Sunday, February 14, 2016

Better Than Wine: Sermon for Valentine's Day

The Song of Songs isn't really a common one to read in church, is it? You don't hear too many sermons on it. But today's Valentine's Day, after all. We can't ignore that. Now, we have to admit: Valentine's Day as a holiday doesn't go back very far. In the late 1300s, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem depicting the feast-day of St. Valentine of Genoa, May 2, as the day when the goddess Nature would summon birds to choose their mates. He probably did that because that day – May 2, 1381 – was the date when a treaty was signed, promising that the teenage Anne of Bohemia would one day marry Chaucer's royal patron, the teenage King Richard II. 

Most of Chaucer's readers didn't get the reference to a very obscure saint, and they confused the line about “Saint Valentine's Day” as meaning the more familiar St. Valentine of Rome, a third-century martyr who was honored every February 14 – and so this became the day to celebrate love, collecting plenty of traditional practices, legends, and folk customs along the way. 

But long before either the Roman or the Genoese saint ever walked the earth, God's people have always considered it important to honor romance, sexuality, marriage, love. The Song of Songs is proof enough of that! And if you'll stick with me this morning, I'd like to unpack, or at least mention, seven key lessons that the book can teach us about what real romance, healthy romance, looks like.

First, there's the obvious. The Song of Songs shows us that real romance enshrines a love that devotes one man and one woman toward life as one flesh. The images in Song of Songs look back to Eden for inspiration about what a romantic life is meant to look like. And in the beginning, God made one man, one woman, and joined them together as one flesh – the origin of marriage. 

Today, that's a counter-cultural statement. Honestly, it was pretty counter-cultural back then, too. Remember, the age of the old covenant was one in which the Law tolerated polygamy and divorce. In the dawning days of the new covenant, Jesus waded into the Jewish debates about marriage, and he took up the argument against polygamy that some Jews had started making: that God took two people and made them one flesh; it wasn't a combination of three, four, five people. That was pretty explosive in his day.

Jesus also argued with some more liberal Pharisees who offered no-fault divorce; Jesus' view of marriage held it as more sacred than everyday contracts, not less. Jesus, and later Paul, didn't deny that there were a few legal reasons for divorce – though they encouraged people to waive those rights and press for reconciliation whenever possible, like Hosea did with Gomer. 

The point is, the Song's view of romance is the same as Jesus' view of romance and marriage: one man, one woman, united in commitments of love and support with the intent of a lifelong covenant, being joined by God as one flesh. Anything else – polygamy, serial monogamy, homosexuality and the other sexual sins banned in Leviticus and elsewhere – it all falls short of what the Song holds out. Even if the man in the Song is King Solomon, which isn't totally clear, all the other women fade into the background so that Solomon's focus falls on just one woman – and hers falls on him and only him.

Second, the Song of Songs shows us that real romance doesn't “awaken” before its time. That's counter-cultural too. Three times, the woman in the Song advises the daughters of Jerusalem: “Do not stir up or awaken love until it's ready” (Song of Songs 2:7; 3:5; 8:4). But sadly, so many people, both in the church and especially outside of it, do exactly that – they stir up passion and intimacy beyond what's healthy for that level of commitment, beyond what the Bible tells us. They decline the biblical counsel to be patient. And that's on the rise. It's become the cultural norm for our day. I could soliloquize all morning, draw on plenty of articles and books that unveil just how dysfunctional the modern “hook-up culture” has become. Whatever our culture's professed experts tell us, whatever the media pipes into our homes, it isn't how we were meant to live.

We like to imagine it's new, but really it isn't. During the Founding Generation of our country, single women in New England were much more likely to have sexual relations outside of marriage than they were to belong to a church – over a third of all firstborns were born less than nine months after the wedding. “A garden locked is my sister, my bride; a garden locked, a fountain sealed” (Song of Songs 4:12) – that verse didn't apply to all that many then, either. 

That's sad, because it sets the stage for some of the most beautiful imagery in the song: “Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its choicest fruits” (Song of Songs 4:16), she says; “I come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk” (Song of Songs 5:1), he answers. 

