Scriptures: Genesis 18:1-10 ; John 14:8-14
Guest Speaker: Pauline Evans
A lot has happened since we last saw Abraham, during his journey down to Egypt, a few weeks ago. We don't know exactly how long it's been, but we know that since we met Abraham at the beginning of Genesis 12, it has been 25 years.
Abraham and Lot have gone their separate ways, but Abraham continues to watch out for his nephew. God has made a solemn covenant with Abraham, and Abraham has just circumcised himself and all the males in his household as a sign this covenant.
What hasn't happened is that Sarah has not had a child. But the time has come now for this part of God's promises to begin to be fulfilled, and God has come in person to announce this to Abraham and Sarah.
We as readers know this from the beginning of the passage, that God has come, but there's no indication that Abraham knows that. He just looks up, and sees three unexpected visitors. Unexpected, but not unwelcome.
In an isolated community, visitors mean news from far-off places, maybe stories you haven't already heard. For a wealthy man, it's a chance to burnish his reputation as a man of not only wealth but of generosity. And for a man of God, it can be an opportunity to share the truth with people who have not heard it before.
We can only speculate on what was going through Abraham's mind as he hurried to show hospitality to these unexpected visitors. But Jewish legend tells us that Abraham was renowned in the region for his hospitality.
Most of visitors would of course have been pagan idolaters – most people were at the time. But Abraham welcomed them gladly, and when they praised him for the bounty he shared with them, he told them that it all came from the one true God who made all things. And people left converted to faith in this one true God.
However much that may owe to truth or to legend, historians tell us what the unwritten rules for hospitality were in that culture, and we can see that Abraham followed those unwritten rules faithfully. First, it was a social obligation to welcome strangers. A stranger could be turned from being a potential threat to becoming an ally by the offer of hospitality.
Only the male head of household could offer this offer of hospitality. The stranger did not have to accept the offer, but if he didn't, this could be seen as an affront to the honor of the host, which might lead to immediate conflict and hostilities.
Once the offer was accepted, both host and guest knew what their roles were, which were dictate by custom:
The guest must not ask for anything.
The host is expected to provide the best he has available, despite what may have been more modestly mentioned in the initial offer of hospitality.
The guest is expected to immediately reciprocate with news, predictions of good fortune, expressions of gratitude for what he has received, and praise for the host’s generosity and honor.
The host must not ask personal questions of the guest. These matters can only be volunteered by the guest.
The guest is under the protection of the host until he leaves.
There is no indication, as I said, that Abraham recognized his visitors as anything but ordinary human travelers until after they had eaten and began talking. This is in no way a criticism of Abraham's lack of awareness, but rather a statement of the reality that we do not realize that God is present in our lives until later.
We see this repeatedly in the Bible, where people don't know that God is present among them until afterward. We see it in our Gospel passage today, where Jesus asks Philip, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?” We see it at the end of the Gospel of Luke, when two disciples walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus with the risen Christ, but don't realize who it is until the end of the day. We see it in the book of Esther, where God is not once mentioned by name, but we do see evidence that He is working in people's lives.
Sometimes we don't recognize that God is working in our lives because we're not even thinking about God. We expect to encounter God at church, or in private prayer and in Bible study, but not in the supermarket or the factory, filling the dishwasher or filling out expense reports.
Sometimes we do expect to encounter God, but He doesn't show up in the way that we expect. We tend to put God in a box, where we know what to expect, where we feel that we are in control. We don't mean to do that, but we do. It seems to be human nature.
But God is always bigger than what we imagine, full of surprises. Perhaps some lessons are best learned when we are taken by surprise, not feeling in control of things. Perhaps sometimes God just likes surprises.
So it doesn't necessarily mean there's anything deficient in our faith for not always recognizing what God is doing. But if we want to cultivate that awareness, one helpful exercise is to ask ourselves, where have I seen God at work today? Over time, we will come to recognize Him sooner, because we are looking for Him.
If that question is difficult for you to answer, try these: What helps me pay attention to God? What hinders me from paying attention to God? For me, it has a lot to do with giving up expectations of how I think things should be. If I'm busy being unhappy about the way things are around me, I'm not likely to see God in any of it. Even when I am trying to look for God, I'm sometimes not sure that I'm really seeing Him because, if I were, wouldn't I be changed more by it?
In the end, the point is not how good we are at spotting God at work, but in knowing that He is present, even when we don't realize it until later. After all, He's been at work in every one of us, before we ever thought to look for Him. Through the Holy Spirit, He continues to be present in our lives, working in us and through us. Often unexpected, often surprising. But always committed to fulfilling His promises.
May we find joy in His promises, in His presence, even when we are not aware of it until later, and in the unexpected blessings He brings into our lives.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.