Faith Laughing

Published: Monday, 02 October 2017

This sermon was presented by Geoff Pound at the Ashburton Baptist Church on 1 October 2017. ‘Faith Laughing is the eighth in the ‘Journey of Faith series on the life of Sarah and Abraham. This sermon manuscript concludes with some Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study.

Reading: Genesis 18:1 - 15

Several years ago, I was with a group of university students in Kolkata. In preparation for volunteering with some ministries we visited Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying in Kalighat.[1] This hospice helps the terminally ill to die with care and in company and with dignity. We saw Sisters from the Missionaries of Charity and volunteers feeding the patients, massaging them with olive oil and giving them medication. It was very confronting as our reflection time revealed. We pondered the words of Jesus that provide the motivation for the sisters and volunteers:

‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these … you did it to me.’

(Matthew 25: 35-40)

Love is the greatest motivator of such ministry but in giving food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, a welcome to the stranger and care for the sick and dying, Jesus said, it’s in such acts of love that you will meet me. You will minister to me.

In our serial story about Abraham and Sarah we’ve been discovering so many ways that they encountered God. When they were settled in Ur they heard God’s unsettling word to leave. They encountered God in the difficult times of famine and conflict and political strife. God appeared in a vision to Abram, and urging him outside one night to look up at the stars, God’s word was written so clearly and compellingly in the skies.

Today’s reading gives us further insight into how we might encounter God:

18 The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. (v1,2a)

Today’s reading is a story of hospitality extended towards divine visitors who come in human guise. Who are these visitors? We’re not told their culture, their religion, their age, their social standing or even their names. Maybe this is the point. Abraham and Sarah are welcoming these unknown strangers and through this hospitality they receive a divine encounter. The Lord appears.

The writer says:

When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. (v2b)

Can you picture him? This 100-year-old man is running from his tent to greet his guests. There’s an urgency and an eagerness about his hospitality. His welcome is fulsome and deliberate. With all the skirmishes he’d been involved with, you’d think that Abraham would be fearful of strangers at the gate.

It’s sad that ‘stranger danger’ has entered our language and infiltrated our psyche whereby we teach our children to be alert and wary toward the stranger.[2] Tim Winton challenges our fear as a nation when he writes:

We're afraid. Terrified. This big, brash wealthy country. We have an irrational phobia. We're afraid of strangers. Not rich strangers. No. The ones who frighten us out of our wits are the poor strangers. People displaced by war and persecution. We're even scared of their traumatised children. And if they flee their war-torn countries in boats, well, then, they're twice as threatening. They send us into wild-eyed conniptions. As if they're armed invaders. But these people arrive with nothing but the sweat on their backs and a crying need for safe refuge. Yet, they terrify us. So great and so wild is our fear, we can no longer see them as people, as fellow humans.[3]

These strangers showing up at Abraham and Sarah’s gate hadn’t been invited. They came unannounced. But Abraham responds with gusto. Like the prodigal father he’s running towards his guests and he bows down before them on the ground. Do you bow when your visitors arrive for dinner? At the heart of fine hospitality is respect for our guests.

There’s a Baptist community in Geelong that has lived the monastic life together for more than 30 years. When they hold public services of worship, one of their number will move around the congregation, bow before each person and waft incense toward you. It’s an act of respect for that person. It’s a recognition of the Spirit within you calling out to the Spirit within that other person.

How different hospitality would be, if at the very heart there is that deep respect for the person and a valuing of their character, their gifts and their potential.

Abraham extends the invitation to the leader of this trio:

He said, “My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant”. (v3)

In other words, please stay. The pleasure and the privilege of your presence will be all mine.

Then Abraham previews his offer:

Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” (v4-5)

It’s always a little water and a little bread because you three have come unannounced. We weren’t expecting you. We haven’t got much in the fridge. We’re out of supplies. So don’t expect much. A little drink. A little snack. A wash of your feet and a siesta under the tree and then you’ll be on your way. In other words, don’t get ideas of staying overnight.

The hospitality is received and now we see Abraham getting on his skates. He dashes into the tent and says to Sarah: “I’ve just invited three men in for dinner.” She says, “What! I didn’t go shopping this week. We’re out of milk. The bread is finished. We’ve got nothing in the deep freeze.” He says, “Calm down.” And he gives very specific instructions:

Abraham said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” (v6)

Bake some good-sized cakes. What was that he said about a little bread. This isn’t a morsel. Three measures make enough bread for a hundred people. Do it quickly. Use the best flour. This is costly hospitality.

Then while Sarah is getting on her apron and plugging in her Thermomix, Abraham is running again. All this running isn’t good for his health especially in the heat of the day:

Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. (v7-8)

This is like the parable of the prodigal son. He’s killing the fatted calf. They’re cooking up a storm. They’re serving these strangers the best. Abraham stands by attentive to their every need while his guests dined.

And it’s amid such hospitality of cake and curds and calf that God’s word comes to this home. God’s word is absolutely personal and specific:

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” (v9-10)

When they left Ur, Abraham was 75. When age was last mentioned (Genesis 17) Abraham was 99, so for 24 years Abraham and Sarah had been hearing God’s promise of a child. But now these strangers were making the grand announcement. For years they’d been up against the obstacle of barrenness. Now they were also up against the challenge of old age. Sarah was menopausal. They were both past their prime.

