The Song of Solomon is one of the oddest books to be included in the bible.  From the fact that to this day we can’t agree on a name (“Song of Solomon?”  “Song of Songs?” or even “Canticle of Canticles?”), to the fact that it is hard to find any teaching about God in it, this book is often ignored in preaching, bible studies, and discussion.  So we have to ask why it is in there at all.

Many have posited that it is a rather risque description of the deep love we have for God and that God has for us.  We collectively are the “she” of these verses and God is the “he”.  But even this feels forced, like we’re trying to Christianize (though being OT, it’s probably more accurate to say, “Yahweh-ize”) a Jewish love letter.

Many find it hard to preach this text due to its “PG-13” elements, frank discussion of lovers in love, and romanticism of our holy relationship with God.  But in reality, I believe that it is simply hard to find moral lessons in this book, and without a moral, it is neither parable, proverb, nor teachable poem.  So how does one preach it to a congregation looking for one more moral lesson to work on through the week?

The truth is, I don’t know.  But I do love things that shake up our traditional, staid and stoic view of God and faith, so we’re going to talk about it in the days to come, learn what we may.

The Song of Solomon is one of the oddest books to be included in the bible.  From the fact that to this day we can’t agree on a name (“Song of Solomon?”  “Song of Songs?” or even “Canticle of Canticles?”), to the fact that it is hard to find any teaching about God in it, this book is often ignored in preaching, bible studies, and discussion.  So we have to ask why it is in there at all.

Many have posited that it is a rather risque description of the deep love we have for God and that God has for us.  We collectively are the “she” of these verses and God is the “he”.  But even this feels forced, like we’re trying to Christianize (though being OT, it’s probably more accurate to say, “Yahweh-ize”) a Jewish love letter.

Many find it hard to preach this text due to its “PG-13” elements, frank discussion of lovers in love, and romanticism of our holy relationship with God.  But in reality, I believe that it is simply hard to find moral lessons in this book, and without a moral, it is neither parable, proverb, nor teachable poem.  So how does one preach it to a congregation looking for one more moral lesson to work on through the week?

The truth is, I don’t know.  But I do love things that shake up our traditional, staid and stoic view of God and faith, so we’re going to talk about it in the days to come, learn what we may.

10 Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

After Paul was called by Jesus Himself on the road to Damascus, he began his ministry by traveling to a number of churches in an area called Galatia.  This was just north and west of Antioch, his home base and sending church.  After traveling this route, Paul returned to Antioch to share his ministry and at some point wrote a letter back to these churches.  This letter is our book of Galatians.

As Paul begins his letter to the Galatian churches, he spends a lot of time defending himself from the complaint that he just made up this gospel he preached to win the favor of the people around him.  This complaint came from Jews who followed him from church to church, city to city.  Once he left a place, these Jews came in and began unraveling his teaching, his reputation, and even his gospel.  So in his letter back to the churches, he has to begin by defending his ministry.

In doing so, he states that pleasing people is in direct contradiction to being a servant of Christ.  I hear this touted regularly yet have not met a pastor who didn’t wrestle with this reality.  For younger pastors, it is often a matter of standing in the congregation or popularity.  While we all like people to say nice things about us, as we age we come to see that these things are pretty meaningless, to use Solomon’s phrase.  For older pastors, it is far more often about keeping a job since most churches are looking for younger pastors and jobs for 50+ year old pastors are hard to come by.

Would that we could all be like Paul, traveling and planting churches and bound to no individual church but rather to the goodness of The Church.  It would free us to preach the truth without fear of reprisal because we are too progressive, too conservative, too boring, or not a Leader.  Yet who of us has the faith to face all Paul faced in his ministry?  Lord, may we trust you more.

10 Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

After Paul was called by Jesus Himself on the road to Damascus, he began his ministry by traveling to a number of churches in an area called Galatia.  This was just north and west of Antioch, his home base and sending church.  After traveling this route, Paul returned to Antioch to share his ministry and at some point wrote a letter back to these churches.  This letter is our book of Galatians.

As Paul begins his letter to the Galatian churches, he spends a lot of time defending himself from the complaint that he just made up this gospel he preached to win the favor of the people around him.  This complaint came from Jews who followed him from church to church, city to city.  Once he left a place, these Jews came in and began unraveling his teaching, his reputation, and even his gospel.  So in his letter back to the churches, he has to begin by defending his ministry.

In doing so, he states that pleasing people is in direct contradiction to being a servant of Christ.  I hear this touted regularly yet have not met a pastor who didn’t wrestle with this reality.  For younger pastors, it is often a matter of standing in the congregation or popularity.  While we all like people to say nice things about us, as we age we come to see that these things are pretty meaningless, to use Solomon’s phrase.  For older pastors, it is far more often about keeping a job since most churches are looking for younger pastors and jobs for 50+ year old pastors are hard to come by.

