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Genesis 18 : 1 - 15
- The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great oak trees of Mamre while he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.
- Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked and saw three men standing across from him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself toward the ground.
- He said, “My Lord, if I have found favor in Your sight, do not pass by Your servant.
- Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet and rest yourselves under the tree.
- I will bring a piece of bread so that you may refresh yourselves. After that you may pass on, now that you have come to your servant.” And they said, “So do, as you have said.”
- So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quickly prepare three measures of fine flour, knead it, and make cakes.”
- Then Abraham ran to the herd and took a choice and tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it.
- He then brought butter and milk and the calf that he had prepared and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
- They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “There, in the tent.”
- One of them said, “I will certainly return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him.
- Now Abraham and Sarah were old and very advanced in age, and Sarah was well past childbearing.
- Therefore Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am so old and my lord is old also, shall I have pleasure?”
- Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I surely bear a child when I am old?’
- Is anything too difficult for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
- Then Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” because she was afraid. But He said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
Last held on the 17th of August 2003 at Hattem
Abraham sits nearby the opening of his tent. The tent cloth provides shade. Because the sun is high in the sky, it's in the heat of the day. People and animals take their siesta in tents and under bushes. Abraham also starts to nod and falls asleep.
Suddenly he wakes up with a shock. He raises his eyes and immediately gets amazed. Three men are looking at him. Abraham has pitched his tents at the terebinths - a species of tree - of Mamre, at the caravan route's edge. As a farmer, there is probably a business to do with the merchants who pass here. But at this hour he doesn't expect anyone. Who travels through the desert in this sweltering heat? It seems as if they emerged from nowhere, or from the hot air vibrations on the horizon. And they stand still too! This means that they knock on your door kindly and modestly, hoping to contact you. Strange!.
But Abraham still doesn’t know the strangest fact. That only starts to dawn on him gradually. Namely, the Lord Himself is there. “And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre.” The Lord Himself visits him. The Lord Himself dwells on Him. The Lord Himself knocks on his door. But incognito. As a human. Like a stranger who modestly appeals to Abraham’s hospitality.
Until now, God had made Himself heard, He came through the word. "And God said to Abraham", we always read. But now He also shows Himself, assumes the form of a human being. God becomes human, a prophecy of the great incarnation of God, in Jesus Christ. Then the Lord also came incognito to our earth. Like the baby in the Bethlehem manger. The carpenter’s son from Nazareth. “A stranger from Galilee”, to put it in a Christian song. It then also became gradually clear and only to those who got their eyes opened, that God appeared in Him. And with that apparition, described in the New Testament, we have to do. Because that was the highest and final. In the figure of Jesus Christ, in everything the Gospels of Him tells us, the Lord draws near to us, we too are face to face with Him, He knocks at the door of our hearts, He seeks hospitality in our lives. Do we see Jesus like this? And do we realize that we have to choose about Him? We cannot ignore this unique appearance of God in Jesus Christ. That “stranger from Galilee” visits you, and me, again in this sermon now, and knocks on our door. “The bridegroom of heaven knocks at the entrance of our heart’s home. Come on, my bride whom I love, open me up, let me in.”(Dutch Christian hymn)
But this history also tells us that the Lord can be present in our human encounters. That in what people say and do, God is telling us and doing to us something. In the love of a human being, we discover God’s love. We see the warning of a person as God’s voice in our conscience. We experience the consolation and help of a person as God’s consolation and help. Have you ever experienced it that way? That you said after a good conversation with someone: I met not only a person but also the Lord, because I felt that He was fully present there? The conversation with him, with her, was a gift from God? That’s great.
