Sexual desire is given by God, and when this desire is understood to as serving a higher authority, when it is placed under the yoke of Jesus, sexual desire can produce tremendous good for both self and society. But when sexual desire is the master, when it becomes the yoke, it can be incredibly destructive.
The Invitation to Rest
This morning, I want to begin with one of Jesus’ most famous teachings. “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” It’s a beautiful promise: you will find rest for your souls. But it’s also a confusing one to many of us, I imagine. Many of us might say that we believe in Jesus, seek to love him. But we also feel really tired—we don’t feel at rest.
But it’s important to hear exactly how Jesus is offering rest. He says, “Come to me, learn from me—which is same root in Greek as disciple. He says, “take my yoke upon you.” Yoke was a common metaphor in that day, speaking of having to serve another. When Jesus says take my yoke upon you, he’s saying, “Become my apprentice and allow me to lead you in my way.”
The rest Jesus offers doesn’t come simply to those who believe the right things about Jesus. Rest doesn’t simply come to those who pray the right way through Jesus. Rest comes to those take on the yoke of Jesus, casting off their old yoke in the process. Jesus invites us, not just to a different religion or belief system, but a different way, a different lifestyle. He is saying that as you learn and adopt his strange way, you will discover a lightness, an ease; you will find rest.
Our goal in studying Deuteronomy has been to understand more deeply this way of Jesus that brings rest. Jesus himself says that his way is the fulfillment, the perfect expression of all God’s instructions in Deuteronomy. Which means that Deuteronomy, rightly understood in light of Christ, has all sorts of things to teach us about the way Jesus calls us to.
In the last 5 weeks, we’ve been contrasting two yokes. We haven’t used that language, but that’s a pretty good summary of what it’s about. There is God’s yoke, which in the NT we come to understand is the yoke of Jesus: the way and lifestyle God calls his people to. And always in the background is the alternative, another way, another lifestyle which involves a different yoke.
• So, as Nick preached a few weeks ago, there’s the way of having a real relationship with God, where we allow God to be the one who shows us who he is and how to worship him. Or, you might remember, there’s the way of trying to stay in control, whether in forms of little idols in ancient times or in the form of personally curated spirituality that meets our needs in the present.
• Last week, we spoke of the way of the household, where God calls us to establish and protect what I called microcommunities of love, with bonds of commitment and connection. Or there’s also a way of autonomy, of personal choice, of privacy.
• Two different ways, which we can speak of two different yokes: there’s the yoke of God’s way, the yoke of Jesus. And there’s this other way, which we could call the yoke of “desire,” where desires are our master.
Because that’s the fundamental difference isn’t it? How do we decide what to do with our lives? How do we make our everyday choices? Do we ultimately look inside of ourselves and say, “What do I want? Whatever I want, that’s what I will do.” Or do we look beyond ourself and say, “What does Jesus want? Whatever he wants, I will do.” Those are the two yokes.
Now to be clear, I’m not saying that desires are bad and that it’s better just not to want. That’s Buddhism. The Christian faith holds that our desires are God-given. When our desires have the right place in our lives they can help motivate us and move us forward. But to put our desires in the place of our master, determining our decisions leads us into ruin.
I mean, just ask yourself this question. When you’re trying to fulfill your desires, when “what do I want?” becomes the ultimate standard, when do you think it is that you will say, “I have enough? I am full. Will it be the next promotion? The next phase in your family life? The next vacation? The next house? No, if you’re honest with yourself, you know that your desires, if they get to be in charge, will always say, “I want more.”
And that is the reason for the other difference that we have seen in the past few weeks between these two yokes. When desires are our yoke, our master, there is never space for rest, for true rest. There’s always the pursuit of something more. We think following our desires will give us enough, but what they really give us is workaholism, doomscrolling, Netflix binging—exhaustion. But when Jesus is our master, when his instruction is our yoke, we are brought into the way of the Sabbath, the way of rest, where we as human beings delight in God’s goodness. This is what Jesus was saying. “Find rest in my yoke.”
Desire and Sex
It seems to me that this contrast between the two yokes is especially plain in the area of life this morning’s passages point us to, sex, and sexual desire. Sexual desire is given by God, and when this desire is understood to as serving a higher authority, when it is placed under the yoke of Jesus, sexual desire can produce tremendous good for both self and society. But when sexual desire is the master, when it becomes the yoke, it can be incredibly destructive.
What I’m saying here might sound quite strange in the ears of our present-day culture. Because the idea of putting any constraints on sexual desire—other than mutual consent, of course—is seen as archaic, repressive, and thoroughly unrealistic. Each of us wants what each of us want, and, according to the wisdom of our culture, it’s up to each of us to figure out how to fulfill those desires. To ever say “no” to our physical desires or to seek to shape and form these desires is viewed as stunting our humanity. Of course satisfying whatever sexual desire we have is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else. Which is another way of saying “Of course we should let our desire be our master, our yoke.”
