A wedding sermon, whenever it is included in a Christian marriage ceremony, provides a pastor with unique opportunities. To begin with, it enables him, through the Gospel that he speaks, to contribute to the marital welfare not only of the prospective couple before him but also of the married couples of his parish that are present.
What the bride and groom on this occasion hear, other husbands and wives in the audience “overhear”; they are allowed to “eavesdrop,” as it were, on a message ostensibly aimed at someone else, in this case the bride and the groom. And there is growing evidence that what is heard indirectly is often psychologically more effective than what is heard directly. It seems that if one is free to “take it or leave it,” the chances of his taking it improve.1
If this is true, many married couples attending someone else’s wedding merely as spectators ironically become more involved than they intended to. Husbands and wives who might resist marital help directly beamed at them in a Sunday sermon or in a counseling session are surprisingly receptive to that same help when supposedly it is addressed to another couple altogether!2
Further, the wedding sermon is a splendid mission opportunity. Normally some unchurched people attend a wedding. People who would otherwise feel uncomfortable in a church now feel that they have a legitimate reason to be present; after all, they’ve “been invited,” they’re “friends of the bride or the groom.” And while they have not particularly come here to hear the preacher but rather-more likely-to “endure” him among the other more interesting and colorful aspects of the ceremony, still it’s “nice” if they can be “tricked” into hearing him, especially into hearing the Good News of their salvation through Jesus Christ.
In view of these challenging opportunities, certain conclusions seem to follow: 1) the Gospel must be preached in a wedding sermon; 2) that Gospel must be skillfully connected to the sermon’s primary subject, marriage; 3) this unique combination must be presented attractively, winsomely.
The Pitfalls for a Wedding Ceremony
As every experienced peacher knows (alas, too well), these conclusions are “easier said than done.” There are many pitfalls for the pastor as he prepares the wedding sermon, not the least of which is the omission of the Gospel altogether (especially in an effort to conform to the legitimate social expectation of brevity in respect to the wedding sermon) or the inclusion of trite and/or token Gospel.
On the other hand, in an effort to give the Gospel its due, he dare not exceed audience expectation as regards sermon length. Communication ceases when such expectation is disappointed, and members of the wedding party are usually standing; the bride and the groom in particular are, traditionally at least, in no condition to sustain anything approximating an ordeal. Moreover, the temptation to turn a text into a mere pretext is probably stronger in a wedding sermon than in any other kind of sermon.
Should the pastor have had a wealth of experience or have acquired a reputation for giving sage counsel, he must resist the disposition to be protective and paternalistic in his wedding address; he must avoid the “watch out for the rocks and shoals ahead” syndrome.
One of the current pitfalls is that of saying nothing in particular in a particularly mellifluous voice, of delivering a message that is “full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.” The sermon may be soothing, but insubstantial: full of froth and schmaltz, “sweetness and light,” honey and pablum, “sugar and spice and everything nice.”
This type of wedding message has a jargon all its own, riddled with such words as “love,” “joy,” and “peace” (usually in one fell swoop), “togetherness,” “sharing and caring” (another bland team), and “coping.” Its theology approximates the vacuous “Smile, God loves you” breed of Forest Lawn origin.
If nothing else, the message drips with the first names of the bride and groom, the insertion of which, if done moderately, serves of course to personalize and informalize the sermon, but if done to excess comes off as patronizing and condescending.3
Needless to say, the wedding sermon, like any other type of Christian sermon, should have something to say, should contain something of substance-without, of course, degenerating into an academic treatise.
The wedding sermon should treat doctrine as well as dispense advice. It should be theological as well as “practical.” It should deal with the mystery of marriage, and not only with the stuff of everyday living. It should provide the help of Christ Jesus, and not merely that of the Ann Landers or Dear Abby variety. And when it speaks of God’s love (as indeed it should), it should not hesitate to connect His love with the specific saving acts of Jesus Christ with which God’s love is always inextricably tied.
Marriage As a Microcosm of the Trinity
If one may point it out without risking blasphemy, there is a curious and intriguing similarity in essence between the heavenly family (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and an earthly family (husband and wife). The three-in-oneness of the first is paralleled (to a degree) by the two-in-oneness of the second. The Trinity is epitomized by a sort of “dinity” (to coin a term).
