Be faithful in marriage Exodus 20:14

Last Sunday saw the second televised debate between the two candidates to become the next President of the United States, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The debate, or as the BBC described it “mud-wrestling”, focussed on two issues: unsavoury remarks Donald Trump had made which treated women as sexual objects, and some alleged and some admitted acts of marital unfaithfulness by former President Bill Clinton. There was very little discussion of significant issues like foreign policy on Russia and Syria or plans for Healthcare within the country, either in the debate itself or in commentaries afterwards. The battle for the position of the most important political leader in the free world was fought by personal attacks around questions of sexual morality. Proof, if proof be needed, of the importance of the topic of this morning’s sermon on the Seventh Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”
In this same week a public letter was sent to the College of Bishops of the church of England urging them not to depart from the historical teaching of the church with regard to same sex marriage. Signed by almost a hundred clergy and theologians, including the Vicars of some of the largest evangelical Anglican churches, the letter warns the Bishops that a decision to allow churches to marry couples of the same sex would not only undermine the inherited teaching of the church, but by doing so inevitably lead to a split within the Anglican Communion. It is less than 50 years since homosexual activity between adult males in private ceased to be a criminal offence in England. Now there are many factions in the churches teaching that there is nothing wrong with homosexual practices and there never has been.
In our lifetimes we have all seen the world around us, and even corners of the church, changing beyond recognition in regard to sexual ethics. It is helpful to track the reasons for this, starting with the changes to society which the growth of anonymous cities and the disruption which two world wars brought to the whole world. Then the 1960s brought two things – the contraceptive pill and abortion on demand – which together removed possibly the greatest disincentive to immorality which was unwanted babies. Film and television and the liberal attitudes of the Hollywood media must also take a share of the blame. There is a slippery slope when something unusual which is designed to shock us is portrayed in a film or television drama or soap opera. That shocking thing rapidly becomes regarded as acceptable and then as normal. So then the writers move on to portray even more shocking events. Somebody has counted such things and come up with an estimate that when sex is portrayed or referred to on television, 90% of the time the couple are not married. Not just in programmes “after the 9 pm watershed” but in the programmes our children grow up watching. The lyrics of much of the popular music which many young people listen and dance to are sexually explicit. The internet not only spreads pornography but facilitates infidelity. One notorious dating website uses the slogan, “Life is short. Have an affair.”
An article in the Daily Mail on Tuesday (12/10/2016) suggested that if the country had taken in a tenth of what campaigner Mary Whitehouse and the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association warned us all about back in the 1980s the world might be a better place. Sarah Vine wrote, “Perhaps if we had listened a little more and sniggered a little less, we might have understood that the boundaries she fought so hard to protect were not repressive — they were precious.” “Today, when we look around and see a society so free of restraint that it barely merits to be called civil, it sometimes seems as though we are living in a post-moral age. An age from which there is, depressingly, no turning back.”
When we were talking about modern-day idols we thought about “the cult of celebrity”. And this is another major factor which shapes attitudes to sexual morality today. People have been shocked recently that one of the most well-known film-star celebrity couples are splitting up. Angelina Jolie is divorcing Brad Pitt after two years of marriage and 11 years and six children together. People forget that Pitt originally abandoned his Hollywood wife of 5 years Jennifer Aniston to be with Jolie who he said he “fell in love with” while they were starring in a film together. These are the role models our young people are growing up with. With all these hidden persuaders leading people astray it is no surprise that so many people feel that the church is out of touch when it comes to sexual ethics. Many people think that the Seventh Commandment is completely irrelevant to today’s world. “You shall not commit adultery.” But why not? Everybody else does!
Just to be clear, what does the Bible mean by adultery? What is forbidden by the Seventh Commandment? We need to begin by thinking about marriage. Marriage was instituted by God for the good of men and women and the whole of society.
Genesis 2 24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
We haven’t time today to spell out the Biblical truth that marriage is between one man and one woman. It has been understood that way since the beginning of history and the fact that the British Government has chosen to illegitimately extend the word marriage to same-sex couples as well does not change God’s definition of marriage. Marriage is between one man and one woman. The Church of England marriage service introduces marriage like this.
“Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust,
they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.”
“The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children are born and nurtured and in which each member of the family, in good times and in bad, may find strength, companionship and comfort, and grow to maturity in love. … Marriage is a sign of unity and loyalty which all should uphold and honour. It enriches society and strengthens community.”
An integral part of marriage is sex. Somebody has described sex as God’s wedding present. Sex is the ultimate way in which man and wife can express their love for one another. In that act they are united physically and spiritually and they become “one flesh.” That is God’s purpose for sex. Any sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage is included in what the Bible describes as adultery. Sex with somebody who is not your spouse. Sex before marriage. Homosexual practices. All these are included in the word “adultery” and are forbidden by the Seventh Commandment. Sex is wonderful and sex is precious. Richard Foster puts it this way. “Sex is like a great river that is rich and deep and good as long as it stays within its proper channel. The moment a river overflows its banks, it becomes destructive, and the moment sex overflows its God-given banks, it too becomes destructive”
But people might ask us, “Why is adultery wrong? As long as nobody hurts anybody, surely anything people do with their own bodies is OK, isn’t it?” So people say. So what is wrong with adultery?
