Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 21, 2001

Genesis 24:54-67 Isaac and Rebekah

When they got up the next morning, Abraham's servant said, "Send me on my way to my master."

But her brother and her mother replied, "Let the girl remain with us ten days or so; then you may go."

But he said to them, "Do not detain me, now that the Lord has granted success to my journey. Send me on my way so I may go to my master."

Then they said, "Let's call the girl and ask her about it." So they called Rebekah and asked her, "Will you go with this man?"

"I will go," she said.

So they sent their sister Rebekah on her way, along with her nurse and Abraham's servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, "Our sister, may you increase to thousands upon thousands; may your offspring possess the gates of their enemies."

Then Rebekah and her maids got ready and mounted their camels and went back with the man. So the servant took Rebekah and left.

Now Isaac had come from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching. Rebekah also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel and asked the servant, "Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?"

"He is my master," the servant answered. So she took her veil and covered herself.

Then the servant told Isaac all he had done. Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death.

Mark 10:2-9 Divorce and marriage

Some Pharisees came and tested Jesus by asking, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"

"What did Moses command you?" he replied.

They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away."

"It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law," Jesus replied. "But at the beginning of creation God made them male and female. 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let humans not separate."

Love in Marriage #180 The attributes of marital love

The characteristics of marital love are innocence, peace, tranquillity, deep friendship, full confidence, and a desire in heart and soul to do everything good for each other. From all these things come blessedness, happiness, joy, passion, and from the eternal enjoyment of these, heavenly bliss.

Isaac brought Rebekah into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married her. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death. (Genesis 24:67)

I have a pet peeve about the love stories in popular movies and novels. We could call it the "and-they-lived-happily-ever-after complex." Everyone knows that the most popular ending for fairy tales is, "And they lived happily ever after." In the fairy tales, the routine goes like this: The story opens with "Once upon a time. . . ." Then the characters are introduced, and they go on to get into various kinds of adventures and troubles. Finally, their troubles are resolved, their adventure ends in success, and . . . they live happily ever after.

This is also the most common format for love stories in popular movies and novels. As the late Rev. Leslie Marshall put it, nearly all love stories are based on the principle, "Boy meets girl, boy and girl separate, boy and girl join again and are married." Sometimes the separation is emotional rather than physical; often it is both physical and emotional. Whichever way, this pattern is followed in thousands and thousands of love stories.

Of course, for children, a happy ending is nice. It conveys the idea that even if we have to go through a lot of trouble and hardship, things will work out in the end. And even though that is often not the case in the material world, from a spiritual perspective, unless we willfully choose to turn our backs on God and our neighbor, things will work out in the end: no matter what pain and struggle we have to suffer through here, we will find happiness as angels in heaven. And I suppose that adults, too, need continual reassurance that things will work out in the end. Hence the popularity of happy endings in adult fiction.

But here's my pet peeve: over and over again, the love stories in popular movies and fiction are all about the boy getting the girl and the girl getting the boy. Over and over again, we're treated to the good-looking young guy pursuing the beautiful young gal, and all their misadventures and misunderstandings along the way, until finally the story comes to its uplifting climax when they fall madly in love, smother one another with passionate kisses and embraces, and--if a "traditional" ending is wanted--meet at the altar to the strains of the organ and depart arm in arm in a snowstorm of confetti.

And, we are left to assume, they live happily ever after.

The problem is, it doesn't quite work that way. As exciting and powerful as falling in love can be, when a couple has fallen in love and gotten married, that is the beginning of the story, not the end. Only in the movies do we see the confetti flying around the beaming couple as they emerge from the church, and immediately segue to the closing credits. In real life, the couple generally heads off on a honeymoon, and pretty soon they're back at home beginning the everyday business of getting along with one another.

This can be, and usually is, a lot of work. Soon each partner's rough edges begin to show, and that wonderful "soul mate" turns out to be made not of soul only, but of all sorts of attitudes, desires, feelings, and beliefs, some of which may turn out to be quite annoying, or worse. Yes, the wedding day is only the beginning of the story. "Ever after" comes the much less exciting job of actually living together and building a relationship day by day, week by week, month by month, and year by year.

In this way, it is very much like the Christian idea of being "born again." There seem to be a number of Christians who think that once you're "saved" by being born again, that's the end of the story. Everything else, apparently is the closing credits, because the climax has already happened. Yet if we look at the physical process of birth, from which being spiritually born again derives its symbolism, we find that although birth is indeed the climax of nine months of gestation in the womb, it is still only a beginning in the story of a human being's life. A whole lifetime stretches out in front of the newborn baby!