How somebody can be more than one person and yet only one essence is not only a mystery in the heavens but also a mystery right here on earth: whenever a man and woman marry. For in marriage, according to a divine arithmetic beyond our comprehension, two people become one flesh (Cm. 2:24; Eph. 5:3 I). In marriage, contrary to human modes of reckoning, one and one are — one! God looks at two married people and sees only one flesh. Upon the completion of a wedding ceremony, two separate, distinct persons somehow constitute only one essence — even though they remain two separate, distinct persons.
The minute one realizes this profound biblical truth about marriage, he simultaneously sees the phenomenon of divorce from a different perspective. Divorce does not, as is so often thought today, resemble the breaking up of a partnership or the dissolution of a corporation. Such analogies do not do justice to the biblical mystery of marriage.
Divorce is, rather, more like an amputation, like cutting off an arm or severing a leg. It attempts to put asunder the one flesh that God has joined together. That the Bible is surprisingly “strict,” “non-permissive” about divorce is thoroughly consistent with the high status and the metaphysical profundity it attributes to the marriage estate.
The mysterious, invisible oneness of marriage is rendered somewhat visible by certain social arrangements: the man and wife assume the same last name; they usually merge their property rights; and although there may have been a difference before marriage, after marriage they often adopt the same political creed or religious affiliation (for better or for worse). And in an ideal marriage of long duration, the invisible oneness of marriage becomes increasingly visible.
The spouses complement each other’s personality; the one seems incomplete minus the presence of the other (not only in his or her own thinking but also in the thinking of others). The husband and wife get along with each other, think alike, even sometimes (to their own surprise) simultaneously make the same verbal response to the same stimulus.
And should the one precede the other in death, the survivor is often “lost,” so much so sometimes that the husband (if he is the survivor) can’t locate the simplest article of clothing in the dresser drawer and the wife (if she is the survivor) can’t complete the simplest of business transactions!
However that may be, God intends that the parallel in essence between the three-in-oneness of the Trinity and the two-in-oneness of a married couple should be matched by a parallel in conduct between the three Persons of the Godhead toward one another, on the one hand, and the husband and wife toward each other, on the other hand.
What is the conduct of the three Persons of God toward one another like? The Scriptures tell us that the Father is “well pleased” in His Son and repeatedly calls Him “beloved” (e.g. Matt. 17:5). The Son, in turn, eagerly says, “Lo, I come … to do thy will, O God” (Heb. 10:7), and claims that the doing of His Father’s will is His “meat,” His sustenance (John 4:34). The Holy Spirit “proceedeth from the Father and the Son” and “searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10); in fact, “the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11), so intimate is He with the other Persons of the God-head.
The three Persons of God are not only one, but they are also at one-in perfect harmony with one another. The assertion of the Bible that “God is love” (1 John 4:16) is not a mere abstraction; it has teeth in it.
As it is with the oneness of the heavenly family, so it should be with the oneness of every earthly family. God wants the mystery of the oneness of essence in a marriage clarified by the at-one-ness of husband and wife in their everyday conduct toward each other. God means the oneness of marriage to be oneness visibile.
While there is more to the oneness of marriage than meets the eye, still that oneness is indeed intended to meet the eye. Husband and wife are to live together in obvious unity and harmony. The words of St. Paul in Philippians 2:2 are applicable also to husbands and wives: “Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.”
The Means to Marital At-one-ness
How can sinful men and women ever hope to achieve such a unity within marriage? Oneness in everyday marital behavior can be caught only from that God who is One. A proper earthly family relationship can derive only from a proper relationship of that earthly family to the heavenly family. The horizontal dimension of harmony in marriage depends upon the vertical dimension of faith in Christ. Oneness of husband and wife with God through Christ is a prerequisite for oneness of husband and wife with each other.
There is a geometric axiom to the effect that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other. Applied to marriage, this means that if the husband is one with God through Jesus and the wife is one with God through Jesus, then husband and wife are also one with each other. Things equal to the same thing are equal to each other.
