Hospitality, Genesis 18v1-15

A farmer went to the big city to see the sights. Checking in, he asked the hotel receptionist about the time of meals. ‘Breakfast is served from 6 am to 11 am; lunch from midday to 3 pm, and supper from 5.30 to 11.00 in the evening’. ‘Look here’ enquired the farmer in surprise, ‘when am I going to get some time to see the city?

The hospitality industry is big business in Britain, providing jobs for many people. So much so that when we hear the word hospitality we might well think first of a commercial transaction – paying to stay a night in a room. Or companies which provide receptions at weddings, that kind of thing. Hospitality is incredibly valuable in oiling the wheels of business, politics, estate agency, you name it.

And of course there is the hospitality that is offered to close friends and family. One wag once defined hospitality as ‘Making your guests feel at home, even when you wish they were.

In many parts of the world hospitality is still as it was in the days of Abraham: extremely generous. A stranger turns up announced, and no matter what the time of day, everything stops. He or she is warmly welcomed, given the best seat and a cold drink while the fatted calf is killed so a generous meal can be served

I heard of a man in an Africa village who was due to welcome guests from an English Diocese to his home as part of a link Diocese scheme. He had heard that Westerners were used to a different sort of loo. So he planned to install one. This man was going to blow his life savings on fitting a WC so that his guests could enjoy home comforts for a week.

Why such incredible generosity? In many societies, caring for your guests and giving them the best possible hospitality is a point of principle and honour. You disgrace yourself, your clan and your community if you do not welcome the stranger. 

After all your fellow human being is made in the image of God. Entertaining guests is a way of serving God. As Hebrews 13:2 puts it: ‘Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it.’ Or as Jesus said in Matthew 25 ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.’ 

Many cultures have tales about divine beings arriving in human form, and the dreadful things that happen if they are turned away. Here v.1 informs the reader that the Lord appears to Abraham, so we know who the visitors are. But v.2 makes it clear that Abraham has not yet recognised God as he only sees three men. Interesting isn’t it that God appears as three – from very early on the church has seen this as a pointer to the Trinity and you may be familiar with the Orthodox icons on this theme like Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham

Even by Middle Eastern standards, Abraham is exceptionally welcoming. Barking orders to Sarah and the servants he rushes round organising a meal with an extraordinary amount of bread and an entire calf just for three people. Surely it is no coincidence that these are also the offerings made to God in Old Testament worship? Like modern Bedouin they sit and eat yoghurt as their host respectfully stands by.

In v.9 there’s a hint of supernatural knowledge – how do they know that Abraham’s wife is called Sarah? The promise of a baby follows, Sarah laughs to herself. But nothing is hidden from their guest, and his true nature is revealed as v.13 uses God’s name: ‘The Lord said to Abraham ‘why did Sarah laugh?’

She laughs because of God’s amazing promise – the promise of a baby. Hospitality enables them to hear God’s great blessing. We’ll come to the promise later, but for now, what about hospitality? What can we learn from Abraham’s ministry of welcome

Firstly, hospitality is a ministry. It brings people together, it makes peace, it serves communities. Those who offer hospitality are bringing a great blessing and we need to thank them.

Secondly remember the words of Jesus about not seeking returns. When you give a party, don’t invite those who can repay you, Jesus said, invite those who have nothing. Hospitality that is given freely, that is offered to the poor, that includes the marginalised is hospitality that honours Jesus. He loves it when we step out from our friendship groups to greet the person who’s standing alone and unsure. When we serve those in need we serve him.

Thirdly, in Romans 12:13 St Paul says ‘Practice hospitality’. Practice makes perfect. Practice means doing it – offering hospitality isn’t just the responsibility of the few but for everyone. Practice means keep on doing it. Practice means be ambitious, have aims so you get better

For the reason behind hospitality is that each person matters to us because each person matters to God. Our needs, our hopes, our dreams matter to him. I wonder what you would do if God came to your house today? If Jesus came to my house I know that I would be like Jairus. I know the healing I would seek, the one whom I would bring to Jesus for him to heal and bless. Who or what would you bring to Jesus?

In the story, God knows Abraham and Sarah’s deepest longing. He knows the pain they have felt over many years. He offers hope even when they do not ask. 25 long years they have lived with this promise – God said you will become the father of many nations and they will inhabit this land. Over a quarter of a century Abraham and Sarah have become rich, but they do not possess the land God promised. During that time Abraham has become a father to Ishmael, but the mother was Sarah’s servant. Hope quenched seems to have become bitter

But here, God keeps his promise. What I love about this story is the way that God’s promise weaves together the big picture – the salvation of the world – and the personal blessing for an elderly couple. There’s the overarching story: how God promised that Israel would be a light to the nations, showing God’s love and giving rise to the Messiah, our Saviour. And there’s the personal story, how all this will happen when Abraham and Sarah have their longed for child.

