|Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 9, Number 36, September 2 to September 8, 2007|
We've all been there before. It's 6:00 and you have special guests arriving in 30 minutes, or less. Moreover, the house is not ready, and the food is not coming off quite as you had hoped. In addition, you're running around the place like a Field Marshall issuing orders at the speed of light - "get that stuff off the floor, put your shoes away, get dressed, somebody check the bathroom, put the dog outside, somebody check the rolls in the oven" - that sort of thing.
And the reason for all the fuss is because these guests - whoever they are - are people that are important to you - for any number of reasons. There are some people that, when they show up, we want everything to be just so, partially because we want them to feel that we are glad they came and partially because we want to make a good impression. There are just some guests that we really roll out the red carpet for.
In the passage before us this morning, Abraham is visited by just these kinds of guests - only he had no idea they were coming! One moment he is taking it easy, careful not to busy himself too much in the extreme heat - and the next moment he is up and running, trying to look after these very important visitors that have appeared so mysteriously at his tent. That story and what it is all about is the focus of our study this morning. Before we look at that, let's pray.....
Father in heaven, Please hear us now as we look to your word, again, to hear from you directly as you take these things which you have authored and preserved and apply them to us by your Holy Spirit, changing us and shaping us by your truth so that we know you better, and love you more deeply, and pursue you more diligently. In Christ's name we pray, Amen.
(Read Genesis 18:1-15)
Now if you were with us a couple weeks ago, you will know that we have been looking at the life of Abram, starting back in chapter 12 of Genesis. And the story, thus far, is that Abram and his family have been set apart to receive the blessing of God, a blessing that is, in fact, part of the fulfillment of a promise made way back in Genesis 3:15. What was that promise? Simply that through one of Eve's descendants God would eventually bring a deliverer who would crush Satan and undo the wreckage introduced into the world by sin and death.
And so, from THAT point we traced the line of blessing through Seth, and Noah, and Shem, and finally to the person of Abram. And we have now watched Abram's life for more than twenty years as he has re-located his family from a placed called "Ur" to the land that one day will be given to his descendants - the Promised Land. While he has wandered in this land, he has also waited for God to fulfill a specific promise to give him a legitimate heir - so that the line of blessing could continue, and the promise of Genesis 3:15 could keep moving forward toward its fulfillment.
Throughout everything, Abraham has shown himself to be faithful - most of the time. He certainly does trust God, even if his fears and doubts get the best of him sometimes. But the doubts and lack of trust have been significant, and they have taken their toll and made things more complicated and difficult than they might have been otherwise.
Still, God has remained faithful to his promises, even when Abraham and Sarah have been faithless. Indeed, God seems to be very aware OF and patient WITH their frailty. He seems to be well aware of how hard it has been for them to keep believing and trusting and so, as the time has gone by and with each successive re-assurance of the promise it seems that God has taken extra measures to assure them and help them to keep trusting and believing.
So, to his repeated words of promise and faithfulness, he has linked different visual reminders - e.g., of the starry skies, or the dust of the earth - saying that their descendants would be as numerous as that. Further, He has condescended to take part in this covenant-keeping ritual involving animals and sacrifice that we saw in chapter 15 - taking all the responsibility upon himself in the process. Still further, He has given them the bodily sign and mark of circumcision. And now, after all of this, he takes one more step to add a further element of assurance to all that he has said.
He drops in for a visit.
In an unprecedented gesture of friendship, God personally and unexpectedly comes to Abraham. To be sure, he has spoken to Abraham before, and he has "appeared" in the form of a theophany - the firepot and torch in chapter 15. But here we have God visiting his people in a much more intimate and personal manner - indeed, this is the most intimate and personal approach of God we have seen thus far in the Bible. Here we see Him, for the first time, taking on a human form.
Now, why does God approach Abraham in this manner? It seems to me that He assumes this form so that he can draw near to Abraham without Abraham being completely freaked out by His presence. Therefore, he takes on this human form and in so doing demonstrates just how far he is willing to relate meaningfully to Abraham.
And so God comes for a visit.
All of which, I think, reminds us that this whole thing, for God, was/is not just some grand experiment in creation, sovereignty, justice and mercy. This thing is personal. God is personally invested in what is happening here. He is not just moving pieces around on a chess board. He is not some grand Puppet Master working with lifeless marionettes that mean nothing to him and have no possible chance for real relationship. This is one Supreme personal being who has made creatures in his image, and invested them with person-ality - in its truest sense - that he might be in a real relationship with them. That he might love and be loved. God is not just Abraham's Creator and Lord. As the New Testament writer James tell us, Abraham is the FRIEND of God.
