The Second Sunday after Trinity – 18th June 2023
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Father’s Day is not a day in the Church’s calendar, and so I never preach on it. And yet today we’ve heard a story of the Patriarch Abraham, claimed as father in a physical sense by both Jews and Arabs, and in a spiritual sense by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. As St Paul says in his epistle to the Romans, we are the descendants of Abraham through the righteousness of faith.
Father’s Day can be a difficult day for many people; a day when people reflect in gratitude on their fathers, but also a day when people are more than usually conscious of wounds and losses of one sort or another. We will be hearing a good deal about Abraham and his family over the coming weeks and months, and we will discover that the complexity of family life in the 21st century is not unique; the strains and pressures on families in the days of Abraham were different to those of our own, but strains and pressure there certainly were, and the destructive forces of jealousy and rivalry and insecurity play out in these stories just as they do in our own day. But despite all of this, the love and tenderness of fathers for their children is also an important thread in the story.
As we’re at the beginning of a series of Old Testament readings that will take us through the principle narrative arc of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, it’s worth taking a little time to set the story up.
There are eleven chapters of Genesis before we get to the call of Abraham. Things go wrong pretty quickly and pretty badly. After God’s declaration of the goodness of creation, we hear of the sin of Adam and Eve, Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, Noah’s discovery of wine and the predictable consequences, the arrogance of humanity in constructing the Tower of Babel to try to reach the heavens, and God’s punishment of a confusion of languages. The scene at the end of the eleventh chapter of Genesis is desolate: humanity has rapidly arrived at a place of violence, disorder and confusion. And at just this point, we hear that God speaks to Abraham, calling him to leave his father’s land, and journey to a land that God will give to Abraham and his descendants. At this point, Abraham is already an old man, and doesn’t have even one descendant.
There is no explanation of God’s call of Abraham. He just calls him. We know nothing about Abraham prior to God’s call, apart from his genealogy. God calls him, and he responds obediently. That’s all we know.
We join the story today a few chapters further along. Abraham has left his father’s house with his wife, Sarah, and in the course of his wanderings as a nomadic pastoralist he has become a wealthy man, with flocks of animals and servants – but still no descendants.
Christians today are often inclined to draw a sharp distinction between the Old and New Testaments. In fact this is nothing new: one of the earliest heretics was a chap called Marcion who wanted to get rid of the entire Old Testament. Today we often hear people contrasting the supposedly angry God of the Old Testament with the loving God proclaimed by Jesus, apparently not noticing that the God of the Old Testament is presented as loving and faithful and merciful, and the God of the New Testament cares every bit as much about justice as the God of the Old.
The story of Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre foreshadows a number of important New Testament themes in a way that is uncanny.
In the first place, the Lord appears to Abraham in a strangely direct way. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the Lord tells Moses that he cannot see His face. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the Lord makes Himself known in dreams, or through intermediary angels, or in strange visions. But here, at the Oaks of Mamre, God simply turns up at Abraham’s tent.
And it gets weirder. No explanation is offered for the fact that the Lord appears to Abraham as three men. The narrative sometimes speaks of them as three, and sometimes simply as “the Lord”. Biblical scholars will of course point to the obvious anachronism of reading the doctrine of the Trinity back into this story – it would be several hundreds of years before the ink would dry on the Nicene Creed – and yet there is no way for a Christian to read this story without thinking of the Holy Trinity. Looking at this story backwards from the New Testament revelation of Jesus the beloved Son, and the giving of the Holy Spirit, it is impossible not to see this story as some sort of prophetic foretelling of later Christian belief.
And weirder still, God, appearing as three men, sits down to a sturdy protein rich meal, the meat and dairy-based diet of a pastoralist. Theologians sometimes balk at the idea of the Risen Christ eating grilled fish on the beach with His disciples; I wonder what they think of the idea of the Holy Trinity sitting down at table and eating a robust meal of steak and cheese? Once again, a Christian cannot help but seeing in this story a foreshadowing of the Incarnation; here we are presented with a God who is not aloof, but is rather scandalously intimate with His creatures, to the point of entering into creation, and even accepting human hospitality. Again we see that the supposed contrast between the Old and New Testaments is not what we think it to be.
And so, having appeared, inexplicably, as three men; and having sat down to the sort of meal that really sticks to the ribs; the Lord goes on to say something silly: He says that in a year’s time Abraham’s wife Sarah will have a son. Sarah overhears the conversation, and laughs. Her remark is very direct: “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”. Not only is she laughing at the idea of having a child; she is laughing at the idea of having sex at all.
It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the disciples laughing in this morning’s gospel; laughing, that is, until they realise that Jesus is serious. My daughter Blanche, as some of you will know, has recently come back from a Duke of Edinburgh expedition. I can tell you that the packing list from her school was very different to Jesus’ instructions to His disciples: “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff…”. Jesus has clearly never been a boy scout. And it gets worse: “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” We teach our children that it is a great virtue to be prepared, and yet here is Jesus telling His disciples precisely the opposite: much like Abraham before them, they are simply to step out in trust, and the Lord will take care of the rest.
St Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians of the foolishness of God – the foolishness of God that is wiser the human wisdom. We find the same idea expressed in different ways throughout the writings of the New Testament. But it is there too in Genesis, in the story we heard this morning. Sarah laughs, because what the Lord has said through these three strangers is crazy. She considers herself and her husband past taking pleasure in sexual intimacy, and yet she is told that she is to have a child. But that is what the Lord says, and that is what the Lord does.
In this short passage we learn so much about God. We learn that our God is not aloof, not a far off God, but rather a God who is intimately concerned with human affairs. We learn that there is even a kind of humility about God; a willingness to accept the humble offerings of His creatures. God after all does not need Abraham to feed Him; and yet these three strangers sit at Abraham’s table and receive his hospitality. And although God is intimate with Abraham, and through Abraham with the whole human race, this is also a God who is different. His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts. Our God is strangely present, strangely humble, and from our human perspective can sometimes seem to be a little bit crazy. And so it seems that what is revealed to us through Our Lord Jesus Christ in the New Testament very plainly comes from the same place as what is revealed to Abraham in the Old.
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.