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Two weeks ago, when I was last with you, we looked at the story of Isaac and Ishmael, and we saw how God was with Ishmael and his mother Hagar, even in the middle of the desert when all hope seemed lost. I don't know what you looked at last week, but if I'd been here, I'd have been talking about what's called “The binding of Isaac”, when Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, but God sent a ram just in time – did you know, because I didn't until I began reading around for these sermons, that Muslims think it was Ishmael who was nearly sacrificed, not Isaac? Or some do. And now, this week, we come to a nearly-grown-up Isaac, and his search for a wife.
Scholars seem to think that these stories of Abraham, which had been an integral part of the Jewish tradition, were collected together and written down during the 5th and 6th centuries BC –this, you remember, was when the Israelites were in exile, the Temple had been destroyed, and they had no king of their own. Only a very few Israelites were left in Jerusalem, and they had rather lapsed from their traditions and practice. So the various stories were collected and written down, possibly somewhat haphazardly, in case it should all be lost.
Abraham himself is thought to have lived in the early part of the 2nd millennium BC. Apparently the earliest he could have been born was 1976 BC and the latest he could have died was 1637 BC. This was in the Bronze age –he would have had bronze tools, not iron, and possibly still a flint knife.
When Robert and I were in Italy a few years ago we visited the town of Bolzano, where they have the museum where the body of Oetzi, the ice-man, is stored. You may remember that he was found in the Alps about 20 years ago, having been preserved in a glacier for over 5,000 years. The point is, this was even longer ago than Abraham – he only had a copper axe, as they hadn't discovered about bronze yet. But the things that were found with him – his axe, his coat, his trousers, his bow and arrows, his knife and so on, you could see just how they were used, and he was really a person just like you or me! That makes Abraham feel less remote, as he, too, would have worn clothes we recognise, and carried tools we'd know and so on.
Abraham had felt called by God to leave his home-town of Ur in the Chaldees, which in his day was allegedly highly civilised. They had, apparently, nineteen different kinds of beer and a great many fried-fish shops, if you call that being civilized! However, they did enjoy other kinds of food, such as onions, leeks, cucumbers, beans, garlic, lentils, milk, butter, cheese, dates, and the occasional meal of beef or lamb. Just the sort of food I like!
There was wine available, to make a change from beer, but it was expensive, and drunk only by the rich. They played board-games, enjoyed poetry and music, which they played on the lyre, harp and drum, and were generally rather well-found, from all one gathers.
The only thing was that without many trees in their part of the world, they had to do without much furniture, and tended to sleep on mats on the floor, for instance, instead of beds. But definitely a sensible and civilised place in which to live. When you hear it described, it doesn't sound all that remote, does it? They were people like us, and had similar tastes to us.
But Abraham had felt called to leave there, and to take his family and household and to live in the desert. And they had all sorts of adventures, and sometimes things went very wrong, but mostly they went all right.
And now Isaac has grown up and Sarah has died, and it is time for Isaac to marry. Abraham is urgent that he marry a woman from his own tribe, not a local Canaanite woman, who wouldn't have known about God, so he sends his servant back to Ur, to find a suitable relation for Isaac to marry.
The servant explains, rather earnestly, how he asked God to show him which the right woman was –would she offer to draw water for his camels, or not? That wasn't an easy task – camels, which can go four or five days without water, like to drink A LOT at one time, so she'd have needed a fair few bucketsful!
Rebecca's family would have liked a few days to get used to the idea, but the servant says he needs to get back as soon as possible, and Rebecca agrees to leave next day. So she and her various maidservants – one of them may have been her old nurse – got packed up and ready, and set off. And eventually they get home safely, and there is Isaac coming to meet them. And they get married, and live more-or-less happily ever after!
