“The Story of our Sex Lives” on Song of Songs 8:8-10 by Joe Ellis — September 24, 2023
This passage breaks all our rules about what is OK to talk about. It breaks the rule that says it’s a little weird to talk about our bodies with each other — especially the parts of our body that have to do with sexuality — especially in a family. It breaks our rule that it’s even more weird to talk about about our sexual activity — more specifically, that it’s awkward and strange to ask other people about their sexual activity, or what kind of boundaries they have around their sexuality, and how they safeguard those boundaries. This passage deals with something that is certainly strange to refer to in our current context—it deals with chastity. Chastity refers to the practice of refraining from extramarital sex, having boundaries around sex outside of marriage. C.S. Lewis said “Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. There is no getting away from it; the old Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’”
This passage confronts head on so many of our culture’s rules and values around sexuality. Our culture places so much energy into developing a vision of sexuality that entails maximum freedom and no restraint — it is very difficult to escape its gravitational pull. Exploring practical questions of boundaries around sex can feel somehow off or wrong in a world where the freedom to do whatever feels good is one of the highest values. The goal for this sermon is to help all of us imagine how we might develop faith-shaped sexual identity and sexual practices, and how we might even be able to talk about it with each other. Here is the main idea: the key to growing towards developing a faith-shaped sexual identity and sexual practices, is knowing the story we are in, and learning how to let that story in to shape each of us to the core.
So, let’s turn our attention to the poem. Here we meet the brothers again, and their goal is to try and ensure that their little sister is going to grow into developing a healthy sexuality and healthy boundaries. In this Ancient near-eastern culture, that was a role that these brothers were expected to play — protecting their little sister from suitors with untoward intentions. You may have picked up that their sister seems not just a little bit annoyed with her brothers.
In a moment I’m going to critique her brothers’ approach to the conversation around living out their sexuality, however, we need to say that having conversations around sex and sexuality is a healthy practice in a family, and in a church family. With kids, it should really be led by the parents in a way that helps kids feel safe, free of shame, and free to ask any sort of questions. We have really appreciated other families in this church who have recommended books to help us talk about sexuality with our kids — surprisingly, these books have been some of our kids favourite books to read. Of course, it would not be appropriate for an outside adult to teach another parent’s kids about sex — unless there were some fairly clear conversations between the parents and the other adult. But regarding adults talking with adults about each other’s sexual activity or practice of abstinence — that’s a good thing. But again, how we do this matters. In her book called Real Sex, Lauren Winner says that before talking to someone about sex and sexuality, she’d first make sure that “we enjoyed relationships built on top of hundreds of ordinary shared experiences—plays attended together and pumpkins carved together and accompanying one another on doctors appointments and changing the oil together… community doesn’t come about simply by having hard, intimate conversations. Having hard intimate conversations is part of what is possible when people are already opening up their day-to-day lives to one another.”
Now the goal that the bothers have in mind is safeguarding their sister’s chastity until the day she is spoken for—in other words, her wedding day. The Christian and Jewish view of sex is that it is an incredibly powerful act—it binds people together, it creates human beings, it mirrors the relationship between Christ and His beloved Church — marriage is truly the only container that can safely contain the wonderful gift of sex. The brothers are wondering how they guarantee that their sister will live into this goal. They hope that she is a wall, impervious and impenetrable to the advances of men with untoward intentions. But they say that if she is like a door, if she seems to be willing to let young men go in and out as they please, then they will barricade her door with cedar boards.
