Usually I try to rerecord my sermons and post them on Youtube. However, that is time consuming and I feel most people are adverse to hearing a sermon, preferring rather to skim manuscripts.
So, for the first time ever, I am posting the full manuscript of my sermon that I preached this morning. I apologize for its length while hoping you still take the time to peruse my thoughts on the Song of Songs as it relates to our relationship with the Almighty.
As Brennan Manning reminded us, “We are God’s beloved and he furiously longs for us!”
This past week I discovered a picture of my wife and I. It was taken 8 years ago, when we were in college. It got me reminiscing about college days. Nothing good comes from that. . .except good sermon intros.
One of the most fun things about college was that you often had a front seat to people falling in love. People fell into and out of love like you all change your shoes. It was quite the chore to keep up with who was dating whom and who was breaking up with whom and why. At times I daydreamed about creating a college newsletter dedicated only to chronicling the get-togethers and breakups. Then Facebook was invented which negated the need for that.
Mostly what stuck out this week is a sentiment shared by our chaplain Gene Schandorff. Quite often Gene had a committee, usually of girls, come into his office. With tears in their eyes they sat down and explained to him that they were worried about another friend, we will call her Rebekah for coherency’s sake.
“Gene, we are so worried about Rebekah. She started dating Tim three months ago. They were really good friends and we loved both of them and thought they were good together. Now they are dating and they do everything together and Rebekah doesn’t want to hang out with us anymore and we don’t think she is doing her homework or even *gasp* calling her parents!”
Gene would ask, “how do you know her grades are failing and her parents are not in touch.” And they would not know how they knew. They just knew! Ultimately, they were frustrated because Rebekah (and probably Tim) had turned into a different person and the new Rebekah did not hang out with them as much as the old one did. So their thinking went, “We are delightful and we don’t know why she would not want to hang out with us so it must be a moral failure on her part.”
Their list of complaints went on, “They spend every waking moment together and we think they cuddle too much. You know what the Bible says about cuddling. It can lead to dancing and Nazarenes don’t dance. So we need you, Gene, to sit down and talk to Rebekah and Tim and tell them that they need to start doing their homework again and stop hanging out with each other and hang out with us and maybe call their parents. You need to do this for their own sake and for God’s sake.”
I love how Gene handled these situations. He explained to them what love is. When you love someone oftentimes everything else becomes secondary. When you love someone you want to be together with them at the expense of other areas. When you love someone you change. They change. That change is half for the better and half for the worse but it happens. When you love someone you search for them above all things. Love changes everything but it is not to be badmouthed. It is to be celebrated because Rebekah and Tim have found each other.
In Scripture we learn that the church is God’s bride. We are God’s beloved. We are the object of God’s affections. God is not so unlike Rebekah and Tim. To other religions and other people our God might seem crazy because God wants to spend all God’s time with us. God seeks us out with a desperate longing. God is willing to sacrifice God’s very self in order to be with us. God is desperate for us to love God back.
The prophet Hosea talks about this a little bit. The Apostle Paul talks about this in Ephesians and other places. Jesus talks about this in some of the parables and stories he tells. The Psalms bring it up quite a few times. The prophets do here and there.
However nowhere is this loving God more present than in the most awkward book of the Scriptures, the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon. I don’t know when the last time you read it was. The book does not come up in polite Christian conversation all that often. In fact quite a few theologians throughout history have dismissed it. They have said things like, “it is in the Holy Book and therefore it is God inspired but that doesn’t mean we have to read it” and they have encouraged others to avoid it.
The main reason for that is because it doesn’t mention God at all. More than that, it doesn’t refer to big theological words or concepts we come to expect from other parts of Scripture. It doesn’t talk about faithfulness, the law, sin, holiness, judgment, wrath. It doesn’t talk about good versus evil at all. It doesn’t even tell a fun story about God saving people and doing miracles and killing giants.
Instead it is 8 chapters of mushy lovey-dovey stuff. In fact the only high theology word that appears in the book is “love.” Before it teaches us about God and holiness and sin and judgment and grace it illustrates love to us.
For that reason several popular Christian thinkers have rediscovered this amazing poem over the last 50 or so years. Books have been written about it and sermons have been preached and Bible studies have tried to cover it. Perhaps the reason for this is because we are aware that we are desperately in need of love. At the same time we are a people who have profoundly misunderstood love. We have sought to boil love down to things like emotions and physical displays of affection and even rational understanding. But Song of Songs, in all its complexity, reveals to us a love that is so much greater than how you feel or act or think.
