Theology Thursdays: The Joy of Preaching Sex -For Better Intimacy At Home, We Need More Sex In The Pulpit. by Bryan Wilkerson
One Friday night my wife and I were in the mood for a romantic comedy, so we went to see a highly touted movie with a cast of classy British actors. About 45 minutes later, we scooped up our coats and walked out of the theater. This was no Jane Austen romance! It wasn't merely the offensive language or the flashes of nudity that drove us out. It was the trashing of love, the trivializing of sex, and the trifling with people's deep longings. We just couldn't take any more of it.
I was angry, and not only because we'd blown $18 and a night out. I was angry that the film purported to be about love, when in fact it was about flirtation, lust, adultery, and betrayal. It bothered me that people all over the country were sitting in theaters subliminally surrendering to this counterfeit notion.
That night I realized we need more sex in the pulpit.
I channeled my anger into a sermon series and was quickly reminded why so few pastors preach on sex. It's a homiletical minefield. What was I going to say beyond "Thou shalt not"? How could I remain biblically faithful and modest without appearing totally pale compared to the sizzle and glamour our culture serves up every day? Who was I going to offend, overlook, or alienate in a congregation as diverse as mine?
To further complicate matters, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and our town in particular, was the epicenter of the gay marriage movement. How could I uphold a biblical vision for sexuality and marriage and at the same time preserve a welcoming atmosphere for those sympathetic to same-sex lifestyles?
Trolling through a Christian bookstore, I happened upon Tommy Nelson's The Book of Romance. It inspired me to spend time studying a book of the Bible I hadn't preached in over 20 years of ministry. In Song of Songs I found the sizzle I was looking for, along with fresh and candid insights into love and sex.
God declared it good
From courtship to consummation, Song of Songs revels in the ecstasies of romantic love. The language is so explicit, and the intimacy so transcendent, that many interpreters have concluded that it can only be understood allegorically—a metaphor depicting the relationship between God and his beloved people. (Bernard of Clairvaux preached 86 sermons on the book without ever mentioning sex.) But, as usual, the simplest reading is best—two lovers who passionately desire, pursue, marry, and satisfy one another.
What we must say first and loudest from the pulpit is that sex is great, and that it was God's idea! Adam and Eve didn't emerge from the bushes one day, flushed and breathless, and announce, "Hey, Lord, you'll never guess what we just came up with!" God blessed Adam and Eve's union apart from any mention of childbearing. Sex is one of many "good and perfect gifts from above, coming down from the Father" (James 1:17).
After introducing the Song of Songs, I invited the congregation to send in any questions or issues they wanted me to address in the series. I couldn't believe the volume of mail I received, mostly the old-fashioned kind, handwritten and confidential. One married man wrote, "The Christian culture I grew up in teaches us to feel ashamed and guilty every time we experience sexual desire. To this day I feel like I have to keep God and sex separate, as though I need to turn off the God mode whenever I turn on the sex mode."
That man needs more sex in the pulpit, and so do a lot of others sitting in our pews. By our silence and timidity, the church has allowed the culture to snatch this God-given gift right out of our hands and wave it around as if it belongs only to them. Something is wrong when church is the only place in our culture people don't hear about sex, and it's doubly wrong when the only thing they do hear from us is "No!"
God's Word on sex is "Yes!" When we preach on this subject, our tone and content should be positive and grateful. Preach it with a smile.
The weight of all the negative sex talk people hear from the pulpit creates a gravitational pull toward the dark side. How much more appealing to cast vision for a life of purity, self-mastery, and ultimate fulfillment. Why not describe sexual fulfillment in such vivid, compelling, and believable terms that people won't settle for anything less?
The best sex ever
Most interpreters of Song of Songs understand the book's centerpiece to be the description of the lovers' wedding night (4:1-5:1), where they are beholding and enjoying one another, with abandon, for the first time. "Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, I will go to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of incense. … You are a garden fountain, a well of flowing water streaming down from Lebanon." This image is far different from the furtive and fumbling first-time experiences that often leave people feeling used, ashamed, and disappointed. Passages like this help people visualize the delight and satisfaction of experiencing sex according to God's design.
Instead of warning people about the dangers of internet pornography, help them imagine the sexual empowerment, the liberation from lust, that follows every time you click the "delete" button on a salacious email or pop-up.
Instead of defending marriage, let's celebrate marriage by showing the world how wonderful it is for a man and woman to enter into the most intimate and intense of all human relationships with faithfulness and passion.
Instead of condemning homosexuality, let's help people understand how a same-sex partnership falls tragically short of the level of mystical intimacy experienced when two different kinds of beings—male and female—come together to form one new and wondrous entity.
Instead of constantly telling singles that sex is off-limits to them, remind them that they don't have to be sexually active to be a sexual being. A person is male or female whether they are in bed together or enjoying a deep friendship. Jesus was a whole person, who enjoyed intimate relationships with men and women, without ever engaging in sex.
Such a life is possible!
Balancing honesty and safety
If we're going to gain a hearing in today's culture, we not only have to speak positively but also frankly. Song of Songs sets the pace from the opening line: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is more delightful than wine."
This doesn't mean we have to use street language. Neither should we be coldly clinical in our terminology. Most people aren't interested in hearing about "intercourse" from the pulpit. Some words are too graphic or voyeuristic. But people need to hear about "sexual intimacy," "lovemaking," and "satisfaction" in church.
With sexual messages filling our culture, we can't hide behind church jargon and simplistic stereotypes any longer. People need to hear straight talk on real issues. Erwin McManus tells his largely single congregation, "If there's anything lonelier than being in bed alone, it's waking up next to someone who doesn't love you, and who just had sex with you."
One way to keep it real is by making connections to contemporary culture. Before you start poring over commentaries, spend an evening watching TV. Tune your car radio to the pop music stations. Read the magazine covers while you're at the checkout counter.
In preparation for one of my sermons, I tuned in to the final episode of "Friends," where Rachel suggests to Ross that "sleeping together is the perfect way to say good-bye." I was terrified by how plausible that sounds in the relational Neverland that TV has created. When I quoted that line in a message, everybody was paying attention.
A few cautions are in order. One of the letters I received after that sermon said, "It appears you are very familiar with reality TV and suggestive shows and movies. Do you really watch this stuff!?!?" I learned not to assume that people understand I use discretion in my "selective sampling" of media consumption, and I explained my practices and offered some reasonable guidelines for them.
Keeping it real also means making sex an ongoing part of our conversation from the pulpit, not just an infrequent topic. Let's not make the mistake many parents do by having the obligatory "sex talk" with their child once. Messages on holiness, relationships, obedience, and commitment abound with opportunities to make application to the sexual dimensions of our lives.
Along with openness and authenticity, we also need to preserve an atmosphere of safety in our services. We don't want people to be on edge when we speak about sex, always fearing we'll cross a line. I found that parents appreciate a heads-up when we're moving into sensitive territory.
I usually say something like, "We're going to have some frank conversation next week (or this morning). If you haven't talked about these things with your children, some of the things we'll discuss may be over their heads, or may be more than you want them to hear." They then have the option of slipping out if they prefer.
We also need to create a safe setting for those who may not share our convictions and lifestyle, and for people who are struggling sexually. If speaking on homosexual issues, imagine a gay friend sitting in the front row. Would they feel welcomed, respected, and fairly represented?
When referring to living together outside of marriage, keep in mind that a significant percentage of our listeners, believers as well as seekers, may be doing that, or did before they were married. Harsh words are not likely to win them to the truth.
Finally, keeping it safe means being sensitive to one's own family before speaking on these subjects. After the first Song of Songs messages, my wife got more than a few sideways glances from people in the hallways. I've found that running things by her first not only saves her from embarrassing moments, but often alerts me to aspects of the message that might offend or disturb others as well.
Speaking to the pain
After I gave two messages celebrating the mystery of romance and the joy of sex, the mail from wounded and disillusioned people couldn't be ignored:
"Please preach on God's direction to the abused wife."
"How can men and women be challenged toward commitment instead of always looking for something better—the size 6 bombshell or the investment banker?"
"Please touch on what spouses of divorce do."
Not surprisingly, Song of Songs reveals the heartache that men and women often experience in the pursuit of intimacy.
In chapter 3 the woman, not yet married, is fearful that she might lose her beloved; that her longing for love might never be satisfied: "All night long on my bed I looked for the one my heart loves. I looked for him but did not find him."
And there can be disappointment in marriage too. By chapter 5 the honeymoon is over. "I opened for my lover, but my lover had left, he was gone. My heart had gone out to him … but he did not answer."
Those of us who have enjoyed sexual health and fulfillment need to remember that many in the congregation will have been wounded, betrayed, and abused. As we describe God's gift of sex, some will be dealing with guilt, shame, and chronic failure. They aren't expecting easy answers and quick fixes. But they need to know someone understands their pain, that they can be forgiven, and they can find healing.
When we addressed the homosexuality question, at the height of the local controversy, I began the message by introducing the listeners to friends and Christ-followers struggling in this area: a member who battled same-sex desires but continues to serve Christ and seek wholeness, a divorced father who shared with me the fear and shame associated with his forays into the gay scene, a new believer trying to extricate herself from a partnership with another woman, godly parents who have seen their child walk away from the church and pursue a homosexual lifestyle.
Acknowledging these complex and painful realities creates an atmosphere of understanding and grace for those who are hurting.
Is God enough?
Toward the end of the series, I invited one of our pastoral staff members to share her story. She is a fun, fashionable woman who has served our church for many years. She has never been married. She joined me on the platform for a frank conversation about young loves, a broken engagement, matchmaking friends, and lonely nights.
After acknowledging the difficulties, she joyfully looked out at the congregation with life in her eyes and said, "God is enough." Her journey toward contentment brought hope to every longing heart.
Sexuality is one way we experience love, but it's not the only one, and it's certainly not the highest. Sooner or later every human love will disappoint us, every lover's touch will fail to satisfy. We all thirst for Living Water. We desire the Lover of our Souls.
G. K. Chesterton famously said, "Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God." I may not begin a series on sex with that quote, but it's a good place to end.
As wonderful as it is to love and be loved by another person, it is more wonderful to love and be loved by God. We need more of that in the pulpit.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts. This article appears in Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Thursday, March 23, 2006