Genesis 18:1-15 "The Real Host"
In a memorable "January Series" speech five years ago, Neal Plantinga waxed eloquent on the subject of hospitality. I don't know how often we link this ordinary notion of hospitality with the Christian faith, but in the New Testament this concept pops up in some very telling contexts. Paul, Peter, and John all mention this trait in passages where they are talking about the hallmarks of a Spirit-filled, Christ-like life. Being a good host or hostess is not included in the various lists detailing "the fruit of the Spirit," but you get the feeling from the Bible that a number of spiritual fruits distill themselves into hospitality. Kindness, goodness, generosity, love, joy, gentleness: all these spiritual fruits are like ingredients in the recipe for hospitality.
Customs of hospitality vary widely, of course, from one culture to another and, even within a culture, from one generation to the next. How the Bedouin out in the desert host guests is going to be quite different from how a Californian in Santa Monica might do it. How you entertain guests today may be quite different from how your grandma used to do it in the early twentieth century. The details may vary but what has remained constant across cultures and time is that most basic gesture of the host handing the guest food and drink. Always and everywhere hosts serve up meals. In the days before Motel 6 and Burger King, travelers were utterly dependent on the sustenance provided by strangers. If there were no people along the way to hand you a cup of soup and a hunk of bread, you would never reach your destination alive in the ancient world.
The only reason we know about people like Marco Polo is because all along his way to the Far East people took him in and fed him. Many of these same hosts also laid bread and fruit into his knapsack before he set out again the next day, thus sustaining him until he could find yet another host. Hosts, you see, give nothing less than the staff of life. Particularly good hosts even distinguish themselves in this department. Just think back to someone whom you remember as being an exceptional host, someone whose hospitality was so fine, you ended up regaling others with the tale. The odds are that what set you to talking like that was not how crisp the bedsheets were but how well you were fed!
I've mentioned before the truly memorable hospitality my wife and I once received when traveling in Germany about eleven years ago. This minister and his wife had long lived in what had been East Germany and they didn't have a lot to begin with. But out of what little they had, they somehow managed to produce meal after meal of wonderfully fragrant and delicious food served up in sizeable quantities and with a lot of enthusiastic love and verve. Before we set back out on the road after spending a couple of days with them, they also loaded us up with more fruit, yogurt, bread, and milk than we could possibly consume before it went bad!
Handing food to guests is basic. What's more, when we pass them that bowl of steaming mashed potatoes or that platter of sliced ham, what we are in essence saying is, "I want you to live! More, I want you to flourish." The more we fuss, the more we tell our guests that we want to celebrate life with them, and we want to do it with zest and with some high and holy fun.
Seldom in Scripture is the act of hospitality quite as holy as in the story told in Genesis 18. In some ways this is such an ordinary scene, and yet before it's finished, the extraordinary bursts into view. Let's recap the story, and then spend some time pondering what it means.
It was just another day. It was a lazy, hot afternoon, maybe around 1pm or so. It was siesta time, as our Mexican friends might remind us: that time of the day when it is so dangerously hot, work has to cease for safety reasons. And anyway, if you have a decent lunch on a day like that, sleep comes very naturally. So in your mind's eye, see old Abraham drowsing in a hammock under some big shade trees. He was just using his tongue to dislodge a piece of meat that had gotten stuck between two molars when he started to nod off. As his head dipped forward and then snapped back up (as so often happens at nap time), his eyes also popped open just long enough to see what looked like three figures shimmering in the heat vapors rising up from the hot desert sands.
Maybe he thought he was dreaming at first: who in their right mind would be out walking in the heat of the day like that? But as he shakes the cobwebs out of his head and clears his eyes, he realizes this is no dream. So Abraham rolls himself out of the hammock and moves toward the strangers as fast as his century-old legs will carry him. "Please," Abraham says, "you're in danger out here. Come over here, let me get some cool water for your feet--they must be about burning up by now! And then just set a spell and I'll rustle up some victuals, too. Just consider me your servant." "Very well," the three reply in a unison of voices that confirmed what Abraham suspected: they're in need!
