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The Gospel According to Myrtle

[NOTE: This post is different. It's longer for one thing. It's also a wedding sermon. The bride was my goddaughter, Annie Davies - now Chambers. It seeks to bring together two parts of the Bible that are significant for Annie - Isaiah's Redemption Song and the story of Hadassah (Esther). If the logic seems a bit hard to follow for some of my readers, I hope it made good sense for them.]

I first met Annie in Nottingham back in 2009 when she and her new friend, Tim Hogg, showed up at the Anglican Church that had just been crazy enough to hire me. The more I got to know her, the more I liked her. I was impressed by her warm spirit and her sharp mind. I started off as her mentor and spiritual father – and as such, I am very proud of her.

When she wanted to be baptised, she asked if I would be her godfather. But as she was over 18, the church rules didn't allow it. But the title stuck - even if it was an unofficial one. She said part of my role as godfather was to help her navigate the world of smelly boys and dangerous romances – though I’ not sure how much of my advice she ever followed in that regard! 

I will be speaking most of message to both Annie and Samuel directly – I’m sure they don’t mid you listening in.

Good Advice

Well, you've already exchanged vows. Can't talk you out of it now. I guess I should start by giving you a small bit of advice. You will face challenges. Perhaps the biggest challenge of marriage is that sooner or later, the masks will have to come off. But I trust you’ll work through that.

Sam washes Annie's feet
Also, this world hates what God has to say about sexuality and gender. Our generation in particular has swallowed its own special, multi-flavoured variety of insanity on this matter. Samuel, Christ calls you as the man to protect and provide for Annie. I have full confidence that you are man enough to do that. Annie, the Scriptures declare that “woman is the glory of man”. Part of your role is to take Samuel’s provision and make it glorious. You and I have shared a lot of poetry together and I know your artist’s heart. Glorifying Samuel’s provision will be no problem for you.

Good News

But I don’t want to use this time to give you good advice. It will be the gospel – the gospel according to Myrtle. I want to give you good news. I’ll start my good news by wishing you a great first marriage. Now… what does that NOT mean? It does not mean that I doubt in any way the long term success of this marriage.

So… what do I mean then? Perhaps I should start by pointing out that today is not just a special day, it's a special date. It's a three year Annie-versery of sorts. Most people here won’t know this, but three years ago Annie was asked an important question: ‘Annie May Davies, upon the profession of your faith in Jesus, will you now be baptised?’. Annie was baptised this very weekend at the Lowes’ apartment three years ago.

Do you remember the passage I preached form at your Baptism? Of course you do. It was the Redemption Song. No, not Bob Marley’s – Isaiah’s. Over 500 years before Jesus walked the earth, Isaiah wrote a song of redemption and its found right there in chapters 54 and 55.
As I am terribly unoriginal – and as a way to honour that date – I’m going to share with you now from that same passage. You may not be too surprised at that. You probably remember that Isaiah used a lot of wedding imagery as part of his redemption song.

For thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth
and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more.
 For thy Maker is thine husband
YHWH of hosts is his name
and thy Redeemer.

For those of you who have never experienced the joy of soaking up Isaiah’s song, let me share a bit of it with you. Why is this such a special passage? First, you need to know the context of the bible. The Bible starts with a wedding – but then sin makes it sad when people turn from God. Men and women feel guilt, shame, and the earth is smitten with briers. Briers and thorns are then a picture of what life on earth is now like as a planet separated from God – where existence can often be north of grotesque.

God then calls and establishes a people, Israel - who are sometimes faithful to him and sometimes not.

Myrtle Tree in Bloom
Isaiah sings to the nation of Israel after they have messed up. It’s a song of compassion, reconciliation, and great future promise. It ends with the last verse of chapter 55 promising that God will turn your 'instead of the brier shall come up myrtle’. We don't know much about myrtles up here in Northern Europe. It’s a Mediterranean tree -fragrant – with beautiful purple berries at the right season. In Crete they still use the myrtle berries to make a sweet digestive liquor, Mitro – like a southern J├Ągermeister.

Now in the final words of the redemption song we see this image of the myrtle. Why? Well, being a theology student yourself you may find the following information interesting - even if it bores everyone else here. The Hebrew word for myrtle is 'hadas' and it was a sign of male virility in the Ancient Near East and still is in certain Jewish mystic circles. At times the bridegroom would wear it on his wedding night. Can you imagine Samuel here wearing nothing but myrtle leaves? The image does nothing for me -  but perhaps it will for you.

However, in the centuries before Christ, the symbol of hadas (myrtle) became less masculine and increasingly feminised. Why? How did that symbolism get exchanged?

Hadassah (Esther)

The Bible may give us a hint. It may have happened because of an orphan girl. She had no parents and was adopted by her older cousin – a dude named Mordecai. She had the name ‘Hadassah’ – the feminised name of what was traditionally a masculine word. Why did she have that name? We don’t know. Perhaps her parents named her that for reasons we can’t know. Perhaps it was more of a nickname that people gave her when her thoroughly dude-ified cousin adopted her. People assumed if he was raising and mentoring her she was bound to become a tomboy with a tough masculine edge.

