Is Anything Too Wonderful?
Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
Virginia-Highland Church, Atlanta, Georgia
June 15, 2008 (11th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
The lesson from the Hebrew Bible for today takes us into the home of Abraham and Sarah, where the elderly couple is going through their everyday routine – totally unaware that their lives are about to be changed forever. The text tells us that Abraham is sitting in the shade of his tent “in the heat of the day” – a concept that is not hard to imagine in Georgia in the middle of June. While Sarah is inside, three strangers arrive.
We know who one of the strangers is, but Abraham doesn’t yet. Even without knowing who they are, however, Abraham is eager to offer them a friendly welcome. “Eager” might even be something of an understatement. Abraham’s desire to be helpful causes him buzz through the first few verses of the text in a constant whirl of activity. He runs forward, he bows, he brings, he hastens, he takes, he sets.
In some ways, this reminds me of our house before family comes to visit – especially that 11th hour when I’m running around the living room looking for places to hide all of the extra magazines, books, and other bric-a-brac that are usually lying about. There’s a difference, though. I’m usually running around out of fear – fear that my mother-in-law won’t approve of my housekeeping. Abraham, however, is genuinely happy to have the opportunity to offer the comforts of his household to wandering strangers.
Hospitality. Before this text becomes one of divine encounter, it is a simple celebration of the beauty of genuine hospitality. Abraham sees strangers, hot, tired, and dusty from the road – and he knows that it is within his means to make their lives much better.
First, he offers them water to wash the dust from their feet. Anyone who has walked a long way on a hot trail knows that this alone is a great luxury. Next, Abraham offers them a place to rest in the shade. Then, Abraham feeds the strangers – and not just some leftovers from the bottom of the fridge or some neglected cans of soup from the back of the pantry. Abraham offers the strangers the very best he has to eat, and the strangers eat better than Abraham and Sarah would have expected to eat all month.
On a hot day after a lot of exertion, water, shade, and food are more than simple courtesy; they can feel like a chance to experience heaven itself. Abraham and Sarah had the wealth and the prosperity to offer that simple, but amazing, gift to strangers – and they did so.
I think our ancestors preserved this story in this way – with nearly half of it dedicated to the details of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality – to remind us that, with no ulterior motives or additional theological undertones, generosity and kindness to those far from home is a magnificent act that shows the very best of what humans can be.
There is much more to the story, though, than kindness to strangers. The author of Hebrews is right on the money here. He or she wrote, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” [Heb 13:2]. That’s exactly what happens here, but it’s not just angels. Abraham and Sarah are not just caring for angels. They are sharing a meal with Almighty God, who has come to speak with them face-to-face.
As I thought about this passage during the past week, I finally decided that this is the most challenging part of the text to bring to life in the context of a twenty-first century worship service. We have become accustomed to thinking of “encountering God” as an abstract concept: a feeling, perhaps, or even a “mystery” that grows out of our spiritual disciplines. More often, especially in mainline Christianity, I think the concept of divine encounter gets treated completely as an allegory. “I met Jesus in a homeless person,” some of us might say, or, “I see God when I see a diverse, inclusive community of faith gathered for worship in one place.”
There certainly theological validity in those allegories. As Christians, we believe the Church is the Body of Christ – a form of the physical presence of God. But there is more to God than just ourselves and our limited, human presence. This text reminds us that God is not just a concept or an idea, God is a real, living, vital being – a person who wants to interact with us, talk with us, and know us first-hand.
Today’s story isn’t just about hospitality, it is about what happens when a couple of our ancestors met God face-to-face. Again, it is tempting to allegorize this or imply that maybe Abraham and Sarah had been sitting in the sun a little too long. Let’s resist that temptation, letting go of the skepticism that is a product of our fallen natures, and simply hear from Abraham and Sarah what it was like to hear the very words of God.
The first thing that jumps out at me from this encounter is that, when you meet God face-to-face, God says really strange things. Abraham is standing nearby as the strangers finish their meal, and the strangers ask him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” Abraham explains that she is inside the tent, and then things get a little weird.
One of the strangers, presumably God, says, “I will come back by here at the appropriate time, and when I do your wife Sarah will have a son.” As predictions go, this one might make sense if Abraham and Sarah were young or even middle-aged; but they are not. The next couple of verses make it clear that the couple is very old; and that Sarah is well past the ability to conceive a child.
In other words, God’s pronouncement here is not just strange – it’s impossible! This is one of the things we lose when we limit our understanding of what it means to encounter God. When we assume that we will only meet God in the people or experiences of our everyday lives or even of our worship services; we lose something of the impossibility of God. Somehow we have to find a way to leave room in our lives for a God who is truly strange, a God who is not limited in the ways we are, a God who does not think in terms of doing good things or even great things or even amazing things – we have to leave space to encounter the true and living God who does impossible things.
