Sunday, July 17, 2016

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 18:1-10a (10b-14)
Psalm 27:(1-6) 7-14
Colossians 1:15-29
Luke 10:38-42

Yahweh is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? Yahweh is the strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?

There's a cartoon commercial for a knee brace that shows a child asking her grandma to play with her. Grandma has trouble getting up because of her knees. She buys a set of knee braces that makes life and movement far easier. At the end of the commercial, the grandma is moving so fast that the child is having trouble keeping up.

I'm at the age when all my friends' children are beginning to have their own children. I suppose it will happen to me eventually, too. They post pictures of their grandchildren and tell stories of all the fun times they are having with them. Some groan a little about how hard it is to keep up with them. I know that for me, getting down on the floor with a pile of Legos will be more difficult than it was doing so with my children. So many of us have been working on becoming healthier so that we can be there to love those babies when they come.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for Sarah? I'm always taken by her statement, "After I have grown old will I have pleasure, my lord being old also?" This isn't just about the process of giving birth. Sarah was around eighty-nine years old when the three men came to their camp. She was eighty-nine years old when a twenty-five year old promise was renewed, a promise that was already past hope the first time it was given. Yet, here were these men, telling Abraham and Sarah that the promise would finally be fulfilled within a year. They would be ninety and a hundred years old. How could they possibly parent a child at such a great age? How could they live long enough to see that child become a man, find a wife and have children? How would they ever experience the joys of being grandparents? Sarah certainly can't go out and buy a set of knee braces so she can get down on the floor to play with her baby!

Yet, God made the promise and He is faithful. And He was a friend to Abraham.

Sarah laughed within herself when she heard the promise given. I think I would, too. It wasn't a hearty, joyful laugh. It was a laugh of cynicism; the promise was ridiculous. Even if her failed and failing body could finally bear a child, how could she ever really be a mother? How would she have the energy to keep up with a toddler? How would she live long enough to see him grown? She laughed within herself because it was too late. How could she ever enjoy being a mother at this late age?

Who were these men who would speak such ridiculous words to a tired old woman?

The passage begins, "The LORD appeared to Abraham." Did Abraham know it was the LORD?

Abraham and Sarah were semi-nomadic; they lived in temporary dwellings and moved with their livestock, spending limited time in one place during which they might plant and grow some crops. They were people of some means, but they had no home except the tents they carried from place to place. This lifestyle was more common in Abraham's day; it was a way of life that is different than what we experience today.

Hospitality was vital. The roads were dangerous, and there was not a McDonald's on every corner. Some travelers might go for days without being able to access fresh water or food. The nomads or semi-nomads settled, even briefly, in places where good water was available to take care of their own needs and the needs of their animals. Travelers passing by were always welcome into the camps, and received with grace and hospitality.

Hospitality was the cultural norm of the day, but Abraham was more than hospitable. He was willingly and willfully humble before his guests, extremely generous with his resources and patient with their visit. When he saw the three men he ran to them, bowing down before them to honor their presence at his tent. He met their needs as any good host would do. Yet, he did not simply welcome them to his table; he gave them his table and waited on them as a servant.

Abraham was a man of great wealth, power and authority despite his nomadic existence. After all, kings honored him. He had servants and herds so large that even when divided they were vast. Yet, when strangers came to his tent, Abraham ran to greet them. He invited them to rest and to wash their feet. Then he ran to prepare a feast, first asking Sarah to use the finest supplies to make bread and then choosing a fine calf to roast. The preparation for this feast would have been lengthy – it takes hours to prepare a meal like the one he served. Then, as they ate, Abraham stood nearby, as if waiting to serve their every need with just a word.

By these actions we might assume that Abraham knew that it was the LORD, but I think Abraham would have done the same for any visitor. It did not matter who they were; Abraham honored them because they were guests. The writer tells us that the LORD appeared to Abraham, but then goes on to say that Abraham saw three men. Human flesh cannot see God. God must reveal Himself in some way so that He can be seen, or heard, or experienced with our senses. When He reveals Himself, what do we see? Abraham saw three men. Was this because God manifested Himself as three men? Or is it because Abraham saw God through his own eyes and experiences?

