St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Led by the right way

Led by the right way

Ser­mon preached at Enmore. Fifth Sunday after Pente­cost, 9th July 2017

Read­ing: Gen­es­is 24: 34–67; Mat­thew 11. 15–19; 25–30

After two har­row­ing stor­ies from the Abra­ham saga- the near deaths of both Ish­mael and Isaac we are relieved this morn­ing to read a love story with a happy end­ing. This is one of the best nar­rat­ives in Gen­es­is and it is worth read­ing the full ver­sion when you get home, not just the ‘Read­ers Digest’ con­densed ver­sion that the lec­tion­ary gives us. In the pre­vi­ous chapter, the death of Sarah at the age of 127 is recor­ded. It is a sad event, not just because of Sarah’s death, but also because it reminds Abra­ham that he still waits for the ful­fil­ment of God’s prom­ise of land. He remains a sojourn­er, who is rich in goods but owns no prop­erty.  He has to enter into nego­ti­ations with the loc­al Hittite people so that he can pur­chase a piece of ground with a cave where Sarah can be bur­ied. The story of Sarah’s death is linked to what fol­lows: the passing of one gen­er­a­tion moves to the prom­ise of a new one but for that to hap­pen Isaac needs a wife.

Abraham’s unnamed ser­vant is giv­en the daunt­ing task of find­ing a wife for Isaac. Abra­ham is determ­ined that the wife is not to be a Canaan­ite woman from the loc­al area but someone related to Abraham’s fam­ily, who live in Har­an some 600 or so kilo­metres to the north. Not sur­pris­ingly, the ser­vant asks, ‘what if the woman I find is not will­ing to leave her fam­ily; can I return here and take Isaac to her?’ Abra­ham expressly for­bids this. To do this would be to deny the valid­ity of God’s prom­ise con­cern­ing the land. For Abra­ham and his des­cend­ants there is to be no going back to their former home- they must stay in the land that God has prom­ised to them. Abraham’s ser­vant swears a sol­emn oath and sets out on his jour­ney with an abund­ant sup­ply of gifts no doubt designed to con­vince a pro­spect­ive bride that her hus­band is a man of substance.

After a long jour­ney, the ser­vant arrives at his des­tin­a­tion and he makes his 10 camels kneel down by the town’s well. He then prays. This is the first time in the Book of Gen­es­is that we have the actu­al words of a per­son pray­ing. We have had Cain and later Abram call­ing out to God in dis­tress but these words and the later pray­er of the ser­vant in 24.27 are the first form­al pray­ers in the Bible. It’s a good pray­er: the ser­vant asks God for his mis­sion to be suc­cess­ful. He asks that God will show stead­fast love to his mas­ter Abra­ham. Stead­fast love (Hebrew, hesed) will occur through­out the rest of the Old Test­a­ment as a descrip­tion of God’s faith­ful cov­en­antal love for his people. Stead­fast love does not give up eas­ily. Stead­fast love is the kind of love Paul will describe in 1 Cor­inthi­ans chapter 13. The ser­vant asks for a sign- the young woman who not only gives him a drink but also offers to water his camels will be the right one. This may seem a rather arbit­rary sign but not to any­one who knows camels! A thirsty camel can drink 20–30 gal­lons of water at a time and the ser­vant has 10 camels. A young woman offer­ing to water this many camels in the name of hos­pit­al­ity to a stranger will be worth watch­ing. No soon­er is his pray­er uttered than Rebekah appears. The ser­vant asks for a drink for him­self, Rebekah quickly obliges and then without any prompt­ing offers to water the camels as well. The nar­rat­or is quick to tell us that this woman is worth watch­ing for oth­er reas­ons too, the NRSV says she was very fair to look upon. The lit­er­al Hebrew is even more dir­ect, ‘She was good to look at.’ We are told, ‘the man gazed at her is silence to learn wheth­er or not the Lord had made his jour­ney successful.’

Draw­ing water for the camels would have taken an hour at least, so Abraham’s ser­vant has plenty of time to assess Rebekah as a pro­spect­ive bride: she is beau­ti­ful, strong and healthy and gen­er­ous in her hos­pit­al­ity. Her task fin­ished, the ser­vant is suf­fi­ciently per­suaded of her suit­ab­il­ity that he rewards her with expens­ive gold jew­ellery and then enquires about her fam­ily, hop­ing that they might be able to offer him a bed for the night. When Rebekah reveals that she is the grand­daugh­ter of Abraham’s broth­er Nahor, the ser­vant give thanks to God for his faith­ful­ness and stead­fast love to his mas­ter Abra­ham and acknow­ledges that it is God who has led him to his master’s kin. Unlike oth­er epis­odes in the Abra­ham saga there has been no dir­ect inter­ven­tion from God, no voices from heav­en but none the less the ser­vant is con­vinced that God’s provid­ence has been at work in the whole drama. In his words, “The Lord has led me to this place.”

