Our passage from Romans this morning is probably one of the most famous passages that deals with the struggle of the Christian life: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” My first encounter with this passage actually came through a book called “The Confessions” written by a famous and very faithful Christian living in the fourth and fifth centuries, St. Augustine.
The Confessions recounts Augustine’s life through reflection on his own process of conversion to Christianity. When examined through the lens of faith informed by and in the process of being made more and more like Jesus Christ, the events of Augustine’s life were given new perspective. They were seen - not simply in the scope of the everyday, the visible or the known and immediate future - but rather in the scope of God’s providence. Or in other words, these events were seen from the perspective of God’s mission of drawing or gathering all of history and bringing it to completion in himself in and through Jesus Christ.
For Augustine, as for Paul here in Romans, human beings naturally long to "rest" in God, to be drawn to God, to know God and to harmonize their wills with His will: “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, I can will what is right ….” But, complains Paul “I cannot do it … I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Augustine shares Paul’s dilemma, offering that because they are weak and sinful, humans can never hope to harmonize their wills with God’s without God's assistance. This particular story is Augustine's alone, but as he presents it, it can also express the story of all humanity, painfully separated from God and always struggling to return.
Indeed, we are always struggling to return to the place we have rest: to God that is. We do seek him in various ways. Yet all of us at some point succumb to the temptation of being drawn back to what Paul calls, ‘our old life’, a life in slavery to sin. This struggle is certainly not an unfamiliar tale, as we know from the Scriptures. There is Peter’s story of denying his fellowship with Jesus three after Jesus is arrested. There is Thomas’ demand to touch the resurrected Jesus’ wounds. There is Sarah’s laughter at God’s promise of a son. There is Israel’s idolatrous worship of the golden calf made by Aaron to satisfy a people hungry and thirsty, wandering in the wilderness and contemplating a return to Egypt from which God had freed them. There is even Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemene: “Father, if you would take this cup from me ….” Scripture is not short of accounts that detail the struggles God’s people have in following him!
What lies at the root of this struggle? I would suggest, that it is fear. Fear of stepping out from what we know, what we can see, touch, understand, and control. Surely this is a frightening thing.
I have a friend, who I shall call Dave. Dave is a student at Wycliffe but prior to this he and his family were living in BC. Dave was the CEO of a small business he had started up with his wife. His family was well integrated into the community with close ties, financial stability, modest assets, and extended family around them. Business was booming and he was beginning to be able to delegate work out to his employees. This gave him more time to get involved with his church. After some discernment, Dave and his family found themselves considering the possibility of Dave entering into ministry full-time. This would involve returning to school to train as an Anglican minister; leaving behind the ties to family, friends and employees; entering into a period of financial insecurity and doing so not as a young teenager heading off to school, but rather as a middle aged man with a wife and children. Should we do this he asked? Will we have enough money to last us three years? What if I don’t find a job at the end of my time? What if no diocese and no bishop accepts me? How will we provide for the family while I’m in school? What about moving away from all our family? What about moving the kids? What if they hate us for doing it? And two and a half years later, with the assets sold off, the bank account nearly drained, the children uprooted, and not a job in sight, Dave tells me that he sometimes questions his choice to come. Was this right? Should I have stayed back in BC with the work and the ministry I was doing? In his fear, the comforts of what was tempt him; they create doubt and uncertainty, and he admits, sometimes falling back into old patterns of acting and responding to situations. Indeed I think Dave is right when he says: “I think it is fear that often makes us succumb to the temptation to see our actions only within the scope of what we can see and control and therefore away from God; it is fear that causes us to turn back to our old ways.”
Our lesson from Genesis this morning provides us with a Scriptural account of just these struggles and of our place before God as we live with them. Just prior to the section of Genesis we read this morning, we are told that Abraham commissions a servant to find his son Isaac a wife from his own kinsfolk. It is not simply that it is the servant’s duty to find Isaac a wife; rather in fact, Abraham outright refuses to allow Isaac to make this trip into the land of the Cannanites (where his kinsfolk live) on his own: by no means should Isaac return to the land and family that Abraham had left behind.
Abraham’s command conveys an important truth: Abraham is worried about sending Isaac back to the Israelites and with good cause. For remember that when faced with a fearful future – one that involved wandering, homelessness, concern for food, water and shelter, for protection and for relationship – the Israelites wanted to return to the the real but familiar liabilities of life – even a life of slavery – in Egypt. In other words, in order to quell their fears, the Israelites were prone to turn to worldly powers rather than to God.
But just here, Abraham’s command that Isaac not return to his kinfolk marks a departure from ‘returning to one’s old life.’ You see, Isaac carries the promised seed of the future: Christ Jesus (see the geneology at the beginning of Mt’s gospel). Rather than be tied to the past – to his kinsfolk – Isaac serves to show us how he, and so as God’s creatures, we too, participate in a larger story: a story with greater scope; one that tells of Christ’s mission to gather all the people and all the events of history to himself as the fulfillment of this history. By his not returning to Abraham’s kinsmen, Isaac serves to draw us into and shows to us, and to all who read the Scriptures, the broader scope of God’s work in the world. We are, in a sense, compelled to test out the role that Isaac plays; to see how we compare; to see where we fit within the narrative of God’s unfolding mission. And so here we find Isaac in the particular circumstances of his life: a man wandering alone, facing the death of his mother and isolation from his kinsfolk, a son awaiting marriage and children (critical for people of the time), a son asked by a father not to turn back, but to face into a future that is God’s. An uncertain and frightening prospect indeed … if in fact one cannot see or control how all the pieces of one’s life might fit together. The fear and temptation to turn back is surely real and grips all of us at some point. Yet here Isaac obeys his father and awaits the events that follow by which he will, with his wife, partake in God’s mission by bearing the future seed of God’s promise.
