Sermon: The Divine Marriage: Making the Connection by the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 28, 2004

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Genesis 24:29-54 Speaking to Rebekah's family

Now Rebekah had a brother named Laban, and he hurried out to the man at the spring. As soon as he had seen the nose ring, and the bracelets on his sister's arms, and had heard Rebekah tell what the man said to her, he went out to the man and found him standing by the camels near the spring. "Come, you who are blessed by the Lord," he said. "Why are you standing out here? I have prepared the house and a place for the camels."

So the man went to the house, and the camels were unloaded. Straw and fodder were brought for the camels, and water for him and his men to wash their feet. Then food was set before him, but he said, "I will not eat until I have told you what I have to say."

"Then tell us," he said.

So he said, "I am Abraham's servant. The Lord has blessed my master abundantly, and he has become wealthy. He has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, menservants and maidservants, and camels and donkeys. My master's wife Sarah has borne him a son in his old age, and he has given him everything he owns. And my master made me swear an oath, and said, 'You must not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live, but go to my father's family and to my own clan, and get a wife for my son.'

"Then I asked my master, 'What if the woman will not come back with me?'

"He replied, 'The Lord, before whom I have walked, will send his angel with you and make your journey a success, so that you can get a wife for my son from my own clan and from my father's family. Then, when you go to my clan, you will be released from my oath even if they refuse to give her to you--you will be released from my oath.'

"When I came to the spring today, I said, 'O Lord, God of my master Abraham, if you will, please grant success to the journey on which I have come. See, I am standing beside this spring; if a maiden comes out to draw water and I say to her, "Please let me drink a little water from your jar," and if she says to me, "Drink, and I'll draw water for your camels too," let her be the one the Lord has chosen for my master's son.'

"Before I finished praying in my heart, Rebekah came out, with her jar on her shoulder. She went down to the spring and drew water, and I said to her, 'Please give me a drink.'

"She quickly lowered her jar from her shoulder and said, 'Drink, and I'll water your camels too.' So I drank, and she watered the camels also.

"I asked her, 'Whose daughter are you?'

"She said, 'The daughter of Bethuel son of Nahor, whom Milcah bore to him.'

"Then I put the ring in her nose and the bracelets on her arms, and I bowed down and worshipped the Lord. I praised the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me on the right road to get the granddaughter of my master's brother for his son. Now if you will show kindness and faithfulness to my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so I may know which way to turn."

Laban and Bethuel answered, "This is from the Lord; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master's son, as the Lord has directed."

When Abraham's servant heard what they said, he bowed down to the ground before the Lord. Then the servant brought out gold and silver jewelry and articles of clothing and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave costly gifts to her brother and to her mother. Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank and spent the night there.

Matthew 5:13 You are the salt of the earth

You are the salt of the earth. But if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

Arcana Coelestia #3158 The marriage of truth and goodness

In the literal meaning, this chapter deals with the engagement and marriage of Rebekah to Isaac. But the internal meaning deals with the introduction and joining together of truth and goodness--for this is spiritual engagement and spiritual marriage. In both cases, there must be freedom to consider and decide upon the union. It is well known that this is necessary for engagement and marriage. It is not so well known that it is also necessary for the introduction and joining together of truth and goodness, because they are not visible to our natural mind, and these things happen without our noticing or thinking about them. Yet this activity continues moment by moment in us when we are being reformed and reborn. Specifically, we experience a state of freedom when truth is being joined to goodness in us.

This is from the Lord; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master's son, as the Lord has directed. (Genesis 24:50-51)

This is the third in our series on the divine marriage. In our story two weeks ago, Abraham charged his head servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. He gave very specific instructions: He was not to find a wife from among the locals. The locals were not of the same mind as the Hebrews. They were pagans who worshiped many gods, and they didn't worship the God of Israel. Abraham wanted for his son a wife from his own clan, who would be compatible with him not just on the social level, but on the religious level.

In our story last week, Abraham's servant set out with great faithfulness to carry out that task. He traveled to Haran, at the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent, and came to the town where the rest of Abraham's clan was still living. The servant went to the well outside the town, and there he met Rebekah.

In today's story, he goes to "meet the parents," so to speak. He goes to Rebekah's home and meets her family--especially her brother Laban and her father Bethuel. And he is given a warm welcome. They provide fodder for his camels, and they give the servant and his men water to wash their feet--a customary way of showing hospitality to guests. They also set food before them. But the servant is on a mission, and he wants to carry it out right away. He says, "I will not eat until I have told you my story." He then recounts to Rebekah's family the whole story of what had taken place, from the time his master Abraham charged him with his mission to the time he met Rebekah at the well.

