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Genesis 18:1-15 - The Outrageous Promises of God

Genesis 18:1) 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. 2) He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3) He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4) Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5) 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.” 6) And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7) Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8) 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. 9) 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.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 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?” 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.”

Who were Abraham (Abram) and Sarah (Sarai)? Abraham and Sarah are among the most ancient ancestors of both Judaism and Christianity. Abraham is also the ancient ancestor of Islam. The story of Israel as the distinctive people of God, with a special role in salvation history, comes to us across many centuries of oral tradition . Heroes and heroines of the family arose and their stories stood out and were savored in rich detail. The book of Genesis captures many of those earliest stories. In it we learn that, for some reason lost to us, Terah, Abraham’s father, moved his large family from Ur to Haran. This was a journey of nearly 600 miles. Haran was a bustling trade center and, like, Ur, claimed the moon god for its deity. After Terah died, Abraham became the family head.  While relatively prosperous, Sarah and Abraham had no children. In their time and culture, to be “barren” was an excruciating circumstance. To be childless was to have no hope for the future. Families were erased by the absence of a male heir, economically, socially and spiritually. This condition would have permeated every aspect of their lives. It was at this point that God intervened in the life of this family and human history. In Genesis 12 God comes to Abraham and makes a promise. He promises that his desperation and despair will end. He and Sarah will have land, descendants and a mission. By following God to a new place, they will have a future and will play a crucial role in God’s plan to bless all the people of the earth.  

By the time we pick up the text today, Sarah and Abraham have journeyed to the land of promise, left because of famine, found their way back, continued to struggle with barrenness and concocted a plan to bear a child through a maid servant. They are old and
the promises of God made to them years before seem barely a memory despite God’s continued provision and faithfulness. On a blistering hot desert day, all of that changes.
Important issues in understanding this text.

Hospitality. In the desert world hospitality was a sacred obligation. To serve guests was essential to survival in the harsh climate. It was also essential to spiritual survival as God’s person. To serve guests was to serve God. This was an obligation that was taken with the utmost seriousness.

Covenant. Covenants were agreements which legally established or formalized relationships or promises. They were binding and understood as such by all parties involved. There is nothing wistful or “wishfull” about covenants. They establish reality concretely and specifically. When God came to Abraham in Haran and called him to journey with God to the land of promise in order to be a blessing for all the peoples of earth, that was a covenant agreement. In it a new relationship is established and longed for results are produced. The timeline for the fulfillment of this covenant rests with God. Faith and Doubt. By the time of today’s text, Abraham and Sarah have given up on the idea that God’s promises are trustworthy and will bear fruit for them, after all they are well into their 90’s. The point, however, is that human conditions, limitations and hopelessness are not powerful enough to thwart God’s goodness directed toward us. God’s sovereign power can not be limited by our expectations. Sarah and Abraham doubt that God can and will do for them what God has promised. Yet even their doubt is ultimately no impediment. Even doubt can bear fruit because the powerful word of God, the grace that refuses to leave us in barrenness or to bow to our faulty timelines, will, in the end, produces the results God intends….blessing, hope for the future and a reason to live!

The relationship between the “three men” and the “Lord”. The Hebrew makes this relationship very difficult to sort out. Are we dealing with three angels in human form? Are we dealing with God and two angels all in human form? Is this an early hint at the trinitarian nature of God? Is there one person part of the time and three the rest of the time? Have several ancient versions of the story come together with no attempt to synchronize the details? Is the storyteller trying to mask the identity of God to see what Abraham will do if he is not sure he is dealing with God? Will he “entertain angels unaware”? We don’t know. What is important, crucially important, is that God is present in these visitors in a concrete and authoritative way. It is God who comes. It is God’s who engages. It is God who reiterates the promise.

Word Study
Vs. 1 – Lord – The Hebrew here is YHWH, the divine name of God.
Vs. 3-8 – These verses show us the protocol for hospitality in this time. One sees a need, runs to meet it, offers respect, invites to join, gives ones best refreshment, prepares and serves. This is a potent model for mission to this day.
Vs. 3 – if I find favor – This was a way of giving respect to the visitors.
Vs. 14 – wonderful – This is an unknown word in Hebrew. It is probably related to a plural word that refers to God’s mighty deeds or abilities.

Questions for Personal Reflection
1. Have there been times in your life during which you felt hopeless? Times when nothing you tried seemed to bring about the results you wanted? Times when you found it hard to believe that God had a good plan for your life and that God’s promises were for you?
2. Looking back on those times, can you identify ways that God acted faithfully toward you? What reminders of God’s goodness came? Did any of them get through to you at the time?
3. What would it take for you to believe that God’s promises are concretely and specifically for you? What makes that belief difficult to maintain?
4. Have you ever felt that God’s will for you was absurd? How do you answer the question “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD”?