This past Sunday -- the final Sunday in Sacred Marriage -- was a bit strange for me.
As many of you know, I actually write my messages, then spend time "living" with them, and on Sunday deliver them without any notes. I've been doing it that way as long as I've been preaching. The "no notes" is usually one of the first things people notice about Good Shepherd Church in general and my sermons in particular.
The message for this past Sunday was called Sexual Saints. And as I "lived" with it over the past week, getting to know it in preparation for preaching it on Sunday, I got more and more excited. I actually thought to myself, "as a written sermon, this might be the best work I've ever done!" I liked the way it built and I felt God had given me several good turns of phrase.
And then on Sunday ... I kept forgetting key pieces. That's a helpless feeling. It was most pronounced at 8:30 but still evident at the last two services.
Why did my memory have such gaps? I'm not sure. Maybe it's the fast-approaching 49th birthday. Or perhaps I was a bit too excited about the talk.
Or ... possibly it's the fact that preaching is a spoken art while sermon writing is of course a literary one. Just because something is "good" on paper doesn't always mean it will be a powerful experience in person.
So I felt good about the Sunday message but also believe that there were some missed opportunities. It had potential to be better.
If you like "reading" sermons, here's what I prepared for last Sunday even though it's not exactly what I delivered (and the REFRAIN is Boundaries Elevate Experience):
I remember the times that Julie and I ate a whole bag of Circus Peanuts (show). We’d been married awhile by then and when we were kids both our parents had always said NO to our requests for CPs. Well we were now grown and could do whatever we pleased. So we were like: “We’ve always wanted them and never could have them so let’s eat THE WHOLE BAG!” So we did. So sweet & chewy & forbidden & delicious.
Until like 30 minutes later. Then . . . ugh. Just gross. The after-taste and after-effects of the Circus Peanuts left us sickened and cranky. (It made me think of the time my college roommates at all the crunchberries out of my box of Capn Crunch cereal and they got sick! Served them right!) It’s like Gary Thomas says, junk food holds this promise of satisfaction but ultimately fails to deliver. Instead of getting satisfied, you get sick.
As we plunge deeper into Sacred Marriage, I want you to know that what is true of junk food is true of so much of what passes for sexual intimacy & expression these days. There is this allure, this appeal for extra-marital sex and it looks to be enticing and sweet but the after-effects are downright poisonous. You may not notice those after-effects immediately but you will encounter them ultimately.
I really don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t know. Some of you who are single or single again bear the emotional and even physical scars of promiscuity. Sexual adventures way back when have made it hard to maintain healthy relationships in the here and now. Some of you have had relationships that started out hot and sexual but then fizzled out because the sex prevented you from really knowing the person – and when you got to know them their personalities didn’t match their sexuality. Bummer.
For others of you, those scars are more overt. Listen to this from the Charlotte Observer: My point is if you’ve ever had sex, you could be me. I am no one special. I am 29 years old, a Republican, a non-denominational Christian who has a graduate education, a home, a loving husband, two cats, a dog, an who loves eating pepperoni pizza. And I have to live every day of the rest of my life with two incurable STDs.
I daresay some of you in here could have written that just as easily as the woman who actually did. And then I know that others of you have wrecked or you are in the middle of wrecking a marriage because you found the constraints of that covenant too much and you strayed. And you’ve discovered that hell really does have no fury like a woman – or man – scorned. It’s sad but it’s true and the church is not immune. Yeah, what passes for sex these days has all the nutritional and relational value of a bag full of Circus Peanuts.
Now: before I move on, I want to say this. Most times when a preachers stands and delivers a message about sex, it’s all anti. Don’t! NOT! NEVER! There’s a long history to that kind of sermon. Did you know that in the Middle Ages the church taught that married couples could not have sex for the forty days before and eight days after Easter? Thus giving rise to the phenomenon of Easter being by far the highest attended Sunday of the church year? But beyond Easter, the medieval church declared that couples were not to be intimate during the 8 days after Pentecost, on Sundays in honor of the resurrection, on Wednesdays in honor of Ash Wed and on Fridays to bring to mind the crucifixion and for five days before you take communion?! Altogether, 252 days of the year were automatically excluded from sexual intimacy between husbands and wives! No wonder Protestants started the Reformation!
So no, I don’t want to give that sermon with those kinds of restrictions. Because I think God has a much more inventive, affirming agenda than Not NEVER DON’T. I believe the bible has a beautiful balance between the Let The Good Times Roll ethic of today and the cold showers of the Middle Ages.
Because here’s something you need to know: God does not hide his eyes in revulsion and shame when a husband and wife have sex. He doesn’t! Why? Because it was all his idea to begin with. He invented it. He designed our bodies, included our erogenous zones. Sexual pleasure belongs to God and not to Satan. God is not offended in the lest by healthy sex between a husband and a wife. So three cheers for God.
I get that from Hebrews 13:4: Marriage should be honored by all and the marriage bed kept pure … And before you dismiss that by saying, “oh, people in bible days were so square and that world can’t possibly speak to this world” know this: the culture in which the book of Hebrews & the rest of the NT was written was every bit as promiscuous as ours. There was just no mass media to record it visually like today. But mistresses were expected. Religious celebrations involved prostitution. Actually, most men believed that wives were for procreation and young girls (and boys) were for recreation. So the 21st Century has invented anything new; we’ve just developed it all to an art form.
