Did you hear about the preacher who took up sailing and after just two lessons, told his wife he was going to preach a sermon based on his new hobby. At the last minute he changed his mind and preached on sex. Unfortunately, his wife didn’t make it to worship that Sunday and did not realize he had made the change.
Monday she ran into a church member in the grocery store who commented on how much she appreciated the sermon. The unwitting preacher’s wife replied, “Well, I don’t know why he tried to preach on that. He’s only tried it twice. The first time he got seasick and the second time he lost his hat.”
I still remember the day in my first appointment when my senior minister preached on “The Mystery of Sex.” There was in that congregation a retired minister who never hesitated to express his opinion of the sermon. On the way out of church he said, “Bob, that sermon was so bad you should have called it ‘The Misery of Sex’.”
A few weeks later Bob announced that he was being appointed to a church made up largely of elderly persons. On the way out that day the retired brother said, “Bob, you remember that sermon on ‘The Misery of Sex’? Now, you are going to have to call it ‘The Memory of Sex’.”
Well, it can be difficult to preach about sex, but I know of no better place to begin than with this marvelous piece of Old Testament poetry often called “Song of Solomon 1,” though the Hebrew is clear that the title is “Song of Solomon 2.” The Good News Bible says, “Song of Solomon 3.” The Living Bible paraphrases it to read, “Song of Solomon 4, more wonderful than any other.” It is a lyrical, graphic, passionate, eloquent love song which celebrates our human sexuality as a marvelous, wonderful and beautiful gift of God.
Which brings me to the title of this sermon. I’m still debating about whether the adjective should be “sensual” or “sensuous.” Different dictionaries give very different flavors to each of those words, but both of them deal with that which delights the senses: touch, taste, smell, sound, sight. And that is certainly what we have here. With no hesitation, no fear, no embarrassment, the woman sings,
Your lips cover me with kisses;
your love is better than wine.
There is a fragrance about you;
the sound of your name recalls it …
My lover has the scent of myrrh …
(Or, “Obsession,” or “Brut,” or even “Old Spice,” whatever turns you on.)
My lover is like the wild flowers
that bloom in the vineyards …
His face is bronzed and smooth …
His body is like smooth ivory …
His thighs are columns of alabaster
set in sockets of gold.
His mouth is sweet to kiss;
everything about him enchants me.
Then man sings to the woman:
How beautiful you are, my love!
How your eyes shine with love behind your veil.
Your hair dances like a flock of goats …
Your teeth are as white as sheep that have just been
shorn and washed.
Not one of them is missing;
they are all perfectly matched.
(Which is the biblical basis for the ministry of my orthodontist!)
Your love delights me, my sweetheart and bride.
Your love is better than wine;
your perfume more fragrant than any spice.
The taste of honey is on your lips …
Your clothing has all the fragrance of Lebanon.
Now, that’s sensual! It delights the senses. And I would submit that the very presence of this love song in the canon of sacred Scripture puts to rest any suggestions that biblical faith is down on sex. The “Church Lady” of “Saturday Night Live” is a contradiction of biblical faith. The Bible celebrates our human sexuality as a marvelous gift of a creative God.
God protect us from those who act as if being a Christian means that we lose all appreciation for the joy of human, physical, sexual love. You know, the folks who try to convince you that while Christians may indulge in intercourse for the sake of procreation, they certainly wouldn’t enjoy it.
God protect us from the narrow religionists who try to convince us that baptism, whatever else it washes away, also washes away all of our physical passion and desire, making us some sort of bland, inert being which doesn’t enjoy the wonder and beauty of human sexuality.
And God help us remember that our Lord’s first miracle, the first evidence of what John called the “glory of God” in Jesus, was a very sensual miracle at a wedding feast. You remember it. The wine ran out. Their lips were parched; their throats were dry. There was water — bland, colorless, tasteless. Jesus turned it into wine and when the dinner host tested it, sniffed the cork, swirled the glass in his hand, let it run down over his lips, he said, “Ah! You have saved the best wine for the last!”
It is a miracle which delights the senses and is an expression of the sensual beauty of God’s love in human life. Biblical faith celebrates our human sexuality as a marvelous, sensual, beautiful gift of God.
The first thing we say about our sexuality is that it is a marvelous, beautiful, and wonder-filled gift of God. Yet that is not the only thing we have to say. Precisely because it is such a marvelous gift, precisely because it is such a profound reflection of the image of God in our being, biblical faith also calls us to handle our sexual relationships very carefully, with a sense of reverence, mystery and awe.
Marsha and I spent most of a week in Bermuda, celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. Like most tourists who visit the town of St. George’s, we climbed the stairs to St. Peter’s Church, the oldest site of continuous Anglican worship in the western hemisphere, dating back to the discovery of the islands in the early 1600’s. When you enter the building, the first thing you see is a stone-carved baptismal font which is over 500 years old. It was brought from England by the island’s first settlers. The wonderful thing about this font is that it is still being used for its intended purpose, still being used to celebrate the love of God for all of us.
