This sermon is part of the sermon series "Love and the City". See series.
Before we leave this series called "Love and the City," we need to say something about marriage. It seems there's an awful lot of confusion, disappointment, and controversy out there. It was the most frequently asked of all the questions you submitted for this series: "Can you please say something about marriage …" and you were asking for a variety of reasons.
We need to say something because for a lot of people marriage has become a form of entertainment and self-expression. Last New Year 's Eve, the pop singer Britney Spears and her lifelong friend Jason Alexander were out on the town celebrating. After a night of partying, one of them said to the other, "Why don't we do something wild and crazy. Let's get married, just for the heck of it." So they did. Fifty-five hours later, the wild and crazy ride wasn't fun anymore, so they got off, got it annulled. Just like that.
A couple of months ago everyone was talking about J Lo and Ben Affleck getting married. Anyone could see they loved each other. But then, suddenly, it was over. And just as suddenly, she was seen in the very close company of singer Marc Anthony. And after two months of intense dating, they were married. For J Lo, it's her third marriage, and more than a few people are placing bets she'll break Liz Taylor's old record of seven.
By last count there were 15 reality dating shows on TV, in which a man or woman is expected to pick a life partner from a random pool of people chosen by some Hollywood producer. To a lot of people, marriage has become a form of entertainment or self-expression, something to do on a slow weekend, or to try out, like a new hairstyle.
While some people are rushing into marriage without thinking, others seem to be running away from it as fast as they can. We need to say something to them, as well. They tell us in the past few decades the number of never-married people in the U.S. has more than doubled. And those that do get married are waiting longer and longer to do it—25 years for women, 27 for men. More and more people are choosing to live together without the hassle and constraints of marriage. Why get married when so many people have been wounded and disappointed by it?
Listen to one of the questions I received: "In the past few months I've seen three relationships that were headed toward marriage disintegrate at the last minute because one of the parties got cold feet, or decided to hold out for someone better, cuter, richer. Someone needs to tell these people they don't have to be so afraid of marriage, that nobody is perfect."
I remember what happened to me after I got engaged. Nearly every man I told said to me something like, "Few more months of freedom!" or "Sorry to hear that!" I was at a church committee meeting and the men in the room were having a hilarious time teasing me about getting married, until one middle-aged gentleman (who I greatly admired) pulled me aside and said, "Don't listen to one thing these guys say. Marriage is a great idea, and you're going to love it." I needed to hear someone say that, and so do a lot of people today who are running away from marriage.
And then there is a movement in our country to redefine marriage as we have known it for thousands of years. "Why does it have to be a man and a woman," some people are asking. If two people love each other and are committed to each other, what difference does it make if they are the same or opposite sex? "Can you please say something about gay marriage," several people asked me. "What do I say to people at work or in my family who think it's okay?"
How about this question that comes right out of letters to the editors in this week's newspaper: "So Jennifer Lopez is married for the third time in seven years, and singer Marc Anthony was able to divorce his wife only to marry J Lo less than a week later. Can someone please explain to me how such people can legally make a mockery of marriage, while same-sex couples who have been together 5, 15, or even 50 years are denied legal rights under our federal laws?" Do we have anything coherent to say to someone like that?
In a day when people are rushing into marriage without thinking about it, when others are running from it as fast as they can, and others are wanting to redefine marriage as we have always known it, what do we have to say about marriage, as God designed it? Specifically, what makes marriage such a great idea?
To answer that question, let's go one more time to the Old Testament book called Song of Songs, which we have been looking at together this spring, as we finish up this series called "Love and the City." So far we have learned from this collection of ancient love songs that romance is sacred, sex in marriage is beautiful, and that the longing to love and be loved is a good thing that points us toward a relationship with God. This morning we're going to discover why marriage as God designed it is such a great idea. Let's go the last chapter of Song of Songs, a few verses found in 8:5-7.
Marriage is procreative.
Most commentators agree that this is the climactic moment in the song, and that these are some of the most beautiful and compelling lines ever written about love. But let's see if we can understand exactly what they mean, and what they have to say about marriage.