Would that we could all be like Paul, traveling and planting churches and bound to no individual church but rather to the goodness of The Church.  It would free us to preach the truth without fear of reprisal because we are too progressive, too conservative, too boring, or not a Leader.  Yet who of us has the faith to face all Paul faced in his ministry?  Lord, may we trust you more.

The Theology of Suffering is something few preach about because it is not a very popular topic.  However, anyone who does finds an audience ready for the message because it is the reality of life.  A theology that shuns suffering is a theology that looks good on paper and in sermons but doesn’t resonate with the reality of life.  For to quote a popular movie of my day, “Life is pain, highness.  Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something.”

We love comfort and hope and optimism and good news.  But life gives us too much suffering for these to be anything but vapor, a chasing after the wind.  Sure there are good times in life, and we who are wealthy have more than our fair share of them.  But then we are struck with a sickness we didn’t earn, or a financial or family crisis we couldn’t have seen coming.  And suddenly our secretly works-based theology doesn’t work.  “What did I do to deserve this?” we ask.  “If I’d just been a better person, or not lied or cheated or stolen or killed, or if I had just earned a better lot in life.”  The first blessing of suffering is that it reveals the falseness of a works-based theology.  Today’s Proverbs tell us that bad people have good luck, and good people have bad luck, and things are inherently unfair when seen through a works-based, “getting what we deserve” theology.  Our only hope of clinging to this kind of thinking is to believe that we are so terrible that we deserve every bad thing that happens, and that any good thing that happens is just grace, or mercy, or luck.  Suffering strips away the falseness of a works-based theology.

Suffering also forces us to choose between God and anything else.  When cancer strikes, where will you turn, for healing or comfort?  When our kids leave the faith, where will we go for hope?  When we are oppressed by an unjust system that targets us and holds us down, where will we find justice?  Will we turn to our own protests or wisdom or power?  Will we turn to the powers of this world, whether political or popular?  Or will we turn to God?  The gospel by definition saves us, which is why it is so hard to be comfortable and “on fire for the gospel”, because without suffering we have little if anything to be saved from.

We need suffering to keep us humble, honest with our beliefs, and clinging to God in fear, or in anger, or in hope.  Suffering is not meaningless, but most other things in life are.

The Theology of Suffering is something few preach about because it is not a very popular topic.  However, anyone who does finds an audience ready for the message because it is the reality of life.  A theology that shuns suffering is a theology that looks good on paper and in sermons but doesn’t resonate with the reality of life.  For to quote a popular movie of my day, “Life is pain, highness.  Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something.”

We love comfort and hope and optimism and good news.  But life gives us too much suffering for these to be anything but vapor, a chasing after the wind.  Sure there are good times in life, and we who are wealthy have more than our fair share of them.  But then we are struck with a sickness we didn’t earn, or a financial or family crisis we couldn’t have seen coming.  And suddenly our secretly works-based theology doesn’t work.  “What did I do to deserve this?” we ask.  “If I’d just been a better person, or not lied or cheated or stolen or killed, or if I had just earned a better lot in life.”  The first blessing of suffering is that it reveals the falseness of a works-based theology.  Today’s Proverbs tell us that bad people have good luck, and good people have bad luck, and things are inherently unfair when seen through a works-based, “getting what we deserve” theology.  Our only hope of clinging to this kind of thinking is to believe that we are so terrible that we deserve every bad thing that happens, and that any good thing that happens is just grace, or mercy, or luck.  Suffering strips away the falseness of a works-based theology.

Suffering also forces us to choose between God and anything else.  When cancer strikes, where will you turn, for healing or comfort?  When our kids leave the faith, where will we go for hope?  When we are oppressed by an unjust system that targets us and holds us down, where will we find justice?  Will we turn to our own protests or wisdom or power?  Will we turn to the powers of this world, whether political or popular?  Or will we turn to God?  The gospel by definition saves us, which is why it is so hard to be comfortable and “on fire for the gospel”, because without suffering we have little if anything to be saved from.

We need suffering to keep us humble, honest with our beliefs, and clinging to God in fear, or in anger, or in hope.  Suffering is not meaningless, but most other things in life are.

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.  Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.  A dream comes when there are many cares, and many words mark the speech of a fool.

A member at a former church of mine shared the story of her visit to a Quaker worship service.  “I’ll never go to one of those again.  All they did was sit in a circle and meditate.  It was way too quiet for me.”  It’s a common complaint whether about an entire service or even a few seconds of one.  If there is a silence in a worship service, people get antsy and uncomfortable.  If that silence lasts more than a few seconds, they consider it a failure and complain so that it will never happen again.  Worship planners work hard to be sure there are not “gaps” in the service that will distract people from true worship.

