Scripture: Genesis 18.1-15 (Abraham & Sarah entertain three visitors); Matthew 9.35-10.8 (Jesus commissions and sends his apostles)
Abraham and Sarah were nomadic people, wanderers – pilgrims in a way. What was the goal of their pilgrimage? Perhaps a clue is in one of the collects of the Church of England for ‘Ordinary Time,’ that states that our souls are restless until they find their rest in God. Abraham and Sarah were on a pilgrimage to find their rest in God, a journey filled with twists and turns that occupies a number of chapters in the book of Genesis.
Along the way, Abraham and Sarah rested by the Oaks of Mamre and were visited by three strangers. Abraham sought their favour by offering them hospitality. We might note that the favour is in having the offer of hospitality accepted, not in receiving hospitality. To provide it was an obligation in the ancient world.
In the course of the conversation, a strange pronouncement was made, that Sarah, despite her advanced years would conceive and bear a child. Sarah laughed – and probably not the laughter of delight, but the bitter laughter of disbelief and cynicism, of disappointment. There is a long story of the frustration of childlessness and Sarah’s decision to offer her slave, Hagar, to Abraham. It is not usually a good idea to be impatient with God; it does not usually end well.
Hagar was evidently fertile and bore a son, Ishmael, who is recognised in the Scriptures as the ancestor of Arabic races – the ‘other’ is acknowledged to have a common heritage with the Jewish descendants of Abraham through Isaac, Yitzhak, ‘laughter’ in Hebrew.
We may hope that Sarah’s laughter, which she realised was misplaced, may have turned to laughter of joy eventually. But Abraham and she had a lot of their pilgrim journey still ahead of them, and they did not deal kindly with Hagar and Ishmael (although God did take care of them).
Centuries later, Jesus sent twelve of his followers out as apostles to begin a journey that would continue through the rest of their lives to find their mission and their rest on God’s purpose for them. Just before sending out his apostles, Jesus was asked to restore a synagogue leader’s daughter to life, and told the crowd of assembled mourners that she was not dead. They laughed at him – just as Sarah laughed under the oaks at Mamre. God is willing to let people laugh or scoff or mock, and still be present in their lives – in our lives – even when the actions of God are “more than we can ask or imagine.”
The Bible is in many ways a story of the pilgrimage of God’s people throughout history. The story of the patriarchs, apart from being the story of a set of rather dysfunctional families with whom God makes a covenant – and sticks with it, despite their behaviour – is the story of a pilgrim people seeking to find their rest in their God. The encounter between Abraham, Sarah and the three visitors becomes a pivotal point in their journey.
There is a painting by the 15th century Russian artist Andrei Rublev which depicts Abraham’s visitors – and associates them with the Trinity. Is it far fetched to supposed that the Trinity was foreshadowed at the oaks of Mamre? Surely, nothing is beyond God!
Our Bishop, David Hamid, at a seminar/retreat a year ago, pointed out that in Rublev’s painting one side of the table is empty, and suggested that it is our place – to put ourselves at prayer, at that table with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We might open ourselves to receive God’s gifts and God’s calling, remembering that God will often give us ‘more than we can ask or imagine.’ Even when, like Sarah, we laugh in disbelief or cynicism, God forgives us and persists with us, guiding us on our pilgrimage journeys, and inviting us to let our laughter be transformed into joy.