In verse 5 we see the man and woman emerging from the wilderness, arm in arm. They've come a long way since the beginning of the song, when they were single and separated—when the young woman wondered when and if she would ever find her true love, when she wandered the streets of her imagination desperately seeking him, when she worried that something might happen that would spoil their dream of being together. But now, here they are. They found each other, they've been married, they've come together as husband and wife, they've worked through their early disillusionments, and have even survived their first fight. And here they are, leaning on each other. It's the image of a young married couple walking side by side, their arms intertwined, and she pressed up against him. All we need is a sunset behind them and it's a perfect Hallmark card. It's a picture of intimacy and security, a portrait of a happily married couple. But why are they so content? What is it about marriage, as God designed it, that's so wonderful?
The first thing we learn is that marriage, as God designed it, is procreative; it gives birth to something new. Look at verse 5b: "Under the apple tree I roused you; there your mother conceived you, there she who was in labor gave you birth." Now, what's this all about? Remember that it's poetry, so the language is figurative and the images are symbolic. In ancient literature, fruit trees were often associated with sexuality and fertility. The wife is remembering that in the same way that her husband was born out of the union of his mother and father, so now something new will be born of their love for one another.
Recently I had the opportunity to do a graveside ceremony for a friend whose mother passed away. She was well along in years, in her 90s, leaving behind three generations of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I arrived first at the cemetery, and for the next half an hour or so I watched the family gather. One carload at a time, from all over New England. And each time the doors would open, people of various ages would spill out, and there would be hugs and smiles all around, "my how you've grown," and whispered reminders of who was who. Before long, there were about 30 people there, everyone but me a member of the family. Grandpa led the way to the family plot, and as we began I reminded them that the love and belonging they enjoyed that day was the result of a commitment made some 70 years earlier, when a man named Earnest and a woman named Marion promised to love one another, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, till death did them part. For the next 68 years, they kept that promise. Their union gave birth to something new—a family, a presence in the world.
A great marriage creates something new: a unit that didn't exist before. Sometimes it includes children, but it doesn't need to. From the very beginning God said, "A man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." Adam and Eve had no children at that point. And you may have noticed that, for all the sexual activity going on in Song of Songs, there are no children. A marriage doesn't have to produce children to be procreative. The mystical, metaphysical union of man and woman alone is enough to produce a new identity; a new presence in the world. If you look up the word "unite" in the dictionary, you'll read, "to bring together to form a whole." It's the complementary nature of the sexes, the fitting together, that creates something new.
That's what's missing from same-sex relationships—a complementary nature. Remember, the mathematics of marriage is that 1+1=1. Two different people come together physically, emotionally, spiritually to form one new whole. When the two partners are of the same sex, the equation reverts back to 1+1=2. There's nothing mysterious or miraculous about that. Nothing new is created. I'm not a chemist, which will become obvious in a minute. But my understanding is that if you take hydrogen and oxygen and combine them in the proper proportions, you get water—H20. Something new has been born of that union. If you take hydrogen and combine with more hydrogen, all you get is more hydrogen. Nothing new has been created. I'm no financial advisor, but my sense is that if you take one bank and merge it with another bank, all you get is a bigger bank. If you take a bank and merge it with a brokerage house, now you have a new kind of institution, and a force to reckon with in the financial services industry.
Certainly, two members of the same sex can love one another, can be committed to one another, and can be intimate with one another. The thing they can't do is become one flesh, and that's what marriage is all about. Marriage is not about love. It's not about commitment. It's not about sex. Marriage is about oneness. That's what sets it apart from every other human relationship—union— two different beings coming together to form a whole.
That's why marriage, as God designed it, is such a great idea—it gives birth to something new.
Marriage is permanent.