And let's be honest: studies show that devoutly religious wives – especially conservative Protestant married women – are the most likely of any women in America to report extreme satisfaction, both emotional and physical, if you catch my drift. Sociological studies are unrelenting in bearing out the wisdom of the Bible: outside of marriage, it just doesn't measure up to what's in store through what the Bible offers.

Third, the Song of Songs shows us that real romance is, at its heart, a match of equals. That may surprise a lot of people. Throughout history, there have been a lot of times that well-meaning Christians – and some whose meanings it's a lot harder to give the benefit of the doubt – have misused the Bible to portray marriage as a more one-sided affair: the husband is the boss, the head, and the wife does what he says. The wife submits to him, the wife is limited, the wife is less important, and anything the wife needs to do or say to others, she can do or say through him, if she gets his say-so.

Even today, there are segments of American Christianity that veer in that direction. Here's an example. Earlier in the last century, there was a fundamentalist Baptist evangelist named John R. Rice. I'm sure he did plenty of good things in the Lord's cause. But he was a hardline fundamentalist – the sort, I mean, who broke off ties of friendship with Billy Graham because he thought Graham was compromised. In 1946, Rice wrote a book about a Christian view of life in the home, and in it, he announced that “there will never be a case where God will call upon a wife to disobey her husband.. He repeatedly compares a wife's subjection to her husband with a teenage child's subjection to his or her parents. It's a profoundly disturbing and dysfunctional line of thinking.

So it comes as no surprise that his daughter also wrote a book some decades later. My best friend found a copy in a church library while he was on a service trip once. It's called, Me? Obey Him? – and the answer to the title is meant to be a 'yes, always, no matter what.' In it, the daughter echoes her father's teachings, proclaiming that “the Scriptures say, without qualification, to the open-minded reader, that a woman ought to obey her husband” – even that “she is to obey her husband as if he were God himself,” and that her husband's every command is as good as God's will. She doesn't say it outright, but it's hard to see what distinguishes her view of marriage from the relationship between a slave and a master.

But that's not what Song of Songs shows us. Who's the first speaker in the Song? Her – the woman. Who's the last speaker in the Song? The woman! In fact, the majority of lines in this entire biblical book belong to the woman. If anyone has the dominant role in the Song's saga of romance, it's not him – it's her! She's the one running the show, if anybody is! Does he praise her beauty? Yes – and she praises his. Does he pursue her? Yes – and in just as many scenes, she pursues him. Does he express desire? So does she. Does she submit to him? Yes – and he submits to her. 

A lot of people quote what Paul says in Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” That verse has been so misused for centuries by tearing it away from the more universal statement that comes right before it, addressed to men and women: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). It's no surprise that John Rice began only with verse 22, selectively quoting scripture to suit his patriarchal ends.

But verse 21 is necessary if we're going to describe the sort of relationship we see in the Song of Songs. And it really is possible to work together as equals, without one always being the leader and the other always being the follower – without one being always active, the other always passive. In submitting to one another, in sharing freely and openly with each other, in finding a healthy and loving dynamic where both are active, both taking turns, the man and woman turn back the tides on the curse of hostility in Genesis 3. 

That's not to say they never argue, not to say they never bicker, not to say they don't get their feelings hurt or make mistakes. But both are equally committed to desiring one another, both devoted to resolving their issues, and in equally coming to share all of themselves with each other, they find freedom from fear and from shame.

Fourth, the Song of Songs portrays a real romance that is inviting, not demanding. Neither this man nor this woman are self-serving, self-seeking. They don't give each other orders. They give invitations. And every step of the way, each of them is thinking of how to best bring enjoyment and delight to the other one. What would it be like if you could say that of your marriage?

Fifth – and here's a big point – the Song of Songs portrays real romance as something to be savored! Can there be any doubt that both characters in the Song are enjoying themselves? Real romance isn't characterized by dry, dutiful distance, like we often imagine the Puritans must have done. (Actually, the Puritans were a lot more positive about it than we think.) In the Song, the man and the woman delight in each other, they enjoy each other, they savor each other. 

