Currently 17 to 20 million unmarried women and several million fewer unmarried men live in the United States. It's estimated that, at any one time, between 10 and 20 percent of the population of the United States is single. We are told that the number of single individuals is increasing at a rate of approximately two million per year.
Here in our church there are 120 high school graduates who have never been married. Forty-three others are single, though they were formerly married. Together these two groups make up approximately 25 percent of our total adult membership.
Yet singleness is a subject we have not addressed sufficiently. The church simply doesn't know how to address the issue. As a result, we have unintentionally been insensitive to existing needs.
Let me say at the outset, I'm giving this message on singleness as someone who is happily married and thankful that Protestant clergy are not required to be celibate. You'll have to accept that while I speak.
The most commonly held view of relationships within the church community is that marriage is the highest form of relationship. To be married is to be normal. What's implied in that assumption, of course, is that singles are incomplete or unfinished. Maybe we haven't come right out and said that, but we have implied it.
For example, some churches expect a pastor to preach a series of sermons on marriage and the family approximately every other year. But I've never before preached a sermon on singleness. And nobody's missed it except the singles.
I understand where the popularly held assumption that marriage is best comes from: we've made Genesis 2:18 say something it was never intended to say. When we read in Genesis that it is not good for man to be alone, we say, "Oh, you know what that means? It means everybody ought to be married." Does it? If Adam were alone and never married, the world's population would never have grown. It was absolutely necessary for Adam to be married. Genesis 2:18 says that all human beings need deep, caring relationships and cannot live alone. But it does not teach that everybody has to be married. We've made the Bible say something it did not mean.
Our theology of the covenant also leads us to overplay the significance of marriage. Because we recognize the family as the particular locus of God's primary work, we don't really know what to do with singleness.
The Bible affirms singleness
Mark 3 presents a new view of relationships. I want you to look at it carefully, because it teaches us something radical. It teaches that blood ties and marital ties are not the deepest forms of relationship.
Verses 20 and 21 suggest there was some strain between Jesus and his family in this setting. Joseph is out of the picture by now; he's undoubtedly passed away. Jesus' mother is single again, and there are obviously brothers and sisters around. They don't understand what's going on in Jesus' life. He is giving himself for people unselfishly and unstintingly. The poor fellow doesn't have time to sit down at home and have a meal with his family. Finally, they draw the conclusion there's something wrong with Jesus. In verse 21 they determine, "He is out of his mind."
They go to look for Jesus and find him surrounded by a crowd, so they send a messenger in to say: Please, Jesus, pay a little attention to your family. Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.
Jesus responds with a question from which he will provide some instruction: "Who are my mother and my brothers?" The instruction he gives says there's something more important than marital and blood ties.
Picture him sitting in this house, and in the circle closest to him are the twelve disciples. He swings his arm around and says: Here are my mother and my brothers. Count them: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.
Then he swings it around again with the words, "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." He's saying there are blood families and there are faith families. Now if you have both a blood tie and a faith tie with someone, that's a special double tie. But if you've got to choose between the two, take the faith tie, not the blood tie. The faith family is more important than the blood family.
Solomon said, "There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother." That was his Old Testament way of saying your spiritual bond with someone can be deeper and more permanent than your blood bond. That's Jesus' new view of relationships. He says you may not elevate the relationship of marriage and the blood ties of a family above the spiritual relationships among brothers and sisters in the Lord. That seems a little radical to some of us. We haven't wanted to think about that. It leads us to the next step: talking about the legitimacy of singleness.
I believe most Christians fail to recognize the legitimacy of singleness. The result is a great deal of pain and hurt in the church about that issue. Directly or indirectly, we have ascribed to the conviction that singles are unfinished business. We say in groups and in private conversations, "Aren't you married yet?"
"What's a nice girl like you doing unmarried?"
"What you need is a good wife."
"Found anybody to date yet?"
"I'm praying the Lord will lead you to a good guy."
"It's too bad he's not married."
Parents say that; relatives say that. Family reunions are a notorious venue for those kinds of comments. Books and articles from a Christian viewpoint say, "If you will only commit your life to Christ, God will give you a marriage partner." Christ never said that. He said he will lead you to a life of meaning and purpose and fulfillment. He never said he would give you marriage. He's more concerned about other things.
The church needs to accept the legitimacy of singleness. We need to accept it because simple mathematics says there are more women than men in this world, and there always will be. We need to accept it because there are some whose circumstances involve singleness, and they have no opportunity to change; others prefer not to change. We need to accept the legitimacy of singleness primarily because the Bible does. We have not read the Bible as carefully as we should about that.
