Entertaining Angels/Unaware

Genesis 18:1-15

Focus Statement: Though we act may out of duty or through our doubt, God makes the impossible possible and brings the promise and fulfillment of new life.

Joe and I have been watching old episodes of the TV series Columbo recently.  It’s old, but I’m sure most of you have seen it.  In every episode, in the first scene there is a famous guest star committing a crime – usually a murder – and in the remainder of the episode the bumbling but brilliant Lieutenant Columbo will solve the case, make the murderer squirm, and always (to the delight of the audience) comes back with ‘Oh just one more thing…’  This is a series that classically used dramatic irony: the viewers know something that the people in the program do not: we know who dunnit.

Dramatic irony is one of the key tools used by the teller of the Genesis story that we just heard…it heightens tension and keeps the reader/listener guessing.  We heard Hebrews 13:2, a couple of weeks ago when we were also hearing the story of Ruth.  It reads “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  Or, in The King James, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Indeed this is exactly what happened in the story we find at the beginning of Genesis 18. 

Abraham is calmly sitting at the opening of his tent – perhaps he is healing from his circumcision which he has undergone in the previous chapter – when all of a sudden three mysterious strangers appear before him, seemingly out of nowhere.  That phrase ‘he looked up…’ is supposed to heighten the intensity of that out-of-nowhere sensation.  Though Abraham is surprised, (confused?) the audience is left in no doubt as to who they are.  Before we even hear it from Abe’s perspective, we hear that ‘The Lord (YHWH) appeared to Abraham while he sat in the heat of the day.”

So we know that one of them, at least, is the YHWH.  And although there are three, Abraham goes back and forth between addressing one (there must be an obvious leader, who is God) and the three together.  Later in the chapter the two others are identified as ‘messengers.’ This is sometimes translated angels and sometimes used synonymously with God/YHWH.  It is not at all clear, however, that Abraham is aware of who these visitors are.

But…he immediately shifts into high gear hospitality.  He runs, he hastens, he quickly prepares.   Some kind of host switch has been flipped. This is of a duty – would be the duty of any desert dweller of the time.  He does not need to know that these men are God or God’s emissaries.  There was no Oak of Mamre Comfort Inn – in fact there were no hotels at all 4000 years ago.  And so when strangers appear in the heat of the day, needing a wash and a rest, you tend to their needs. 

This seems at once like a no-brainer and yet quite foreign.  As a congregation we welcome people into our homes when a visiting choir comes through or MVS leaders from all over the US, but having strangers, or even inviting each other over for lunch after church – seems pretty rare.  Even our parents stay in hotels when they come and visit Joe and me (although our place is small).

I once received a very vivid taste of this kind of cultural hospitality which is still alive in nomadic desert cultures today (or at least it was in the early nineties when I lived in the middle east).  While my family traveled to the south of Jordan to see some ancient sites and the country was almost deserted of foreigners because of the impending gulf war, we met a Bedouin family who has made camp near the site of Petra.  They eagerly invited us to have tea with them.  Tea and hot flat bread were prepared while we sat and struggled to understand each other – or I should say my parents and the host struggled.  And when we were ‘refreshed’ we went on our way.  We found out later from my grandpa that one of the many goats that were wandering around the tent had licked the water drops out of each of our newly cleaned tea glasses while our hostess wasn’t looking and props to my Grandpa he drank the tea knowing that a goat had cleaned his cup.  He could not deny the gracious hospitality of this family who welcomed an awkward and bumbling white family into their camp.

Like them, Abraham responded automatically to the visitors, out of cultural appropriateness, and yet he also went beyond what he needed to do – using the best of his flock and making much more than necessary.  It is in the context of this abundant hospitality that two things happen. 1) After the flurry of preparatory activity the pace suddenly slows again and 2) attention shifts to Sarah, who has been a partner in preparations, but has until now been invisible in the tent. 

But because God is God, her existence is known.  And because God is God, a promise is made.  This is, ultimately an annunciation story, of which there are some many in the Bible, including, most famously for Christians, the annunciation of the messenger Gabriel to Mary that she is going to conceive and bear Jesus.   Often in such stories, the characters are tested by the messengers: will the hospitality prove adequate?  Will the hosts be worthy of the announcement?  Certainly Abraham and Sarah leave nothing in doubt as to the meal and rest they provide, even if it is out of duty or cultural obligation.  But duty or not, God is here for a reason: announcing a child.

The Lord says – to Abraham, not to Sarah: “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”  And Sarah, who was listening from the entrance to the tent laughed.  Maybe it is this announcement that comes as more of a test, not the hospitality that is provided.  It does seem pretty darn ridiculous that Old Dried-Up Sarah and Impotent Abe would be able to bear a child.  In fact, Sarah is not the first of the couple to laugh at this promise.  In chapter 17 of Genesis God makes a similar promise to Abraham alone – announcing that he will have a son and Abraham busts a gut: Speaking of Sarah, God says: “I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.’ Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed.  In other words it was not just a little chuckle.  And then after he laughs, Abraham still asks God to bless Ishmael – just as a backup.  Apparently he didn’t think God could follow through.