Abraham bursts into the tent and scares old Sarah about halfway to death in that she, too, had just been drifting off into the delicious sleep of a well-earned nap. "I need you to bake some bread!" Abraham exclaims. "In this heat?!" Sarah no doubt wanted to reply. But she heaves her own ancient frame back off the cot and sets to work. Meanwhile Abraham has dashed out to fetch some fresh veal, some yogurt, and some cool milk.
Now notice that all this took time--probably the better part of what remained of the afternoon. Sarah couldn't grab a box of Bisquick and throw together some of those quickie dropped biscuits we sometimes make. Nor did Abraham scrounge around for the leftovers from their own lunch--he literally put on the fatted calf, but you don't slaughter, butcher, dress, and cook veal in fifteen or twenty minutes! Abraham and Sarah devoted the shank of their day to laying on a quite spectacular feast for these three people whom they didn't know from Adam. And don't think for a minute that they suspected these wayward travelers consisted of two angels plus Yahweh himself incognito. They didn't. So their actions of hospitality for complete strangers speak volumes as to their most basic character.
Eventually, probably late-afternoon, they serve up the feast. Abraham meanwhile stands by like a butler while Sarah, as was probably the custom of the day, listens in on the conversation of the men from behind the cover of the tent's front doorflap. She wasn't eavesdropping so much as following the tradition of females being out-of-sight. Eventually, as he licks some gravy off a finger, one of the men asks, "Where's your wife?" Abraham tells him she's right there in the tent, probably thinking that the stranger wants Sarah to come out so they can thank her properly and in person for the fine food.
But then verse 10 drops the bombshell on us readers: one of the three pipes up but the narrator tells us it is none other than Yahweh himself. Then, in a nearly word-for-word echo of what we read last week in chapter 17, Yahweh says those words about Sarah having a son by that same time next year. Suddenly Abraham knows who it is who just licked up all that good yogurt and veal. As we saw last week, Abraham did seem to believe what Yahweh told him in the last chapter, and that's probably why he went through with the circumcision of himself, Ishmael, and every other male on the estate. But maybe he hadn't mentioned it to his dear wife just yet. Maybe he thought it would be cruel to tease her yet again with this increasingly far-fetched notion of her having a baby.
In any event, Abraham now knows who it is that's talking to him, but Sarah does not seem to know. So she mutters to herself, "Ah, my pilgrim guest, what you don't know about women is a lot! Does the word 'menopause' mean anything to you, my friend!?" Nobody could hear this but Sarah herself, but she at least found it very amusing. Before she knew it, her shoulders had started to shake and she was stuffing her apron into her mouth lest the men hear her old woman's cackle of a laugh.
Apparently her efforts to cover this up were too little, too late, because the next thing Sarah hears is the stranger asking Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too hard for Yahweh? I'll be back next year at this time and will make this happen." Oh-oh. If Sarah had thus far been unaware who it was that was talking, she figured it out now, and a wave of fear caused her to shudder with a chill down her spine. So although she is still out-of-sight, she calls out through the tent's fabric, "I didn't laugh!" And Yahweh cups a hand around his mouth and replies, "Yes you did!" but I think the divine Stranger had a smile on his face when he said it! I even wonder if the other two strangers joined in on a little guffaw once Yahweh shouted this.
There's no hint here that God is angry at Sarah's outburst. As in Genesis 17 when Abraham was giggling into the dust, so here laughter may well be a decent and natural response to the scandal of the promise once that promise makes contact with the undeniable realities of day-to-day life in this world. And anyway these three strangers have bigger fish to fry, which is why the balance of chapter 18 contains that dialogue about Sodom and Gomorrah. There is sin and evil that need tending to in God's sight, but Sarah's humorous outburst isn't it.
That's the story. Along with Genesis 15 and 17, this chapter represents one of three separate stories, each of which details the same promise of a son, albeit each chapter in a different way. Scholars suggest that originally there were three separate oral versions of the Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac story--three different versions of the same basic story, each circulating for a long time in isolation from the other two. So when the author of Genesis finally sat down to get this all in writing, he pulled the disparate traditions together and tried to sew them into a single, seamless narrative text.
