Give Me A Sign
When we’re faced with tough decisions or trying times, we all want a sign from God telling us what’s next, or what we should do. When and how does God give us guidance, and how can we trust that it is God?
Genesis 24:34, 36-38, 42-48
So he said, ‘I am Abraham’s servant. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, “You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.”
‘I came today to the spring, and said, “O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ and who will say to me, ‘Drink, and I will draw for your camels also’—let her be the woman whom the LORD has appointed for my master’s son.”
‘Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, “Please let me drink.” She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, “Drink, and I will also water your camels.” So I drank, and she also watered the camels. Then I asked her, “Whose daughter are you?” She said, “The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.” So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshipped the LORD, and blessed the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
The ancient stories about Abraham and his descendants are what author Dave Steele called B.I.F. stories: “before the invention of fact.”[i] There may have been an Abraham, a Sarah, and an Isaac, but we know how stories change with the telling over centuries. On the Fourth of July weekend, we might recall George Washington and the cherry tree. George Washington was a real historical person, and there’s evidence that he was highly honest. But the cherry tree story was invented by Parson Weems, an eighteenth century biographer.[ii] We pass down such stories in our own families, too. My great-great-grandparents were ‘49’ers. That’s a fact we can document. The story is that my great-great-grandmother made more money selling pies to the miners than her husband did panning for gold. It’s a good story. Is it true? It certainly tells a truth – my grandfather did not strike it rich, and the miners did pay astronomical prices for luxuries like a homemade pie.
Many Old Testament stories tell that kind of truth. They tell truths about life, and about a people’s relationship with God, and as all good stories do, about ourselves. For example, sometimes, what we really want is a sign. We’re in crisis, unsure what’s to come, and we want a sign. When I have to make a tough decision, when I have to let go of something in order to embrace something else, I want a sign; a sign from God. Just a little message will do, saying, “This path, not that one.” But not so subtle I don’t see it.
The Bible reinforces this desire. It’s full of stories in which people get dramatic, concrete signs. God speaks right out loud to some people. God promised Abraham that his offspring would outnumber the stars. In their old age, he and Sarah finally have a son, Isaac,[iii] so maybe God’s promise will be fulfilled after all. But first, Isaac needs a wife. Like so many immigrants before and since, Abraham sends for a bride from the old country. He dispatches his servant to Haran with loads of camels and gifts to grease the skids. He assures the servant that God will point the way.
The servant arrives in town when it’s time for the women to come to the well.[iv] Unmarried women generally didn’t leave the home except to draw water, so wells functioned as a kind of “singles bar” in ancient villages.[v] The servant prays for a sign: Let the young woman who not only offers him water but offers to water his camels, as well, be the wife appointed by God for Isaac. Rebekah shows up, looking lovely and available,[vi] and things go just as the servant has prayed. He drapes her with gold jewelry to show his master’s wealth and serious intentions. In our passage, the servant is a retelling this story to Rebekah’s family; in earlier verses he asks Rebekah who her family is, and whether they have room for a houseguest.[vii] This isn’t an unusual request because there were few inns, but he’s also trying to figure out if her family is prosperous enough for Isaac.[viii] She invites him over[ix] and that clinches it; he falls to the ground to worship God because he knows he’s found Isaac’s bride.
While later verses tell us nothing is final until Rebekah herself agrees to the arrangement,[x] Rebekah, the passage says, is the wife God has “appointed” for Isaac.[xi] A definite plan, a destiny, if you will. Is that how God works? Does God choose a partner for us? Does God have a career path in mind for us? Does every life choice we face have a right answer and all we have to do is follow the signs? Pentecost was a few weeks ago, a day we celebrate that God has not left us on our own. Through the Holy Spirit, God offers to lead us, and guide us, and give us direction. However, in my experience, that guidance, that direction is rarely as unambiguous as in this story. So our challenge is to figure out when and how God is giving us guidance, and how can we trust that it is God.
First, if we don’t expect God’s help, we won’t notice it. God communicates with us through people, events, our intuitions, prayer, Scripture, and life around us but if you aren’t listening for it or looking for it you won’t see it or hear it. Frederick Buechner writes that once during the time of his daughter’s battle with anorexia, he saw a car come out of nowhere with a license plate “that bore on it the one word out of all the words in the dictionary that [he] needed most to see exactly then.” The word was TRUST. Was it God? Was it coincidence? Buechner says maybe it’s both. It definitely helped him. But he had to be willing to believe God might be trying to say something to him.
How do we tell whether God is speaking to us through a license plate, or whether we’re just reading into it what we want to hear? We have good reason to be cautious about claiming God’s guidance too casually. So how do we know what God wants for us? What’s a sign? What isn’t a sign? One way to think about it is that God’s purpose in guiding us is to help us make decisions that are faithful – not pre-ordained, not our “fate,” but faithful. These faithful decisions start with paying attention to who God is and what God wants for God’s world. We might ask ourselves, is the decision we’re considering more likely to produce:
In this lovely story about Rebekah at the well, the servant noticed that Rebekah was generous, hospitable, and knew her own mind. Excellent qualities in a spouse. He constructed a test that would show whether a young woman had these qualities: If she offered him water, and offered to water his camels. You might be sitting there thinking, “Well, that’s not rocket science,” and that’s the point. God’s guidance isn’t rocket science. God’s signs are the ones that point us to truth, kindness, generosity, healing, justice, freedom, faith, hope, love – in other words, to shalom – and warn us away from their opposites.
Whittaker Chambers was an American journalist, a former communist spy and an embittered atheist. But one day as he watched his baby daughter drool over the tray of her highchair, he found himself staring with fascination at her tiny, intricate ear. It seemed to him a marvel. A sign. Only a planner could have planned that ear. This sign set Chambers on the road to belief.[xii]
A baby’s ear. A kind young woman at a well. A license plate. An upbeat song on the radio just when you needed extra courage. The offhand comment of a friend, that, “Hey, you’re really good at this.” Signs that point us in the right direction, or remind us who we are and who God is. But there are also signs that something needs to change, and these signs aren’t usually as charming as a baby’s ear. They may be uncomfortable, painful even, or frightening. A knot in your stomach that tells you something is very wrong. The last straw that tells you it’s time to leave an abusive relationship. The mess you’ve made of your life that says it’s time to go to a twelve-step meeting. Or the rude awakening that if you never heard of Juneteenth or the Tulsa Race Massacre until recently, maybe there are other things you don’t know about being Black in America.
And then there is this sign: This table, and the bread and the cup: signs of our bonding with Jesus, his life, his message. Signs that we are rooted in doing what Jesus did, and that this adds a sacramental dimension, a holiness to our everyday lives that can shape how we live Christ’s message of love.
Signs. They are all around us, my friends. Sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting, occasionally knocking us upside the head, God is always calling us to shalom. God speaks to us through our very lives, and if we listen, the Holy Spirit really does give us abundant guidance.
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2020 all rights reserved.