And how has that gone? A book came out a few months ago by the title of Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, written by Christine Emba, a Washington Post columnist. It assesses the present day asking a simple question. When the sexual liberation movement began in the 60’s, it was accompanied by promises. If we remove any social constraints on sex, women will be empowered; people will be happier; and society will be healthier. But have any of these proven to be true? Throughout this book, using the evidence of countless interviews with people seeking to live out the modern lifestyle, Emba contends that not a single of these promises has been fulfilled. The swiping right or left of Tinder has had a terrible effect on society, training people to think of each other as objects; women have actually disproportionately been disadvantaged by these changes, and people, again and again speak of deep dissatisfaction with how things are now. One of the most common themes of her interviews was people saying, “I know I’m not supposed to say this; I know I’m supposed to be okay with this. But honestly, I’m really sad.” Even a few years ago, an honest assessment would say things are not going well. The #metoo movement only puts an exclamation point on it.
Sadly, amidst this mess, the Christian church has not done a very good job in holding out a clear alternative way. Within conservative Christianity there has been a recognition that Scripture places clear boundaries around sex. But apart from these boundaries it often hasn’t offered a better vision for the place sex is meant to have within life. Often Christian teaching can sound only slightly different from society’s, “Well, sure, we should fulfill our sexual desires. Just make sure that it happens within marriage.” Sometimes it sounds like the message is, “Your desires can be your master, as long as it’s within marriage.”
When the teaching is basically, “Save yourself for marriage so that you can have great sex when you’re married,” it implies that marriage ultimately exists for the purpose of fulfilling our physical desires. Which is a terrible message. It can set people up for unrealistic expectations and, even worse, can set the stage for sexual abuse, where one spouse, often the husband, treats the other as someone whose purpose it is to fulfill his needs, no matter how uncomfortable it might make her. To state things plainly, that is the opposite of God’s way of love; it is sin, and it’s what happens when sex becomes the master.
What Is Sex for?
In all of this what has been lost is a simple question. What is sex for? What are our God-given sexual desires for? If Jesus is our master, his yoke that brings rest is on our shoulders, what does it look like to seek to fulfill his purposes for sex?
In working on this sermon I became increasingly aware that there are so many important things Scripture teaches us about sex that we don’t have time this morning to develop. This morning I just want to consider one basic idea. And that is that the sexual dysfunction that we are seeing is the result of disconnecting sex from its intended purpose. We need to understand that sex is for a loving household.
We talked last week about the importance in Deuteronomy of the household, which we said is not the same thing as the nuclear family. Writer Andy Crouch defines it this way: “A household is a community of persons who may well take shelter under one roof but also and more fundamentally take shelter under one another’s care and concern. They provide for one another, and they depend on one another…Built on more than an isolated pair but encompassing few enough people that all can be deeply and truly and persistently noticed and seen, the household is perfectly sized for the recognition we all were looking for the moment we were born.”
The household, we said, was God’s designed way for training us to love him and neighbor. God’s beautiful design is for humanity to flourish and live together in a loving, stable, connected household.
This morning I want to understand that sex was given to help bring this about.
If you think about it, at the most basic birds and bees level, this is already plain. Sex is clearly central in forming the family. It is the consummation of marriage, whereby someone from outside the household is permanently added to it, and sex is the means also of procreation, the way human lives enter the world and become part of the household. Without sex, there is no household in the Old Testament.
But there’s more to it than just that. Throughout all the material in Deuteronomy and the book of Moses about sex and sexual desire—and there’s a lot, the repeated underlying conviction is that sex and sexual desire, when rightly expressed, are meant to form and reinforce the very things that define a healthy loving household.
We see that in at least three ways:
First, sex and sexual desire have the ability to strengthen and undergird a stable and trustworthy commitment to each other. Genesis 2 speaks about how when a husband leaves his parents and joins his wife—a new bond is established. And then it says that the “two shall become one flesh,” speaking at one and the same time about the act of sex and its significance. Something mysterious takes place. Sex, within the bonds of commitment, is given to be a beautiful ritual of self-giving to the other, through which both people are changed so that more and more there is no longer only an “I” but also a “we.” The two become one in a stable bond of belonging and love.
This is why the Bible is so vehement in opposing adultery, as we see in the 7th commandment and many other places in Deuteronomy. Because the very gift mean to strengthen bonds of commitment, can also, outside of those bonds, tear them apart. Adultery has the ability to bring an end to marriages and even households. Like murder, it is able to destroy something sacred to God, and so in the Old Testament it is treated with the same severity. Sex is meant to strengthen and undergird loving commitment and trust.
Second, sex is designed to honor each other, in the context of knowing and being known.
Our first passage describes a degrading situation for a woman. She has been rendered completely powerless. Her people lost in a battle to Israel; she was among the people taken captive; one of the soldiers desired her to be his wife, and so he takes her home.
Remember how last week I said that the people of Israel were in a dark place because of sin, far from where God intended them to be? Here’s a perfect example of this. In that day, this was how things were done, not just in Israel, but throughout the ancient near east. And usually because the woman was captured and foreign, she would forever be treated as someone less than human, as a concubine. It was deeply wrong.