This history further tells us that the Lord also meets us in the fellow human beings who need our help. After all, it includes a stranger who is looking for hospitality. In modern theology, often nothing more remains of the gospel than politics and humanity. According to it, we only can meet God in the third world’s poor oppressed people, in the welfare recipient, or the asylum seeker. Only in the suffering fellow man, who needs help, does God come to us and dwell on us. So He launches an appeal to us and forces us to choose for actually committing ourselves to justice, love and freedom. It's very one-sided and poor when the preaching is limited to this. You only have a fraction of the whole gospel left. But it’s a fraction that is true! God looks at us with the eyes of the poor, hungry, sick fellow man and with the eyes of the stranger without food and shelter, as with Abraham. From our text, there's a direct line to what, according to Jesus himself, the son of man will say at the last judgment. ”I was a stranger, and you did or did not accommodate me. And then one asks: Lord, when did we see you as a stranger, and did we welcome you or not? To which the answer follows: Inasmuch as you did or did not do it to one of my least brothers, you did or did not do it to me. And the writer of “Hebrews” also thought about our history, when he wrote: don’t forget hospitality, for because of this, some unknowingly have harboured angels.”
And so the Lord presents Himself before us, often unexpected, just as with Abraham. And that requires a decision, a choice. He appears to us in that fellow human being behind whose words and deeds we experience God’s words and deeds. He appears to us in our suffering fellow man, who appeals to our love, sense of justice, mercy and hospitality. God, above all, appears to us in Jesus Christ. But what do we do with it? Does it make us different or not? Will it lead to conversion?
Abraham walks to meet the three strangers, bows to the earth as a sign of courtesy and humility, and says: “My Lord if I have won your affection, do not pass over your servant." It looks much nicer in literal translation: If I have found grace in your eyes. Brilliant because it contains a double bottom. One can say it to a human person but also to God. But do we imitate Abraham, when the Lord appears to us anyhow? Are we pleading for God’s grace? Do we also call ourselves his servant, his slave, bowing down to the ground before him? Do we open ourselves to Him? Do we ask if He will move in with us? Do we sing it: "Pass me not, o gentle Savior?" Do we know the attitude of the blind man at Jericho, who when he heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out: "Son of David, have mercy on me"? A distinguished visitor is knocking on our door. The Lord Himself. Do we receive Him? Are we begging for Him to come in? That’s already an act of faith. A work of God's Spirit, if we repeat with heart and soul Abraham, the father of the faithful: "Lord, if I have now found grace in your eyes, do not pass me by." Because from ourselves, we close the door to the Lord, and he may pass us by. Do you know this hospitality of Abraham, hospitality to men, but above all to God? How bad if our house is open for countless guests, but we keep the heavenly guest outside.
But Abraham does even more. He gives orders to prepare a good meal for the guests. Sara has to knead three measures of flour and bake cakes. A servant must kill a tender and good calf, chosen by Abraham himself. Milk and butter are used. And water to wash the feet. In short, everything is in turmoil, full of serving love. That’s where Abraham’s faith becomes visible. In what he’s giving his guests. In his generosity and willingness to sacrifice. Because it’s much he is giving. Three measures of flour is a lot. And in the Hebrew language, it appears that it is a valuable type of flour. And then also one of the best calves in the herd. But Abraham modestly speaks of a little water and a morsel of bread.
What also stands out is the diligence with which Abraham gets to work and gets others to work. Then Abraham hastened to the tent to Sarah and said: "Make haste." Does our faith also become visible in what we do and give for others? Or is it a faith without works, a dead one? Each tree is known by its own fruit. (Luke 6:44) Are we bearing fruit? Is there love in our midst? Don't we think it's too much to do something for each other? Do we even work hard? With all the surrender and dedication? With haste, like Abraham? And can we for once give something that's more than alms, but really a sacrifice, something of value? And do we still remain modest about it? Do we see it as a trifle in contrast to the enormous wealth the Lord has given us? Do we acknowledge that it should be much more? Abraham gives big things and calls them small. Often it's just the other way around for us. Then we give little things, and we blow it up into something great. We are peacocking about it. They are also fruits, but not of the tree, which is called faith but from the tree of one's own merit. The true believer does a lot, gives a lot, and calls it little, prefers not to call it at all. Hopefully, they were found more, as fruits of faith: great deeds and modest words. And may modest deeds with great words were found less. And you know, we find that double bottom again in our text. It's about giving to other people, to the strangers, who appear at Abraham's tent, but at the same time, the gifts are offerings to God. Three measures of fine flour, cakes, a perfect calf, you hear the usual terms from the sacrificial laws of Leviticus. Love to God and neighbour are one, equal to each other, writes Matthew. A gift to a neighbour is an offering to God. Help to the neighbour is thanksgiving to God. Praising God is serving your neighbour. To receive God is to give the neighbour a hospitable reception. Well, may we better understand the secret of the two commandments, which are one after all. Then there would be a lot less empty piety and religiousness while leaving one's neighbour out in the cold. Then there would also be a lot less humanistic weel-behaving while we God leave out in the cold.
