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Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Three sermons from long ago: (3) an unnamed servant


SERMON PREACHED AT ALL SAINTS’ CHARLEVILLE
and at St. Luke’s, Augathella
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
(17th June) 2005

 Readings:
      Genesis 24.1-67
      Psalm 45.10-17
      Matthew 11.15-30


Here we dwell on one of those most powerful Hebrew tales – a novella, a short novel telling of the getting of a wife for Isaac, son of the promise received by Abraham and Sarah and generation and four weeks ago. The psalm fits our text, for it is a celebration of the bride as a gift of God.

Previously we journeyed with Abraham and Sarah as they received from God promise of the impossible. Their lives were barren, and yet God whispered a word of hope into their barrenness. Sarah laughed, and it was not the laughter of joy, but a perhaps-bitter, perhaps-mocking, at least doubting laugh heard only by the angel.

The promises long stays latent, and Abraham and Sarah bark up the wrong tree for some time, but eventually Isaac is born. Then, in one of the darkest tales of the Hebrew Scriptures, Abraham is obedient to God even to the point of offering the son of the promise to God in sacrifice. God intervenes – and we are not expected to dwell on the psychological impacts of that event, but on the extreme fidelity of Abraham. A ram instead is sacrificed, and history has in its sacred story a tale of the unimaginable extent to which our love of God should reach.

Although we don’t hear this part of the story in our Readers Digest liturgical version, Sarah now has died. Before she dies she laughs a very different laugh. It is the Easter laugh of the mad fool for Christ – the laugh of the one who has seen that God defeats the odds. It is an infectious laugh, and its echoes are not silenced by her peace-filled death. Like the dance of Jesus, from our gospel-glimpse at  Matthew 11.15-30, it is a moment we are invited to continue in our present. Her burial becomes an amusing tail of bartering for a grave, and if we read it we would find echoes of its financial opportunism in Genesis 24.1-67; note the noserings and bracelets that speak volumes to Rebecca's brother Laban!

For the narrative now has moved on to a new generation. Abraham is still alive, but the central player is now to be Isaac, for whom Abraham commissions an unnamed but remarkable servant to find a son. The promise realized in Isaac needs a future, and Isaac must marry if the generations are to continue even to “many nations.”

Isaac must have a wife. The servant who finds Rebecca is a parable in himself. He remains a nameless hero in the narrative of God. Often when I enter a church I wonder at the nameless heroes of faith who have believed and lived and rumoured the dreams of God and who are now forgotten in all but the memory of God: this is one such hero of faith.

Abraham is a great man of faith, but so too is this servant. He carries out his master’s bidding and more. He is unswerving in his belief that his task is the work of God, that God alone can make the journey succeed. It is no accident that the beginning and the end of the servant’s search is marked by prayer. His story begins “He knelt down and prayed …”, and concludes “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin.” This is the work of God and there can be no mistake about that.

The servant’s speech to Laban, the brother, and Bethuel, the father of Rebecca, also begins and ends with a focus on God. There can be no doubt who is the major, unseen player in this narrative. There is a hint that Laban has been greatly impressed less by the theology of the servant than by the expensive jewels bestowed on Rebecca and her household, but either way the brother is no fool, and the will of God is done.

Significantly the story ends with new words of blessing, spoken to Rebecca. They echo the words spoken a generation earlier to Abraham and the now dead Sarah, into whose family and line Rebecca now enters. They are the words of divine blessing spoken to the generations of those who have stood faithful in the tradition of Abraham, those who have seized the promises of God and clung to them in times if darkness and of light.

We could say so much more about this dense narrative. For now we are left with a demonstration of the promise of God in action. It is an inspirational promise – it lay more than almost anything at the heart of Paul’s faith, and his realization that in all the struggles of faith and life we are called to cling on to the promises of a God who proclaims “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.”

In the twenty first century, as the tide of orthodox Christian faith appears to ebb lower and lower and we find ourselves in the unfamiliar territory of a post-Christian society, we are challenged to recall that the promises of God to the ancients were not of instant gratification, nor easy to swallow. Our job is to keep on clinging to the God of Easter promise, and to place God at the beginning and the end of our daily journeyings. God is not a visible character in the journey of the servant, yet the servant clings to his task and to the promise received by his master Abraham. God is the unseen enabler of the story, and we are called to place ourselves into God’s hands, as individuals and as a corporate community of faith. To that task we are commissioned once again, believing against all odds, as Paul puts it, hoping against hope.


TLBWY

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