When Father Ben invited me to preach today, I was glad to see that Genesis 18 was among the assigned readings for Morning Prayer. It is not only a very interesting and engaging chapter; it contains a great deal of mystery. And who doesn’t enjoy mystery?
And in the midst of its narrative is profound teaching concerning God and man. It contains themes that are vital to the rest of scripture and that are vital to us if we are to understand ourselves and to begin to comprehend God and his dealings with men and women. It is such a rich chapter we can only begin to dig into its treasure in one sermon; so let’s get with it.
The mystery begins in the first two verses:
…The LORD appeared to him (Abraham) by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him.
So God appears to Abraham, but not in a burning bush or in a storm but apparently as three men, as three travelers. And the passage does not really explain that. There are different interpretations but we will return to this mystery later.
Abraham’s response to the three sojourners is immediate and very hospitable, even though it was the heat of the day when a nap in the shade might have been his plan. He hastens to prepare a meal for the three. It is not clear whether he yet realized that it was God that was passing through, although he clearly does realize that later in the chapter. But his urgency indicates that he knew these three were not ordinary travelers.
And did you notice how much the passage dwells on the hospitality and preparations of Abraham, of Sarah, and of their servants? Hospitality is a virtue given much weight in scripture. In the New Testament, Hebrews 13:2 exhorts us, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
In Abraham’s case, he was not only being hospitable to angels, but to God Himself!
Then the three ask, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And God again foretells that Sarah will bear Abraham a son. Now God had told Abraham this before, but not in Sarah’s hearing. This was back in Genesis 15. Abraham’s response then was to exercise faith and to believe God as it says in that famous verse, quoted repeatedly in the New Testament: “he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Now, this time the Lord has Sarah also hear the promise of a son.
Sarah’s response is not quite the example of faith that Abraham’s was. She takes at look at herself and at Abraham and at their old age . . . and she laughs. And it is safe to say this is not the laughter of joy but of skepticism. Her laugh is the ancient equivalent of “Yeah. Right.”
The Lord’s response is gentle but firm. He asks, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” And he again repeats the promise of the son.
In fear Sarah, well, lies and says, “I wasn’t laughing.” God again is gentle, but firm. “No, but you did laugh.”
There is much to learn from this exchange. First, indeed there is nothing too hard for the Lord. Nothing is impossible with God. And we err if, like Sarah, we look to our circumstances more than we look to God, if we have more trust in our interpretation of circumstances than in God using circumstances and even overcoming them. From our second reading in Romans 4, we see that Abraham knew as well as Sarah that they were old, well past the normal age to have children. But he trusted in God’s promise of a son anyway. He trusted God to overcome the circumstances of old age.
In short, we need to be like Abraham and remember that God is God. And he can and will do whatever he wants whenever he wants.
Second, God is faithful. And his faithfulness does not depend on our faithfulness – thank God! As St. Paul quoted an ancient creed in 2 Timothy 2:13: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful.” God is faithful and will fulfill his good purposes.
And that brings us to our third point – God is gracious. Note that the Lord’s response to Sarah’s skepticism was not, “Okay, no kid for you!” God gave a son to Abraham and Sarah anyway.
Now, we certainly should not presume on the grace of God. We should not think that we can do whatever we want or think whatever we want without consequence. But thank God that, although faith is necessary to receive the full blessings of God, he is patient with us, and understands our weakness, including the weakness we often have in our faith. God is good to us even when our trust in the goodness of God is far from perfect.
And let’s not be too hard on Sarah. God is good far beyond what we can even imagine. As today’s collect says, he “hast prepared for those who love [Him] such good things as pass man’s understanding.” His great goodness certainly tests and stretches our faith. Even as we believe in God, it is sometimes hard to believe just how good he really is.
A fourth point is a bit obvious, but it needs to be said. God is omniscient; he is all knowing. So don’t even think about trying to sneak something past him or to hide something from him. Sarah tried that and got embarrassed.
If and when we sin, we should be honest to God and confess our sins to him.
Speaking of sin, when it is time for the three men to set out from Abraham’s tent, God lets Abraham know that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah cries out for judgement.
But as Abraham sees them off, he does not say, “Yes, git ‘em, Lord.” (That’s what I probably would have done.) No, he instead boldly intercedes for Sodom and that even though he now clearly knows it is God he is talking to. And Abraham is very persuasive, asking:
Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?
And the Lord answered that he would spare Sodom if he found fifty righteous. But Abraham is concerned about the innocent and about his nephew Lot who was a righteous man, but was also foolish enough to move to Sodom. And he is not very confident about fifty righteous people being in Sodom. (That reminds me of certain U. S. cities, but I digress.) So he keeps interceding:
Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.”
He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.
Abraham was rather persistent, was he not? Is not his persistence combined with reverence an example to us as we pray?
More importantly, we again see the grace of God here. If there were only ten righteous people in the city of Sodom, God would have spared it.
But I will not try to hold you in suspense. We know from the next chapter that God did destroy Sodom after rescuing Lot and some of his family and getting Lot out of there. There were not even ten righteous people in Sodom.
Is this not a picture of how sinful mankind is? Psalm 14 goes even farther: There is no-one righteous, not even one. We have all sinned; we all need Christ’s forgiveness.
Since we have been studying the Book of Revelation, I will also note that this is a sneak preview of the end times and of the Apocalypse. Mankind will go from bad to worse and isgoing from bad to worse in case you haven’t noticed. More and more the sin of man cries out for judgement. God remains patient, but his righteous judgement will come and that suddenly.
Is it warm in here?
On a happier note, I have saved the best for last. Let’s go back to the beginning of chapter 18:
And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him.
We should be careful in interpreting this passage. There is a lot of mystery here, and we should not presume to be able to solve the mystery. But isn’t it interesting how the Lord chooses to visit Abraham in this instance and how the scripture puts it: “the Lord appeared to Abraham . . . behold, three men were standing in front of him.”
Now I do not think that what he have here is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Nor have I come across a reputable interpretation that sees the passage this way. One interpretation John Calvin proposed is that we have here a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ accompanied by two angels. That is the most likely interpretation I have come across. One reason it makes sense to me is that only two visit Sodom in the next chapter, which may imply that one of the three is of a higher status.
Now all this is interesting. But we should have the humility to let mystery be mystery and not be toosure of exactly who the three men are. What we can say with more confidence is that the Lord has provided here a marvelous picture of the Holy Trinity – “the Lord appeared to Abraham . . . behold, three men were standing in front of him.” God visits him. Three persons visit him. It is an early picture of the Trinity that is hard to miss!
Now some would have you believe that the Holy Trinity is some invention of the church. If you watch the History Channel or certain silly movies or read certain silly books and magazines, maybe the Illuminati and the Freemasons (We must include them!) conspired with Constantine and the Magisterium to invent the Trinity.
But, no, the Holy Trinity is who God is and how he has revealed himself. And that revelation began way back in Genesis. The revelation of God as the Holy Trinity does not become more clear until later in scripture, in the New Testament, but that revelation certainly begins in Genesis.
And in Genesis 18 and elsewhere in scripture, we see that God – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – is gracious, is faithful, is omniscient, that is he knows all, and he is omnipotent – nothing is too hard for him. We can trust in him.
Indeed let us follow the example of faithful Abraham who believed in and trusted the Lord. “And the Lord counted it to him as righteousness.”
Let us pray.
O God, who hast prepared for those who love thee such good things as pass man’s understanding; pour into our hearts such love toward thee, that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.