Sunday Morning 7th Augut 2022: Jonathan Thomas 200th Anniversary Service.

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Song of Songs 1: 5-17

I believe in fairy tales. At least, I genuinely believe in fairy tale endings. Before you think I have completely lost the plot, let me explain what I mean. I believe that all fairy tales we were told as children have something in them that, deep down, is incredibly true. All fairy tales have a similar plot, a similar ending. Why has everyone written these stories? Why do we love the stories? Why do generation after generation of children, myself included, enjoy stories about the ugly sisters or the prince coming to save the day or the ultimate wedding feast with all the dancing? It’s because these fairy tales are aches to a long, lost echo; deep down, we all want to be loved. That’s what all fairy tales are about. Deep down, we all want to be loved by the king.

We don’t just want love, we want love with someone who can sort everything out. We all long for it in different ways. Some people long for it in romantic relationships. When I was growing up, I had a friend who had a file book and she had already chosen her wedding dress, she knew what the wedding was going to be, she had it all in a file. For other people it could be football. You fill your walls with posters of football players in the hope that you will be spotted, in the hope that one day you’ll be given that chance. Some hope in rugby, that one day people will realise that you are the answer to the needs of the Welsh rugby team, that one day you will get that call, ‘Let’s go, I want you to play.’ Wouldn’t that be amazing. It could be wanting success, a promotion. Some people look for success in sacrificing for others, in philanthropy, doing good. Sometimes, we want people to need us. We need people to need us, and we want people to see us. Deep down, it’s not that any of these things are wrong, but there is an ache for something. Because we have this ache, it drives us.

So often we look for happiness, success and significance in all the wrong places. Oscar Wilde famously said, “There are two tragedies in life: not getting what you want and getting it.” There is an ache within us. There is an ache that, so often, can be fulfilled in life for a season, when life is good. I live in an area in Abergavenny that is very affluent. When we think of evangelism outreach to people who have got money, family, a nice house and a nice life, people who are very happy, it is hard. When I say to people, ‘If you’re not very happy, come to Jesus.’ Their response is, ‘No. I’m happy. I’m happier than you.’ But when we realise that these things may fulfil for a while, there is something more.

In the Song of Songs there is a love that is fairy tale. It is so amazing that it will seem like fiction. But this isn’t a fairy tale. It is the ultimate thing that God has put in our hearts. God has placed eternity in our heart. He has put a longing in our heart for something that seems so crazy we put it in the category of fairy tale. But it’s even greater than a fairy tale and it is true.

The first thing we see in verse 5 is undeniable fear of ugliness. I wonder, does anyone here fear that you’re ugly? I don’t just mean physically. Does any one here fear if someone actually got to know you, they wouldn’t like what they see? In verses 5-7 the woman is speaking. We know that she loves the king and wants to marry the king. We know that he has come to her and she can come to him and speak to him because he has initiated this. All the friends are rejoicing, ‘Wow! What a great relationship.’

Everyone is excited and celebrating. Then, something happens in our hearts – this undeniable fear of ugliness. She says, “Dark am I, yet lovely, daughters of Jerusalem, dark like the tents of Kedar.” (Song of Songs 1:5). Here is a barrier to intimacy. She has a moment where her self-image and self-worth is rock bottom. How you view yourself affects everything.

The woman starts talking about the complexion of her skin. She keeps going on about the colour of her skin, that it is dark. She says, ‘Don’t stare at me because I’m dark, because I am darkened by the sun.’ The darkness is, in effect, a suntan. The question is why? Because she’s been to Newgale Beach on holiday and had a wonderful time, got a lovely tan and shared it on Instagram? No! She says, “My mother’s sons were angry with me and made me take care of the vineyards.” (Song of Songs 1:6b).

Here is Cinderella. She has brothers who have told her to work in the vineyards. Here is someone who has been forced to do labour that she shouldn’t do. She has been forced into a situation where she has been forced to do something that she shouldn’t. She says, ‘If I’m looking after your physical vineyard, “my own vineyard I had to neglect.” (Song of Songs 1:6c) because her brothers have forced her into this situation because they are angry with her.

