Jan. 17, 2016 “Beautiful Gift” – Song of Songs 2

Song of Songs 2
“Beautiful Gift”
January 17, 2016 – Second Sunday after Epiphany

I browsed romance novels this week. Beth went with me to Fred Meyer. Here’s some titles we found: Tall Dark and Wicked, Losing Control, Sin and Swoon, Sweet as Sin, The Forbidden Billionaire, Seduction Game, and A Week to Be Wicked. Not all of them sounded like that. There was Carry Me Home and The Comfort of Favorite Things, implying a gentler, more licit sort of love story. But there was definitely a tendency for titles of such novels to reflect an understanding our culture has labored under a long time. Sex is bad.

We hear the same thing in popular music. I grew up hearing “Black Magic Woman” on the radio. When I came to like country western I heard plenty of lines like, “If loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right,” or “Heaven’s just a sin away.” I’m sure if you follow recent music you could pile up your own list of lines like Taylor Swift’s “He’s so bad but he does it so well.” Most of us have heard plenty like that.

We are saturated with the idea that, according to faith and morality, enjoying sex isn’t really right and the very best sex is going to be that which crosses moral boundaries. That’s why books and movies about affairs and kinky sexual activity sell, and why so many folks have affairs. It’s the notion I find even on tea bag labels, “Stolen kisses are always the sweetest.” The belief is that there something about it being wrong which inflames passion and makes it better. But Christians don’t believe that. It’s not what the Bible teaches.

Today we are reading a chapter from the Bible’s own romance story, the Song of Songs, the Song of Solomon, partly in order to help dispel from our minds that horribly misleading falsehood we absorb from the culture around us. Sex is not bad. It’s good. It is God’s creation. It is not only good but beautiful.

That crazy concept that sex is wrong did find it’s way into the Christian church. It makes it hard for us to even read the Song properly. It’s not just our time and culture. According to Matthew Henry, the church fathers Origen and Jerome claimed there was a Jewish tradition that no man should read this book of the Bible until he was at least thirty years old. It might get a young person too worked up.

Here is this erotic love poem in Scripture. Reluctance about it still affects us as Christians. The last time I preached on the Song of Solomon was 25 years ago. Marlon taught a Sunday School class on it last year, but he almost talked himself out of it before he began. Yet if we want to understand what the Bible has to say about our sexuality we need to read and even study this part of Scripture.

I chose to focus today on chapter 2 because it contains some beautiful lines that have found their way into praise songs, like verse 16 “My beloved is mine and I am his,” and verse 4 “His banner over me is love.” Verses 10 to 12 are often quoted, sometimes at weddings, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away…” And who in Oregon this time of year wouldn’t want to hear verse 11, “for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone?”

Maybe I was braver 25 years ago because my text then was chapter 7, which starts with one of those embarrassing-when-read-aloud-in-church catalogs of the beauties of the bride, starting at her feet and moving upward to the top of her head. You get that kind of list moving in the opposite direction at least twice in other chapters, along with the bride’s own head to toe admiration of the groom in chapter 5. Go ahead and read it for yourself, but don’t get too distracted right now.

What I’d like you to hear and see is that we cannot possibly read this book of the Bible and keep thinking what our culture thinks we think about sex. The Christian view is not that sex is unclean, dirty, a necessary evil, or a vulgar distraction from spiritual things. One of the first things I said in response to my atheist friend Mark a couple years ago was that he was absolutely incorrect to think the Bible says that bodies and sex are bad. I explained some passages in Paul’s letters to show him that. No, God made sex good and God made it beautiful.

In our Gospel lesson today from John 2, Jesus confirmed the goodness and beauty of human sexuality in marriage with His first miracle. If Jesus meant to teach that sex is bad, He would never been there at that wedding. He especially would never have blessed and aided that celebration with His divine power. Jesus demonstrated that He honored and appreciated what was happening at that wedding by giving the couple a miraculous wedding present of wine.

Both Christians and non-Christians keep thinking that sex has to be wrong or at least that Christians think it’s wrong. Both the Christian church and the culture around us have been infected with an ancient heresy that keeps creeping back into our minds. If you’ve been around us very long, you’ve probably heard Beth or I rant against that heresy. It’s called Gnosticism, and something like it shows up in the church as early as Paul’s letters to Corinth, where part of his message deals with this mistake in Christian thinking.