God is able to include our lives in his creation-wide plan. Sometimes we may feel as if we are very small cogs in an enormously large machine. But actually we are God’s beloved children, hugely important to him.

A better picture might be a flower bed, a riot of colour. There are groups of plantings, blocks of blues purples and reds following the gardener’s plan. Yet this happens because each individual geranium or rose is following its destiny, being fulfilled in flowering.

God weaves a tapestry out of history and we should not be surprised if we surrender ourselves to him and then find that we are fulfilling our own purpose while playing a part on a greater stage. The key thing that has to happen though is our obedience: just before this reading God had appeared to Abraham. He gave Abraham the ceremony of circumcision – an outward sign to distinguish the Jewish people, and Abraham obeyed God. It’s that commitment and obedience which opens the way to finding God’s will

So if we ask God to steer us, then we must be prepared to hoist the sail. If we seek God’s guidance then there will be surprises on the way. As God weaves our story into his great tapestry, even our disappointments will be transformed by his grace.

It was such a shock and surprise that Sarah laughed. ‘Yeah right’ she thought – and God knew. She laughed again nine months later, and so Abraham and Sarah’s child was called Isaac – which means ‘laughter’. Laughter, joy, promise kept. The God who watches over us includes us in his plan –and laughs with us in our surprise.

 

 

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A New Year Covenant

I wonder how those New Year resolutions are going? Three hours since we woke and still going strong! Someone once said that a resolution goes in one year and out the other. My favourite is the chap who said: ‘May your troubles last as long as your New Year’s Resolutions.’

Why do they have that reputation for fading quickly? Perhaps it’s because of what they are. A resolution could be defined as a promise to make a dramatic, sudden and major change in one’s life, usually for one’s own benefit, and attempting to do so by one’s own will power and strength. Often once the resolution is broken, we throw in the towel and go back to having a drink every day, or whatever it may be.

There is a Biblical alternative. A model which has very deep roots in the Christian tradition and Judaism before it. Something we’ll be doing later in the service. It speaks, not of a one-off change, but of being continually transformed by grace. It calls us, not to a brittle promise, but a lifelong journey with God, where when we fail we are picked up again, forgiven and filled with the Holy Spirit.

This Biblical alternative is the Covenant. A committed relationship, a promise of faithfulness between God and his people. It’s almost like an agreement: there are duties set out, blessings for obedience and consequences for failure. But it’s not a legalistic thing like a property covenant – a Biblical covenant is always held in God’s grace and love, and though people broke them many times, God never broke faith.

Why today? We’re thinking about Covenants this Sunday because the 1st January is the eighth day of Christmas, and as it says in our reading from Luke 2:21 ‘On the eighth day it was time to circumcise the child and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived.’ Jewish people circumcise male children because it is commanded as one of the Old Testament covenants. Circumcision for Jews is a sign of belonging to God’s people.

The background is that when God promised Abraham he would become a great nation, God also commanded that all Abraham’s descendants should be circumcised as a reminder of this promise. There were other covenants God made with his people – for instance the giving of the Ten Commandments after the Exodus was also part of a covenant.

There’s a pattern we can see. The initiative is always God’s. God called Abraham. God rescued the people of Israel from Egypt. It wasn’t the people who approached God, rather he moved in grace and love towards his people. Then, as they respond to his call, God instructs them in the right way to live. He shows them how to thrive. These commands are for their good, so if they keep them they will experience blessings showered upon them. But if they turn away from the right path, it’s like putting up an umbrella against the shower of blessings. In other words, sin stops us enjoying the life God has called us to.

The idea of the covenant is that God and his people are bound together forever. Think of a marriage – which is often described as a covenant, the relationship is meant to endure through thick and thin. For richer and poorer, for better and for worse, God will be faithful to his people. When they sin they experience his faithfulness as judgement, discipline which brings them back. When they repent, God’s faithfulness means they are forgiven. It’s not two-faced but two sides of the same coin.

Let’s get one thing clear. A covenant isn’t about winning God’s favour. Sometimes people think that a covenant is all about doing good and avoiding evil so we can get into heaven. That is not Christianity. That would be like one of those comedies where someone is trying to catch a train – their legs go faster and faster but still the carriages draw away from them.