And so, God makes this amazing gesture of concern and friendship, and comes personally, and in human form, to see Abraham and Sarah.
Now the appearance of these three strangers which - as will become clear later on - is God and two angels - but the appearance of these three at Abraham's tent, as the text tells us, was quite sudden and the impression given is not so much that they approached from a distance but that they simply showed up. One moment they were not there, and the next moment they were. And all of this seems to have caught Abraham off guard who, we are told, was at the door of his tent, in the heat of the day, probably nodding off, in and out of sleep, trying not to exert himself more than necessary, under the conditions.
But, without warning, these three men are standing before him. Abraham becomes suddenly aware of this and jumps to his feet and runs toward them - which is saying something for a 100 year old man! And he bows before them and says, "O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant."
Now it is a fair question to ask at what point in the story Abraham becomes aware of the true identity of his visitors. When you get to the end of chapter 18 it is clear that Abraham knows. But here at the very beginning, opinions are divided as to how sure he was of the identity of these three "men", as they appeared to him. To be sure, he does call one of them "Lord" but that does not necessarily mean anything. It may have only been a title of respect that might have been used to address any visiting person whom you regarded as having some importance.
On the other hand, when he says "if I have found favor in your sight" - the word for "your," in the Hebrew, is singular in form. In other words, he was clearly not addressing all of them but had distinguished one apart from the other two. Now, we do not know what distinguished the one from the others but apparently there was something about One of them - His manner or appearance - something that signaled to Abraham that One of them was clearly in charge, and therefore the one to be addressed. So, he may have realized it was the Lord.
At any rate, Abraham runs to these three men, most likely suspecting that this may be the Lord but at the very least thinking they were people of importance. And he pleads with them to grant him the privilege of serving them and enjoying his hospitality. This they agree to and Abraham sets about rolling out the red carpet. He has water brought for their feet to be washed and refreshed. He sets Sarah, who has not yet seen or met the visitors, to the task of making cakes. He then runs off to the herd to find a choice young calf and gives it to someone to prepare. Then, when everything is ready, he brings it all to his guests - the meat and cakes and curds and milk, and sets it before them to enjoy, standing nearby to wait upon them while they ate.
Again, we do not know for sure whether Abraham has worked out the identity of his visitors, but the trouble he goes to for this meal, not to mention that he is running around - this 100 year old man, in the intense heat - all of these things would seem to indicate that he had a pretty good idea.
However, if there was any doubt in his mind up to this point, that would surely have been erased when the most prominent of the visitors looks up from the meal they are enjoying and asks, "Where is Sarah your wife?" — which is an interesting question given the fact that these men have not yet met or seen Sarah, nor have they seen Abraham before. And not only do they know he is married and his wife is still living, they know his wife's name - and not just that, they know her new name - the name given to her by God and which she would have only been using for probably a few weeks or so. Therefore, this question most likely confirms the identity of these strangers to Abraham.
And from this point in the story we have another interesting dialogue, very similar in some ways to the one that we saw in the previous chapter. If you remember from chapter 17, we saw how up until that point in the story of Abraham's life God had indeed promised him an heir, on a number of occasions, but there was never the specific statement that Sarai would give birth to a son - even though that would seem to have been the obvious implication of the promises. We finally get that statement in chapter 17 - but, at the time that statement was finally made, only Abraham was present.
And when Abraham first heard this promise in chapter 17, his response was to break out into laughter - partially in surprise, partially in joy, partially in bewilderment, and partially as a lack of faith, no doubt, as he struggled to understand how the fulfillment of that promise could still take place given his age and that of his wife. Nevertheless, God assured him that things would happen in just the way He said they would, and He then leaves Abraham to carry out the newly instituted covenant ritual of circumcision.
Now here we are, likely very soon on the heels of those events of Chapter 17. These three visitors, one of whom Abraham now knows is the Lord, have revealed again this specific promise that God is going to bless Sarah with a child. However, this time it is not just Abraham present to hear the promise. Sarah is there as well, although, as the text says, she is hidden from view, somewhere behind Abraham and the visitors, back inside the tent. And now it is her turn to laugh, which she does, but quietly, to herself, wondering, "After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure? - meaning, "Shall I have the pleasure of a child?"
