Second Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 18: 1-15

The Lovingkindness of Abraham

 

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man, that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him” (Psalm 8:3-4)? These are the words of Psalm 8. The Psalmist expresses sheer wonder when he realizes his insignificance in an incomprehensibly vast universe. Probably in our generation we can appreciate this sentiment even more than the Psalmist. A visit to an observatory or a planetarium impresses on us our own insignificance under the immense canopy of the night sky. “We are specks of dust in the universe, slight vibrations in an incomprehensibly long history,” according to the Dutch Reformed theologian Cornelius Van der Kooi. Relative to the number of years science has calculated for the age of the universe, as well as to the enormous distances science has measured between the stars and galaxies, the whole of the human race, not to mention a single individual, is no more than a pinpoint.  

 

But the God who created and upholds this universe is powerful enough to be concerned with the single individual. “Am I only a God far away, and not a God nearby?’” “Do not I fill the heavens as well as the earth?” God asks in Jeremiah 23. In fact, this God has chosen to be known as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On this Lord’s Day we have the occasion to focus on the first of these three patriarchs, that is, on Abraham. God knew Abraham and called him to leave everything behind and travel to an unknown land. Abraham obeyed. He was open to God and talked freely with him. Of him God could say, “I know him” (Gen. 18:19). Indeed, the Bible refers to Abraham as the friend of God.

 

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein reminds us that the Jewish people know Abraham as Avriham Avinu—Abraham our father. He is the father of the Jewish faith and the foundation upon which the entire nation of Israel rests.

 

No less significant is Abraham for the Christian faith. In Matthew, Jesus is called the son of David, the son of Abraham. In Galatians, the Apostle Paul wrote: “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness. Understand then that all those who have faith are children of Abraham” (3:26-27).

 

The name Abraham is synonymous with faith. But Rabbi Eckstein points out that Abraham is also known for his lovingkindness. In fact, he notes that according to the Jewish sages, Abraham was considered so kind that the angel of lovingkindness once came before God and said, “As long as Abraham is in the world, there is nothing for me to do.” Abraham’s loving-kindness was compared to the kindness that only angels could bestow.

 

Perhaps the greatest display of Abraham’s lovingkindness towards others is found in the first lesson designated for this Lord’s Day. The scene opens with Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men approaching, He then hurried from the entrance to his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

 

Eckstein tells us that according to Jewish tradition, this event occurred right after Abraham was circumcised. How painful that must have been for a full-grown man! Yet Abraham wasn’t lying in bed recovering; he was sitting at the entrance of his tent actively looking for travelers to whom he could show kindness. When he spotted the three men, he didn’t call out to them or even walk toward them; he ran toward them and bowed before the travelers, showing them great respect.

 

Have we known people who are ready to open their home and entertain guests even when it’s a personal inconvenience? Even when they are unable to present their best self? But Abraham even ran towards opportunities to be hospitable. How can we actively seek out ways to receive and entertain others?

 

Once the men agreed to let him offer them food and drink, Abraham prepared for them what in those days would have been seen as a lavish and extravagant feast. He asked his wife Sarah to bake bread of the finest flour and he himself ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf. We can say that he brought out the best china for his guests.

 

Note that Abraham did all this with haste. He had respect for the time of his guests. Often we think our time is more important than the time of other people. But we can best show respect to others by respecting their time. We can even make sacrifices with our time to show how much we value others. In fact, in the last analysis, time is the most valuable gift we can give to another, since time is no less than our very lives.  

 

Note also that after the meal was prepared, it was Abraham himself who personally served the guests. In biblical times, it was the servants who attended to guests. It was only to very important people or close family members that the head of the household personally attended. But Abraham shows this hospitality even to nomadic travelers, who were total strangers to him. He treated them like family.

 

Parenthetically, I recall here a book by Rosaria Butterfield, an author I met several years ago in Holland, Michigan. It is titled:  The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World. Rosaria was a literature professor, an atheist, and a radical activist. One day she met a pastor. He didn’t pressure her to consider the faith. Instead, he invited her into his home, where he and his wife ate and drank with her at the family table. Over time this made an impact on her. She later embraced the faith, married a pastor, and then began the same practice in her home. She and her husband invited neighbors—people very different from them—once a week into their home for a shared meal. In the book, she makes the case that this is how one wins others to faith in God.

 

We can learn a lesson from Abraham and Rosaria Butterfield. We express love for God and neighbor by inviting people into our homes. And when we do, we treat each one who walks through our doors with respect and generosity.

 

Rabbi Eckstein helpfully points out that Abraham’s kindness became the gold standard for hospitality widely practiced in the Bible. Note Laban’s kindness toward Eliezer (Genesis 24) and Jacob (Genesis 29), when they came to him as strangers. Note that the prostitute Rahab was rewarded for the kindness and hospitality she showed to the spies that Joshua sent to Jericho to scout out the land God promised to the Israelites (Joshua 6). In the New Testament Rahab is remembered. In Matthew 1, she is listed in the genealogy of Jesus. In Hebrews 11 and in James 2, she is commended for her actions. Showing hospitality and meeting together for meals characterized the life of the early church. With a nod to this story about Abraham we are considering this morning, the author of Hebrews says: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it (13:2).

 

Eckstein also shows us how neglecting to show hospitality violates the standard set by Abraham. And there are often grave consequences. Consider the story of Nabal and David in 1 Samuel 25. Nabal’s refusal to be hospitable to David and his men almost precipitated a war. It was only by the wisdom of Abigail, who prepared and brought food and drink for them, that war was averted. And then, note the judgment of the nations of Ammon and Moab. They were forever barred from joining the nation of Israel because they refused to give bread and water to the nation of Israel when the people came up out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 23:3-4). Finally, consider the stern words that Jesus has for those who reject the mission of the disciples. In Matthew 10, he says that if anyone will not welcome them, they are to shake the dust off the dust from their feet as they leave that town. It will be more tolerable for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah at the final judgment than for that town (14,15). 

 

There is a saying: tell me who a man’s friends are, and I’ll tell you about the man. The same no doubt applies to women. It reflects the truth that those closest to us most influence our character. That is why parents are so concerned about the friends their children choose. They know that those friends will have a lasting influence on the character of their children, for good or for ill.

 

We have been talking about Abraham’s lovingkindness. We mentioned that in the Bible Abraham is known as the friend of God. His character mirrors God’s character. It will be no surprise for us then to learn that in the Bible the word “lovingkindness” is repeatedly used as an attribute of God’s character. In Hebrew the word is chesed. It is a word rich with meaning. It not only means lovingkindness, but also “steadfast love,” “mercy” “compassion” and even “goodness.”

 

Chesed is the word used to characterize the covenant bond between God and Israel. Moses commands Israel to know the Lord their God. For he is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant of chesed with those who love Him and keep His commandments (Deut. 7:9). In the season of Pentecost, we learned that it is the Holy Spirit who opens up this special bond to include all people from all nations for the sake of Jesus Christ. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians referred to this as a great mystery. That mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus (3:6).

 

Let us then embrace this great privilege. Because of Jesus Christ, we too can be the friends of God, just as Abraham. Indeed, that is our heritage, if we have faith. For if we have faith, then we are Abraham’s children. And as we spend time in God’s presence in prayer and worship, we will begin to reflect God’s character more and more. Then we too will be people of lovingkindness. Let us then set our sight on this as our goal. Amen.  

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