Genesis 18, Abraham has three visitors
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long.
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Jo: Reading today is from Genesis chapter 18:1- [sound cut] “The Lord appeared to Abraham at great trees of Mamre. While he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day, Abraham looked up, saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said if I have found favour in your eyes, my Lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought then you may all wash feet [sound cut] rest [unintelligible 00:00:40] this tree. Let me get you something to eat so you can be refreshed, and then go on your way. Now you have come to your servant.”
“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get me three seals of the finest flour, knead it, bake some bread.” He ran to the herd, selected a choice, tender calf, gave it to a servant who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk. The calf had been prepared and set these before them while they ate. He stood near them and watched under a tree. “Where is your wife, Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he replied. Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already very old. Sarah was past the age of childbearing, so Sarah laughed to herself. She thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.” Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I didn’t laugh,” but he said, “Yes, you did.”
Paul: One day there I was just having a gentle snooze outside my tent when suddenly I became aware of the presence of some people around me. Well, there’s nothing particularly interesting or strange about that but what was a bit weird was that I never noticed their arrival. It was as if–ping and there they were large as life. Three people. What you might forget is that in the Middle Eastern tradition, hospitality, true hospitality makes no distinction between rich and poor, or friend or foe, relative or stranger. Hospitality itself stretches quite readily to people that you don’t know.
I don’t know what you think about showing extravagant hospitality to people that you don’t know, but for me, Abraham, as a man of wealth and status, it did all seem an honour to serve these three unknown people. I don’t know what does seem rather undignified than is expected of a man of my position, but I run to the strangers. You see, in my culture, for a gentleman to gird up his loins and run just like in the father of the tale of the prodigal son that Jesus would teach about, it’s culturally surprising. It certainly lacked a bit of dignity. And here’s the thing. It just felt like the right thing to do.
Looking back, I probably had never run to a stranger to offer hospitality before, although to offer a stranger something to eat, something to drink before they returned to their wander, that’s fairly normal. Refreshment is always on the table but to run over to these people, to these three, well, it just seems so much more urgent this time. Of course, I now know now that it was God or at least his representative because of what they said and how they said it.
Coming back to that first point that I came in on, there I was just minding my own business, and in the next moment I’m running towards these three wanderers offering not just a quick snack, but the best that I can offer.
In my day, the pace of life was much slower than it is today. People had time for one another and so most of the time it was no problem at all for folk to enjoy company over a quick bite. You might liken it to how the Spanish might do tapas, a little plate of something and a drink. In hot countries, of course, it’s so important to get some shade and to keep hydrated but you couldn’t just turn on a tap. Everything would take longer to do. Nothing instant in this lifestyle, and so as I ran to offer some light refreshment to these three characters, I just got this sense, this feeling, that they weren’t any ordinary people.
Now a good trick to keep people for a long time rather than just giving them a chapati and a cup of wine, is to give them some real food so I arranged for my fatted calf to be cooked which involves quite a lot of time. I’ve got to tell my herdsman to get it, to kill it, to prepare it, to light a fire, to roast it so you can imagine that it’s no short activity, but all this time there’s a real sense of importance to my visitors and so I want to get to know them, find out what brings them to Mamre where I live underneath this tent, underneath these trees.
All this hospitality might seem rather extravagant and extreme to you, and I can’t really explain it, but it just felt the right thing to do. To offer my prize calf, to keep company with my visitors and not merely because it was the culturally correct thing to do. I don’t know if you’ve been in a similar position where without being able to put your finger on it or explain it, but you just feel the need to go the extra mile for someone. Maybe a spiritual nudge [unintelligible 00:07:33] going. Here’s the thing. I have no idea how long it took me to discover that I was entertaining God. You might expect God to come to speak to you at all. How do you feel about giving the best to someone that you don’t even know because that’s the situation in which I found myself?
I guess things began to fall into place when the spokesman out of the three asks about the whereabouts of my wife Sarah. When I tell him that she’s just in the tent behind, the following conversation seems as if it’s for her benefit. That’s when the visitor says that in a year’s time he’s going to come back and by that time she would have a son. Ha, silly, silly. There’re all sorts of moments that you think there’s more to life; more to these visitors meets the eye. How do they know that I had a similar conversation about having a child in Genesis chapter 17 and I laughed at the absurdity of the notion of having children at my age and Sarah at hers?
In my day, news tends to travel through the words of passing visitors, but the news we receive without having a baby at our age, it is. It’s pretty laughable. No wonder Sarah and I awkwardly giggle at the pure silliness of this idea. We were both well into our dotage and it rather had seen that God had forgotten this promise that was made way back in Genesis chapter 12 when we’d been promised that through me God would make me into a great nation. That was a good few years back when I was only 75 and I’m nearly 100 now.
To press the point home about us sniggering at the notion of becoming pregnant at 89. Old Sarah has a challenge; can’t you imagine? The spokesperson from that visit seems to be God. Seems obvious looking back, doesn’t it? When he hears her laughing, he just has to rebuke them. For Sarah, afraid that this could actually happen and the pain and the physical complications it could bring, no wonder she lied and said she didn’t laugh. [unintelligible 00:10:38] Just at the time when God has promised I’d be a father to fulfil God’s promises.
Maybe I was too scared to face the truth of God’s promises. I’ve been waiting for them to come through for all these years, 25 years. So when it actually comes true, things are starting to [sound cut], you’ll excuse me for being a little bit taken and Sarah too. It’s only on reflection that I learned a few things that day. Primarily, that God does keep his word. [unintelligible 00:11:29] but human faith is either here or there with God to an extent. What matters is what [unintelligible 00:11:42] intends. Just as with the story of Joseph when he met with his brothers. What you intended for harm, God intended [sound cut]. Of course, you never know whether you are entertaining God or angels [sound cut].
As I draw my ramblings to a close, I offer you some final thoughts. What is it about the hospitality of others that has kept your earthly relationships so deep? I want to be [unintelligible 00:12:24] your thanks. Although Sara and I laughed at the impossibility that God could keep such a promise, are there things either in the Bible or about God that you can’t think be possibly true, and if so then maybe this tale has got something to say to you about [sound cut]. God has His promises. I mean, in my Abraham’s experience, He intends to keep [sound cut] because in the end, it’s all about His purposes [sound cut].
We know how good God is. Sometimes we know that it’s the experienced difficulty in knowing [sound cut] we hang on just as Abraham and Sarah hung on to that promise for 25 years, that things might change, might turn out differently to how, perhaps, we expect. Maybe God has promised something to you a long time ago and you still don’t see the fruition. God doesn’t forget. I was talking to somebody last night and I was reminded that God said to me to leave my father’s household and go to [unintelligible 00:13:57] that he would show me. It took 17 years for me to [unintelligible 00:14:03] to Cheshire which is an odd thing but that part of my story of being here. 17 years. Quite a long time in my life. Not a long time eternity. Just keep trusting God even if it seems to [sound cut] impossible.
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Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, a member of the Hodder Headline Group. All rights reserved. “NIV” is a registered trademark of International Bible Society. UK trademark number 1448790.