This ‘board-em-up’ strategy towards promoting chastity amongst girls has been especially common in Christian circles — and girls and women have been especially burdened in Christian families and culture with a bunch of anxious men trying to board up their sexuality in the name of chastity. A while back, I heard some women tell of their dad’s attempts at boarding them up—as kids, he wouldn’t let them wear brightly coloured clothing, he wouldn’t let them paint their nails, he especially would not let them wear lipstick. Promoting chastity by boarding up femininity is often more about men trying to anxiously establish power and control rather than promoting something godly. Of course, as we guide young people of both genders, boards or boundaries can be helpful. Establishing curfews, teaching about our bodies and how we present ourselves and interact with others , working out dating boundaries, having accountability measures on the internet (like Covenant Eyes) and placing barriers around accessing adult material online — these are all really helpful boards that can help keep young people safer as they grapple with desire and grow to understand their sexuality. But if one’s only strategy is mainly about erecting boards and walls through all stages of age and maturity, it can be a very destructive and ineffective strategy that’s eventually going to backfire. Our sexuality is not meant to be perpetually boarded up. We want to find healthy ways to express our sexuality and this will always be within particular boundaries, but those boundaries are not meant to suffocate or squash our sexuality. When people, especially men, pray to God about unwanted sexual desire, I think that we often ask God to basically board up our sexuality. “Oh God, please board up my desire.” I don’t think that prayer is often answered the way we’d like, because we’re asking God to board up a crucial part of who we are. I think our sister in this poem shows us another way.
We see her respond with a strong push back against her brothers. She defiantly says, “Get away from me with your boards, I am a wall! You needn’t worry about my chastity! And regarding your patronizing words about my physical immaturity — in case you haven’t noticed, my breasts are like towers!” I just want you to note how confident and assertive she is — she is not just meekly cowering before her brothers saying, “Yes, come to me with your boards.” She is a strong, confident, woman with a robust sense of her own sexuality, and this poem celebrates her for it. Yet, what I really want us to hear is what she says next: after saying that she is a wall, that her brother’s don’t need to worry about her being an open door to men, she says, “Thus I will in his eyes be like one who brings peace.” She’s talking about her future husband. She is currently living as a wall so that she will be in his eyes like one who brings peace, Shalom. Here we have something other than boards to help foster a person’s sexual identity and practices. That is story. She is shaping her life and her sexuality to fit into a particular story — she is a wall in the present so that when she finally opens her doors to her beloved, they will live out their days in Shalom.
Tim Keller defines Shalom as “the webbing together of God and humanity with all creation, to create universal flourishing and wholeness.” Shalom is God weaving everything in creation to flourish together in harmony. Practicing Shalom can be simply the mundane day to day activity of doing the dishes or loving your neighbour, and practicing Shalom can also be cosmos shaping events, like God sending His one and only Son to rescue this world. These big and small acts of faithfulness are moving the story we’re in towards the same climax — Shalom.
Our sister in the poem knows the story that she wants to be a part of, and she is shaping her life around that story. It’s worth contrasting for a moment our sister’s story with the story we often hear in contemporary movies and shows. Here is perhaps the most common story we hear: Guy and girl are alone, and they’re incomplete because they’re alone. Salvation comes with their meeting each other. To find salvation, they must overcome dangers and barriers to their love. Heaven comes to Earth when they finally embrace, becoming complete and whole in one another — this climaxes in the ecstasy of sex… and then the movie is over. There is something captivating about these stories, which is why we watch ‘love stories’ over and over. However, the story is incredibly incomplete. We don’t see how this commitment is lived out ten, twenty, or thirty years down the road. Our culture is stuck in telling this story because we don’t have a collective vision for what it looks like to live out our sexuality or desire outside of this script. Where are the movies about couples living into promises they made twenty years into their marriage that aren’t full of cynicism? Where are the movies about single people having rich, full lives in community with one another? Where are the movies about someone living out chastity in a way that is compelling and inspiring? Our culture simply cannot tell a story beyond that incredibly narrow window of human experience.
I recently watched Top Gun — Maverick, which tells the story of a fighter pilot who is seems stuck at the age of 21. Though he’s actually about 60, he’s the same pilot he was when he was 21, he plays football like he’s 21, he looks as fit and sexy as any 21 year old, and he is in relationships like he’s 21. Instead of a story about a 60 year old man who has lived a truly satisfying married life, journeying with another person through thick and thin, and growing in maturity together— or a truly satisfying life as a single man growing in deep relationships with his church family and growing into maturity, he is stuck in the cycle being an incomplete single man, overcoming obstacles to love, finding embrace, and then the relationship falls apart and he starts all over—to distract from this bleak picture, he flies a plane really well.
