Which way should I go?” "How can I be sure?” “Lord, what do you want me to do?”
Nothing is more important for the Christian than becoming fully persuaded that God does indeed lead his children on their journey from earth to heaven. If you doubt that fact, you will struggle through life feeling as if every major decision rests solely on your shoulders. What a difference it makes to know with great conviction that behind your life stands the unseen hand of God working in, through, and sometimes in spite of your decisions to accomplish his will in your life. If reading this sermon does nothing else, I hope it builds your confidence in God.
This very week as you come to that moment when you must decide to go one way or the other, you can have confidence that God (though perhaps unseen and unheard and not traced by the five senses) is leading you in exactly the direction he wants you to go.
Perhaps you’ve read these famous lines by James Russell Lowell. They describe life in a fallen world where values have been turned upside down:
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne, Yet that scaffold sways the future, And behind the dim unknown Standeth God with the shadows, Keeping watch above his own.
The last line contains the heart of the Christian philosophy of history. God stands “within the shadows, keeping watch above his own.” When the world seems most out of control, God steps in to let us know that he keeps watch over us. Often it is only as we look back that we see the hand of God working through the affairs of life.
Circumstances are the fingerprints of God.
With that in mind, let’s turn to the life of Abraham, to an episode from his final days on earth. Genesis 24 tells the story of the finding of a bride for Isaac. It is the longest chapter in the book of Genesis. It is also the first love story in the Bible. This passage reveals some basic principles of God’s guidance that apply to all the situations of life.
Back to Mesopotamia
In order to understand this passage of Scripture, we have to go back across the centuries to the land of Mesopotamia in the Middle East. This episode takes place in a setting that is so strange and so unusual that we can scarcely imagine it. Yet after you read the story and let its details sink in, it has a very familiar ring. Genesis 24 begins with an anxious father and his unmarried son. The father is concerned about carrying on the family name. He hatches a plan that leads to a prayer, a chance meeting, the watering of some camels, an amazing revelation, a decisive answer, a family blessing, a long journey, a meeting between a beautiful bride and a bashful husband, a happy wedding, and joy all around.
The story unfolds in four scenes.
Scene # 1: Abraham’s Commission
Genesis 24:1 says that Abraham was “old and well advanced in years.” As he comes to his last days, he reflects upon the promises of God, how God had promised him long before that he would have a son. He remembers that through a miraculous conception God had given him Isaac. Now Sarah is dead, and Abraham will soon join her. God had promised to bring forth a great nation through Abraham, and from that great nation he would bless the whole earth (Genesis 12:1-3). But in order for the promise to be fulfilled, not only must Abraham have a son, but that son must necessarily be married, and out of the marriage must come children. So Abraham, as he approaches the end of his life, calls his servant and says, “I want you to go find a bride for Isaac.”
He gave the servant two very specific instructions. Number 1, “You must find a bride for Isaac who does not come from the Canaanites,” Number 2, “The bride you find must come from our people.”
As Abraham looked to the future, he knows that his son needs a godly wife. He needs a woman who had been raised among the people of God. So he said to his servant, “I want you to go back to the land of our relatives.” That meant traveling 500 miles across the desert to a place called Nahor. Abraham knew that a branch of his family still lived there. With his great faith looking to the future, believing that God would guide his servant, he said, “I am sending you to find a bride for my son.”
Immediately the servant thinks about it and asks a very practical question: “What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land?” (Genesis 24:5). Good question. “Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?" he asks. Abraham answers in verse 8, “If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.”
This leads us to a crucial principle for discovering the will of God: stay flexible in the light of changing circumstances. Abraham believed it was the will of God for his son to be married, and he believed that by sending his servant to search for a wife, he was actually doing the will of God. But the servant had raised a very legitimate question. “What if I find the woman and
she won’t come back? What do I do then?” And Abraham says, “Well, don’t worry about it. If she won’t come, then it’s not your problem. Just come on back. We’ll decide what to do next.”
Many times we start a new project believing that what we are doing is the will of God, and yet very often things do not work out as we planned. You took the job, and it didn’t work out. You made the investment, and it didn’t work out. You started school, and it didn’t work out. You made a big move, and it didn’t work out. What do you do then? Our first reaction is usually to say, “Well, I must have been wrong, it couldn’t have been the will of God.”
I don’t think that’s the right answer.
