A Holy Charge Delivered to Henry Cook & Charis Coleman
On the Occasion of their Wedding Vows before God and Men
January 8, 2011
Pastor Bob Bixby
There is one book in the Word of God that speaks a lot about marriage. It is the Song of Solomon. And there is one phrase drawn from that book that many Christians know, perhaps without knowing where it comes from: “His banner over me is love.”
A banner of love. A banner is an expression, a form of communication.
In ancient days if you were to stand upon the crest of a hill and examine the armies in the valley below, you would see scores of banners of various shapes and sizes, each emblazoned with the standout insignia or coat of arms of each battle group. It was a flag of identity.
The shepherdess of The Song of Songs gushes with delight and in 2:4 she exclaims, “His banner over me was love.” Her flag of identity was his banner of love.
Now, among the people of God there has been a variance of opinion on how this particular book should be interpreted. Most throughout the centuries have said that it is an allegory of the love that Jesus Christ has for His Church. However, others say that it is quite simply a God-breathed poem about marital love. I believe this is the best interpretation. Either way, since we are specifically told to have our marriages model the union between Christ and the Church as we have been reminded from Ephesians, this wonderful piece of ancient poetry gives us a very close-up image of what God desires for marital love among His creatures.
Henry and Charis, you have grown up in church and have heard countless exhortations about the roles of husband and wife in the marriage, so today I want to take a different tack, and set our sails, to catch a different breeze from the Holy Scripture that will navigate us into a profound meditation on the wonderful gift of marriage that God has given His creatures. Today I want to draw from the ancient love poem that was inspired by the Holy Spirit thousands of years ago and charge you as a couple to fly over your marriage union a unique identifying banner, the banner of love.
But what does a “banner of love” look like? Certainly, we already know that it must look something like the love of Christ for the Church and the Church for Christ. Thus, whether you interpret the Song of Solomon literally or allegorically you will come to the same two conclusions: 1) that this love is a model love, an exemplary template of what God likes to see in the marriages of His children. So, it is exemplary, but 2) it is also expressive. Love is not love if it is not expressive. A banner is in and of itself an expression. So, a marriage with the banner of love expresses something and the example is right here in the sacred poem.
I want to give you Five Distinguishing Marks of a Banner of Love (Believe me, I had to cut it down to five!). These are also distinguishing characteristics in the love relationship between Christ and His Church.
I. God designed marriage to fly a banner of love that is exaltational in expression.
Henry, praise your wife. Charis, praise your husband. It is clear from the Song of Solomon that God is delighted to hear a man exude expressions of praise for his wife. He loves to hear a woman gush with praises for her man! Solomon seems love-struck when he says of the shepherdess, “O, most beautiful among women” in 1:8. He compares her to the most exquisite and beautiful and expensive of treasured horses among the livery of the most powerful man on earth when he exclaims that she is “like a mare among Pharoah’s chariots” in 1:9. Every one of the 8 chapters are loaded with compliments and seemingly over-the-top praises for one another.
This book is crammed packed with figures of speech and metaphors that show that the lovers really put some thought into how they expressed their love to each other. Of course, the metaphors are ancient and I strongly recommend that you NOT use some of these metaphors, Henry, when trying to tell Charis how beautiful she is to you! Saying, “Your hair is like a flock of goats” (6:5) is probably not wise! It’s a good way to get your honeymoon off to a bad start!
But what is unavoidably clear is that a great effort is made on the part of both lovers to praise each other and to get others to see the beauty of the one they love. Ephesians says that Jesus gave Himself to the Church in order to present her without spot or wrinkle, without blemish. In other words, Jesus is all about making the Church, His beloved Bride, praiseworthy!
Now, practically, that means that it should never be our intention to embarrass our spouse. We should proactively strive to lift her or him up before our friends and family. But, spiritually, our love is committed to partnering with Jesus’ love for the Church by doing everything we can to help our spouse grow spiritually in Christ so that he or she will one day be perfectly praiseworthy. Henry, the responsibility of leadership that you have in your new home is not for your self. God is entrusting you with a share in Charis’ sanctification. Any authority you exert should have one goal, and one goal alone, and that is that Charis would be made more glorious! The banner of love that you fly over this woman should be exaltational in expression.