True Christianity teaches grace: it’s more like Jesus is the train driver who stops for us so we can get on. And a covenant is a bit like not doing anything stupid while you’re on the train: don’t get off before the destination; don’t stick your head out of the window when a tunnel is coming up. Covenants keep us abiding in the grace of God. His love brings us in and the covenant stops us messing up.

Christians don’t see a covenant as an attempt to earn salvation, because Jesus has already done it for us. That is what St. Paul is saying in our reading from Galatians chapter 4. In verse 4: ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law’ – this refers to the circumcision we thought about earlier. Jesus lived in the covenant, he kept the Jewish law fully, the only person ever to keep it both in letter and in spirit.

In verse 5: ‘In order to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption as children’. Redeem means buying back, giving a payment in order to rescue someone. The payment that Jesus makes is his own life. He offers himself as the perfect substitute in our place, a sacrifice which brings forgiveness and wipes away the wrong we have done. Only a sinless person who did not have to account for his own sin could stand in our place and take our sin upon himself.

The result is in verse 6 ‘Because you are his children, God has sent his Spirit into your hearts, crying Abba Father.’ So we are no longer slaves but children, and if children then also heirs through God. In other words, because Jesus was perfectly good, we can be forgiven in him, and we can have perfect confidence coming to God through Jesus.

That is the covenant God makes with us now. To gives us peace, forgiveness and new life through Christ. It is God’s initiative, his covenant. That’s why Christianity is not a religion of outward observance. Christians don’t need to keep Old Testament law – but we also don’t have to do the external things which are so important in other religions.

Sikhs have their turbans and Kirpan daggers, but Christians do not have to wear a cross. Muslims pray 5 times a day and fast during Ramadan. But Christians can pray anytime, wherever they are; Christians can fast during Lent – if it’s helpful, or any other time, but we don’t have to.

Rules do not define Christians, because the heart of our faith is a relationship with God through Christ. Jesus fulfils God’s perfect requirements for us; we then live out our faith, not in ritual observances, but in love and in service for God and one another.

For Christians that covenant begins in baptism. It is continued in confirmation. But it can also be helpful to renew those promises from time to time – and what better occasion than the New Year?

As we look to the future and think about how we would like to act in 2017, our New Year service invites us to affirm our covenant with God.

There are some wonderful words of commitment and openness which we’ll be hearing in a moment. Let me just quote some:

Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult;

some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both… We’re invited to trust in God’s use of us, to be at his disposal.

and later on we say together:

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,

It’s a radical openness to God. Whatever may come our way, God will be faithful. He sees a bigger picture that we cannot; he knows what is best for us, what will grow us and how we can benefit others. God walks with us on the journey, leading and teaching us through the hardships. He will not allow us to be tested beyond what we can bear.

We can trust in God utterly because he is faithful. He has made a covenant with us, the covenant we remember at the Eucharist, the blood of the new covenant. God has given us a promise which is unshakeable because it is grounded in his consistent character, his covenanted love.

I’ll end with a poem which is well known, deservedly so. It was quoted by King George 6th in his 1939 Christmas broadcast – if we think we live in uncertain times, how much more so back then!

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

Are you called? Jeremiah 1:4-10

Dad, when I grow up I want to be a bin-man.

Ok son. Er, why would you like to be a bin man?

Because I’ve only seen them work once a week.

Mind you, I suppose you could say the same about Vicars. Not as bad though as the lady who asked her daughter: ‘What would you like to do when you’re big like Mummy?’ To which the child replied ‘Go on a diet’.

Seriously, what hopes do we have for our children? Grandchildren? Or ourselves? Having a good job? Being happy whatever they do? Growing up to be a parent themselves? Having a living faith in God? What are the things we pray for, for our children, grandchildren and ourselves?

The wonderful thing is that God has a plan for each one of us. Our loving heavenly Father knows us better even than we know ourselves. He loves us more than the best parent could ever love their child. And he calls us to fulfil our destiny in relationship with him. To return to him through Jesus.

Our reading from Jeremiah makes this very clear. It comes from the beginning of the book, where God calls the Old Testament prophet. He says to him ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you’.

Imagine God saying that to you: before you were born I knew you. God knows our foibles, our interests, our triumphs and disasters. For example: Isn’t it amazing how different each child is – even from the same parents? The same genes go into the mix, but two siblings can be completely different, and it’s remarkable how early personality appears. As a parent you see that little person develop– but God knows them from the very beginning.

He knows everything about us. He sees through our outward fronts into our inner secrets, he loves us as we are yet loves us too much to allow us to remain the same.

