I delivered this sermon at the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Wheeling, West Virginia on Sunday, August 8, 2010. I always feel a little funny posting manuscripts of sermons because the Spirit sometimes intercedes and things come out of my mouth that were unplanned. That part doesn’t make me feel funny but the manuscripts are not always exactly what I preached. There is a videotape of this particular sermon floating around. I suppose if I get hold of a copy, I will post it here later. The text for the sermon is Genesis 24.
Expect the Spirit
I’ve served him for decades. I thank Elohim everyday that my master has treated me well through the years and I never ever–not once–questioned what he asked of me. Well, until that day. My mistress Sarah had passed, Elohim bless her, and master Abraham called me to him.
I could tell Elohim was calling him home soon. His voice was raspy, his arms shook. Still, I could feel his strength underneath that frail body, that weak voice. My master was indeed a servant of the LORD.
“Put your hand under my thigh and swear,” he said. I looked at him in disbelief. I was expecting to get him another blanket or maybe even a glass of iced tea. I certainly wasn’t prepared to make an oath of that magnitude. Swearing under his thigh meant that failure to be diligent would result in the end of my line, of my name, of my family–or worse–his! Swearing under his thigh meant that he had a task for me that dwarfed anything, anything he’d ever asked me before.
Still, when the master asked me to go to Haran to find a wife for Isaac, I was a little taken aback. Maybe that’s why I challenged him for the first time. No, no, no. I wasn’t disrespectful. Just far more bold than usual but he seemed to take it well. He knew the magnitude of what he was asking. He knew I was his faithful servant.
When he told me to go get a wife for Isaac, his raspy voice trailed off in a mumble. So, I double checked. I asked, Do you want me to take Isaac with me? In case the young woman doesn’t want to come back with me? At this his raspiness was gone.
“You must NOT take him back there.”
I nodded my head in understanding as he reminded me once again about Elohim’s promise to make a nation of his sons. Apparently, nodding my head wasn’t good enough. He looked me directly in the eyes. And I saw that young master I’d served so many years ago in those brown eyes.
“You must NOT take him back there.”
Boy, was he adamant! If I didn’t know him better, I’d have run then. AND FAST! But I didn’t. Run, that is. I put my hand under his thigh and swore. What else could I do? This was my steadfast master. This was the man who spoke to Elohim for his people. And, he trusted me. It’s not like I was headed to the land of his kindred alone. Master Abraham had arranged to send an angel of the LORD ahead of me.
I have to admit I was a little sad as I prepared to leave on my mission, on my journey. He probably wouldn’t live until I returned. No, I knew he wouldn’t live that long. If he’d had that much time, he wouldn’t have been quite so desperate that I, his most trusted servant, go to the city of Nahor.
I was headed up to the well like I always do in the evening. As I approached with my jug I saw this man, kneeling down, arms up, speaking as if to himself.
But I know better. I am a faithful woman, by the way he spoke, by the way he acted, he must’ve been a worshiper of our god, the god of Daddy’s kin, Abraham. I could tell that–even from a distance. I wondered what he was doing here?
Behind him were ten camels and several servants. The camels were loaded down; they looked like they had come some distance. The man and his servants looked tired and dusty from their travels. Even the camels looked like they were thirsty.
As I got to the well, he was still talking. I’d just filled my jug when the man came running to me. I thought it was rather cheeky for a strange man to approach me, but he clearly was a man of Elohim. Elohim would protect me.
The man asked me for a sip of water. I immediately gave him a drink from my jug. I hesitated but went ahead and offered to water his camels. I know it was forward of me to speak but his servants and camels looked so very thirsty. Elohim would want me to be hospitable to these strangers.
So, I watered the camels. I was right. They were very thirsty. It must’ve taken me a million trips back and forth with my jug to water them. Funny thing is the more trips I made the more energetic I felt. It wasn’t that I didn’t wish I’d had a bigger jug. But I felt fully up to the task. Our god has blessed me with the opportunity to be hospitable to this man, to care for his camels.
The weird thing about it wasn’t that I should offer him water, it’s expected that I be hospitable, but deep inside of me I knew caring for this stranger was important. I just felt it. You know that feeling you get when you know it is just the right thing to do? Well, that’s what it was like for me.
As soon as I’d finished watering the camels, he reached into his bag and gave me this huge ring…oh, and bracelets, too. That was when I suddenly realized what was happening. He proposed that I might be the wife for his young master. This, too, just felt right. I know it didn’t make sense.