But when Abraham so received the strangers, they come up with a question: "Where is your wife Sarah?" Strange because at that time it soon was suspected to show any interest in someone else's wife. And also, because women were of little significance, they were never asked about. But in the eyes of the Lord, there's no difference. He also thinks of women and especially of busy housewives, such as Sarah, who quickly had prepared the cakes at Abraham's command.
"Where is your wife, Sarah?" There's a lot to say about women's emancipation. Positive and negative. Of course, that's not all possible now. But I would like to mention one negative effect: that ordinary housewives, who find their destination and satisfaction in marriage and family life and don't need to prove themselves in society, often don't have prestige. But the Lord knows them. With Him, being a housewife is an honour, a profession and a calling. "Where is Sarah, your housewife?" It may be the last question Abraham expected, but it is the first. The Lord hears the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine, sees the duster, the chamois. He looks with love at busy hands preparing food, set in motion by a heart that beats warmly for husband and children. Of course, I don't mean that husband and children do not have to roll up their sleeves at home.
Yes, children! That’s just the great sorrow of Sara because she doesn’t have any. But just like her name, one of the strangers also appears to know that because he promises that she’ll have a son after a year. Her name is known and her deepest suffering. By the Lord. What consolation. Also for us. The Lord knows us by name, especially since our baptism. And He knows what fills us with worry and fear. We can sing it with Psalm 139: "Lord, You search and know me." Before we know the Lord, He knows us, through and through. You and I don’t get lost in the nameless crowd. You and I don’t have to struggle with silent grief alone. He who knows everything also knows everything about us. That does not make our prayer superfluous, but it makes it more enjoyable, into something that really helps and gives support. We can say: Lord, you know me, you understand me, you know everything about me, don’t you? You know what makes it so difficult for me. My loneliness, my illness, my feeling of uselessness, my pain, my childlessness. For that’s also something not only Sarah struggles with, but, despite our time’s great medical expertise, can still be great grief. Let us pray a lot for childless couples and be careful not to hurt them with tactless comments. “You can do that in your spare time because you don’t have any ’hand ties’ at home.”
But the Lord not only knows our need. When it comes to making His promises true, and when it benefits the coming of His Kingdom, He can also relieve that need. “And He said: Surely I will return to you about this time next year, and then Sarah, your wife, will have a son.” Immediately at Abraham’s calling, the promise had been made: “I will make you a great nation.” But now the Lord makes that promise concrete: within a year, there will be a son. We tend to water down our promises and postpone their realisation, but the Lord does it the other way around: He sharpens and sets a deadline. A son within a year. His word is true, is yes and amen. Abraham and Sarah could rely on that, and we can do it too. His promises of salvation, blessing, and grace will be fulfilled. In His way and time, but it will happen.
But often, our trust is so far away. We also see that with Sara. She caught the conversation through the tent canvas. And she laughs to herself. She can suppress a loud burst of laughter because it's rude and insulting to the guests, but not a suppressed giggle and she has fairly crude thoughts, full of ridicule and bitterness: A child? I haven’t had my period for years. And will I still be able to enjoy lovemaking while I’m old and my husband too?