And apparently he didn’t think it that it was news worth sharing with his wife, since this seems to be the first time she’s hearing it, hanging around by the tent opening while the visitors chat with her husband.  So she overhears this news that she is clearly meant to overhear, and she laughs to herself, shakes her head maybe.  These angels really are entertaining!  Of course she laughed – what woman wouldn’t?  Even now in the age of fertility treatments and test tube babies and surrogates, there have only been a handful of women in their 60’s to give birth.  Sarah was almost one hundred.  This fact is emphasized by the narrator, by Sarah herself and by the reiteration of YHWH of Sarah’s words when God responds to her laughter.

Kathleen Henderson Staudt wrote a poem about Sarah’s laughter; this is the first part of it…

Listening at the tent flap
While her husband talked to God
She overheard the good news, that at last
 (at ninety-whatever)
She would have a child!

And she laughed.
 – (although you might well say, it wasn’t funny.
 The timing must have seemed a cruel joke).
“What?  Now that I am old, shall I have joy?”
 (Why now? Why not fifty – seventy – years ago
  When she was strong and ready, even longing.
  Why wait to grant a lifetime’s fervent prayer
  Until all hope was gone?)

So listening at the flap, in joy and bitterness, she laughed,
Never dreaming that her husband’s God
Might want to speak to her.

Even though the news caused her to laugh, even though her sense of irony could not be contained, this is a conversation that God wants to have with her.  And she somehow recognizes the truth of the promise that God gives – or at least the truth of this visitors true identity.  Maybe it was when, thinking she is unseen and un-noticed, all of a sudden, as suddenly as the visitors appeared, she is noticed by ‘her husband’s God’ as Henderson Staudt names the messenger (although certainly after all she has been through to follow this God, she must have taken some kind of ownership for the relationship).  The silent secret laughter is heard.  In fact the words here deepen the sense of irony and bitterness she might have felt, indicating when she laughs ‘to herself’ it means something more like ‘in her inmost part’ – the laughter coming even from her barren womb itself.

But God does hear her laughter – and calls her on it.  Although still speaking through Abraham, The Lord asks, “‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?”  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.’  And meanwhile, Abraham (it seems to me) must be thinking, ‘I didn’t hear Sarah laugh, what’s this guy talking about.  But Sarah knows and it is she who responds to the question.  We read “But Sarah denied it saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ for she was afraid.  He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.'”

Sarah is freaked out.  Not only did God hear her laugh, notice her when she thought she’d gone un-noticed, but challenges her unfaithfulness and Sarah squirms.  In Columbo, at some point in the episode (usually early) Columbo figures out who the murderer is and then continues through the episode to make that person or persons question themselves, backtrack, justify and in general be uncomfortable.  Sarah is definitely uncomfortable and trying to get out of it.

The second half of the poem I began before continues…

So listening at the flap, in joy and bitterness, she laughed,
Never dreaming that her husband’s God
Might want to speak to her.

Her laughter, though, was heard,
And soon she trembled
To hear the strange, familiar, terrifying voice of God.
 (And yet, it seemed that voice was also sharing in the joke
   In confidence, across the kitchen table).
“You laugh?” said god, and laughed when she denied it,
“I heard you laugh.  But wait.
Wait, and I will show you.
Is anything too wonderful for Me?”

 “Just wait and I will show you – and remember how you laughed.”
And Sarah’s laughter, creature to Creator, named her child.

The writer definitely want to know what to what a decrepit age the two protagonist have grown.  You’ll see on the cover of your communicators an image created by the website ‘Wordle.com’ based on the text of our story.  The more often a word appears, the larger it is.  ‘Old’ is relatively large…Abraham and Sarah are old.

This, of course make the work of God in providing a son for the couple all the more wonderful.  The story is left there, with the visitor’s ‘Oh yes, you did.” It is unresolved.  The visitors go one to the next part of the story and Abraham and Sarah are left waiting and wondering.  But soon enough, Sarah will discover that she is indeed pregnant and in due season, she will indeed have a son.

The child’s name, of course in Isaac, or yitzkhak in Hebrew.  A form of the verb laugh – for both Abraham and Sarah did laugh at the news that he would be conceived by two old and shriveled folks such as themselves.  Isaac is named for the disbelieving laughter of his parents.

Yet this story show that God will work through our disbelief and through our doubt and through our laughter.  God will be faithful where there is promise.  God puts the question to the elderly pair: Is anything to wonderful for God?  Sometimes we give an implicit ‘yes’ in our doubting.  Yes, God.  Some things really must be too wonderful, too impossible, too out of reach.  But God, shows in spite of doubt the answer to the question, is anything too wonderful for me, is always ‘no.’

This is a story that begins with the dutiful but abundant hospitality of an aged couple to strangers in the desert and ends with the promise and assurance of a new generation even in their old age.  Abraham does not offer kindness and hospitality because he has an expectation of blessing – he is more ignorant than his wife, who figures out who these messengers are – and yet he is blessed all the more.  God is on our side.  Staudt’s poem captures that feeling in the camaraderie she infuses into God’s challenging of Sarah’s laughter.  She captures the certainty of the God who will be able to say I told you so with a wink. 

Eugene Roop says of this story, “God works with and through people who laugh the laugh of doubt. The tradition proclaims that nothing is too hard for the Lord —not that Yahweh will do all things, but that God’s promises will not fail (Brueggemann, 1982: 161).”  God’s promise of life endures and even though it seems ridiculous and laughable, even though faith is scandalous and crazy.  May we take the promise all the more seriously, even as we laugh.