The Marriage of Rebekah and Isaac

This the prepared version of the sermon I preach Sunday, July 9, 2017 at Grace and St. Peter's Church, Hamden, CT:

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in Your sight, oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today, we celebrate the marriage of Rebekah and Isaac. It was a very different time when they were married so it may be helpful to reflect on how views of marriage has changed over the ages. It isn’t that long ago that people believed marriage should only occur between people of the same race and ethnicity and not between people of the same gender. In fact, there are still some people who cling to that belief today. Others still support child marriage. Save the Children’s annual report, “The End of Childhood Index”, reports four million girls under the age of fifteen are married each year.

Historically, marriage has too often been about the transfer of property and about maintaining power. It has too rarely been about choice, consent, and love. The story of Rebekah is different.

It starts off sounding like it may be just like another one of those stories of procuring property. Abraham’s servant tells Laban that he has been sent to get a wife for Abraham’s son. It almost sounds like he’s been sent out to the store. Don’t go down to the local store and pick up a Canaanite daughter. Head over to my father’s house and get a wife for Isaac there. And maybe while you’re there, you can pick up some milk and honey as well.

It all sounds so transactional. It is a good deal for Laban. His sister will have a wealthy husband, with “flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys”. And, if you think about it, in many ways, things are still the same today. People go to networking events to meet others that many be helpful in their careers. In the past, I’ve attended churches where it often seems people attend to for the sake of the connections; “the Social Register Churches”. Perhaps, there is even an aspect of this transactionality in our discussions about finding a new priest, one that will help us get enough pledging people in the pews.

But the story of Rebekah is much more than transactional tale where a wife is acquired. The servant of Abraham prays, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going!” He describes a sign he wants God to give that he might recognize “the woman whom the Lord has appointed”. What are our prayers for our own lives and for the life of Grace and St. Peter’s? How much are we trying to find what the Lord has appointed for us, as opposed to what we want? How much do we even think in these terms throughout our daily lives?
True, we might ask at times, “What would Jesus do?” in terms of trying to make some sort of moral decision, but do we ask God for success in all our undertakings, for success in finding what God wants of us?

There is even more to this story. When the servant determines that Rebekah does in fact meet the requirements and does seem to be what the Lord has appointed, the servant bows his head and worships the Lord. I suspect most of us would do well to spend more time worshipping the Lord when we find success in our undertakings, when we realize what God really wants for us.

This now leads us to a place where Rebekah’s marriage is different from the typical transactional transferals of property in olden days.

“They called Rebekah, and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ She said, ‘I will.’” Consent. Rebekah is so much more than just another piece of property to be transferred. She, like all of us, is beloved by God, created in God’s image. Her consent matters. We should be seeking the consent of others in many of the things that we do. Too often, we act assuming that we have the consent of those around us, thinking it is our right to do something, perhaps even realizing that people would object, but that we can get away with whatever we want to do.

It seems to me that this is part of what is poisoning our public life. We focus on what we want, instead of what God wants and those around us want. It seems particularly problematic in politics today. This week, we celebrated the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps some of you read it this week.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The ideas of the equality of all men, and women, of unalienable rights endowed by God, and of the importance of consent, are all important ideas that run through both the story of the marriage of Rebekah and Isaac and through the Declaration of Independence.

The story of Rebekah and Isaac in today’s reading ends in a happily ever after sort of way. “Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”
Yet we know that there is much more to the story of Rebekah and Isaac and next week’s lesson comes with the teaser, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided”.

What else do we know about Rebekah? In the lesson, Rebekah tells Abraham’s servant that she is “The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him”. She is not just some random servant girl at the well. She is of noble birth, and yet, promises to draw water for the camels and carries out the promise. She is described in Jewish commentaries as showing boundless loving kindness, a key characteristic of the family of Abraham.