Rebekah runs home and deliv­ers the news about Abraham’s ser­vant who has trav­elled all the way from Canaan and would like to stay with them. Her broth­er Laban see­ing the gold brace­lets and the gold nose ring worn by his sis­ter is imme­di­ately impressed and soon the ser­vant finds him­self in Rebekah’s home and able to tell the pur­pose of his errand. Hav­ing listened to the servant’s story Rebekah’s par­ents and her broth­er Laban are con­vinced that ‘the thing comes from the Lord’ and give their con­sent for Rebekah to become the wife of Isaac. There remains only one hurdle: will Rebekah be will­ing to leave her fam­ily and travel hun­dreds of kilo­metres to marry a man she has nev­er met? Rebekah’s response is swift and dir­ect, “I will.”

The account of the home­com­ing and of Isaac’s recep­tion of his bride is beau­ti­fully told. Isaac who still mourned the loss of his moth­er, is out walk­ing in the even­ing when he sees camels com­ing. Rebekah rid­ing on a camel gets her first glimpse of her hus­band, and her response? The Hebrew text says plainly that she fell off the camel! The servant’s task is fin­ished. Isaac takes Rebekah as his wife and he loved her. This is only the second time the verb to love has appeared in Gen­es­is. In the pat­ri­arch­al cul­ture of ancient Israel, love was not con­sidered an essen­tial ingredi­ent in mar­riage but Isaac and Rebekah loved each oth­er deeply.

What does this ancient love story have to teach us today? It tells us some­thing about pray­er and dis­cern­ing the right path. As men­tioned before God does not actu­ally speak in this nar­rat­ive but none the less the major play­ers all have a sense of God’s hand behind all that hap­pens. The ser­vant is entrus­ted with a dif­fi­cult task: how can he know what woman he should choose? Abra­ham provides only one con­di­tion- she must be from Abraham’s coun­try and kin. Hav­ing arrived at the right place he then has to work out how to set about his task of find­ing the right woman. He uses com­mon sense. Women gath­er at the well at the end of the day, so if you want to find eli­gible young women that’s where you go. Giv­en that there may be many poten­tial can­did­ates what can one do to start the pro­cess of elim­in­a­tion? In that ancient cul­ture, hos­pit­al­ity to strangers was a sac­red duty, so the first cri­terion should be, find a woman who takes hos­pit­al­ity ser­i­ously. Hav­ing made those sens­ible decisions, the ser­vant then com­mits the mat­ter to God in pray­er. He prays that God will grant him suc­cess and he calls on God to show stead­fast love to his mas­ter. He asks God to hon­our his prom­ises to Abra­ham. The ser­vant was obvi­ously close to Abra­ham and would have known the things that God had prom­ised his mas­ter: land, many des­cend­ants and that through him God would bring bless­ing to many nations.

In our pray­ers and in our dis­cern­ment of the right path to walk on, wheth­er it is choos­ing a life part­ner, choos­ing a career or voca­tion or even decid­ing what to do tomor­row, we could do worse than fol­low­ing the servant’s example. Find­ing God’s will for our lives involves using our head and our heart. It means assess­ing our gifts and abil­it­ies, seek­ing advice from people we trust and com­mit­ting the mat­ter to God in pray­er, believ­ing that he will lead us and make the path clear. Like the ser­vant we ask God to be faith­ful to his prom­ises. Paul says that all the prom­ises of God find their yes in Jesus. Jesus has prom­ised that he will be with us in every situ­ation in life and that he will nev­er leave us or for­sake us. His spir­it, Jesus says, will lead us into all truth. The pas­sage today encour­ages us to reflect on our lives and to dis­cern the hid­den ways God has been with us and guided us, even when we may not have been expect­ing it. We, like the ser­vant’ may often find that we are led and can then say with the Psalm­ist, ‘he leads me by the still waters, he restores my soul, He leads me in the paths of right­eous­ness, for his name’s sake.’

Philip Brad­ford