Summary of Song of Songs
The story itself is about two passionate teenagers who are in love with each other but for some reason they can’t find each other. The story begins with both lovers taking turns singing about how in love they are. The woman goes first and she begins by talking about how unworthy she is to be loved by the man. She is a member of the working class and her tanned skin shows it and this makes her unworthy. Yet she ends her first song by saying, “But tell me where you work and I will come work with and for you.”
The friends watch this whole romance from the sidelines and their first reply to her is, “Follow the path of his sheep.” That means, “Go find him.” If you desperately long for him, go seek him out.
Then, probably while she is looking for him, they sing out to each other and their words are ooey-gooey sound effect expressions.
In fact quite a few of the words in the poem are not really words that mean anything. They are onomatopoeia’s which are sound effect words. They sound like what they describe. However, these are not the fun 1960’s Batman sound effects, “Boom, bang, pow, bing.” They are more like the 1950s Cary Grant movie sound effects, “oooh, mwamwamwa, ohoh” and the like.
Finally, in chapter 2 verse 8 she says, “Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills! My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice. My lover spoke and said to me, arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land.”
They are together again and it is so wonderful, just like Spring!
If you grew up watching 1990s romantic comedies you would expect the story to end right there. They found each other. They are in love. It is happily ever after. Those movies never showed you a month later when they fight about how to fold towels and do dishes and what movie to watch! Instead the movie ends when they find each other.
Perhaps because we learned too much from those movies, in the Church of the Nazarene we have been guilty of trying to pause our relationship with God at the mountaintop. We take our teens up to summer camp and give them emotional high after emotional high and then lead them to believe that if they are ever not giddy for Jesus they are a letdown to the faith. If we ever stop singing, “Look Spring has come!” or if we dare to sing it with less emotion, than our faith is useless or so we have thought.
But Song of Songs does not end at chapter 2. Suddenly in chapter 3 verse 1 the woman says,
“All night long on my bed I looked for the one my heart loves; I looked for him but did not find him.”
We are not told why he left or where he went but sadness overtakes the story for a few verses as she goes looking for him. This time she finds him quite quickly and we have more ooey goey stuff as they both invite each other to “come into their gardens.” The friends are still on the sidelines saying “oh, how cute. They are in love. Eat and drink and have your fill.”
Then suddenly in chapter 5 they are apart again and this time it is not easy to find each other. In fact at one point the woman sings about the man showing up at her garden door. She sees him through the window and she hears the door handle rattle. Her heart goes all aflutter and she rushes to the door and throws it open to find he is not there.
She goes out looking for him but she does not find him. Instead she finds the night watchmen, or rather they find her. These watchmen are not nice men and in the absence of her beloved they take advantage of her. They beat and bruise and de-robe her.
At this point the friends who have been supportive so far, begin taunting her. In 5:8 she says to them, “If you find him tell him I am faint with love.”
They reply, “How is he better than others? What does he have that you would charge us so?”
She defends him, “My lover is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand. His head is purest gold; his hair is wavy and black as a raven.
She goes on for awhile and manages to recruit them to the search. It is not long until they find him. He is in his garden. She rushes into it and they are together again. Again the friends coo from the sidelines and song ends with the lover saying, “Come away.”
The Church’s Search for God
This poem about these two star crossed lovers who search for each other, find each other, lose each other, search again, find again, lose again, search again, find again is our love story with God.
The Jewish people sing this to each other on the last day of Passover. After a weeklong party, as they prepare to leave Jerusalem and go back to their regular lives, they sing this to remind themselves that God is always searching for them and to encourage each other to always search for God.
They know what we know. It is easy to love God on the mountaintop while we have our festival. But the mountaintop experiences of lovey dovey, eewy gooey sound effects are not the whole of our story.
There are also valleys. They are times when we wake up and don’t “feel” God. There are days we go through the humdrum of life without any spirituality or “God moments.”
There are also days when our love for God puts us in horrible danger. I think of the Christians who are executed for claiming Christ and who are driven out of their homes and rejected by their neighbors. Love is dangerous.
When Gene Shandorff sat down with the committee of friends who were worried about Tim and Rebekah, Gene knew what all married people know. If Tim and Rebekah made it and were married, there would come a time when their love got dark, much darker than a missed homework assignment. There would be a time when they would wake up next to each other and feel nothing. There were would be a time when the disagreements were fierce and bitter. They would storm out of the room thinking, “I don’t know why I married him” and “I don’t know how I will stay married to her.”
Of course there would also be times when they would be madly in love and other times when they would “need some space.”
