When God Comes to Dinner
May 19, 1996
Last Tuesday night I sat on the platform at the UIC Pavilion for the Say Yes Chicago campaign with Luis Palau. During the evening Luis told the story of an evangelist named Mordecai Ham who came to Charlotte, North Carolina in 1934 for a citywide tent campaign. One night only six people came forward at the invitation and Mr. Ham went home thinking the service had been a failure. But one of those six was a young man named Billy Graham.
You never know what God is going to do. The next night I went again and during the invitation looked down on the Pavilion floor and thought I saw someone I knew. It turned out to be George Cominos. As I walked up to greet him, he introduced me to his friend who had come with him to the service. George couldn’t wait to tell me that his friend had come forward and given his heart to Jesus Christ. “I’ve prayed for him so long. I can’t believe it,” he said. Then with tears in his eyes he added, “This is what it’s all about.”
That was Wednesday. Yesterday I joined 4000 others who walked the shore of Lake Michigan in the annual Hike For Life, sponsored by the crisis pregnancy centers of Chicago. As I walked with many others to express my support for the unborn, it struck me that most of the eight million people in Chicago had no idea that such an event was taking place. To them, yesterday was simply one more beautiful Spring day. Little did they know that thousands of people were raising money to save lives.
As I pondered all these things, one verse of Scripture kept floating into my mind. It’s an obscure verse tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Old Testament. In fact, it’s a message to man who felt his work was rather insignificant and unnoticed. “Who despises the day of small things?” (Zechariah 4;10) A simple but profound question.
God never despises small things. In fact, the most important things God is doing today are unseen, unknown and usually unappreciated! Genesis 18:1-15 is a case in point. If you read it carefully, you will discover that it describes a very homey scene. You might call it kitchen-sink religion. This is grace and groceries!
I. God in Disguise (v. 1-5)
Our story begins late one afternoon when Abraham was sitting in the shade near the great trees of Mamre. If you have ever been to Israel, you know that temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees in the summer. As Abraham tries to keep cool, he notices three strangers standing nearby.
It is at this point that the story takes on a true Middle Eastern flavor. In America if you saw three men standing near your house, you might ignore them or you might keep an eye on them but you certainly wouldn’t invite them in. After all, they might be thieves trying to casing your house. You can’t be too careful these days.
But in that culture and in that day everyone gave strangers the benefit of the doubt. That’s why Abraham walks over to the three men, greets them, and bows low to the ground.
It’s all-important to this story for you to know that Abraham has no idea who these three men are. Later he will discover that one is the Lord and the other two are angels, but he doesn’t know that now. The men don’t look any different from travelers passing through Israel. They aren’t wearing halos and sporting wings and they don’t look particularly heavenly.
Everything Abraham does, he does because he comes from a tradition of hospitality. He’s not expecting God to drop by for dinner. But that is indeed what happens.
Why Would God Disguise Himself?
That in itself raises an interesting question. Why would God disguise himself? Why not appear with a great flash of light and a blast of trumpets? The answer seems to be along these lines. If God didn’t disguise himself, no one would ever see him at all. In fact, the Bible seems to indicate that no one can see God’s essence and live. As I type that sentence, I’m keenly aware that I have no idea what “God’s essence” really means. In some respects, it’s like the soldier who when asked to reveal classified information, replies, “I could, but then I’d have to kill you.” You can’t see God’s essence, but if you could, it would kill you.” So God disguises himself when he comes to earth or else we’d all be dead.
We must have eyes of faith to see God.
There is a second reason God disguises himself. He does it so that he might be seen only by those with eyes of faith. Jesus said a similar thing when asked why he taught so much in parables. Those simple stories were given so that unbelievers would be baffled but his followers would understand. In a similar vein, the New Testament seems to indicate that after his Resurrection Jesus was seen only by believers. Why? Because unbelievers wouldn’t appreciate the fact that he had been raised from the dead.