Maybe it felt so right because he didn’t start quizzing me about my family until after he’d suggested that I should marry Isaac. Maybe it felt so right because any master who would trust a servant with such an important task as finding a wife. . . One who relied so faithfully upon the god of our kin, would be a man who would allow me to be myself. He would be a man who wouldn’t be bothered by my impudent nature, my boldness.
In any case, this, too felt right. I felt Elohim in all this and was not afraid. So, I offered him a place to stay for the night and he bowed his head and prayed. Yes, Elohim was indeed guiding this stranger.
As you all know, neither Isaac or Jessica has given us a grandchild yet. This is why I’ve decided that if arranged marriage was good enough for Abraham and Isaac, then it’s good enough for my Isaac. I even arranged a meeting between him and the first girl I picked out for him the time he visited me in Lexington. She was even on board and then–mysteriously–she got sick and couldn’t make it. Now I’ve found another possibility and am working on bringing them together.
Seriously though, when we can set aside our twenty-first century problems with arranged marriage, this is really an amazing story of faith. Look closely. Abraham didn’t choose Rebekah. Abraham trusted his servant and the angel who went ahead of him, to choose Rebekah. He trusted God; He expected the Holy Spirit.
When he couldn’t go himself, Abraham chose someone who expected the Spirit to guide him. He picked someone who lived his life in relationship with the One who loves us abundantly. Notice how this servant, prays immediately upon arriving at the well. He trusts God to help him to accomplish the task he has accepted. And because of his reliance on Elohim, the God of Israel, the same one god that you and I worship today, he is successful. And, then, after he finds Rebekah, he acknowledges God’s role in it all. He offers thanks and praise to God. This servant truly was worthy of Abraham’s trust in him.
And what of Rebekah? This amazing matriarch of our faith? It’s unusual in biblical and extra-biblical betrothal stories that a servant, rather than the bridegroom-to-be, makes the journey and meets the bride-to-be at the well. In the other stories of betrothal in Genesis, it is the young man who meets the bride at the well. So, to the folks who first heard this story that was VERY significant, that there was something special about this woman, about this marriage.
Some scholars even suggest that our matriarch Rebekah becomes the keeper of God’s Promise to Abraham to make many nations of his lineage. Isaac, who is often portrayed as less reliable than the other patriarchs, is bolstered by his strong, competent wife, Rebekah. As the son who is necessary to continue the lineage of Israel, the Promise of many nations must come through him. So while he’s the vessel of the Promise, according to these scholars, it is Rebekah who makes it happen. Remember, it’s Rebekah who plots and assures that the responsible Jacob receives Isaac’s blessing–becoming the vessel of the Promise–rather than her irresponsible son, Esau. If it weren’t for Rebekah’s faith, Elohim’s promise would be at risk for yet another generation.
But I digress a bit. What of Rebekah’s faith? Here’s a young woman who energetically waters ten camels. Camels who can drink gallons and gallons of water when they’ve been depleted of their reserve. AND she does it with one tiny little jug running back and forth from the well to the camels, back and forth from the well to the camels.
Oh, AND it’s Rebekah who when given a choice, as granted by custom and law, to stay home with her family or to marry a man she’s never met… It’s Rebekah who, given the opportunity to do the easy thing to stay with the tried and true, to be comfortable…It’s Rebekah who expects the Spirit. She trusts God even when it makes no sense and consents to the marriage. She trusts that God has her back. She trusts that God has indeed led the servant to her and, I like to think, she herself senses the Holy Spirit within this sequence of events.
Can you imagine, friends, what it would be like to so fully trust our God that you would go off to marry a man or woman that you’ve never met? Can you imagine what it would be like to expect the Spirit to guide you into the unknown — just as your pastor is asking you to expect the Spirit to guide Christ’s church from modernity into post-modernity? And, yet, Rebekah, that amazing woman of faith, trusts God that much.
So, as I’ve spent some time with this story, I’ve reflected on why it is that we sometimes lack the faith of the servant. Why do we lack the faith of Rebekah? Why is it that we spend our time looking for the Devil in the details instead trusting the Holy Spirit?
The world is changing out there. It’s changing fast. It’s enough to give anyone whiplash. But if we’re going to be Christ’s body on earth, we’ll need to find ways to respond faithfully even as we feel shell-shocked.
It seems to me, that the first step is to change our attitude. The Fifties were not perfect and the 21st century is not a curse. We’re blessed to be a part of a fundamental shift in human history. Not, that it always feels like a blessing. But–stick with me for a moment–the move from the absolutes of modernity in which science can find the one Truth, to postmodernity in which the Divine manifests multiple Truths to the tapestry of God’s people…This is indeed a Gift and a blessing.
