Song of Songs 8:4-14
1 Timothy 4:1-5
The will of God and pleasure. One of our folks, who has been through premarital preparation with me, said, “I bet it will be on the Song of Solomon”. And, lo and behold, it is one of the texts for the day. For those of you who haven’t read it, the Song of Songs is an erotic love poem, possibly the oldest of ancient literature. The section we read for the service today does not include the graphically erotic elements. It is an affirmation that God designed sexual love, that God is pleased by sexual love, and that God knows best how it should be celebrated. And, it has also been read as a guide to prayer.
Sex is certainly designed by God for our pleasure, among other things, though that is not its primary purpose. But so much of our sex talk in the church has been about prohibition, not remotely about pleasure. There is certainly prohibition in the biblical text, even in “God’s Top Ten List”, the Ten Commandments: “thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20.14).
And, sex is not the only pleasure in life. The other main pleasure is food – comfort food, soul food (There is a spirituality of food!). If you missed last week’s breakfast, you missed quite a spread. I spoke with Pastor Kevin Polite of the Salvar El Alma ministry this week and he said that his message this Sunday would be titled “Mmm Good!” and that he would start with our breakfast spread and move to the biblical text, “Taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Psalm 34.8).
Food is certainly designed by God for our pleasure, among other things, though that is not its primary purpose. But, like our sex talk, so much of our food talk is about prohibition, not remotely about pleasure. We talk about our diets, whether for blood pressure or weight loss or cancer. We talk about the things we can’t eat or shouldn’t eat. Unlike sex, however, there is not as much food prohibition in the biblical text – other than ritually unclean foods in the Jewish culture or the condemnation of gluttony. Interestingly, though, the first temptation, the first seduction, and the original sin included food – the “fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 3). After all, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
In the first century world, they had a related proverb: “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food.” Paul quotes it while addressing, of all things, prostitution. The proverb reduces humanity to urges, appetites, desires – to pleasure in a limited physical sense. “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food” means “We are our appetites.” But when we reduce ourselves to that level, we define ourselves as animals alone. Rob Bell, in his book Sex God, describes the mating ritual of lions and then comments, “They aren’t lying out there in that field, thinking, I just really want to know that you love me for more than my body. . . . One isn’t saying to the other, ‘I just don’t feel you’re as committed to this relationship as I am’” (2007, Zondervan, 50-52).
A food and romance story for Valentine’s . . . It was a short account of a one of a couple’s first dates. She invited him over and cooked for him. But the meal was a disaster, the food overcooked and hard. He ate everything on his plate and then he said, “That was wonderful! Can I have more?” That was when she knew she had a keeper. (From I Thought My Father Was God, and other stories ... I think.)
When it comes to human beings, sex and food are designed by God for our pleasure, but not only for our pleasure, if by pleasure we refer to purely physical appetites. Sex and food are designed for intimacy, for connection with each other and for connection with God – that, too, is a pleasure.
Whenever Jesus was asked about marriage, he went back to the story of the original couple, the ones we know as Adam and Eve. Before they receive those names, they are simply man and woman. And it begins with man alone in the world. After everything else in creation – which God declared “good” – the LORD says “it is NOT good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2.18). Why? Because the man is in God’s image, and God is a community, a Trinity. God is a God who thrives on connection and intimacy and so do those made in God’s image. So, God makes creatures and brings them to the man. Though he names them all, none is a true partner. God makes woman out of man and presents her to the man: “That’s more like it!” The text gives us poetry:
This at last is bone of my bonesThen, the text give us commentary:
and flesh of my flesh.
This one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken (Genesis 2.23).
Therefore a man leaves his father and motherThere is so much interesting stuff packed into that single verse:
and clings/cleaves to his wife,
and they become one flesh (Genesis 2.24).
1. The MAN leaves! This is written in a social context in which the woman left her family and lived with her husband’s family. Marriages were not about love but about social contracts between heads of households, with women as relatively powerless objects. But not in the first marriage, not in God’s ideal of equal partnership.
