Although many Christians believe that Paul is the only biblical writer to use the image of the wedding dress and the marriage feast to describe God’s plan for humanity, such an understanding could not be more incorrect. Isaiah is among those in the Old Testament who use this theme of a wedding dress to explain what God is going to do for His people. Why do I bring up this imagery? I know that when many of you head to work on Monday and you hear or read on the internet what was preached this Advent 3 weekend at other churches, there will be a common theme of deliverance and transformation. God will deliver us; God will transform us. Truthfully, I think that is what our lectionary editors wanted to be the subject of the week’s sermons. And from an Advent perspective, it makes total sense. We have been delivered from our sins (though we still sin and repent), and we will be transformed completely when He returns. The subject matter certainly seems to fit the season. But I want us to think of the wedding dress for just a moment. It is an imagery to which many of us can relate, and it, too, is an image which captures the essence of what it means to live in the season of Advent, a season of expectant waiting.
Weddings in the ANE were an excuse for a community party. Depending on the size of the wedding, the economic and social importance of those being wed, the wedding could have been a cause for celebration not only in communities proper, but in the surrounding countryside as well. Extended families would travel in for the wedding. Supplies for a lot of parties and feasts needed to be purchased. Heck, musicians needed to be found. Usually, the weddings would last a week or so, depending upon the resources of the family. The men would gather in the groom's home and celebrate while the women would gather in another place and celebrate. No doubt the men’s party included copious amounts of alcohol and advice (as if that were a bad thing). I am (sarcastically, of course) equally certain that the women’s party included tea, chocolate, and more advice. The eating and storytelling would continue until the time of the wedding proper.
At that time, the bride would adorn herself in a dress given to her by her prospective husband and process with all the women to the main feast. Think of that for just a second. The groom selected the wedding dress for his bride. Can you imagine the possibilities for mistakes, for errors? I know. Men here are now thanking God that they only had to buy a ring and plan a honeymoon. Can you imagine, gentlemen, the pressure of picking out the right dress? What if you got the style wrong? What if she thought it made her backside look too fat? What if you bought a color that clashed with her skin or eyes? You think making the proposal story memorable was tough! We can't select colors or songs, how would we have ever functioned in those days?
And ladies, can you imagine the utter helpless feeling? What in the world is he going to select for me? Will it be my size? Will it cover what I want covered and show what I want to show? Will it make me look skinny? Will it be white? Will it be ivory? What if some slick salesgirl convinces him that red or black is the new white? What if he buys a knockoff at WalMart or K-Mart? Does he even know what a designer is? What if he makes me a laughingstock in front of all my family and friends?
And can you imagine the marital fights later in life if the dress was not up to expectations? “My mother was right. I knew it when I opened that box. You never loved me. You never paid any attention to me. I should have processed the other way as quick as my feet would carry me!” I know some of you cringe when you hear an engagement story started by one of your wife's friends. You know what I am talking about, right, men? You are going to get to hear about it all over again.
All kidding aside, think of the seriousness with which wedding dresses would have been purchased. What the bride was given to wear told not just her, but all those in attendance, just what the groom thought of her. In those days, in all of Judea, men wanted their women to become Proverbs 31 women. She was to be esteemed more than anything in the world. Her value was incalculable. In New Testament terms, we might say that she was a woman for whom he was willing to die for, just as Christ died for His church. And her dress signified to those present that the groom recognized her worth. As she processed with the ladies to the groom’s house, there would be murmurs of approval. Tears of joy might well be shed. The wedding would take place, and then the real feast would begin, with everyone present.
You and I, brothers and sisters, are living in that kind of a celebratory week, a pre-honeymoon kind of time. Sorry gentlemen, but you and I and all the women here present are brides waiting on our Lord’s return. We live in that period of time where we are waiting on the wedding and the feast to begin. To be sure, He has already provided us with the garment of praise, the crown of beauty, and the oil of gladness that will mark us as His own forever. His death and resurrection have promised us an attire the likes of this world has never seen. All that sounds amazing! But here’s the part we often overlook: the intimacy that is offered.
It is hoped at every marriage that there will exist true intimacy. The freedom and ability to share everything, hurts, fears, joys, you name it. What is most amazing my friends is that our Lord calls us to that kind of intimacy with Him! Despite knowing our blemishes, despite knowing our faults, despite knowing our inner being and all those things about ourselves which we loathe, He chooses us to clothe us in His garment, a garment which ultimately cost Him His life. Better still, in that pledge of a garment is the offer to share in an eternal relationship of intimacy that we will never know on earth. The same Lord who fashioned ous, who created the world and all that is within it, who knows our inmost being, wants us to get to know Him intimately, in a way not too dissimilar from the way a bride and groom come to know each other over time. And just as individual brides and individual grooms are transformed into couples through their intimacy, you and I and everyone whom we meet are able to be transformed into sons and daughters of the Lord. Our minds, as we will pray in a few minutes this Healing Sunday, begin to think His thoughts. Our eyes begin to see what He sees. Our ears begin to hear what He hears. Better still, we become equipped to become His hands and His feet in the world, sharing the Good News of His offer, and showing off the wedding dress He has provided each one of us and offers to all who would look upon it. Why do we long so much for His return? Because we know the love that He brings for each us, a love that He demonstrated both by coming into the world for our sake and by walking that road to Calvary some 2000 years ago! And because we know that then, when He comes again to start the beginning of the feast, we can be rid of these tattered clothes that we each put on ourselves, and find ourselves clothed in attire that He, the Creator and Redeemer of the world, has selected for each of us, attire that makes us stand out in His eyes as pillars of righteousness.