relationships in their line of work.  Here's the list, edited a bit by me:

Both people are truly happy, optimistic, problem solvers
Financially more secure
Find ways to “renew” the spark
Healthy involvement with children/grandchildren
Don’t criticize and reject each other
Have more than “gotten through” problems, they triumphed

and the last thing...  

Wildcard - a highly personalized reason to be happy

Now this is a secular, very objective sort of assessment tool, but even in its objectivity there is a bit of mystery and the unknown to it.  

The idea of a Wildcard is one that is hard to qualify, but those who follow Jesus can put some legs on it.  For Christians, who are seeking to live by Biblical principles in marriage that last one is defined within the context of following Jesus, and seeking to be in a relationship that is grounded in His love and example.

My wife and I have been married for twenty-six years.  Last year we celebrated our 25th anniversary all year long.  Every time we went out to dinner we would tell them we were celebrating our 25th anniversary, because we were.  

We go on a honeymoon at least once a year.  We've done that for every year we have been married.  My wife and I read books on how to be a better spouse.  We attend conferences together and we do some pretty hard work when it comes to maintaining great communication.

But we still fight once in a while (she doesn't call them fights).  We still get mad at one another from time to time (I've found that no one can tick you off like the person you are madly in love with).  We don't always do what we should or say the things that we really need to say in order to convey respect, love, devotion and passion.

That's why in addition to all of that other stuff we also pray together.  We talk about the Bible together and we live our life of faith together.  God is at the center of our relationship, and even when one of us isn't feeling particularly godly (usually me), the other keeps the faith.  

When one of us is getting tired of the 14 and a half hour drive, the other keeps remarking on the beauty of the scenery and the fact that one day the boys will be grown and gone and we will long for the day we rode and fought and laughed and loved for 14 straight hours...just us.

So what can you do as you walk out of here today to make your a promise of priority and keep it?

You need to give your partner the priority of your time.  Be focused on them, carve out moments when it's just about the two of you.  Make the time to be close, to be intimate, to share and re-dedicate yourselves to one another. 

You need to give your partner the priority of your attention.  Get off your phone.  Be fully present with them.  I've seen so many couples who look like they've been married forever, who sit at restaurants on their phones, reading the paper---the story of the restaurant in NY.  

You need to give your partner the priority of relationship--in other words, don't put anyone ahead of them except God.  Even your kids.  And especially not co-workers, friends, etc.  

Make a promise to you make your partner a priority and keep it.  


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