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"Entertaining Angels"

June 6, 2021 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis

Passage: Genesis 18:1–18:15

Entertaining Angels

Genesis 18:1-15

June 6, 2021

 

Read Genesis 18:1-15

This is the Word of the LORD.

Prayer of Invocation

 

In isolation, this is an odd chapter.  In context, it makes much more sense.

As you may recall, we have been on an adventure with Abram/Abraham for a couple of months now; specifically, since Chapter 12.  In that time we have seen:

  • Abraham left his home and homeland at the direction of the LORD for a land God would show him (Chapter 12);
  • He left that land for Egypt when there was a severe famine, leading to the episode where Abraham told the Egyptians his wife Sarah was his sister (also Chapter 12);
  • Abraham returned from Egypt to the land God had shown him, separated from his nephew, Lot (the consequence of Lot’s choice we will begin considering next week) (Chapter 13);
  • The LORD appeared to Abraham after Lot left, repeating the promise of the land and offspring (Chapter 13);
  • Abraham went to Lot’s rescue when he was taken captive, and during the return Abraham was blessed in the name of God Most High by King Melchizedek, King of Salem (Chapter 14);
  • The LORD again repeated the promise of offspring, which Abraham believed (and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness); and then the LORD made a covenant with Abraham for land and offspring (Chapter 15);
  • After 10 years in the land, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, got impatient with the lack of promise fulfillment and gave her maid, Hagar, to Abraham to be a surrogate mother for offspring. Hagar conceived, there was strife between the women, and Hagar ran away.  An angel of the LORD met her and sent Hagar back.  Abraham was 86 years old at the time Hagar’s son, Ishmael, was born (Chapter 16).
  • Abraham was 99 years old when the LORD appeared to him again, declaring the promises of the covenant – offspring and land – and the LORD instructed Abraham to execute the sign of the covenant – circumcision. When the LORD said that Sarah would be the mother of the child through whom the covenant would be realized, Abraham chuckled and asked if a 90-year-old woman could bear a child?  Nonetheless, the LORD insisted that Sarah would be the mother (Chapter 17).

And that brings us to Chapter 18 today.  Here we have the LORD announcing the specific timing of the fulfillment of the promises made.  That’s the new information provided in our story today.  It is a continuation of the trajectory begun years and years before.

There are two parts of our verses today: the beginning of the encounter between the LORD and Abraham; and the announcement which causes Sarah to laugh.

Abraham’s hospitality

For now, let me just sum up the first eight verses of our text by noting how they demonstrate Abraham’s hospitality.  Though it is a bit awkward in the first two verses, it is clear that Abraham recognized the presence of the LORD and hustled to be hospitable.  Look at the verbs used: he saw, he ran to meet them, he bowed down to the ground.  Then, after speaking with them, he hastened into the tent to Sarah to instruct her about food.  Though he had promised only “a little bread,” he had in mind a lavish banquet.  He ran to the herd.  He took a calf.  He gave it to the servant, who (the verb again) hastened to prepare it.  He took the food that had been prepared.  He set it before the visitors.  He stood by them under a tree while they ate.

In a very Hemingway-esque narrative fashion, Abraham was hustling to make things nice for his visitors.  This will all become an important comparison in weeks to come as these same visitors encounter a very different kind of reception when they go to Lot’s place.

For now, however, it is sufficient to note how Abraham treated the LORD.  Because of the relationship they had developed over the years, Abraham was ready and waiting when the LORD appeared.  He was in the land the LORD had shown him.  He had received and believed the promises, and righteousness was reckoned to him (although it projects too much to suggest he knew what that meant).  He was living in expectation of God’s delivering on his promises.  So, when God showed up, Abraham was ready.  He treated God like God should be treated.

Are you ready for God to show up?  Are you looking and waiting?  What do you expect?  What would you expect?

Most of us gladly pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”  We long for that day when the Kingdom of God is fully revealed and all is made right.  We think about being there, then (after we die), and not so much about being aware here and now. After all, it has been a while since we have had an epiphany – or has it?