The third reason brings us to the point of the text. God often appears in disguise so that he might test our motives. After all, if you knew Jesus was coming to your house for supper tonight, you’d spend the rest of the day frantically getting ready for the Son of God. But what about the neighbors next door. Would you show the same concern for them? In Matthew 25 Jesus said that his disciples would be rewarded for visiting him in prison, giving him food and clothes, and taking him in. But when had they ever seen him naked, hungry, thirsty or in prison? “Whatever you did for the one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
A poor boy and his mother sat down to eat one night. They set an extra place at the table in honor of the Lord Jesus. By and by a ragged old man appeared at their door asking for food. The mother meant to send him on his way when the little boy said, “Perhaps the Lord could not come Himself, and therefore sent this poor man as his representative.”
Something like that is happening in this story. Only the Lord didn’t send a representative. He came himself to Abraham in the guise of an ordinary traveler.
II. Abraham in Haste (v. 6-8)
Everything about these verses speaks of Abraham’s haste. Twice it is said that he ‘hurried” to serve his guests. Verse 7 tells us that the servant “hurried” to prepare the meal. “Quick,” he said to Sarah, “go get the flour and bake some bread” (6).
Why the rush? Because in that culture hospitality was very important. It didn’t matter that Abraham had no clear idea whose these men were. What mattered was that he showed them proper respect.
This text reveals six marks of biblical hospitality:
1. Initiative—He saw them and invited them to stay (3)
2. Honor—He bowed low before them (2)
3. Desire—”Let me get you something to eat” (5)
4. Sacrifice—he chose a choice, tender calf (7)
5. Speed—He hurried to serve them (6-7)
6. Attentiveness—He stood while they ate (8)
We Christians have largely forgotten the gold mine of New Testament teaching on this topic. The Apostle Paul tells us that a spiritual leader practices hospitality (1 Timothy 3:2). The Greek word is philoxenia, which shows up in one form or another about 10 times in the New Testament. Philoxenia is a compound made up of two other Greek words –philos, which means “kind affection” or “love” and xenos, which means “stranger” or “foreigner.” Literally, philoxenia means “one who loves strangers.” It is translated as the English word “hospitality.”
Surveying The Biblical Landscape
What else does the New Testament have to say about hospitality? Let’s answer that question by taking a quick survey of some key passages. The first one is Romans 12:13, which says, “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” That is a command of Scripture. It is a non-negotiable imperative given to every man who claims the name of Jesus Christ. If we are Christians, we are to earnestly practice showing love to those who are strangers to us. It is a non-optional command of God.
The second passage is I Peter 4:9: “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling”. That’s crucial because it is all too easy to open your home only to those who are your close personal friends. Peter isn’t talking about having your pals over for a game night. That’s good and you ought to do it, but Peter isn’t thinking along those lines. He’s thinking about those times when you show kindness to people you don’t know very well. How easy it is in those cases to mumble and grumble and gripe under your breath. And when you do that, you miss the blessing God wants you to receive.
We’ve all done that. We meet some new people and say, “Drop by any time.” So one night we’re eating supper and a knock comes at the door. Who can it be? We open the door and it’s those new people–all six of them!–standing on the porch with big smiles. So what do we do? We smile right back and say, “Good to see you. Come on in.” But in reality our fingers are crossed when we say it and in our hearts we don’t mean a word of it.
God knows whether we mean it or not. We aren’t fooling Him a bit. That’s why He said our hospitality must be done without grumbling.
Angels at My Door
The third passage offers us a very unusual encouragement to practice hospitality. Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” The word translated “angels” simply means “messengers.” It could mean the literal angels of God or it could mean a human messenger. In this case, the writer to the Hebrews is thinking about the possibility that the literal angels of God might come to visit us. In the back of his mind is this story in Genesis 18 where Abraham welcomed three strangers who came to visit him. Without knowing their identity, he served them veal and milk and curds and fresh bread. One turned out to be the Lord himself and the other two turned out to be angels. The writer is suggesting that such a thing might someday happen to us.
