Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 5, 2020
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 Commentary
The last time we saw Isaac, he was being laid on the altar by his father Abraham (Genesis 22). It is now many years later. Abraham has laid his wife, Sarah, in a grave purchased from the surrounding Hittites (Genesis 23). And now he has one more item of unfinished business. Isaac is 40 years old and unmarried, which threatens all the covenantal promises God made to Abraham and his descendants. So, Abraham sends his most trusted servant to find a wife for Isaac.
It was a mission impossible for this unnamed servant. He can’t get a wife from those nearby Hittites; Abraham won’t have his son mixing with those pagans. So, the servant is ordered to travel from southern Canaan to northern Mesopotamia, back to the homeland Abraham left on his mission impossible; “go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac (Genesis 24:4).” It was like looking for one needle in a very large haystack, but with God all things are possible. And that, as we shall see, is the point of the story.
Our reading skips right over the journey to Aram Naharaim, the hometown of Nahor. It omits the fateful meeting of the servant and Isaacs’s soon-to-be wife, Rebekah. But we learn of the journey and that meeting as the servant meets Laban and the rest of the family. Before he will eat, he must tell the story and make his request.
I won’t retell the servant’s speech; you can read that for yourself. I’ll simply ask, how do we preach this story? What is it about? Where do we focus our attention? The possibilities are many: the servant, Rebekah, Laban, or God?
One preacher focused on the servant as a model of servanthood—his godly character and his wisdom, his prayer for a sign and his careful approach to Rachel, his dedication to his master and his mission. His commitment to seek God’s guidance and blessing is a challenge and comfort to all who serve.
Or I can imagine someone preaching a sermon on “How to Find a Godly Wife.” That would be a hit with many devout young people who seek God’s guidance in this all important quest. This text would encourage the laying down of fleece, seeking a special sign that this is “the one.” Further, it would remind a Christian man or woman to seek a spouse from among the covenant people of God, rather than from among the Hittites who surround us.
Another sermon could focus on Rachel—her helpfulness, her boldness, her diligence, and her willingness to go where no woman had gone before. Like Abraham, she willingly heads off into the unknown with a man she doesn’t know to meet a husband she has never met. What faith! What a woman! There is even a legitimate way to use her as a model of a self-possessed independent woman, a precursor of today’s strong feminists. She is not chattel to be bargained for and given away. She is given a choice. Do you want to stay here for another 10 days and have a proper farewell? Or do you want to leave right away, as this servant is suggesting? “Will you go with this man?” “I will go.” That simple reply reminded me of another young woman who responded to an immense challenge with the famous words, “May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38)
Again, one could organize a sermon around the family of Rachel, particularly Laban, who will play a large role in the life of Rachel’s future, favorite son. From the beginning he is presented as a man with an eye for material things. It was the sight of the golden nose ring and bracelets that motivated Laban to run out to meet the servant in the first place. His habit of delaying things for his own benefit is suggested in the ten-day farewell party he had planned. Here is a fellow who can’t be trusted. You could preach a whole sermon on avoiding the clutches of such folks, or on the importance of not being Laban.
All of those things are in the text. But we have to ask if the author of the text really meant to emphasize those people and their example. Are these stories of the patriarchs really intended to teach lessons in morality? Or are they intended to teach Israel and us something about God and God’s covenant with his people? When we see their place in Genesis, as part of the story of how God made a covenant with his people and then guided and preserved and protected and provided for them, it is very clear that the main character in the story is Yahweh, the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Indeed, that is exactly what the servant emphasizes in every part of his speech. When he introduces Abraham to the family, he says, “Yahweh has blessed my master abundantly….” When he reports on Abraham’s instructions for his journey, he says that Abraham sent him with these words: “Yahweh, before whom I have walked, will send his angel with you and make your journey a success….” When he recounts his meeting with Rachel, here how he tells the story: “When I came to the spring today, I said, ‘O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, if you will, please grant success to the journey on which I have come.” Then he suggests that God give him certain signs to prove which girl is the right one; “let her be the one Yahweh has chosen for my master’s son.’” When things happen exactly as he had prayed, “I praised Yahweh, the God of my master Abraham who led me on the right road….”
Laban and Bethuel sum up the whole story in one sentence. “This is from Yahweh; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as Yahweh has directed.”
This story is not about servanthood, or guidance, or marriage, or womanhood. It is about Yahweh’s provision for the covenantal blessings he would give to Israel and through Israel to the world. This is redemptive history, part of the story of Jesus. The whole enterprise was a mission impossible, except that Yahweh was in it from beginning to end. Gabriel summed it up to the Virgin Mary, “For nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37.”
In your sermon, emphasize the impossible nature of the mission, the unlikeliness of its success, the role God played in it, and how all of this is part of covenant history, redemptive history, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Play with the details all you want, but don’t get lost in them. Use them to make the gospel point. “For nothing is impossible with God.” Jesus is the end result, the proof, and the guarantee.
I am writing this in the middle of this terrible Coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe. It seems invincible. What hope do we have? This story points us to the One who is the hope and help of Israel and the world. I would not suggest that God will stop this awful disease tomorrow, because, of course, we do not know that. But the history of God’s people is filled with moments and months and years when things seemed hopeless, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was there and did redeem his people.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!