Text: Genesis 18:1-15
The story of Abraham is the story of a promise. Back in Genesis 12, the Lord had called him from his home in Ur with the promise that he would make of his descendents a great nation, and that all peoples on earth would blessed through him and his descendents.
There’s just one problem: Abraham has no descendents. He and his wife Sarah are both elderly, and she has been childless all her life. But in our passage this morning, the promise is repeated in Sarah’s hearing. Sarah is now brought into the embrace of God’s promise.
Welcome, then, to the Three Visitors.
It is early afternoon on a typically scorching day. Abraham is relaxing at the door of his tent, enjoying his siesta. Suddenly, in front of him appear three men. Following the custom of the day, Abraham welcomes them and offers them something to eat. They enquire about Sarah, Abraham’s wife. And one of the visitors says a most unexpected thing: “In about a year’s time, Sarah’s going to have a son.” Sarah, who overhears this, chuckles to herself in disbelief. But the visitor repeats his astounding prediction. “A year from now, you will bear a son.”
That’s the bare bones. As I have been laying and soaking in this passage recently, three things in particular have stood out for me.
1. Heaven Touches Earth
Who were these three visitors? I don’t think it was immediately obvious to Abraham. But I think it must have gradually dawned on him that these were no ordinary travellers.
Let’s do a bit of detective work. V2 – they seem to just appear. V9 – “Where is your wife Sarah?”. V13 – one of them asks, “Why did Sarah laugh?” (she laughed silently to herself, and they couldn’t see her face because they had their backs to her).
The identity of at least one of these visitors becomes clear in vv10, 13, 17, 20 – ‘Then the LORD said’.
And the first and last verse in the chapter make it quite plain that this whole episode is, in fact, an appearance of the Lord. V1 – ‘The LORD appeared to Abraham’; v33 – ‘When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left.’
Well, that accounts for one of the visitors. But there were three of them. Now, according to some of the early Church Fathers, and some Christian art, what we have here are the three members of the Trinity. But according to 19:1 the other two are angels.
So now we know who they were. It’s a pretty amazing trio of guests to turn up at your tent. We might be tempted to think of the whole thing as a myth or legend. But, in fact, this account is entirely consistent with the biblical world-view.
There is, according to the biblical world-view, a seen world of stars and planets, of land and sea, of plants and animals, of men and women. And there is a largely unseen world which is the dwelling-place of God and of countless angels. And these two worlds – the seen and the unseen, the natural and the spiritual, the earthly and the heavenly – interact with one another. Heaven touches earth.
If you doubt this, think of the Lord Jesus Christ. He who in the beginning was with God, and was God, became flesh, and dwelt among us as a man amongst men. When the Son of God was born in Bethlehem’s manger, heaven touched earth.
And then, throughout his earthly life, Jesus had an acute sense of the unseen world. Think, for example, of our reading from Mark 1 – ‘As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”’ And think of what followed immediately after that: a confrontation with Satan himself, with angels in attendance. Heaven touches earth.
Heaven touches earth for us , too. And I’m not just thinking of occasional miracles and periodic revivals.
Heaven touches earth whenever anyone becomes a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. To be ‘born again’, in the language of John 3, equally means, to be ‘born from above’, to be born of the Spirit. ‘Born,’ says John 1, ‘not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but of God.’
Heaven touches earth when a Christian prays. It was on the basis of Abraham’s conversations with the Lord in the second half of this very chapter that he became known as ‘the friend of God’. And prayer for us too can be the conversation of friends, in which we, earth-bound creatures that we are, can actually participate with our heavenly Father in the unfolding of his plans and purposes.
Heaven touches earth.
2. Hospitality Matters
Seems comparatively trivial.
But it’s certainly given considerable emphasis in our Bible passage. The writer goes out of his way to describe Abraham as the perfect host.
V2 – ‘When Abraham saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.’
V4 – ‘Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree.’
V5 – ‘Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way.’
