James 1:17-27

Song of Songs 2:8-13

This reading from Song of Songs is listed in our Book of Common Worship as a suggested text for weddings. It fits, of course – the lover calling to his beloved, inviting her away into the blossoming springtime of their love. Song of Songs is one long love poem, and this is one of only a couple of passages that are probably appropriate for weddings. On account of, sometimes your parents and even grandparents are at your wedding, and you don’t always want to admit to your parents that you understand the rest of the details in this book.

For those of us who grew up with traditional American Christian views about love and sexuality, it might be a little baffling how the Song of Songs made it into our Bibles in the first place. It must have taken some nerve to include this text alongside Leviticus, Ephesians, and John, but there’s a huge blessing in the choice our spiritual ancestors made. Here we have a text that, on the surface, is all about young love in all its romance and physicality, but we have to pay more attention to it than we might think it deserves, because it’s in the Bible after all. Because it’s in the Bible, we have to pay it the kind of attention it really does deserve.

Christians and Jews have debated pretty much from the beginning over whether to read this story literally as an account of human romance or allegorically as a description of God’s relationship with Israel (or Christ’s relationship with the Church). The answer, as usually, is both. I’m going to talk today about romantic love and marriage, but I’m also going to talk about a relationship even more fundamental than that. In fact, I can’t talk about one relationship without talking about the other. Physical beings as we are, everything about us is spiritual, including this sensual business of human love.

The love here isn’t merely human, though. Listen! The voice of our Lover isn’t our own. It’s God, running like a gazelle over the mountains to reach us. The one peering through the lattice to catch a glimpse of us is a Holy One. God speaks to us: “Come, my love, my darling, come be with me. This is the time to be joyful in each other. Come, oh come, my beloved!” God calls out to us, makes eyes at us, longs for us, yearns to know and to be known. What’s the richest, most passionate, most earnest love you have experienced or imagined? God’s love is like that, a hundred times over.

If it’s uncomfortable for you to think about God yearning, you’re not alone. It’s much easier for us to think of God in the person of the Parent, the Father or every so often the Mother who gave us life and watches over us as we live it. Sometimes we do justice to a God who took on flesh to become our Brother, and we certainly have to acknowledge that this role is deeply and painfully committed to us.

But Song of Songs goes us one farther, to insist that God the Spirit is also our Lover. God invests that level of passion in rejoicing at our mere presence in the world. God wants more than just to see us grow up big and strong, or to join on a journey of service and self-discovery. God does, but God also longs to be united with us, completely and forever, to know every curve of our bodies and swim in the depth of our souls. In return, God aches to share His very being with us.

We know facts about God that make this hard to imagine: we know that God created us, that God is already deep within us, that we can never be far from the presence of God. But, we know just as well that we hold out. We hold fig leaves over ourselves so we don’t have to expose our vulnerable parts. We bargain with our affections or deny ourselves the overflowing love God wants to give us. If only God were more like what we remember from our first years of church, or if only we were more on top of things, then God and we could get along better.

So let’s stop and think: When did God say our relationship with Her was contingent on knowing the right things or saying just the right affirmations? Since when do the best relationships depend on being correct, agreeing with each other, or having no warts? Our lovers in the Song of Songs describe each other as perfection embodied, but how silly would we be if a love song was the part of Scripture we took literally! With or without being so over the top, love sees the best in the beloved, and God sees the best in us.

I say we love with or without being so over the top. Love is not all flowers and furtive glances. We know it’s not all romance and chemistry. It’s the kind of daily commitment that goes into the best of marriages. Love is what James calls us to offer each other through our listening, patience, and pure devotion to goodness. That’s the depth of the love with which God calls us to come away and celebrate the newness of life.

In The Fiddler On the Roof, Tevye asks his wife Golde if she loves him, and she replies: “For twenty-five years, I’ve washed your clothes, / Cooked your meals, cleaned your house, / Given you children, milked the cow. / After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now? … For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him, / Fought with him, starved with him. / For twenty-five years, my bed is his. / If that’s not love, what is?” Love can grow that quietly, that gently, that invisibly. Love is the depth in that relationship, whether it’s enduring unspoken devotion or the burning passion we call being “in love.”

It’s never stated outright that our young lovers in Song of Songs lived happily ever after, but assuming they did, most of it was mundane business. There’s not much love poetry about changing tires or painting the closet, but thankfully there are hymns about caring for orphans and widows. There are psalms about devoting yourself deeply and fully to God, even in the midst of our human relationships and the remarkable world we inhabit. It happens in that midst, but you can see that look in our Lover’s eye. Come away with God and be known, deeply and fully.