A couple of weeks ago we were reflecting on the Day of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit to comfort and champion the followers of Jesus, and to be with them after he had returned to heaven. It was the day when the Holy Spirit enabled everyone to speak and be understood, whatever their language, and to hear and understand what was being said. An example of how God can make the seemingly impossible happen. And from that day the disciples of Jesus began the great work of spreading the gospel to the world, of telling everybody, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, high and low, about the good news of Jesus Christ. Another seemingly impossible task. The Acts of the Apostles tell the story of the establishment of the first communities of believers all around the Mediterranean. And the spread of the Gospel to the world still continues today. But the reading about Abraham we have had this morning from the Book of Genesis is a reminder that God’s saving work for the world was glimmering into sight at least two thousand years before the Day of Pentecost. The roots of our Church lie deep in the Old Testament and gather their strength from the continuity of growth from the Old to the New Testament. The roots of God’s love for his people and his plan for their salvation go even deeper.
The Jews in Jesus’ day were proud to claim Abraham as their ancestor. The genealogy at the beginning of St Matthew’s gospel traces Jesus’ human ancestry back to Abraham. Abraham was born in Ur in Babylonia in around 2000 BC and the family moved to Haran in southern Turkey on their way to Canaan, following the trade route along the river Euphrates. Abraham was important to the Israelites as the man to whom God promised the land of Canaan and land meant prosperity. He was, as it were, the original holder of the title deeds to the land of Canaan, to the physical security of property, though as a resident alien from another country, he could not himself own land. And through his unshakeable faith in the one true God, he represented to his descendants the spiritual security of God’s love and protection. Early on in his life he had recognised God, even though his family, like all those around them, worshipped other gods. In a world which worshipped many gods and goddesses, Abraham was set apart by his conviction that there was only one God who could meet every need. We simply don’t know how it was that he came to that belief – perhaps it was another example of God doing the seemingly impossible. And his faith and trust in God remained with him throughout his life. Yet he had every reason to doubt the promise God made that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars or as uncountable as the dust because Sarah his wife was barren and he had no son by her. He had no offspring at all from his marriage let alone many. But God came to Abraham three times and repeated his promise that the land of Canaan would belong to Abraham’s descendants and that they would be his people he would be their God. And this would be an everlasting covenant – the oath which he swore to our father Abraham, as we have just said in the Benedictus
Our reading comes at a pivotal point in the story of our redemption and the fulfilment of God’s promise. Abraham was a very old man by this time, and he was resting by his tent in the shade during the heat of the day. His wife Sarah, nearly as old as her husband, was in the tent behind him. He is suddenly aware that three strangers have arrived, so he immediately hurries to look after their needs. Old as he is, he runs to make arrangements for their refreshment and to offer humbly and graciously what must have been magnificent hospitality. The strangers accept it. Perhaps his closeness to God made Abraham aware that the strangers were not ordinary visitors and that he was in fact in the presence of God himself. We are told “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre” (Gen. 18:1) so we know it was God who was there. The strangers ask where his wife is, and one of them repeats God’s promise that she will bear Abraham a son. Sarah, in the tent laughs to herself because it is a ridiculous idea to her that she could do so, given her age. God hears her scornful laugh, though she denies she laughed. Imagine the Lord looking straight at her and saying “Yes, you did”. Does he do that to us when through word or deed we deny our faith in him? Then he says he will return in due season and Sarah shall have a son. And he asks “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (Gen.18:14) And in due season the wonderful or the impossible happens. Abraham and Sarah have a son whom they called Isaac, which is a wordplay on the verb “to laugh”. Abraham’s descendants did indeed become numerous as they grew into the nation of the Israelites.
It is into this nation of Israelites, sprung from Abraham, that Jesus, the Son of God, is born and the story of our redemption gathers pace. Through the actions of the Israelites, Jesus fulfils on the Cross his destiny to bring salvation to the world and not just to one part of it. Through Jesus, who shared our human form, all those faithful to him can be called God’s chosen people, the offspring of Abraham. They can be the inheritors of God’s promise to Abraham that he will be our God and we will be his people. So now, after the making of God’s covenant with Abraham long ago, after its fulfilment on Easter Day, comes the day of Pentecost. It is the day when the Holy Spirit sends out the apostles, God’s messengers, to the world so that everyone can know about God’s covenant, their inheritance as God’s people, and the salvation he offers, and can claim it as their own. And with the help of the Holy Spirit we too can become messengers of this good news and become part of God’s great plan, long in the making, for the salvation of the human race. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? asks God of Sarah. Well, is it?