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The Invitation
a sermon based on Song of Solomon 2:8-13
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall

We begin this morning by joining a rabbinical council at Jamnia in the year AD 90. Jerusalem has been ravaged and lies in heaps; that's why we're several miles to the east in the village of Jamnia because Jews were not even allowed to go near Jerusalem. We're here to listen to these rabbis decide which books out of hundreds of Jewish religious writings will be recognized as the authoritative books of their faith. We join them as they discuss the Song of Songs. "Too sexy," an older rabbi protests. "It's like one of them Harlequin novels. We'll sin by just reading the book," he continues, "and break the Law." Many heads nod and the hum made by hundreds of men agreeing fills the room. "And besides," says another, "God's name is not even mentioned once in the entire book!" More nods and now even shouts of agreement.

The Song of Songs gives us no moral precepts or sacred history, so of what value is it to us? I say we get rid of this dangerous book, this, this, this love-making manual." An elderly man rises and the deference paid him is immediate. "I don't know about such things as you discuss; but this I do know; when I read this sacred book I feel young again, in love all over again. I remember the beauty of the woman I loved for over forty-four years. Is it wrong to have passion, to love, to admire the body of a lover? For me, I see the fingerprints of God on this book. I say let's keep it." Well, the debate continued all that day and the next. But amazingly, at the end of the discussion, the book-a portion of which we hold in our hands this morning-was accepted as Scripture. And when it came time for Christians to do the same--to draw up their list of official Scriptures--books that they saw God's fingerprints on--they also included the Song of Songs and without debate at all.

In fact, in less than two centuries after Jamnia, Rabbi Akiba could say of this love-laden book that "all the ages are not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel." And it fared even better among Christians. It topped the best seller list for eight centuries. It spawned more commentaries between the sixth and fifteenth centuries than other book in the entire Bible.

But why? Why did both Jewish and Christian scholars believe that this erotic book had the fingerprints of God all over it? After all, it is true that God's name is never once mentioned. No precepts, laws, principles; no sacred history appears. So why do we have the Song of Songs? This book is strong evidence that God blesses marriage and sexual love; and God's little book reminds us that the joys, the pleasures of love have their honored place among the people of God. This book is for you if your marriage needs some spice; if you've forgotten what attracted you to each other, if you need a refresher course in how to treat that person that you've lived and loved with. But that's not the only reason why this book is valuable to us. I hope you'll discover with me this morning an even more important reason why this is such a valuable book.

So be prepared for romance! Smell the cologne or perfume wafting across the room. See the eyes of someone you've had feelings for bearing down on you. Put your favorite CD on the on the system and listen to the Song of Songs:

The voice of my beloved! 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 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 turtle dove 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.

Song of Songs 2:8-13

Shulamith, a young maiden, is awaiting her wedding day. She lives in a village along the slopes of the beautiful mountain range in Lebanon. She works in northern Galilee as an olive picker, a peasant's job. Now back home in the country, she sees her suitor coming to pay her a visit. He comes leaping and springing across the mountain tops. Reminds me of scene right out of Peppe le Pew, a love-crazed, French skunk who would leap from peak to peak, bounding over the hills in hot pursuit of his love--a cat who unfortunately ran into a paint can and ended up with a white stripe down her back. Nothing would squelch the love that this skunk for his beloved. Not pots and pans thrown at him, or a skillet bonked over his head, nor sticks of dynamite strategically placed in his breakfast. Love conquers all; and at the end of the cartoon, the cat finally acquiesces to this love-sick skunk and lives happily ever, wearing of course, a clothes pin over her nose. Love conquers all.

Like Peppe, Shulamith's suitor bounds up the mountains and leaps from peak to peak with speed and agility. Nothing will hinder him from seeing his beloved. Peasants would put boards in their windows that could be turned open and shut by turning the boards. There he stands to make sure Shulamith will hear him. "Ahem," he clears his voice for his rehearsed speech. "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone." It's springtime the suitor reminds Shulamith, and he wants to take her backpacking into the mountains. He has apparently listened to the weather report on the way over and knows that the time is right: the flowers are out, the turtledove is cooing, the figs and vines are in blossom and their aroma is enchanting. So this young man invites his beloved to join him. For an afternoon, for a springtime, for a lifetime. She must decide what she wants to do with this invitation.

I remember many years ago mouthing similar words; I wasn't into this bounding and leaping stuff, but I was captured by a young woman. The letters of those weeks and months were my highest priority. Never a moment went by without thinking of her. Didn't matter what I was doing. She was never far from me in my thoughts. I'm kind of old-fashioned, I guess, so I popped the question one night. Then I waited hung in limbo for several agonizing, terror-filled seconds. I had given the invitation. I had offered this person that I enjoyed being with a commitment of my life; an offer to embrace for a lifetime, to struggle, fight, raise kids, love, nurse through sickness and health for a lifetime. What if she said no. What is she threw off my invitation with a mocking laugh? What if she had no feelings for me? But on the other hand, what if she said yes? That was even scarier! Had I signed my life away? Had I locked the door and swallowed the key? Did I truly love and cherish this person? Could I cherish her for a lifetime?

Some of you have stood at this or another altar and said these words:


In the name of God
I take you to be my ...,
To have and to hold
from this day forward,
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
until we are parted by death.
This is my solemn vow.

Behind those words is that invitation; and those terror-filled moments of pondering or discussing; of waiting for the no or yes. Of wondering if you've done the right thing. And for better or worse you've walked down the aisle to formally announce that you accept each other's invitation to share life together. For some the shared life has been a hard road to walk. For others, the road has been relatively smooth. But for all of us--we took the risk of responding to the invitation.

This scenario is not in everyone's script. But there is one sense in which this intimacy of human relationship and intimacy is true of all of us--whether married or divorced, separated or single. And that's the other reason--the real reason--why the Song of Songs had the fingerprints of God all over it. For standing down at the altar is another lover. One who has loved you every single day of your entire life. There is not a day that goes by but what you are not thought of and loved. Like a strong, wild goat or a gazelle bounding over the mountains, this lover has pursued you since your birth. And this one knows you so well. Stands at your lattice and knows when you sit down and get up. Knows what your deepest aspirations are and what your most dismal failures are. But nothing--not even your failures--makes you less attractive to this suitor. Even today this one pursues you, seeks you; stands at your window with an invitation. This lover says, "Rise up, my darling; my fairest, come away."

How do you respond to such overtures? Some continue to repel this lover as a hopeless romantic. Others say yes, hoping that that will get rid of this pesky suitor. Most try to ignore these amorous invitations. Too risky. School's beginning. Don't have time, sorry. My career is taking off. Educated people don't need God. I'm too old. Too young. I'm already married. So the Lover stays outside the house looking in, watching for any change in the object of his/her love.

This is the real story behind the story. God stands at the altar as the lover of our souls. And God says before you,


I loved you before you knew me
I take you to be mine,
To have and to bear,
from this day forward,
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,

But when we come to this till death do us part line, we notice that it's been scratched out. Because even death does not end God's love for those who respond to his gracious invitation in Christ. So say yes to the invitation to become close friends with God. Say yes to a relationship that promises new adventure. And discover that life can be a romance, that even desert can become springtime with flowers and turtledoves an fig trees--that is, when you strike up a relationship with the world's greatest lover. Amen.