Our reading from Genesis this morning is a bit of a quirky story, not because of anything unusual in the story, but because we might rightfully ask why it even exists. After all, it is in many respects a fairly ordinary story of betrothal, with only a bit of a sprinkling of God in the form of several one-sided prayers offered by the servant asking for God’s guidance in selecting the right woman for Isaac to marry and the agreement from Rebekah’s family that God was indeed at work in the servant’s quest. But the editors of this book deemed not only was this story worth preserving, they spent an entire chapter on it, sixty-seven verses in all, to tell the tale of how Rebekah and Isaac met. Why?
Perhaps it is because this story demonstrates the message that God will provide, but that is a theme that has been present in many of the stories preceding this one. While the meeting of Rebekah and Isaac certainly continues that theme, it is not unique, nor even particularly pronounced. It is also a story that demonstrates God’s fulfillment of the covenant forged with Abraham and Sarah. After all, if they are to be the progenitors of a nation, they need descendants. However, there is only Isaac, and he is now in his forties and single. But Isaac being a bit of a later bloomer on matters of the heart hardly seems like something that requires divine intervention, much less sixty-seven verses of narrative.
Other than that, all this story seems to offer is a bit of a window into ancient marriage practices that strike us as a bit old-fashioned and unenlightened—arranged marriages, bride prices, and the sort—all of which would have been utterly routine at the time that this story was written down. So, why does this story exist? What does it have to offer us?
One of the challenges we face when reading scripture is that they were written by people in cultures that were very different than our own. That itself isn’t a problem. What is a problem is that we are quick to dismiss those cultural practices that are different from our own. We are quick to judge them and to label them old-fashioned, un-enlightened, or even barbaric. We label them as practices that have no value, traditions which have no wisdom or insight to offer to us. We make ourselves unable to learn from them.
This is a story that is filled with such practices. Our quick dismissal of those practices obscures the wisdom it has to share with us. It obscures the theology it contains, which justifies spilling so much ink on this tale.
Arranged marriages challenge our ideas of love and what it takes to make a life-long commitment, especially for us in Western and Euro-centric cultures. They fly in the face of fairy tales and romantic love stories; if Disney has taught us anything, it is that finding your true love is the key to overcoming any obstacle and the gateway to your happily-ever-after. In a culture that uses such platitudes as, “love will always find a way,” the thought of an arranged marriage is utterly foreign. We tell ourselves they must be loveless and miserable affairs that are held together only by social pressure and family expectations. After all, how could you make a commitment to spend the rest of your life with someone if there is no love?
Those who come from cultures that practice arranged marriages would counter our dismissal with the observation that love and affection are often found in them. It is just that it is a love that grows with time, between the two people as they keep the covenant that they have forged together. What is more, they would offer a counter-critique of our own marriage practices, observing that when people are in throes of romantic love, they are quick to forge covenants that they cannot keep.
Is love a pre-requisite for covenant-making, or is love an emergent quality of covenant-keeping?
Today’s scripture story comes to us amid the covenant narrative cycles between God, Abraham, and Sarah, and their offspring. And it does serve a purpose; there is a reason that it has been kept for so long. I believe that Rebekah and Isaac’s arranged marriage, while about many things, is also an answer to an important question. Perhaps one of the most important questions we can ask. Why does God love us?
In western Christianity, we sometimes get caught up in the question of why God remains faithful to us, as we have hardly been faithful to God. The answer we normally settle upon is because God loves us, and so out of an abundance of grace, God remains faithful. It says a lot about our cultural worldview. But different worldviews have different priorities and perhaps the more interesting question is why God loves us.
The wisdom this ancient culture has to offer us, if we are willing to listen, is simple. God loves us because God keeps the covenant with us.
We don’t always get to see how the covenant will be fulfilled: Sarah dies before Isaac even marries and Abraham doesn’t live to see the birth of his two grandsons by Rebekah and Isaac. But God does keep the covenant, across the generations, for ever and ever, because God is faithful. God was faithful to Abraham, Sarah, and their offspring, and God remained faithful, even to the cross, and God is faithful to this day. Through God’s great faithfulness, we come to know God’s love for us, a love so great that not even death could stop it.
But that is another story for another time.
If it’s fair to ask why God loves us, it’s also fair to ask ‘why do we love God?’ In as much as we do love God, it is because of our keeping our end of the covenant—our ability to be faithful, imperfect as that is.
That is a radical departure from how we typically answer that question in western Christianity where we think of our faith as something that must be founded on our love for God and Jesus. Among evangelical and contemporary Christian traditions an outsized emphasis gets put on having that “born again” experience where we experience God’s love in order that we might have faith. It is why so much contemporary and evangelical Christian music sound like love songs that you might hear on the radio. But it is not limited to those Christian sects. Liberal protestant traditions, such as our own, are quick to jump on the ‘sloppy agape’, kumbaya bandwagon, espousing that the whole of Christian faith is summed up in “God is love,” and “anything that is not of love is not of God.” Which is all fine and good, but when we don’t feel that love, when we feel outright angry with God, then we naturally question our faith in God and God’s faithfulness to us.
The wisdom the Ancient Israelites give us is that our love of God emerges from our faithfulness to our covenant with God. If we are unfaithful to the covenant, then it is impossible for us to love God.
In our own journeys of faith, it offers us insight for when we are feeling stuck, for when we are feeling unsure, or for when we don’t even know how to begin our faith. There is no special feeling, no spiritual insight, no strange warming of your heart that you need to move forward. Simply practice your faith—be vigilant in your prayer, spend time dwelling with scripture and heeding it, take part in the sacraments, and uphold one another in your practices.
In other words, keep the covenant. In time, you will come to understand the depth and width of God’s love, even as you share in that love. It is a love that bears all things, all our pains and doubts, all our wounds and our brokenness, a love that endures all, without end.
Preached by the Rev. Adam Yates
 With apologies to Paul.