But when it is not being used for baptism, on the weekdays when gawking tourists stumble off the tour buses or when weary husbands come in for a rest while their wives are visiting the gift shops, they have placed a velvet rope around that font. When it is not being used for its intended purpose, it is protected from abuse, from being touched or handled carelessly. You don’t use a baptismal font for a bird feeder. And biblically, you do not use your human sexuality as a party game, a means of manipulation, or to merchandise soap suds, tooth paste, or automobiles.
Biblical faith puts some velvet ropes, some moral fences around our sexual relationship, not because biblical people have ever thought that sex was dirty, vile or sinful, but solely because we believe it is such a marvelous gift of God.
When you read through the Song of Solomon, you will find that there is an element of privacy, a careful protection of this physical relationship between the man and woman. She sings:
Take me with you, and we will run away;
be my King and take me to your room.
The man sings:
Come then, my love;
my darling, come with me …
My sweetheart, my bride, is a secret garden,
a walled garden, a private spring …
A biblical understanding says that the full expression of our human sexuality is to be experienced in the intimacy, the privacy of a relationship of trust and love. Interestingly enough, that is official church policy, too. The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles read:
“Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are only dearly affirmed in the marriage bond.”
The passage says that we United Methodists “reject all sexual expressions which damage or destroy the humanity God has given us … we deplore all forms of the commercialization and exploitation of sex …” As a church we believe in “celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage.” You can’t make it much clearer than that.
And I’ll admit that this is the point at which I begin to sound hopelessly old fashioned. I still believe that the ideal, the divine model, the perfect pattern of what God intends for human relationships is one man and one woman bound together in a life-long commitment of love and trust, and that it is in that covenant that our human sexuality is to be fulfilled. In other words, I still believe in chastity before marriage.
I realize that that is hopelessly out of date. I realize that what the church says here is an absolute contradiction of all the underlying sexual presuppositions of our contemporary society. It is a contradiction of every movie, every TV show, every soap opera, and every pop song on the market today. I realize that many of our relationships do not live up to that perfect ideal, and I am sure that God’s grace meets us at the points at which we fall short of God’s primary intention for us.
Yet I will not give up on the ideal of biblical faith. I will not throw in the towel on what the Bible says is God’s perfect intention for the human family. I want it to be perfectly clear — particularly in the minds of the kids who grow up in this congregation — that this pastor and this church believe that it’s okay to be branded with the scarlet V; it’s alright to be a virgin. It’s okay to wait for sexual intercourse until marriage; folks are not crazy who do that. In fact, we think it’s just dandy for a man or a woman to live their whole life and only have sexual intercourse with one other person.
Have you heard of anything so out of touch with the world in which we live? The world around us would consider that to be absolutely boring if not perverse or sick and distorted. But we continue to believe that it is God’s ideal intention for the expression of our human sexuality.
There is one more thing which needs to be said out of the Song of Solomon 5. Not only does biblical faith invite us to celebrate our sexuality as a wonderful gift from God; not only does it call us to put some velvet ropes around that special gift because it is the expression of the divine creativity in our lives, but it also says one other thing. The Song of Solomon 6 has often been interpreted allegorically, as a picture or parable of the love of God for Israel and Christ for the Church. It’s been interpreted spiritually, as well as physically and romantically.
I have to confess that I think it is pushing the text. It’s obvious to me that the primary purpose of this poem is to serve as a passionate, sensual love poem in the spirit of the Old Testament. But there is behind that obvious interpretation, the spiritual truth that we dare to believe that our sexuality is a human, physical expression of the spiritual relationship which God intends to have with His people.
We believe that the Song of Solomon 7, mystery and beauty of our human sexual relationship is something of an analogy to the intimacy, mystery and beauty of our relationship with God. We dare to believe that just as we know we love and are loved in the intimacy of our sexual relationships, we can know that we love and are loved by God. Behind our human expression of sexual intimacy, there is something of this Song of Solomon 8 of God who woos us, calls us, invites us to experience His love in our own experience.
Here is a brief Hebrew lesson. The Hebrew word “ydh” means “to know.” Throughout the Bible it is used interchangeably to speak of knowing God and to speak of knowing another person in sexual intercourse. In our human expression of love, we have a picture of our experience of the love of God.
We affirm this in the marriage service when we say that marriage is “instituted by God and signifies to us the mystical union which exists between Christ and His Church.” And isn’t there something deep within us, regardless of our marital status or our sexual relationships, which longs to cry out to God with the words of Solomon, “My beloved is mine and I am his”? Wouldn’t you like to sing about your relationship with God with this poet,
“He brought me to his banquet hall
and raised the banner of love over me”?
John Donne, England’s great poet and preacher of the 17th century, wrote a poem which attempted to do what the writer of the Song of Songs did, namely to combine the spiritual reality of his relationship with God with the passion and power of human love. It’s old English, but I think you can capture the feeling of it.
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrown mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new …
Yet dearely I love you, and I would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie;
Divorce mee, untie, or break that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you enthrall mee, I never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.
May our love and our loving relationships be ravished by the passionate love of God in Jesus Christ.

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