Genesis 18 St Paul's sermon
This morning we will be focussing on our passage from Genesis, so do turn to Genesis 18. We will be seeking to know how God calls us to entertain strangers by looking at the example Abraham gives us in this story. We will see how Abraham welcomed the visitors – eagerly, extravagantly and from his experience. Then we will see how this account of God meeting with Abraham can apply to us today. Finally we will look at the lessons we can learn from Abraham as we seek to entertain strangers and draw them in to know God and be part of his family, the church.
Firstly, then, Abraham's welcome was eager, extravagant and based on his experience.
Abraham was eager to meet with God. Did you see how he ran to meet the visitors, then went quickly to Sarah, told her to quickly prepare a meal, then ran to the herd to get a calf to eat, which his servant prepared quickly? He wasted no time and fulfilled his promise to the visitors as soon as he was able. Now Abraham had met with God many times before. God had appeared to him in chapter 12 for the first time, then again in chapter 13, and again in chapters 16 and 17. So Abraham was in one sense used to meeting God, and yet his familiarity with God did not reduce his eagerness to meet with him again here. And this was despite the fact that the visitors turned up in the heat of the day! If there was any excuse necessary, surely this was it – the hottest part of the day, the time to rest and recover. And yet Abraham did not use that as an excuse. He could also have claimed his age was a problem – after all, he was ninety-nine years old. Surely he could have called one of his servants and told them to do all the planning. But he takes charge himself. He was eager to welcome and entertain these visitors.
His offering to them was also extravagant. While he said he would find them simply a little water for their feet and a morsel of bread to eat, the actual provision he made far exceeded this. He killed one of the finest calves, asked Sarah to make a huge batch of bread, and even provided the luxuries of milk to them. He went far beyond the normal expectations of hospitality to ensure his visitors were welcomed.
And thirdly, his entertainment of these three sprang from his experience. Abraham had been a traveller since God had first called him. For years, he had lived in a tent and moved around from place to place. He knew what it was like to travel through that land and so when these three visitors turned up, he knew exactly what they needed. He was able to sympathise with their needs and was also ready to supply those needs. He provided for them as he would want to be provided for.
But we might ask how such a story can apply to us. How can such a remarkable account of God appearing and eating with Abraham be replicated in any way with us? There are two accounts in the New Testament of how this is possible.
The first comes in Revelation 3:20. Jesus is talking to the church in Laodicea, calling on them to return to him because they are drifting from him. And, in some well-known words, he says “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice I will come in and eat with them and they with me.” Jesus himself promises he will eat with believers who allow him to. He is speaking not to people who have never known him, but to a church who once loved him but have fallen away from that love. And the promise of his presence, as God was present to Abraham, eating with him, is given to that church. It is given also to us. We may know the presence of God as if he were sitting and eating with us.
The second comes in Matthew's Gospel, in chapter 25. Jesus, talking to his disciples, says that anyone offering a cup of cold water to another disciple, or visiting them when they are sick, or clothing them when they are naked, or feeding them when they are hungry, or welcoming them when they are a stranger, is doing that act for Jesus himself. It may be done unawares – the disciple will say “When did I feed you, or clothe you...” - but it is done for God. And so not only are we able to know the presence of God as if he were eating with us, but we can also provide hospitality for God as we do so for others.
So then, what lessons does the account of God's visit to Abraham hold for us today, as we seek to welcome people?
Firstly, we see the absolute priority of seeking God's presence. We noted how Abraham was eager for God to stay with him. He had seen him many times, had received astonishing promises, had seen miraculous provision, but none of this had dimmed his desire to be with God. If we are to see people coming in to the church, we must first be people who above all else desire the presence of God. We could be the most welcoming church on earth, with the most options to offer people, but if God is not with us, all our work will be futile.
