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First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage Launch: The “First Things First” Sermon Rewind

Yesterday’s message …

  • Was closely connected to the Leader Gathering talk I gave later on Sunday afternoon;
  • Used a principle from Jesus’ teaching about discipleship and applied it to marriage;
  • Got the most raised eyebrows when I declared that “people don’t have marriage problems …”
  • Landed at this bottom line: Prepare yourself before you promise yourself.

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Earlier this year, I presided at a wedding of a very nice young couple – the bride was Texan & I’d known the groom since he was six, so it was a win all around – and shortly thereafter the bride asked me a photo of the vows. She wanted to frame them & place them in a visible locale in their home. I thought that was a great idea, so I sent the photo as asked; here’s what it looked like (AV). During the premarital counseling, I had told the couple that they’d be declaring these vows alongside thousands if not millions of couples who had been reciting them for hundreds of years. A marvelous line of continuity (and, by the way, why I don’t have couples ‘write their own’ as if they’re the only ppl who’ve ever gotten married!).

But you heard me just now, didn’t you? Millions of couples over hundreds of years? All making those holy promises? And you yet know – some of you know better than I do – those promises don’t always get kept and the marriages don’t all stay together. Some of you know it because when you were a kid, you grew up in the middle of a marriage where that happened. Others, it’s because you lived through yourself as a married, and now formerly-married, person; and then others realize with not a little dread that you’re creeping towards it even as I speak. Yeah, in your mind, it’s first comes love, then comes marriage, and then comes all hell breaking loose.
I mean, just think of all the promises that get broken. Sometimes it’s a bit sudden. Like to have & to hold? Guy is at the cosmetic counter & pics up some perfume for his wife’s birthday. The sales clerk says, “Gonna surprise her, eh?” And the husband answers, “Yeah … she thinks she’s getting a cruise.” I guarantee no having or holding on THAT birthday night. Or sometimes it’s more gradual. Better/worse? Wonderful couple celebrating their 40th anniversary & they’re talking about the party to a friend. And the wife tells the friend, in the presence of the husband, that she’ll be wearing silver shoes as part of her party ensemble. The husband pipes up, “Oh, to match your hair?” And not a second passes before she answers back, “Yeah, which means you’re going barefoot.”
But you know as well as I do that there’s more and more serious. Some people here have been on both ends of breaking that promise of forsaking all others be faithful as long as you both shall live. Some have forsaken & others have been forsook. The results are never pretty. Others couldn’t hang with the for richer, for poorer because it was poorer and poorer just didn’t last. Really, what I’m saying is that I look at this enormous gap between what gets PROMISED and then what gets LIVED, between the VOWS and their breaking – a gap so many of you FEEL – and I have to wonder what explains it?
So in steps Jesus. In a setting where he is not talking specifically about marriage but which nonetheless has everything to do with it, he says this in Luke 14:28a: 28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower.

What’s the tower he is talking about? An ancient Burj Khalifa (AV)? Hardly. Most likely a watchtower, all along which farmers would plant their vineyards. The tower was to ensure that thieves didn’t come & steal hard earned crop. But Jesus goes on in 28b:

Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?

Now: in our credit based economy, we MIGHT spend some on a construction project, but we’d borrow the rest. But in ancient cultures & even many emerging economies, that’s not so much that case. That’s why all over Kenya & India, for example, you’ll see ½ built structures everywhere. They got to a place & run out of money. People then and now make promises, start construction & then because they’ve neither planned nor prepared well, abandon the project, leaving a landscape littered with half built structures. I suppose the closest we have is the Heritage Tower in FM, under whose shadow many of you live (AV).
I can’t help but think what a representation that is of so many marriages. Hollowed out, half-built entities that started well – sorta – but then didn’t have the stamina to endure. So, like buildings old and new, they got abandoned. The gap between the promise and the payoff proved insurmountable. Because think about it. I’ve done a lot of weddings, but I’ve never done one where it was “I’m gonna give you a great honeymoon but then you’re on your own.” Never “I’ve got three good years with you but when kids come, I’m out.” No “You can have me in my 20s but in my 30s I’m not forsaking others anymore, I’m charming them!” No one ever SAYS that; so many of them DO it.
So what do we draw from Jesus’ cautionary tale in 14:29-30:

29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

Ah, the promise has to be preceded by the preparation. The foundation can’t be set until the blueprint is drawn. You can’t finish a project when you’ve only planned to start it. Here’s what it is, these words originally spoken about the cost of following Jesus but oh so relevant for what’s involved in a marriage: Prepare yourself before you promise yourself.
And all of a sudden, so much of your life just snapped into focus. You WERE married, now you’re not, and you have an insight into why: I didn’t prepare ME! I prepared a lot for a pretty wedding, but not at all for a beautiful marriage! Others, you’re in the middle of a marriage now and it seems to be thriving now and it occurs to you: it’s because we’re both relatively healthy and we were so before we ever married. And then others of you who are single or single again and you’re looking ahead and you realize with a jolt: this tells me I need to stop LOOKING for the right person and start BECOMING the right person. Yep, it does. Prepare yourself before you promise yourself.
Because here’s what I know after observing and counseling marriages for over a quarter century: most people don’t have marriage problems. They don’t. They have personal problems that pre-date the marriage by many years. And then they don’t get those personal problems dealt with in a meaningful way, they fall in love WITH SOMEONE ELSE WHO HAS PROBLEMS and BAM! His problems meet her problems and BOOM! Major collision. Why? Because both of them had spent more time looking than becoming; more time PROMISING and less time asking PREPARING and then result was bedlam. Prepare yourself before you promise yourself.
You know what you should do if you’re not married? Go ahead and make a list of things you’d like in a mate. You’d probably include things like . . . financially stable. Physically fit. Patient. Unselfish. Loves Jesus. A healthy understanding of past wounds (we all have them!) and in process of healing them. Not a long talker. Not addicted to drugs, alcohol, porn, or gambling. Not easily offended. And then after you’ve made that list of what you’d like in someone you love – you can even make it pretty comprehensive! – then you start the process of becoming that. Of becoming what you are looking for. Because when I talk about PREPARING, it is NOT going through pre-marital counseling together. It is about preparing yourself emotionally, spiritiually, sexually, and financially for this most important promise you make in life.
It may take some steps like joining a gym or changing your diet. It may take therapy . . . OK, very likely it WILL take therapy because almost all of us have wounds from the past that we had better address before marriage than in the middle of marriage. It may take joining a recovery group. It will involve getting in a LifeGroup and on a ServeTeam. It will include building that pattern of getting away and alone with your Father every day. And then there’s the whole matter of discipline and purity. Because here’s what I know: NO ONE, in thinking to themselves about an ideal mate, no one making that list, ever says, “Whew! I want someone with a LONG sexual resume! A varied history with lots of experience and a whole lot of partners! That’s what I want walking down the aisle to me!” NO ONE. EVER. Hey – if that is not what you’re looking for, don’t be that. And that’s a decision you make now, not in the heat of whatever moment you got planned for next weekend. Prepare yourself before you promise yourself.
Because so many guys – probably not only guys but I suspect more guys than girls – think to themselves, “I’m gonna sow my oats, I’m gonna be a PLAYAH, and then when I find the right person I’m gonna settle down.” That’s a lie from the pits of hell. It never works. Marriage doesn’t fix bad habits; it magnifies them. That pre-marital experience hollows you out & diminishes your capacity for authentic, genuine, sexy intimacy in the one places where God ordains it: marriage. So make that list and become that list. Prepare yourself before you promise yourself.
Here’s what I hope. If you’re married now, I hope that you realize now – with the force of a frying pan to your head! – that you don’t have marriage problems. You have YOU problems that get inflicted on your marriage. And if that’s you, and you realize you didn’t prepare YOURSELF ahead of time, it’s time for some preparation in reverse! Re-paration. Starting your day in the word and not in the world, deriving satisfaction from your Savior and not putting that on your spouse, joining a LifeGroup and very likely entering into some kind of counseling and therapy. Believe me, if you have two people who both realize “Oh, I have a ME problem,” that’s a recipe for a healthy marriage. Prepare yourself before you promise yourself.
And I really, really long for you to have biblical preparation. Like guys … did you know Scripture really does have you as … gulp … head? Not as ruler, but as sacrificial leader? As the spiritual temperature setting of the whole enterprise? Who adores his wife? Man, a guy in my office who’d been married 20+ years don’t me with legit tears, “I haven’t treasured my wife. She’s a treasure and I haven’t treated her that way.” Man, not only did I feel for him but I knew I needed to be talking more about that. And ladies, did you know, biblically, you’re not subordinate but you are respecter? Every husband needs, longs for respect. Every husband craves a defender. You need this biblical awareness in advance. Some of you have some make up work to do. Wherever, it’s true. Prepare yourself before you promise yourself.
And wherever you are in the marriage continuum – it’s part of your past, your present, or your future – I want you to ask yourself three very pertinent questions. Write them down.

  1. Am I a conflict pursuer? Really: am I one of those people who is not really happy unless I am unhappy? If there is calm do I create chaos b/c I like it better?
  2. Do I derive my identity & purpose from my Spouse or my Savior? Are you longing for a human to fill that need that only the Lord can?
  3. Have I had any marriage role models? Listen: if you grew up in a toxic marriage, you need to know this: You WILL repeat what you WON’T explore. If your only marriage models are those of failure, you need to locate some healthy ones. It’s one reason we’re here as a church.
    Because like I said earlier, no one promises “I’ll give you a great honeymoon and that’s it.” “I’ll love you when you’re convenient.” “I’ll be faithful as long as you stay hot.” Nope. What’s that promise? Til death do us part.
    I suppose I saw that in action last November when my daughter got married in Nashville & at the reception my f-i-l and m-i-l were dancing. Now you need to know that my m-i-l has Alzheimer’s and has had it since 2011. As some of you know, it’s not easy. It’s aggravating. It’s tedious. You never know. And yet towards the end of the reception, there’s my f-i-l dancing with her, tenderly & carefully. And watching that, one of my sisters says, “Now that’s a real man right there.” And I’d say that’s a real marriage as well.
    Won’t it be great when that same thing gets said about you and you and you in your later years? Because your prepared yourself before you promised yourself.

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