Now - and you must tell me if you disagree - but it just seems to me that, judging from the way Sarah reacts here that she is as shocked, bewildered, and doubtful as Abraham was when he heard this statement back in chapter 17. In addition, you have to wonder if perhaps Abraham had chosen not to share that particular revelation with her. Perhaps he looked at his wife, whom he loved, and who had waited all her life - now in her nineties - and had no children yet - but perhaps he just looked at her and just felt that he would not tell her just yet. Perhaps he looked at his wife, who had already gone through menopause, and who had been hearing this promise of descendants for over twenty years now - and still had nothing to show for it - but perhaps he looked at her and decided that he wouldn't get her hopes up just yet, only to have to wait for another unknown period of time for the Lord to work.
I do not know. However, her reaction of shock and disbelief here just comes across to me as a little bit too strong if her husband had indeed shared this recent revelation with her.
Whatever the case, there IS a strong reaction here on Sarah's part. Moreover, the immediate response from the Lord is equally as strong and, at the same time, yet another indicator of the divine identity of these visitors. Because Sarah's laughter had not only been to herself - as the text says - but it had taken place when she was hidden from view. Yet the Lord is fully aware of everything that she is saying and thinking. And he calls her out on it, and asks the rhetorical question, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" - after which He re-affirms what He has already said - that Sarah WILL have a son, within twelve months time.
And, just as may have been the case with Abraham, it is very possible that Sarah did not immediately understand exactly who these visitors were when they first arrived, especially as she had not been interacting with them up to this point in the story. Now, however, surely she has come to the same realization that Abraham has come to - that this is the Lord among them. And when she does she is justifiably frightened and perhaps, horrified, that she has just laughed at the Lord and then - in typical human fashion - compounds her problems by following up her disrespectful behavior with a complete LIE, claiming that she never laughed.
Of course, God knows better than this and immediately catches her out, again, and yet does not seem to be bothered much beyond what we see in this immediate reaction. Certainly, he would have been completely justified in doing much more than rebuking her, but instead very graciously forgives her, making it evident yet again that his promises and faithfulness to this fragile couple are not grounded in their personal worthiness or commitment to him, but are grounded upon something more certain than that - upon his own character and his own person.
As we think about the importance of these verses for God's people, our first stop, as usual, needs to be the people of God in ages past, who lived with Moses in the wilderness. As Moses "penned" - so to speak, these Genesis accounts under the inspiration of the Spirit, the people there with him would have been the first ones to receive them and hear them "as they are." The significance of these verses for them is one that we have seen before - so I won't say a great deal about it.
Surely these descriptions of God's faithfulness in spite of the continued frailty and wishy-washiness of their ancestors would have been pretty re-assuring to them as they had exhibited the very same traits and responses to God over the years of their wilderness wanderings. God had not given up on Abraham and Sarah, He would not give up on them either.
Further, they would have seen again the confirmation that it was the descendants of Sarah - i.e., Isaac and following - that would be the recipients of God's covenant blessings and promises. Moreover, that's who they were, descendants of Isaac. Therefore, these things would have helped them to have courage and be faithful. They would have added some steel to their backbones as the time came near for them to trust God and enter into the land before them and claim it as their inheritance - which the Book of Joshua records.
For you and I, the example of God's faithfulness to his promises is also a comforting reality. Surely, if we are honest about our hearts, we have to say that our own record of responding to God is as spotty and inconsistent as that of Abraham and Sarah. This pattern that we have seen in them - one moment trusting God - the next moment seemingly incapable of doing so - that pattern surely cannot be un-familiar to any Christian in this room. Will God be less patient with us than he was with them? Is his love toward his people - toward Abraham's descendants today - is that love any less committed? Surely, not.
Moreover, think again about this situation that faced Abraham and Sarah - on the one hand the promise of a child - and on the other hand - a human situation that would seem to make the fulfillment of that promise impossible. Abraham is 100 years old. His wife is post-menopausal. How is this going to work out? How is this going to happen? And God's response is "Is anything too hard for the Lord?"
You see, the problem here is one of perspective. Looking at themselves, Abraham and Sarah could do nothing but think that it just could not happen. However, to look only to themselves would be the wrong thing to do. It would be to leave out the most important part of the equation - God. The determining factor as to whether anything was going to be accomplished or not was not them, but God. The question was not - is this too hard for Abraham and Sarah? The answer to that is obvious. The question is, "Is this too hard for God?"
It makes me think about the time when Jesus was out with the disciples and there was this massive crowd of people that had gathered around to listen to Jesus, and it was near the end of the day and people were getting hungry, and there was no food available to them where they were. The disciples were all concerned about this and wanted Jesus to disburse the crowds and send them to their homes and nearby villages to get some food. What does Jesus do?