This may seem to be a repeat. But it is different the second time around. The first time the story is told, the events are actually happening. The second time, the events are being shared with all of Rebekah's family. He is telling the whole story to the family so that they will have just as much knowledge of the situation as he does.

He starts out by saying, in effect that Isaac is a "good catch." He is wealthy; you are not going to have to worry about Rebekah's well-being if you send her with me to marry this man. But then he moves on to the more spiritual and providential side of the events: about God guiding him to Rebekah, and the test he proposed in prayer to God: Let her be the one who, when I say, "please give me a drink," replies, "Not only will I give you a drink, but I will also water your camels." And as we said last week, this showed that Rebekah was a woman of good character: a woman who was ready to serve, and to give a little extra. She was a woman of intelligence and initiative. And she seemed to be just the person that God would choose as a wife for Isaac, who was to be the next in the line of Israel's Patriarchs.

After the servant tells the story, Laban and Bethuel both give their consent. They say: This is from the Lord, what can we say about it? It is the Lord's will. Take her and go. And in next week's reading, we will find that Rebekah also gives her consent. So there is a proposal, and in response there is consent not just from the woman herself, but from the whole family, so that everyone is involved in and supportive of this union.

All of this lays the foundation for the spiritual story. Let's look at it for a few minutes as we continue on our current theme of marriage.

This story is all about consent, or informed and thoughtful agreement. When Abraham's servant came to the household, he did not simply take Rebekah and go. He could have come with a raiding party and run off with her--which was a fairly common thing to do in those days. Instead, he came and proposed marriage on behalf of Isaac. He wanted everyone involved to have full knowledge; so he took the time to met them and tell the whole story. In this way, he showed respect for the family to which he was making this proposal. He wanted them to be able to give informed consent to the union.

Moving to the spiritual level, we know that for any connection to be real, it must involve both our head and our heart. Within us, marriage is a union of our heart, which is our loves, desires, motives, and our head, which is our thinking, rational, intellectual part.

We see in the story how this takes place in us. Notice that the first meeting is with Rebekah herself. When we begin moving toward a new phase of our life, it is our heart that initially prompts us. Everything we do ultimately comes from the heart, just as it was Rebekah, the woman, that the servant first met and made proposals to.

But if we are going to be truly and fully engaged in this new phase in our life, our head must also consent. Our heart usually guides us right, but sometimes it may not. Our head must look thoughtfully at this possible new phase of our life, and consider whether it is what we really want, and whether it is a good idea. In the story, this is represented by the servant telling the whole story to the family so that they can consider it and make up their own minds. The head, represented especially by Laban and Bethuel, must give its consent.

Only then can the heart give its full assent--which is our story for next week. Only then can Rebekah say: Yes, I do want to go with you and marry this man.

This is the how it works out within us. How does in work out in our marriages with one another? What happens as we move into a marriage?

The first thing that usually happens is that we see someone, and there is a spark; we feel an attraction. We feel a stirring in our heart toward that person, and it causes us to watch him or her. Sometimes it may be quite a while before we actually say anything. In our story for last week, the servant watched and wondered: has God sent me to the right one?

We think more and more about the other person. We make a point of meeting and talking to him or her. We know that we feel attraction to the person. But we have to consider whether it could really work out. We have to bring our head into it as well. We have to consider whether this person is compatible with our character--and also whether there are any serious personality problems that would torpedo the marriage no matter how good the match of personalities may be.

And here I would like to mention a mistake that women are especially vulnerable to: thinking that we are going to "fix up" the other person. We may say to ourselves, for example, "Yes, I know he's an alcoholic; but if I love him enough, he'll sober up." This sort of thinking usually ends in tragedy and a broken marriage. I believe that God is telling us in our Bible story that we must use our head, and evaluate whether this person we are attracted to is capable of being in a marriage, and is also a good fit for us. This is not a matter of the head thwarting the heart's desires. Rather, it is making sure that the heart's desires are together with our mind, so that we can be fully one in our commitment to the marriage.

We must engage our head, evaluate, consider, and decide whether we think this will be a good union and a good marriage. It is only when we have gone through the process of thinking it out that it moves back to the heart, and our heart can give full assent. It is only then that we are completely at one within ourselves in moving into this relationship. When our heart says yes and our head says yes, then and only then can we be fully united with the other person, heart, mind, and body. Then we can have a full marriage.

Of course, things don't always work out the way we want them to. And even if we don't find a loving marriage here on earth, we can still have a good life.