2. The man CLEAVES to his wife. This verb “cleave” (dabaq) is a word that describes what both fits and sticks together. It is used for the scales of leviathan (Job 41.15 – a crocodile or a dragon, depending on the extent of your imagination) a perfect fit, with no separation. Today, we use a relatively mundane expression, “compatibility”. Compatibility indicates “fit”, but it does not indicate “stick”, nor does it indicate the next movement of “one flesh”. [Object: Two piece scissors that join in the middle, male and female parts.] Remember that these connections are between human beings and also with God: The verb “cleave” is also used to describe the way we are supposed to relate to God. (See Deut 10:20; Deut 11:22; Deut 13:4 [H 5]; Deut 30:20; Josh 22:5; Josh 23:8; Jer 13:11; The Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon; The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.)
3. They become ONE FLESH. This is the moment in which the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. The phrase indicates an exclusive relationship – you become “one” with only “one” other. And, the word for “one” can includes both unity and diversity; you do not cease to be the unique person God made you to be. The same word for “one” is used in Deuteronomy 6:4, the Hebrew “Shema”: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD your God, the LORD is one.” It can also be translated, “The LORD is your God, the LORD alone.” This word for “one” is not just a counting word or an absolute number, but a word that orders the world and, in this case, our connections with God and the one we love. (See The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.)
Yet, as much as sex and food are about connection, about intimacy . . . we break that pattern over and over. We obsess over pornography or fantasy, and turn the other into an object rather than the sacred “one”. We pursue multiple partners and find ourselves less connected, less intimate, than before. We get hurt and we swear off love, refuse to get close to anyone. We eat on the run, instead of taking the time to prepare and to enjoy our meals at a table together. We diet compulsively, then sneak a snack to consume in private.
So, how can we reclaim God’s will for pleasure that connects?
1. Say grace. In a context of in which folks were responding to excesses of sexuality and eating with total prohibition, Paul wrote, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4.4). Paul made similar statements in the context of the other extreme – indulgence without limitations. The point is this: Take the time to thank God for the gift of food. If we have to eat alone, giving thanks connects us to someone else at the table. If we eat with others, giving thanks connects us all with God. If we eat at a table where a clear prayer is not welcome – as I do from time to time – we can still breathe our silent thanks and bring God’s blessing to the table. Note that “everything” is to be received with thanksgiving. Give thanks in your sexual love. It is God’s gift.
2. Make your family table a priority. Life is demanding and schedules are tight for everyone. Fewer and fewer families eat together, and more and more families split up. This is no coincidence. The days in which every family on the block sits down at 5:30 to a home cooked meal are over. That only means that we have to be more creative and flexible to reclaim the biblical pleasure of eating together. Today we come to the family table of the people of God, to the Sacrament of Holy Communion. It is something Jesus described as “eagerly desired” (Luke 22:15), and is a pleasure to be celebrated.
3. Practice exclusive faithfulness or abstinence in your sexual life. A repeated refrain in the Song of Songs is “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (2.7, 3.5, 8.4). This waiting, this abstinence, does not end with sexual maturity but with committed, exclusive, faithful love. The metaphors of wall and door (Song of Songs 8.9) are used to describe the difference between an exclusive sexuality (whether abstinent or, in a relationship, faithful) and a sexuality without limits. Here at Bethany, we talk about a spirituality that is “giving, FAITHFUL, and real”. The path to pleasure in our sexual love is not amassing extensive experience with multiple partners. Instead, it is about an extensive body of experience with one lover. Like the daily home-cooked meal, this expectation has largely vanished. With it has come disconnection, guilt, and resignation. But our God forgives and offers a fresh start.
4. Build your connections. “It is not good for the man to be alone”. Solitude is a healthy thing, but not disconnection. Where are the points in your life that you are most connected to the people you love the most? Build on that, protect that, recognize it for what it is – holy. And thank God for that gift.