We see this again and again in Scripture. Here we see it with Abraham. We see Moses in the wilderness pleading with God to go with the sinful people of Israel. While God had assured them of entry to the Promised Land, Moses knew that even this would be pointless without them presence of God. We see it again in the New Testament, in John chapter 6, after Jesus had fed the five thousand. Some of his disciples had left, because of his hard teaching, but when he asks if the others will leave, Simon says “To whom will we go? You have the words of eternal life.” He knew that without the presence of Jesus, there was no point in anything. We saw it in the words Jesus spoke in Revelation. It is the presence of God which marks out the church from the world. Are we eager like Abraham for the presence of God? Do we make a point of seeking God's face in prayer? If we are to welcome people to church, we must place God at the top of the list.
And we see that God's presence transformed Abraham and Sarah's situation. While God had promised a son to them before, they were still waiting for the fulfilment of that promise. And here, God made his word specific – the son would come within the year. It is the presence and action of God which is required to transform our situations. Abraham may have been looking fondly back to his youth, thinking that God could have done so much more with him had he acted sooner. We know that he and Sarah had tried to provide their own solution, by having a child through Sarah's servant, Hagar. But God was planning to work and to do so in his way.
Do we look back, wishing God might have done something sooner? Do we try to provide our own solutions to the problems we face? What is needed is for us to turn to God, to urge him to come and stay with us. We need the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives more than anything else. Are we eager for this presence of God?
Note also that this was simply part of Abraham's daily life. He was not in the process of building an altar, or praying, or worshipping. He was sitting at his tent door, as he doubtless always did in the heat of the day. He was not doing anything particularly holy or special. But he knew God when he saw him. We must be seeking the presence of God at all times, not just for church on a Sunday. “Whether you eat or drink, do it all to the glory of God”. In our daily life, are we seeking God's presence with us, in us? Would we recognise God's presence when he came to us? It is this, above everything else, which we need, which the church needs.
When, and only when, we have this presence of God, can our hospitality and welcome mirror Abraham's. And how can it be like his? Well, it too should come from experience, and as a result be extravagant and eager.
Firstly, then, our welcome should spring from our experience, particularly our experience of God's grace. If we are Christians, we are the recipients of God's gracious welcome. The promise of a son which God made here to Abraham has been ultimately and perfectly fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the true son of Abraham in whom all people are blessed. He is the one who enables all people to come to know God. We have received far more than Abraham, for we have received the ultimate promised Son. And in him, as Paul writes to the Ephesians, we have received “every spiritual blessing”. And since we have received such good things from God freely, we are able to freely pass them on to others.
Our experience of God's grace also comes as he responds to our needs, to our deficiencies. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And since we, as sinners, were welcomed into God's family, we are able to welcome other sinners into the church to experience that same grace of God. No one perfect will ever come through our doors, and we are in a great position to make them feel welcome, because we should all know what it is to be imperfect!
Secondly, and finally, our experience of the grace of God allows our hospitality and welcome to be extravagant and eager. We can give to people far more than they deserve, because God has given to us far more than we deserve. And we can do this, not because of our strength, but because we work in God's strength. Again, Paul wrote to the Ephesians that God can do “more than you can ask or imagine”. If our welcome is done in the power of God, we can do far more for people than we or they can imagine. They may come into church seeking company; we can offer an enduring relationship with God. They may come seeking comfort; we can offer them the true Comforter, the Holy Spirit. We do not have to be measured in our entertaining, because God can give us far more than we ever give out.
And we can be eager, because we are compelled by the love of Christ. We work not from fear of what God will do if we fail to entertain people, but in confidence, knowing that God is pleased as we do so. What is more, in entertaining people, we are not simply making them feel happy or good, but we are helping in the process of bringing them from death to life. Welcoming people into the church is part of the work of bringing them to know Jesus Christ.
So let us press on to know God. This is something that all Christians can and should be eager to do, of whatever age or stage in their faith. Paul, towards the end of his life, said that he wanted to “gain Christ... that I may know him and the power of his resurrection”. Even after a lifetime dedicated to God's work, Paul's pressing desire was to know Christ and his power at work in his life. Let us be like Abraham, like Moses, like Paul, like the disciples, eager for the presence of God in our daily life. And as God draws near to us, let us be ready and eager to bring others to know God too, welcoming them and entertaining them, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” REV 3:20