Genesis 18: 1-15 When God Shows Up. Christ Church Highbury, October 2nd 2016
This was the second in a series of three sermons on Abraham, grounded in a book by Meg Warner. The book and the sermon series focuses on discerning God’s call in our lives. The reading for this sermon is the one that Meg uses in chapter three – the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah.
The reader of this passage is let into a secret that Abraham was unaware of: that his visitors were in fact God. We know, because the first verse of the chapter makes it perfectly clear: “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.”
You might not notice this immediately on a first reading of the passage, because of the way in which Abraham responds to the presence of these visitors. He provides water for washing; urges Sarah to bake bread; calls for a calf to be slaughtered; and offers a feast for his guests.
He also refers to his guests as “lord”, but this is an example of the importance of punctuation! Note the difference between the ‘LORD’ of verse one, and the “my lord” of verse three. Abraham is simply using a form of address that was full of respect for these unexpected visitors.
I don’t know how you would respond to the unexpected arrival of visitors? In these days of mobile phones, it’s quite rare for someone to just turn up on the doorstep – at the very least you might get a warning half an hour ahead if a friend happened to be in the neighbourhood. My response would usually be a frantic few minutes of cleaning and tidying, followed by the filling of the kettle and checking to see that I had milk in the fridge. Because, of course, the classic British response to any visitor is the making of a cup of tea! But would I do this for a total stranger who turned up at my home? I don’t know…
In Abraham’s society, the equivalent of the British cup of tea was the hospitality that he offered these guests. Meg highlights in this chapter that this hospitality was given because it helped to convert into an ally what might actually be a dangerous stranger, and there was an expectation that some form of gift would be offered in return. Often, because strangers would be from another region, this would take the form of news or a story.
We, the readers, know that these visitors are not dangerous. They are the Lord God of Israel! But they conform to cultural expectations by providing news following their receipt of Abraham’s hospitality. In verse 10 we read: “Then one of them said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’”
This is both news to Abraham and Sarah, and a repetition of the promise the Lord had already made Abraham when he first called him and his family. This promise originates in Genesis 12, and is then repeated three chapters later, when Abraham complains that he still has no children. ‘The Lord took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’
In chapter 17, the Lord makes it clear that Sarah is to be the mother of the descendants that will become the people of Israel. In verse 16, the Lord says to Abraham: “I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.’”
I wouldn’t have been surprised if Abraham and Sarah were not a little frustrated by this point! Promises had been made again and again, but so far they hadn’t seen them come to fruition and it now, thanks to their age, seemed impossible despite God’s words to them.
But this visitor’s words about Sarah finally gives a timeframe for this momentous event. Within a year Sarah would have given birth to the long promised son who was to be the first in this line of promised descendants.
God shows up – where & how we least expect it:
God’s renewal of his promise to Abraham and Sarah came out of their actions towards the unknown visitors. They had behaved in the way that God expected of them, and had been rewarded with the most concrete news they had had so far regarding their promised son.
It’s a brilliant example of the way in which God still works through his people today. God shows up in the most unlikely of places, and it’s up to his disciples to respond appropriately. In return, we receive a renewal of his promises to us: our salvation through Christ and our place in the Kingdom of Heaven.
I loved Meg’s closing remarks on this passage: “It is therefore important that we don’t try to limit God, but keep ourselves open to what he may choose to accomplish in us. The first aspect is tempered by a second, which is that God works within the everyday order and activities of our lives. Our part of the bargain is to undertake our lives and our work faithfully, extending hospitality, generosity and kindness to others, not because of what we might gain, but because loving others is part of loving God.”
Seeing this at work with Mickey & Christ Church:
As I was preparing for this sermon on Monday, the news of the death of a parishioner came through. [The following paragraph wasn’t in the sermon, most of the congregation were well aware of who this fabulous person was!]
Mickey was no ordinary member of the congregation and has made a lasting impression on me – and probably everyone he’s met! When I met him on my first Sunday at Christ Church, he introduced himself as “the dodgiest looking choir boy” and proceeded to sing (beautifully) a song he’d written himself. Mickey would often pop into the church office for a chat, and was always a fun person to talk to – even if he did occasionally make comments that were perhaps not that appropriate for a parishioner to make to a curate. [He once commented, mid-winter when I’d swapped my black DMs for winter boots, that I “should wear the DMs more often because they made me a much sexier vicar”!] Last year, Mickey was diagnosed with cancer. By this spring, it was confirmed as being terminal. The way in which both he and the congregation was phenomenal…
Mickey was very much in my thoughts as I read Meg’s words, and read again the story of Abraham’s visitors. It struck me that in the short time that I knew him, Mickey embodied what God calls us to do in this passage – he was open to what God could accomplish through him. He may not have realised it, but it was most certainly the case.
Those of you who didn’t get to know Mickey really missed out! He had a charismatic personality and made friends wherever he went. He was in St Joseph’s hospice in Hackney for the last five weeks, and the first time I visited him there – when he’d been their patient for all of three days – he told me how the day before he’d walked to a Sainsbury’s down the road and had got talking to a woman behind the checkout. When her shift finished a few hours later, she popped into the hospice to say hello to him. That kind of thing was typical Mickey.
When Micky became ill, this congregation responded in a way that is testament to the amazing people who are part of Christ Church. People bestowed love, care and hospitality upon Mickey in a way that embodied the call God gives us to demonstrate his love. Because, as Meg put it in that quote, “loving others is part of loving God.” Those who gathered around Mickey weren’t doing it to get noticed, or to receive a reward, they were doing it because it was what they felt God calling them to do. Just as one day, a few years ago, God prompted Mickey to enter this building and start building relationships here.
A few weeks ago, I spent an evening at St Paul’s Cathedral listening to Rev Richard Coles – the vicar who presents Radio 4’s Saturday Live – and Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Presbyterian minister from Colorado. The subject was ‘Accidental Saints’, which is coincidentally the title of Nadia’s most recent book, which I highly recommend if you’re looking for another book to read.
The premise of ‘Accidental Saints’ is that God can use even the most unlikely or ill-suited people. She writes: “I keep making mistakes, even the same ones over and over…I stumble into holy moments not realising where I am until they are over. I love poorly, then accidentally say the right thing at the right moment without even realising it, then forget what matters, then show tenderness when it’s needed, and then turn around and think of myself way too often.”
Sound familiar? But, Nadia concludes with a positive: “I simply continue to be a person on whom God is at work.”
As I listened to her speak on this subject, I thought about Mickey – I’d just been visiting him before heading to St Paul’s. It struck me that he was the epitome of an accidental saint. He was just bumbling through life, but God used him in exceptional ways. And of course, for God, it was no accident!
The important thing was that God equipped Mickey with his gifts – his humour, his charisma – in the same way he equipped those who cared for him. God had called Abraham to the specific task of being the father of the people of Israel – but it took a while for God to give him what he needed to complete this task: a son given birth to by Sarah.
God shows up at times, in places and in people where we would least expect to see him. He calls, and we, in faith, respond.
Our response does not need to be a dramatic one, but should be what is expected of us as followers of Christ – that in loving God, we love others too and see where God takes that…
One last thing about Mickey…
In June, when I was priested, Mickey came to the service dressed absolutely impeccably – I had never seen him looking so smart! He reckoned that he’d never been in a room with so many vicars before, and had a great time meeting my family and friends. At one point he chatted away to my parents and sang one of his songs to them. He made quite an impression! The next day he gave me a card, containing a poem about the day. When I couldn’t make his funeral, I shared his words on social media: