(A Sermon Preached in Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School on September 3rd, 2009)
Song of Songs 2: 8-13
“The voice of my beloved (my lover)! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved (lover) speaks and says to me: “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, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom, they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away . . . My beloved (lover) is mine and I am his.”
Just when we’re trying our best to hold a respectable and staid worship service, focusing our minds on the ethereal that we think is “spiritual,” here comes the Song of Songs sashaying into church wearing a short cocktail dress with a plunging neckline, high heeled shoes, and too much makeup; or strutting around in a speedo showing off its washboard abs.
Just when we’re trying to dance with God while keeping a safe distance, doing the slow box step turn at arm’s length (must see daylight between, room for the Holy Spirit, they said at the middle school dances), just then Song of Songs swoops in, lifts us off our feet, twirls us around, and leads us in a sultry hip-to-hip tango.
Just after we’ve changed out of the black goth attire of Ecclesiastes and are girding ourselves to don the itchy sackcloth and ashes of the prophets, the Song of Songs surprises us by climbing up to our window wearing silk underwear or lacy lingerie. (Wearing this . . . wearing only this.)
The Song of Songs is the dream text of biblical scholars with an English major bent, who can see the symbolism of the love between God and Israel in every lovingly-described hill and valley, as well as of horny 8th grade teenagers at the back of the bus, who read the hills and valleys as something else entirely.
Perhaps both are right. On one hand, I can tell you that I will never look at pomegranates the same way again after re-reading the Song the Songs – and I’m pretty sure that the fruit of the garden here isn’t corn and okra. This is the one book of the Bible where precise exegesis may benefit from a slightly dirty mind. At the same time, there is more going on here than just the sensual flirtation of two soon-to-be newly-weds, as beautiful and as rich as this courtship is. The Song works just a little too hard to include the symbolism of Israel for that. Instead, it seems as if the love and desire and equality and beauty shared between this woman and this man, as real as it is, is also, at the same time, in a kind of two way mirror, being offered as a glimpse into the relationship between us and God as well, each relationship shedding light upon the other. In the Song of Songs, sexy love poetry can be read as revealing something of God; and the relationship between God and God’s people can be read as revealing to us what we need to know about sexy love poetry. You could call the book Song Within a Song: it is like a Russian nesting doll, the love song of God heard within the love song of maiden and mate, or, better, the lovers song uncovered within the overarching love song of God and human beings.
What emerges as we peer through the lattice, as we gaze through the clefts of the rock in the Song of Songs, is the suggestive image of a God who is our lover.
This is the part where I blush, and you are allowed to squirm uncomfortably in your seats.
We know God as Father, we know God as Creator, God as Almighty, God as judge, God as Good Shepherd, even God as Friend.
Do we know God as lover?
Do we know that this relationship we have with God is not just child to heavenly parent, not just servant to Lord, not just a legal transaction guaranteeing a heavenly inheritance, but do we know it’s also a passionate, torrid, breathtaking love affair? That knowing God is like being intoxicated by the scent of her perfume, getting lost in the brown depths of his eyes, that knowing God feels for all the world, like falling in love?
It’s a thought that makes many of us uncomfortable, that God could be that close to us, that we could be that close to God, that life with God could contain such passionate intensity and emotion. Just hearing that love song in the Song of Songs is uncomfortable because of the over-the-top gushing and naked intimacy of these words. You feel like you’ve just peeked in a bedroom window, like you’ve just overheard on your phone the midnight conversation between two love-struck teenagers, or heard through the wall of our hotel room the lovey-dovey pillow talk of two honeymooners.
And yet this is an image of what relationship with this God looks like: of what it means to love and be loved by this passionate God who is a beautiful lover and a love-sick fool.
“The voice of my lover!” the Song says. “Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.” “My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag,” she says, declaiming love poetry in phrases that depicts her lover’s comeliness and beauty.
St. Augustine wrote his own love poetry to God, where he sang of God’s “Beauty so ancient and so new . . .” He said, “Christ is beautiful in heaven, beautiful on earth; beautiful in the womb, beautiful in His parents’ arms, beautiful in His miracles, beautiful in His sufferings; beautiful in inviting to life, beautiful in not worrying about death, beautiful in giving up His life and beautiful in taking it up again; He is beautiful on the Cross, beautiful in the tomb, beautiful in heaven. Listen to the song with understanding, and let not the weakness of the flesh distract your eyes from the splendor of His beauty.”
This God, this lover, is infinitely attractive, desirable, beautiful – spiritually sexy in the truest sense of that term. Listen to the song with understanding, and let not the weakness of the flesh distract your eyes from the splendor of His beauty.
In the Song next we read of this beautiful and mysterious lover standing there just outside the house, just behind the wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice, tantalizingly close. Romeo at the foot of Juliet’s balcony. And soon the lover begins singing his own love song:
“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, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom, they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away . . .
It is wonderful to sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” it is great to hum the music of “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” but apparently sometimes the music God has more in mind for our rendevous is Marvin Gaye, John Legend, the Righteous Brothers, or Celine Dion. God’s song is a love song, some mood music: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away . . .”
The image in the lyrics of the love song is of someone huddled down inside four walls, just trying to wait out all of the bad, cold, wet, miserable weather outside, feeling trapped by life as it is - and then this song comes as good news, as gospel, and as invitation. The song names the person inside, “my love, my fair one” and tells them that a new world, a new life is open to them, spring has come, there is no need to hide inside anymore, so arise, my love, my fair one, and come away to something better.
