The Visitation of Abraham

THE SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY

In studying the book of Genesis, we are in search of the faithfulness of God, in particular, the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ. To put it this way, we are searching for Christ in the Old Testament, looking for ‘the treasure hid in the field.’ And this endeavor has afforded new opportunities to introduce patristic approaches to reading the Old Testament with the hope of learning from these ‘faithful guides’ how to better “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).  You see, when we read and study the Bible, we are to do so in conversation with the catholic church, the church who, in every place and every generation, has studied and understood Scripture for thousands of years. I’m most likely in good company when I say we all desire to increase our ability to understand and follow the Holy Scriptures. And this we will accomplish by standing on the shoulders of the theological giants who have gone before us.

Last Sunday, we took a cue from the second-century theologian Origen of Alexandria and discovered in the book of Genesis a divine and heavenly pattern; a redemptive cycle of creation, blessing, restoration, promise, and fulfillment woven within the narratives of Adam, Noah, and Abraham (in truth this runs through the entirety of Scripture). From this pattern is found profound knowledge about the nature of God. God blesses what he creates, restores what is lost, and keeps every promise he makes. The story of Abraham continues on this sixth Sunday after Trinity where Abraham encounters God by the oak trees of Mamre. And this morning, I pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit to reveal even more knowledge of God; the God of visitation. In the first verse of the eighteenth chapter of the book of Genesis we read, “And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground.” Abraham saw God. This is what Moses records. He didn’t hear God; he didn’t encounter him in a vision or dream; He saw God.

“And the Lord appeared unto Abraham in the plains of Mamre.” Now this story is saturated in magic and mystery. Filled with wonder and transcendence. To begin with, we mustn’t rush past the most critical and wonder-filled point of this entire story: The Lord of heaven and earth chose to visit Abraham. The presence of heaven reached down to earth: this is a day of visitation. “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo three men stood by him.” God has mysteriously appeared in the coming of three men. That God appears in three should set your theological brain a buzzing with all kinds of Trinitarian, Christological, and historical connections. Not to mention we read that he has appeared “in the heat of the day” which any farmer or almanac will inform you is three o’clock in the afternoon, the hottest time of the day.  And in response to the arrival of these three guests, Sarah will hastily make bread from “three measures of fine meal.” The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word used here for bread into the greek word engkruphias meaning hidden or secret, like the hidden mystery of God’s desire for the Gospel to be preached to the Gentiles which St. Paul speaks of. Sarah is making mysterious bread from three measures of meal for three strange guests… There’s a lot going on here under the surface of the letter. The field is beginning to reveal is jewels and precious stones! And yet mystery doesn’t necessarily involve complexity or incomprehensibility. God has chosen to visit Abraham and does so by means of what is familiar. He has drawn near to Abraham through the presence of three men. 

Now, how are we to understand this? First, let’s not confuse the ways in which God manifests his presence in the Old Testament with the New Testament incarnation of God in the birth of the divine-person Jesus Christ. There are essential differences in both their character and intention. In the former, God manifested his presence through created things: the burning bush, the angel of the Lord, and in this case, in the three men. The most Holy God did this from a desire to draw as near as he possibly could to unclean sinners. You see, by various Theophanies, or Christophanies, the Divine One accommodated himself to humanity: he visited and dwelt with men in history and in the midst of human experience in a way that would preserve their lives, for as he graciously told Moses, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (Ex 33:20). But in the incarnation, God not only manifested his presence among men, but he also became a man! By the incarnation, God was forever united to his creation by clothing Divinity in humanity, the second person of the Trinity wedding himself to the creature and every measure of what it means to be human save for sin. “God became flesh and dwelt among us” is how the beloved Apostle describes it. God visited Abraham in a visible, intelligible, and familiar way. Because the God of visitation is a hospitable God.

Divine hospitality vastly exceeds any concept of human hospitality, even Christian hospitality. In truth, we can only speak analogously of divine hospitality as what we understand as human hospitality. In studying the church fathers, you will find they employed two different words in speaking of God’s hospitality and man’s. In writing of human hospitality, they used the word philoxenia: philo (love) of a stranger (xenia) the opposite of xenophobia; the idea behind this Greek word from which we get hospitality is the turning of strangers into friends. We turn strangers into friends by opening up our homes, our lives, sharing everything we have; showing hospitality to bring people into a closer relationship. Abraham is a great example of philoxenia as he runs to greet these three mysterious strangers, washes their feet and serves them a bountiful meal, thereby turning strangers into friends.

Now in contrast to human hospitality, the Fathers used the greek word syn-kata-basis in speaking of Divine hospitality. This term is a conglomeration of three separate words syn (together), kata (down), and basis (going), literally translated as going down together. Or to render it in the Latin and more familiar term condescension. God condescends himself, he comes down, he makes himself low, adapts, or accommodates himself to whom he will visit. We think of the Christ song of Philippians chapter two, 

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Phil 2:5-8).