For Christians, the obvious and sufficient answer is that God has forbidden adultery. Marriage is God’s visual aid for the love God has for each of us and of Christ’s love for the Church. Marriage embodies permanence, faithfulness and exclusivity. Adultery is a rejection and a denial of permanence. It is a rejection and a denial of faithfulness. It is a rejection and a denial of exclusivity. GOD knows what is good or bad for us and ignoring what our Creator tells us is immensely foolish. Committing adultery is disobeying God. And we should not disobey God. Case closed.
But our friends who are not Christians might look for a different kind of answer. So we might say some of the following things. The lie the world tells is that sex is only a physical act. The truth is that sex is also a mental and emotional and spiritual experience which creates the closest possible bond between two people, a spiritual union of the two becoming “one flesh.” As a result, any act of sex outside marriage is inevitably damaging, mentally and emotionally and physically and spiritually. More than that, marriage is all about giving, but adultery is all about taking. Adultery involves breaking other commandments too. Adultery is stealing and lying and coveting. Adultery is the supreme example of selfishness. Adultery breaks the promises which are at the heart of marriage. Adultery damages families. In particular, adultery which leads to divorce damages children. And anything which weakens family life damages society.
CS Lewis wrote this. “The Christian idea of marriage is based on Christ’s words that a man and wife are to be regarded as a single organism. The male and female were to be combined together in pairs not simply on a sexual basis, but totally combined. The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it and try to isolate one kind of union (sexual) from all the other kings of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union. The Christian attitude does not mean that there is anything wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the pleasure of eating. It means that you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself any more than you ought to try to get the pleasure of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out.” So wrote CS Lewis.
“You shall not commit adultery.” The Bible tells us that adultery is wrong. But very many people outside the church regard that view as outdated, puritanical and judgmental. Christians who apply the Seventh Commandment to same-sex marriage are accused of being homophobic. In the face of such widespread and powerful opposition, some churches and some Christians think the best way forward is simply to forget the commandments altogether. Some go as far as to say that acts which Christians and Jews have recognised for thousands of years as sinful are not wrong after all. I believe those ideas are incorrect. I don’t believe anybody has the right to say that God was mistaken about His ideas of right and wrong which He revealed particularly in the Ten Commandments. It is the duty of the church to be faithful to the Bible. We dare not compromise on God’s standards. Adultery is still wrong. I was going to use that phrase as the title for this sermon. But then I realised that there are other important things we also need to say about how Christians should respond to the spread of sexual immorality in today’s world.
Adultery in all its forms is still wrong. Sex before marriage. Having an affair. Homosexual practice. All these are still sins. But they are not the only sins. Nor are sexual sins the most serious sins. Christians have often missed that point. We have failed to read the Bible properly. For example, Colossians 3:5 says, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”
The problem is that too often Christians have kept the spotlight on sexual sins like immorality and impurity and lust and evil desires, yet we ignore other sins like greed. The likelihood is that actually more Christians give into sins of materialism and greed than fall into sexual sins. There are so many other temptations we can give in to, but Christians have historically obsessed over sexual sins. Churches might ask people questions and even judge them on the basis of their living and sleeping arrangements. But we turn a blind eye when people cheat on their income tax, or have problems with substance abuse or with gambling, or with jealousy, or with gossiping or with unresolved anger. And when Christians consider the sins of other people we have a way of conveniently forgetting the words of Jesus when He warns us in the Sermon on the Mount that lustful thoughts are just as sinful as physical acts of adultery. (Matthew 5:27-28)
The regrettable fact is that the church has a very bad reputation for the way it deals with sexual sin and in particular how it treats same sex couples. We need to learn not to be judgmental or prejudiced. We need to work out how we can welcome every kind of person in the way that Jesus welcomed every people. Jesus “did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32)
Sexual sins are not the only sins nor are they the most serious or destructive sins. And like every other sin, they can be forgiven. Murder is wrong, but as we saw last week, in the Bible God forgave murderers such as Moses, David and Paul. And God also forgave people who committed adultery, like King David again and Solomon and Samson, like the woman at the well in John 4 and the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 8 and even the prostitute Mary Magdalene, who was the first disciple to meet the Risen Jesus Christ.
Christians have a responsibility to guard the gospel. We must not compromise on the truth. Adultery is still wrong. Time and again the Bible commands us that in our own lives we must strive for purity and flee from sexual immorality. But we also have the greater responsibility to demonstrate God’s love in our words and in our actions and to proclaim the Good News that Jesus came into the world to save sinners. However far people fall short of God’s perfection, God can forgive them. Jesus has paid the penalty. Whatever kind of sins we have committed, God is the Loving Father watching and waiting for His prodigal sons and daughters to return. Adultery is no more serious than other sins. God can and will forgive those who have committed adultery and they can receive that forgiveness by acknowledging their sins and sincerely repenting of them. And if we have confessed our sins, whatever kinds of sins they are, we can be assured that God is faithful and just and he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9) And we too can hear the voice of Jesus in his words to the sinful woman in John 8 saying to us, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

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