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 favor 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.”
This is such an interesting passage for a number of reasons. Before we get to what I really believe to be the point of this passage, I just want to take some time to discuss the theology and the imagery of God present in this text.
To do so, I want to ask you all a question. Who is/are the visitor(s) that is/are welcomed by Abraham? Because those of you in my church are Christians, there is a really good chance that I already know your answer. You are going to say that the visitor was God. More specifically, you would probably say that this right here is an example of the triunity of God revealed in the Old Testament. This is clearly the Trinity showing up at Abraham’s tent. The three visitors are God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and God the Son–aka, Jesus. Just look at verse 1-2a again, “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. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby.”
It says that the Lord appeared and then it says that three men were standing nearby. And in verse one, the word translated as lord is the tetragrammaton, the name of God, which we often translate as Yahweh. Yahweh is the name that God uses to refer to himself years later when Moses meets him at the burning bush and asks God for his name. Yahweh appeared to Abraham in today’s text.
However, if we were reading this text in a Jewish synagogue, we would probably read the text differently. Our Jewish friends would say that these visitors are not God, but three angels. Some Hebrew scholars even go so far as to state that the angels were Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael (of whom I had never heard, though he makes a great Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Raphael is found in the book of Tobit.).
So which is it? Were the visitors an early manifestation of the Trinity, or were they three angels? You can make an argument for either, but I really don’t think that it is all that important that we get it right. The point of the story isn’t who the guests were, but how Abraham treated them. Furthermore, we are never told that Abraham knows who they were. Angels or the Triune God, even Abraham couldn’t say. In fact, he may have just assumed that they were regular people like you and me.
I’m going to go on record here and say that I lean toward the understanding that says that the visitors were angels. Here is why. John 1:18a says, “No one has ever seen God,” and I’m not in the business of arguing with John.
So what do we do with that whole, “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre” thing? First off, Abraham never refers to the visitors as Yahweh. He does call one of them “lord” in verse 3. But that is the Hebrew word “adonai,” which is a generic word for lord, like “lords and ladies.”
Let’s go back one chapter earlier to Genesis 17:1: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.”
For the Amy Grant fans out there, what is translated here as “God Almighty” is the Hebrew El-Shaddai.
In chapter 17 you have the giving of the covenant. Abram becomes Abraham, and the sign of the covenant is passed on to Abraham and all of his people, which is circumcision. What you won’t find in chapter 17 is a physical presence of God.
When the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures say that “God appeared,” they didn’t mean that God appeared and people could see him just like we can see our neighbors. When this phrase is used, it generally means that God made himself known to someone in a new way. God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. God made himself known to Abraham in the giving of the covenant. And in today’s passage, God made himself known to Abraham through three visitors.
Abraham had already built up quite a reputation as one who excelled in hospitality by the time we get to today’s passage. Traditions states that Abraham and Sarah’s tent was always open on all four sides so as to invite in visitors from the four corners of the world.
We are told that Abraham is waiting under his tent during the “heat of the day.” He sees three strangers approaching, and he runs from the tent to meet them. He bows low, not as an act of worship, but an act of humility. This would have been a common gesture to show visitors respect and to ease any tension that they may have about coming up to a stranger in the middle of the desert. Remember, there was no guarantee that either party was friendly.
Abraham offers the visitors water to wash up with and a little food. When they agree to this offer, Abraham goes the extra mile. He runs to his cattle herd, chooses a select calf and has it slaughtered for their meal. He gathers cheese curds and milk and Sarah makes bread from the choice flour. These visitors are treated like royalty. Today’s equivalent might be lobster or filet mignon, crème brulee.
After this meal fit for a king, the visitors ask Abraham where his wife, Sarah, is. They ask because in one year, Sarah will have a son. The post-menopausal Sarah laughs at this news, just as her husband did one chapter earlier. That ship, she believes, has sailed.
The birth of Isaac was not a gift from God for the hospitality that God had received that day. God had announced to Abraham that Isaac would be born three days earlier. Evidently, Abraham didn’t tell anyone else about this. Not even Sarah. When the visitors announce to Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son together within the year, this is their way of letting Abraham know that they have special insight. They have come from God to deliver a message, which is the very definition of an angel.
This passage is about the generosity of Abraham. Scholars claim that this event happened three days after receiving both the covenant and the sign of the covenant. So three days later Abraham is running around, greeting guests, choosing fatted calves, and preparing meals. You would have to think that he was uncomfortable, having just lost an important piece of skin. But his desire to show hospitality is stronger than the pain.
