Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 18:1-10a (10b-14)
Psalm 27:(1-6) 7-14
One thing I have asked of Yahweh, that I will seek after, that I may dwell in Yahweh’s house all the days of my life, to see Yahweh’s beauty, and to inquire in his temple.
I like to entertain. I like to plan and prepare for parties or smaller gatherings and I think I’m a pretty good hostess. No one leaves my home hungry; I usually have a refrigerator full of leftovers. They rarely leave empty-handed, as I usually have some sort of favor to give away and many are sent home with food. Overnight guests are greeted with a comfortable room and a vase full of fresh flowers. I go a little crazy getting things ready for my guests, but I try to do as much as possible before they arrive so that I can focus on them rather than on the task of serving them.
However, it is impossible to be ready for unexpected guests! I like to say that my door is always open, but I have to admit that my house isn’t always perfectly ready for guests. My floor usually needs to be vacuumed and the furniture dusted. I doubt I could come up with a hearty snack. I certainly could not be as good a hostess and Abraham and Sarah would be to their unexpected guests. I would invite them to join us for dinner, but I have to admit that sometimes I even forget to offer my unexpected guests a drink. It was second nature to the people in Abraham’s day. Abraham and Sarah were semi-nomadic; they lived in temporary dwellings and moved with their livestock. They didn’t stay in one place for very long.
Hospitality was vital in their world. The roads were dangerous, and there was not a McDonalds on every corner. Some travelers might go for days without access to 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 they were 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. 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, bowing down before them to honor their presence at his tent. 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. This meal must have taken hours to prepare. Then, as they ate, Abraham stood nearby, as if waiting to serve their every need with just a word. Abraham would not let the men leave until he served them a meal.
The passage begins, “Yahweh appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.” Abraham recognized the LORD and gave Him the honor and attention He was due.
Where was Sarah? Sarah was quite so grace-filled. She worked hard to prepare the meal that Abraham served his guests, but she didn’t even greet them. Abraham and Sarah were old even by our standards today. She was probably tired and depressed; she thought she had nothing to show for her life. She had no children, no grandchildren. She had a strained relationship with Hagar and Ishmael’s presence was a constant reminder of her failure. She had no reason to be happy. She worried that she was to blame for her troubles. She had no hope. How could she ever show her face to the world? It is no wonder she hid in the tent staying busy with the meal.
She did overhear their conversation, though. 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, these men told 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?
Abraham believed. Sarah laughed.
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?
It was almost cruel for the men to say such things, 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 His promise would be fulfilled within the year. she would see the promise of children fulfilled within the year. It was unbelievable; she let go of the promise long before that day. Abraham honored the Lord with humble service; Sarah received the LORD with uncertainty and fear.
The juxtaposition of the Abraham story and the Martha story in today’s lectionary is interesting. Abraham is lifted up for being a servant to his guests in the Old Testament lesson. He is praised for honoring those strangers with a place to rest and a meal fit for a king. He jumped to his feet when he saw the visitors, offering them hospitality. He stood nearby as they ate, as if waiting to meet their every desire. Isn’t that what Martha was doing? Wasn’t she trying to provide the best hospitality to their friend and teacher, trying to meet His every need? What is the difference between the story of Abraham and the story of Martha? Why is service seemingly approved in one text and disapproved in the other?
The problem was not that Martha was actively serving Jesus and the disciples. The problem was that she was worried. She was so concerned about doing everything right, making everything perfect that she missed being in the presence of their Lord. Sarah and Martha were both distracted by the cares of the world and they did not see the LORD who was in their midst.
Martha received Jesus in much the same manner as Sarah. She hid in the kitchen, busy with the work of serving Jesus and the disciples. Their busy-ness was different: Sarah was uncertain and fearful, Martha was worried and distracted.
Martha thought that Jesus needed her. Yes, Jesus honors our gifts and our works, but Martha forgot that Jesus can feed thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. 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 focused on her works rather than on being in the presence of the Messiah. 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 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. Martha is focused on works, but Mary is focused on faith.
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.
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 and her eyes are on Him.
We believe in a God that is invisible and a Christ who is now beyond our grasp. We can’t see Him with our eyes or hear Him with our ears, and if we claim we can then people think we are crazy. We even doubt what we see and hear and struggle when things don’t go as we expect. Like Sarah, we lose faith because it seems like we have to wait so long for the fulfillment of God’s promises. We “see” God through our 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...” 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.”
When scientists first discovered the atom and were learning about the miniscule parts, they found that there is an unknown force that holds it all together. We see an atom drawn on a piece of paper with lines and walls and we think that’s how it really looks. Actually the atom just seems to ‘magically’ hold itself together. Scientists named that ‘magical force’ the “Colossians force” based on this passage. 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, it is only done by His power. He is the center of our life of faith and He holds it all together.
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.” Abraham gave his attention to the Lord 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 sit at His feet, to share His grace and to live in the hope that keeps us from ever being shaken.
This week’s lessons remind us to become more aware of the presence of God. We are encouraged to listen to His voice and to pay attention to His Word. Abraham received the LORD with humble faith and Mary sat at Jesus’ feet as He proclaimed the Gospel. God is not physically present for us, but we do have Him in our hearts and in the scriptures. We may have moments like Sarah and Martha, distracted by the cares of the world, but we should not worry or be afraid. God calls us to seek Him, that we might dwell in His house forever. As we live in faith and the hope of Christ, we will not be worried or fearful, but will go to do His work in joy and peace.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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