We sometimes get alarmed about arranged marriages these days; we know that in those communities where they're still more-or-less the norm, things can go horribly wrong – think of those so-called “honour killings” we hear so much about! Even in this day and age, it isn't always easy for someone to escape an abusive situation if they don't know where to go. But as I understand it, an arranged marriage can be every bit as happy and as successful as one where the bride and groom have chosen one another; we all know that you have to work at being married, whether you knew your husband for years beforehand or whether you met him a few days or weeks before the wedding – or even at the wedding!
I think Rebecca was very brave going off with Abraham's servant like that; she had no way of knowing who or what was awaiting her at the far end of the journey. The servant had bigged up Abraham's – and thus Isaac's – wealth, and had given her lots of gold jewellery, but was he telling the truth?
But one thing stands out about this story and that is that God was involved from beginning to end! And God led them all to a happy ending.
I wonder how much we actually believe that God is really involved in our lives? I know we say we do, but these Sundays in Ordinary Time are very much places where what we think we believe tends to come up against what we really do believe! After all, not all of our stories have happy endings, do they? Some do, many do, and for these we give thanks, but what happens when they don't? Does God get involved in our lives? And if so, how does this work, and how can we work with God to ensure a happy ending?
Well, the Bible definitely tells us that God is involved in our lives, and I am sure most of us could tell of moments when we were perfectly and utterly sure of this. But equally, most of us could tell of moments when we really struggled with it! Where was God when this or that bad thing happened? Does God really care? We thought about this a bit two weeks ago when we looked at Ishmael and Hagar in the desert. And we found that God was there with them, even though it hadn't felt like it.
Many of us have lived through enough bleak times to know that one comes out the other side. We know that, when we look back, we will see God's hand upon it all. God may not have led us to a happy ending, exactly, but we can see how God has worked all things together for good for us.
It's not a matter of God waving a magic wand and producing the happy ending we want; we all know God doesn't work like that. And it's not a matter, either, of God having set the future in stone so that nothing we can do can change things. Nor is it a matter of God simply sitting back and letting us struggle as best we can, although everybody feels at times that this is what is happening.
It's more as if God is working with us, moment by moment. Sometimes we – or other people – do things that mean the situation can't come out as God would have wished. God has a detailed plan for creation, but his plan for our individual lives isn't – can't be – mapped out in moment-by-moment detail since we are free to make our own choices. But God truly wants the best possible life for each one of us. The idea, I think, is to stay as close to God as possible, trying to be aware of each moment of decision and what God would like for us to do.
But, of course, as St Paul points out in the letter to the Romans, that isn't actually possible! We're a bit crap at actually doing the right thing, no matter how much we know we want to! It was impossible for Paul to keep the Jewish law in its entirety, no matter how much he wanted to. And although we know we're, and I quote, under grace not under the law, we do tend to find it easier to try to follow a set of rules and regulations than to follow Jesus! And, of course, we don't follow those rules and regulations perfectly – how could we?
But Jesus points out that his burden is light! Sometimes we don't feel as though it is. “Come unto me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest!”
I am sure Abraham's servant must have felt incredibly burdened when he went back to Ur to find Rebecca. But the servant, at least, spent his time moment-by-moment in God's presence. He trusted that God would lead him, step by step, to the right woman and that God would bring the whole journey to a happy conclusion. “Come unto Me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest!” Abraham's servant trusted God.
I wonder how much we trust God? It isn't always easy, is it? Last week's story, how God asked Abraham to kill Isaac, was very much about trust. Abraham didn't even argue with God – he just went ahead and did as he was told, leaving it very much up to God to do the right thing! Even Isaac didn't struggle – he was a young man at that stage, not a small boy, and he could easily have overpowered his elderly father. But no – he allowed himself to be bound and laid upon the altar.And God did do the right thing, as it were, and produced the ram.
And now God did show the servant his choice of wife for Isaac. And so was born the Kingdom of Israel. We never know the consequences of our choices – they may be far more far-reaching than we expect. But we do need to practice involving God in our everyday lives, otherwise, when the crunch comes, we'll find it much harder than it need be to rely on him. “I will give you rest,” says Jesus, but if we don't know how to come to him for that rest, how can he give it to us? Amen.