Back to Index

Better Than Wine
August 28, 1994


As you heard the Scripture lesson read this morning, some of you may have wondered if we were eavesdropping on a couple's love songs to each other. Erotic love songs in the Bible, surely not! Ah, but surely, yes--unabashed, unashamed, let's shout it to the heavens! The Song of Solomon, called The Song of Songs in some translations, is a collection of love poems, written by a woman and a man to each other, who discovered one of God's most beautiful gifts, the gift of romantic, sexual love. Indeed, 4:10, how much better is your love than wine.

The Song of Songs is a poem to the joys of erotic love. It is so giddy with the intoxicating charms of sensual love that, like young lovers kissing in a public place, it seems not to care who else is around or what they might think of such carrying on. The lovers linger over every inch of each other in voluptuous celebration, savoring each other's physical characteristics. The Song of Solomon is almost enough to get the Bible banned from public libraries! It is probably a good thing religion is not taught in the public schools, because the self-appointed righteous watchdog censors would probably get the Bible banned because of the vivid imagery of the Song of Solomon! If young adolescents ever happened upon this torrid little book, they might begin to read the Bible with flashlights under their blankets at night!

Does it surprise you that these two lovers, so open with their love, made it into holy Scripture? The Song of Songs doesn't even mention God. It made the cut because the authorship is attributed to King Solomon, and because the prudes allegorized it. St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached 86 sermons on the Song of Songs as an allegory for Christ's love for the church. 86 sermons can take the joy out of any subject, but one wonders if St. Bernard protesteth too much! Biblical interpreters and preachers have rarely known what to do with this love poetry. Usually we ignore it. Have you ever heard a sermon before on the Song of Solomon? As far as I can remember, and according to the sermons I have kept, this is the first time I have ever preached on it. Give preachers a rule, a law, some platitude or grim admonition, and we're off to the races. Give us a lazy summer afternoon with two lovers on a blanket in the park, and we get nervous!

The location of the Song of Solomon in the Bible is inspired. It is located between Ecclesiastes, written by a depressed cynic who concluded that it was not only better to be dead than alive, but better than both is to have never been born; and Isaiah with its call to repentance as the nation crumbles, and after the nation is conquered by Babylon, Isaiah describes in graphic imagery the suffering that will be required of the Messiah. Between cynicism and repentance, between depression and suffering, sits the Song of Solomon, like a diamond glittering with its exuberant celebration of romantic love.

Were it not for the Song of Solomon, we might conclude that romantic love belongs to Hollywood and foreign to our faith. We might conclude that Christianity is a way of life without romance, that romantic love is somehow debased, or less than the pure love Christians should have for one another. But, praise God, the Song of Solomon proclaims and rejoices in God's beautiful gift of romantic love. We can have God, fidelity, salvation, all the higher expressions of agape love, and still have our romance and sex too! Even though God is not mentioned in the Song of Songs, the presence of God pulses through the romantic imagery. Romantic love-- physical love--has its origin in the God who is love.

Therefore, this is a sermon about love, a celebration of love. If you can relate to this sermon, give thanks to God. If you can't, you then have a wonderful experience to look forward to! Romantic love, in its early stages, hits you like you've rarely been hit, taking your breath away. You have butterflies in your stomach. It's like falling into a mound of jello. You are consumed, wanting to be constantly with her/him. You lose sleep. You can't eat. You resort to poetry even if you're not a poet. You want to run out into the middle of the mall and scream your beloved's name to anyone who will listen. Behavior of this sort is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual dislocation called love, or more accurately, infatuation.

If this initial period of infatuation continues for long, it will probably develop into romantic love, which is so beautifully depicted in the Song of Solomon. Romance is when two people feel they have united to form a new entity, a new thing in the world called a we. You move from an I to a we. To be in love with someone is to find your whole being tied up with your beloved, caring about what your beloved cares about, wanting to be where your beloved is. We call this phenomenon a couple. A couple is a new, distinct, complex identity. Jesus called it one flesh. The two shall become one, he said.

As a we, the couple now find it inconceivable that life could be lived without the other person. They feel their union was made in heaven, that God took a day off just to pair them. Being now a we, however, does not mean the dissolution of the I. It is a beautiful mystery how the former I becomes part of the we, and in so doing becomes a new, a better I. When you're in love, you are not merged with the other, nor is the other merged with you. You don't lose your identity, you discover it anew within the new phenomenon called a couple. You retain your identity so your beloved can love you for yourself. The Song of Songs goes on and on with poetic descriptions of the lover's feet, breasts, neck, toes. Every inch is loved.

No wonder that romantic love quickly finds sex as a vehicle of its expression. Physical love becomes the natural expression of romantic love. Nothing is more generous in wanting to share itself than love, nor is anything any greedier in wanting all, everything, all the way. But, sex is complicated, simple but complicated. Sex at its best is an expression of complete, wholehearted love for the other. The church, in its wisdom, having a healthy respect for the powerful sex desires, encourages couples to wait for marriage. Marriage is the public declaration of the covenant two people enter, declaring to the world they are a couple, declaring they are a we, and that they, in commitment to God and to one another, intend to live the rest of their lives together. Within that context, within that covenant, sex becomes a beautiful, physical act of union.

There is almost nothing more intimate and gracious you can do for another person than to love him/her. To expose yourself to the gaze of another, to risk being seen by that person in all your psychic and physical nakedness, to let your life get all mixed up in each other, is the ultimate in giving. One of the reasons monogamy is invariably linked to romantic love is that we cannot bear the thought of anyone else having access to so unique, so intensely a particular and intimate relationship in which we have thrown caution to the wind, in which we have so thoroughly enjoyed losing ourselves, by saying to another person, "I love you."

To be in love with someone is to find your whole being tied up with the beloved, to want to be wherever the beloved is, to want good things for him or her, to be willing to sacrifice for the good of the other. You want to share yourself, all of yourself, with your beloved, and you want all of your beloved in return. Separation is restless sorrow. In reunion the world seems complete again. Those who are caught up in such a love can catch a fragmentary, fleeting glimpse of the love God has for us.

We're talking about God's gift of love. Rejoice and give thanks. Keep it alive in your marriage. Keep the spark alive, and fan it to a blazing flame. Be romantic. Enjoy each other. If you are now alone, give thanks for your memories. It is better to have loved than to never have loved at all. Remember the writers of the Song of Songs, quivering at the thought of seeing one another. She speaks, Look, he a gazelle or a young stag. He exclaims, Arise, my love, my fair, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and appear on the earth; the time of singing has come.

Ah, love! Indeed, it is better than wine.

© 1994 Douglas I. Norris