The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds 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 your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
So, this week we’re in the first part of Genesis 18. One of the rabbis who wrote the Midrash (this ancient commentary on the Bible), made a comment on the first line in our passage that says Abraham was sitting in his tent in the heat of the day.
To find some spiritual significance to why the Bible would include “the heat of the day,” Rabbi Jannai said, “[God] made a hole in Gehenna [hell], making the whole world intolerably hot to its inhabitants for a short while” so that when the righteous are in pain, and the rest of the world is at ease, we shall know that heat is beneficial to a wound for the righteous (Genesis Rabbah XLVIII. 8-9, pg. 410).
So, after this week it is clear those who live in Houston are righteous.
But this story is odd, isn’t it? There are three visitors that come out of nowhere—are they angels, is God one of them, is this the Trinity? Whoever they are, the text at the very least says that “the Lord appeared to Abraham.” Though it seems that he is unaware of their true identity, he waits on them hand and foot as if they are God.
But this is a good opportunity to learn the rules of hospitality in ancient Near Eastern culture. You see, it would have been more shocking if Abraham didn’t cater to these visitors.
When someone came your way, whether you knew them or not, it was your obligation to care for them. They need not even ask for your help—it would’ve been an instant gut reaction of a host to tend to the needs of travelers walking through.
Things have changed a little bit since then, haven’t they?
But what this passage shows us is that Abraham is not just doing the bare minimum for his guests, he is going over the top. He tells them, “I’ll get you something to eat—I’ll see to it myself.” And then in a frenzy, it says multiple times that he hurried from one place to the next, even running to the fields to pick out the best from the herd.
You may not realize just how big of a deal that was. Grown men didn’t run. Great patriarchs who wanted to be respected by family, friends, and servants didn’t run.
I mean this story has echoes of the Prodigal Son, doesn’t it? The father runs to greet the son; he has the fatted calf killed to celebrate his arrival.
In the same manner, Abraham is throwing caution to the wind to be a great host. A lamb would’ve been great—no one would’ve batted an eye—but he orders steak for them. There’s even enough bread to feed a small village, and curds and milk on demand.
He is the head waiter and the owner of this establishment; he doesn’t leave it to his servants to attend to the guests; rather, he stands off to the side as they eat, making sure they have everything they need while not imposing his presence on them.
Not only does Abraham want them to be well-fed and refreshed, but he also wants them to feel safe and protected while under his care. He doesn’t know where they’ve come from or where they are going, but the roads could be dangerous out there. Bandits could be around any corner.
They needed a moment to rest their minds from the worries of the road, and so, Abraham ensures their safety while resting under the shade of the trees.
This says a lot about Abraham. Because he doesn’t know he is entertaining the presence of the divine we can assume that he would’ve done this for anyone walking past his tent. Abraham is a good man and a great host.
The blessing and curse of the lectionary is that we jump into a story with little to no context. The book of Genesis covers a lot in its 50 chapters; creation all the way to Jacob’s family moving to Egypt. But a good bit of the story revolves around Abraham and Sarah—and the question that continues to come up in this long section is if Abraham and his family will trust God.
It is this one God, in the midst of a polytheistic world, who called Abraham to leave his homeland and go to a land that would be given to him; oh, and his family would also become a great nation.
Time and again God reiterates this promise: the stars in the sky, and the sand on the shore will be like Abraham’s descendants. And more times than not, Abraham struggles to trust this divine promise.
He’ll throw Sarah under the bus to save his skin. "She’s my sister,” he’ll say. He’ll question God about how he can ever be the father of a great nation when he’s never fathered one child! And then out of impatience, he has a child with Sarah’s servant, only for God to tell him this is not the promised child.
And each time this happens, the question reappears: Is God faithful to his promises?
In almost every action that Abraham does, he is saying that he doesn’t trust God to make good on his word. At every opportunity that Abraham can interfere, he does.
And caught up in this story is Sarah. This woman has longed to be a mother and never received that joy. Many around her would’ve said she was cursed; that she had done something to deserve such a fate. But the years passed on, she was now 90, and the pain and hurt that used to make her toss and turn in bed had turned into begrudging acceptance. It was not meant to be.
And so, she cannot help but roll her eyes and laugh at the mention of her becoming a mother from these strange visitors. Setting aside that they somehow know her name, it’s again the divine promise that seems so laughable, so unbelievable given their situation.
And yet, she is the first of many women in the Bible whom God transforms their hopeless (and seemingly limited circumstances) by his limitless abundance.
My mind instantly goes to Hannah who for years longed to have a child and told God that she would dedicate her firstborn to him, and God listened to her cries, and she bore Samuel, the great prophet of Israel.
There’s Elizabeth, also past childbearing age, and when her husband is told by an angel that they will conceive, he is struck speechless until his son, John the Baptizer is born. Wise, old Elizabeth shares this first-time pregnancy experience with her much younger cousin Mary who was also told by an angel that she would conceive miraculously.
In these stories, infertility plays a big part but is not the whole point—though it is a commonality for Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth. The reason being, infertility is not just something people may be ashamed of, but that it is an awfully lonely journey; one that can make you feel like God has abandoned you or doesn’t love you. It is deeply personal for individuals and couples, and you can go to a dark place and it can be hard to get out of it.
And so, whether you can have children or not, that hopeless and lonely feeling is the link that connects these women with each of us; their family with our family.
The circumstances may be vastly different, but we have all asked at one point or another, from deep in our soul, in a moment of desperation: Is God faithful to his promise, and can he be trusted?
An image came to my mind this week thinking about all this. There is an icon that depicts this scene from Genesis 18. It was done by Andrei Rublev early in the 15th century and it has two names: The Hospitality of Abraham or The Trinity.
In the background you’ll notice three things: there is a house (clearly Rublev forgot that Abraham lived in a tent), there is a tree (the ones referred to in our passage), and there is Mt. Moriah faintly on the right, which comes up a few chapters later.
But more than that, notice the way the Trinity is sitting. There is an opening at the table, and it appears as if we are being invited not only into the icon but to a seat at the table. It really is an invitation to sit and feast with them.
Our reading says that Abraham stood near his divine guests under the tree, but he wouldn’t sit with them—being so focused on “playing the host” he has more in common with Lazarus’ busy sister Martha than Mary who sat at the Lord’s feet.
Sarah, well, she’s still in the tent. Even after hearing this great annunciation, her dreams coming true, she keeps her distance.
And so, this icon begs the question: who will sit with these divine guests? Who will set aside their business or fear and take a seat with the One that gives the promise?
There is one final piece to this puzzle.
Do you remember how the second half of Psalm 23 goes? “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”…yes but further down.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
Whose table are we sitting at in this psalm? It is no longer Abraham’s but the Lord’s. If Genesis 18 shows how great of a host Father Abraham was, Psalm 23 tells us there is an even greater host, the One True Host, you might say.
Like Abraham, the Lord will spare no expense; water from the purest spring, fragrant oil, and cups that cannot contain the abundant goodness given them. And like Abraham, he ensures that his guests are protected and safe. While in the presence of this host, they will fear no evil—and wherever their journey takes them, he will be right there, rod and staff in hand.
The answer we are given in Psalm 23 is that God is faithful and he, above anyone else, is to be trusted.
Whatever you have gone through in the past, or whatever you are going through now, will you lay aside whatever is holding you back from taking your seat at the table? Will you trust that the Lord is good?
Abraham, Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary all came to the conclusion: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
Genesis 18:1-15. Proper 6. Year A.