Passionate Love

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The following is a sermon that I preached at Woodlake Lutheran Church this weekend. It was preached on the assigned reading from the Narrative Lectionary‘s summer series on “Old Testament Wisdom and Poetry,” Song of Solomon 2:10-13, 8:6-7

Over the past month, we have been reading and thinking about a couple of the less heard from books of the Old Testament. We have been reminded to choose life and live the good life. We have been reminded to enjoy life’s blessings- by eating, drinking and being merry; and thinking about how we live an abundant and full life which God has provided and been with us for. With this fourth and final reading, today from the Song of Solomon, we turn toward love.

The first verse of the Song illustrated (15th century)
The first verse of the Song illustrated (15th century)

As one of my seminary professors writes, “in the Song, we see what makes the good life… we see that the good life consists of right relationships- between each other, between humanity and the earth, and between humanity and God.” [1]

In the love described in this Song, we see a reflection of the love that first called the world into being in the form of Woman Wisdom that we heard about two weeks ago. We see a glimpse of what continues to sustain that love, season by season as we heard about last week, and we are reminded of what will bring it to new life beyond death itself today.[2]

This is a passionate love! We don’t often allow ourselves to express our feelings this way, except in private moments of intimacy, or perhaps in the occasional beauty of a love letter. How many of you still write love letters? Imagine that these poems are God’s love letter to and for us.

We hear lines like, “Arise, my love, my fair one… the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land… arise, my love, my fair one, and come away… Set me as a seal upon your heart… its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame…” I’m not sure this language would work so well in an email.

I know what some of you are probably thinking at this point. You’re wondering- what on earth I’m going to say about the “Song of Solomon?” What rating will this sermon have based on the poetry of this Song? How red will my cheeks turn? Some of you might even be wondering, why on earth is this book in the Bible?

The Song of Solomon, or as it is named in the Hebrew, “The Song of Songs,” is a collection of love poems.  The poems move back and forth between two lovers as a celebration of love and desire, like we read, “My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one and come way…’” [3] Which makes for good love letter material.

The book is unusual in the Old Testament for its content, but also especially because God is never mentioned anywhere directly in it.[4] Instead it offers a glimpse into the feelings and everyday lives of ordinary people. It’s a chance to see what life might have been like for us- if we were there when…

Despite its title, the book likely couldn’t have been written by King Solomon, because it came about 600 years after him. And interestingly, the strong female character and female voice in the book suggest the author may have been a woman, another very rare thing in the Bible.[5]

If you read the whole book, you will notice that the female character actually speaks more than the male one; and in a rarity for sacred literature, mothers are mentioned instead of fathers. Some theologians and biblical writers believe that this is an intentional move toward mutuality between men and women in the narrative.

This is important to consider for the life of the church, and our belief that we are all Children of God, with equality, permission to lead, and importance- no matter our gender identities. There’s a long history of women not having complete equality in the church, and in many ways, the church and society still have lots of work to do on this.

With the Song of Solomon, women in particular find a sense of permission within the Bible to not only love, but to initiate love, and to enjoy and long for it.[6]

At its best the Song of Solomon advocates for a balance between female and male relationships, urging mutuality, interdependence, sexual fulfillment, and for love without repressed emotions. In a sense then, perhaps this book is one of the few in the Bible which fully advocates for people- males and females- to be authentically themselves- fully and honestly who God created each and every one of us to be.[7]

At the heart of these love poems is a deeply mutual love and concern for right relationships. Within the text we hear honest and passionate human emotion, a poetic celebration of love and sexual love. How wonderful would it be if the church could be a place safe enough for conversations about love and sex?

If we really claim to be the Body of Christ, in and for the world, then there are some things we should be talking and especially doing something more about: money, love, sex, and many more. The numbers don’t lie. Do you know what the greatest reasons for marital strife are? Money is number one, but not far behind is sex, because there is such a stigma around both.[8] It’s like we are afraid to talk about it- it’s this human thing, but it seems really to not be something for “polite company.” Well, here in this passage included in this book, we are given the opportunity to do just that, and through talking about it, as awkward as it might be, we have the hope of not only helping improve relationships and making them right, we have the hope of strengthening them.

On another level in thinking about the Song, this text could be an allegory for the mutual love of God and Israel (God’s people), or Christ and the Church. When we think about love, the love that we advocate for as Christians, it really is all built on this love. [9]

Picture a wedding or marriage. When someone gets married, they are hoping to embody the depth and passionate love of the relationship of God and God’s people, in their own relationship. I’m reminded of the old hymn, “O Perfect Love,” a song usually reserved for weddings that was really written with that allegory in mind. Human love is not possibly perfect, because we’re human. We mess up, we make mistakes, we get impatient, we don’t always communicate well, and we sin. Our hope is that our love and relationships reflect the perfect love that is God- a love that is promised and fulfilled by God.

