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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 07/03/2011

If the promise to Abraham about offspring as numerous as the stars was to come true, Isaac needed a wife.  After years of waiting, Isaac, the promised son had finally been born and he had escaped the sacrificial knife the Lord seemed to have aimed at him in the story we heard last week, a sacrifice that seemingly would have nullified the promise.  It didn’t happen though as Abraham’s faith carried the day, but to keep things going, Isaac needed a wife and that’s today’s story.

In many ways, the story is quite unremarkable.  It’s different; it comes from a time of arranged marriages which is a concept generally unfamiliar to us, but in that time and culture, recognizing the need for his son to have a suitable wife, it was not unusual for Abraham to have sent his servant back to the homeland in search of that wife.  And so the servant goes, and the main quality that he was looking for in any prospective wife was not good looks or any physical characteristic that might make her a good candidate for child bearing; and remember we are looking for offspring here.  But while there is an incidental mention that the girl who comes to the well is fair to look at, the quality the servant was watching for was hospitality, would she offer him a drink of water.  That simple act would be the sign that this girl, Rebekah, was the “right” girl for Isaac.

That, I think, is at least somewhat remarkable.  The usual question in arranged marriages was what would the proposed wife bring to the marriage in terms of wealth and power and status.  But in this case, Abraham’s servant wasn’t looking for any of that.  He was looking for hospitality and Rebekah passed with flying colors, not only offering the servant a drink but offering to water his camels as well and then providing him with a place to stay back at her father’s house.  In terms of hospitality it was even more than the servant had hoped for so Rebekah did seem to be “right” for Isaac.

This emphasis on hospitality is worth noting though because it can be seen as another example of how what is important to God is not always what is important to the world. To be sure there are flaws in character that are ultimately revealed in Rebekah, but to start with she passes the hospitality test, an indication that this line that begins with Abraham is predicated on being blessed in order to be a blessing to others as the Lord had said.  The need to be a blessing to others as we have been blessed is something that we too want to keep in mind because it can be seen as what underlies the ethic and way of life that Jesus taught and in many cases being a blessing to others is about simple things like the cup of cold water Rebekah offered the servant.

So there are some interesting things to point out in this story but still  a lot of what goes on seems to be mostly about moving the overall story along.  As I said, for the promise to be fulfilled Isaac needed a wife and at the end of the day or the end of the story, he has a wife, there is a means to continue the family line of Abraham.  God however, is not obviously active here.  There is the overriding, assumed conviction that everything is under the care and watch of the Lord but there are no divine revelations or dramatic acts on the Lord’s part as is the case in other parts of Genesis.  Instead of being about the Lord’s activity, this story more about human activity, human activity which is a response to faith in the Lord’s assumed presence and watchful care.

So the Lord doesn’t intervene in any direct way here, but as Abraham’s servant goes about his task, in faith he attributes what happens to the leadership of the Lord.  But the story is more about the servant’s faithful following and discernment about what is going on than it is about the Lord’s leadership.  It’s only in retrospect that he sees God’s hand at work.  For these reasons, I think this story is quite relevant for us.

Most of us are not the recipients of divine revelations or visible appearances by God.  God’s work in our lives is not usually spectacular and magical.  But…from a perspective of faith, we can in reflective retrospection recognize that God has been at work, sometimes in events that we hadn’t thought about very much or maybe events which we didn’t think were very important or which we had attributed to other causes.  Often what has happened is not what we expected, quite possibly not what we prayed for if we were in a prayerful mode; sometimes it involves things that might not have been very pleasant at the time, but in retrospect, we see God’s fingerprints all over the place.

Now obviously some would be very dismissive of such a claim concerning God’s involvement in what goes on, saying that it’s all coincidence and chance.  They’re entitled.  But in my life there are too many times that things have happened, or there are people who have come into my life nudging me in one direction or another or maybe providing support, or a series of events have taken place that I couldn’t and wouldn’t have predicted and those events have placed me exactly where I needed to be in situations that were good for me.  It’s happened too often for me just to dismiss it all to chance.  I suspect that as you reflect on your own life you see the same kind of things.  It wasn’t what you planned, but it worked out even better.     

Is it all coincidence, just happening to be in the right place at the right time?  Some would say so.  Would it have been OK if things had worked out some other way?  Maybe.  But I think, as was the case with the servant looking for a wife for Isaac, God is disclosed to us in these understated ways through our steady discernment, discernment which is an act of faith.  It’s discernment that also includes awareness of the seemingly bad things that have gotten our attention in some way and it includes becoming aware of flaws and weaknesses that make you realize that if it’s all about you, you’re in trouble, that you really are dependent on God’s guidance and grace.  All of it has to do with our response to God’s behind the scenes activity in our lives.

On a Fourth of July weekend that brings up something else.  One of the myths that has evolved regarding this country, and I use myth in a positive way here, myth as an expression of truth, but one of the myths that has evolved is that in its history this country has been uniquely chosen and guided by God, that we have been blessed by God in order to be a beacon on a hill as it is sometimes expressed.  I’m not an historian but reading American history has become something of a hobby for me, I’ve read a lot in the past few years especially about the Revolutionary period.  I find it fascinating and one can’t read about those years and not be somewhat amazed at how things played out.

First of all, there was a remarkable group of people who happened to be around at that time; Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, you know the names and there are others.  They were all different, their religious beliefs varied greatly, they didn’t agree on everything in fact the politics of that time could be just as nasty and mean spirited as they are now.  They weren’t perfect as individuals but there was a collective wisdom about them that probably hasn’t been matched by any other group of people in our history, maybe in anyone’s history.  What were the chances that such a group would come together just at that time?

Even with that wisdom and leadership though, there is absolutely no reason that a rag tag group of Colonial soldiers should have been able to defeat what was the most powerful army in the world at the time.  Washington himself called it “almost a miracle.”  Following the war it was just as amazing that they were able to establish a government that actually functioned, amazing that a figure like George Washington who could have grabbed for a lot more power than he did and corrupted the entire system, always declined such a grab and thus gave the system a chance to take hold.

If we do the same kind of reflective retrospection that we have been talking about, from a faith perspective it’s not a reach to conclude that God was involved, that God wanted this experiment to succeed.  Based on the facts on the ground, there were many other outcomes that were far more likely, outcomes that would not have us celebrating 235 years of independence for this country tomorrow.

If that’s the case though, if God’s hand has been involved in the history of the United States, then our response to that involvement becomes critical.  As Christians it means supporting policies and practices that uphold the teachings of Jesus.  It means remembering God’s covenant with Abraham that “I will make of you a great nation, I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”  It can’t be “God bless America and no one else.”  It means recognizing that there are times in our history when we’ve responded to our calling as a nation pretty well, but that there are also times that we haven’t.  “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do,” as St. Paul put it. As we celebrate and reflect on this Fourth of July weekend, let’s pray that as individuals and as a nation that we know the difference between good and evil so we can be who we are called to be.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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