When Patty was carrying Heidi, our firstborn, and we were reading all the birth books, just as you're supposed to, a friend of ours who had several children of her own gave us some wise advice. "Don't forget," she said, "that the birth lasts only a few hours, but you'll be taking care of that baby for years and years. While you're reading all those books on childbirth, be sure you learn something how to take care of the baby after it's born!"

Thousands of books and movies give us just about every conceivable variation of how couples can fall in love. But as nice as that is, it doesn't mean a lot if the resulting marriages soon break up in bitterness and pain. We have many models in our society of how to fall in love; we have very few about how to be in love. And even fewer about how to grow in love. (One example that does come to mind is the TV comedy "Mad About You.")

Considering how important an issue our love life is for us humans, we would think that the Bible would say a lot about love and marriage. But there is really very little direct instruction in the Bible on the subject. Yes, there are Jesus' statements about marriage, adultery, and divorce. And there are many laws in the Old Testament Levitical code about various sexual relations that are and are not allowed. There is the ancient book "Song of Solomon," which is a poetic expression of the love between a man and a woman.

But for the most part, the Bible's "instruction" about love and marriage comes in the form of telling the stories of various couples as their lives intertwine with the Bible's storyline. And we are left to glean what wisdom we can from those stories--and turn to other sources to come to a deeper understanding of the realities of marriage.

Of course, one of those sources is the book Love in Marriage, by Emanuel Swedenborg--which is both one of his more popular books and one of his more controversial books. I would recommend a thoughtful reading of it, especially to anyone who is either moving toward marriage or who is involved in a marriage. While some of the gender roles and social customs described in the book draw on Swedenborg's culture of over two hundred years ago, the deeper, spiritual principles that shine through are timeless.

Back to the Bible, the story of Isaac and Rebekah, which we read a short piece of earlier, is one of the more endearing love stories in the Bible. We did not take the time to read all of Genesis 24 from the beginning, which tells the wonderful story of how the aged Abraham's chief steward went back to his extended family's home about four hundred miles northeast in Haran, and led by the Lord, found Rebekah, the young woman who would be Isaac's wife. After the steward brings Rebekah back, we have the understated conclusion, "Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death." This is about as close as the Bible comes to saying, "And they lived happily ever after."

As a pattern for us to follow, there are some problems with the story of how Isaac and Rebekah met and were married. Not many of us, for example, would be happy to have our parents--let along our parents' hired hand--choose the person we will marry. We prefer to choose our own partner, thank you.

And yet, there is an element in the story that is just as critical to a happy and lasting marriage now as it was then. Really, it was neither Abraham nor his steward who picked out a wife for Isaac. Yes, they both had an important part in it: Abraham sent his steward on a journey to get a wife for his son from his own people, and the steward did his master's bidding. Yet just before he successfully made contact with Isaac's bride-to-be, he prayed to the Lord. And it was the steward's reliance on the Lord's guidance that enabled him to achieve success in his mission. The one who really chooses the right partner for us--if, indeed, we find the right one--is the Lord.

In fact, the Lord has these things in preparation under Providence for years and years before we ever actually meet our "soul mate." The Lord is preparing us for one another even before birth. And as we make various choices and take various directions in our life, the Lord is always working to provide us, sooner or later, with just the right person to share our life with.

But even more important than finding the right person is being the right person. When we get married, we live at very close quarters with our partner. And even if we find the theoretical "right one," if we are too wrapped up in ourselves and too oblivious to the needs and the happiness of our partner, our marriage will soon be headed for the rocks.

A full discussion of preparation for marriage is far more than we can do in our brief time together this morning. I will leave you with just one thought that is the most important part of a working, growing, loving marriage. Isaac and Rebekah's marriage worked over time because they had a critical ingredient for marriage: a willingness to follow where the Lord led them. As soon as Rebekah heard the story of Abraham's steward, she knew, along with her family, that this matter had come from God. And when asked whether she would go with the man--on very short notice--she said, without hesitation, "I will go."

And what was Isaac doing when the woman who would soon be his wife first approached his home? He was out in the fields meditating. Isaac's whole life is the story of a man who was willing to be led by the Lord, and to live at peace with his fellow human beings.

Whether we are looking toward marriage or living in marriage, there is only one way to live happily ever after: we must listen to what the Lord is saying to us, and follow it. If we do this, although we will certainly still have struggles, disappointments, pains, and setbacks in our relationships, we will be laying the foundation for an eternally happy marriage. Amen.


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Paul Stookey


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