God says to Jeremiah ‘Before you were born I set you apart’. He called him to a particular role.

Interestingly, verse 5 says that God has appointed Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations. Not just Judah – although we very much associate Jeremiah as the prophet of Jerusalem’s last days. He spoke so much about the judgement coming on Judah that we can forget he gave messages to the nations too, and these are all grouped together at the end of his book.

Jeremiah had a unique, totally one off call. Does that mean then that those words about God knowing destiny, setting apart for a task only apply to the particular case of Jeremiah? I don’t think so. For the words in verse 5 and 6 are all based on the principle that God formed Jeremiah in the womb. If he did so for Jeremiah, he did so for us. Which is not to deny biological facts – simply that God works through human biology for his own purpose.

If God could know Jeremiah’s future, then surely he knows ours? And if he could consecrate Jeremiah for a great task, how much more can he appoint us for the things he wants us to do and the people he wants us to be?

Many people think that this idea of having a vocation means working for the church. Not so. Each one of us has a vocation, called to do particular things – the world needs joiners and accountants just as much as it needs prophets. Each of us is called to be the person God wants us to be. Only Sam can be Sebastian’s Mum and Alexander his Dad. And most of all, God calls us to be in relationship with himself, for it’s there that we find our true selves and the real meaning of life.

It comes in a clear priority order. You’re called to be yourself with God first – that’s the primary vocation. Then to be in relationship with your family and friends. After that comes work. Our society often gets that order upside down: we define ourselves by our work, which is particularly tough if you’re unemployed; after work we try and carve out time for family; and God might fit in for those who have a special interest in that kind of thing. It’s not healthy – much better to follow God’s priority order.

You’ll find that identity and call develops over time. It may evolve with the changing circumstances of life. Sometimes we may feel that we’re treading water – in which case pray and seek God for a renewed sense of direction. Don’t give up. Maybe we feel we’ve missed opportunities or not fulfilled our role – because following our call demands a lot of work from us. If so, be humble, turn back to God, and start again. Calling develops through life, and what we did at one point may not be right for us at a later stage. But God always has a plan

I find that wonderfully reassuring. Especially as a parent. You can find yourself watching your children and worrying: he’s good at English but rubbish at Maths, how’s he ever going to get a GCSE? We fret over education, agonise over choice of school, how many clubs should they go to? And then you get the helicopter parents who are still hovering over their offspring throughout university.

You know what? God has a plan. He loves each child. He has a purpose and a path for them. As a father myself I find that such a release because it doesn’t all depend on me. Parents bring a new life into the world, and at first that new life depends on older people for nourishment and protection. But that new life has its own existence, its own seeds of independence, its own destiny. All older generations can do is make the decisions for that child as best we can, and trust in God.

The idea that God has a plan for our lives can be a bit scary. It certainly involves stepping out in faith. Jeremiah seems very uncertain. He replies ‘But Lord, I do not know how to speak, I am only a boy’.

Perhaps this is a humble exaggeration. Perhaps Jeremiah means that he feels very young and not at all qualified. After all, the Hebrew word here can be used to mean young man – perhaps even as old as twenty something.

 But I don’t find that explanation convincing. Surely all the references to womb and birth make most sense about someone who is very young? And God’s response takes Jeremiah’s comment at face value – he doesn’t correct his perception of his age. We know that Jeremiah prophesied during the reign of five kings over more than 40 years – if he was in his twenties when he started that would make him very old by the standards of the time. 

But why not use a child? God spoke through the boy Samuel. Sometimes children can hear God more clearly, be less inhibited about the reactions their words will cause. Children can see injustice straightforwardly without the shades of grey which muddy the water for adults. Today we can learn to hear the voices of children and take them seriously. We can value the spiritual gifts children bring – prophesy, prayer, tongues and the healing ministry are not just for adults.

Children can bless us immensely. God reassures Jeremiah that he will be with him. God will give Jeremiah the skills and the courage that he needs. God’s word through Jeremiah will be effective, building up nations and pulling them down. Jeremiah can be confident in his work because he knows that God has called him. Whatever our calling, whatever we are called to be and do, let us pursue it enthusiastically, confident that our loving God has a plan.

Surprise

Naming a baby is a task fraught with difficulties. Obviously you want to find a name that you like – but have you thought about what happens when you shorten it? Christopher becomes Chris, which is ok, but I know some parents who don’t like their James being called Jimmie. Does it work with the surname? It’s always worth doing an internet search to make sure you’re not about to lumber your offspring with the same name as an American psychopath.