Trouble does not necessarily mean you are out of God’s will. It might mean you are doing exactly what God wants you to do. Sometimes God sends trouble not as a judgment but as a sign that you are doing right. When Jesus was crucified, was He out of God’s will? No one was ever more in God’s will then Jesus, but he was murdered by his enemies.
The fact that your life hasn’t worked out exactly like you planned doesn’t necessarily mean your decisions were wrong. Sometimes there are other factors at work.
Scene # 2: The Servant’s Commitment
So the servant set out on the long journey from Hebron to Nahor. We are told in verse 10 that the servant took ten of his master’s camels and left. It might have taken him a month or so to get there. Eventually he arrived on the outskirts of Nahor in the evening just about the time the women of the village would come out to the well to get water for the camels.
What’s his first step? How will he know which girl is the right one for Isaac? Should he conduct interviews, ask them to complete an application, or what? His next step is all-important. He stops and asks God to give him specific guidance (vv. 12-14).
This is a crucial point.
He asks for specific, direct, unmistakable guidance from God. He even tells the Lord how he wants it to happen. “May it be that when I say to a girl, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’-let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master” (v. 14).
As the women approached the well, he prayed “Lord, show me which one You have chosen.” Verse 15 tells us that “before he finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar on her shoulder." He didn’t even get the prayer out of his mouth and God was already answering him. Isaiah 65:24 says, “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.” Before the servant finished praying, here came the young women, and Rebekah was leading the way!
He still didn’t know if she was the one, but she was the first one to the well so he said, “Would you give me a drink?” She gladly gave him a drink and she offered to water his camels.
That’s exactly what the servant had asked for! He prayed, and God answered precisely, down to the tiniest detail.
The servant still didn’t know if Rebekah was the one. He thought she was, the early signs were encouraging, the answer had come exactly as he’d asked, but he needed confirmation. He still didn’t know if she was willing to return with him to marry Isaac.
I pause here to note that this is exactly how we discover God’s will. One answered prayer doesn’t mean we see the big picture. Although Rebekah seemed like the right girl, the final determination would come later. All the servant knew was that he must take the next step, trusting God to lead him on. Will Rebekah be the one? It was too early to say for certain.
Nevertheless, the servant stopped to give thanks to God for his remarkable leading so far. “Then the man bowed down and worshiped the Lord, saying, ‘Praise be to the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master’” (Genesis 24:26-27a). His first thought was for the Lord. His second thought was for his master. His third thought was for himself: “As for me, the LORD has led me on the journey” (Genesis 24:27b). He is saying, “Lord, I praise you because when I was 500 miles from here, you led me straight to Rebekah here in Nahor. You knew exactly how to lead me from where I was to where she was so I could meet the person who would be a proper bride for Isaac.”
Did the servant know what was going to happen when he left Abraham’s house? Did he plan in advance to meet Rebekah at the well? Did he know he was going to ask for the sign of the watering of the camels? No, no, and no. He knew none of those things. In fact, he didn’t know for sure that he would find the right girl or that she would be willing to return with him even if he did find her. The only thing he knew was that God would guide his steps one by one across the desert sands so that at precisely right moment he would be exactly where God wanted him to be.
Scene # 3: Rebekah’s Choice
The rest of the chapter tells how Rebekah introduced him to her brother Laban and her father Bethuel. In typical Middle Eastern fashion, they all gathered for a great evening meal. But before the meal was served, the servant stood up and made a speech. In it he rehearsed for the family how God had led him from the Negev to Nahor. He also told them how rich Abraham was and how Isaac was going to be the heir to his father’s fortune. He mentioned Isaac’s miraculous conception and repeated Abraham’s specific instructions that Isaac’s wife must come from among his own people. Finally, he revealed the prayer he’d prayed at the well and God’s, immediate answer. Every sentence revealed his great faith in the God who had led him to Rebekah. Verse 49 is the clincher: “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.”." Like any good salesmen, he presses for a decision.
Laban and Bethuel really couldn’t say anything when they heard what the servant said.“This is from the LORD; we can say nothing to you one way or the other” (v. 50). And so they gave their consent: “Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has directed” (v. 51).
Scene # 4: Isaac’s Comfort
So they gave their consent-somewhat grudgingly, it seems, but they gave it. Then there was the touchy question of how soon she was to leave with the servant for the trip back to meet Isaac. Understandably, her family didn’t want her to leave immediately. There was a bit of a disagreement so they decided to let Rebekah decide for herself. “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?’"(Genesis 24:57-58).
