An unknown man walks into your hometown and offers to take you away from your family, away from your country, to another land and another group of people. He discusses the offer with your parents, who seem willing to let you go but are willing to leave the decision to you. As you consider the possible futures that lay before you, you parents ask you “will you go with this man?” And, perhaps to your surprise, you hear yourself saying, “I will.”
What would have to be going on in your life, in your world, for such an offer from an unknown person to seem like the wiser course of action? What would it take for you to leave all that you have ever known and set out for a new nation, placing your life in someone else’s hands?
That is the essence of the story we hear from Genesis this morning. Having been tried and tested throughout his long life, Father Abraham has buried his wife, Sarah, and is nearing death. All that God had promised him has come to pass. Called to leave their own homeland behind, Abraham and Sarah have come into the land that was promised to them; they have borne a child, Isaac, against all odds; and now all that remains is for Abraham to be sure that Isaac has a wife so that their family line can continue and God’s promise to make them progenitors of a vast people more numerous than the stars in the sky can be fulfilled.
Having built a new life for himself in this new land, Abraham does not want to return to Haran, the land of his birth, to find Isaac a wife — and he doesn’t want Isaac to return there either. What would be the point of all that they’d sacrificed, all that they’d risked, if their son simply returned to the place they’d come from? At the same time, Abraham doesn’t want Isaac to marry one of the women in Canaan where they have made their home. Like many a first generation immigrant, Abraham is caught between identifying with the land of his birth, and the place he and his wife had come to call home.
So Abraham, who has slowly, finally, come to understand that God’s promises will be kept in God’s time, does what he has learned to do. He makes a plan and takes action, charging his chief servant to return to their homeland to find a wife for Isaac, but allowing that things may or may not turn out as planned. As Abraham sends his servant off on this mission he says,
“See to it that you do not take my son back there. The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.” (Gen. 24:7-8)
There’s something interesting about this story, something that makes it more approachable to ordinary people like you and me: God doesn’t speak. Over the long course of their relationship, God has spoken to Abraham, guiding and directing him. Now, nearing the end of his life, Abraham takes action without knowing precisely what God expects or desires. Standing at the threshold between life and death, having achieved great things but knowing that the future remains uncertain, Abraham does not hear a voice from God instructing him in what to do. Instead, he exercises discernment. He makes a choice, one that is obviously colored by his own experience, perhaps even his own prejudices, but one that also creates an opportunity for a future for his family.
This theme is repeated throughout this story. The servant whom Abraham sent back to Haran comes to a well, and there he offers a prayer, a plea for God’s assistance. He says,
“Oh LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. 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.” (Gen. 24:12-14)
Faced with a difficult challenge, Abraham’s servant turns to God in prayer and shows signs of discernment. His criteria may, initially, seem odd — a woman who will offer him a drink and water his camels — it’s not the sort of thing we might post in our own online profiles, but it shows that he is looking for a woman who demonstrates evidence of kindness, generosity and hospitality to strangers. These would be markers of a faithful woman who heeded God’s call to show hospitality to strangers, as Abraham and Sarah did when God came to them by the oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18) to announce that they would have a son.
When just such a woman does show up in the form of Rebekah, whose gracious hospitality is almost comic in proportions as she fetches water for not only the servant but his ten thirsty camels as well, God still does not speak. Instead the scriptures say that Abraham’s servant “gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful” (Gen. 24:21). Like us, this servant of the LORD relies on prayer and then makes the best decision he can, trusting God to be faithful to God’s promises.
Having done his part, the final discernment is left to Rebekah, a woman whom the author of Genesis goes to great lengths to compare to Abraham himself. Like him, she is called out of their shared homeland, called to leave family and nation behind. Like him she offers hospitality to a stranger, in fulfillment of God’s commands. Like him she is offered a blessing that anticipates the she will become the mother of nations who will inherit a land of their own (Gen. 24:60). But all these things rest on her own decision, freely made, to step into this new reality, which she does — not because she hears the voice of God, but because she discerns something in the servant’s story that rings true, and leads her to step forward in faith.
“Faith,” said Martin Luther, “is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.” Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. That is what Abraham finally shows here at the end of his long life. No longer trying to force God’s hand with attempts to engineer his own future by means of his slave, Eliezer, or through his wife’s slave, Hagar; Abraham’s penultimate action is to chart a course forward that demonstrates a living, daring confidence that God will be whom God has been. It is living because it is happening in the present, influencing decision being made in real-time. It is daring because there is something of real value being risked — his family’s future.
This story about the passing of generations has so much to say to us, here, today. As Abraham and Sarah give way to Isaac and Rebekah, we see how in each generation God’s call sounds remarkably similar, inviting us to leave the security of what we have known behind and to be willing to make big decisions, in the present, risking all that has been hard won, to ensure a future for our families.
We see it being played out on the border of our country every day, as young women and men leave their homes in Honduras, in El Salvador, in Mexico to create a new life for themselves in the United States, where others have gone before them fleeing the violence of their homelands. Perhaps no voice other than their own internal wisdom guiding them to step out in faith, with the living, daring confidence that God will guard and guide them to a better life than the one they’ve known.
We are living this faith right here in our own congregation, as the strategic listening team goes out like Abraham’s servant to watch and to listen for signs in the stories each of us is sharing about how this congregation offers welcome in the form of food and water, at the table and the font, and as we feed our neighbors knowing that when we welcome strangers into our homes we welcome God as well. We have received a great inheritance from those who have gone before us. Still, we know that in every generation we are called to demonstrate a living, daring faith in the grace of God — a faith that calls for discernment and decisions in the present moment that involve real risk.
You, too, are facing these decisions in your own lives. Whether you are young or you are old, whether you are raising children or burying spouses, you — like Abraham and Sarah, like Rebekah and Isaac — are living your lives by faith. Grounded in prayer, shaped by a tradition that has formed you for lives of kindness, generosity and hospitality, you meet the challenges of each day listening for the voice of God in the world and in your life. More often than not, however, you are required to exercise what wisdom you have gained by watching and listening for signs of God’s movement in the world without anything so clear as a voice from above.
What allows you to do this? I believe it is confidence in God’s grace. The apostle Paul, plagued by his own fears that his best choices were corruptible, and his own worst inclinations ever-present, nevertheless shows the same living, daring confidence in the grace of God that we see in Abraham, his servant, and Rebekah. He writes, “wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Rom. 6:24)
It is this grace that makes light the burdens of the decisions we are called to make each and every day. Like Abraham and Rebekah we are making decisions that will shape the course of our lives, and of the lives of generations to come. Rather than causing us to be timid, the grace of God calls us to be bold — not placing our trust in our own discernment, but in the power of God to work in us and through us for the healing of the nations and the entire world. Or, to quote Luther again,
“God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [sin boldly!], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however … are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.”
Knowing, then, that God is at work in every generation, in me and in you, calling us to leave behind all that we’ve known to forge a new family, created by water shared and promises made, we are faced with the same question posed to Rebekah: “Will you follow this man?”