As suggested earlier, the oneness of marriage is not a mere theorem, but it is a theorem to be demonstrated. It is Christ — and Christ alone — who facilitates that demonstration.
Opportunities for Law and Gospel in Marriage
The other profound biblical truth about marriage to be explored is that marriage provides an arena for the effective application of the Gospel.
To begin with, marriage provides an effective arena for the function of the Law, a necessary preliminary to the application of the Gospel. No one (except God) knows the faults of a person better than one’s spouse. No one better understands the underlying causes of those faults.
What acquaintances of a person may attribute to a bad disposition or irresponsibility, that person’s spouse recognizes to be the result of a host of complex factors. Acquaintances, therefore, deal with that person’s faults somewhat superficially at best, whereas a spouse is in a position to get at the real root of the problem knowledgeably and sympathetically.
Best of all, the erring spouse can’t escape the application of the Law by his or her marriage partner. The marriage partner can’t be avoided, can’t be dismissed with a curt phone call or a nasty memo. One’s spouse is one “preacher” of the Law that cannot be put off, for one has to eat, sleep, play, work, in short, live with one’s spouse-unless, of course, one resorts to the drastic error (usually) of divorce. This is all to the good since it makes it difficult for a person to avoid both the diagnosis of his sinfulness and its subsequent cure.
What ultimately matters, of course, is that cure: through the application of the Gospel. Here again husband and wife are in a uniquely enviable position.
In the give and take of everyday life together, both soon discover, as indicated in the previous paragraph, that neither has married an angel. There are endless opportunities to assure each other of forgiveness through Jesus, assurances as often non-verbal as they are verbal. That is, a mere look or touch can sometimes communicate the tremendous gift of forgiveness, although it never hurts to say that forgiveness in so many words (unless the formula of forgiveness degenerates into artificiality, pietism, phoniness, or Pharisaism).
Normally, there is no one who can talk to one about Christ and His forgiveness more effectively than one’s spouse; he or she won’t seem to be preaching at one as might seem the case when other people discuss Christ with one. At any rate, in an ideal marriage the processes of confession and absolution (although not always recognized by their theological names) are going on continually.
What results, of course, is not only “justification” but also “sanctification.” That is, not only do husband and wife in their day by day confession and absolution activity assure each other that God through Jesus has forgiven their sins but they also remind each other that God is curing their sins as well. In the language of Ephesians 5:27, God is removing their “spots” and “wrinkles.”
In their mutual exchanges of forgiveness through Christ, husband and wife implement God’s goal for each of them of Christ-like living.
Inherent Gospel Aspects in Marriage
In addition to this rather obvious opportunity for frequent and intimate application of God’s Law and Gospel, marriage has a number of inherent, intrinsic Gospel aspects. Marriage has “built-in” object lessons in grace. For example, parenthood provides an opportunity for ideal love, love with no hope of return (at least of complete return).
Even when he has the disposition and the opportunity to do so, no child can ever adequately repay his parents for what they have done for him — and parents are aware of this as they go about the business of loving their offspring. Their love, therefore, for the child is without guile or design. It lacks the “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” quality that characterizes so many other human love relationships.
While such love of parent for child does not equal God’s love for sinful us, it does approximate it and it does remind us of it. Hence the love of parent for child can serve as an object lesson of God’s grace, as a reminder of Him who has showered us with a love that we can never, even in eternity, hope to repay.
Human birth itself is another such object lesson. Our physical life, come to think of it, is sheer gift. We weren’t consulted. We didn’t earn it or achieve it or deserve it. It is one hundred percent the gift of our parents — or of God through our parents. It is not “our doing,” but entirely “their doing.” Human birth is by grace — and by grace alone.
What a superb object lesson this is of how spiritual life is received. It too is “the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Here we see the marriage estate reminding us of the cardinal tenets of our Christian faith!
There are perhaps other intrinsic Gospel aspects in the marriage estate worthy, if not of lengthy consideration, at least of mention in passing. Think of the built-in models for growth in faith and good works that children are provided with in their parents.
In their early years at least, children naturally look up to their parents, admire them, regard them as heroes to be imitated. If these parents are indeed exemplary Christians, what a splendid opportunity the children have for their own Christian growth.