So for the likes of Origen, Chrysostom, and many other church Fathers, Divine hospitality is not merely philoxenia, as if God’s hospitality is just like ours. Oh no, it is far more wonderful, mysterious, and compassionate: divine synkatabasis condescends, it reaches out and adapts to human creatureliness and weakness. It is the way by which the Divine transcendence relates to the limitations of human sin. You see, he comes to us in ways we can actually experience his hospitality: his goodness, mercy, and love. God is the first-mover extending hospitality to us weak and sinful creatures. And our philoxenia or hospitality is simply a response to the Divine accommodation. “We love him because he first loved us.” Our hospitality towards God and neighbor is wholly contingent upon his proactive hospitality towards us.

“The Lord appeared to Abraham on the plains of Mamre. And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo three men stood by him.” Now in the preceding chapters of Genesis, we read that God had spoken to Abraham, and we read of God somehow appearing to the man in lasts week reading through the spoken word. But here at Mamre, Abraham sees God for the first time. He runs to meet the three men and addresses them in the singular: “my Lord; if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away.” In fact, throughout these verses, Moses will identify one of the three men who speak with Abraham and his wife as YHWH, the covenant God. And so we must ask, how was it that Abraham was given the ability to immediately see God, to recognize YHWH in this visitation? 

Well, the key to unlocking this question is found in Abraham’s response to God having restated his covenant promise to bless the world through his seed from which would come a nation more numerous than the stars. God’s promise came with a sign, circumcision, a sign given by God to Abraham by which the promises would be ratified. Abraham believed the promise of God, and in response, obeyed God’s command to be circumcised, God said: “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised… and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Gen 17:10-11).  Abraham trusted God to purify his heart by the outward sign of circumcision. Then, and only then would God visibly appear to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, only after his eyes were pure enough to see Him.

At the top of a Galilean mount, the Lord Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). The pure of heart see God when he visits them. Those who have been 

“circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead” (Col 2:11-12). 

To the soul washed clean in the waters of baptism are given the spiritual eyes of purity. And it is to the pure in heart who live after holiness that the hospitality of God comes. The wise person makes room in the soul to receive the Lord by decluttering and detangling his life from sin. And this he does solely by the grace of God and the enabling presence of the Holy Spirit; working out our salvation as God works in us (Phil 2:12-13).

In other words, we have to love God more than we love our sin, disabusing ourselves of vice and unholy desires which only impede our ability to see Him, obstructing the work of the Holy Spirit who by divine illumination makes God known. Nothing can be allowed to stand between us and the knowledge of God. If we desire to see and to be seen, we cannot bow down and serve the idols of self and created things “for they are vanity, and the work of errors: in the time of their visitation they shall perish” says the prophet, Isaiah. Instead, let us embrace the baptized life in pursuit of a pure heart knowing that the power of sin in our life has been put to death because “we have been raised up” writes St. Paul “from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in the newness of life” (Romans 6:6). To walk in the newness of life is to walk in holiness and righteousness, thereby seeing God; though even on our best day we do so imperfectly. Hear the Apostle once more, “our old man is crucified with [Christ], that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (v.8). The right response to God’s hospitality is to live a holy life as a testimony to the love and grace he has lavishly bestowed upon us. Beloved, God became low that we might be lifted up on high.

A life in pursuit of purity and holiness is one at peace, not free from trouble, but at peace. It neither fears God nor death because it welcomes grace, is assured by grace, assisted by grace, and astounded by grace. In faith, it prays the Prayer for God’s Protection through Night as found in the Book of Common prayer, doing so with quiet confidence and a profound sense of need, praying, 

Lord, defend us from all dangers and mischiefs, and from the fear of them; that we may enjoy such refreshing sleep as may fit us for the duties of the coming day. And grant us grace always to live in such a state that we may never be afraid to die; so that, living and dying, we may be thine, through the merits and satisfaction of thy Son Christ Jesus, in whose Name we offer up these our imperfect prayers (BCP, 591). 

We should live in such a state that we are never afraid to die. Friends, be assured, we will all fall asleep in the Lord; we will die. And, every person will stand before the Lord on the coming day of his visitation. And so I ask you what the prophet asked the people of Israel so many centuries ago, “And what will ye do in the day of visitation, and in the desolation which shall come from far? To whom will ye flee for help? And where will ye leave your glory? (Isa 10:3). 

I ask you, to whom will ye flee for help? Will you, as Adam and Eve, hide your shame in the day of the Lord’s visitation? Or like father Abraham hastily run to meet God Almighty who is our help and salvation? Abraham saw God at the oaks of Mamre. The Hebrew word Mamre means a place of clarity and vision. One cannot attain that which he cannot see. We must not allow the eyes of our hearts to become blinded by sin that we lose sight of what we’re after. Rather, let us walk by sight and by faith in the ways of the Lord. Hear the wisdom of St. Peter who writes, 

“Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Pt 3:10-12).

Offer yourself every single day be as a pleasing sacrifice unto the Lord and may we not fear the future day of his visitation. When we will know and be known. Love and be loved. See and be seen. Let us pray, 

“O GOD, who hast prepared for those who love thee such good things as pass man’s understanding; Pour into our hearts such love toward thee, that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord”, Amen+