When we hear the one lover proclaim in these love poems, “Set me as a seal upon your heart,” we are reminded of promises. We are reminded of the promises that God makes to us, God’s beloved people. This kind of seal is something that shows or symbolizes a relationship to the whole world. Think of promises, vows or for some of you, even wedding rings as a good example- anything that is a reminder of some kind of relationship that you have or are in.

Relates
Exchanging vows and rings with Allison

Though this ring is a symbol for me, I’m more reminded of the promise I made to Allison in our wedding vows. In our best attempt at poetry as young lovers five years ago, I vowed,

“I give myself to you. Each and every morning I promise to wake you up gently, and always I promise to be faithful and honest with you. I promise to respect and trust you, to help and care for you, and to forgive and strengthen you. I promise to share my life with you, so that together we may serve God and others as long as we both shall live. These things I promise with all my heart.”

Perhaps you have made vows or promises in your own life?

Five years later, I’m still falling in love with Allison each day, even during the hard and challenging ones. I think that’s what the poet is getting at in the Song, and that’s what we have been building toward in worship during this journey through Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon.

The “Good Life” is really all about love. “Love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.” We know that in Christ, love isn’t just as strong as death, it’s stronger. Yes, death is a reality as we were reminded of last week, but it doesn’t have the final word. God’s love is so deep for us, that God calls us, not just daily to “Arise and come away,” but we believe and trust that same call will come one day, where we come away in that deep love with God to be with God in the new life beyond death.

For me, today’s reading and the whole Song is a reminder of how passionate a love God has for us, and how such passionate love is not something to hide.

I met a 75 year old man last fall at a coffee shop who is a retired magazine editor and pastor. You know what surprised me about this man? In our first conversation ever, he told me that he’s doing well and that he and his wife “make love several times a week.” I’ve never met someone quite so willing to share, let alone anyone so openly talking about their love life. I found it a bit surprising and kind of awkward. But in thinking about that today, maybe that man had a better sense of being authentically himself and was more comfortable and willing to share in the blessings and joys of life.

When we hear that, “love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame…” The phrase “a raging flame,” literally from the Hebrew can mean “a flame of the Lord.”[10] Even though God isn’t directly mentioned in these poems, God may well be linked with love at the high point of the Song. This is no surprise, given that such passionate, sensual, and beautiful love couldn’t be a gift of anyone, except for God.

Love- love that shows up through the kindness of a hug is a gift from God. Love that shows up when we get down on our knees to join a neighbor in need is a gift and calling from God. But so is the love that shows up in a deeply passionate kiss or embrace, where both partners are equals and on equal footing. That’s the kind of love that is being spoken about in the Song. It’s the kind of love we need more of in our own lives, and certainly in the life of the world which we are called to love, serve and be present in.

Don’t be afraid to share that love- the love of Christ. Don’t be afraid to talk about the different kinds of love in life. And, if for some reason, you are struggling with love and how to love, don’t be afraid to ask for help- that’s one of the things that pastors (as well as counselors) are especially here for. Reach out to them.

“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…” It’s time to arise and live abundantly and fully. It’s time to love and commit to the deep love that God has been committed to with you since before you were but a dream in your mother’s heart.

Love can even look like sharing a wonderful banana split with the one you love!
Love can even look like sharing a wonderful banana split with the one you love!

“Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” Human love is frail, it takes hard work and intentionality to grow and nurture. Commit yourself to it.

At the same time, know that there’s nothing you can do about God’s love. It can’t be taken away. It can’t be quenched or flooded. It’s a raging and indistinguishable fire. It’s a gift and a mystery that far exceeds our understanding and imagination.

You have seen glimpses of what God’s love looks like- in the moments of great passion between lovers, in the flowery words of a beautiful love letter, in the stories of a 75-year old man unafraid to share his love story; in the young love which leads to vows before God and loved ones in a wedding, in the meal at this table- a feast of the foretaste to come; in the life, death on a cross and resurrection which we profess about in the creeds… God’s love is all of that and so much more.

You are loved, and there’s nothing you can do about that. Now go and love as God deeply and passionately loves you. Amen.

———————————————————————————–

Notes and Sources:

[1] Kathryn Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Song of Solomon 2:10-13, 8:6-7.” < https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2511>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Based on “Commentary on Song of Solomon 2:8-13,” by Kathryn Schifferdecker. < https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=385>.

[4] Renita Weems, “Song of Songs,” in Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition with Apocrypha, Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, eds. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 164.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 164-168.

[8] This has been discussed in many places including here: < https://blackandmarriedwithkids.com/2013/07/how-to-address-the-top-3-major-marriage-problems/>.

[9] “Commentary on Song of Solomon 2:8-13,” by Kathryn Schifferdecker.

[10] Kathryn Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Song of Solomon 2:8-13.”

Image Credit: “Song of Songs.”

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