1 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, [a] 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 fine 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 the LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
There are some Bible stories we have trouble understanding because of the passage of time. Anyone who has every got bogged down in the specific details of the diet laws of the ancient Israelites in Leviticus knows what I’m talking about here. Few Christian hearts race in the year 2010 when reading which sacrifices are acceptable to God in the Sinai desert verses which are to be rejected as inappropriately dishonorable for God.
There are other Bible stories where we get bogged down because we think we understand what the Bible is talking about but we really have no great idea. I think Genesis 18, Abraham and his visitors, may be one such story. The story has been looked to throughout the ages as THE foremost example of Christian Hospitality. Which is all well and good, except;
Hospitality evokes in my mind, and maybe yours, the hospitality industry. Mints on pillows, continental breakfast in the lobby, cable tv, ice makers, fluffy bath towels.
Christian teaching on hospitality is not the hospitality industry; it is all about relationship.
#1—Let’s look at the Middle Easter notion of hospitality that Abraham and Sarah would have been expected to follow.
In the desert regions of the Middle East, stopping in at the hottest part of the day, for cool water and a meal was important. There were no rest stops on the turnpike, nor were there Holiday Inns dotting the desert sands. Food and water Abraham and Sarah provide means survival for his guests.
On the other end, Abraham and Sarah could expect to receive the news of the outside world, where the best fruit could be purchased or the best spices, where the roads were dangerous to travel, due to bandits or storms.
Put in this way, the relationship is paramount.
#2—I once knew a woman who prided herself on her hospitality skills—
She had a beautiful home, like out of a magazine,
She could cook fantastic dishes,
She was amazing with the number of things she knew about food, lighting, wine, coffees.
Yet, every year, every year around the holidays, she would get into a fight with her relatives. They brought the wrong dish to pass. The gifts were the wrong size. Aunt Sadie wasn’t invited over, because of some slight from 15 years ago, which caused the family to have two of everything. Two Christmases, two Thanksgivings and on and on it went.
She had what she thought was the perfectly hospitable home. But it was a house of cards; it was enormously stressful for everyone involved. No one cared to be there for the holidays.
She ignored the fact that relationship is the key to hospitality; not the knapp of the carpet.
True hospitality is more than putting the right dishes on the table. It is a state of mind.
#2—Jennifer and I were invited over by some of the Russians we met in Germany in 2003. They left Russia after the fall of communism in 1989. Their economy was a shambles, and they left to go to Germany, much more stable economic life.
Being new in the country, Jennifer and I were invited by an elderly couple, quite poor. Invited over for coffee at 3 p.m.
In Russia, when you have guests over for coffee, it’s not for coffee. Jen and I had eaten lunch. But we were greeted at the door, with an aperitif, Russian Vodka. Then there was a little bit of soup. Then came some meatballs, with home baked bread, mugs of steaming hot, black coffee. Noodles, more meatballs. Then cake, cookies, cheap chocolate, very precious to them. This family fed us beyond anything I’ve ever eaten in my life! And it wasn’t because I was the pastor, this is how they did things in Russia, you come over for coffee, you spend the afternoon, and you eat until you are stuffed.
Hebrews 13:2—Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.
Contrast how we normally talk about strangers. Stranger is a foe, an unknown, an enemy. Stranger is someone to be wary of; even afraid of. Strangers could hurt you, steal from you.
Not in the Bible. Strangers are your friends, your next miracle, your next encounter with God.
Does Abraham know that these men, for whom he’s grilling are angels? No. But he knows how to treat the stranger.
I remember a time, we graduated seminary. We were celebrating the graduates on a May afternoon.
There was a reception for the graduates and their families in the courtyard. Grilled hamburgers/hot dogs, the usual.
Two kids, they were from the neighborhood. Must have been about 12 or 11. Riding their bikes, spied the cookout and got in line.
To my shame, to this day, one of the Senior students, student government, went to the end of the line and politely told them, this party was an invitation only event.
Really? We had it so counted out to the exact number that we couldn’t spare two hamburgers? Of course not. (I was near the end of the line—I checked, we had extra).
What did those children learn about Christians? There’s a party and it’s not for you. Instead, what if this Student Government person, took them by the hand and introduced them to friends?
Those two kids learned the wrong lesson that day, that this seminary, this place, is not a place for hospitality.
Never forget, as the author of the Book of Hebrews says, that your next encounter may be with the angels. Amen.