There are many interpretations of this encounter. Some have suggested that this is an Old Testament vision of the Trinity -- that Abraham saw God in three persons. Others believe that this is a pre-incarnation visit of Christ who was accompanied by two angels. There are others who think that this story should be understood in more spiritual terms, not as three flesh and blood men but a vision or dream. However the encounter is interpreted, we know that God was in their midst. Whether or not he knew, Abraham saw strangers in need of food, drink and rest. He saw people due honor and respect, people whom he could serve.

Now, Sarah, might not have been quite so grace-filled. She made cakes just as Abraham asked, and probably did far more than that, and she was busy in the tent the whole time. We don’t see her in the presence of her guests. Abraham and Sarah were well beyond the normal lifespan of the time, and even old in our society. She was probably tired and she may have been depressed. After all, what did she have to show for her life? She had no children, no grandchildren. It is likely that the relationship between Hagar and Sarah was strained, and Ishmael’s presence was a constant reminder of her failure.

In his kindness, Abraham discovered that his guests were something special. I wonder how many times we miss the opportunity to serve the Lord because we are so caught up in our own exhaustion, pain, depression, doubt, cynicism, and sense of unworthiness.

It almost seemed cruel for the men to say such things about her, after she went to a lot of trouble to serve them. They seemed to respond to her hospitality with teasing. She was so caught off guard by the LORD's Word that she even denied laughing. God's Word is not cruel, but it doesn't always make sense, and so we often receive it with skepticism and doubt. Sarah's pain was so deep that she could not see that that Lord had come to reveal that she would see the promise of children fulfilled within the year. She laughed because it was unbelievable. She'd let go of the promise a long time ago. Sarah received the LORD with uncertainty and fear.

Martha saw the LORD, and yet she received Him in much the same manner as Sarah. Martha was worried and distracted by the preparations. Worry is a very self-centered attitude. Even if our worry is about someone else, it is self-centered. We worry because we are afraid. We get distracted because we are afraid. We are afraid that things will not go right, that our guests will not be satisfied. We are afraid that we'll make a bad impression. We get caught up in the preparations because we are afraid that we'll forget something.

Martha saw Jesus as someone to serve. While it might seem like she was humble before Jesus, she was seeing Him as someone in need. She thought He needed her food and her hospitality. She thought He needed her to meet His needs. Martha, like many people, forgot that God does not need anyone or anything we can give. God does not come to us because He needs us. We need Him, so He comes to us to give us what we need.

Mary recognized that Jesus had something to give. Martha forgot that Jesus can feed thousands of people from just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, an event that had happened less than a year before this encounter. Martha forgot that Jesus has the living water that quenches our real thirst. Martha forgot that Jesus could cast out demons and make miraculous things happen with just His word. She certainly had heard the stories. Perhaps she had even been present for some of them. When the Lord appeared to Martha, she did not see the Messiah, she saw a man who needed her gifts, talents and resources and she was afraid to fail in satisfying Him.

Mary saw something different. She saw the source of joy and peace. She saw the teacher who would give her hope. She saw God's grace, recognized her own need and received that which Jesus had to give. She saw the Messiah, and stopped for a moment to linger in His presence. Jesus would have honored Martha's servant heart if she had not been so worried and distracted about her work. He honored Mary not because she was particularly prayerful or studious, but because she had her eyes on Him.

We have nothing to fear. We have no reason to worry. The world might be upside down. We might feel like we are doing everything alone. We might think that there's too much to accomplish and not enough time, but if we keep our eyes on Jesus we'll find that we can accomplish everything He has ordained for us to do. See, with our eyes on Jesus, we'll recognize what is important and what we can let go. With an attitude of peace we will know what really matters in every situation.

How do we receive the LORD when He comes into our presence? He doesn't want us to hide in the tent or in the kitchen. He doesn't want us to worry that everything isn't perfect. He wants us to give Him everything, especially our faith. He wants us to believe His Word and to live in His promises, knowing that He is faithful. We might identify with Sarah and Martha, responding to Him with fear and worry. There will be times when we have to work hard to honor Him, but He wants us to live every moment with an attitude of peace. Even when things are hectic and out of control, peace will keep us focused on what really matters. It will help us let go of that which really doesn't matter so that we will provide for the needs of the world grace and joy. Jesus doesn't need us to serve Him. He wants us to enjoy Him.

