If you can, take a moment to search online for the famous image of the Old Testament Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev. It’s a representation of today’s reading about Abraham’s meeting with God. Thank God that he draws near (John 1:14).
The three visitors
18 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. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
3 He said, ‘If I have found favour in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way – now that you have come to your servant.’
‘Very well,’ they answered, ‘do as you say.’
6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. ‘Quick,’ he said, ‘get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.’
7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.
9 ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ they asked him.
‘There, in the tent,’ he said.
10 Then one of them said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?’
13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh and say, “Will I really have a child, now that I am old?” 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.’
15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, ‘I did not laugh.’
But he said, ‘Yes, you did laugh.’
Abraham has received the news of Isaac’s impending arrival already. This visit appears to be for the benefit of Sarah, even though culture dictates she is in the background (although listening in!) (vs 10–12). God does what he does because he promises to do it. Isaac would be born, not because Abraham and Sarah prayed long and hard, or trusted flawlessly (they didn’t) but because God said he would do it. Abraham and Sarah were being asked to take God at his word – and this above everything else is the life of faith. Think of some of the promises God has made to his people, including us:
God has promised to forgive us (Ephesians 1:7).
God has promised to be with us always (Matthew 28:20).
God has promised that we will never die (John 11:25,26).
God has promised that he will never drive us away (John 6:37).
We can safely take God at his word, because he keeps his promises. Reading these (and other) promises can help strengthen our faith to keep trusting him.
To live by faith is a radical step. Reflect on these lines from an old hymn: ‘Thrice bless’d is he to whom is given, The instinct that can tell, That God is on the field, When he is most invisible’ (Frederick William Faber, 1814–63).
Deeper Bible study
Help us, Lord, that we may really hear the question at the heart of this passage and respond to it with renewed faith and hope.
This story shows us the cultural realities of life in the ancient world. As Derek Kidner points out, the welcome to unexpected guests, the lavish hospitality (understated as ‘something to eat’; v 5) and the host’s deference in remaining standing while the visitors share the meal, is ‘still characteristic of Bedouin hospitality’ today.1
However, the passage also contains a challenge which takes us to the very heart of faith. The writer to the Hebrews sees generous hospitality as a Christian duty and adds that it can result in ‘show[ing] hospitality to angels without knowing it’.2 What appeared to be a perfectly normal event was transformed into a key moment in the revelation of God’s promise and a renewed divine assurance that, despite recurring doubts (this time on the part of Sarah), the promised son would be born.
The crucial question for Abraham and Sarah – and for the disciples of Jesus today – is this: ‘Is anything too hard for the Lord?’ (v 14). In different ways, this question resurfaces everywhere in the Bible, challenging our doubts concerning what is possible and warning us of the dangers of accepting the limits of what may be called ‘normal reality’. Behind this question lies another: ‘Can we really allow God to be God, or do we confine him within the limits of our minds, so that we expect nothing surprising or unusual to happen?’ Walter Brueggemann says that if we feel that some things are too hard for God, ‘then God is not yet confessed as God’. We have restricted God’s freedom to surprise us and burst open the closed universe ‘where things are stable, reliable, and hopeless’.3 The issue confronts us in the tightly controlled world of modernity just as powerfully as it did Sarah long ago.
Take time to meditate on the question just asked and relate this to your own life as well as to the future of our world.
1 D Kidner, Genesis (Tyndale OT Commentary), IVP, 2008, p132 2Heb 13:2 3 W Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation, John Knox Press, 2010, p159
Bible in a year
Read the Bible in a year: Numbers 28,29; Psalm 31
The 2020 Scripture Union Conference: you're invited!
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Pray for Scripture Union
National Mission Partner Festive asks us to pray that Christian Unions in sixth forms and colleges will take the opportunity to run Easter events focusing on Jesus’ death and resurrection and aimed at the many young people who have never heard.