Can you think of the most important guest that you have entertained? It may have been in your own home or an occasion at work or in some other place. I remember the time when Princess Ann came to Denbigh Infirmary, the community hospital of which I was then chaplain. It was celebrating its bicentenary having a considerably outlasted its notorious cousin up the road. The visit of the princess royal was considered a special honour and there were several planning meetings for the great day when everything from the catering to the guest list were carefully thought through. It was a marvellous occasion with her visit being prolonged by the failure of her helicopter to start and having to be conveyed to her next visit by road.
May be your important guest is not royalty or a key political figure or even a ‘B’ list celebrity. Maybe it’s just someone you love and value and want them to have the best experience possible when they come around to yours.
Both our old testament reading (Genesis 18.1-10) and the gospel reading (Luke 10.38-42) are about entertaining special guests. Hospitality to strangers was an important part of the culture in the lands and times of the bible and still is to an extent today. In the reading from Genesis, Abraham, the great nomad, is sitting in the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day; having his siesta and watching the world go by. As he looks up, he is aware of the presence of three men. He goes forward to meet them. He bows low and says in the singular to the three men: ‘If I have found favour in your eyes, my Lord, do not pass my servant by.’ (Genesis 18.3) Abraham then invites them to wash their feet, rest under the shade of his tree and offers them food. He runs back into the tent to get Sarah, his wife to make bread for the impromptu guests. He goes to his animals and selects a choice tender calf which he then orders his servant to prepare for his guests along with curds and milk.
As the three men eat under the tree, they ask about Sarah. Abraham explains that she is in the tent. The text then returns to the singular: ‘Then the Lord (or he) said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’’ (Genesis 18.10)
On the surface, this reading sounds like a nice example of middle eastern hospitality with a good message for Abraham and Sarah that they are to have a son. But we must remember that both Abraham and Sarah were well past the age of childbearing. That in frustration at Sarah’s lack of fertility, Abraham had already taken his slave girl Hagar, to be a surrogate mother and she had born him a son called Ishmael. These messengers were not just other nomads passing by. This was no less than a divine encounter! How many men did Abraham entertain? Three, yet the encounter is introduced by the words: ‘The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees or oaks of Mamre…’ (Genesis 18.1) It is clear from the text we have read and the conversation which follows that while Abraham sees and entertains three men, really they are one; they are the Lord.
Three yet one? Where have we heard that before? This fascinating writing from the earliest part of Israel’s history already speaks of a ‘triune’ God; a God who is a trinity of persons. You may well recall the famous icon or picture of this scene painted by the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev in the 15th Century. It is called ‘The Trinity’ and pictures an intense relationship between the three figures so that they become one drawing the viewer of the picture into their relationship. It reminds us that when we say with John ‘God is love’ (1 John 4.8) what we mean is that God is relationship; he is intimacy. That is what Abraham and Sarah experienced that heat filled lunchtime at the oaks of Mamre. They responded with warmth and hospitality. They were given a challenging prophecy which came true for them. From this encounter, the rest of biblical history; our history develops having been put on hold through Sarah’s infertility.
From Mamre, thought to be in the desert regions of the south of Israel in the region of Hebron, we move to within striking distance of Jerusalem and the small village of Bethany which was the home of Martha, her sister Mary and their brother Lazarus. From the number of references, we have to this place and this family in the gospel accounts, it would seem reasonable to assume that Jesus made it his base when he came up to Jerusalem. It lies on a ridge to the east of the city and in Jesus’ time would have been a retreat from the intensity of ministry in the city itself.
In the gospel reading, (Luke 10.38-42) Luke describes what was possibly Jesus’ first visit to the home. The two sisters behave in very different ways. Martha is busy, distracted with the tasks necessary to provide hospitality for her guest and may be other things too. My guess is that there would be other men in the house who are not recorded; Lazarus, perhaps other brothers and some of Jesus’ disciples. The place would have been crowded. No wonder Martha was busy. And Mary? She should have been helping her organise the food and the furniture, doing the woman’s work but no, she was just sitting around with the men listening to Jesus. When Martha complains not unreasonably, it’s Mary who gets the praise from Jesus. Women then think he’s being so unfair on Martha when actually what he is doing is relieving Mary and by implication Martha of always having to take up the role expected of women in their society. He is giving her the right along with the men, of engaging in serious conversation and to listen to his teaching. Jesus is promoting in this home at Bethany an equality of relationship with God that was certainly lacking in the religious set up of his day. And today? There is still a primacy given to men in Judaism and in Islam and many other religions. In our church culture in Wrexham, my observation is that while we have struggled to let women into the leadership of the church, it is the men who are often absent from small group study…listening to Jesus in his word.
Abraham hosted no less than God himself in his tent. Mary, Martha and her family were to grow to realise that in providing a home from home for Jesus, they were hosting no less than the ‘Lord of Heaven and Earth’. How would you react if Jesus came knocking on your door? Would send him packing like a Jehovah Witness? (even though he is the ultimate Jehovah Witness!) Would you engage in polite conversation at the door and then say that you weren’t really interested? Would you invite him in and offer him cuppa and a biscuit, hear him out, promise to follow him but decide it’s all a bit much after he’s gone. Or do you welcome him not just into you home but into your heart. Is he in fact a member of the family …even the most precious member of the family? Is he your personal Lord and Saviour? People can be a bit unsure about that language, but it has developed because the bible tells of a God from Genesis to Revelation who is God with us, Emmanuel. Abraham entertains the Holy Trinity and Martha and Mary, the risen Lord.
There is that most famous of paintings by the pre-Raphaelite artist Holman Hunt; ‘The Light of the World.’ Jesus carrying a lamp stands at a door encrusted with ivy and knocks. The handle is nowhere to be seen, its on the inside. Jesus longs to invite himself to tea as he did for Zacchaeus. Are we willing like Zacchaeus to open the door, to welcome the Lord into our lives in the spirit? May we embrace the intimacy God offers us in Christ.
Trinity 5 21.07.2019