We have the opportunity to be a part of God’s movement within this change. We have the opportunity to expect the Spirit. The opportunity to say “yes” to the movement of the Spirit, of God, as Christ’s church is transformed in ways as significant and fundamental as the Protestant reformation and Catholic counter-reformation that followed it.
The Good News is that we’re not alone. We have each other. We also have a God who loves us extravagantly. We worship a God who chose to send the Son to us. The One who was taunted, who suffered, and who was killed at our hands in a way that removed all dignity from him. And yet, despite our great sins, because of the extravagant love of God, Jesus rose on the third day. This God, this Elohim, is a god that I want to say “yes” to? I don’t know about you, but I am want to EXPECT the Spirit.
So what does get in our way? What makes it hard to say, “yes” to God’s transforming and abundant love. What keeps us from saying yes as our matriarch Rebekah did when she left the only family she had ever known and travel to a far-away country? Why is it that we spend our time looking for the Devil in the details instead trusting the Holy Spirit?
Fear. We let a world in which the media and the politicians and even our neighbors–both out there and in here–are manipulated by that which is not of God and then seek to frighten us. They seek to keep Rebekah away from Isaac, where God lures and nudges her so that she might do God’s will. They expect the Devil in the Details instead of expecting the Spirit.
Noise. And they make a lot of noise. The television. The internet. Traffic noise from the interstate that splits our town in half. And the noise of petty concerns and naysaying distract us from the voice of the One who sent the Son and from the voice of the Spirit that the Son left when he ascended to heaven.
If we are going to get beyond the fears and the noise, we will need to begin with prayer. We need to test whether what we hear is of God, is the Spirit, and prayer is where that begins. If we really, I mean really, REALLY believe that prayer works, then we need to be praying every day. We need pray and to expect the Spirit to nurture us and nudge us in the direction of God’s will for our lives. We must make quiet time with God a priority. A priority more important than Jay Leno, or packing lunch for tomorrow, or even sleep.
We do and will continue to fail sometimes. We let the fear and noise keep us from our God. We sometimes don’t pray because we’re afraid our prayers won’t be good enough.We find ourselves uncomfortable with prayer. We hear the public prayers of others. We hear those who have prepared poetic words pray for us during worship and we worry that we cannot do the same.
Or we read prayers in books and, well, apparently God only hears prayers that are said in just the right words. At least that’s what we fear. And it’s understandable that someone might get that impression about prayer —but, friends…don’t… be…. deceived. Your words don’t have to be perfect. Ultimately, God hears what’s in our hearts not what’s on our lips.
Paul reminds us in Romans 8 that, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints [for us] according to the will of God.” (Romans 8: 26-27 NRSV)
The servant in our story knew this, too. He just prays his heart and lets the chips fall as they may. Why else would he come off sounding like he was ordering God around?
“Let the girl to whom I shall say, “Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, “Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you [God] have shown steadfast love to my master.” (Genesis 24: 13b-14 NRSV) But despite his awkward words, the Spirit interceded on his behalf “with sighs too deep for words.”
So, if you’re uncomfortable just say what’s on your heart. Even the disciples were uncomfortable. They asked Jesus how to pray and he taught them the Lord’s Prayer. So, if you’re not sure what to say, you can just pray like Jesus taught.
Finally, what would it be like if we just sat in silent, prayerful meditation ten minutes a day? I suggest it might change the world. We don’t need a mantra to chant. Just sit. Just try to be. We’re all so worried about doing, so distracted by the noise. We allow ourselves to get so busy or fearful that we don’t hear God’s voice.
We live in a noisy, noisy world. Ever notice how quiet it is during a power outage? We aren’t even aware of much of the noise around us. So, make time to sit. To sit and just be with God. And when we do that, when we expect the Spirit, we won’t be disappointed. The quicksand that we feel under our feet in this challenging world will be replaced by a solid path on which we will journey as Christ’s church is transformed, as God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven.
Please pray with me:
God of Always,
You are with us in every moment.
Touch us with your love.
Remove the fears and noise that keep us away from you.
Touch us with your gentle nudging and loud pushes.
Remind us that you desire to be in relationship with us.
Remind us that you hear what is on our hearts not the awkward words we
Give us the strength and discipline to be in daily prayer and silence with you that
we might hear your voice.
Help us to expect the Spirit that we might do your will in the world.