God provides in another way in Genesis 24, one of the Hebrew Bible readings for Ordinary Time 14 A, this coming Sunday, July 3, 2011. Here is a sermon on this text:
God Goes Before Us
A Sermon on Genesis 24, with allusions to Psalm 139 and Romans 8:28
Nothing ever came quickly and easily as far as Isaac was concerned. After God first promised Abraham and Sarah that their descendents would number as many as the stars, and that they would become a great nation in the land of Canaan, it was twenty-five years before they finally had their longed-for baby. God certainly took his time in working this plan out.
Then there were many other adventures, any of which could have totally derailed this plan, so there was more waiting: According to Genesis 24, Isaac was nearly forty years old before he was ready to get married. It was high time he got to work on the next generation. High time! And if Isaac was going to be a patriarch, he needed a matriarch. Who would make a suitable partner for him, and how would he find her?
Arranged marriages have little or no appeal to us, but it was the norm back then, and still is the norm in some parts of the world. Given the fact that that’s how things were done then, I can see Abraham’s wisdom. He thought that the logical place to look for a good match was back home among his kinfolk in Haran, among people who served God, the same God Abraham served. Isaac needed a wife who shared his faith, someone willing and able to follow the dream of the Promised Land that God had first articulated nearly sixty-five years before.
But why not let Isaac make the journey to Haran to find the match himself? As strange as it may seem to us, maybe old Abraham was wise in this as well. This family needed to move forward. God was calling the family forward. And if Isaac goes back home, finds he likes it, and decides to stay there, that’s a step backward for the family and the dream. No, best send the oldest, most trustworthy servant.
Understandably, the servant had misgivings. What if the woman he chose for Isaac wouldn’t come? Wouldn’t it be smart for Isaac to go himself? “No,” Abraham instructed the servant, “under no circumstances are you to take Isaac back there. If the woman won’t leave home to come here, you are set free from this mission.”
But that’s not all Abraham told his servant. “The same God who promised this land to me and my descendents will send his angel before you to make the trip successful.” God’s angel was the symbol of God’s own presence. It was Abraham’s way of saying God’s caring presence goes before you. God is involved in this. God is going to work things out.
So the servant agreed to go. His mind must have been full of questions: How am I going to know which woman to choose? How is God going to put me in touch with the right one? How will I make the right decision?
Some choices, like what color tie to wear or what to fix for supper, are six of one and a half dozen of the other. It doesn’t much matter. God doesn’t have a particular will about it. But some choices, like whom to marry, or what kind of job to pursue matter greatly, and the question, “Where is God leading?” matters greatly.
We assume that God’s will is good, and that God loves us and wants what’s best for us. But how do you know what that will is? How do you know what to major in and what work to pursue? How do you know whether or not this is the person you should marry? And the questions don’t stop with young adulthood. Life brings us to many forks in the road, and we have to decide whether to go to the right or to the left. Decisions about troubled marriages. Decisions about changing jobs or moving. Medical decisions. Really, really tough end of life decisions, such as which medical interventions to say “yes” to, and which to say “no” to. We come to forks in the road as a congregation. How are we going to know what God’s will is concerning the new challenges that are before us? Should we go to the right or to the left? This way, or that way?
I think I can understand the spirit of Abraham’s servant’s prayer. When he arrived at his destination and was trying to decide which way to turn, he went to the well, the place where he would certainly encounter some single women. “Please, God,” he prayed. “I’m going to ask one of them for a drink. Let the one who both gives me a drink and offers to water the camels, let that be the one you have chosen!”
On the surface it sounds a bit superstitious or magical, like the person who says, “Okay, Lord, I’m going to open my Bible, and wherever my finger falls, let that be the answer to my question.” Definitely NOT a good method for discerning the will of God.
But let’s be sympathetic to the servant. It wasn’t a bad sign to ask for. This sign would reveal a woman with a spirit of hospitality and sensitivity, someone who goes the extra mile, and someone with strength and stamina, important qualities for life on the road. These would all be good gifts to bring to a marriage with Isaac.
We don’t come into this life with a black and white printout from God that says: you are going to do this particular work. You are going to marry this particular person. No, we don’t receive black and white instructions on matters like these. But God does give us signs, enough hints to show that he really is involved in the unfolding of our stories. The angel of God really is going before us, just as Abraham promised.
Usually the signs are pretty ordinary: When it comes to what to study and what to do with our working lives, what we’re interested in, what we enjoy, and what we have aptitude for are all signs from God to be explored. God is the one who created us this way, with these interests and these strengths.
