Song of Solomon 2:10-13, 8:6-7
August 30, 2015
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
It is the season for weddings. In the past two weeks, I have performed two weddings and met with another couple whose wedding will take place in just over a month. All of these couples are, of course, very much in love and looking forward to a lifetime of happiness together. And often, I begin my wedding ceremonies in the same way: I say, “Look closely at one another and gaze into each other’s eyes because years from now, you will look back on this moment and ask, ‘Who is this stranger I married?’”
When two people first fall in love, they are lost in the wonder of new worlds opening up before them. What an amazing thing it is to feel that out of all of the billions of people in the world, this person standing by your side loves you and has chosen you. Being with this person makes you feel newly born. It’s no wonder that the second chapter from Song of Solomon is read so often at weddings: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” What better metaphor can we find for young love than the spring bursting forth in blossom, gracing the eye with hope, and filling the heart with the great possibilities of the beauty of life?
The book that we English speakers call the Song of Solomon is actually titled something closer to “the Most Excellent of Songs” and it is an ode to young love. Most of its passages are rarely read from the pulpit because there doesn’t seem to be much religion in lines like, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” or “He brought me to the banqueting house and his intention toward me was love.” God is never mentioned in the Song of Solomon, and the only worship that occurs is the dewy-eyed worship of a young man and woman in the throes of their attraction to one another. As Bambi would say, these two are clearly “twitter-pated.” While the few lines that I read for our lesson make for very nice wedding readings, most of the book is too randy for devotional reading which makes us wonder why this book is even in our Bible. The only reason to include it seems to be to get Junior Highs interested in a little Bible study.
What’s even more bewildering is that Song of Solomon was not only considered to be sacred enough to include it in the canon but the ancient rabbis organizing their scripture classified it as part of the Wisdom tradition. For the past several weeks, I’ve been preaching on wisdom in the Bible, and as I’ve mentioned in previous sermons, the wisdom tradition includes those books of our Old Testament whose purpose is to teach us what it means to live a good and fulfilling life.
We heard then the readings from the book of Proverbs that told us that wisdom begins in the recognition that we are mortal and not God, but that with God’s help we can live lives of strength and meaning.
We were directed by another chapter in Proverbs to look to the lessons of nature where we learned that everything changes, and the wise person is the one who accepts change and sees it as an opportunity for growth.
Last week, we read the words of Ecclesiastes whose warning that everything is smoke turns out to be strangely comforting for the bleakest of our days. The wise person, Ecclesiastes says, accepts that sometimes life doesn’t make sense and isn’t fair but we can take rest in the continuing presence of God who remains with us even in our tears.
We have listened to the sometimes difficult but always sage advice of the biblical writers telling us what it means to live a life that is good and full and without reproach.
But now, like Peter Pan crashing a conference of Oxford dons, Song of Solomon leaps onto the stage, singing the ecstasy of romantic love, swirling in a dance of sexual promise and earthly delight. Vines scramble up the columns of the stark room and burst into leaf. Turtle doves fly overhead cooing their love song. The room is suddenly noisy with life and intimate desire. We can imagine those solemn dons bewildered and disturbed by the sudden intrusion of such an unseemly enthusiasm for things of the heart and flesh, and how much more startled they are when they discover that Song of Solomon has a seat at the table.
“I’m here for the Wisdom conference,” Song of Solomon says as it throws itself gaily into the chair next to Ecclesiastes who rolls his eyes with a deep sigh and pulls his seat a little farther away from this exuberant guest.
Most scholars today agree that Song of Solomon was originally written as a secular love poem — it was not intended to be a religious book — but it was put into our Bible because the ancient writers saw in its vivid account of romantic desire an analogy for the intensity of devotion that God feels toward us. They looked at the heavens and contemplated the vastness of the universe; they saw spread beneath their feet millions of acres of earth brimming with olive trees and mustard plants and grasshoppers, ants, gazelles, and lions; and they felt tiny and insignificant, and yet at the same time they knew that the God over all of this remarkable world had said, “I love you.” What an amazing thing it is to feel as you stand in the vastness of creation, that God loves you, that the God of the universe hears the whispers of your heart, cares about your sorrows, laughs with your joys, and delights in your presence. You mean a lot to God. Faith isn’t a business contract God has with you. God isn’t some doctrinal construct that you have to learn for your catechism. God is your beloved, gazing into your eyes and ready to commit to you for a lifetime.
