In Matthew 12:38, some scribes and Pharisees come to Jesus and ask him for a sign. They wanted to know if he was the messiah. They wanted him to “prove it.”
What does it mean to prove something is of God? What would we do to prove God’s presence in our lives? In our churches? What would we say if someone asked us about it?
Surely we would look for concrete examples of God’s work and provision. We would point to numbers of baptisms and membership. We would point out programs or processes that are improving. Maybe we are trying to sell the idea of something new we are feeling called to at our church and we use scripture to back it up.
As pastors and leaders our motivations are divided. It is tempting to find our worth in the concrete ways we can show “success.” The powers-that-be encourage pastors to build the church like big businesses. We report salvations like quarterly statements. I have heard it said of a clergy member who moved to pastor a larger church, “They got a promotion.” Seeking God’s ways in the pursuit of peace, holiness and reconciliation is at odds with our paradigm of success.
It is confusing because there is this idea that success is a sign of God’s approval, God’s blessing!
This week’s reading in Genesis 24 is a challenge to the way we think about success. On the surface, it is a tale of a servant and a weird promise-ceremony, a well and a woman, nose-rings and bangles. The story is told in excruciating detail all leading up to the marriage that is almost non-existent in the text… just a few lines at the end to ensure we are tracking that the roles of Abraham and Sarah have now passed to Isaac and Rebekah. In our Disney-themed, happily ever after, results-driven culture, we would be happy to just skip to the end. Couldn’t this chapter-long story have been shorted to one line? It could have just said, “Then Isaac married Rebekah.” Why belabor the details that aren’t important and then practically forget the punch line?
Amid this unfolding drama, we find this anonymous servant to Abraham. He listened to his “master’s” instructions:
You can almost read the subscript… if Isaac goes back, he might stay. He might abandon the call to, “go.” And if he marries someone from around here, he might abandon the God that called us to “go.”
Abraham is old and feeble and needs his servant’s help here. However, this unnamed servant is full of fear. He gives Abraham an excuse, that I personally appreciate: “What if she says no?” Well, in that case he would be released from his obligation.
But wait a minute. Wasn’t the promise for descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky? Was this not supposed to be reckoned through Abraham’s son Isaac? How then are these descendants to be born if Isaac is not to take a wife from the Canaanites and this servant fails to return with one? I feel like I am heading up Mount Moriah again with no other sacrifice.
Everything is at stake and I don’t hear a Plan B.
You get a sense of the anxiety this servant must be feeling. The weight he carries. He must represent well, he must be wise, but more than that, he needs God’s guidance.
He devises a thought in his heart, or maybe it was a prayer? He thinks, I will go to the well and I will ask a woman, “Please offer your jar that I may drink” and if she responds, “Drink, and I will water your camels” let her be the one.
As the story plays out what strikes me as odd is the complete lack of the extra-ordinary. I don’t imagine it was a rare thing that a someone might ask for a drink or for a kind stranger to offer hospitality. Since Abraham’s servant was making a bee-line for his old home, it is also not strange that he ran into Abraham’s kin. The gifts were within custom, the interactions were guarded and political, and the waiting period requested was customary.
However, in this complete lack of extraordinary miracle, there is this sense from Abraham’s servant, Rebekah, and her family that this meeting was of God. After the servant retells the story, Laban and Bethuel answer, “The thing comes from the LORD; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has spoken.” There is nothing that can be said, everyone just knows that this is God.
There was no wow-factor to know beyond a shadow of a doubt, there was no sign; but God was in it.
More than no wow-factor was the fact that he mission very well could have failed. The servant could have said something stupid that turned them off. The woman could have said no. One commentator says that this suggests, “One should not say that ‘the success or failure of the commission depends on whether God grants success or not.’ Although success may well depend on God, the activity of human beings may occasion failure even though God intends success.”
What a terrifying place to be the anonymous servant… where most of us pastor’s find ourselves.
How little success we can flout.
How little pride we can have.
How uncertain we are that the woman will say yes.
At least we are let off the hook if she says no.
Our faithfulness is what is asked, not success.
Not buildings and programs and salvations and baptisms and balance sheets.
How scary to be the unnamed servant of Abraham, to be caught up in the drama of it all, to not know the ending, to be filled with fear and trembling.
How uncertain to be the unknown servant of Abraham, to know that God’s promise of descendants is dependent on this obscure mission to the random town and the nitty-gritty details of hospitality of good-gift giving practices and political savvy.
This risk, this prayer, this action, of this anonymous servant is not quantifiable. Its risk can’t be managed with better insurance policies, or playing it safe, or having all your ducks in a row.
In the end, the success was obscure and forgotten; but the was journey recorded, and the prayers.
Of course, Isaac had a wife!
How could God have fulfilled his promise without it?
It had to happen.
Was this unnamed man’s success so certain?
Or is that just us, asking for a sign?  Genesis 24:50 NRSV  Terence E. Fretheim, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1994), 510.