Sometimes Christians think that to truly serve the will of God, they have to choose a particular profession whether they enjoy it or not, especially if the need is great. One young woman went to college convinced that God wanted her to be a medical missionary. The need was so great, and she had been moved when she met a medical missionary. Her church taught that “you should enter a profession mainly for the opportunity it presents to serve others, even if this means doing the very thing you do not want to do” (M. Blaine Smith, Knowing God’s Will. (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1979), p. 119.)
But when she got to college, the science courses were a hard struggle, and what’s more, she didn’t enjoy them. She found that accounting was what she enjoyed, and that’s where her abilities were. But she was afraid she was disobeying the will of God. A wise campus minister showed her that God was the one behind her interests and abilities, and that she could serve him best by being true to the person God had created her to be. Where your heart and God’s heart meet that’s your point of service to him. It will fit you, and it will bring you joy along with whatever pain comes with the calling.
Similar signs come as we seek God’s will concerning marriage, ordinary signs like enjoying being together; strong mutual support—support that goes both ways—one’s not just taking care of the other; shared commitments, deep values shared. I once read about a couple who married because they thought God had given them a miraculous sign telling them to marry. It happened like this: they met in Europe, then later happened to encounter each other again in a church in the United States. They thought this coincidence was a direct call from God to get married. They didn’t do the work of discerning whether they were really suited to each other, they didn’t look for the ordinary signs, and the marriage turned out to be a disaster.
Abraham’s servant’s prayerful seeking is the way to go. Before he had finished praying, here came Rebekah. Might she be the one? The servant asked her for a drink. Quickly she served him, then moved right on to serve the camels until they had all they needed. Abraham’s servant watched her. Was she truly the one? He watched her for a long time. I learned that a camel can drink up to 157 quarts—about 39 gallons—at a time. At ten camels, that turns out to be a lot of water. The servant could see what this woman was made of, and he was impressed.
But this wasn’t a done deal yet. Other factors had to work out, too. Was she of the Abrahamic family of faith? She was. “Thanks be to God!” they servant then prayed. God had led him straight to Abraham’s family, right where he needed to be.
But even then it still wasn’t a done deal. Rebekah’s family must cooperate. And they did. After they heard the servant’s story, they said, “God is in this.” Even Rebekah’s brother Laban’s greed played a role. The rich gifts that the servant brought immediately caught Laban’s eye, making him eager to welcome this stranger and hear him out.
But there was one more factor: the woman herself must be willing, and she was. The next morning negotiations for Rebekah’s hand almost broke down because the servant wanted to depart for Canaan immediately, while Rebekah’s family weren’t ready to let her go so quickly. Finally they said, “Let’s let her decide. Will you go with this man?” they asked. “I will,” she replied. And so they saddled up the camels.
Here is the story of a family of faith that was willing to be led by God, who expected God to lead, who watched for the signs of God’s activity, interpreted and heeded them. This is the invitation to each of us, and to our family of faith: be willing to be led by God. Expect God to lead. Trust God to want what is best for us. Get to know God’s ways more and more deeply through scripture. Keep a lookout for God’s signs. Carefully interpret them. Act in faith. Do all of this with prayer.
For God is always going before us into our future. Psalm 139 is right: wherever we go, whatever happens, from brightest light to deepest darkness, God is there. God was there when we were being knit in secret in our mother’s wombs, and when we come to the end, there God will be. And what is God doing? All the way through, God is mysteriously working things together for the good, whether we perceive him or not.
God has sent so many signs of his loving presence to Morton Church, signs to encourage us to keep seeking the way for our ministry. One powerful sign is the amazing work that God has done on this building and the grounds that surround it: so beautiful, so serviceable, so ready to serve people who need the healing, saving touch of Jesus. Ready to be a blessing to others as well as to us. Ready for the generations that will come after us. Just like Abraham’s servant, we exclaim, “Thanks be to God!”
Another powerful sign: the amazing array of personalities and gifts that God has assembled here in this congregation, ready to be a blessing to people who need Jesus. Thanks be to God!
And a new generation is arising here at Morton. We are blessed with more children and youth to cherish and raise as young disciples than we’ve had in a long time, and another one is on the way. God is definitely up to something here. What do we need to be doing to make sure that all our generations at Morton are continuing to grow as disciples of Jesus? And how can this family of faith take Jesus’ blessings out beyond these walls and beyond our boundaries?
Surely God is going before us into the future. Knowing that God always goes before us, working things together for good, gives us the courage to explore, the courage to try new things as we serve him, the courage to persevere.
The search will be successful in God’s way and in God’s time. And when it is, when the answers become clear, we will say the very same thing Abraham’s servant said: Thanks be to God, he has led us straight to where we need to be!