The result is that we're not quite sure how to link these three narratives together. Each story happens without any reference to the others. Genesis 15 shows that dramatic "cutting of the covenant" when Yahweh passed through the pieces of the animals as a sign of his determination to fulfill the covenant. Then in Genesis 17 Yahweh affirms it all again, this time instituting circumcision. Now in chapter 18 we have the story we just looked at. It's the same thing all over again in one sense, and yet this chapter contributes its own significant piece to the larger story.
But if chapter 15 showed God's willingness to put his own life on the line to fulfill the covenant and if chapter 17 showed the permanence of the covenant by giving the permanent sign of circumcision, then what does chapter 18 reveal that is different from what we've seen before in Genesis? Perhaps the answer to that ties us back in with the hospitality theme with which we opened this evening. Because as we said at the outset, the gesture of a host handing a guest food is so very basic and, at root, is an affirmation of life. Of course, most of the guests we now receive into our homes would not exactly go hungry were it not for the fact that we had made a lasagna for the evening's meal. Still, food does carry that life-affirming notion with it. And the story in Genesis 18 clearly magnifies this as Abraham and Sarah assume that if they do not feed this wayward trio, they may well starve and die.
And it's pretty clear that Abraham and Sarah are accomplished hosts. The speed with which they whip together a quite substantial meal indicates they've done this before and they have gotten good at this hospitality thing. These three are clearly not the first wayward souls Abraham and Sarah had received and entertained under the great trees of Mamre. Abraham and Sarah, who in some ways had gotten a raw deal in life in never being able to produce within Sarah the new life of a child, they are nevertheless life-givers.
But in an unexpected turn-of-events in this story, the hosts become the guests before the story is through. Suddenly the guest who is a disguised Yahweh turns the tables and becomes the one who promises to dole out new life to Abraham and Sarah in the form of a son to be born the next year. If it seems unlikely, if not impossible, then that's because at first Abraham and Sarah are not sure they want to let God be God. Abraham and Sarah have consigned themselves to the stable, ordinary run of life, but out of that has come only hopelessness and despair. Yahweh has dropped by for an unannounced visit to burst in with hope. The couple who was desperate to sustain the life of the stranger will themselves receive a life-sustaining gift because playing the Cosmic Host is part of God's very nature.
The truth is that it is Almighty God who sets the universal tone for all hospitality. This is a God who will somehow find a way to sustain the life of every last one of us, despite our living in a world where many see death as destiny. But God declares a firm "No" to the idea that death will be the final and ultimate undoing of each one of us. Somehow Easter life will triumph over death. Somehow, in a miraculous colossus we cannot even begin to imagine, God will raise every one of us up into a new, bodily existence in that "life everlasting" we will once again mention in the Apostles' Creed in a few minutes. To some in our world, those kind of Easter promises seem far-fetched, ridiculous. Maybe sometimes we wonder about it, too. But then the question comes back, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?"
If we answer that question with a "Yes, some things are impossible" then as Walter Brueggemann notes, that's because we have not yet confessed God as God; we have not yet conceded radical freedom to God. If we think God cannot bring about the Easter life he has promised, then it's because we've determined to live in a closed universe where everything is stable, reliable, predictable, and, just so, hopeless. As travelers in the ancient world were at the mercy of hosts along the way for survival, so we all are at the mercy of God if cosmic survival beyond our own physical deaths is going to happen.
Happily, the divine Host at whose mercies we are is a loving, compassionate God who is full of mercy, grace, and kindness. He is the God who, in Jesus the Son, has become the Host in another sense: in the tradition of the church, the bread of the Lord's Supper is often called the Host. It's a curious turn of phrase representing history's most curious turn of events as the God of all Life willingly submitted to death. "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" It's not a question to answer quickly or lightly. Our Christian answer is, "No, nothing is too hard for our God." But although bringing us the "life everlasting" of God's kingdom is not too hard for our great God, it was nevertheless plenty hard and difficult before the gospel was all said and done. It cost God's own Son his very life.
Yet it has been accomplished and therein lies the fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham and the fulfillment of God's every creation intention. It's not easy to believe, and maybe like Sarah we've found ourselves laughing at both the joy and the unlikelihood of it all. God understands that, but still he hands us bread for the journey. The heavenly Host gives us of his very Self as a way to say, "I want you to live. More, I want you to flourish!" And just so we will, forever. Thanks be to God! Amen.