She is having this moment of doubt because of what has been happening in her family. It’s amazing how much of our childhood and family affects our relationships. In verse 6 she thinks everyone is staring at her. She doesn’t want people to stare at her because she is dark. How often do we think that people are looking at us? She is out there because her brothers have put her out there. She is struggling.

“Tell me, you whom I love, where you rest your sheep at midday.” (Song of Song 1:7a). She has literally been calling to him in verses 2-4, and now she feels that she has lost him. She doesn’t know where he is. Her upbringing, her experiences, her hurt, have all become a barrier to experiencing his love. If you are involved in any kind of psychology, counselling or social services, you’ll know about ACEs – Adverse Childhood Experiences – all the childhood experiences which affect them in later life. If you go into fostering or adoption, you’ll learn all about attachment disorder and how the experiences of childhood can make you struggle to attach to others. How many of us will sometimes remember things from our childhood come back to haunt us? The wonderful thing is all those things can be changed. Lives can be changed with a loving environment.

What we are seeing in this book is a life being transformed by the love of the king. But the first thing we have to see is there is an undeniable fear of ugliness. Do you have a fear of ugliness? How do you view yourself? I think deep down we all fear that we are so ugly that God can’t love us. Sometimes, when bad things happen, we say, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ because, deep down, we think we do deserve it.

The woman has this fear, so she doesn’t know where the king has gone. She says, “Why should I be like a veiled woman?” A veiled woman in that culture is a prostitute. She has really gone down to the depths. Her friends listen to her and say, “If you do not know, most beautiful of women, follow the tracks of the sheep and graze your young goats by the tents of the shepherds.” (Song of Songs 1:8). Don’t we need friends like that, friends who come along side and say, ‘Hold on. He hasn’t gone, you haven’t lost him. This is the way to go.’ Very often in life we need people to come along and say these things. In a sense, I feel that is my burden for this weekend, to come in God’s word and say, ‘Here is the way to Jesus. Here is the way to know love. Here is the way to find eternal life.’ It is wonderful when people come alongside.

She’s been having a complete meltdown. Her friends point her in the right way and in verse 9 he speaks. I love this. He says, “I liken you, my darling, to a mare.” Today, that doesn’t sound like a lovely thing. But in this poetry, he is speaking to her in response to what she has said. It shows us he has heard her. When I read the Bible, I see when God’s people cry out to Him and think He’s nowhere, He’s always there. When God’s people were in Egypt in slavery, they thought God had forgotten them and had left them. Things went from bad to worse. They knew they were there by their own deliberate fault, trusting in other gods rather than Yahweh. What did they do? They cried out and God heard them and came to them. Remember how Elijah had a massive victory and then straight afterwards had post-mission blues? He lost all his trust in the Lord. He’s completely destitute and God comes to him, feeds him, listens to him, talks to him, and tells him to rest. When we cry out to the Lord, even when we share that undeniable fear of ugliness, the Lord hears us, then He speaks to us.

Firstly, we had the undeniable fear of ugliness. Secondly, we have the unbelievable fact of undeserved love.

“I liken you, my darling, to a mare among Pharoah’s chariot horses. Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings, your neck with strings of jewels” and so on. In those days, a horse was a thing of beauty and was the animal of power. He is telling her she is a powerful, beautiful woman, adorned in natural beauty. She isn’t beautiful because of the jewels; they enhance her beauty. They often say, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ The king is clearly besotted with her. He is in love. He sees beauty. He is looking beyond what Julian Hardyman calls, ‘socially determined stereotypes.’ Within God’s creation beauty is not socially constructed. There’s a pressure today for us to conform to what the world says is beautiful.