There is a scene in the musical “Man of La Mancha” where Don Quixote meets a dirty, ill-used serving girl and part-time prostitute name Aldonza. Don Quixote is lovestruck: he calls her by a different name, he calls her “Dulcinea,” the little sweet one, and he woos her by singing a love song that praises her beauty and goodness and purity. “Dulcinea, Dulcinea, I see heaven when I see thee, Dulcinea. And thy name is like a prayer an angel whispers, Dulcinea . . . Dulcinea.” Aldonza is annoyed, and can’t believe it, doesn’t know what to make of it. She basically tells him to stop singing, “I’m just a tramp.” But Don Quixote keeps wooing. He keeps singing that love song, “You are Dulcinea, you are yet my lady.” “My love, my fair one . . .” By the end of the musical that love song has become Aldonza’s destiny. She becomes Dulcinea, comes away to a new life, something better, spring has come.
“My song is love unkown, my Savior’s love to me. Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.” The love song of God.
Teresa of Avila heard that love song of God calling for her, as it calls for all. She wrote,
“A thousand souls hear His call every second, but most every one then looks into their life’s mirrorand says, ‘I am not worthy to leave this sadness.’
She goes on,
"When I first heard His courting song,I too looked at all I had done in my life and said,‘How can I gaze into His eyes?’ I spoke those words with all my heart,but then He sang again, a song even sweeter,and when I tried to shame myself once more from His presence God showed me His compassion and spoke a divine truth, ‘I made you, dear, and all I make is good. Please come close, for I desire you.”
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. I desire you.” The love song of God.
The love song of God is the one song, the one most beautiful song, the song of all songs, amid any other song that could be sung.
When he was in seminary, Martin Luther King preached a sermon titled “How a Christian Overcomes Evil” that was, in its own way, about the love song of God. King used an illustration from Greek mythology: he told about the sirens who used to sing seductive songs that lured sailors to come close to them and then crash their ships on the rocks. Only two ships navigated safely the siren’s shoals. One was piloted by Ulysses, who stuffed wax in the ears of his sailors and strapped himself to the mast so that by ignorance and willpower they might not hear what the siren’s sang. In some ways, what Ulysses did was like the Pharisees’ approach to uncleanness in the Gospel: make sure the bad can’t get in, wash your hands, keep it away.
But there was another sailor, Orpheus, who took a very different tack. Instead of stuffing wax in their ears, Orpheus simply pulled out his lute and began to play a more beautiful song than the song of the sirens. So that those in his boat would listen to that song, the more beautiful song, that song of songs, and that it would guide them instead.
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away . . “ The love song of God is the most beautiful song. Singing it for the world brings salvation. Hearing it makes siren songs succumb.
And listening to that song has led many of us to this place. It has led some of us here to be student pastors, to be serving in the church while we undertake our studies. It’s a rewarding life, being a student pastor: connecting study and service so immediately and intimately. I had one faculty member tell me that they think student pastors ask the best questions, because of this. It can also be a challenging life. You feel sometimes like there are all these different beautiful competing songs in your ear. When you are at school, you hear the song of these people God has entrusted in your care singing, “Arise, come away to me . . .” And when you are making your rounds of visitation you hear the stack of books on your desk singing, “Arise, come away to me . . .” And in both you hear the love song of your family or friends or loved ones saying, “Arise, my love, come away to me . . .” None of those are sirens, they are all beautiful songs, so it can make you feel divided, split, all these different songs: which one to listen to, when?
Until you realize that they are all part of one and the same song. That there is one song that unifies them: one song of songs heard in them all: the love song of God, singing of the beauty of rightly loving for God, neighbor, and self, through study, through service, through our family lives, one Song to unite them all.
That love song of God, it is the love song that sings out from the blessings in our lives, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
It is the love song marriage proposal that the Hebrew slaves heard above the cracks of Pharoah’s whip: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for the now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. I shall be your God, and you shall be my people.”
It is the love song heard by Israel in the honeymoon camping trip of the wilderness: “Arise my love, my fair one, and come away. Let me kiss you with the kisses of my mouth, let me share my word with you.”
It is a love song that God’s people would try to sing on their harps with lumps in their throats by the rivers of Babylon, whenever their exile captors asked for music. “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away, the flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard again in our land.”
It is the song that Mary heard in response to her “let it be,” when the Holy Spirit came upon her, when the power of the Most High overshadowed her: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away . . . the fig tree puts forth its figs, the vines are in blossom.”
It is ultimately the one and the same love song that echoed forth from an Easter empty tomb, as the lover said to the beloved Jesus, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.”
It is the love song that God sings to us today, calling us from our cramped, dank cells offear, guilt, regret, and ego into a new life, a new day of passionate relationship with God:
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away . . . All that I make is good: come close to me, I desire you.”
It is the love song of God, the most beautiful song, the song of all songs that calls us forth to Communion today ant that will one day call us forth from our own empty tombs to the feast of heaven as well.
It’s said that as St. John of the Cross, that passionate lover of God, was lying in bed near death around midnight, remarkably weak, suddenly he wanted to fix his bed as if someone important were coming to visit. He then asked someone to read to him from the Bible: but he didn’t ask for Psalm 23, he didn’t ask for John 14 with its talk of many dwelling places. He asked to be read to from Song of Songs. “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone . . .”
While he was listening, suddenly, it is said, John exclaimed, “So beautiful are the flowers!” – and then he died.
Or maybe he’d just heard the love song of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.