Sermon - Ordinary 14 Year A -| DB Home | RCL Resources index |
Arise, my love, my fair one
[Note: This sermon originally for Ordinary 14 A is an alternative also for Sunday 22 B. It is derived in part from one entitled One Flesh which was preached a few years earlier, but the approach taken here is a more one of positive affirmation of the gifts of God. That earlier sermon and others which are linked to it were topical though biblically based, and necessary to meet pastoral needs at the time. This one is more directly an exposition of the readings for today. In any case, the problems caused in the Uniting Church by the Interim Report on Sexuality are still with us, but having spoken out clearly in defence of traditional teaching, a different approach is now perhaps appropriate. The earlier response to the situation that was then developing could still be a useful resource in some parts of the church.]
Love songs are found in the Bible. Love songs are there together with other songs which celebrate the goodness of God's creation and deal with the whole range of human emotions. Such songs are found in the literature of ancient Israel as in all sorts of human societies; but they are more than that for us as part of scripture because they have something to say, with authority, about the nature of God and how we are called to live in relationship to each other and to God. That is, love songs are part of the revelation of the word of God for humanity in the Old Testament, but the word I wish to share with you today brings us also to the teaching of Jesus about the nature of marriage and sexual relationships.
Let there be no doubt, marriage is celebrated in scripture has a highly desirable and commended gift of God. We have in Genesis 24 one of those celebrations in the betrothal and marriage of Rebekah to Isaac. Marriage customs vary greatly around the world and from one age to another, but we can all recognize what people today in our society can still have in common with Isaac and Rebekah. It is good to see it openly declared as a human institution in which the hand of God is at work. It is both holy, in belonging to God, and at the same time very natural. Indeed, as we shall be recalling, Jesus called what was natural in the attraction of a man and a woman to each other the work of God. The Israelites, while they led a disciplined life in their sexual behaviour, were not ashamed to admit desire and on occasion to celebrate it. In the Psalm for today, as more clearly in the song from the Song of Songs also called the Song of Solomon, the desire of a woman for her prospective husband is not hidden but openly proclaimed. There was no shame in sexual love in itself, and Rebekah's beauty played a significant part in the story of her choice as the wife of Isaac. It is strange how much of this has been forgotten or how it surprises people to discover in the Bible some of the passages which celebrate love in marriage.
There are some great passages in the Song of Songs which are seldom read in church, and I suppose there is some temptation for a preacher to use them to show how little he is afraid of sex or of those puritanical policemen of the mind who would suppress all such ideas. It can be a point of popular appeal. Somehow, it became necessary in 'modern times', for anyone who wanted to be taken seriously to show that he or she was not too 'hung up' about such things, to show that you did not have to be old fashioned to be a Christian, that you could be 'relevant' and 'believing' at the same time. I think by now many people have seen through the shallowness of that kind of appeal. At the same time, there is still in every generation a point to be made about delight in the gift of a lover.
A few verses before the rather romantic passage we read with its images of flowers in Springtime, and the invitation to 'come away', there is a more openly erotic passage:
Or, in the previous chapter, if you can get past the agricultural images of delight which are a little strange to us:
Or, to admit more directly the lust of the woman for her lover, in the following chapter:
Or, hear the voice of the man:
Or, in the following chapter:
We do not know now exactly how these songs were used in ancient Israel. Perhaps they were sung at weddings. Whatever their use and origin, there is no doubting their evocative power, even at a great distance in years and after many changes in the ways people express themselves. For us now, we can at least see in the context of their law and prophecy that such delight is compatible with a faithful life lived in devotion to God.
There is more to this theme of love and marriage in the Bible. It has deep symbolic and spiritual meaning, but there is also another challenging theme in today's readings that is relevant to contemporary social problems and to a very serious conflict in public policy and popular culture concerning marriage and alternative ways of living. In thinking about these questions it is not uncommon for people to use for their own ends the important passage in the gospel in which Jesus is seen as a friend of outcasts and sinners and as one who enjoyed food, drink and the pleasure of human company. Jesus said:
So it appears that Jesus is pleased to be accepted as a friend of sinners, and that he sees nothing wrong in common human pleasures. He says to his critics, that in their view you can't win, if you are like John the Baptist, the hard man of the desert, they dismiss you as crazy, and if you are willingly enter into the pleasures of human fellowship they say you cannot possibly be a man of God! Jesus accepted the difference that people had seen between John's disciplined withdrawal to a life apart and his own willing involvement with those who do not deny themselves.
