This is a sermon I gave for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (3 September 2000) at Walker Valley UMC (Walker Valley, NY). The Scriptures were Song of Solomon 2: 8 – 13, James 1: 17 – 27, and Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14 – 15, 21 – 23.
I will admit that when I knew that the Old Testament reading for today came from the Song of Solomon I had my thoughts. After all, as the commentary notes, because of its explicit language, both ancient and modern Jewish sages forbade men to read the book before they were thirty. This ban probably prevented any women from reading it at any age. We cannot ignore the sexual content of the book but we can appreciate it if we understand the context in which it was placed, that of a godly and loving marriage.
If the Bible is the book about God, then what is the purpose of the Song of Solomon? If you read the whole book, you will find that with the possible exception of the 6th verse in chapter 8 there are no references to God nor are there any references to prayer, worship, or piety. In some respects, it bears a strong similarity to the Book of Esther, from which we will take an Old Testament reading from in a few weeks. Ester is a story of the redemption of God’s people and includes episodes of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving, themes remarkable absent from Solomon’s poetic story.
But we have to remember that the Bible not only describes who God is and what God does but also what God desires for His people. The Song of Solomon provides an example of how we are to live in happiness and fulfillment. It would be wrong to suggest that the full experience of humanity is limited to those who are married because that would eliminate the widowed, the divorced, and the celibate. And we have to remember that Jesus was one who was celibate. With its emphasis on human love, the Song of Solomon presents an extraordinary variety of expressions for love.
While some may see in the Song of Solomon allegories describing the love of God for Israel or the mythical relationship of our own Lord Jesus Christ and His bride, the church, it is not necessary to do so in order to understand the book. The Song of Solomon celebrates the beauty and intimacy of married love in a narrative poem. It teaches us that a lasting marriage requires dedication, commitment, and strong loyalty. And for all that our modern society may say about love and sexuality today, the Song of Solomon, taken in its entirety, probably presents the strongest argument for chastity before marriage.
Within in the context of today’s society, in which so many things bring with them a throwaway mentality, it is easy to see why people would have difficulty with this book of the Bible. Concepts like dedication, commitment, and loyalty seemingly no longer have a place in today’s society where everything is throwaway or its value is superficial.
To some extent that was the point Jesus made to the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. In speaking to the Pharisees in the Gospel reading today, Jesus warned them about the hypocrisy that they showed.
In coming to see Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees were looking to see if Jesus put the same importance on issues as they did. The tradition of the elders that Jesus spoke was a series of rules meant to bolster the ceremonial law but there was no authority for these rules in the scriptures. Jesus pointed out in verses 6 through 13 of today’s reading that God’s law was superior to man-made tradition and there was a great difference between ceremonial and true moral defilement.
. By the time of Christ, the Pharisees’ dedication was not to God’s law but to the laws of man. When the laws of God were first given to the Hebrews, they were held in such esteem that those who studied them would not write down their thoughts on them, lest they tempt later generations to consider such words just as important as God’s Law. But as time went on, written commentaries, collected in Talmud, assumed greater authority than the Torah itself. The meaning and reason for the law got lost in the ceremony and ritual that was attached to each action.
The reason why we do something has to have more attached to it that ceremony and ritual. It is what we do with what we have that determines what we will be. Some people have a hard time with the Letter of James, from which we took our second reading today. If given half the chance, Martin Luther would have dropped it from the New Testament. For the emphasis of James is on what you do with life and Luther, as well as Paul, felt that it was your faith that saved you, not your works as stated throughout James. The Letter of James is far more practical than it is doctrinal. James can be seen as the manual by which we lead our lives.
But faith and works go hand in hand. Faith will bring a person to salvation and works will bring that person to faithfulness. The reality is that if you have faith, then works will be the product of that faith. James points out that faith without works is dead and those who believe will act.
James spoke to the same points that Jesus did. If our actions are not supported by our thoughts and if our thoughts are not guided by Christ, then our actions ultimately will fail.
This is all about how we arrange our lives. Each day we all worship at some sort of altar. It may not be a visible one nor may it actually be in a church. But each day, as we proceed, we worship as some sort of an altar, if for no other reason that it is part of human nature to do so. Wherever we are giving our utmost attention at that moment, wherever our greatest amount of time and energy are, that is where the altar lies. And for many of us, that altar is a cluttered one, pile high with big and little priorities that we shift from place to place, attending to each one with as much attention and devotion as needed.
When Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple, he anger was not directed at their business as such but rather at the manner in which that business was being conducted. Jesus knew that the Temple’s alter was meant to be kept clean for its true business, that of prayer. “My father’s house is a house of prayer but you have made it a den of thieves!”, He said. (Matthew 21: 13)
When Jesus first started his ministry, Satan tried very hard to put many things on Jesus’ altar. Though the offer of bread, human adulation, and the keys to the world would be attractive to almost anyone, Jesus swept each one off the altar and kept it clean.
What is on each of our altars? What does each of us worship with our time and our talents? When we leave the house each morning, which god will we be serving today? And when we come home at night, what new gods are dumped on the altar, as if we emptying our pockets and shopping bags? This altar can be a lot like the table that stands by the door, a place to unload everything as we walk into the house and a place which needs daily maintenance to keep it clean and free of clutter.
It’s easy to pick up the gods of the culture we live in. Recall that the golden calf that the Israelites made was an Egyptian god, not one of theirs. Throughout all their time in Egypt, they had become accustomed to seeing various animals worshiped. Many people today, Christians included, worship “success in business” or “self-righteousness” far more that they worship the God Jesus knew and spoke of.
What’s love got to do with it? To borrow from the song that Tina Turner sang, it is more than a second hand emotion. It is perhaps everything. James Allen wrote,
“And you, too, youthful reader, will realize the Vision (not the idle wish) of your heart, be it base or beautiful, or a mixture of both, for you will always gravitate toward that which you, secretly, most love. Into your hands will be placed the exact results of your own thoughts; you will receive that which you earn; no more, no less. Whatever your present environment may be, you will fall, remain, or rise with your thoughts, your Vision, your ideal. You will become as small as your controlling desire; as great as your dominant aspiration . . ..
In all human affairs there are efforts, and there are results, and the strength of the effort is the measure of the result. Chance is not. “Gifts,” powers, material, intellectual, and spiritual possessions are the fruits of effort; they are thoughts completed, objects accomplished, visions realized.
The Vision that you glorify in your mind, the Ideal that you enthrone in your heart — this you will build your life by, this you will become. (From As A Man Thinketh by James Allen)
We know that God gave us His only Son because of love. What we do with our lives is to show others what the love means to us.