Consider the implications of this question. Rebekah had never met Isaac. She was not being asked, “Will you go with Isaac?” She was being asked, “Will you go with the servant?" That meant leaving her family permanently because she probably would never make the journey back to Nahor again. She had met the servant only twelve or fifteen hours earlier. So on the basis of one evening and the next morning, she was being asked to make a decision that would cut her off from her family for the rest of her life, to go across the desert to a place she’d never seen, and to marry a man she’d never met. “Will you go with this man?” Most of us would say no. But of course, since God was leading, she said yes.
So they made the long journey back to Beersheba. When they arrived, Isaac was working in the fields. As soon as Rebekah saw him in the distance she jumped off the camel and veiled her face. Then the servant introduced Isaac to his new bride. Isaac did not really know her at all. But he immediately agreed to the marriage. He took her into Sarah’s tent-a sign that she was taking Sarah’s place in the family. The story ends with these touching words: “So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death” (Genesis 24:67).
Genesis 24 shows us how the choice of a bride for Isaac was God’s choice. He was the One working behind the scenes. He never spoke. He never said anything. And yet Genesis 24 clearly shows that behind the affairs of men stood Almighty God. Twice the role of angels is mentioned. Verses 7 and 40 say that God would send his angel to go before the servant and make his journey a success. Yet no angel ever visibly appears. Whatever the angel did, he did behind the scenes. God’s angel was as invisible as God himself.
Yet it all happened the way God had planned from the beginning.
Abraham sought it. His servant found it. The sign confirmed it. Laban recognized it. Rebekah accepted it. Isaac enjoyed it.
But God is the one who did the choosing. He was the divine matchmaker who orchestrated the details so that the right man and the right woman would come together at precisely the right moment.
Three Lessons Regarding Guidance
This story teaches us some universal principles about seeking guidance in the everyday affairs of life. Three in particular deserve special mention.
1. Knowing God’s will involves forethought, planning, preparation and prayer.
Did Abraham do the will of God? Absolutely. He saw the need, conceived a plan, called his servant, told him what to do, and even gave him Plan B instructions. Abraham understood the will of God and then took practical steps to see that it was fulfilled.
Sometimes we get too mystical about God’s will. We want dreams and visions and odd things to happen to us. God doesn’t always work that way. More often God works through the mundane details of life. As you use the means at your disposal, God takes those means and works through circumstances to see that his will is done in your life. That may include some events that seem quite miraculous to us. But whether or not we see the miraculous, our responsibility is to use the information we have to make wise plans for the future.
2. Focus on the Lord and leave the details in his hands.
God holds himself responsible to guide your life. When you put him first, the Lord says, “I will make sure you get to the right place at the right time." When you focus on God, he takes responsibility for the details of your life. Obsessive concern over questions like “Should I get married?” or “Should I take this new job?” or “Which home should we buy?” leads you down the wrong trail. Focus on God. Focus on being faithful to him and knowing him. Focus on doing what God wants you to do. He will take care of the details of your life. He did it for Isaac, and he will do it for you.
3. Since God is in control of the minute details of life, you can relax, knowing that he will reveal his plan for your life one step at a time.
God’s will is more like a sunrise than a sunburst. Early in the morning the sun begins to peek above the eastern horizon. At first the sky lightens, then the first rays streak across the sky, then the rim of the sun begins to rise slowly above the earth. Eventually the whole sun is revealed, rising until it dominates the sky, giving light to the earth and driving away the darkness. God’s will is like that. At first we see his plan dimly, and then the outline begins to emerge. Slowly, over time, the clouds vanish, the darkness disappears, and the brightness of his presence fills our lives.
Do you get anxious at sunrise when all you can see is the tiny rim of the sun? If you wait long enough you will see the sun in all its brilliance. The same is true of God’s plan for your life. You never see everything in advance, but if you wait long enough, God always reveals his will.
So relax! God is in charge. When the time is right the darkness will vanish, and all that is vague will be made perfectly clear.
Loving Father, teach us to trust you. We want clear direction, and you say, “Give me your heart.” We want precise answers, and you say, “Trust me to do right.” We want to know about tomorrow, and you say, “Follow me today.” Lord, make us willing to be made willing to do your will in everything. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.