When we recognize this we can hardly help recalling that he did speak at other times of how his followers must deny themselves:
So as with the Old Testament combination of sexual discipline and delight, so with Jesus, these two sides of human relationships are not opposed; but in common human experience it is a tension that is still with us.
If these words of Jesus give rise to conflict and misunderstanding today, the fight continues between the "puritans" (who are not really in the tradition of the Puritans of the Reformation) and the "libertarians" (who in fact have little regard for liberty as they try to impose their views). It is certainly no less than the conflict in which Jesus found himself at the time reported by Matthew and Luke. Indeed there is something surprisingly modern about the kind of criticism to which Jesus was reacting. John came neither eating nor drinking and they said he must be crazy. Swift condemnation is popular today, on both sides, when some remnant of Puritan culture is raised in opposition to popular pleasure seeking, yet at the same time people are still quick to condemn public figures who fall short of the old standards. The discipline of John the Baptist has not appealed to the so-called baby boomers generation, though there is a minority of younger people who are turning back to a self disciplined life in which they find a new freedom. For the majority, however, especially as the popular media would have it, anybody who thinks that way seeking discipline must be a little bit mad, or at least behind the times. On the other hand, there is sufficient survival in a culture of Puritanism for anyone with a serious attitude to the things of God who is seen to like eating and drinking with his friends to be a little suspect. We should not underestimate the powerful ambiguity of much that remains in Western culture of both the Protestant Reformation emphasis on the individual discipline and of Catholic teaching on holiness in a Christian way of life. See how the admiration of celebrities who break a few rules quickly turns to condemnation. There is no easier way to stir the pot of controversy than to meddle in this mess. And it is mess: who would ever have designed a social system in which there is as much suffering as we have in broken relationships, numerous mother-child households living in poverty, distrust and fear of commitment, numerous abortions, empty feelings of being used, and a lonely old age. Really? Who would desire to live in such a society. People know there must be a better way.
There is no necessary relationship between the Gospel reading each week [this refers to Ordinary Sunday 14 A, not 22 B when the same Song of Songs reading also appears] and what we happen to read from the Old Testament, but the sentiment behind a modern understanding of the attitude of Jesus to outsiders and to pleasure does play an important part in present day understandings of marriage and sexual relationships. So today we will make a connection between the Gospel and Old Testament lessons [for Ordinary 14 A].
Love, sex and marriage are linked together in the teaching of Jesus just as they were in the everyday life of the people of God in the Old Testament. Jesus referred back to creation when he was asked about divorce. That is, without rejecting the Jewish law, the law of Moses from the first five books of the Bible, he went back to a more basic principle in creation. This way of answering the questions put to him gives us a guide to how we might find answers to some perplexing questions about sexual relationships today.
As they often were, the Pharisees were trying to catch him out by testing whether he would say something that was against the Jewish law, and he answered by asking them how they understood the law:
We are not told why they asked this question, but from what Jesus said on other occasions and what Paul tells us of his teaching it would seem that he strongly advocated faithfulness in marriage and disapproved of divorce , so they might have expected that he would speak against divorce which the law of Moses allowed [Deut 24:1-4]. [For direct treatment of the topic of divorce see Divorce and Christ's humanity] But Jesus said to them,
I understand this to mean that we can accept the law of Moses at this point as a concession to human weakness, but that we should try to do better. We should try to fulfil God's purpose for us in creation. To help in this Jesus went back beyond the law [Deuteronomy 24:1-4] to a basic principle in creation.
In a sense the teaching of Jesus was more demanding than the law of Moses, as on other occasions [eg Matthew 5:17,21,22,27,28] he called for higher standards of holiness than the law required, but he was never less compassionate than the law.
The whole approach of Jesus to questions like this points less to a set of rules to be obeyed, though it was not his way to
advocate breaking them, and more towards understanding the purpose of God in creation. The love songs of the Song of
Songs and the teaching of Jesus about marriage have that in common, the purpose of God in the creation of people as male
and female. The mystery that we learn further from him, is how God takes the ordinary human relationships which are given
in creation, and makes them into a way for us to know him, just as he takes the bread and wine that we bring to the table and
gives them back to us as a means of grace in Holy Communion. Our response, in the Eucharist and in life at large, is to give
him thanks. We seek to live out our lives in covenant with God, as we delight in the love of those who are given to us in the
life of the flesh in the covenant of marriage. Glory to God, whose glory is seen in the things that he has made, and in the face
of our Lord Jesus Christ who made known his purpose in creation for us to enter into a new life with him. Amen.
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