Verse 6: "Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal over your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave." The seal being described here was a piece of wood or stone engraved with a person's name or family mark. It would be pressed into soft wax or clay to signify ownership or authority. A scroll, for instance, would be rolled up, wax dripped across the seam, and then the seal would be rolled across the wax, indicating that the scroll could only be opened by someone bearing that seal. The woman is saying to her beloved, her husband that he belongs to her, and she to him. It's interesting that it is the woman demanding ownership and faithfulness from her husband. This is quite remarkable because typically, in the ancient world, women were expected to be faithful, men were held to a different standard. In fact, for the most part, men were expected to be unfaithful, to seek sexual satisfaction other places. Here, in this biblical love song, in this portrait of marriage as God designed it, it is the woman making demands of her husband, asking for nothing less than his absolute and undivided affection.
She goes on, "for love is as strong as death; it's jealousy unyielding as the grave." Sounds a bit strange. How is marriage like death? I remember doing a wedding once when the bride had this verse inscribed on the front of the wedding program. It caught people by surprise; it caught me by surprise, especially since it was my sister who was getting married! But when you look at it closely, you realize what a profound statement it's making. Death is the only force on Earth that never loses; it relentlessly pursues its object and always attains it. It is unyielding and uncompromising. No one escapes it; no one conquers it.
So it is, the woman is saying, with the love between a husband and a wife. Marriage, as God designed it, gives way to nothing and no one. It stands any test—time, trouble, temptation. It's the kind of commitment we read about in 1 Corinthians 13: "Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails."
In an age when far too many people give up on marriage far too easily, we need to show people that marriage as God designed it is permanent; it will not give way to the forces that would undo it. Remember, it hasn't been all wine and roses for this newly married couple. The honeymoon ended pretty quickly, with disappointment and conflict, even heartache. That happens in marriage, on a pretty regular basis.
Life has been pretty hectic around our house for the past few weeks; there's been a lot going on at church and at home. It's been pretty exhausting and pretty distracting. Last night, Karen asked me what I was preaching about. I told her, "marriage." She asked me what I was going to say about it. I said, "I'm going to talk about how great it is." She was quiet for a minute, then said, "I hope you're not going to base it on the past few weeks." Marriage isn't always easy. There are dry spells and difficult seasons. Sometimes it's just the stress and strain of everyday life; sometimes it's much more serious and prolonged—a debilitating illness, chronic financial troubles, emotional issues, parenting conflict. Husbands and wives are committed to loving one another through those seasons; they are relentless in their pursuit of fulfillment and oneness.
"It's jealousy unyielding as the grave." There are two relationships in the Bible in which jealousy is allowed. God is allowed to be jealous for His people, and husbands and wives are allowed to be jealous for one another. In fact, they have to be.
There are all kinds of interlopers that threaten to come between husbands and wives. Work, children, a third party, fantasizing about another partner or a different life, addictions of various kinds. In a great marriage, partners are jealous for one another's affection. They refuse to allow anyone or anything to come between them. They'll fight for one another's affection and loyalty. There are times when a husband or wife needs to speak up and say, "things aren't working right. Something needs to change. We need help."
I remember a fine young man I worked with in another church. He was hired as a part-timer while he was in seminary, and was so dedicated and effective that he worked his way into a full-time position. He and his wife moved off campus to be closer to the church. They started a family. He was just about to graduate and settle into a promising position with a growing church. They had a great future ahead of them in ministry. One day the senior pastor of the church got a phone call from the young man's wife. She told him through her tears that her husband had a problem with pornography. She had been begging him to get help with it, but he refused. She finally told him that if he didn't tell someone, she would. He chose to get in the car and run away, so she placed the call. "I don't know where he is, or what he's going to do, but this just can't go on."
She knew when she made that call that she was jeopardizing his reputation, his career in ministry, and the future they dreamed of and worked toward for years. But she was so jealous for her husband's affection, so uncompromising in her desire for a fulfilling marriage, she was prepared to risk everything in that pursuit. He ended up coming home. He got some help. They ended up leaving the ministry, deciding that the stress of it wasn't going to be good for his well-being and their marriage. They're happily married today; he's successful in the marketplace, they're active leaders in their church. That young wife's jealousy for her husband's affection, that young husband's courage to face his demons and abandon his dream, saved their marriage and family.