And then, does the name have a meaning? Henry for instance means Home Ruler, which makes a kind of sense. But what does William, composed of the words Will and Helm (or helmet) mean? Willpower perhaps?

In Biblical times children were often named after their father, as we hear in verse 59 of today’s reading. But Elizabeth, the little boy’s mother, wants to name him John. This is a shortened form of Johanan, which means God is gracious.

No doubt that’s what Elizabeth was feeling. As the earlier part of Luke Chapter 1 tells us, Zechariah the priest was well advanced in years, as was his wife Elizabeth. They were faithful people, serving God, but sadly had no children.

One day Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary and offer incense. Apparently by this time in Israel’s history there were so many priests that entering the sanctuary was statistically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We can imagine that this might have been a real spiritual event for Zechariah – made all the more so when he sees an angel!

The angel has a message, in v.11 ‘Do not be afraid Zechariah, your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you will name him John – he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.’ We of course know him as John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Christ.

So this may be why he is known as John. God is gracious. God has graciously answered Elizabeth and Zechariah’s prayer at the point when it seemed too late. God has graciously reached out to his people in the midst of their oppression, promising release.

But Zechariah asks: ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.’ Perhaps an understandable reaction – people of that age do not have children. Yet Zechariah was a priest, well versed in the Old Testament. He knew the stories of Abraham and how Sarah bore him a son in his old age. He knew how God gave Rachel and Hannah the gift of children. Did he perhaps think that miracles were for the past and not his own time?

You might think that perhaps seeing an angel would be evidence enough. Maybe years of disappointment have made him bitter or even cynical. When you have lived long and seen the world, that can happen. If we have had dreams that have never come to pass, it can be hard to be open to future possibility. Allowing yourself to hope can feel like making yourself very vulnerable – will you suffer the hurt and disappointment again? It takes real strength to step out of the protective shell and allow ourselves to be open to God and his plan for us.

But we do need to be able to do that. For God does have a plan. No-one is on the shelf as far as God is concerned. No-one is useless. No-one is too old or too young to play a role in his Kingdom. In fact, for Zechariah and Elizabeth the most important thing they did was near the end of their lives. Just imagine – the previous 80 years have been a prelude for what God is asking you to do now!

I wonder what God might be asking us to do? What opportunities he may have in store for you and for me? Let us ask him to show us. We can do a great deal where we are. The people we meet – how can we show Christ’s love to them? How can our words build people up and encourage? Even someone who scarcely goes out can pray.

Elizabeth and Zechariah were called to be parents to John the Baptist. His miraculous birth would be a kind of parallel, a foreshadowing of the even more amazing birth of Jesus, our Saviour. But because Zechariah did not at first believe, he was struck dumb until the angel’s word was fulfilled.

Not saying a word for the best part of a year. Zechariah would have had to complete his time of temple service in silence, make his way back home, explain things as best he could to his wife. Eventually the baby was born, and 8 days after his birth it was time to name him. As Zechariah writes on the tablet ‘his name is John’, he shows that he has believed the angelic message and is living in obedience to it.

Immediately Zechariah can speak again. He praises God, using the words of the Benedictus which have become a much-loved part of our liturgy. If you grew up with Mattins you will have sung this many times, and there are glorious settings of this canticle. Many are beautiful, some are ethereal – do they run the risk of giving the impression of an other-worldly spirituality? I wonder how many of them really bring out the triumph and revolution of Zechariah’s song?

Now at last, after so many years, God is doing what he has promised. Now, the Old Testament prophecies will be fulfilled. Here, today, God is saving his people. We are being rescued from our enemies and delivered from those who hate us. There will be justice and freedom. It is strong stuff. (Like the Magnificat – the words of which resemble a first-century Billy Bragg rather more than Cathedral Evensong.)

Everyone was amazed by these events, the word travelled all around the hill country of Judea. The passage ends by telling us that ‘the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.’ We do not know how long Elizabeth and Zechariah lived, how much of a role they were able to play in their son’s upbringing.

But we do know that they passed on the angel’s message – he will be a Nazirite, dedicated to God. We do know that John followed their strong faith. We do know that God kept his promise and John was the greatest of all the prophets.

This is a wonderful story of a God who is able to transform disappointments; of a God who keeps his promises to his people over many centuries until when things seem darkest relief comes. It is a story of a wonderful God whose plan for us is able to surprise and inspire, even to the very end of our lives; a story of a God who can use our faithfulness – and even our half-believing prayers – at any point. It is a call to follow God now, be open to his will, and never to allow ourselves to believe that our time is past.