I want to begin with a story that I am sure will not happen at this wedding. It did, however, happen at a wedding that a friend of mine took.
The happy couple were posing for their photos outside the church after the service. They had all the usual groups in the pictures: bride and groom, bride and bridesmaids, groom and best man, happy couple with her family, happy couple with his family, bride and groom with his friends, bride and groom with her friends, happy couple with anyone else who didn’t fit any of the categories, and so on.
They went off to their wedding reception, and the photographer went away to work on what he had done. He then came to the evening reception, hoping to sell copies of his photos to the guests.
There was only one problem: behind the bride and groom in every photo was the church noticeboard. It prominently displayed a Bible verse: there, just for the happy couple, were the words of Jesus on the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.’
Now I suspect you do know what you are doing, or as much as any couple on their wedding day can know. No-one knows for sure, because the future is full of surprises, some of them delightful, others we’d really rather not know about. But you have taken time to test your love and commitment to each other before making your promises today. You have taken your relationship seriously. Debbie and I have noticed from a difference how you have matured as a couple, and today, as we celebrate love in the setting of Christian worship, I want us to pause for just a few minutes and think about love from a Christian perspective.
Here are three thoughts for you today:
Firstly, love is unconditional. Somebody once joked that the agenda of the bride on her wedding day is ‘aisle-altar-hymn’ (think about it!). ‘I’ll alter him’ may be necessary, but to go into love on the assumption that love is conditional upon someone changing is quite dangerous. Love becomes carrot and stick. Love becomes something that is policed by ‘good cop, bad cop’. Love eventually gives way to fear and distance.
But the love of God is not like that. There is a beautiful verse in the Bible which says, ‘We love, because he first loved us.’ God’s love for us is seen in him sending Jesus before we ever loved him. It’s unconditional love. He loved us before we responded to him.
And I suggest to you that this unconditional love is a healthy model for marriage. While it is right to long for your spouse to change, they are best loved into changing. If they know they are loved regardless, they will want to change. Make no mistake, it’s important to change over the years. If I still loved Debbie the way I loved her on our wedding day eleven years ago, I don’t believe we would still be together. My love for her will always have to grow. And what brings that out the best is that the knowledge that she loves me unconditionally.
Secondly, love is forgiving. When I was a child, a slogan in an advert for a wildly popular film was this: ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’ Do any of the older people here recognise it? It was Love Story.
And wouldn’t it be great if love really were like that? Never having to say you’re sorry.
But for us frail human beings, love is rarely like that. Rather than ‘Love is never having to say you’re sorry’, I suggest ‘Love is saying you are sorry and hearing you are forgiven.’
Much as today we celebrate the enjoyable side of love with its chemicals and hormones, the fact is those things won’t make a marriage last. What will make a marriage last is the willingness to seek forgiveness, and to forgive. That’s why in the Bible reading Paul says that love ‘keeps no record of wrongs’ (verse 5). It’s easy to keep a record of wrongs. If you’re not careful, you keep a chart, a list, a running tally of all the times you’ve been hurt or offended. I encourage you not to do that. Forgive, because that’s what Jesus does.
I don’t know what the father of the bride is going to say later today, but at my sister’s wedding, when my Dad gave his ‘father of the bride’ speech, he gave one piece of advice to her and my brother-in-law. He had another Bible verse as a motto, the one had he and my Mum have kept close to their hearts: ‘Do not let the sun go down on your anger.’ I commend that to you. Find your ways of resolving your conflicts, forgiving each other – and of then enjoying the making up!
This all means that thirdly and finally, love is sacrificial. What does it mean to forgive? It means to set the other person free by absorbing pain into yourself that should rightly be theirs.
And thus love isn’t quite what we sometimes think it is. How many of you guests today turned up, expecting the bride and groom to say ‘I do’ to each other? But did you notice they didn’t say that? Only one person said ‘I do’ in the service: the father of the bride. At least he didn’t say, ‘Take her, please!’
The bride and groom didn’t say ‘I do’, they said, ‘I will.’ And that’s important. Because ‘I do’ is just in the present tense and it might change in the future. ‘I will’ is a promise for now and for the future. It also recognises that sometimes love will be an act of will rather than a feeling. Sometimes love will be the actions we do in spite of how we feel. Somebody once said, ‘It isn’t true that love will keep your marriage alive. Rather, marriage will keep your love alive.’ It is your commitment of will to keep those promises that will see through the dark tunnels and out into the light at the other end.
But that’s hard to do. And in truth I’ve told you a half-truth in reminding you that the bride and groom said ‘I will.’ What they actually said was, ‘With God’s help I will.’ God is available to help us keep those promises, promises that on occasion will hurt, promises that will mean we make sacrifices.
But the God who promises to help us at these times is one who knows how to show sacrificial love. This the God who forgives – and who does so from the arms of Jesus stretched wide in love on the Cross. Jesus knows sacrificial, forgiving, unconditional love. He has modelled it in dying for us. He is ready to help all those who call on him.
Take the words we read from 1 Corinthians again. Instead of ‘love’, substitute your own name. This is how it would sound for me:
David is patient, David is kind. He does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud. He does not dishonour others, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered, he keeps no record of wrongs. David does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
I feel rather sheepish reading that, because I am so very far from that picture of love.
But now take out your name or the word ‘love’ and substitute instead ‘Jesus’:
Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind. He does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud. He does not dishonour others, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered, he keeps no record of wrongs. Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
That is the Jesus who is available to you this day and every day to make your love for one another and for others grow that will touch others with joy.
May God bless you both.