And so, when Abraham and Sarah met God in-person, God tells them that – even though it is impossible – they are going to have a child. I think it is worth pausing at this point in the story to recognize how painful that makes this text for some of us. Abraham and Sarah are not the only couple to stand before God hoping for a child even though they knew it was impossible. Over the centuries countless couples have done the same, only to find that their story ends very differently from Abraham and Sarah’s. Not everyone who hopes for a child receives one.
This is another, more difficult aspect of thinking about what it means to encounter God. Sometimes things don’t go the way we would hope, and sometimes other people get the miracles we wanted. Whether that miracle is a child, or healing, or a job – or any number of things – encountering dealing with the Almighty Creator of the Universe means that we can’t predict or control how things are going to work out. For Sarah and Abraham, the miracle of God’s interaction is a child. For many of us, God has other miracles in mind.
It’s worth noting, however, that Sarah isn’t immediately convinced of the likelihood of what God promises her. In fact, when she overhears what God is saying, she laughs to herself – and who can blame her? In fact, there’s a totally different story in chapter 17 of Genesis where Abraham thinks the idea of Sarah getting pregnant is so ridiculous that he falls on the ground laughing [Gen 17:17].
Just for the record, these people falling over from laughter at God’s promise are the same ones held up in Hebrews [Heb 11:11] and Romans [Rom 4:18-22] as paragons of belief and heroes because of the strength of their faith. There are probably a couple of lessons there.
The first is rather simple and obvious, but I don’t think we should ignore it just because it sounds pithy. God really isn’t concerned by what we think about the plans that God has made for us. No matter how ridiculous, how strange, how preposterous, or how amazing things may seem to us – Almighty God has no intention of letting our doubts (whether they are in ourselves or in God) hold back the miraculous.
On the flip side, Sarah’s laughter reminds us that even our heroes in the faith have doubts. It is so tempting to place those folks on a pedestal that we forget that every human God has ever used – with the exception of Jesus – has been a flawed instrument. Even the two people upon whose faith God built the entire nation of Israel thought God’s promise was not just impossible – they thought it was laughably ridiculous.
For Abraham and Sarah faith wasn’t about perfection – Genesis is honest about their mistakes. For both of them, and for us as well, faith is about choosing to continue our journey toward God rather than away from God – even when we question or doubt or find the whole thing laughable. Even as she laughed, surely Sarah continued to make dessert – because even if she thought God was crazy, she wasn’t going to let God leave her home without being properly taken care of. Perhaps, there is actually more faith in caring for a God you question than there is in blind obedience.
God, almost teasingly, answers Sarah’s laughter from outside the tent, asking a simple question, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Some of you may have translations which say, “Is anything ‘impossible’ for the LORD?” because that particular word is a complex one to translate. It conveys the sense of something that is astonishing and impossible, an amazing feat of power.
Given the choice, I think I prefer the NRSV’s reading, mainly because I think that seeing the work of God as a source of awe and wonder is central to the Christian experience.
I don’t think God’s question was directed just at Sarah and Abraham. To this day, God speaks through their story to ask us, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”
I’m not sure we’re listening. In fact, in an era of declining church membership and the decreasing influence of mainline Christians in our country, I think we as believers have increasingly lowered our expectations of what God will do. We no longer expect revival and transformation, we just pray that people will show up. We may pray for peace, but I think we’d just be happy to hear a few more politicians admit that God doesn’t really like war. We say that we hope to end hunger and eradicate poverty, but we settle for celebrating even the most minor dents in the real problems of the world.
And all the while, God watches and asks us, “But is anything too wonderful for Me?” Perhaps that question should be written at the top of every church budget, across the margins of the minutes from every church committee meeting, and spoken before every church business meeting: “Is anything too wonderful for God?” Perhaps as individuals we should end every prayer with, “But is anything too wonderful for God?”
Whatever our hopes, for ourselves, for our children, for our churches, for the world, no matter how large we dream them, they are all within reach for God. Do not be afraid to dream big. Do not be afraid to plan big. Do not be afraid to trust in the God who wants to walk with us, who wants to feast with us, and who even wants to hear – firsthand – the laughter of our doubts.
Notice, however, that Sarah’s laughter changes in the twenty-first chapter of Genesis, where God keeps the promise. When their son is born, Sarah is no longer laughing because she thinks God’s promise is ridiculous; she laughs out of sheer joy. In fact, she names the child “Isaac” meaning “laughter,” and she proclaims, for “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
Standing with Sarah and Abraham means moving beyond our doubts and trusting that nothing is too wonderful for our God who loves us. Being people of faith means joining in Sarah’s laughter and remembering that God, the very Creator of the Universe, laughs with us.