Sunday, December 31, 2017
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now winter is past, the rain is over and gone” (Song 2:10b). Why this scripture, on this day of all days? The colorful Christmas lights are dimming, giving way to short, cold, gray days, as the holidays recede and we timidly move into the dead of winter.
“Arise, my love, my fair one.” No predawn frost, no harsh storm of sleet and snow can diminish the love God feels for us, for you, for each one of you. Who, when asked to describe God, would begin by saying, “God is personal? God is relational?” That’s our starting point this morning, at the end – the end of the year. God desires a relationship with us. The prophet Hosea, whom we will study in depth next summer, reveals God’s inner heart, quoting God who says, “How can I hand you over, O Israel? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger” (Hosea 11:8, 9a). That’s God.
God longs for us. Of course as we experience God, it is a spiritual relationship, and there is an unwelcome trickiness to the word, ‘spiritual.’ What does it mean? We think we know. We don’t really know. ‘Spiritual’ is something other than ‘physical,’ or ‘tangible.’ It is something outside the experience of our five senses. And when this is how we think of spiritual, then it becomes theoretical, not really real.
The relationship we have with God, in Christ, is spiritual, and it is real. This relationship comes to life in many places and times. When we are with others in worship, a community attuned to God; when a believer is alone, in a quiet place, meditating on the word, opening herself to God’s presence; in the process of doing God’s work, helping others; in all these ways, the relationship with God comes to life. One of the ways the spiritual is expressed and experienced is in the physical way humans relate to each other.
If you can, reach out, and touch someone. One of the ways our spiritual relationship with the God who says to us, “arise, my love,” is experienced is in that touch.
The first Sunday of 2017, which was January 1, I was tired of hearing how bad things were in America. People had broken off friendships, left churches, and expressed loss of faith in our democracy over their frustration with the presidential election. As this year began, the loudest voices were the angry voices.
I attempted to have us begin differently, not complaining or arguing, not blaming or lampooning, but rather looking in a different direction. We needed to focus on something other than anger. We needed to think about something others than the people who rile us up. So, I talked in the first sermon of the year about God and icebergs.
I think God is like an iceberg. In photos of icebergs – photos that show both above and below the water’s surface, it is clear how much more is under the water; this is what we don’t see – except in those special photos. There literally is a lot more than meets the eye. We see less of the iceberg than the submerged portion we can’t see. And there is more of God we do not know and cannot know than what we do know – immeasurably more.
That word, ‘immeasurable,’ is often used as hyperbole, to express how big something is. In this case, I am using the word literally. God’s expanse goes beyond our physical universe and when God so pleases, he occupies space in our universe. God operates within the bounds of the laws of nature, but God can, at times, defy the laws of nature. Furthermore, God cannot be measured.
We want to try to see more of God knowing that we can never see all of God and in all likelihood there will always be more of God that we cannot see than what we can see. There will always be more of God that we cannot know.
We tried to give our attention to the story of God because that’s a better story, a truer story, a story more real and lasting, and a story more revealing of who we can become than the stories of racism, politics, terrorism, and wealth disparity being told by various media outlets. In our attempt to give our attention to God, we did not ignore the realities around us. We simply did not let the world in its current condition tell us who we are. We looked to God to tell us who we are.
Now, we’re at the end of 2017. It’s unique in that the very first day and the very last day both fall on a Sunday. As we look back, we see how the acrimony that ended 2016 played out in 2017. There was the racial violence in Charlottesville, the hideous display of bigotry that ended in death. There was the cultural battle over Confederate monuments. There were mass shootings in the United States. Terrorist attacks in the United States. Endless war in Syria drags on; endless tension between the United States and North Korea drags on. All the doomsday stories of 2016 have rung true or at least linger through 2017.
But those aren’t the only stories. What different story do we have to tell? When it is told, are we listening? Are we ourselves listening to our own, different, better story – God’s story? Are we living by God’s story?
I began imagining the vastness of God, calling God indescribable, because I needed God to be bigger than presidential politics. I needed God to be bigger than our national debt. I needed God’s light to outshine the creeping darkness I feared would envelop me.
Now, at the end of a year in which we examined God’s immensity and imagined our church as the household of this gigantic God and ourselves as brothers and sisters, adopted by this overwhelming God, I think I know what could be helpful. When God is indescribable, if that’s all God is, in our puny state we can be obliterated. Our story once again must adjust focus: first from the crud that is called news in our society to the greatness of God, now from the unending vastness of God to the personal nature of God. The unfathomable “iceberg God” loves us personally and intimately.
