Naked and Unashamed: Desire
Song of Solomon 5: 2-8
2 I slept, but my heart was awake.
Listen! my beloved is knocking.
‘Open to me, my sister, my love,
my dove, my perfect one;
for my head is wet with dew,
my locks with the drops of the night.’
3 I had put off my garment;
how could I put it on again?
I had bathed my feet;
how could I soil them?
4 My beloved thrust his hand into the opening,
and my inmost being yearned for him.
5 I arose to open to my beloved,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with liquid myrrh,
upon the handles of the bolt.
6 I opened to my beloved,
but my beloved had turned and was gone.
My soul failed me when he spoke.
I sought him, but did not find him;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
7 Making their rounds in the city
the sentinels found me;
they beat me, they wounded me,
they took away my mantle,
those sentinels of the walls.
8 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
if you find my beloved,
tell him this:
I am faint with love.
We continue our sermon series, “Naked & Unashamed,” that reflects on what it means to be both faithful and sexual beings. Last week we talked about intimacy – how it is modeled in the relational nature of a triune God and how it goes beyond the bedroom to a deeper expression and experience of knowing, and connection, and love. This week we’re taking a look at desire.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit this week on what it means to desire and how we experience desire. Is desire a longing? A yearning? Wanting? Anticipation? Hoping? Is it the irresistibility of something deep within our being? Is it triggered by seeing someone so yummy that is stirs up something powerful within us? Is it an irresistible craving that applies the same to both my desire for barbecue AND my desire for my beloved? Maybe….but those DO seem different, or at least that they SHOULD be different. And what’s the difference between lust and libido anyway? Desire seems to be reflective of our wants, but is more than a superficial fix can quench. It taps into a hunger deep in our bellies.
What does that look like in the world? To me, it looks a lot like Beyoncé and Jay-Z singing “Drunk in Love” at the Grammy’s in 2014 (for reference). The lyrics and the performance demonstrate a deep desire for the other where they just can’t keep their eyes, fingers, bodies off of each other. Can’t keep you eyes of my fatty, daddy. I want you. Na naaa. Watching this incredible moment live and then hearing all the criticism of it being too steamy or “tacky,” “immoral,” in the days that followed (mostly by pearl-clutching white folks)...I was so confounded. Were they watching the same show I was? Because I just saw two grown folks with self-confidence and agency make the marriage relationship look sexier and honestly more desirable than I’ve ever seen. They modeled a “can’t wait to get you home” desire that is healthy, and good, and holy.
In this biblical text from the Song of Solomon, we see in our sacred stories a place for desire. It’s a fairly short book of the bible and pretty readable, so I’d encourage you to read the whole thing this week as we’ll be looking at it again next Sunday. In these verses we see a femme lover describe her longing for her mate. It is a desire so great that she says “her inmost being yearns for him.” She seeks after him through the streets of the city, and calls for him. She tells her friends that in his absence she is faint with love. And in the context of the whole book, which is primarily written in a woman’s voice, we are also shown that desire is neither exclusively male nor female, but that ALL of God’s creation is designed with desire. These two go back and forth describing one another and their bodies and their beauty and desirability in ways that would cause those pearl-clutching moralists to blush. “Your lips are like crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. Your neck is like the tower of David, built in courses; on it hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of warriors. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, the feed among the lilies (4:3-5).” “His legs are alabaster columns, set upon bases of gold. His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as the cedars. His speech is most sweet, and he is altogether desirable (5:15-16).” If you need some erotic love letter inspiration, the Bible has you covered.
But we also see that this desire is not a fleeting sentiment, one that would be easily squelched by inconvenience or even adversity. You see, in the setting of this song and the time and culture it’s written in, women were not allowed to be out in the street by themselves and most certainly not at nighttime. I’m sure these policies were sold to the people as necessary in order to protect a woman’s safety. And yet, knowing this, this femme lover goes out anyway…to seek the object of her desire, the one whom her soul loves. And it means that when the soldiers find her in violation of these rules and expectations, she is beaten and wounded. Sacred desire is more than capable of crossing the lines of convention. We see God’s blessing, God’s declaration that that which the world rejects and restricts is still good and holy.
At the same time, I think it is also healthy and good and holy to ask…what is the object of our desire? Is it satisfaction, peace, connection, wholeness, joy? Or is it something else? Is it something self-serving at the expense of another? Is it something I’m using to distract or numb myself from some other hurt or need? Is this life-giving desire or destructive desire? There are beautiful biblical expressions of desire but also experiences of desire that are destructive - desiring a person or a drug or approval, or perfection, or…anything…so much so that we get lost.
The subject of this text must wrestle and discern the nature of her desire as well. She has to decide if this desire is worth getting out of bed and violating curfew. Is it worth the trouble? Is the danger I face a healthy warning or an oppressive limitation of the divine? This work of discernment, of understanding and seeking clarity is hard. And it is messy. I feel like every tool or measurement I can offer and know to be true can also be contradicted.
And there are other texts in the bible that warn us AGAINST desires of the flesh. Galatians 5:16-21 reads:
16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.17For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
I’m going to zero in on the very first work of the flesh to push for a little more clarity. Fornication. The original Greek word used there is porneia, which is often translated as either fornication or sexual immorality. The problem with the later translation is that morality changes across time and place, and the gospel isn’t about morality ANYWAY or a mere achievement of “good behavior.” So what’s the true meaning at the heart of this idea of fornication? It’s not that sex is inherently bad, nor does it exclusively refer to sex outside of marriage, nor just a sense of general promiscuity, not even prostitution on a wholesale level. But in a broader sense it signifies sex which breaks relationship. It actually points to a wide range of definitions and meanings including adultery, incest, and specifically temple prostitution – a bodily gift reduced to a ritualized object in service to another God. And in all instances, from the Hebrew equivalent to the New Testament Greek, the word often translated as fornication refers most poignantly to a kind of idolatry – anything besides God which claims ultimate authority over our lives and decisions.
So how do we sort through good and holy desire and that which is perhaps not? It’s not in separating the desire of our bodies from a desire of our hearts or souls – because Jesus shows us they can’t really be separated anyway. But perhaps we can distinguish…does this desire consume or create? Does it bring about wholeness and shalom, divine peace? Does it point us toward God and the divine or ourselves or anywhere else?
And this, this life-giving kind of desire is reflective of God’s own desire for us. As we read about how passionately these lovers in the Song of Solomon yearn after one another, in the fullness of their being, their bodies and all - we catch a glimpse of how passionately God longs for us - for our livelihood and our well-being, and our life. God takes this kind of deep delight in us. And how is this shown in scripture? Through two unwed hot-and-heavy dark-skinned lovers. God longs for us to see ourselves as beautifully as lovers see one another. In Matthew 23:37, Jesus says, “how I long to draw you close. how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Even with God, desire does not remove the need for consent, for willingness. Rather healthy and holy desire requires it.
And we are created in the image of this kind of God. A God who is reflected in desire, who experiences desire, and who fuels our own desire. God invites us to long for and yearn for God and God’s kingdom with a similar unquenchable, deep-in-our-belly, can-not-wait kind of fervor and passion. Let it be so. Amen.