In our lesson from the Hebrew scripture tonight we heard the story of how Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant prays “let the girl to whom I shall say ‘please offer your jar that I may drink’ respond ‘drink and I will water your camels’”. It reads as if the servant suggests a password that will confirm divine support in identifying Isaac’s bride and sure enough, as he finishes praying, Rebekah arrives and when approached responds accordingly.
It struck me reading this passage that Isaac himself is conspicuous in his absence from this whole episode. Abraham expressly orders the servant to “see it that you do not take my son back there” (that is to the city of Nahor). It’s a curious detail, clearly Abraham believes that it would be bad idea if Isaac were involved in this process of finding his bride.
The God of Israel is often described with reference to the patriarchs, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but it appears that Isaac is no more that the son of a great man and the father of a great man. Certainly, to our modern eyes he might appear very passive. He has no part in selecting his bride but he willingly accepts the woman chosen for him. Much later when Rebecca conspires with Jacob for Isaac’s blessing, against Esau, the older son, Isaac’s response to discovering the deceit is very philosophical. Whilst Abraham’s role has traditionally been likened to that of God the father, Isaac has been likened to Christ. Both were only begotten sons, both were named by God, both were offered up as sacrifices and as Jesus carried his cross, so Isaac carried the wood for the pyre on which he was to be offered as a burnt offering.
Perhaps there is something useful for us to learn from Isaac. In his book the virgin eye, towards a contemplative life, Robin Davies, who was one time supervisor of the St Marylebone Healing Centre writes about the importance in the spiritual life of non-striving, pointing to our frequent attachment to making things happen rather than letting things happen and pouring our energies into efforts to realise our ambitions and designs rather than paying attention to how God is at work in the world and in our lives and what particular purposes he might have for us. It’s an observation that resonates very strongly with me, both in my public health work and indeed ministry where I very easily tend away from openness and receptivity and instead default to personal ambitions and if they are in any way frustrated to doubling down efforts.
This really isn’t the spiritual path. St Francis de Sales provides a caution – the enemy often suggests a great desire of things that are absent… so that he may divert our mind from present objects, from which, trivial as they are, we might obtain great profit. What are we to do? Eckhart noted “to the extent that you eliminate self from your activities, God comes into them – but not more and no less”. This kind of letting go is not a passive state, rather, it requires a constant alertness to God’s working in our lives, in faith that he will make clear to us our calling.
In our New Testament lesson we saw other examples of trusting faith in one of those passages where Mark likes to sandwich a story with another in order to develop and emphasise his themes. In this case, in the stories of the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the healing of the haemorrhaging women we see a particular emphasis on the inclusively of Christ’s ministry. It is important to recognise that the haemorrhaging women would have been regarded as being in a permanent state of ritual impurity and yet Christ’s compassion very clearly encompasses her. Neither does he shrink from touching the corpse of Jarius’ daughter, his compassion extends beyond death.
The raising of Jairus’ daughter is an assurance of our hope of resurrection to eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ and the passage makes clear a very important distinction between belief and faith. One may assent to the reality of God powers in the same way that demons believe and tremble, as James puts it, but New Testament faith is relational, it concerns a personal commitment, faith in Christ, not just about Christ.
These readings provide examples of faith – Isaac, Jairus and the haemorrhaging women, and we can regard them as an invitation away from striving for our own grand designs and to relax instead into a deeper relationship with God, into the grace of thanksgiving and the discernment and acceptance of God’s work and calling in our lives. I’ll close with a quotation from the poet Matthew Arnold whose words provide apt observation and advice. “Calm soul of all things! Make it mine to feel, amid the city’s jar, that there abides a peace of thine, man did not make, and cannot mar”.