But Hebrews 13:4 is vastly different. Keep the marriage bed pure. Now: does it say keep the marriage bed ignored? No. Keep it abused? No. Keep two marriage beds like on the Dick Van Dyke Show? No. Keep it holy, reverent, worshipful . . . and passionate. That actual bed! Yes! What happens on the marriage bed can be God-honoring, Spirit-filling, and Jesus-blessed. Like a worship service! That gives a whole new meaning the next time you turn to your spouse and say, “let’s have church.”
But here’s the heart of Hebrews 13:4: Boundaries elevate experience. Just like football players can play great in bounds but are ineffective out of bounds (AV), just like baseball soars inside the foul lines but not so much outside them (AV), just like your car can work well within the guardrails but not well beyond them (AV of flying car), just like I can work on my grass all I want inside my property line but the moment I step beyond it my neighbor suddenly becomes displeased, sex honors God within the boundary of marriage and dishonors him outside it. The boundary of marriage takes sexual intimacy from a physical act to a spiritual sacrament.
It’s the super glue that bonds husbands and wives together. Man, I’ve had lots of people in my office who are jaded and wounded from seasons of promiscuity earlier in life, but I’ve never had a married couple sit down and say, “We’ve got a real problem here. There’s just too much intimacy and it’s too good.” Hello! Those are the marriages that don’t come here. The God-ordained boundary of marriage of elevates the God-designed experience of sex!!
God’s act – sex – done God’s way – in marriage – brings God honor. Not shame or revulsion. Bring him honor. And I know there’s elbowing going on right now between husbands and wives, saying, “let’s honor God, OK?”
Because here’s my prayer, here’s my heart: I want pure marriages in this place. Which means that the purity of the marriage bed gets protected long before marriage even happens. So for those of you who are single now or single again today can mark a new day. Regardless of your sexual activity before, you can vow: I’m keeping my marriage bed pure from here on. Trust me on this: decisions you make as a single person will have a dramatic effect on your life should you ever marry.
And I’ve done several weddings over the last few years where the couples – due in part to the church’s membership covenant where we ask people to commit to celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage – have told me they were abstaining until their wedding day. Some of them had been married before, others had been sexually active before, but because of what Christ had done for them, they were in a new place. Christ has made them new all over, from the most public of places to the most intimate of spheres. And those folks kept their marriage bed pure by not getting into it. Why would they want a counterfeit from outside the boundaries when they could have the real thing inside? REFRAIN.
It’s why I loved hearing about those Baptist youth in Brazil. They held a community blood drive in conjunction with some teaching at the church called True Love Waits. Well, the blood drive there broke two major records: First, more people than ever before donated. 472 pints. Second, the blood donated from that youth group had not evidence of STDs in it. Pure blood! That’s unheard of in most Brazilian blood drives. It’s called keeping the marriage bed pure by not jumping into it before the marriage happens.
I know. A lot of you who are single or single again have already been outside the boundaries when it comes to this issue. And you’re wondering how to recover. Well, keeping your eyes open to the subtle ways sexual sin from the past can impact you in the present, you nevertheless need to keep this verse in mind: READ 2 Cor 5:17. If you’ve been bought with the ultimate in pure blood – Jesus’! – you are new. The old has gone and the new has come. Live as that new person sexually, knowing REFRAIN.
And for those of you who are married, what can I say but stay within the boundaries? Have you noticed that while opportunity only knocks once, temptation bangs at the door constantly? Stay vigilant. Guys: the mind works progressively. It usually goes from images to flirtation to disaster. That’s why it absolutely does matter what movies you watch and internet sites you frequent and what mags you read. Edit your TV. Goodness, in our house we don’t get any of the movie channels. None. No HBO or Showtime or Cinemax or even Sundance. Why? I’d watch them. Not good. The images we see all too easily become the lives we lead. For men, the key to keeping the marriage bed pure is to keep the eyes protected.
And married women: if your husbands need to guard their eyes, you in general need to guard your heart. You know what that means? Please don’t be a listening ear for your male co-worker’s marriage troubles. He may say he needs a friend, you may believe you’re being “friendly,” but he probably has another agenda. An agenda that may be so deep even he doesn’t know it. From your perspective, he needs a confidant other than you.
And for both married men & women: celebrate the fact that your sexual expression within the boundary of marriage is a summit point of creation. Not the summit point, perhaps, but a summit point. Sexuality and spirituality are so connected. The pleasure is God’s idea and God’s design and it is not the property of Satan. He stole it and it’s time for married folk to steal it back! I remember that the pre-marital counselor that Julie and I had told us (because we waited for marriage), “in the early days you’ll be beginners but eventually you’ll make a symphony together.” And 26 years in, that counselor was right. Glad to take back what Satan has stolen.
As we think about boundaries elevating experience, I’ve got to remind you of the perspective of Sacred Marriage. The whole series is about holiness, right? Holiness is the goal and marriage is the venue. Well, knowing that … if God were gauging your holiness by how you treat your mate in the marriage bed, would he say you’re becoming more holy or less? More to the point, is your emphasis on “getting” (an adolescent view if there ever was one) or “giving”? How about we elevate the experience as we grow our holiness by giving in that most private of areas? REFRAIN.
This stat probably won’t startle you. 93% of sexual encounters depicted or alluded to on TV are between unmarried people. The reason for that is the assumption that unmarried sex is hot & spontaneous & life giving while married sex and boring & predictable & routine. How about all the sacred marriages in this place prove TV wrong?