Jesus was received by Anna when he was presented in the temple. She was married for seven years and then was single until she was 84. John the Baptist, apparently, never felt a need to get married. Jesus, the most important person who ever walked the face of the earth, never married. Apparently, most of his disciples never married. His best friends were three singles: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Paul not only remained single, but he says in 1 Corinthians 7:7, "I wish that all men were as I am." The Bible is very comfortable with the legitimacy of singleness.
Let's look at the intimate relationship between Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Jesus by turning to John 11 and 12. There was a unique relationship among these people. Their home in Bethany—apparently Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived together—was a frequent and comfortable resting place where Jesus could kick off his sandals, put his feet up, and relax.
We usually look at the story of Lazarus from the stand point of Lazarus' sickness and Jesus' response to Lazarus' sickness. But there's another theme in these verses that takes us behind the scenes to get a feel for the relationship between four Christian singles. I told you this is the home in which Jesus was very comfortable. He was free to stop in there. It was his home away from home while on the road. When he learns that Lazarus is sick, he feels deeply, because verse 3 says they described Lazarus as "the one you love is sick."
Now there are three main words for love in the Greek language. One is phileo, and it means a deep, caring friendship. That word is used here: "Jesus, the friend for whom you care so deeply as a committed Christian is now sick."
When you get to verse 5, you discover a different element. It says Jesus not only loved Lazarus, Jesus loved Martha and Mary. Now it's a different word: agape. That's a stronger, deeper, more intimate word, a word that involves a commitment. Jesus was not only a caring friend of Lazarus, but he unselfishly devoted himself to the welfare of Martha and Mary and Lazarus. He had drawn these people into his heart.
The third word for love is eros, and it s a reference to physical, sexual, passionate relationships. That does not appear to describe the relationship among these four. It is significant that both phileo and agape do describe the relationship.
When you get to verse 35, you find three of these people who love each other with agape weeping together by the graveside of the fourth one, who is dead. It's a little verse, but it's a big one. You can't help seeing these people, arms around each other, praying together, weeping profusely, wiping each other's tears in the firm embrace that agape implies.
In chapter 12 we pick up a little more insight. Chapter twelve cross references itself to chapter eleven and says, "Now, a dinner of celebration took place." It was a little later. It's hard to know exactly how much later. It was apparently at the home of a man by the name of Simon, and it was apparently a celebration of Lazarus' resurrection. Here was the whole circle of friends getting together to celebrate the fact that they weren't weeping anymore at a graveside. Lazarus was right there. Now look what happens:
"Six days before Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived whom Jesus had raised from the dead." Apparently Lazarus had resumed normal activities again. (I'd love to have had lunch with him. Wouldn't you? I have a lot of questions for him.)
Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor, perhaps as the one who accomplished the resurrection of Lazarus. Martha served while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table, talking with Jesus about it all. Then, Mary took about a pint of pure nard (an expensive perfume), and poured it on Jesus' feet, and then wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Now, fasten on the relationship between Jesus and Mary, a relationship that is described by the word agape. This Mary, who loves Jesus with agape in an exemplary way, has taken the most expensive perfume she could find and in a show of exuberance just pours the whole pint of it over Jesus, so that the whole house smelled like it. And then she wiped his feet with her hair. To do that, her hair had to be hanging down. And in middle eastern culture, you always kept your hair bound up, unless you were in the presence of a friend, who was so close to you, you could be informal. Mary let her hair down with Jesus, literally. That's the kind of agape they had between them.
Here's the picture. I'm sure the disciples were there and many of them were single. These four Christian singles—Jesus, the Son of God, Lazarus, the resurrected person, Mary and Martha, the sisters—the four of them bound together in agape, and the Bible holds them before us as models of Christian behavior.
I am convinced we must believe that singleness is a legitimate option. If the mistake of the Roman Catholic church was to say that celibacy is a superior life style, perhaps the mistake of Protestants has been to say that singleness is an inferior life style.
The Bible gives guidelines regarding singleness
On that basis, let me give you some necessary guidelines for you as singles and for you as church community. First, five guidelines for singles:
1. Seek God's total plan for your life. If you are unhappy with singleness, frustrated with not being married, or if there are people around you exerting pressure on you, it's easy to get stuck on that dimension. You could be preoccupied, almost obsessed, with it. Then you lose sight of the big picture of God's plan for your life God's plan for our lives includes every part of it, and whether we marry or not is only one part.