It's hard to think of a way to be more passionate than the Song portrays! The images are sensual and strong. There's no matter-of-factness about lines like, “You have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes,” or, “Your lips distill nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:9-11). When the Song wants to describe the enjoyments of love, it draws from the most luxurious and indulgent scenes available to an Israelite's senses. Experiencing the loved one is “better than wine” (Song of Songs 1:2). And it isn't for nothing that the Song says: “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love” (Song of Songs 5:1). Maybe our prelude was a bit shocking this morning, when Derek Webb sang the line, “Take a deep breath, 'cause I feel a little drunk,” but that's from the original Song. Love is intoxicating, love is inebriating – that's the way it's supposed to be! “I am faint with love” (Song of Songs 5:8), she says.

Sixth, in the Song of Songs, real romance requires effort. The man isn't perfect. Neither is the woman. Both of them, for all their earnest trying, are sinners beset by temptation. Neither of them is destined to coast along on an easy emotional high for the rest of their lives. Our brain chemistry changes over time. The Song knows that. It isn't presenting a Disney version of marriage as just a “happily ever after” – as if, with the closing credits and the fade to black, all the hard work is done and over, and the characters can just coast from there on. That just ain't so. Love is not just an emotional high. Love is a commitment to pressing through the emotional lows. Love plunges headfirst into the messiness and grittiness of real life – the hard times. It's not always for better; sometimes it's for worse. Not always richer; sometimes for poorer. Not just health, but even through sickness, love persists. 

And no marriage is without its arguments, its hard places, its rough patches. The Song admits that. It bids the trusted counselors to “catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom” (Song of Songs 2:15). No vineyard of love on earth can keep all the foxes out, keep all trouble at bay, keep harmony always – but those foxes can be caught, with work. And when the embers of passion are cooling, they can be stoked again. There's always room for “new as well as old” choice fruits (Song of Songs 7:13).

And seventh, most important of all, I think: The Song of Songs depicts romantic love, the kind of romance here, as being inspired by God. It isn't something we developed by chance or by necessity. It isn't something that we invented while his back was turned! Romance is a gift. Love – love in general – is a gift. It was given to reflect the eternal life of God, which is self-giving, other-centered love flowing between Father and Son and Holy Spirit from before the universe began and with no end ever. 

The phenomenal truth is that the Song of Songs points powerfully toward God. It may not seem like it. I mean, in the text of the Song, God really doesn't seem to be mentioned, right up until the end. But that's the point: the climactic chapter revolves around the nature of love. “Set me as a seal upon your arm” – love is personal, love is permanent. “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” – love persists despite the odds, in the face of opposition. “Love is stronger than death, fiercer than the grave” – love outlasts both (Song of Songs 8:6-7). 

And in fact, 'Death,' Mot, was a Canaanite god: Love wins in divine combat with the god of the underworld. Love is “the flame of Yah,” “the flame of the LORD” (Song of Songs 8:6). It burns so brightly because it burns with God's own fire! Whoever the poet is, he just name-dropped the God of Israel – not a generic god, but the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob and Rachel, of Moses and Zipporah, the God of the Exodus – in what would otherwise have been a sweet love poem like so many others. And this God, this all-consuming fire, is Love – and all human love, especially the love of a husband and wife, is his flame.

What's more, here's something interesting I learned recently. The Hebrew word for “my beloved,” dodi, the woman's favorite designation for her lover, shows up twenty-six times in the whole poem. The ancient Hebrews loved number games, and twenty-six happens to be the numerical equivalent of God's name, Yahweh, Jehovah. It isn't clear until the very end, but the presence of God is encoded into the whole story of romance! All the eager longings to spend time in the Beloved's house, the enthrallment with the Beloved's beauty, the desire to be taken into his House of Wine – the divine double meaning was there all along, hidden in secret until that clever twist is revealed. (Incidentally, the next book of the Bible, Isaiah, refers to God as “my Beloved” at the outset of chapter five.) That doesn't lessen the human meaning to the poem, a story of love, romance, intense physicality, marriage; but it means that there's something else there, too. We shouldn't neglect either.