Our sister in the Song of Songs shows that she has been shaped by an altogether different story. As a single adult she cultivates a life of Shalom, a life of well-being, a life of peace and contentment. She is comfortable in her sexuality and her singleness. She lives her life in a way that should she marry, she will be able to live a life of Shalom with her husband till the end of her days — she expects that she will grow in maturity and commitment to another person. This is a different story than we’re used to, but she’s apparently heard these different stories. Perhaps she been warned by stories of some people whose sexual choices led away from Shalom, perhaps she’s heard other stories of people who journeyed deeper into Shalom with their faith community. Perhaps she saw single adults leading Shalom-full lives. Perhaps she saw married couples living lives of Shalom. These stories have shaped her story, and the way she lives into her own story. The story she wants to live is all about Shalom. It’s the story of Shalom that shapes her sexual identity, not boarding up her sexuality.
Once again, the word Shalom is such a multi-levelled word. Individuals can experience Shalom, couples and families can experience Shalom, cities and nations can experience Shalom, and in all of these realms — Shalom is a gift from God. In fact, the history of this woman’s people is all about God leading her people out of slavery and into Shalom. The history of her people is about making choices that lead towards or away from Shalom. The history of her people is God always taking steps to lead them back toward Shalom. Her people are waiting for the Messiah to come, who would finally, one day, lead them into God’s everlasting Shalom. Hers are a people in search of Shalom, and they pursue this Shalom in both the little decision and big decisions. She is mindful of the way her own Shalom plays into God’s great plan to gift Shalom to all His people. She makes small Shalom-shaped choices in the present, shaping herself to be a person of Shalom, mindful that she is participating into God’s own Shalom shaped story.
Maybe I’m reading a lot into her words, but I’m not the only one who pairs shaping our sex life around the story of God and His people. When you read the the Apostle Paul’s council on how we are to live out our sexuality, he always incorporates our choices and actions into the bigger story: Don’t keep having sex with prostitutes, he tells the Corinthian Christians, “Don’t you know that you’re becoming one flesh with them? You are already one with Christ, are you going to unite a prostitute with Christ in such a way?” Paul frames their sexual practices within the bigger story. To the Ephesians he says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Can you hear the bigger story shaping relationship between husband and wife? To singles, like himself, he says that their station in life is best, because a single adult can be “concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord.” Paul has freedom to live into God’s story with an absolute fullness that married people cannot enjoy. Paul always frames how we live out our sexuality within the story of God leading His people into Shalom through the faithfulness of the our Lord, the Messiah.
Framing our sexuality and sexual practices within the story arch of God’s story of bringing Shalom to this Earth has far greater power than any amount of boards we can pile up on a person, and all the threats of what should happen if the board should break. Boards can and do break, yet stories endure forever. God’s story is wide, expansive, with space to grow higher, wider and deeper into who he has created us to be. Broken boards just indicate failure. But God’s story has room for the sad reality that none of us will live out our sexual lives in a perfect, Shalom-filled way. Boards are broken and cast aside, walls fall down, doors are opened too soon. When this happens, sometimes there is shame, sometimes the experience is wild and exhilarating, yet often these other stories move toward a barrenness of Shalom. The beauty of the Christian story is that our story is one of God perpetually inviting his children back into Shalom, no matter how far we’ve lost the plot.
May we be people who learn to inhabit God’s story with the deepest part of our selves. May our families be families of the story. May our community be a community of the story, so that we can remind and welcome each other into living lives immersed in God’s story. May it be that whenever we, or our kids, or our friends, whoever, when we begin living into one of those alternative stories — may the beauty of Christ’s story of restoration continue to bring us back to His Shalom. Other stories inevitably run dry. May God’s story rise up, may we return to His welcoming us with open arms back into the story of His Kingdom, His Shalom, His Son.