Luke 1:1-25, Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Advent Hospitality: The Life Changing Power of Welcoming a Guest

(c) Copyright 2005 Rev. Bill Versteeg

One of the themes that we will be noticing today and in the advent weeks to come is that worship has to do with hospitality. And so our services begin with and invitation - - God says to us - come to my house, come to worship, and so we begin with a

Call to Worship - Isaiah 60
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

When we arrive - as a true and gracious host, the Lord welcomes us - this is his act of hospitality and so he Greets us

“Grace to you and peace, from him who is, who was and is to come, and from the seven Spirits that are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first born of the dead and the ruler of kings on earth.”



1     Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled a among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold

5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. a 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

19 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”

21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

 a Or been surely believed
 a Or from his mother~s womb
The Holy Bible : New International Version. electronic ed., Lk 1:1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984.

The Three Visitors

Genesis 18 

    The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

3 He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, a do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs b of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

10 Then the LORD c said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master d is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

13 Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”

15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

 a Or O Lord
 b That is, probably about 20 quarts (about 22 liters)
 c Hebrew Then he
 d Or husband
The Holy Bible : New International Version. electronic ed., Ge 18:1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984.

The Birth of Isaac

21     Now the LORD was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what he had promised. 2 Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac a to the son Sarah bore him. 4 When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

6 Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” 7 And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

 a Isaac means he laughs.
The Holy Bible : New International Version. electronic ed., Ge 21:1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984.

Both the passages listed above have to do with hospitality and a lack of hospitality. Let me demonstrate that first of all by listing eleven similarities:

Both passages are about strange visits - first in three strangers who simply were there when Abraham looked up and then through an angel who suddenly appeared to Zechariah.

Both passages have the main character acting as a priest - Abraham intercedes for the cities of Sodom.  If there would be as little as 10 righteous people there, the city would be spared. And you know the story. Ten were not found.  Just Lot and his family were found and they were rescued from the city.  Zechariah is acting as a priest, bringing offerings to God.

Both passages are about an elderly couple who are experiencing pain of being barren - Abraham and Sarah well into their 90s, Zechariah and Elizabeth well along in years, or to use Zechariah’s words - simply "really old."

Both couples, though experiencing the disfavour of barrenness, were upstanding, righteous people. Abraham was upright, and the scripture passage displays his uprightness by the way he welcomed the strangers, in contrast to the way the city of Sodom did now welcome the strangers but wanted to abuse them. And Luke points out clearly that Zechariah and Elizabeth were upright in the sight of God observing all the Lords commandments and regulations blamelessly.

Both of these passages have to do with hospitality. Abraham generously feeds his three guests, including baked bread and a freshly slaughtered barbecued calf. Zechariah burns incense - an incense by a recipe that God had given as an offering to God - it was common understanding that this offering, as well as the other offerings, all of which involved food, were pleasing to God and therefore had a sense of hospitality to them. Zechariah was burning incense, an aroma that was hospitable to God.  All understood - it welcomed him.

Both contexts have to do with giving honour - after all, when we are hospitable to someone, we give them a certain honour. Abraham bows low to the ground in front of his guests, Zechariah, with the worshipers are involved in giving honour to God, for that is what worth-ship means.

Both passages involve an announcement about a child to be born - For Abraham and Sarah, the son will be Isaac, for Zechariah and Elizabeth, the son will be John the Baptist.

Both of the announcements are responded to by doubt. Their doubt is in a sense where their welcome ends. Sarah looks at her worn out body and then looks at her wizened 90 year old husband and she laughs at the incredulity of the promises. God’s words aren’t quite so welcome. Zechariah is similar - he doesn’t believe.  He and Elizabeth are both way to old! They welcome the guest but they don’t welcome the guest's words.

Both passages have to do with covenant promises. When Isaac was born, the scripture passage acknowledges that this child was born according to promise (Genesis 21:1) fulfilled in due time. Of course the promise went all the way back to Genesis 12, where God promised that he would make Abraham a great nation. And the angel pictured John the Baptist not only as the fulfillment of Old Testament promises in due time, John’s mother’s name was "Elizabeth" with literally means "My God is an Oath" (he makes faithful promises. Even though both couples welcomed their guests, they didn't welcome their words.

Both passages end with laughter. Not only did Sarah laugh in doubt, but in the end she laughs because the promises of God are faithful and true. And so she names her son "Isaac" which literally means “He laughs.” When John was born, the angel let him know that many would rejoice at his birth.  This was not the laughter of doubt, this was the laughter of delight that God, when he promises, makes sure his promises come true.

Now you might be thinking - Pastor Bill, this is interesting - but get to the point.

The point behind making this parallel between these two passages is two idiomatic expressions happening in both passages and let’s highlight these idiomatic expressions - idiomatic meaning expressions that are particular to a culture that are hard to translate, something like the Dutch word “gezeligh.” (If you are unfamiliar with the Dutch language, then try translating the English phrase “Hey that’s cool.” to a person who does not understand English).