Marriage, as God designed it, is permanent. Husbands and wives refuse to give way to the forces that would tear them apart; they're committed to finding a way to stay together. I understand that, in a fallen world, there are times when a marriage can be so damaged by sin, or become so dangerous because of sin, that some tragic choices must be made. Those are tragic choices with lifelong consequences, as anyone who's lived through it will tell you.
Is anyone or anything threatening your marriage today? What steps are you prepared to take to build a stronger, healthier marriage?
Marriage is passionate.
Finally, marriage as God designed it is great because it's passionate—the flame never dies. Verse 6b: "It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love, rivers cannot wash it away." The love between a husband and wife, the poet says, ought to burn. Sometimes it sizzles, sometimes it just smolders, but on a regular basis it ought to burst into flame. The most remarkable feature about Song of Songs is not the sexual imagery and intimacy, it's the passion these two married lovers express and demonstrate for one another. That's what the ancients and the medieval readers had the most difficulty with. Such passion between a husband and wife seemed unrealistic to them, first of all, and seemed less than holy. That's why this book is in the Bible—to make clear to us that this is the kind of love and romance and passion God has in mind for husbands and wives.
You wouldn't know that from watching movies and television. In Hollywood's universe, it's unmarried people who have all the passion. In most movies and sitcoms, married couples are always too tired, too busy, too lazy, or too distracted to enjoy each other or even to desire each other. That's not what God has in mind for husbands and wives. A great marriage refuses to settle for a predictable, passionless relationship. Husbands and wives find a way to get out together, alone, on a regular basis. They surprise each other with gifts and flowers and phone calls. They make arrangements to get away for an overnight once or twice a year. They do their best to be attractive to one another, to affirm one another. When you read Song of Songs you realize that the sexual intimacy and delight is set up by tender words and affectionate glances and even careful planning.
What can you do to stoke the flames of romance in your relationship? If you don't know, try asking your spouse.
"Many waters cannot quench love," the poet says. The pounding surf of everyday life, the rising tide of aging bodies, and even the occasional hurricane cannot smother the flames of love. A great marriage, as God designed it, is passionate.
And so it turns out that we really do have something to say about marriage. Something to say to people who are rushing into marriage carelessly, to people who are running from marriage in fear, and to people who want to redefine marriage according to their own needs and perspectives. We need to tell them that marriage, as God designed it, is a great idea. The idea of one man and one woman committed to one another in passionate, permanent, and procreative love.
In fact, the poet concludes by saying in verse 7b, "If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned." It's kind of a curious verse to interpret, and commentators have struggled with it for centuries. It wasn't until the sixties that a quartet of young, British theologians captured the poets' thought. It goes something like this: "I don't care too much for money, cause money can't buy me love." Or, to borrow a line from more contemporary culture—an average wedding these days costs about $21,000, but a great marriage is priceless.
And so we come to the end of the song and the end of the story: the story of a young woman feeling lonely, trapped, and undesirable, wondering if and when and how her longing to love and be loved might ever be satisfied. One day she spots her lover, and he her. They admire one another from afar for awhile. She worries that they might never get together. But suddenly there she is walking down the aisle, and later that night settling into the warm embrace of her lover. They have some difficult moments, but they work them out, and find themselves at the end of the song walking arm in arm into an uncertain future, but facing that future together. She's been rescued by love. A love that has satisfied her and set her free. A passionate, permanent, procreative love that has given birth to something new in her and through her.
It's a love song, to be sure. But it's about more than the love of a man for a woman. It's about the love of God for every man and every woman. It's not just this woman's story. It's everyone's story. The truth is, we're all lonely and trapped and undesirable. We fear that the longings of our hearts might never be fulfilled. But here comes God, in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, who loves us as we are, who calls us his Bride, who invites us to become one with him, and promises through that union to do something new, to make us into new people, and to gather us into a new community—a community of love called the kingdom of God.
Romance is sacred. Sex is beautiful. Marriage is a great idea. But the truth is that no human love, no human being, can ever fully satisfy us or save us. The only love that can satisfy us forever and set us free to become the men and women we were meant to be, is the love of God, offered to us through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.