How many people, like Sara, have become bitter because of the hard blows in life? People who go through life sceptically and cynically. People who, because of the disappointments, can’t do anything else but mock God’s promises. People with a big, rough mouth, but a small and sad heart. People who no longer can believe in miracles. And say: God is love? Is mighty? God helps and saves? Don’t make me laugh! I only can laugh about it. They are fairytales. After all, everything goes according to the harsh, capricious laws of nature and the order of injustice and rottenness among people, and nothing can break those orders. We may be annoyed by such rude mockery. It cannot be approved. But it’s lifelike. And it's liberating that there's room for it in God’s Word, which hides nothing of what can go through a human heart: “So Sarah laughed to herself.” Well, are we sometimes also close to it? If everything goes wrong? If we get one blow after another? If we have to bear a cross that’s not taken away from us? If we are deeply disappointed in people and also in God? Then it’s not easy to continue believing in God’s Word. Then the gospel also sounds too good for us to be true. Then maybe we also laugh bitterly: impossible. Believing that God can do miracles, contrary to the laws of nature, we have unlearned it. The hard life has sobered us up. Sarah adhered to the iron laws of nature. She did not believe that she, who had long ceased to have her monthly period, could have a child. So we only start from the scientifically logical and explainable. And we exclude supernaturally divine intervention. We measure the almighty God by our little possibilities and many impossibilities. Understandable from our point of view but still incomprehensible from God’s side. He says: ”Who made the heavens and the earth? Who measured the waters in his hollow hand? See, nations are like a drop hanging from a bucket and small dust in the scales. The inhabitants of the earth are like locusts.” (Is. 40) Thus: I am immense, incomparable, inscrutable, why don’t you dare to expect miracles from me, why do you dare to attribute so little to me? Why is mocking the answer when I promise great events? It, therefore, sounds reproachful: why did Sara laugh? Yes, the Lord must be very grieved from our lack of faith. Why do you always think too small of me? You, creatures, are bound by all kinds of nature’s laws, but why should I, the Creator Himself, be bound by them? You rule out everything with your little human logic, but would anything be too wonderful for Me?
Let’s have great ideas about the Lord. When He wants to, and when it comes to fulfilling His promises and His plan of salvation, He breaks through all human impossibilities. Yes, He prefers to build His Kingdom on human impotence. To clarify that nothing is from us and everything is from Him and has the full credit of it Himself. Contrary to Sarah’s barrenness, God still gives the miracle of a child, a child who will carry on His promises throughout history: Isaac. “For”, Sarah said, naming her child, “God has made me laugh. And anyone who hears it will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6) I laughed in disbelief, but now I laugh with joy because the Lord has made His word true.
And centuries later, a new miraculous birth occurs in the posterity of Abraham and Isaac. Then the Lord shows again and definitively that He fulfils His promises of salvation and forgiveness, contrary to all human impotence. The birth of the Lord Jesus, the promised Savior. “But”, said Mary to the angel, “how can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1:34) And again, it sounded: not a word that comes from God will be of no effect.” (verse 37) Or: nothing will be impossible with God. In the soil of our futility, impotence, and impossibility, the Lord builds the sure building of His mercies. Yes, Jesus Christ is the true proof that God’s plan of salvation pierces through everything, through human unbelief, human ridicule and scorn, human sins, even man’s death. Look to Him, the living proof that nothing is impossible with the Lord. The guarantee that God’s Kingdom of perfect happiness will come. Cling to Him. Follow the way after Him. And you will see great things. Things that you right now might be laughing about cynically: impossible.
Not our will is always happening, but Gods will. The Lord does more than we can, does more than we can believe, and will one day embarrass the mockers and laughers. Let that give you support and comfort in the worries and needs of life. Let that teach you to look over all dark walls. “There are no limits to God’s and Jesus’ power for anyone who expects miracles from Him. Is a heart here troubled by fear, weary of life’s struggle? Oh, regain courage, for God is good and always ready to help. If only you can believe, you will see His glory.” (Dutch hymn)
Someone is standing still at the door of our life’s tent. Modestly. A stranger. He seems to need our hospitality and help. He seems weak and powerless. But make no mistake. It’s the Lord for whom nothing is too difficult. Open for Him. Let Him in. And the laugh of mockery will give way to the laugh of bliss. Isaac. God made me laugh. Laugh at His deeds, great and good, that He does triumphantly. Amen.