It is, of course, harder today for many of us to see God in this way, not only because we inherited the Protestant reformers suspicion of emotional worship but also because we have lost a lot of the feminine imagery for God that suffused biblical portrayals of God. It probably feels a little uncomfortable if you are a straight guy to talk about God as your beloved but the biblical readers didn’t have such a male dominated portrait of God. God was not only the father who protected you but the mother whose breasts fed you, whose wings sheltered you. The biblical writers were less concerned about sexual orientation than they were about recognizing that our relationship with God is grounded in a deep and abiding and personal love.
The sages knew that wisdom may reside in our heads and guide our ways with understanding and acceptance, but to live the fullest and most meaningful life we can live, we have to believe that we are loved. We have to feel in our bones that we belong to someone. We have to know in our hearts, not just our heads, that this most insignificant tiny speck of being that is me — that is you — matters profoundly to the greatness of being that is God and God will embrace you in the tenderness of a devotion so caring and so intimate that you will know with absolute certainty that you are loved.
One of the most respected theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth, was once asked, “Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?”
Barth thought for a minute, and then he half smiled, and said, “The greatest theological insight that I have ever had is this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
The rapture of love expressed in the words of Song of Solomon captures the wonder that we feel when we realize that God loves us so profoundly that God even delights in our presence. No wonder these words are popular ones for weddings.
And yet, I said at the beginning of this sermon that I often warn newlyweds that years from now, they will look back on the moment of their vows and ask, ‘Who is this stranger I married?’”
The author Leonard Ravenhill once said, “Love [may be] blind; but marriage is an eye-opener.”
We know too well that the love that makes the world burst forth in blossom and fills our hearts with delight will be tested by the reality of our human frailties and foibles. The spontaneity that made your spouse seem so exciting when you married her will one day drive you crazy and you will say, “Can’t you ever stick with a plan?”
The quiet thoughtfulness of your husband that you once found so calming will eventually cause you to shout, “Will you please say something, anything, just so I can know what you are thinking?”
And it’s not just marriages that test our love. A father holds his little baby girl in his arms dazzled by her vulnerability, but 15 years later finds himself shouting at that beloved daughter, “I don’t care if you hate me! You are grounded!”
Or maybe you are on the other side, frustrated by an aging parent who stubbornly rejects your offers of help leaving you fearful for her safety and weary of the battles.
To live the fullest and most meaningful life we can live, we must believe that we are loved, but we also have to believe that the one who loves us will stay the course even when we are unloveable. We need a love that says, “Even when everything isn’t perfect, I will stand by you. Even when you make mistakes, I will forgive you. Even when you are distant and a stranger to me, I will remain with you.” We need a love that not only delights in our presence but remains present when we are far from being delightful.
And so the lovers of Song of Solomon move from the rapture of new love in chapter 2 to describe the promise of a greater lasting love — a “no matter what happens” love — in chapter 8.
“Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.”
“My love for you,” God says, “is a seal upon my heart. The flood cannot drown it, the sword cannot kill it, the wilderness cannot wither it, even death cannot break the seal of my love for you. My love is a no-matter-what-happens love because I am your beloved and you are mine.”
And it is the power of a no-matter-what-happens love that finally enables us to live the life we were meant to live and become the people we were meant to be.
Father Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest in California who founded Homeboy Industries, a program which assists former gang members and high-risk youth with free mental health counseling, legal services, education and work training. Boyles tells the story of a 15-year-old gang member named Rigo who came to one of the worship services Boyle was conducting for incarcerated youth. Parents were encouraged to come as well so Boyle asked Rigo if his father would be attending.
Rigo said, “No. He’s a heroin addict and never been much in my life. [When he was home, he] used to always beat me.” Rigo broke down in tears as he recalled a particularly bad day when his father beat him with a lead pipe.
After Rigo had composed himself, Boyle asked about his mother. “Will she be coming?”, he asked.
Rigo pointed to a small woman sitting with the other parents and said, “That’s her over there … . There’s no one like her.” He paused and added, “I’ve been locked up for a year and half. She comes to see me every Sunday. You know how many buses she takes every Sunday [to see me]?”
Rigo started sobbing with the same ferocity as before, and he gasped through the sobs, “Seven buses. She takes … seven … buses. Imagine.” (Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (Free Press, 2010), pp. 26-27)
This is a love that will traverse the floods, endure the wilderness, and take as many buses as are necessary to come to you. This is God’s love for you.
And when we realize the enduring nature of such a powerful love, it breaks open our hearts and remakes our lives. We can rest in the promise that we belong to the God of the universe no-matter-what, forever and always, and we will be able to say to our beloved, “Because of you I have lived the life I always wanted to live — because of you I have become the person I longed to be.” (A paraphrase of a wedding benediction by Robert Fulghum.)