If, like we said last week, we look at the trajectory of the instructions, where they take a very flawed people, we see a rejection of this dehumanizing. Every command given here is meant to provide dignity to the woman who has experienced degradation. The first instruction of shaving her head and paring her nails and changing her cloths might sound strange, but scholars say that this was a ritual to signify a change in status—she is no longer to be seen as a foreigner and a captive but a future wife. Second, she is to be treated as someone who is grieving, given the customary time to mourn before the marriage takes place. And third, if the husband chooses to divorce her, she must be treated as a human being with freedom, rather than being sold as a slave.
This is one of a number of examples where God directs people away from the customs of the time to say, “Within this relationship, you must treat each other with dignity and honor as human beings.” In the New Testament Paul speaks of the husband’s calling to prize and love his wife in such a way as to cause her to grow in flourish, and wives are to respect husbands in such a way that they can grow into their role. In both situations, it involves seeing the other truly and honoring them. The only right marriage in a household is one between two people who see each other as human beings. Sex is designed to honor.
Third, sex is meant to help orient a couple beyond themselves to bringing life. Really, until this century the connection between sex and procreation was obvious. When all was as it should be, with sex there was the potential for new life to emerge. And so with this sex came the awareness that this relationship was about more than itself—that it had the potential to bring life.
Perhaps one of the most striking and strange biblical instructions reinforcing this idea comes in the idea of Levirate marriage, described in our second passage.
In a household with brothers living together, we are told, if one brother dies without his wife giving birth to an heir, then the living brother has a responsibility to marry the widow in an arranged marriage. The purpose was to bring life and continue the line of the dead brother, to protect the integrity of the household.
This obligation was such a matter of honor that if the brother refused, the widow was instructed to pull off his sandal and spit in his face, an expression of deep dishonor, and then to say, “This is what is done to a man who doesn’t build up his brother’s household.”
Now this all seems weird to us, but do you see the underlying significance? Within this context God was instructing a man to subordinate his own desires and choose to love this woman and make her his wife for the sake of upholding the household. Because, you see, sex doesn’t just exist for itself. It’s not just about fulfilling physical desires. Sex and these desires are meant to serve something bigger: the household, the training ground of love.
Sex is meant to form the husband and wife. It’s meant to deepen their commitment to each other, to enable them to experience being seen and honored, to be a relationship that moves outward into life. And as they are shaped in this way, so also is the household. Speaking personally, through the joys and sometimes crucible of marriage, I have learned not just how to love Jennifer, but how to love. As the husband and wife are shaped, it helps define the culture of the household, so that the household can be a place with deep bonds of commitment, where people are known and accepted, where love is turned outward toward the world.
That’s how it’s meant to work. Here’s the paradigm shift I want us to feel. People today often think of marriage existing for the sake of satisfying our desires; having children is for the sake of satisfying our desires. Scripture says that the desires we are given, specifically related to sex are for the purpose of serving marriage, having children; it’s for strengthening and upholding a household.
Sexual desire fulfillment is not the end goal. A joyful, trusting, committed household is. Love, in its fullest form, is the goal.
In fact, the New Testament takes this further. Jesus says that after the resurrection, at the end of time, there will be no more marriage, no more childbearing, no more sex. And the reason for this is that it will no longer be needed. Humanity in the presence of God will know a community in which the kind of love which marriage and parenting makes possible will be extended beyond those limits. This why in the New Testament, the household transcends family boundaries, where we now can be as family to each other, whether or not we’re related because we love each other the deeper bonds in Jesus. In the New Testament we see not only that sex is meant for a greater purpose than itself, but also that sex is not necessary to true human fulfillment. Marriage is one form of God’s calling, in which these bonds help train people for love. But singleness becomes another form of God’s calling, in which the freedoms of singleness and the ongoing anticipation of the world to come also train those who are single for love. In either situation, the calling is to subordinate one’s desires toward the larger goal of love.
So where does that leave us? I realize that there’s a bajillion different applications that I didn’t mention along the way and questions I left unanswered, because of time and audience. I joked with Nick this past week that I’m going to see what happens preaching a sermon with no specific application. My hope is that we can go deeper during an upcoming Sunday School class.
But for this morning, let me just end with this. While our focus has been on sex, the larger point here is about desire. I’ve heard it said that our strongest desires are not the same as our deepest desires. Our strongest desire in a moment might be to punch someone who said something stupid, or to stay up to watch that next episode of the Crown or whatever your show of choice is, or to stay in bed rather than exercise, or to look at your phone rather than pray…or, to have that one night stand. But in each case, what you most feel like you want is not what you truly most deeply want. This is why it’s always a mistake to make what we think we want be what runs our lives. It’s a bad master. We get exhausted pursuing what we think we want, because we rarely know what we most deeply want.
But Jesus does. He knows what will truly give us rest, and he offers it to us. But for us to experience this, it will take trust on our part. It will mean letting go of what we think we need and allowing ourselves to be led along a different, confusing, strange way. Jesus says, “Come to me. Learn from me. Take my yoke upon you. And you will find rest for your souls.”