This is so like the visitation of the One who came to Elizabeth and Mary with the surprising news. It was like an obstetrician saying to Abraham: “Congratulations. Sarah is pregnant. You are expecting. You’re in the family way! And don’t worry about having the scans. It’s a boy!”

Sarah, who’d just finished baking a cake has now got a bun in the oven.

And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. [which means Sarah heard for herself. Abraham didn’t have to come in and break the news to her] 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 

Two old war veterans were sitting on a park bench and one says:

“Do you remember the war?”

The other says: “The Second World War?”

“No, the Great War.”

“Remember the pills?”

“What pills?”

“Those pills they gave us so that we wouldn’t be always thinking about women?”

“Yeah.”

The first man says, “I think they’re beginning to work.”

Sarah is sharing the same mindset. The Message Translation says:

11-12 Abraham and Sarah were old by this time, very old. Sarah was far past the age for having babies. Sarah laughed within herself, “An old woman like me? Get pregnant? With this old man of a husband?”

Yes, my husband is old. Maybe she means, he’s too decrepit to perform sexually.

Shall I have pleasure? What a great insight. These ancient Hebrews didn’t see sex as something merely mechanical or functional but something pleasurable.

Last instalment (last week) we saw Abraham falling on his face and laughing. Here we see Sarah laughing to herself. Then we read:

13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Why was Abraham not taken to task? They both pointed to their old age and the age of their partners. Having a baby on the way for these senior citizens is laughable and ludicrous. But Sarah’s laugh is not a loud, full-throated laugh of joy. Can’t you see her rolling her eyes? It’s a muffled laugh. It’s a disbelieving laugh. A bitter laugh. A mocking, sneering laugh as if to say, “I’m not going to get my hopes up again.”

Last week we men crossed our legs and grimaced while we listened to the reading about circumcising all the men, the slaves and the baby boys. We imagined the pile of foreskins on the floor. We thought about the bloodshed in the woodshed.

Now this week, can you women understand, Sarah’s reluctance to entertain motherhood? Imagine if you had three visitors coming to your door this week with the same news they brought to Sarah’s home. How would you respond? How would your body cope with the challenge?

In the midst of this rebuke comes another powerful question:

14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? (V14) [New Revised Standard Version]

14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? (v14) [New International Version]

This was the question Abraham was given by the One called El Shaddai—God Almighty.

This is the same question Sarah is given. Is anything too hard for the Lord? (v14) They don’t give an answer because the answer is no longer with this old couple. The answer must be given by you and me as we reflect on our weakness, our inadequacies, our sneering laughter and our faltering faith.

14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? (v14) What a question to ponder this week!

Have you noticed how the three guests at the table have faded out of the picture? Now it’s the Lord who is speaking to Abraham and Sarah about life-changing matters.

Maybe this gets to the essence of true hospitality. We become not only aware of our three guests but the presence of the unseen guest. So subtly the conversation turns from food to faith, from cakes and calves to children and commitment, from dashed hopes to new possibilities, from failing bodies to announcements of new life.

And we with Abraham and Sarah will experience the truth of the words of their greatest descendant:

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

I was hungry and you gave me food.”

May this God meet us at the table, lead us into adventurous hospitality and cause us to live in surprising and remarkable ways.

 

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Discussion.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these … you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25: 35-40)

What has been your experience of this ministry of doing to Jesus as you do to one of the least of these?

‘Stranger Danger’

How have you been schooled in ‘stranger danger’ and how has this emphasis affected your welcoming and hospitality toward the stranger?

“We're afraid of strangers. Not rich strangers. No. The ones who frighten us out of our wits are the poor strangers. People displaced by war and persecution. We're even scared of their traumatised children…”

[this is an abbreviated quote. See sermon manuscript for Winton’s extended quote and the link for his full article]

How do you respond to Tim Winton’s statement about our national fear of strangers?

When Abraham saw them [three men], he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. (v2-3)

How may we become more up for the challenge in extending spontaneous hospitality to those who turn up unannounced?

Can you recall occasions (without names!) when you have been shown a deep respect or a lack of respect when you have been at a meal table?

How do we grow in our respect for strangers and our guests?

“Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. (v6-8)

What are the differences between costly hospitality and lavish entertaining?

How has the entertainment emphasis, through such television programmes as ‘Master Chef’, shaped our willingness and ability to extend hospitality?

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” (9-10)

What has been your experience of receiving a word from God (or something more, surprising or unforeseen) when you have extended hospitality?

Abraham and Sarah were old by this time, very old. Sarah was far past the age for having babies. Sarah laughed within herself, “An old woman like me? Get pregnant? With this old man of a husband?” (v11-12)

How can we put ourselves into a position to believe that God is gladly welcomed to do the unexpected, wonderful things through our lives?

Is anything too hard for the Lord? (v14)

What are your reflections on this question? Where does this question challenge you at the moment?

Any further questions or reflections to share on this Scripture reading?

Prayer

Ask that God will make us more hospitable, able to meet the stranger and open to experiencing the living Christ over meals and coffee tables.

And…

If you are using these questions in a small group, do you think you are having enough meals together? Have Abraham and Sarah given you an idea for a dinner gathering?

[1] Some photographs of volunteers at Kalighat can be found at this link: ‘Teresa’s Volunteers’, WimKlerkx.

[2] Stranger Danger, Wikipedia.

[3] Tim Winton, ‘Tim Winton’s Palm Sunday Plea: Start the Soul-Searching Australia’, SMH, March 29 2015.