This is a long chapter, and I am grateful to Lee for reading some portions to you. I want to walk you through it, and it would be helpful for you to open your Bibles, as well as the additional material in the insert. But before then I want to pose what are key questions in the text: How does the promise continue? In seasons of transition and change, how are we faithful? What do we do, using my sermon title now, as we journey from here to there, from one place to another?
This text is all about transitions. We’ve spent the last couple of weeks with Abraham and Sarah. God chose them to be keepers of the covenant between God and humanity – but not just for them, so that through them, God says in Genesis 12, all the families of the earth shall be blessed. When they were unable to have children, a key barrier to the promise of offspring and a great nation, God walked with them. God provided for them. Even when they messed it up and Abraham had Ishmael through Hagar, then Sarah and Abraham, in regret, sent them away. Even when God tested Abraham, calling him to sacrifice the son Isaac who was himself the embodiment of the promise. When Abraham finally learns that God can be trusted.
That tough section in chapter 22 that we wrestled with last week is the culmination of the story of God with Abraham and Sarah. While today’s text has a lot of merit in itself, its key role is that of making the transition – getting us from one part of the story to the next part of the story.
Because, as the old adage says, the only thing constant is change. It is in moments of transition when things get hard. Those are the moments we pastors end up being around, in the privilege of ministry. Most of you don’t call us when things are going smoothly. “Hey Chris, just calling to let you know that everyone is healthy and well in our family, job is great, just wanted to see if we could get together and praise God for that!” “Hey, Betty, just a note to let you know that no one in my entire family is in the hospital right now. We also have no issues with our aging parents – we have had all the conversations we need to have and are communicating honestly and openly.” “Hey, Taylor, just a quick email to tell you that my adolescent is adjusting quite nicely to middle school. No one is upset with anyone else, and everyone is hanging around with the kids we’d like for them to hang around with!”
It’s when changes come that stuff gets hard. I’ll confess that it wasn’t until my parents retired a few years ago that I began to glimpse how tricky that was, and how retirement gets at all sorts of questions about health and work and achievement and finances. Each season has its own challenges – on the side of work, career, finances, and on the side of relationships. Marriage. Children. Who they are, who we long for them to be. Then at some point you make a turn to questions of heritage, health, legacy. What has my life been about? We wrestle with how well or poorly we cope, making good decisions, engaging friends or family members who feel differently than you might. How will he do off at college? Will she find another job? Where is mom going to live? She can’t stay at the house much longer…
Abraham is near death, and at the beginning of this chapter he brings his servant in, and entrusts him with the task of making sure the promise continues. His son Isaac needs a spouse, who will then in turn bear a child, an heir, so the line will continue. That is the key concern, as I say in the insert, of this text. How is all this going to work? How do we get from there – Sarah’s death, and Abraham’s soon, to a place where we know the promise is secure, that there is a path forward? The servant begins the journey, loaded with gifts for a potential spouse and her family. As he approaches a well in the evening, he prays to God that a woman will be provided. And, almost immediately, Rebekah, who is from the same clan, comes out – she’s beautiful, the text needs to note – offers him a drink, even to water the servant’s camels. This feels like a miracle to Abraham’s servant, who asks about her family – she brings him back to her home so they all might provide hospitality for the night. Then, in a dramatic scene in verse 34 (where Lee began), the servant offers his identity, as well as his task. In ways that make me a little uncomfortable now, but that were completely consistent with the time and culture, Abraham’s servant says that he has come to obtain a wife for his master’s son, that he believes God has sent them on this errand, and that he believes that Rebekah is the answer to his and Abraham’s prayers.
“I came to the spring,” the servant says in verse 42, and prayed to God. He tells them the whole story, and asks to bring her back. In verse 50 they consent, agreeing that this act was of God. They negotiate timeline a bit, exchange gifts, and she and a servant leave. In a dramatic scene to end this chapter that feels like a novella, as Gerhard Von Rad calls it, they see each other from far away. She became his wife, and he loved her. As this chapter of transition concludes, the promise is secure. For now.
There are at least three things in this passage that I think are worth noting – that were a key part of this transitional chapter, and that might guide us:
- Prayer. The oath sworn, and then the prayers of Abraham’s servant, guide the movement of the text. The servant makes a solemn promise to Abraham, in God’s name. To fulfill God’s call to them. In verses 12-15, just as he begins his journey, he prays for guidance. It is a very simple thing, but the more things are changing the more we need to be grounded in prayer. For ourselves and those we love. For folks we struggle with. For all of our leaders. Maybe not for a particular outcome – though sometimes we may feel that way. I tend to think the best prayers are when we find space in silence, to take time. To listen to God, for whatever God might send your way, whatever nudges you might feel. Help us out here, God. Give us your wisdom. Help us be who you would have us be.
- There is a deep sense of God’s providence in this passage. In the stories before, and in the stories after, God does big, dramatic things. A booming voice. Angels who show up. God and Abraham speaking directly. That’s great, but this chapter feels a lot more like my life feels. Sometimes I’m not sure what God wants me to do. I don’t often feel God directly acting in dramatic ways. But when I step back, I can often see God’s providential care, God’s guiding nurture, step by step. This chapter feels more like life feels in that sense.
- The third is in a word, a Hebrew word, hesed. It’s a really important one in the Hebrew Scriptures, which means steadfast love, loving kindness, deep covenantal fidelity. It’s a word used on purpose, to make you pay attention. Hesed is a big deal. It is used in the prayer in verses 12 and 14, translated in both places as steadfast love, and again in verse 27 when the servant rejoices. Again in verse 49, when the servant says to Rebekah’s relatives, inviting them to deal loyally (hesed) and truthfully with his master Abraham. Loyalty. Loving-kindness. Love in action, rooted in God’s covenantal fidelity.
In times of transition and change – in our lives, in our world, in organizations we love – people are often filled with anxiety. What is happening? Why? What does that mean for me, for the things and people I love? Those are often the times that we get really defensive, that we back into corners, that we lash out. We feel too much is at stake. But I also bet we’ve all been in situations like that where someone spoke up too soon or tried to drive a conversation the wrong way and did real harm. Because he really didn’t want to play the violin anymore. Because she didn’t want to take that job even though it paid more. Because mom and dad weren’t ready to make a decision yet about their care in later years, or weren’t convinced that the people trying to make a decision really cared about them. Instead of moving away from each other – and our world surely needs this – we need more moving toward each other, with hesed, in loving kindness, with a steadfastness and a loyalty that is rooted in God’s hesed for all the world.
I wonder if you’re in a time of change in your life, for you or someone you love. Or maybe a change is on the horizon. Maybe you’ve got a decision to make. Regardless, maybe we can all use a reminder of God’s deepest hesed for you, God’s steadfast love that accompanies you. And maybe we can be a community that, infused with faithfulness and loyalty and kindness – surely an underrated virtue in these mean and cynical days. Maybe we can be a people that moves toward each other with that kind of love in all things. In all things.
Breathe in that love, my friends, and carry it out with you in a world with too much brokenness. So that we, in some small way, might participate in its own healing, as God gets us from here to there, and back again. May it be so, for you and for me. All praise be to God. Amen.