And the rest of the Bible doesn't, when it looks back on the Song and its themes. The descriptions of the risen and glorified Jesus at the start of Revelation – those are inspired by the way the Song describes the Woman's Beloved. And all throughout the Bible, the story of redemption is portrayed as a divine love story – between God and his people Israel, or between Christ and his renewed, expanded Israel, the Church. Paul's pretty clear on that! It isn't an accident that the Bible ends with a wedding. 

And that, maybe, is why the Song of Songs ends in a way that no other ancient love poem does – not with a consummation but a cliffhanger! That last verse: “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices” (Song of Songs 8:14) – shows that the story of romance isn't done after these eight chapters. Whatever these ideal lovers have, there's something more, something that transcends it. Built into the song is an open-endedness, receptive and waiting for the consummation of a Cosmic Romance when our Beloved makes haste and alights upon the mountains, returning for us.

Maybe at the start of this service, you were wondering what the Song of Songs could possibly have for you, if you aren't in a married state of life right now. Maybe you're young and unwed yet. Maybe you're divorced. Maybe you're widowed with no plans of marrying – you wait to see your departed spouse again amidst heaven's beauty. 

But even if you aren't sure what to do now with the Song's human level, there's plenty of spiritual truth that's good for you as much as for anyone else. The Song shows exclusive commitment between the lovers – and that means that, just as Jesus only has eyes for the Church, our heart is all for him. Our devotion is to him and no rival – not to Mammon, not to Success, not to Comfort, not to a car or or a flag or a house or a political party or a football team or any other so-called god or idol out there. Our Beloved is ours; let us be his, and his alone. 

The Song shows that, to use the clich√©, “true love waits” – really, it does – even when most filled with desire. And just like that, Christ is eager but patient to woo us. If it takes all your life, he will woo you. If you turn away from him down some dark and desolate road to the wilderness, if you waste years in dissolute living or simply dropping out, still he's patient, still he won't give up! And just like the woman in the Song, who pined for her beloved when he was away, so we pine but pine patiently while our Beloved makes a place for us. We wait eagerly but patiently for his return, for the Second Coming, when he'll bring us at last to the wedding feast.

The Song shows its lovers as equals, both fully devoted to one another in mutual submission. And as we devote ourselves to Christ, as we pour out our love and service to him, he showers us with love and care too. Our ability isn't as strong; we aren't nearly as faithful; but he tenderly washes us, embraces us. And yes – the Bible portrays Christ, at the Last Supper but in many other ways and places, submitting to the Church. That's what “servant leadership” is all about. 

The Song shows the lovers inviting each other, pleading with each other. Just like that, Christ invites us to come to him for all we need – he'll warm us with his never-failing love; he'll rescue us from from the danger of our sins; he'll feed us with his word, his body, his blood; he'll clothe us in his own righteousness, in robes of white; he'll shelter us, he'll move us into his own house – he's off getting things ready even now, after all. And he'll never deprive us of divine intimacy. And we, in our turn, invite Christ to dwell in our hearts, to visit us with his Spirit, to be near to us as we draw near to him.

And finally, as the Song shows a romance that's meant to be enjoyed, we really delight in Christ – and he enjoys us! Isn't that a wonderful thought? Christ doesn't just tolerate us. He doesn't view saving us and providing for us as just one of his responsibilities. He actually cherishes us, actually loves us, actually desires us – even more than we desire him! Blessed assurance – Jesus is ours – O, what a foretaste of glory divine! We are the apple of his eye, the object of his passion. Our relationship with him is meant to be enjoyable. We are meant to find real delight in his presence. But since we couldn't bear his full passion, he holds back patiently, easing us into the fullness of his love. 

What we can say, even now, is this: that Jesus offers us a love that really is, in every conceivable (and inconceivable) way, “better than wine” – more joyful, more intoxicating, more fulfilling. Nothing can compare to his beauty, his grace, his love. If we're going to savor love today, and we should, let's not neglect the greatest love St. Valentine ever knew: the passionate, fiery love of Jesus Christ, our Beloved.

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