Think of the countless opportunities the members of a family have to bear one another’s burdens, take the blame for one another, suffer in another’s behalf — each of these the atonement in miniature, a microcosm of Christ’s vicarious life, death, and damnation in our behalf.
Marriage: A Symbol of Christ’s Love for the Church
As seen earlier, the relationship of love in the marriage estate is symbolic (in a limited and imperfect way, of course) of the relationship of love toward one another among the three Persons of the one God. Actually the symbolism is even more profound: marriage is symbolic also of the relationship of the three Persons of God toward people, toward us.
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” is the way Paul describes it in Ephesians 5:25. And in Ephesians 5:32 St. Paul admits that in discussing the mystery of marriage he is primarily speaking “concerning Christ and the church.”
Again and again in the Bible the bridegroom-bride analogy serves as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and His church. It is indeed an apt metaphor, suggesting with delightful economy a number of profound theological truths: the fact that Christ’s love for us is as intimate, as intense, and as far-reaching (only more so) as that of husband and wife for each other; the fact that Christ, the Bride-groom, takes the initiative in His love relationship with us, the bride, even as, traditionally at least, it is the male who is the aggressor in earthly courtship (“We love him, because he first loved us” — 1 John 4:7 9); the fact that in marrying Christ we marry His family also — including every gossip in our club, every show-off in our class, every prig in our congregation, every bum on Skid Row (“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” — Matt. 25:40); the fact of eternal life and happiness, that in marrying Christ we “live happily ever after.”
Marriage, therefore, dramatizes, concretizes the love of Christ for His church. It is the Gospel made visible. Hence the family is more than a biological unit; it is also a spiritual unit. It propagates Life as well as life. The command “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 7:28) suddenly acquires a spiritual dimension as well as a physical one. The breadwinner in the household becomes also a Breadwinner (with a capital “B”).
In a sense probably not intended by the apostle when he used the curious expression, there is a “church in the house” at that (Col. 4:15)1
The Means to Wedding Sermons with Substance
Familiar as the phenomenon of marriage is, we need to remind ourselves that it is indeed an institution of God, earmarked with the uniqueness and profundity of its Creator. What the Scriptures reveal of its uniqueness and profundity constitutes what may be appropriately called “a doctrine of marriage, a theology of weddings.”
Increasing familiarity with what the Bible says about marriage will enable us to surprise the prospective bride and groom when they casually request, “Pastor, will you say a few words at our wedding?” by indeed having something to say, to effect within the marriage ceremony not only the union of a man and a woman but also the union of the profound mystery of marriage and the many-splendored Gospel.
1. Two publications, Overhearing the Gospel by Fred Craddock (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978) and Telling the Story: Variety and Imagination in Preaching by Richard A. Jensen (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1980) explore the principle in considerable depth, although neither book applies the principle specifically to the wedding sermon. But both books do point to our Lord’s parables as prime examples of the effectiveness of the indirect method. We are attracted to the parables primarily because they appear to be stories about some other person in some other place at some other time — and suddenly we are “trapped,” the door slams shut behind us! We get the full
2. Surely, this is one of the reasons that adult listeners find children’s sermons so attractive. Parents feel “safe” in the vicinity of a sermonette designed for the youngsters. “This isn’t for us,” they conclude. “We’re not in danger of being preached at.” Their guard lowered, the adults get “trapped” into receiving God’s glorious help in Jesus Christ. The Gospel, aimed at the children, ricochets, as it were, and adults become its blessed target as well!
3. Such name-dropping in a wedding sermon may remind us of Claudius’ notorious remarks to Laertes in Hamlet:
And now, Laertes, what’s the news with you?
You told us of some suit. What is’t, Laertes:’
You cannot speak of reason to the Dane
And lose your voice. What wouldst thou beg, Laertes
That shall not be my offer, nor thy asking?
The head is not more native to the heart,
The hand more instrumental to the mouth,
Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father.
What wouldst thou have, Laertes:
(I, ii, 42-50, italics mine)
From Concordia journal (Volume 7, Number 1), January 1981, pp. 8-12. Reprinted with permission.

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