You love to praise her, Henry, and you invest your whole life into helping her reach the highest pinnacle of praise when you hear her Lord tell her, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
II. God designed marriage to fly a banner of love that is exclusivistic in expression.
The shepherdess says twice, “I am his; and he is mine.” She’s a shepherdess. He is a king! But the banner of love that was flying over their marriage was exclusivistic. It cut out all others. Solomon would say in 6:8-9: “There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and virgins without number. My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, the only one of her mother, pure to her who bore her. The young women saw her and called her blessed; the queens and concubines also, and they praised her.”
“A man shall leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his wife and the two shall become one,” the Bible declares. The union is sealed off from any other relationship, God has put it together (Jesus declared in Matthew), and divorce is unthinkable. It is an exclusivistic relationship. Thus, when God wants to describe unfaithfulness to Him as the only true God He employs the words “adulterer” and “adulteress” as He does in James 4 to illustrate the break from an exclusive relationship, even if it is only in our emotions and affections.
When the Holy Spirit pours the love of God into our hearts as we are told in Romans 5, when the banner of love has been raised over us by Jesus Christ, He writes His law in our hearts Hebrews says, and we grow to love the exclusive law of God as it is stated in the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other god besides me.” Henry and Charis, fly the banner high above your marriage, let this distinguishing characteristic be seen bright and clear: your love is exclusive.
III. God designed marriage to fly a banner of love that is environmentally-conscious in expression.
When you love a person, surroundings and accessories and atmosphere matter. Henry, if you were to one day decide to put your best culinary skills on display by preparing an elegant meal, presenting it on the finest of your China, and lighting candles, turning on mood music, and then invite me and some guys over for some man to man fellowship, I’d be weirded out! The environment, the atmosphere, would be something that I think should be for Charis, not for me or anyone of your guy friends! For me, you slap out a half cooked piece of meat in a Tupperware bowl, open your Bible, and say, “Let’s kill two birds with one stone: discuss theology and scarf down some red meat, brother!”
But you fly a banner of love over your spouse that says that environment matters. Solomon came to get his bride in his best chariot that he himself made! The shepherdess is ecstatic: “King Solomon made himself a chariot of the wood of Lebanon” (3:9). The whole book is replete with descriptions of the atmosphere; it is pastoral and fruitful, verdant, and rich. Even accessories are highlighted. Solomon is bewitched by some jewelry his bride is wearing. He says, “Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse. Thou has ravished mine hear with one of thine eyes (that means one glance), with one chain of they neck” (4:9). Her jewelry, so carefully chosen by her, smote his heart and ravished him. There are too many examples to list, but the obvious point is that God designed marriage to fly a banner of love that is environmentally conscious in expression. Care about how you look for one another. Care about how your home looks for one another. Sure, there are bad laundry weeks and bad hair days, but don’t groom and primp and pick up only for others. Love each other by being environmentally-conscious.
And this, my friends, is like the Christian love between Christ and the Church. God is concerned about environment. In the Psalms He says it pointedly, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” In Matthew He says, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” In Hebrews he says, “Without holiness no man will see God.” The atmosphere of holiness, the environment of purity and love is something that God wants us to be passionate about as Christians. And our marriage should model that because we are passionate about it toward one another.
IV. God designed marriage to fly a banner of love that is erotic in expression.
Clearly, this is neither the time or the place to get as specific as the Song of Solomon famously does about the exclusivistic, environmentally-conscious, exaltational erotic expressions of love, but one thing ought to be very clear: our physicality is completely involved in one another.
It’s sad to me that young lovers have no shame in “pda” (public displays of affection) before their wedding, but it’s almost like a switch goes off when they get married and then they no longer want to demonstrate “pda.” Why not?
Before they were married they didn’t mind walking down the mall and saying, “he is mine” and “she is mine” by holding hands. Why not after marriage? Henry, you lead the Kids-4-Truth. Children watch you. Teens watch you. Follow my example and don’t be inhibited by publicly showing them – in a way that doesn’t gross us out, of course! – publicly showing them your physical involvement with one another. I deliberately will put my arm around my wife, occasionally (when appropriate) kiss her, and hold her hand in front of our young people at church with the direct intention of flying a banner of love that sets us apart as a couple. Enjoy the exclusive physicality of your relationship and demonstrate in appropriate ways before the world that there is something special between the two of you that is physical.