But the thing that I find the most fascinating about this story is where it falls in the book of Genesis. When we read scripture like we do, chopping up verses and chapters, reading them out of context, we often miss a bigger story. To know why this story is here, it is helpful to look at the following chapter.
Genesis 19 is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In verse 1 we read, “The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city.” Already we can see the differences between the previous story and this one. Abraham sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day, Lot sat at the gate of the city in the evening. The author is intentionally setting up a contrast here for the readers. The difference, you might say, is like night and day. Abraham is a man of honor and righteousness. Sodom is a city of violence and wickedness. Abraham is full of generosity for strangers. The people of Sodom look to mistreat and sexually exploit the strangers. Abraham received a blessing from God. Sodom received judgment from God.
There is a contrast between the way that these outsiders were welcomed by Abraham and the people of Sodom. Abraham was known for his hospitality. Sodom was known for its sinfulness. Ezekiel 16:49-50a says this: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.”
The sin of Sodom includes inhospitality. You don’t get any more inhospitable than attempting to sexually attack your guests.
The theme of the virtue of hospitality is continued in the New Testament as well. Think of all of the disgusting, no-good, rotten people of the first century. There were tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, and the worst of the worst, the children. Children were to be neither seen nor heard, they were in a way outcasts. Once, when Jesus was blessing the little children, his disciples tried to turn the families away. And Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”
Hospitality isn’t just about opening your home to others, it is about opening your lives to them, making time and space for them. Jesus did not have a home, but he was hospitable.
So why does any of this matter? Why is hospitality important? I think that hospitality is important, or it should be, for people across the spectrum of Christianity. Suppose you emphasize evangelism in your faith. Hospitality should be central to your evangelism. You need to be building relationships with people, getting to know them better, opening up your home and your life to them. It would be interesting to hear some kind of data on how many people become Christians because they were shown love or hospitality by another Christian.
Now I don’t want you hearing me say that you should be hospitable just to make someone pray the sinner’s prayer. That’s not being authentic, and people can sense when you want something from them. But if you build real relationships with people, if you practice the hospitality of Abraham, you will be able to have conversations that you otherwise would not be able to have.
But what if you lean more toward the peace and justice side of Christianity? How will hospitality come into play for you?
Come back to that image of Abraham’s tent open to all four directions, welcoming people from all corners of the earth. When Abraham was practicing hospitality, how many people do you think Abraham expected to also be a part of his religion? Zero. His religion had just started three days before our text for this morning! Abraham was the first Hebrew. When he opened up his tent, killed the choice calf, baked up a storm, and gave his guests milk and curds, he knew that they believed in some other deity.
From a peace and justice perspective, the hospitality of Abraham calls us to invite other people into our homes, into our lives, to get to know them. To hear their stories. To be hospitable does not mean that you believe in the same God, and it doesn’t mean that you have the same ideology. You could even plan to vote for Trump and invite a Clinton supporter over for tea!
The point that I am trying to make is that it is a lot more difficult to hate someone after you get to know them. You don’t want to kill someone after you have seen the pictures of the children on their phone or heard their stories about their loved ones. The first step toward peace and justice is hospitality.
For those who don’t locate themselves as an Evangelical Christian or a Peace and Justice Christian, what other reason might we have for practicing the hospitality of Abraham? I’m glad you asked, because I’ve saved the best for last.
We practice the hospitality of Abraham, inviting people who might be radically different from ourselves, into our homes and into our lives because that is who God is.
Our God is a God of hospitality. God created a world, a world that he called “good,” and invited us to come and stay awhile, even though God knew we would mess it up. God invited Abraham to follow him to a land that he would show him. God invited the Israelites back after wandering in the dessert and again after the exile. And through Jesus, God invites us into full communion with God and with our neighbors. Tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, children, Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, and everyone in between is invited.
When Jesus knew his time of ministry was coming to an end, he gave us a beautiful image of hospitality. The image is that of a house, a big house, with lots and lots of rooms. “In my Father’s house,” he said, “there are many, many rooms.”
Jesus didn’t say that all of his followers will get their own mansion in heaven. The image that he gives his disciples of life after death is that of living in God’s house. Our God is a god of hospitality.
So we come back to verse one yet again, where we are told that the Lord appeared to Abraham. Where did God meet Abraham? In Abraham’s act of hospitality. When Abraham extended love and welcome to the strangers, God showed up.
The author of Hebrews writes, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” I want to take it one step further. Do not forget to show hospitality to all people, for when we do, the Lord will appear.