But our story does not end with Isaac, for both Abraham’s servant and Rebekah have a role to play – as we all do – in God’s mission. Like the servant who returns to Abraham’s kinsfolk to find Isaac his wife, we must live in the world to provide for the present and the future: to tend to family and friends, to jobs, to illnesses, to responsibilities, to day-to-day chores. But in so doing we should no more return our faith and hope to the limited powers of the world to appease our fears than should the servant take Isaac back to Abraham’s kinsfolk. We are called to live in the world – the servant shows us this – and this is part of who we are and must be; but we are also called to see our work in the world within the Scope of God’s mission as we find it given to us in the Scriptures. This we are shown by Isaac’s story.
Finally, we have the role of Rebekah herself; the one who will join with Isaac in marriage – another sermon itself – to bring forth and carry on the future seed who will give new life to the world. In the passage we read, Abraham’s servant asks Rebekah’s brother for permission to take her back to Isaac. The brother does not simply give Rebekah away to the servant but rather asks her: “will you go with this man?” There is no force used here. Rather, she replies: “I will.” Freely, of her own accord she replies, I will.
The meaning of that response goes deeper than just Rebecca’s pending marriage to Isaac, however. And this is so because in her response of “I will” to the servant who asks at the behest of Abraham and of God, we are pointed to Christ’s response of “I will” to God. But it is important we get the order of these responses right: it is Christ’s willing response of “I will” to his Father that gives meaning to Rebekah’s response. And in Rebekah’s response, we are pointed to and thus we see how her particular story is taken up, redeemed, and placed within God’s mission to the world.
And of course this is a response – a response given by unique individuals in unique circumstances – that we see repeated elsewhere with Abraham, Moses, Josiah, Peter, and with Paul. Rebekah, is asked to leave her homeland and the safety of family and the bonds of affection therein, the duties to which she had to attend, and the places that she new, for the sake of marriage to an unknown man on the word of Abraham’s servant who prays to God for help. And she replies: “I will.” Lord, despite my fears and my doubts, I will rest in you, I will. Her response – for us given purpose and meaning in and through Jesus’s own giving up of himself, his “I will” – demonstrates the wider scope of God’s work in the world.
Here in this brief passage, is one particular event by which we might see God’s mission of drawing things to a rest in himself. Indeed, as Augustine, I think rightly assessed, all people, and all things seek to find their rest in God. Rebekah, and so too Isaac and the servant, provide particular figures that conform, in their own unique ways, to Christ’s own: a giving up of oneself for the sake of the other: in Rebekah’s case, Isaac; in Christ’s, humanity. It is here – in the giving up of oneself to God in relationship with others, that one finds rest in Christ Jesus and the means of turning toward God and away from our fears.
These three figures point both to the need to deal with our own particular circumstances, but to hold these up to the Scriptures in order to determine how we might respond to our various situations and what purpose our situations might serve in God’s kingdom. What, for example, is the purpose of our relationships with one another? We find the measure of that purpose not in our culture and particularly not in our feelings alone; although comfortable and assuring since these are known standards by which to measure. For finding our answers in these things fails to acknowledge our dependence upon God and our particular place before him.
So yes, we are called to examine our lives and hold them up to the Scriptures to see where we fit into God’s unfolding mission; that is to find out who we really are. And yes it is here that we can find our place and the way we can respond in love, and so faithfully to God. But our redemption and our transformation as Christians is not accomplished by us. Note that I have said we participate in God’s mission. That is, we participate in what God has already accomplished through Jesus Christ. It is Christ who fulfilled all of history and so God’s promise by willingly giving himself up for our sakes on the Cross. It is Christ who gives meaning to all of the Scriptures and so too to all of our lives. And it is to Christ that each person, that each event, somehow points. Our participation then, is a response – I repeat, our participation is a response – to what God has already accomplished. It involves our finding our place in and of our coming to know God through the narrative given to us in the Scriptures. For this is where we might receive what has already been given: rest and redemption. By giving up ourselves to this continual search for God enfigured and revealed in his Scriptures and in his Church, we can come to know the sure promise and hope of life eternal won for us on the Cross. And in this way, our fears and our struggles are brought into the light in order that they might be seen through the lens of God’s redemption of our lives. This will certainly not erase our fear and the desire to turn back to what is comfortable for us. But it will pull away the scales that blind us to God’s presence with us more and more, so that we might see the irresistible gathering to which he is bringing us. And this will indeed begin to reorient our thinking and our actions as we are conformed to Christ’s own self through God’s love for us: for his love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things: Who will rescue me from this body of sin and death? “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest … in me you will find rest for your souls.” Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.