Keep in mind the passage I read from the prophet Hosea. God says to his people, “My compassion grows warm and tender.” In Christ, we are his people. Also recall Hagar, the slave woman whom Sarai expelled because she did not want Hagar’s son Ishmael toying with her son Isaac. In Genesis 16, left for a horrific death in the desert, Hagar finds herself rescued by God. She names God “God-who-sees” (Genesis 16:13). The ruler of the universe took personal interest in the rescue of a cast-off slave.
Furthermore, remember Luke chapter 15. There, the object of God’s attention is the one who is lost. Jesus tells the same story three times, describing a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a runaway son. Jesus’ punchline is Luke 15:7. “There is more joy in Heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over 99 others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away.” The gigantic iceberg God is mad with love for us.
There aren’t enough words to speak all the ways God shows this love. But poets try and the most passionate poetry in the Bible is Hebrew love poetry, found in the Old Testament book Song of Songs. Read it, just 8 short chapters, in verse. But be prepared. It is sensual. It means what it seems to mean – a man and a woman deeply desiring one another with a community around them celebrating their mutual longings for love.
The early church grew in the Greek-speaking world at the same time, the first and second centuries, that ascetic philosophy influenced society. One variation of that ascetic approach was Gnosticism, the philosophy that denied there was anything good in the physical world. ‘Gnostic,’ literally means knowledge, and the Gnostics claimed Jesus was never actually human or tangible but just appeared that way. Gnostic thought had no room for the whole ‘and the Lord saw that it was good’ (Gen 1:25) idea about the physical, created world. The world was evil and God was a spirit who pulled the righteous possessors of secret knowledge out of the evil tangible world.
The earliest Christians resisted this philosophy. They preached the incarnation, the full humanity of Jesus. They insisted upon the physical, bodily resurrection of Christ. Gnosticism did, however, sow seeds of loathing for physical things even in the minds of Christians. This false teaching flowered into a needless sense of shame around human sexuality. This made the sensual poems in Song of Songs intolerable. The early church couldn’t handle such expressions of physical love. The only way Christians could live with this in the Bible was to read it as allegory.
An allegory is a story interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning. For Christian commentators in the early centuries of the church, Song of Songs was not about and a man and a woman. The lovers were God and the church. Early theologians wrote more pages of commentary on Song of Songs than any other Biblical book. This approach to the Songs as allegory held up through the Middle Ages.
The only problem is allegory misses the point of the poetry. The Song of Songs is an affirmation that ancient people fell madly, passionately in love and expressed it. If we believe God’s Holy Spirit guided the development of scripture and which books are included in the Bible, and I do believe this, then the inclusion of Song of Songs is under God’s authority.
God is never mentioned in two books of the Bible, Esther and Song of Songs. Unlike Esther, which is a book that upholds Hebrew culture and thus implies God, Song of Songs does no such thing. The Song is not an allegory, it is a love poem, often used as an epithalamium, a bridal song. The initiative in this relationship is taken by the female, driven by her passion.
That this poetry collection is in the Bible is itself a testament. God smiles on physical love. God rejoices in sexual love. From the rest of scripture, especially, Genesis 1, Matthew 19, Ephesians 5, and 1 Timothy 5, we believe that sexual love is best experience by a man and woman in lifelong marriage covenant. The greater point is God celebrate love and one of the ways we live in that love is in sexuality.
Sexuality is not the only we experience physical love. Think of love enjoyed with all the senses, shared in a community of people who follow Christ. When we gather, we embrace one another. We give warm, heartfelt handshakes. We hear each other’s loud laughter as we share each other’s stories. Different smells come to mind from visiting one another’s homes. We remember meals out together. Love is tactile in God’s way of things.
Once we appreciate that Song of Songs is a poets’ amplification of love, evoking thoughts of spring, even in winter, and once we accept that the presence of the Song in our scriptures is God’s affirmation of physical love, then we can superimpose God’s love for us on the poem. Reading the Song for the love poem that it is and realizing just how much God love us, we can hear God speak to us through it. And when we meet God in these words of love it is spring time, “the fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom” (Song 2:13). God longs for us and we for God. In the relationship, we have joy. Every day is new.
We began 2017 staggered by how much bigger God is than the noise around us. The events of the year vied for our attention. The evil in the racism on display in Charlottesville; the political acrimony stooping to unprecedented lows; the growing gap between a wealthy minority and everyone else. All the noise continues to rise, but God is bigger. God is above it all and the huge iceberg God is with us and for us.
Heading in 2018, we know we are part of a better story. The God of universe is all about love and is thrilled when we show love to one another. No single person experiences every aspect of God or every aspect of love. But each and every one of us is invited into God’s love story because God loves each of us relationally, personally, and intimately. We move into a New Year intent on growing in our relationship with this God of love.