Abraham 08: Three Visitors

Twickenham URC 6 Aug 2000

Three visitors: Is anything too hard for the Lord?  (Genesis 18, 1-16 )


Eating together in the New Testament: Luke19, vv. 1-7 (Jesus eats at Zaccheus’ home); John 21, vv. 3-14 (Jesus feeds the disciples on the shore) Luke 24, vv. 27-36 (Dinner after the walk to Emmaus).  Today’s story in literature: An abridged extract from The Time of the Angels by Iris Murdoch and an extract from The Tufnell Triptych by Brian Louis Pearce

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I don’t often start off with a text, but today there is a very obvious one, from Hebrews 13: Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

Today we focus on Abraham entertaining three strangers, often described as angels, and beyond that seen as representing the three persons of the Trinity. If you had to select eight Bible passages to take to the proverbial desert island what would they be. It would be hard to get the list down to eight, but I think that today’s passage would definitely be on my shortlist. The story is so simple that a static painting can tell you all about it. And yet it contains such depth that it has inspired artists and writers over the centuries as you can see from your order of service and from the two extracts read for us by Margaret and Brian.

It is of course accepted that in the Middle East, with its fierce climate, there is a tradition of hospitality towards strangers. But Abraham sees these three as more than common people making their way from one place to the next. He goes out to greet them and nothwithstanding the wealth and relative position that he has established for himself, he bows before the one he recognises as their leader, addressing him as my Lord – the word used for Lord is a word of secular respect, rather than the word used for God.

Abraham is more than willing for them to accept his hospitality; he is anxious that they should do so: perhaps something tells him that the unknown strangers will bring something good into his life. Likewise the Emmaus travellers don’t just ask the stranger to join them at their meal table; they positively urge him to join them – though in their case it they probably wanted more of the wonderful teaching that had filled the previous hours. Modestly Abraham offers water and a bite to eat, perhaps the then equivalent of tea and a sandwich, but once they accept he goes off to organise a slap up feast – the best food that he can lay his hands on. As was the custom he waited on them while they ate, not seeking to join them as an equal, whilst, again following tradition, Sarah remains out of sight.

Eating together so often breaks down barriers or strengthen relationships. The origins of the word ‘companion’ come, if I remember correctly, from the French, meaning someone you eat bread with. Think of two young people going out for a meal to get to know one another, a working lunch over which business is done, a wedding reception, our church dinner, and, perhaps to a lesser extent than a generation ago, the family meal table. And of course for Christians one of the most important parts of our Church life is when we gather together to remember that last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion.

One of the marvellous things about this story, and about the three short stories I read from the New Testament is what they tell us about God. Abraham’s table is acceptable, as is Zaccheus’s, as is the barbecue on the beach and the proffered bread and wine at Emmaus. ‘What can I bring him, poor as I am?’ asks Christina Rosetti. In these stories we see that God is not concerned with what we have, rather he cares about our willingness to share what we have, be it much or little.

And when we come to the second part of the story, we see yet another example of that oft quoted truth that so often when we give a little, we receive much. The promise that has apparently gone unfulfilled over decades, the prayers that have seemingly gone unanswered over decades are about to be fulfilled and answered.

If Abraham doesn’t know who the strangers around his table are, they do seem to know something about him. They ask an odd question, “Where is your wife, Sarah?”. Odd because the visitors had no reason to know her name. And, with a switch from plural to singular, comes the comment that when he, singular, returns in a year she would have a son. The visitor heard her laugh and commented on it. It was not the laugh of happy surprise but a cynical laugh of disbelief.

Is anything too hard for the Lord?, asks the visitor. This question makes her aware of her disbelief and she is scared; she lies about laughing. But she knows she laughed, and so does everyone else. God has spoken, not through a flash of lightning or some other supernatural way, but through the voice of someone who sits at their table, eating their food. Too often, inspired by Isaiah’s vision, Christmas cards and other works of art, we think of angels as supernatural beings, but the word ‘angel’ means a messenger. We need to recognise that God can use all sorts of people to deliver his messages, and indeed may call on us to do so. Is anything too hard for the Lord? At this point I cannot do better than quote one of the commentaries on this text.

So, may we have open and generous hearts willing to share what we have with others. And may we be challenged by the question: Is anything too hard for the Lord?

May we be willing to see God speaking to us through those we come into contact with. And most of all, of course, may our door always be open to our Lord and Saviour. There is room in my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for me.

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Hymns: R&S 34: Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty; Three strangers passing by Mamre (Alan Gaunt); 525: He comes to us as one unknown; 303: Spirit divine, attend our prayers; 354: Come living God when least expected

The order of service was illustrated with an image of Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity [Andre Rublev c.1360-1430]

The following notes and prayer on the service sheet were provided by Andy McMullon, then an RAF Chaplain.

This icon [Rublev’s Trinity] is perhaps the most famous in the world. It depicts the story from the book of Genesis where three men appear to Abraham at Mamre. He recognises them as angelic visitors – indeed manifestations of the very presence of God. Abraham offers them hospitality of water, bread and meat and they reward him with the welcome news that his aged wife Sarah is to bear the son long promised by God.

In the three angelic visitors of this story tradition has long recognised an Old Testament prefiguring of the Holy Trinity. The Eastern Church knew centuries of controversial debate about the nature of the Trinity and it was a popular subject for icon artists.

Interpreters are divided over the exact representation in this icon. One view sees the Father on the left in front of his house of ‘many mansions’. On the right is the Holy Spirit in front of a mountain – a place of encounter with God. In the centre the Son sits in front of the ‘Oak of Mamre’ – a symbol of the Tree of Life and a pointer to Calvary. The three angels sit at table in a divine fellowship meal gathered round a chalice which foreshadows the Eucharist.

Most important of all in this icon, whatever the discussion about the exact detail, is the way in which the observer is drawn into the fellowship of the divine beings. Those who gaze upon the icon in prayerful meditation find themselves embraced by the life and love of the Godhead. Why not give this a try yourself? Use the following poem and prayer to help your meditation:


Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
“A guest,” I answered “worthy to be here;”
Love said “You shall be he.”
“I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not” says Love “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

George Herbert. [1593-1633]

A Prayer :

Father God, I come to you not because I am strong, but because I am weak; Spirit of God, I come not because any goodness of my own gives me the right to come, but because I need your mercy and help; Jesus, Son of God, I come not because of anything I have achieved but because in your love you died for sinners.

Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal Have mercy upon me.