So Gene’s opinion was let Tim and Rebekah have the eewy gooey, giddy time because, as everybody who is in love knows, the light of love requires the darkness of love.
Everybody who is married can say “amen.” The giddiness and the happiness and the lovey dovey comes and goes and you can’t always predict its comings and goings.
When Allie and I were in our Rebekah and Tim stage we were desperately in love. We went to register for wedding gifts at Macy’s. We stood before this giant and long wall of China plates, over 100 patterns. We both stared at it without saying anything. I saw one I liked and thought, “I like that one but we will see what she says.” Then she pointed to that exact pattern and said, “I like that one.” That was a sign. It meant our love was true. We were meant to be together. All heaven and earth and china plates had revolved into our love affair. Eeverything was so perfect and so wonderful. We just knew we were meant to be.
Well, we’ve been married 6 and a half years now and we have 2 kids so I guarantee you if we were looking at the same wall of China patterns we would pick the exact opposites just to spite each other. That does not mean that we are not in love any more. It just means that love consists of more than liking the same China pattern. In turn our love for God is way more than eewy gooey lovey dovey worship songs at mountain retreat centers.
There are moments of light and moments of Spring and moments of giddy love. There are mountaintops where we sing giddy praise songs and yell “amens” and cry at the altar of our joy. But there are also times of darkness and clouds and there is the every day journey with God that requires no emotion, just a consistent and faithful search for the presence of the one who loves us.
Gregory of Nyssa in reflecting in his own walk with God came across a story about Moses in Exodus. In the story the people have been saved from Egypt. They have crossed the Red sea and arrived at God’s mountain. Suddenly a pitch black cloud covers that mountain and Moses is called to climb up into it to meet with God. Gregory of Nyssa concluded that “those who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.”
It is when our story gets dark and our friends desert us and the watchmen on the walls find us and beat and bruise us, that God just might be right around the corner.
Our tradition has great problems with this type of thinking. We like our faith giddy. The more emotional you can be about Jesus, the more you love Jesus. By emotional we mean energetic and we have typically had a low tolerance for low energy faith. Actually we have really been mean to introverts, who express little energy.
Therefore pastor’s offices flood with people. They come in and say, “Pastor I just don’t feel like I love God any more. Is there any book I read, any song I can listen too, any prayer I can pray, bible study I can attend, Bible verse I can memorize that will bring the ooey-gooey spirituality back.
My answer to them is not a magical formula or verse or book to make them feel giddy. Instead I remind them of what Song of Songs shows us about love.
When we are in love with God sometimes it is like Spring. But sometimes love requires work. It requires us to get out of our bed, open the door and venture out to search for God.
There are also are times to hunker down in darkness and claim the logic of love, a logic that says, “I committed to this person, or to this God and though I don’t feel anything or though I feel angry and bitter, I will remain committed because that is what love does!”
There are also times when love is dangerous, when our search for the loved one costs us our health and safety.
We should not expect to constantly feel a high energy devotion to God. Instead we should remain committed to the search for God, knowing it might cost us dearly but also knowing that when we do come to that garden with God, the good giddy emotions will return and we will be able to do life again in the joy of our faith.
God’s Search for the Church
I should probably close now but it would be wrong because there is another way to read Song of Songs. The interpretation I just gave put us in the position of the woman and God in the position of the ruddy and handsome man. However, the song leaves it open and God could very well be the woman who is searching for us the man who can’t stay faithful or stay put.
In this reading, the friends would be the heavenly beings who would look at God and say, “Why are you still waiting for them? Why do you still love? They have slapped you in the face! They have abandoned you! They say they love you and then they pledge their allegiances to other nations and kings and TV shows and sports teams! How are those humans, your beloved, better than others? Why would you even search for those lousy sinners and horrible wanderers? How dare you ask us to join you!”
God’s answer to them is in the New Testament. It is the image we have of Jesus who is not unlike the woman in the song. Jesus takes on flesh and ventures to where we work. Jesus follows the tracks of our sheep and upon finding us, dwells with us.
However, this search made Jesus vulnerable. While Jesus is searching for us, the watchmen find him. They arrest him, beat him, insult him, bruise him and derobe him.
By taking up the cross Jesus reminds us, “My church is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand. Her head is purest gold, her hair is wavy and black as a raven. Her eyes are like doves by the water streams, washed in milk, mounted like jewels.”
God is looking for us, suffering for us and God longs for us with a desperate and dangerous longing. God is paying the price to win us back to the garden because as unfaithful and wandering though we are, God thinks the church is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand.
Will you also furiously long for God?