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Entertaining Unaware

October 16, 2011 ()

Genesis 18:1-15 |


Are you ready to welcome God’s presence and word at anytime, even when God shows up unannounced and his identity is not disclosed? This is the question that Abraham and Sarah faced when three men appeared on their doorstep in the middle of the day, one of whom happened to be God. Unlike previous episodes in the Abrahamic narrative, this narrative has the characteristic of being jovial in its presentation. Through it, we find that God can and does show up at anytime, even during a lunch break on a mundane Monday afternoon.

Abraham showed himself more than ready to receive the visitors. Even without knowing their identity, he wastes no time in inviting them in and preparing a feast fit for God. Moreover, Abraham had mastered the art of hospitality, showing deference, and making it easy for the men to accept his offer.

While hospitality has become something of a lost art in the church today, especially in certain parts of the privatized western world, one cannot deny its importance in the Bible. Take Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:13: Contribute to the needs of the saints and pursue hospitality. Or Peter’s instruction: Show hospitality to one another without grumbling (1 Pet 4:9). So important to gospel ministry is hospitality that it appears as a qualification for an Elder (Tit 1:8; 1 Tim 3:2). This is because hospitality is intrinsic to the character of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the Old Testament, hospitality is rooted in God’s love for the sojourner (e.g., Deut 10:18). In the New Testament, hospitality is revealed more clearly as being tied to God’s character and love. As S.C. Barton suggests: “hospitality, for Paul as for Jesus before him, is not just a practical issue. It is a fundamental expression of the gospel: a response to God’s hospitality to humankind in providing Christ as the ‘paschal lamb’ (1 Cor 5:7) and an outworking of what it means to be members of the one ‘body of Christ’.” And, like Abraham, when Christians express hospitality, they open themselves up to God’s presence and word (Matt 25:34–40; Luke 24:13–32; Heb 13:2).

But God’s word isn’t always the easiest thing to accept. In fact, when God reiterates the promise that Sarah would bear a son, she laughs and says: “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” It becomes clear that God’s primary purpose in coming was to confront and transform Sarah’s cynicism and doubt. After Sarah denies her laughter, the Lord, somewhat whimsically, rebukes her. But it is a restorative rebuke: the one who can read her mind also has the power to open her womb. The key is found in the Lord’s rhetorical question in verse 14: Is anything too hard (or wondrous) for the Lord? The answer, of course, is a resounding no: nothing is too wondrous for God. We know that Sarah believes God’s word because by faith does what is necessary to conceive a child: she has sex with her husband, believing God’s promise over against what her aging body tells her. The passage is a beautiful illustration of God’s tender mercy.

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