The king tells her how beautiful she is, and she responds by getting incredibly excited. What does this mean for us today? Is it, we have an undeniable fear of ugliness and God says, ‘You’re actually amazing.’ Is that the gospel? No. There is something different going on. Deep down, we all know that that isn’t sufficient. C.S. Lewis says, “He loves us not because we are loveable but because He is love.” Whatever God’s love is for us, it is based on His love, not on us. We know we are not perfect; we know that we sin. We know that there are problems. We know about Genesis and the Fall, we know about Romans 1-3. We are able to say with Paul that we are the chief of sinners.

Why does the king say she is beautiful? Because in His eyes she is. Luther, the great Reformer says, “God does not love us because of our worth. We are worth because God loves us.” Your worth is in the price purchased. God paid for us with His only Son. For the believer, it is not just what Jesus was willing to pay for you, but it’s now that you are His. That is the love than transforms us, that makes us beautiful. This is a truth that, as Christians, we need to grasp.

We believe we are sinners. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves. We believe that Jesus came and lived for us the perfect life that we could never live. He always did what the Father wanted Him to do. He always followed the Commandments. He did this on our behalf. We believe that Jesus died to pay the price for our sins. It is a wonderful exchange. Jesus takes my sins. ‘He who knew no sin becomes sin.’ If you think of it like a debt, we are in debt to God, Jesus has come, He has lived the perfect life and has died on the cross and paid our debt. That’s amazing! But we often stop there, but the gospel is so much more. When Jesus lived and died for us, then rose again on the third day, went to heaven and is now preparing a place for us, He didn’t just pay off our debt, but He filled our account to the max. He did not just take us from being an enemy to a non-enemy, He took us from being an enemy to a son, to a friend, to the beloved. So, He just didn’t die for us, He lived for us. This divine exchange isn’t just Christ taking our sin, but it is Christ giving us His righteousness. There is a complete exchange. It’s wonderful!

On the cross, when the Father looked at Jesus, if you have trusted in Christ, He saw you. It was your sin that held Him there. Here is the wonderful thing – if you have trusted in Christ, your sins were nailed to that cross in Christ. Now, when the Father looks at you, you can call Him Father because now He sees Christ. ‘I am clothed in robes of righteousness.’ It’s not just that the old self has gone, but there is a new creation. It is not just that your sin has been taken away, you have had righteousness imputed to you. That is why we can always know that God loves us and delights in us. I love the ways we go from being slaves to sons, from being lost to being loved. Jesus has done it all.

Some of us have got a limited view of Jesus. Deep down, this undeniable fear of ugliness keeps coming out. I often think of Jesus as a barrister. Barristers are wonderful people. If you get a good barrister, he can get you off pretty much anything. When a barrister stands in a court he speaks on your behalf. They do everything for you. I think there are barristers who have defended people they don’t like. Do we sometimes view Jesus like that? Legally He has died for me and I’m so thankful. But we leave it there. The gospel is far, far greater. He wants to draw us near. He wants to love us and embrace us. He wants us now to be with Him.

I think we’re all slightly living ‘My Fair Lady.’ We feel like we’ve come to the Kingdom, we’ve come to the church, and we’ve been taught to speak and sound like someone who is ‘in’ – but we’re all waiting for that Cockney accent moment to happen, when people don’t think we deserve to be here. But Jesus has done it all. I believe that when we read the Song of Songs there is poetry here that is showing us how God delights in us. It is undeserved.

Friends, do you suffer from imposter syndrome? There is no place for imposter syndrome in the Christian life. There are no imposters in the Kingdom. If you have trusted in Christ, all that is His is yours and the Father loves you. He sings over you. He says, ‘Come under my wing.’ He says, ‘Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.’ It’s a wonderful, wonderful truth.

I love the way that God’s love makes us lovely. We have this amazing love. The king talks about it in how He sees her. She responds with excitement (v12-14). Then you get this lovely mutual exchange, “How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are doves.” Can you get to a point where you believe that is true of you and Christ? If all your worth is based in Christ, then to the Lord you are beautiful.

How does she respond? “How handsome you are, my beloved! Oh, how charming!” When we see who we are in Christ, that makes us worship Him all the more. It is a wonderful thing.

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