But of course, you know the story. Though she retained a fierce edge thanks to Mordecai’s encouragement, she became intensely feminine – uneclipsable even. She became the woman who captured the king’s heart, married and became the queen of Persia – and the saviour of the Jewish people.

Suddenly, in the centuries after Hadassah, myrtle starts to take on feminine connotations. Greek brides started wearing it on their wedding. It became the symbol of the love goddess, Aphrodite. Even here in the West ‘Myrtle’ is seen as a woman’s name, even if it’s a bit dated in our generation. Symbolically, there was an exchange – the myrtles went from the masculine to the feminine. And the best explanation is probably the redeemed orphan girl, Hadassah.

So why is this passage – and the story of Hadassah – good news? What is the Gospel according to Myrtle? It’s that we believe that is exactly what Jesus is doing. He’s turning briers into myrtles. In the gospels we seem him turning individual lives marked by sin and brokenness into something beautiful. We see it in the story of the condemned woman about to be stoned and the story of the lost son who is clothed by his father. The Bible not only begins with a wedding, it ends with a wedding too - as dear grandma Chambers just read. The earth will not forever be stricken with briers. It will one day be covered with a people dressed in myrtle – awaiting their bridegroom.

The Cross makes the Wedding possible
How is Jesus going to do this? We see it on that big cross in the reception hall. The bridegroom wore a crown of briers and thorns - so that humanity could wear a wedding wreath of myrtle. There was an exchange – the lovely myrtles went from the prince of heaven to his redeemed bride. He took nails and thorns so that humanity could have an eternal wedding dress.

That’s why this day is so important – because it points to that day. Yes we are happy for you two – but we’re happy for what your happiness points to. One day our great wedding will come and it’s the reason God created weddings in the first place. He didn’t just pick marriage and weddings as an illustration. He knew where he was going to take human history, and so he created man and woman and the relationship of marriage so that every wedding and every marriage could give all of us just a small finite taste of that day that is to come.

The Second Wedding

What will that day be like – when all the world’s briers become myrtles? One day the walls of this life will come crumbling down like stones from the hands of the condemned woman’s accusers. Then the new dawn will shot over the horizon like a bullet from a gun. A whole new reality will open before us – and we will finally wake up and realise that this whole life has just been a cramped shadow and a new land will lay open before us. We’ll breathe the air and feel - for the first time – that we really know what it means to be alive. It won’t be an airy fairy dreamy place. It’ll be more real than anything we’ve ever experienced. Loved ones will be there.

  • Imogen will be there with her knitting.
  • Tim will be there with his boat.
  • Samuel, you will be there – but you won’t have any of your doctor’s equipment because in that place there are no sick people.
  • I hope to be there, but I won’t have any of my sermon notes there because people don’t need theology – they have Him. (Samuel, you and I will both need job retraining.)
  • Irdi will be there with fresh loaves of sourdough bread.
  • Adam will be there with his light sabre.
  • Natalie will be there with passport stamps from all the countries she’s been to.
  • Marla will be there with her blue dress
  • James will be there with his pocket knife and
  • Sophie will there with… her enthusiasm.

Me, Sam, Annie and Irdi (my wife)
For the first time – we’ll know each other. Those of us that were closest and dearest to us through this life – it will be like we only see them for the first time. We will finally understood each other. That whole realm will be a sea of perfect love. There will be no insecurity there. No jealousy. No fear that it will one day end. We won’t ever hold back on an affectionate impulse because we feel it might be misunderstood or that it might be unrequited. No! Quite the opposite. Every act of love and affection will always be returned in equal and full measure.

And the coffee there... Annie, you remember that bourbon flat white you and I shared together at the London Coffee Festival? The coffee there will be even better.

In that place a table will be set. Far greater than any Thanksgiving Day feast. We will sit there in the cheer and charm of life’s summer prime – no longer to know the sourness of sin. You will be crowned in 50 shades of love and clothed in 50 shades of joy. We will arrive at history’s end – and that end will be a wedding. Your second wedding. A wedding of redeemed humanity – together. We will finally be home – in the place we were meant for.

And he will be there - the true bridegroom. The one whose love exceeds that of every mentor, spouse and friend like the ocean surpasses a mud puddle. And when we see his face we… well, human imagination and the languages of this present age are all together inadequate at describing what will happen.

The best thing about your marriage today, is that it points to a greater one. This first marriage you are entering into now is great and wonderful BECAUSE of the second marriage that you two – along with all of the King’s hallows who are here - will one day enter into. A marriage without tears – where every day together with Him will better than the day before.

Samuel, Annie – you will find greater strength to live out this marriage if you have a vision of the one that is to come.

May you leave celebrating this present and that future union. 
____________________
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bkAlso, for a look at what the Bible says about close friendship across the gender divide please check out Forbidden Friendships - available on Amazon in Paperback and Kindle in the USA and the UK.

Comments

  1. What truly wonderful sermon Joshua! No doubt there were lots of laughs and a few tears shed too at this wedding. Annie ceratinly made the right h=choice in asking you to be her Godfather. Esp loved these two lines 'crowned in 50 shades of love and clothed in 50 shades of joy' This kicks 50 shades of grey well well far away! And this one too ' like the ocean surpasses a mud puddle. Awesome preaching! :)

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