Gnosticism comes in various forms and consists of several ideas, but one basic falsehood it teaches is that the material world—physical creation including human bodies—is bad. Spiritual life is what is important. We are spiritual beings, trapped in physical bodies in a physical world. We are just trying to get free of all that and live as we were meant to live, not worrying about weak, sickly bodies that lead us into temptation.

Someone posted on Facebook a quote from C. S. Lewis. It was one of those countless phony quotations which used to circulate in sermons and books but now get more attention on-line. John Piper tweeted this fake Lewis quote five years ago, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body.” But not only did Lewis not say it, it’s absolutely wrong. It’s Gnosticism. It’s the false concept that souls are better than bodies, that we are made by God to be souls and that bodies are just something we ride in, like our cars.

One of the first things for we as Christians to realize when we ask what the Bible says about sex is that the Gnostic view is not true. Our bodies were made by God. They are good, even beautiful. The Song of Songs shows human bodies being celebrated in holy poetry. If that’s not enough, then go to the heart of Christian doctrine. We confess a faith centered around incarnation and resurrection. God Himself became a human being with a body and His body was raised from the dead. And we believe that all our bodies will be raised up again and last forever. It’s impossible to have a true and consistent Christian faith and think what the culture thinks we think, that bodies, including our sexuality, are bad.

Just listen to verse 3 as the bride compares her love to an apple tree to express her desire to be physically near him, to “sit in his shadow.” And then in verse 6 she literally wishes to be held by him, “O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!” Bodies are good. Touch and embrace and physical presence are part of human life and created by God to be enjoyed as beautiful gifts.

What’s the point of saying all this? The point is that getting it wrong, getting it the way the way our culture thinks we have it, leads us as Christians into all sorts of confusion, pain and even sin. The first problem goes back to where I began, with those romance novels. If we slide into thinking that our sexuality is somehow tainted or not really spiritual, then we’re going to start imagining that the only way to be sexually fulfilled or happy is to do something wrong, whether it’s an affair or looking at pornography or just sitting around spinning daydreams about someone who is not our spouse.

But if sexuality between husband and wife—as God created it like we heard last week—is good and beautiful, then we do not need to look elsewhere to satisfy our desires or be fulfilled. I am going to have much more to say on this in two weeks, but as I started saying last week, that includes single people. If the way God made you as male or female is something beautiful, but marriage has not or has not yet been part of your life, then you do not need to look outside of marriage for some way to satisfy sexual desire or be a whole person. God’s gift is beautiful and good in you too, as it is in everyone.

As Beth Felker Jones writes, “Sex is God’s good creation and one of God’s good gifts to us as his beloved children. It’s not nasty or dirty or a problem. Sex is something we can receive with delight, with gratitude to the One whose good creation it is.”[1]

The fact that sex is good and beautiful also allows us as Christians to receive another gift in and through our sexuality. As I said last week, sexuality as it was created and meant to be enjoyed in marriage between a man and a woman gives us a glimpse into God’s own being as more than one person existing forever in loving and peaceful harmony. And as we heard last week from Ephesians 5 and can read in the prophets, especially Hosea, our sexuality shows us an image of how passionately and wonderfully God loves us.

When that Christian praise song sings, “I am my beloved’s and he is mine, his banner over me is love,” it’s not talking about marriage or a man and woman. The “beloved” is Christ. That song taps into a long and rich Jewish and Christian tradition of seeing the Song of Solomon as a beautiful allegory for God’s love for His people, for Christ’s love for the Church. It’s an extension of the same allegory the prophets and Paul and John in the book of Revelation already make, that God’s love to us is as deep and strong as any love between a man and a woman, between a husband and wife.

That’s one of the greatest reasons to read the Song of Songs and get our thinking straight about sexuality. If sex is bad, then any analogy between it and divine love for us can only be sort of a dirty joke, something to snicker about. But if sex is beautiful and glorious, then to say that God loves us like that is only to say that His love is even more beautiful and glorious.