And then Abraham and Sarah busy themselves getting a sumptuous meal ready for their guests: roast beef, with all the trimmings.
This generous hospitality was, of course, in accordance with the culture of the day. If strangers turned up at your tent, it was the done thing to offer them ample rest and refreshment.
But fast-forward 2,000 years to the time of Jesus. Think of the importance of table-fellowship for him. There were breakfasts, dinners, suppers. Picnics, wedding receptions, parties. For Jesus, the most natural place to meet people, to get to know them, to speak with them about the things of God, was around the meal table.
What about us? Is Abraham’s hospitality an example for us to follow? Well, according to Heb 13:2 it is precisely that: ‘Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.’
This is quite a challenge in our own day. Hospitality for us is so very commercialised, with our hotels, restaurants, pubs and cafes. At home, the kitchen and the dining table are more like pit-stops for quickly taking on fuel than places for refreshment and relaxation together. So I honour before God those member of our congregation who open their homes to new-comers, to students, to single people, to neighbours, and so on. And I recognise as offering a truly Christian ministry those who organise refreshments at the close of each service, and those who provide meals for various fellowship and outreach activities of this church. According to the New Testament, hospitality is a hugely important part of Christian ministry. Rom 12:13 says, ‘Share with God’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.’ 1 Pet 4:9 says, ‘Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.’ In fact, according to 1 Tim 3:2 and Tit 1:8 one of the requirements for leadership in the local church is precisely this: “given to hospitality”.
3. Hope often travels a bumpy path
We learned last week from Gen 16 that Abraham and Sarah had grown impatient with all this waiting for a son and heir. So they agree to force the issue by Abraham sleeping with Sarah’s maidservant Hagar. Thus was born Ishmael.
But this desperate expedient was not in accordance with God’s plan. What chapter 18 makes clear is that the promised heir is to be born to Sarah herself.
Sarah overhears what the Lord says to Abraham in v10: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” She’s been childless all her life. And now she’s an old woman. No wonder she chuckles to herself in disbelief. “Me? I should be putting my name down for the old people’s home, not the ante-natal class!” You can’t be serious.
But see how patient the Lord is with Sarah. He doesn’t say, “You laughed at what I said, and then you lied about it. You’re no good to me.” He simply repeats the promise, v14, asking “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
Friends, the incredulous reaction of Sarah was very human and very understandable. One of the biggest challenges facing the Christian is to keep on believing the promises of God in the face of doubts, delays, setbacks, disappointments, failures, and disasters both natural and man-made. If Abraham and Sarah found their hope travelling a bumpy path, then we are likely to as well.
And if Abraham and Sarah needed regular reminders, then so do we. That’s why the New Testament is so full of reminders. 2 Peter, for example, warns against false teachers who mock the promise of Christ’s return. So what does he do? He reminds them. 1:12 – ‘I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have.’ 3:1 – ‘Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders.’ 3:2 – ‘I want you to recall…’
Because hope often travels a bumpy path.
Here, then, are three rather striking things from this morning’s episode in the life of Abraham. Heaven touches earth. Hospitality matters. Hope often travels a bumpy path. It’s quite a mixed bag. And yet all three shed light on what we’re about to do this morning.
For heaven touches earth when we receive holy communion. The Lord’s Table is a real meeting place between Christ and his people. Our Saviour pledges to meet with us there in a special way.
Hospitality matters, and so it’s no accident that the central focus of the church’s worship and fellowship is this simple meal that we call the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion. A meal in which we are all warmly welcomed guests, with Jesus Christ himself the host who has spared no expense in providing for our needs.
Hope often travels a bumpy path, and that’s why we need these repeated gatherings, these regular celebrations of Holy Communion. We need them as reminders . We feed on the body and blood of Jesus Christ by faith with thanksgiving. And that same body and blood will keep us in eternal life. We do so until he comes, until faith is turned to sight, until the promise first given to Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, is finally consummated in the new heaven and the new earth.