Joel and Christine

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As we should all know, we are now, right his minute, in the middle of a ritual. In one sense, everyone here knows and understands what it all means, and that’s why we came, but in another important sense, no one here understands the full ramifications of this. Rituals are amazing in their depth, and not even the wisest man can plumb their depths.

And unfortunately, when it comes to rituals, we live in a generation that is the opposite of wise. And when knowledge fades, men do not stop conducting rituals, but they do stop understanding them. When that happens, they either reject rituals altogether or they slavishly follow them with mindless honor. The end result of this latter course is ritualism, but the problem is in the last part of that word, not the first part. The problem is the ism, not the ritual.

Whenever we pursue an unlawful idol, or we pursue some lawful activity without scriptural wisdom (which means that we are trying to turn that thing into an idol), there are many ways to go wrong. But one of the most common is to corrupt it with an ism. What is more beautiful than the feminine? And what more distorted than feminism? Alcohol is a gift from God, wine was given in order to make the heart of man merry. Alcoholism is our name for drunkenness, a sin of surfeit, a sin of excess. As wisdom departs, excess enters in. As excess enters in, wisdom departs. We stumble with ritual in the same way.

Some see this problem and try to solve the problem by getting rid of “the thing” that tempts. This is the sin of the teetotaler. He thinks there is a problem resident in things, believing that evil is resident in stuff, rather than locating the problem where Scripture always locates it—in the heart of man.

What does this have to do with ritual, and particularly with wedding rituals? Among many conservative Christians, there is a deep suspicion of ritual, as though ritual necessarily drives out true religion and understanding. Ritual is disparaged in countless ways, and every attempt is made to minimize it. This is only a ritual, we are told. We do this because we have seen many examples of ritualism—conducted by people who think they are pleasing God because they have what they should do next written down in a little book.

So many have reacted, and want to concentrate on the “real things,” instead of the little ceremonies and signs. And so they say, of an event like this, it is “just a ritual.” Now this is true in a very limited sense. This is “just a ritual,” if we forget the fact that rituals are one of the most powerful forces in the world. “There is nothing here but ritual” is true. But it does not follow from this that “ritual is nothing much.” How we phrase this matters greatly. If someone were to look at Hiroshima the day after the bomb was dropped, and say, “This was nothing but an atom bomb,” that would be simultaneously true, and entirely misleading.

This ceremony is entirely a ritual. But consider what this ritual has the authority to do. Consider what is accomplished here. Before this ceremony, your finances and property are entirely distinct, your family names are different, you do not have the privileges of sexual delight with one another, and your lines of authority and responsibility are completely different.

A moment ago, I said what this ritual has the authority to do. Notice that I did not say that this ritual has the power to do anything. You are not standing here as an individual man and an individual woman, waiting to have certain words of ministerial power zap your internal essence, changing you from “bachelor to husband” and “single woman to wife.” I am not a priest gearing up to perform any kind of miraculous transubstantiation. In that sense, you will be the same people leaving this ceremony as you were when you arrived. No essential transformation in your physical being has occurred. And yet . . . everything is still different. And that is accomplished by the authority of ritual.

We see this everywhere. When a president is sworn in, his status changes completely. When someone is baptized, that alters his history forever—the water of baptism never dries. When someone takes an oath of ordination, this is a life transforming event. Exactly the same kind of thing is happening here, and it is being done by a ritual, and by nothing other than a ritual. Our conclusion therefore ought not to be to say that this is “just ritual.” Rather, we ought to reel and stagger in our minds and hearts as we see, yet again, ritual doing what only ritual can do.

This means that rituals are historically authoritative, and not experiments in the realm of alchemy. As the two of you—body, soul, and spirit—move through this ritual, your entire lives are affected. It is not true that you are becoming husband and wife externally, with the essential you remaining what it was inside. No, Joel, you are becoming a husband, inside and out. And you, Christine, are becoming a wife, head and heart, hands and feet. Not one part of either one of you is unaffected.

But if ritual is that authoritative, then why are the vows necessary? This is an important point. The reason many Christians have come to believe in a radical internal/external distinction, with ritual only affecting people from the skin out, is because in a sinful world it is possible to become a covenant breaker. And the sinful desire to fall away from responsibilities that were once assumed in a solemn ritual is a desire that is usually indulged in the heart, out of sight. And so some have concluded that this means that the ritual didn’t reach there, didn’t get down into those internal spaces. But this is a false conclusion. The reason for the vows is that we are calling upon you both to speak the binding word—the binding word that involves the whole person.

Joel, in just a few moments, you will be reciting your vows. As you speak those vows, you are crossing a threshold. This threshold is ritually marked, but the ritual is not the decoration of something else underneath it. This ritual is the threshold, and your transformation is now upon you. Scripture tells you to love Christine as Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself up for her. This love is not to be confused with mere sentiment, although emotion and sentiment will certainly be part of it. This love is bleeding sacrifice. You have desired to be, and are now becoming, Christine’s head and protector. You are to be her shield. This means that every blow that life directs at her should leave its dent in you. In any circumstance with any kind of danger—whether physical, spiritual, emotional, or other—there must always be something in between Christine and that danger. That something needs to be named Joel Cohen. This is how Jesus loved His bride, and in loving His Church this way, He established the pattern for every Christian husband who seeks to preach the gospel in how he loves and sacrifices for his bride. In your own strength, you cannot do it, but through and by the grace of God, the fulfillment of these vows will be wisdom around your neck.

Christine, you will be answering Joel as you speak your vows to him. Scripture tells us that we in the Church learned how to love Christ because He loved us first. Feminine grace is responsive, but responsiveness is not the same thing as being passive or inert. A godly wife is a crown and glory for her husband. I just told Joel that he must be your defender. You are called to be something worth defending. Men can defend all sorts of things, some of them indefensible. He is not to defend you as though he were defending a guilty secret, or some fragile thing hidden away in a velvet-lined case, but rather the way a lawful king defends a glorious crown. When he takes a hit for you, you should respond with gratitude, but not with anguish or sorrow. He was called to this, just as you were called to this. And what you need to understand is that this kind of feminine respect and responsiveness is a man’s glory and strength. The Bible says that the Church is the fullness of Christ, even though He is the one who fills all things. In the same way, you are the fullness of your husband—you complete him.

To the both of you—you are coming together in Christian wedlock. God has designed all of this business, and He has given us His Word so that we might learn His wisdom as we seek to live in accordance with it. So make the worship of God central in your lives, and the Word of God central in your home. Live out, for the rest of your lives together, the potency of this ritual.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.

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