Commit your life to him so that you are sure you know Jesus as your Savior. You have put your life in his hands as your Lord, and you are seeking daily to be the kind of person he wants you to be. Pursue that with an enthusiastic commitment, and leave it to God whether that involves marriage. Make sure the totality of your life is being walked in harmony with God.
2. Live with quality now. I think sometimes it's easy for singles to wait to really live: "Well let's not take on big growth opportunities. Let s not take on big challenges. Let's not move into big responsibilities until we see whether God has marriage in mind or not." Quite often I see singles who live in a kind of holding pattern.
I would exhort you to get out of neutral. Live with quality now. Put your heart into good high-quality, committed Christian living. You have time and energy that otherwise you would have to devote to marriage and to a family. Take that time and energy now and put it into positive, constructive, long-term ministry.
Make yours a quality life whether it involves marriage or not. You'll find it deeper and more satisfying. If you wrestle with unhappiness in your state, this may lift you above that.
3. Cultivate deep, caring relationships. Every healthy human being, whether married or not, needs them. It is not good for human beings to be alone; that's true. That's not to say we all have to be married, but everybody needs other people. I'm confident in the spirit of John 11 and 12 that Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were four devoted Christian friends who had the kind of deep sharing and caring in their relationship that matches—and maybe exceeds—what a lot of married people have.
If you're single, cultivate a relationship with someone who will pray for you, who will correct you when you go off in the wrong direction; who will become a buffer to you when the rough edges of life rub you raw; who will support you when you carry on large responsibilities; who will listen to your doubts, to your fears, to your questions, to your concerns; and who will celebrate with you when there is joy. It is not good for anyone to be alone. Open up to other caring relationships.
4. Be very cautious about marrying, particularly if you are disappointed, unhappy, and frustrated with your present state. You will be vulnerable to an unwise and unhappy marriage. Marriage was never intended to be a cure-all. No marriage is better than a bad marriage. Be cautious about marrying.
5. Stay morally and sexually pure. The relationship of Jesus to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus involved phileo and it involved agape. It did not involve eros. Don't put yourself into a situation where you will have to live with regret later on. Retain your moral and sexual purity.
For all of us, and I say "us" not just "you." I have four more points:
1. Value the single person. I suspect most of you were surprised tonight when I said that 25 percent of the adult membership of Hillcrest is single, and that has remained pretty steady. It is a legitimate life style for the Christian. We should learn not so much to think of the church as a federation of families. Rather, we should talk about the church family.
That's what Mark 3 is talking about: the church family where we are all brothers and sisters whether we're a spouse or a child or a widow or a widower or an unmarried person who never married or is divorced. In the church family, everyone is my brother and my sister.
2. Develop sensitivity toward the singles. I'd like us to examine some of the previous subconscious assumptions and stereotypes that lead us to make hurtful comments. Parents make them; relatives make them; fellow church members make them. Develop your sensitivity toward the existence of and the needs of singles, and check yourself in saying and doing things you might find offensive if you were in their shoes.
3. As a church we should integrate singles into the full fellowship of the church. Yes, there is a special ministry for young adults just as there is a special ministry for young married couples. Neither one of those have ever been intended as a substitute for integration into the full program of the church's fellowship. They are to be a supplement because of special needs in those special circumstances. If you are a single, get into other ministries. Pray with people. Serve with people. Study with people. Do not isolate yourself. For those of you who are not singles, do whatever you can to make sure that there is a very warm welcome in your group, and go out of your way to invite singles, so the message is sent out loud and clear that this group is for everyone
4. I ask families to include singles into your social circles. I wish I could count all of the times I have heard somebody say, "It's a couple's world." Maybe it is, but it shouldn't be if Mark 3 is true. Go out of your way to include in your social circle people who are singles. Go out with them as well as you go out with other couples, and learn to talk about something besides your marriage and your kids.
I said I would bring this message to you as a happily married man, grateful that Protestants don't require celibacy. But I've taken a new look at singleness, and I hope my thoughts will help to get you started in doing some new thinking. When we get to heaven, we're going to discover heaven's not a couples' world either. Jesus said when you get to heaven you'll find out they neither marry or are given in marriage, but they're like the angels. I don't know what all that involves, but what it does mean is that heaven is not a couples' world. If heaven is a practical expression of Mark 3, where all of the people who do God's will are brothers and sisters and mothers, then it seems to me the church ought to practice that pattern here and now more than it does.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?