13 Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? (Literal Translation of the Hebrew phrase: "Is too wonderful, for Jahweh, a word?" - Hebrew dabar) I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.” (Gen 18)

36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.”
(Literal Greek Translation: "Because not is impossible from God every word" - Greek: 'raema) (Luke 1)
(The Greek 'reama and the Hebrew word dabar are often used interchangeably with the Greek word logos.  In this interchange, there is a blending between word and event thus we get our translation "everything is possible with God.")

Now, you have to admit, both of these literal translations are somewhat difficult to bring into English, because behind them is a whole way of looking at life, at God and at the world. To a Hebrew person who was raised with the scriptures,  these phrases had a lot of power because both of them had the concept of the Word of God in them.

For a person in scripture, a word that God spoke was so faithful, so true that it was as good as done. The second God spoke it, the action, the result of his word was in motion. They would remember the creation story from Genesis 1.  Seven times God spoke, and simply because God spoke, creation came into being: stars, galaxies, worlds, water, land, plants, animals and even humanity.  God said - so it was. If God could do all that, the person familiar with Hebrew would ask: "Is any word to hard for the Lord?" And so the letter of Hebrews tells us - “by faith, the universe was formed at God’s command.”

God promised through Abraham a nation and so the nation of Israel understood its very existence to be a consequence of God speaking.  God spoke and Israel came to be. If God could do all that, is any word to hard for the Lord?

Isaiah the prophet would describe this way of looking at the world in very clear words:

10 As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

What God says happens. What God promises is. His words are reality creating.

“Is anything too hard for the LORD?”
“Nothing is impossible with God.”

From this very way of looking at reality, the Hebrews and now we in English have another idiomatic expression. When we say of a person - “he just gives empty promises.” we have actually inherited that way of speaking from the scriptures. In the scriptures, fools and people who are filled with evil, even the devil, is seen as the ones who speech is empty, whose boasts lack substance, whose words are not trustworthy because they are just words, they are just noises (1 Corinthians 13 - If I speak in the words of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.), they are nothing. Promises without love are broken even as they are spoken.

In contrast, the words of God are full - full of eternal power to accomplish God’s intent, words that come to fulfillment in their due time, words that are relentless workhorses till God’s projects are accomplished. All of reality is a consequence of God’s words.

“Is anything too hard for the LORD?”
“Nothing is impossible with God.”

Now we need to bridge back to the theme of hospitality because in both of these passages, though Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and Elizabeth clearly were upstanding and righteous people, very hospitable in their actions, their hospitality hesitated when it came to God’s word. And so in both of these passages, the challenge is

“Is any word (action) too hard for the LORD?”
“No (action) word is impossible with God.”

In this Advent season, as you have noticed, we once again have a hospitality theme.   Our Advent question has been for us "Will there be room in the inn?" "Will there be hospitality for God in our lives?" And we discover that hospitality for God is ultimately expressed in our welcome of his reality creating words. Jesus was the Word of God, John tells us he came to his own, but his own would not welcome him. People thought they were hospitable to God, but to be hospitable to God was to be welcoming of his words. Jesus said to those who had heard his words but would not receive him: “I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word.” (John 8:37) You see, to accept Jesus is to accept what he had to say, to reject Jesus is to reject his words (John 12:48).

The story about Mary and Martha offering a meal to Jesus and his friends is all about hospitality. In that story we discover Martha so wrapped up in the actions of hospitality that she has no time for Jesus words, and so she fails in her hospitality, whereas Mary sits at Jesus feet and listens to his words - and so expresses the better welcome.

“Is any word (action) too hard for the LORD?”
“No (action) word is impossible with God.”

So here comes the crunch.

How hospitable am I, are you, to God’s word? Oh, we might be hospitable to God, we might believe in God, but how eager are we to welcome his word? When his word is spoken, how do you respond? With incredulous laughter:  "This is unbelievable!" With doubting challenge: "Look God, I’m a realist!" When his word is spoken, how do you show you welcome his word: with snores or daydreaming- this is the boring part?  Is your heart dispositionally hard, unwilling to receive instruction from God even though you believe he exists?

When it comes to my life, your life, are we so busy that we often have no space, no time left for the Word. If God’s promises are full, not empty, if God, even has he speaks a word,  is making sure it comes to fulfillment, how dare we have no time, no true welcome of his word?

If our lives, and the lives of those who come after us, even to a 1000 generations, depends on the reality making words of God, how dare we not pay attention?

“Is any word too hard for the LORD?”
“No word is impossible with God.”

The surprise of Advent is that you came to visit us with your Word! And it was your Word that was received by some, rejected by others. May we be found, welcoming  your Word.


(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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