One of the exercises I have our session do first thing each meeting is to share what we have seen God doing in and through the mission and ministry of First Presbyterian Church in the last 30 days.  Some months there is more, some months there is less, but there is never nothing.  Sometimes it is overt, like profession of faith baptisms. Sometimes it is more subtle, like the special moments in fellowship that people report. The reason to do this exercise is to train ourselves like Abraham to be ready to respond when God shows up.

Sometimes it is realized only much later, when we see how something barely noticed yields fruit in a remarkable way – this month, I am going to talk about the greeting and appreciation I received from the Community Band for our allowing them to use the Family Life Center to help them prepare for their concert this afternoon.  This was one of those “opening the gospel to Carson City and beyond” things: we saw the opportunity to be a blessing simply by opening our doors.  Their gratitude on Thursday night was just overwhelming: they passed a hat and collected more than $500.  There were big smiles all over the room as the director made the presentation of the envelope to me.  More than the money – which was a blessing but more so a tangible manifestation of gratitude – multiple people – more than a dozen, I would say – specifically sought me out to tell me how much they appreciated the church’s hospitality.  They thanked me because I was there – but the truth is, they thanked all of you.

In the New Testament reading from Hebrews, the preacher there exhorted the congregation, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  From the NOTS Warming Shelter to the Community Band to a Journeys of Hope bicycle group coming later this summer, we have been able to show hospitality to strangers in such a way as to be ambassadors for Christ.  I don’t know if any of the folks we hosted are – or will be – angels, but it does seem to me to be a good way to fulfill the heart that Jesus described, “Whenever you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.”

How do we look with expectation to God to show up?  A lot of it has to do with our understanding of who we are: is this my life or have I been sent here by God to be an ambassador for Christ to this community?  If we are disciples of Jesus and stewards of the blessings we have received, we can be excited about the future and the adventures God has in store.  Like Paul writing to the Philippians, we can “forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

In fellowship, in mission, in study, in service, in our participation in this community, there are overflowing chances to see the hand of God moving.  We should expect it.  We need to look to see it.  And we can prepare to respond when opportunities show up.  Who knows?  We may even entertain angels unaware.

Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

As we move into the next part of our narrative, there are a couple of details that would be helpful to identify in order to understand what is happening.

First, the visitors asked Abraham, “Where is your wife, Sarah?”  It is an odd question.  If they really were strangers, how would they have known Abraham’s wife’s name?  If, as the text seems to indicate, Abraham recognized them as divine beings, then they would not have needed to ask.  Thus, it does seem that this was more of a conversation starter than a question seeking information – it introduced the subject the visitors wanted to engage with Abraham.

Second, their question raised the issue about why it was Abraham and not Sarah who was waiting upon them.  We ordinarily do not give this much thought; however, it may be a clue or hint emphasizing what would be coming next: one of the most common reasons for a woman to be confined to her house or tent was when she was menstruating.[1] Because we have been along the ride with Abraham and Sarah for six chapters now, amounting to almost twenty-five years, we know that would be absurd.  Sarah was almost 90 years old – well beyond menopause.  In fact, the narrator specifically stated that “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” So, then, what was going on?

Attempting to put the pieces together, one commenter posed the following scenario:

Is it possible, however, that that statement (about “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women”) in verse 11 is intended to state a contrast?  That is, that Sarah is reluctant to interpret her symptoms as normal menstruation because her periods have ceased, leaving her without hope for having children?

The timing must be precise here.  In verse 6 Abraham asked Sarah to bake some bread, an activity often forbidden to menstruating women in Abraham’s time, so at that point her period has not begun.  Yet she would not be confined to her tent unless she actually had her period. If this is the issue, then, she presumably experienced the onset of her period as dinner is being served.  It would have constituted a remarkable sign of the resumption of her fertility.[2]

It may be too much to read into the story that level of detail; however, it would be consistent with the rest of the conversation that followed.  It also would explain why Sarah was a bit out of sorts; a bit bemused by the absurdity of what was happening and what was being discussed; and a bit flustered.

To drive the point home, the author reported, “She laughed to herself saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”  That would be crazy.  It was impossible.  Old women do not get pregnant and have children.  That is not how things work.  It just does not happen.

