A sermon delivered to the Altamont Reformed Church on 5 July 2020
A story is told about a man who lived in a town by a river. The rains came and it rained and rained, and the river crested and before anyone realized it, the town began to flood, even worse, the dam was on the verge of breaking. Most of the townspeople read the signs of the times, and heeded the warnings to evacuate. And so most left for higher ground. But the man didn’t go anywhere, because he knew that God was going to save him. The water continued to rise, and he moved to the second floor of his house, and a boat was going through making sure everyone was out, and they saw him, and they said, “come with us!” and the man waved them off, “God will save me!” he shouted back. But the water kept rising. And eventually, he moved to the attic. Since they knew he was there, another rescue team was sent. They saw him in the window in the attic, and they said, “Come with us! You’re going to drown!” and the man waved them off again, and said, “God will save me!”. The water kept rising. The man moved to the roof, and finally a helicopter was sent, but the man waved off the helicopter, “God will save me!” the man shouted. Well, the man drowned. When he saw God, he asked, “why didn’t you save me?” And God replied, “I sent two boats and a helicopter! What more did you want?”
Perhaps you’ve heard that story before, it’s certainly not my own invention. But it speaks to how we often think about God’s action, right? God is so often only for those things that we don’t understand. God only works through supernatural means with special effects. Maybe the man would have thought that the water would have stopped, or maybe he would have imagined that he would have a protective bubble around him, that would keep from the water? I mean, these are the types of things we expect when God is involved, that it has to be something like this, something which is not otherwise explainable.
Right? And this is part of the problem. Because we know much of how the natural world works. We know why the sun comes up, and it has nothing to do with a divine battle, and everything to do with the rotation of celestial bodies held together by gravity. Things like procreation are pretty amazing, but we also understand how that works. We understand what causes diseases, even if we cannot always cure them. We can even gain more insight about evolutionary processes. For those who insist that God is the answer to those things we don’t understand, then the more that is understood, the more that God is squeezed out. If God is only there to explain those things that we don’t understand, then we do one of two things: we either reject knowledge and understanding because we are afraid that it eliminates the need for God; or, we reject God because we no longer need a deity to explain the things we don’t understand, because we understand more.
I don’t think you have to think too long before you can imagine examples of both of these. I have seen incredible numbers of documentaries seeing to explain the things that seem miraculous in the Bible, so as to help us reason our way out of a belief in a deity. I’ve seen someone try to explain the plagues and explain the passage through the sea, I’ve even seen one that tried to explain that the whole sojourn through the wilderness was led not by God but, obviously, by aliens.
Of course, as if often the case, I think that both of these are wrong, and they are wrong because they are both predicated on the same misunderstanding about God: that God only does things that we don’t understand. And when we spend our time trying to figure out: is this explainable and therefore just a natural process, or is this not explainable and therefore attributable to Divine intervention, we are completely missing the entire point.
In our path through Genesis, we have seen God speaking clearly enough that Abraham is going to move to the other side of his world because he was told to. We see God telling them that God will make a nation from his descendants, we see God reiterate this promise. Abraham argued with God, and we see God very clearly in the forefront of much of this story. It can almost make us think that this is how things go.
But here, if you look closely, you see something different.
Our reading takes pieces because this story is long, it’s the longest chapter in Genesis. We pick up after Sarah had died. Abraham was old and near death. But we have a problem. Isaac does not yet have a wife. But there’s a problem. On the one hand, God took Abraham from his home and sent him to this land. On the other hand, he now finds that he is living amongst other people, other people who follow different gods and different ways. And so here, we must understand that we are also seeing a great deal of cultural impact as well, and it is important that we do not read into this some kind of prescription or normativity. In the time, one usually married within one’s clan, there were a host of reasons for that, but it needs to be clear that this is not a prescription for how things ought to be.
So Abraham doesn’t want Isaac to intermarry with the Canaanites, again, complex reasons here, not racial in the way that we understand it, and he doesn’t want Isaac to go back to where he is from, because God brought Abraham from there to a new place, and doesn’t want his descendants to go back, so Abraham enlists a servant to go find Isaac a wife. Again, cultural context, not prescriptive.
So his head servant heads off to Aram-naharim, to Abraham’s kindred, to find a wife for Isaac. Yes kindred. Remember, cultural context. So the servant heads off, it’s quite a journey when you don’t have a plane, a train, or an automobile.
So he gets there and he brings the camels to the well. And the village well was the common place for fetching water. And it was around the time when the women would come out to gather the evening supply of water. And I imagine that he was tired, travel weary, and a bit unsure of what to do. But he’s at the watering hole (literally, it is a watering hole), and so he says something, perhaps not unlike what we might do. “O God, let this all go okay. I’m here by the well, when I ask for a drink, and she shares a drink and gets water for the camels, let her be the one.”
You can read the story. She gives him a drink and then offers to water his camels, and there we go. He explains the situation to her. Then he gives her gold bracelets and a gold nose ring (surely you didn’t think nose rings were a modern invention?), which were classic betrothal gifts, and she goes back to her mother to explain what is going on. The servant explained the whole thing again to her mother and older brother, and invited the servant to spend the night.
They asked for ten days for Rebekah to figure it out, the servant wanted to get back, and so they called Rebekah and asked, “do you want to do this?” And she said yes. Marriages may have been arranged, but that didn’t mean that the ones being arranged were not consulted. So she agreed, and went back, and the rest, as they say, is history.
So why on earth would we read this rather unremarkable betrothal story? And why on earth, would the writer spend so much ink on it? Why did they take the longest chapter in Genesis for this?
I said that this story is different, and I’m not sure if you noticed, but God never says a single thing. The story never reports God doing anything, there are no angels. The whole thing seems, well, rather ordinary. And so on the one hand, this is an important part of the story, because this will be the way for the next generation in this promise, one step closer to the fulfillment of the promise that God made to Abraham.
But I also wonder if it is the ordinariness of it that is also crucially important. Because I don’t think that anyone would deny that God was there and working, even if not in front and center. We can’t see it, and I certainly don’t think that the servant’s prayer was some kind of magical incantation that brought this all about. But God was there, in the background, working in ways that we can’t always see, especially in the moment. God was there, working through humans, and human situations, through actual people in history, working with and through them, not as mindless automatons, but in and through who people are. And it is through this ordinary story, that would otherwise be rather unremarkable, but is remarkable because of the story into which it fits, this grand story that includes them but goes vastly beyond them, the story that includes us, as well, in the ordinary moments of our lives which may also be remarkable in ways we may not expect or see.
We can get a glimpse of the God who is not just in the special effects, but who is also in all the ordinary things, as well. We can see that God can also be in the ordinariness of the two boats and a helicopter, even if we wanted the special effects. And here we can get a glimpse that God is not just for supernatural things or things that we do not understand and cannot explain, but God is upholding this all, working in and through everything, even something ordinary where God never makes an appearance.
And so, sisters and brothers, let us remember that God works through ordinary people, and through ordinary things. The promise of God is rooted in the reality in which we live, not some mythical reality beyond where we are, even in things so very simple, routine and ordinary.