So the Song of Solomon is about two things. First, it’s a love poem. Jewish and Christian scholars have debated down through the ages just what the occasion was. Traditionally it’s about the love of King Solomon for a foreign woman, a Shulamite he took to be his wife. It’s certainly a kind of drama or dialogue about love being sought and found and celebrated. The man and the woman and their friends and family speak and have parts in the play. It’s about human love in a human community.

The second thing the Song of Solomon is about is God’s love for us and our love for God. Jews and Christians have said this from the beginning. In the middle ages Bernard of Clairvaux preached 86 sermons on the Song, all aimed at showing how it speaks to us of our relationship with God. Scripture says that the Church is the Bride of Christ, and so it only makes sense to read the Bible’s greatest celebration of married love as a celebration of that greatest Marriage.

But if all that is true, if we can read this love poem as a message to us about God’s love, then it is a terrible disaster when the beautiful gift of our sexuality is used wrongly. We sometimes say that sexual sins are not any worse than other sins. That may be a good correction for our tendency to make people think that all Christians care about is policing their sex lives. But in I Corinthians 6:18 Paul says that all other sins are done outside our bodies but fornication, sex outside marriage, is something to especially run from, because “the fornicator sins against one’s own body.”

We will talk lots more in three weeks about how we misuse and even break this good gift God has given us. But for now let’s say that sexual sin is particularly wrong because it sins against the beauty and goodness of the way God made us, against our own bodies. And it distorts the image those bodies were made to reflect. When sex is misused outside of marriage or in abusive ways, then that picture God wants us to see in sex cannot be seen. Human sexuality was designed to reflect the love of God. When that “mirror” gets shattered by sin, then we can’t see it there anymore.

Some interpreters think that sexual sin is what the little foxes represent there in verse 15, the sin which ruins our sexual lives like foxes overrun and ruin a vineyard just starting to bloom. So catching those creatures means rooting out and eliminating all those things in our lives which distort and ruin the gift God has given us.

So the first practical suggestion I would make to you today is to repair and polish that beautiful gift in your own life and home. Despite the suggestiveness and eroticism you can find in the Song of Solomon, it is pretty tame and restrained compared to almost any book or television portrayal of sex. And that can be a lesson for us. Instead of thinking of good sex in the graphic and pornographic images you find around you, think of it in this book’s romantic terms. The lovemaking here is gentle and restrained. It’s praise of the lover’s beauty. It’s loving gazes at each other. It’s flowers and doves and light touches. Think in those terms in relation to your spouse, rather than in the crass and even violent terms of sex as you find it portrayed in media.

The love story of the Song of Solomon is also a constant call to “come away,” as verse 13 says, to come away to be together. We can ruin the beautiful gift God gave us just by lack of attention, by neglect. So like the lovers in the Song, spouses need to offer each other the gift of moments of undivided attention. Get the housework and the business done. Close the laptop, turn off the phone, get a baby sitter. Come away not first to have sex, but to have love, to embrace and talk and be together.

The man who was president of Notre Dame while were there, Father Theodore Hesburgh, once said “The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” That’s right. Children are blessed when they see tangible and visible signs that their parents love each other.

I know it doesn’t always work that way. I never saw love between my parents. Over and over we break this beautiful gift we’ve received. But the Bible’s Song of love calls us to try, to pray for God’s help, and to seek with all our hearts to receive the gift the way it was meant to be received.

I also know what I just said does not apply to everyone here. You’ve never married or you’ve lost the spouse you loved, or your marriage is over for other reasons. So we want to read this Song, this invitation to come away to be together, also as God’s love for us. Our Lord calls us daily to come away and be with Him. That’s one of the reasons for this week of prayer we’ve just enjoyed. We wanted to learn how to spend time with God, to talk with Him, to listen to Him, to feel embraced by His care and grace.

So like at least one person among us learned this week, the focus on prayer and communion with the Lord didn’t end when our week of prayer ended. It’s meant to go on in a daily, regular meeting with Him, just like a daily and regular communion with members of one’s family. And that romance, that relationship, is one that anyone can have because. Our Lord is always there, calling to us and waiting for us to come away and be with Him.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Faithful: A Theology of Sex (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), p. 35.