To drive this point home, I would like to read you the story of an attempt at love by none other than Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was a lifelong bachelor. And of course, he did wonderful things with his life, even though he experienced disappointment when it came to marriage. Swedenborg loved the company of women, and very much wanted to be married. When he was a young man, like other young men moving up in the world and starting a career, he hoped to have a wife and a family to love, and to make a home with. I'd like to read the story from The Swedenborg Epic, by Cyriel Odhner Sigstedt--a wonderful biography of Swedenborg. Some of the story has already been told as we begin:

What, then, went wrong with his hopes for a marriage with Emerentia Polhem? An answer to this is contained in a document read before a Stockholm society in 1789. The young lady's brother, Chamberlain Gabriel Polhem, there states that while his father was working on the construction of locks at Trollhättan, with Swedenborg as his assistant, "the assessor conceived a violent passion for Polhem's second daughter, Emerentia." But she, who was only fifteen years of age, could not be persuaded to enter an engagement, whereupon her father, who loved Swedenborg very much, gave him a written claim upon her in the future, in the hope that when older she would become more yielding; and this contract her father obliged her to sign.

However, she fretted about it so much every day that her brother, Chamberlain Gabriel Polhem, moved with compassion, stole the contract from Swedenborg, whose only comfort consisted in daily perusing it, and who therefore quickly missed his treasure. His sorrow at this loss was so evident that her father insisted on knowing the cause; when by an exercise of his authority he gave orders that the lost document be restored to him. But when Swedenborg himself saw her grief, he voluntarily relinquished his right, and left the house with a solemn oath never again to let his thoughts settle upon any woman, and still less to enter into any other engagement.

Popular belief notwithstanding, Swedenborg did not give up all thoughts of marriage, for we now have documentary evidence to prove that many years later, he sought the hand of another young lady.

Even later in Swedenborg's life, we believe that he settled upon a woman that he thought would be his wife in the spiritual world. But marriage was not to be his in this life.

Besides being a story of disappointment in love, this is also a story of how marriage must involve consent. When Swedenborg saw that although he had feelings for Emerentia Polhem, she did not have feelings for him, he released her. He knew that it was not right, and that it could not work if her heart did not say "yes" to him. Yet Swedenborg went on to have a very good and full life, and to accomplish a great deal in science, engineering, administration, and, of course, in the realms of spirit. So we certainly shouldn't get the idea that if we don't find our mate while we are still living here on earth, our life is not worthwhile. God has things for us to do whether or not we happen to find our partner here on earth.

Let's move into the spiritual meaning again. We know that in a marriage there must be a proposal, agreement, and consent. We know that both people must be willing to have the union take place. We don't know quite as well that this is also true of any union that takes place within ourselves. We have talked about the inner marriage of head and heart. And the very same process of proposal and consent--or refusal--goes on within us. Sometimes our head says that it wants our life to go in a particular direction, and our heart says, "No, I don't want to." Sometimes our heart says that it really wants to do something, and our head says, "That's crazy, you do not want to do that." And we go ahead with something only when our heart and our head can come to some sort of agreement.

Swedenborg tells us that the inner marriage involves the same kind of proposal, consideration, and consent as a marriage between two people. We go through the same stages within ourselves as the servant did when he approached Rebekah (the heart), then her brother and father (the head), telling his story so that they could consider it and give their consent, which prepared the way for Rebekah to whole-heartedly embrace the marriage.

The Lord went through the same process in his life. He had within himself a tremendous love for humanity. Yet he could have decided that he didn't want to follow that love. He could have decided simply to enjoy this one life he would have on earth. But his heart was saying that he wanted to live for humanity. And his mind said: Yes, but how?

With his seeking mind he studied and learned all the spiritual knowledge of his day, especially a knowledge of Scripture, which he needed in order to see whether his heart's desire could be fulfilled. As a young man, he studied the Scriptures and learned them thoroughly--as we know from his teachings and his conversations with the scribes and Pharisees. And he did gain the guidance to do the work that he felt moved and called to do.

He had a desire to save humanity. He saw that the people around him were hurting, especially inwardly--and his heart went out to them. He also spent the time necessary to gain the knowledge, insight, and wisdom to do what his heart prompted. Then he put his whole self into that work. He had a union of head and heart within himself, and in the three years of his public ministry he was completely devoted, heart, mind, and body, to reaching out to us and showing us the way of life.

It is the same union that we must have within ourselves. Our heart must propose, and our head must consider, think it over, and decide whether this is truly what we want. And when our head sends it back to our heart with a "yes," then we have an inner union--a union that will encompass our heart, mind, body, and soul.

This is the union God is proposing to us as well. He is saying to each one of us: I want to come to you. I want to be in your heart and in your mind. I want to guide your life.

Are we ready to accept that proposal? Are ready to say "yes" to the Lord with both our mind and our heart--with our whole self?

Part 4: The Divine Marriage: Becoming  One

Painting: Rebekah by
Gustave-Henri Aubain, 1912

Dawn's First Light © Bruce De Boer
Used with Permission