For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 5 – Genesis 18:1-10a (Related)
Today’s story is a well-known one, not least through its depiction in the famous Rublev icon and its application to the Trinity. But a close reading of the text might help us see through our familiarity and gain new riches from the story. As well as being seen as an early indication of God as Trinity, the story is also often interpreted to hold out the value of hospitality, although actually Abraham does very little, and in any case his actions would not be unusual in the Middle East. So Abraham offers to get the visitors something to eat, and then runs to tell Sarah to do the baking and a servant to prepare the meat. To be fair, though, he has just been circumcised, and so is probably glad of the sit down.
The story, though, is really about the announcement of the birth of his son Isaac. Sarah, who presumably is hearing this nonsense for the first time, responds with cynical laughter at what she hears as a cruel joke, but Abraham of course has heard this promise before, in Gen 12 and again in chapter 15. For 25 years he has known what God intended to do, and yet nothing has happened. I wonder how he heard the news? This time there is a specific time given, but I wonder whether 25 years of disappointment had soured his hope into cynicism, or whether he felt a jolt of excitement at the ‘OK, now is the time!’ nature of this particular announcement. The key question, which of course has been lopped off by our lectionary compilers, comes in v.14: ‘Is anything too hard for the Lord?’ The Hebrew word doesn’t just mean ‘difficult’. It can also mean extraordinary, marvellous and wondrous. Is there anything so outrageously wonderful that the Lord can’t manage it? Obviously not. Yet Sarah reacts with cynical laughter, which she goes on to deny, and Abraham apparently with tired resignation – ‘Here we go again! More impossible promises.’
Many of us will have waited, perhaps for decades, for God to come through for us, to answer our desperate prayers, to make good on something we believe he promised us years ago. Perhaps we have become cynical; perhaps our initial faith has tarnished into dull acceptance of the status quo, as hope has trickled away into the dry desert sand. Maybe, like Abraham, we have resorted to making it happen ourselves, yet finding that it hasn’t quite worked. Perhaps, when God does show up to make good his promises, we might fail to recognise him.
One of the most annoying mysteries of our faith is the refusal of the God whose Son told us to ask for anything and it will be done to act as we want him to when we want him to. So much of the Christian life is marked by frustration as we seek to hold onto biblical promises but find them to be apparently void in our case. For some this frustration has led to an abandoning of their faith, while of others our faith has morphed into something sadder and more cynical, as the clouds of reality have blotted out the sun of faith.
Yet for this couple God has shown up, even if 25 years later than they would have liked. The three travellers come to bring news that God is about to act, and Abraham’s generosity towards them comes long before he realises what they have come to give him. We can’t do anything about God’s slow pace in answering prayers, if at all. But we can maintain a softness of heart towards him, and others. We, the readers, are told that the three men are in fact the Lord (v.10) but it isn’t at all clear that Abraham recognised this divine visitation. Yet he treats them with kindness and respect. They are nowhere called angels, but he is certainly entertaining them unaware of who they really are. He may be disappointed and disillusioned, but it hasn’t turned him nasty. In fact the NT develops this theme, when Paul in Romans 5 extols the virtues of patience and perseverance in building character. We can’t control God, but we can choose how we react to frustration and unanswered prayer. Maybe we’ll see him come through for us eventually, or maybe it will all pale into insignificance when we meet him face to face.