Then, there is the tradition of the three miracles of Sarah that continued with Rebekah when she entered Sarah’s tent. These miracles are that a lamp burned in her tent from Shabbat eve to Shabbat eve, there was a blessing in her dough, and that a cloud hovered over her tent symbolizing the presence of God. There was always enough, enough oil for the lamp to last from one week until the next, and enough so that the first fruits could always be given to God. God was always there and it was enough

It seems as if, in our modern day, there is never enough. Our culture of consumerism constantly tells us to want more, not that we need more, just that we should want it. It is this wanting of more than just enough, that draws us away from recognizing the importance of consent and from treating those around us with the respect and dignity they deserve as people beloved by God and created in God’s image.

It is this culture of consumerism that leads us not to give our first gifts to God out of a fear that there won’t be enough, enough to meet all that we’ve been led want, whether we need it or not, whether or not it is something good for us.

And it is this culture of consumerism that draws our attention away from the presence of God, from the ability to look around us and see the beauty of God’s creation, the love that God has for us, each and every moment of our lives.

This leads us to another aspect of marriage that we need to consider; the metaphorical marriage of Christ. Scripture is full of references to Christ as the Bridegroom. The faith study group is looking at the Book of the Revelation, where we find verses like Revelation 21:2

“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”

A little later, we read in Revelation 22:17

“The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”

Much of this language is about the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, all of us, collectively, as the bride of Christ. Yet for St. Catherine of Sienna and for many nuns, this mystical marriage is not just a collective or corporate relationship. It is a very personal intimate relationship with God. The great mystic writer, St. Teresa of Avila talks about spiritual marriage as a “secret union [that] takes place in the innermost centre of the soul where God Himself must dwell”.

It seems as if, here in the twenty-first century, we are much less likely to talk about spiritual topics. Too many people rarely talk about church itself, let alone talking about spirituality and union with God. Yet it also seems like God remains waiting for us in a spiritual union. It seems as if God is asking us, similar to how Laban and Abraham’s servant asked Rebekah, if we are willing to go with God. We may be distracted. We might not be paying close enough attention to all that God has for us, and at best we reply, without looking up from our laptop or cellphone, “um, yeah. Sure.”

If we do stop and think about it, we may also hesitate. In chapter 10 of Matthew, Jesus talks about sending us out like sheep among wolves, warning us
“Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues”. Personally, I have no desire to be flogged.

Yet this week, in chapter 11, we find Jesus telling us “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

How do we fit the warnings of Matthew 10 together with the promise of Matthew 11? Perhaps, the analogy of marriage fits nicely here. I clear the table. I load and unload the dishwasher. I carry laundry upstairs and down. I sweep the floor. I carry the groceries in from the car and help put them away, not because I enjoy the tasks, in and of themselves. They are tedious. I do these tasks, not simply because they have to be done. I do these things as an expression of love for my wife, with a hope that the completion of these tasks will bring her joy. By approaching tasks this way, I can be joyful as I, yet again, place the plates in the cupboard.

When I look at the groceries and see that Kim has picked up oatmeal for me and yoghurt for me, I am reminded in these simple ways, that our love is mutual.

On Friday evenings, I come to help with Dinner for a Dollar. Each week, many of the same people are there showing God’s love by helping. Experiencing God’s love in sharing a meal with us. There are plenty of other things to do on a Friday evening, just like there are on a Sunday morning, but we choose to use these times to rest in God’s love for us as we share that love with others.

Our burden is lighter when we do all things for the love of God. The seventeenth century Carmelite, Brother Lawrence, had some important things to say on this. In “Practicing the Presence of God”, we read,
“in his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), having accustomed himself to do everything there for the love of God and asking for His grace to do his work well, he had found everything easy during the fifteen years that he had been employed there”

In one prayer, Brother Lawrence says, “Lord of all pots and pans and things,… make me a saint by getting meals, and washing up the plates” and in another place, “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

Rebekah said “yes” to the invitation from Abraham’s servant, and her life was blessed. St. Catherine and St. Teresa sought union with God and their lives were blessed. Brother Lawrence sought to do all things out of the love of God and found his life easy as a result.

Jesus tells us
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

May we all find our own ways of doing the dishes, drawing closer to God, saying “yes”, and finding our God’s rest for us. Amen.

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