And here is where the LORD steps in and makes the point that was the reason for the conversation in the first place, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’  Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”  That is really the question and that is the issue: is anything – anything at all – too wonderful for the LORD?  Is anything impossible for God?  In other words, the LORD was affirming that, yes, with humans, it was impossible for Sarah. But was it impossible for God?  No.  In fact, “At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”  Again, just as he had said at the beginning of the conversation, the LORD now re-affirmed the timing of the realization of the long-awaited promise of an heir by Sarah.

The episode concludes with this back and forth in which Sarah lied and said she did not laugh, and the LORD responded, “Oh, yes, you did laugh.”  What we miss in English is the play on words that was taking place here.

Whatever the thinking, her denial allowed her to pronounce, albeit in jumbled form, the name of her future son (ṣāḥaqté̂ “I laughed”; yis/āq “Isaac”).  In this way, Sarah unwittingly confirms the divine promise and provides a simple reiteration.  “Not so, you did laugh” (ṣāḥaqt) clinches the discussion.  There is no room for doubt.  Sarah will have a son, and he will be called Isaac.[3]

 

The LORD’s response was as much a confirmation of Isaac’s name as it was a rebuke for Sarah’s attempt to lie.  The point is that the LORD was providing specific timing and a specific name for something that was impossible with humans.

Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

Last week I asked the question, “How big is your God?”  I return to that today because we see here the declaration by the LORD that there will be nothing standing in the way of accomplishing his will. In God’s timing, God had deliberately waited until human possibilities have run out in order to demonstrate his power.  Surely Sarah had been praying for years for a child – until she gave up – and now God was doing the impossible.

The important thing to note here is that God was accomplishing things God had promised; not that Abraham or Sarah had demanded.  Yes, I am confident that Abraham and Sarah had prayed for a child.  Yes, I am confident that God hears our prayers.  But the reality is that God was accomplishing the very thing he had declared to Abraham way back years ago.

What are the things for which we pray?  What has God promised that we are waiting to see fulfilled?  What are the big ones for which we keep waiting – and waiting and waiting and waiting – for God to deliver?  If we are honest, the big one usually deals with life; or, more directly, with death.  We pray for ourselves and our loved one’s life.  Keep death away.  Keep it down the road.  Whether it is our parents getting older, or someone close to us who is ill, or someone for whom we feel responsibility struggling, we pray, “God, keep them alive.”

We can be crushed by the death of others we experience.  We cannot avoid it.  Nothing – not science, not our deepest efforts or desires, not money or privilege or human power or created thing – nothing we do humanly can avoid death.

We see death and pray, “God, why don’t you do something about it?”

Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

What is impossible for humans is the very thing God has done.  The promise of a redeemer was fulfilled in Jesus.  The promise of a savior was fulfilled in Jesus.  We have a pioneer and perfecter of our salvation.  We have one who – by the comfort of his rod and his staff – guides us through the valley of the shadow of death so that we need not fear evil.  We have one who has defeated death – death could not hold him – and who gives us the victory.  We are more than conquerors – now – because “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Why doesn’t God do something about death?  He has.  In Jesus Christ, God has defeated death and given us the victory.

Communion

Friends, our faith is not simply about things that happened way back when.  We look back and remember because there are lasting consequences to the events that took place.  Our faith also includes the reality that we stand in the same place they did: children of God sent to bear witness to hope in a broken world.  Our faith looks forward in expectation to the fulfillment of the promises God has made over and over. We have good news.  We have good news to share.

We see all those promises in the table around which we gather.  It was in this table that Jesus reminded the disciples of the promises God had made, to show them what he was going to do, and to seal the promises of what will be.  We gather around this table to remember, be strengthened, and to live into hope.

Who knows?  We may even be entertaining angels here this morning.  Really, is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Amen.

Questions:

Do you expect to see God’s hand at work in your day-to-day? Have you seen God move?  Where would you like to see God move?

  1. How would you treat or receive God if He showed up at your door? If you knew God was coming, what would you do to prepare?
  2. What has God promised that you are waiting to see? How are you doing in the waiting?

[1] Jhn Walton, NIVAC Old Testament Commentary, Genesis, p. 452.

[2] Ibid, p. 453.

[3] Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, Genesis, vol. 2, p. 49