But throughout scripture we find that God meets us in those gaps far more often than in the noise.  From Elijah’s “still, small voice” to this verse in Ecclesiastes, scripture surely seems to value quiet and even silence far more than we do.  Maybe we should be less interested in the noise of worship and spend more time in silence.  How about we work hard to “not be hasty in our hearts to utter anything before God.”

One of my favorite books, I’m a little hesitant to say, is “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”.  The humor, intellect, and wit throughout Douglas Adams’ books are so similar to the way my mind works that I deeply enjoyed these books which reflect my own thoughts far too often.  Thoughts like, “If the universe was truly infinite, then everything in the world should grow naturally somewhere.”  Adams makes this a reality with the constant reference to the inhabitants of Squornshellous Minor who exactly replicate our human mattresses.  In these books, we have not just created robots as artificial life forms, but have given them human personalities.  And one of these is Marvin, whose personality chip malfunctioned making him a clinically depressed robot.

Reading today, I felt like Ecclesiastes was written by Marvin, the Paranoid Android.  With its running theme of Meaninglessness, this book of Solomon is certainly depressing at first reading.  Solomon goes through all he has done to try to find meaning in life, and hasn’t found any meaningful.  Literally translated as “like vapor or fog”, Solomon says all of the things we fight so hard for and run after are fleeting, evaporating like breath on a cold winter day.

His first target is learning.  “Meaningless!” he cries, for there is always more to learn and even the learning disappears after a while and for good once you die.  Pleasure is next and as you might guess, “Meaningless!”  Ambition, beauty, wealth, power, even work itself is all a chasing after steam, never to be caught.  Nothing is meaningful, so you might as well find pleasure in your toil, Solomon says.  Like a depressed robot.

But looking closer, maybe there is some wise guidance in this after all.  Rather than moping around that this world’s achievements don’t mean anything, maybe Solomon has found the path to true happiness: unattachment.  To be free from the cries and pull of this world is to be free to pursue God as an end in Himself rather than as a means to accomplishing our own goals – heaven, righteous reputation, fulfillment.

Let go of the things this world offers, that your body desires, and that we have been taught are important.  Live knowing that everything will disappear besides your relationship with God, and you might just find the happiness these things were supposed to provide.

Anger has become the default position of our culture, and with devastating results, some hidden and some obvious.  We live in an age of angry protest, where we feel like we have a moral obligation to be angry about something.  And we are given enough surface victories through our protests to spur us on to more and more protests against more and more things.  From #blacklivesmatter to #MeToo, we see what looks like change in our society, yet the changes are small (“too little, too late” some are saying) and superficial.  I’m excited to see the number of black actors winning awards and women free to call out their oppressors.  But this is not the change we truly need.  What we truly need are changes of heart, not policy, and no protest is going to change a person’s heart (numerous psychological studies have proven this again and again); only the redemptive and transformative power of Jesus can do that.

This culture of anger has seeped, as it always seems to do, into our relationships, our personal lives, and our churches as well.  While the stereotypical “old gossip” of the church has always been around, we are seeing more and more people not just dissatisfied with churches but angry at them, and I’m not talking about abuse scandals or embezzlement.  Ordinary churches have become afraid to speak hard truths, minister to hard people groups, and upset their members for fear that the anger that is bubbling just under the surface might erupt.  And while we can all stand sanctimoniously and proclaim that churches shouldn’t care about angering people (Jesus did, after all), that doesn’t change the fact that angry people leave and shrinking churches get abandoned and pastors are fired no matter how much they emulate Jesus.

For as churning cream produces butter, and as twisting the nose produces blood, so stirring up anger produces strife.

Preach it, brother Agur.

At LCC, our primary focus is relationships, between each other and more importantly between us and God.  We talk about all the benefits of doing faith in community and a big one is often stated by quoting our Proverb for today…

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

Too often we only want to surround ourselves with people who think exactly like we do.  The slightest disagreement and we dissolve the relationship and seek others whose perspective is more in line with ours.  We become even more rabid about this when it comes to our kids, leaving any group with even a whiff of “heresy” as we’ve come to call even the slightest disagreement.

But it is the disagreements that help us to grow.  And yes, this goes for our children as well.  We need to have people who think differently than we do to help us expand our perspectives and grow as people and as Christ followers.  This is what the writer of this proverb means by “iron sharpening iron”.

Yes, of course there are limits.  We don’t suggest that brand new believers attend a cult to get another perspective.  But in the issues that are not salvation issues (issues about whether we deny Christ or rely solely on Him), it is healthy to have varying perspectives, to read books from those who think differently than us, and to listen to sermons from “the other side of the aisle”.

Sure, people who think just like we do can sharpen us with accountability, with though exercises, and with encouragement, but Jesus did not call us to insulate ourselves from the world let alone other Christians who hold a few different perspectives than we do.  In fact, the ones who elevated the importance of “building a hedge of protection around our particular beliefs” were the Pharisees, the only group Jesus ever treated as enemies.