Every day we go out into the world in faith doing what God has called us to do: serve Him by loving our neighbor. However, sometimes our good works can become so self-centered because we think that we are the only ones who are doing anything. We set ourselves above those whom we are serving, acting as though the world would stop if we stopped. When we work with this attitude, however, we get burnt out and frustrated. We become distracted, forgetting that God does not need us to do these things, forgetting that He comes to us with gifts so that we will take His grace into the world for His glory.

Paul writes, "You, being in past times alienated and enemies in your mind in your evil deeds, yet now he has reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and without defect and blameless before him..." The reason many people avoid being in the presence of God is because they feel they are unworthy. They think that there is some reason that they do not belong there. Sarah hid in the tent because she was old and without hope. She worried that she was to blame for her barrenness. How could she ever show her face to the world? Yet the one who knew her heart was calling her into a relationship of faith.

Martha may not have felt unworthy to be with Jesus, but she saw her worth in her work. How could she stop serving and listen like Mary when there were still hungry people to feed and dishes to clean? We are all unworthy to be in God's presence. We should all be afraid. But God invites us into His presence and has made us welcome by the blood of Jesus Christ. He makes us worthy by covering us with His righteousness. The promises and the lessons of Christ are given for all: men and women, Jew and Gentile, young and old. We are all invited to sit at the feet of Jesus so that we will become strong in faith and encouraged in our work. As we grow closer to Him, we will face all our days with peace.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be Paul? The letter to the Colossians was written from prison. Paul was being persecuted for his faith and for his bold proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He speaks of suffering; there are few who have suffered as much for the Church as Paul. And yet he continued in the work with an attitude of peace. He was happy to suffer if it meant that the Gospel would make a difference. Paul knew he was given a gift and a calling, and he was not only willing to share the Gospel, but he did so with peace in the good times as well as the bad times. He had his eyes on Jesus.

God calls us to look to Him. The psalmist writes, "When you said, 'Seek my face,' my heart said to you, “I will seek your face, Yahweh.'" Mary chose the good part. That doesn't make Mary better than Martha; it simply means that Mary has found peace in the presence of God. She has work to do, too, but she'll approach it without fear or worry because she's spent time at the feet of Jesus.

We believe in a God that is invisible. Perhaps that's why it is so hard to interpret what happened in Abraham's camp. We believe in the Christ who is physically beyond our grasp. He doesn't have a voice that we can hear with our ears, and if we say we do, people think we are crazy. We can't be entirely sure of our interpretation of the events and the words that have been given to us because we are biased by our own needs and desires. We are cynical, like Sarah, when we wait so long to see the fulfillment of God's promises. We "see" God through our own flesh and experiences. It is no wonder that so many people are atheist or agnostic. How can we be certain of something that we can't see? How can we trust someone that is invisible?

Yet, God has revealed Himself to us. Paul writes, "He is the image of the invisible God..." Paul tells us in today's epistle lesson that Jesus is supreme. “For by him all things were created, in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things are held together." We would not exist without Christ; we certainly would not be saved or gifted for service in the Kingdom of God without Him. No matter what we do, as individuals or as the Church together, it is only done with Him as the center.

Paul writes, "He is the head of the body, the assembly, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence." He is our focus, the one thing we need wherever we go or whatever we do. With Him there is no reason for concern. With Christ comes a hope that reaches beyond the physical needs of our body. As we live in that hope, we are better able to discern the needs of those for whom we are sent to serve. There are indeed a great many people who need us and our gifts. Yet, we must remember at all times that God does not need us to do the work. He calls us to join with Him in humble service.

There is one thing that is needed: eyes that see the image of God in Christ Jesus. God has come to us. He has revealed Himself so that we might know and experience His grace. He is faithful and will fulfill His promises even when we have lost all hope. We can't chase after Him. We can't give Him anything He does not already have. He does not need us. He calls us to dwell in His tent, to share His grace and to live in the hope that keeps us from ever being shaken.

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