When the minister traditionally says, “You may kiss the bride” it is a ceremonial sanctioning and celebration of the physicality of your holy union. So when the officiating minister gives the green light, plant a big one on her, Henry, and let us celebrate with you!
The Christian parallel is easy. The first commandment, Jesus said, is to love the Lord our God with our heart, soul, and body. Romans 12:1-2 calls for the complete dedication of our body. And Paul says that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. Our love for Christ is physical. It ought to show. God designed for marriage to fly the banner of love that is erotic in expression.
V. God designed marriage to fly the banner of love that is empowering in expression.
On a number of occasions the king is seeking to bolster the confidence of his bride. And her confidence, though it sometimes wanes, is strong because she knows herself to be loved! In her day, dark was not considered something to covet. As whites we all covet darker skin in our day, but in her day it was a sign of poverty because it was evidence that she had been outside in the sun working alongside her brothers and other poor villagers. So, in 1:5 she says, “I am dark, but lovely…” and in the next verse she states rather confidently, “Do not look upon me because I am dark, because the sun has looked upon me.” I know, she says, that I have been in the fields. I know that I don’t really deserve this love but – and get this! – “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys!” (2:1)
Wow! She is brimming with confidence that defies the norms of her day because a banner of love is over her! Henry and Charis, sometimes I’ll sit down after a message that I really bombed. I’ll sit down and, in despair, say to my wife, “I laid an egg. That was lousy. I can’t believe anybody would tolerate that. These people are too patient.” And my wife, bless her heart, has never said after I moaned that I bombed the message: “You’re telling me you did!” She’s offered helpful criticisms about my preaching or other areas of my life, but I have felt like I can conquer the world as long as my wife loves and respects me. When you value a person so much it diminishes what others think or say and you become free and empowered to be who God wants you to be. Paul put it this way, “If I please men, I am not a servant of Christ.”
Charis, the Apostle said, “Respect your husband.” As soon as this knot is tied, no one on earth will have the power to deflate and emasculate Henry like you. But no one has the unique position to fly a banner of love that is empowering in expression over your husband. Henry, if you fly a Christlike banner of love over your wife, she will grow and flourish and feel herself to be empowered. A shepherdess was made into a queen by empowering love.
Isn’t this like the love of Christ for us? Does it not embolden? “What shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).
God designed marriage to emulate that empowering love as much as is humanely possible. Your marriage must fly a banner of love that is loud and clear with this dazzling distinguishing mark: it is an empowering love that enables both of you to serve one another, God, and His Church with confidence and strength.
This is the kind of love that should be the banner over our marriage. But that is an impossible love. How can we love one another like Christ loves us unless Christ Himself is living in us? You’ve chosen some simple songs with a powerful message of hope for your marriage, for mine, and for anyone listening in this room. By coming to earth to save His people Jesus did the ultimate love act; He died. “No greater love is this than that a man would lay down his life for another.” Wonderful, Merciful Savior expressed this. The beautiful bride entered into this sanctuary today to the tune of His Robes for Mine. What a well-conceived selection that captures the connection between the gospel and human marriage! Thank you for ministering to our hearts that way! I could not help but think of another hymn as we saw the beautiful processional: “the bride eyes not her garment, but her dear Bridegroom’s face; I will not gaze at glory, but at the King of grace.” But seeing the King of Grace is only possible because Jesus covers us with His righteousness, indeed He imputes His righteousness on us. He accessorizes us for the best of all unions with the robes of perfection!
Yet, perfection is future. We still sin. When we sin against one another; when you sin against one another (as you certainly will) you have a great High Priest Before the Throne of God Above. As a couple you long for God and pray Be Thou My Vision and plead, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing Tune Our Hearts to Sing Thy Praise.
Henry. Charis. This is only by Christ. Twenty years into my marriage I can say that a marriage that flies this kind of banner of love with these five distinguishing marks emblazoned for all to see is a marriage that has been redeemed by the power of the Gospel. Jesus saves my marriage every day because He has saved me from the penalty of sin and is saving me from the power of sin, painfully slow as it is because of the stubbornness of my heart. And this is only and always through Christ Alone.
Five years from now. Ten years from now. Fifty years from now. When we see you, I hope your faces radiate this truth:
“Henry’s banner over me is love.”
“Charis’ banner over me is love.”
“His banner over us is love!”
And all God’s people say AMEN.
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