Hot Bread With Melted Butter
In his sermon on this passage Ray Stedman describes the meal Abraham served in modern terms:
1. Cottage cheese salad (curds) with figs in it
2. Tall glass of cool milk
3. Fresh hot bread with melted homemade butter
4. Nice dish of Sarah’s preserves
5. Hot veal cutlets, breaded and chicken-fried
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
Why is hospitality so important? First, it offers a test of the practicality of our faith. It’s easy to be religious but more important to be practical. Abraham didn’t know who these men were but he offered them the best that he had anyway. Second, hospitality is the best way I know to break down barriers between people. I have seen this over and over again in my travels around the world. In fact, the greatest hospitality I’ve experienced has come from the believers in Russia, Haiti, Belize and India. Although these brothers and sisters have very little of the world’s goods and I by comparison have a great deal, they have gladly opened their homes and hearts and shared with me and my friends.
Finally, I think we should note that hospitality opens doors for the gospel. There are people you can reach over a cup of coffee who will never come to church on their own. Often the door to the heart opens as you open your home to others.
The door to the heart opens as you open your home to others.
III. Sarah in Doubt (v. 9-15)
As the meal draws to a close, it suddenly dawns on Abraham who these men really are. He’s been talking to the Lord and his angels! These strange visitors have come from heaven, not from some village down the road.
The real emphasis of the last section of our text is on Sarah’s doubt. While Abraham and the Lord are having a conversation, she is listening at the entrance of the tent. When she hears the promise that Abraham will have a son “about this time next year,” that thought is too much for her. After all, Abraham was too way and she was far past childbearing years. They had already waited 24 years since God’s original promise. Why should next year be any different?
Fundamentally, Sarah doubted God. In her mind, he had waited too long. Maybe, just maybe, it might have been possible 10 or 15 years ago. But not now. Once upon a time she had believed the Lord only to have her faith dashed on the jagged rocks of reality, not once but time and time again. No, she wasn’t falling that old line again.
A child next year. No way. It required a miracle just to believe that it might happen.
Charlie Brown and Lucy
Many of you have read the comic strip “Peanuts” by Charles Schultz. For many years there has been a recurring story line in which Lucy holds a football for Charlie Brown to kick. Each time she pulls it away at the last second, causing him to fall on his backside. One year Lucy solemnly promised Charlie Brown that this time she wouldn’t pull the ball away. Thus encouraged he took a long run at the ball only to her pull it way at the last second. As he lay on his back with a dazed look his face, Lucy peered down at him and said, “Charlie Brown, your faith in human nature is an inspiration to all young people.”
Sarah is a cynic. She won’t try to kick that football again! God has pulled it away one too many times.
So Sarah lied to God. When God asked, “Did you laugh?” she flatly denied it. “I did not laugh.” Why did she lie so brazenly? The Bible says she was afraid. Of what?
1. Afraid of being exposed publicly
2. Afraid of what else God might know about her
3. Afraid of what Abraham might say to her
Probably many of us would have done what Sarah did. Better to try to cover your tracks (or so we think).
But, now, behold God’s tough love toward Sarah. He …
Reads her mind (12)
Confronts her sin (13)
Reminds her of his power (14)
Reaffirms his promise (14)
Exposes her unbelief (15)
Why do this and why do it publicly? Because as the mother of the nation, she would have enormous influence in the history of Israel. Before God can send Isaac, he must bring her to the end of herself so that her confidence would be in God alone. I’m sure Sarah didn’t particularly appreciate this rebuke from the Almighty but it was absolutely necessary in order that God’s plan could go forward. In a sense, God could not bless her until he had rebuked her.
This event was recorded in Genesis 17 so that no one could think that Abraham and Sarah had somehow produced Isaac on their own, or that God had rewarded their great faith. What faith there was, was not very great.
God’s Ultimate Argument
Which brings us to God’s ultimate argument: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” The answer, of course, is no. But we need to be reminded of that fact over and over again.