He says, "You feed them." And they're like, "No way. All we have is this one lunch bag full of food here. A handful of bread and fish. That's all we got." And you gotta visualize this scene because the key to the whole story is right there. Here these guys are, looking down. They are staring at this handful of food thinking, "This just isn't going to work. There are thousands of people here." That is their perspective, looking down, staring at the food.
All of the sudden the camera spins over to Jesus - and what does he do? The passage in Luke says, "...And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and said a blessing over them..." What were the disciples looking at? The loaves and the fish? Where was Jesus looking? He was looking to heaven. He was looking to his Father in heaven, asking for his blessing. It was a completely different perspective.
Of course, if you were just staring at the loaves and fish you would say, "No way. Can't be done."But Jesus looked to his Father - our Father. When you look at the Father, if you knew the Father the way that Jesus knew the Father, you would just think - There's nothing my Father can't do. I mean, look at him. He is amazing. He is brilliant. He is wonderful. I mean, are you kidding me? Five loaves, two fish? Too easy. We are gonna have leftovers. We're gonna have more food than we know what to do with.....
It is about perspective. It is about remembering, when you are in one of those difficult places, when you are in one of those places where you just can't see how - humanly speaking - things are gonna work out - it's about believing that nothing is too hard for the Lord. It is about remembering his promises that still pertain to his people today - that he will never leave or forsake them, that nothing can separate us from his love, that he works everything together for His glory and good - it's about believing that He is able to deliver - on every single promise, every single time. It is about looking up, instead of looking down. It is about perspective. A perspective that believes nothing is too hard for the Lord. There are many things the Lord will not do. But there is nothing he cannot do.
I have been talking with married couples for over twenty years now - and I am thinking about Christian couples now. Make no mistake, we are some seriously messed up people and can get ourselves into some amazing situations. I mean, amazing. It would blow your mind. While I'm on this subject, let me just say that there's not a person in this room who is exempt from that.
However, more times than I care to count I have seen couples get into these places where they just can't see any way out. He is looking at her and he is saying, "No way." She is looking at him and she is saying, "No earthly way." Their entire field of view is taken up with each other. Neither one of them is able or willing to believe that God could bring healing and restoration to their marriage. They are not thinking about how big God is, they are simply consumed with how big their problems are. I know that addressing these things is hard work, and it's not just as simple as changing one's perspective. I know that.
Let me tell you something - it has to at least start with that. There has to be a moment when they both look at each other and say, "I don't know how God's gonna do it. However, I do believe he can. Therefore,, I'm not going anywhere. I am gonna stay right here and act like I believe that nothing is too hard for God. Not even this. If they can both get to that same place, at the same time - that is when things start to get better.
Finally, there's one other thing I want you to see in this passage - and this is the last one I'm gonna say anything about - but it's this idea of the friendship of God. As we have already seen, in coming to Abraham as he did - in taking the form of a man - God shows just how far he is willing to go to draw near to this one He has decided to love. We see something in this of God's great compassion and his desire to see to it that the gap between himself and his creatures was bridged.
So, when God asks, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" and then goes on to do what was humanly impossible for Abraham and Sarah by giving them a child - when God does that, he is not doing it just because he can, or because he has to, but because he wants to. Because He has determined that he will not only be Abraham's Creator and his God, but that He will also be Abraham's friend.
Many years after these events in Genesis 18, the Lord God came again in human flesh in the Lord Jesus Christ - which Genesis surely foreshadows - and when Jesus was with his disciples, he used this very language of friendship to talk about his relationship with them, and not only his relationship, but also his actions on their behalf. Listen to John 15, vs 12ff,
12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.
In the reformed and Presbyterian tradition, we are very strong on the sovereignty and power of God. We are very strong on the transcendence of God, the "other-ness" of God, the Holiness of God. Well we should be. However, we must never let those truths, as important as they are, cause us to let go of the reality of the friendship of God. That we, who were once his enemies, are now his friends.
Therefore, as we are called to love him and be faithful to him, we are called to love and be faithful to our Friend. And as we find ourselves in the midst of difficult situations where trusting God seems foolish and even humanly impossible, we need to remember the friendship of God - that he is not only a God who is able to help us, He is a God who is willing to help us. He is a God who willingly laid down his life for his friends and who, therefore, can be trusted to not withhold any good and necessary thing or to casually allow these friends for whom he has died to face any circumstance, except that which will complete his good and kind intentions, for them, and for His kingdom.
|This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.|
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