Welcoming, wandering, waiting
In the first of our series looking at some of the characters in the book of Genesis, Revd Beth Anderson begins to explore the story of Abraham and Sarah and what it might say to us about following God in today's world.
Genesis 18: 1-15
The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and 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 favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that 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 three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”
Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.
“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.
“There, in the tent,” he said.
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, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as 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 did not laugh.”
But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
Lord God, thank you for your living word. Please bless me with your Holy Spirit as I explore this story from it. Amen.
Quite a lot of us might well be desperate for the chance to be hospitable these days. We might be looking forward to a time when we can again welcome friends and family into our houses and get busy with our favourite recipe to provide a meal. What a joy it will be when that time comes to us again. But even then, I wonder if we will be able to match the hospitality shown by Abraham to his unexpected and unknown guests.
They turn up unannounced, inconsiderately in the heat of the day, right at siesta time- when no-one wants to be running around cooking! But Abraham, only noticing them when they get close, (maybe he had been asleep!) leaps up and runs to meet them. He begs them to accept his hospitality – water, a refreshing wash, a rest and some food. This in keeping with what we know of Middle Eastern hospitality, but it is noticeable that what Abraham offers as “a little bread” materialises as freshly butchered and cooked meat and fresh baking. A lot of effort is expended “in the heat of the day” and then Abraham, a well-regarded and wealthy man serves his guests personally and stands by while they eat. It raises the question – did Abraham have any inkling that these were holy guests – that God himself had called? Could he have improved on this welcome even if he had known?
How do we receive the people who cross our paths or turn up at the most unhelpful moments? Do we welcome everyone as if it might be God himself dropping by? At the end of Matthew ch 25 Jesus challenges us on how we treat the inconvenient and those in need saying “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And in Hebrews ch 13 we are reminded “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Having friends round for a meal will be a delight when it is allowed again, but how can we always seek innovative ways to show kindness and hospitality to those in need, doing for them as we would for God?
Abraham and Sarah are on more than one kind of frustrating journey – there is the physical, geographical journey that they started back in Genesis ch 12 with very little plan or intention other than God saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” And they had done just that, stepped out into the unknown leaving behind all that was safe, comforting and familiar. And they had travelled with no previously agreed itinerary, no emergency get outs – but trusting God as they went, step by step.
A remarkable feature of life for so many of us at the moment is the amount of ‘unknowing’ that we are living with. We don’t know when we can meet in groups of more than 6, or when we can pop round to a friend’s house if we don’t live by ourselves or when all children will be back in school…. We turn to our political leaders and to experts… and in many cases they do not yet know either or cannot agree.
Can we be encouraged by Abraham and Sarah’s example as they travel and rest and travel again according to God’s instruction. They carry on trusting in the middle of the unknowing – can we do that? Is there any particular part of this lockdown that is troubling you more than others – where you are desperate for some information and some certainty. Is God wanting you to trust and rest in him in the unknowing?
As well as the physical travelling, Abraham and Sarah are on a particular journey of faith and doubts. Their encounters and communications with God so far have been constantly based on God’s promises about land and children. God has told Abraham
“I will make you into a great nation!” – Gen12:2
“To your offspring I will give this land.”- Gen 12:7
These promises are repeated many times and, when Abraham hasn’t yet seen any proof of it and begins to doubt, God gets poetic and assures Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as “dust of the earth” (Gen 13:16) and as the “stars” in the sky (Gen15:5).
But there is a problem! - for all God’s promises Abraham and Sarah are lacking one thing – a child. If you’re going to have numerous children and descendants you need to start with at least one. And precious time was passing, and God kept promising and not having the children that you desperately want was as painful and heart-breaking then as ever it is. Sarah got desperate enough to give up on God’s promises and take matters into her own hand, sending her husband off to sleep with one of the servant girls (who doesn’t seem to have had any say in it!) in order to produce a child. This arrangement turned out really badly and relationships turned very sour and abusive.
It’s all going wrong and Sarah and Abraham are getting ever older – they are now 90 and 99 respectively, well past the age of having children. In another encounter God repeats his promises of land and many descendants. It is too much for Abraham, he falls over laughing at the impossibility of such a thing at their age. But God now puts a time on it. God has the big picture, the eternal view and it is now time – he says by the next year Sarah will have had a little boy and they must call him Isaac. We don’t know how Abraham then feels about these latest details or whether he shares them with Sarah. Possibly not because when their three holy visitors are eating the meal and they repeat the detailed promise about a son next year in Sarah’s hearing, her reaction is also to laugh.
What kind of laugh do you think it was? Our story suggests it is not a laugh of joy or delight or amusement but a cynical laugh, a sneer – Yeah right, like that’s going to happen?”
I have some sympathy with Sarah – she has waited so long, heard so many promises and now it seems impossible, hopeless. What is our reaction to having to wait on God? When our most heartfelt prayers haven’t yet been answered? When God seems to have left it until it’s impossible? What can we learn from Sarah’s experience?
Of course, God knows her reaction and challenges it with a pointed rhetorical question -“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Sarah, bless her, is now frightened enough to attempt lying to God (never a good move!) and there is the final of exchange of our story where she says to God “I didn’t laugh!” and God says, “Yes, you did!” God knows her and understands her – her hope, her despair, her cynicism and her fear – and he still lets her be the mother of his chosen people.
This is a wonderful account – of extravagant hospitality, of journeying into the unknown with God, of faith stretched to breaking point and beyond, of God’s unfailing faithfulness and his willingness to be with and work with his frail and doubtful people.
1) In what practical and loving ways can we be hospitable to strangers as if they were God himself?
2) What is it like following God at this particular time when so much in life and for the future is unknown?
3) How do we manage when God keeps us waiting and our greatest desires seem impossible?
You may also like to listen to our accompanying Podcast here.