As I was channel-surfing this week, I happened to catch a few seconds of The 700 Club “Question Time” with Pat Robertson. They had filmed people from all over the world asking Bible questions for Pat Robertson. A man who appeared to be from some African country asked in halting English “What is faith?” In response Pat Robertson quoted the most famous verse in all the Bible on this subject, Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Then he commented that one of the Greek words in that verse actually means “title deed.” Faith is the “title deed” to the things we do not yet possess. It’s the “guarantee” of that God will one day give us.
Here’s another definition of faith based on Abraham’s experience: Faith is believing that God will keep his promises despite circumstances to the contrary!
Faith is believing that God will keep his promises.
1. Not faith in faith
2. But resting in God’s character!
Two thousand years after Abraham lived, Paul summarized Abraham’s remarkable faith in Romans 4:19-21, “Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to did what he had promised.”
Abraham decided that God could do what he said he would do. And that made all the difference.
What Would You Like God to Do?
Yesterday as I was driving down North Avenue on my way to the Hike For Like, I heard Bill Davis of WMBI pose a fascinating question to his audience: “If you could ask God to do one thing for you in the spiritual realm, what would it be?” The is an endless list of possible answers to a question like that:
–Break a bad habit
–Forgive one who hurt you
–Child to come back to God
–Loved one to come to Christ
–Change your character
–Deliverance from discouragement
–New zeal for God
–Power to overcome temptation
–Boldness for Christ
Whatever it is, it’s not too hard for God!
Each week members of the congregation submit prayer requests to the staff. Each Tuesday as I look at the list, I am struck by the many needs of our people. Some of the requests are truly heartbreaking. Yet as I consider the list, I want to write Genesis 17:14 at the top. No matter how impossible your request may seem to you, it’s not too hard for God.
Answers Waiting In Heaven
Somewhere I ran across this provocative statement: “The only thing that hinders God is our unbelief.” You have to stop and think about that for a moment because it doesn’t sound right to say that anything “hinders” God. And in the literal sense, nothing does. He is the Sovereign Lord of the universe. No one can stand against him. Yet in his wisdom, he has ordained that he will limit his world in the world in accordance with the faith of his people. In that sense, it is perfectly proper to say that our faith or the lack of it either opens the door for the Almighty or it “ties his hands,” so to speak.
Billy Graham has remarked that heaven is filled with answers for which no one bothered to ask.
Are you willing to wait?
Are you willing to work?
Are you willing to believe God?
Let’s wrap up this message with God’s Question. What do you believe deep in your heart? Is there anything to hard for the Lord? Anything in your life so big that he can’t handle it? You already know the answer is no, but I’m asking it in a different way. What problem seems so impossible that part of you doubts that God can take of it?
He Dares Us to Trust Him!
That leads to what might be called a New Insight: God wants us to believe in him. Shocking, isn’t it? The God of the universe wants us to believe in him.
He begs us to believe in Him.
He dares us to trust him.
Is your problem too hard for the Lord? If you answer yes, then there truly is no hope for you. But if you say no, then you have a bright tomorrow!
But the choice is yours. Thousands upon thousands times many thousands of believers across the centuries have put God to the test. They have trusted him and he has come through for them. What about you? Are you willing to trust him with your problems?
Welcome Wretched Sinners
I close by reminding you once again that the most important decision you can ever make is the decision to put your life in the hands of Jesus Christ. Over 8500 people have done that in the Luis Palau campaign so far (the final total went well over 10,000).
What about you?
You may think you can’t be saved … that that your sins are too great. You may even say, “I’m a wretched sinner.” Yes you are! But I have some good news: God loves to save wretched sinners.
God says, “Though your sins are like scarlet they, they shall be white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). 1 John 1:7 declares that “the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
Do you feel unworthy of God’s grace? You are. But the good news is that no one is worthy. Consider the record of the “great” men of the Bible:
Abraham was a liar
Moses was a murderer
David was an adulterer
Peter denied Christ
They will all be heaven! What about you?