God shows up in the most unexpected places, in the least expected moments. Abraham and Sarah have been journeying through the wilderness with no final destination in sight. They have been called and sent to a life of wandering and wondering. Wondering where God is leading, wondering what God is ultimately doing in and through them, wondering if they will see the promises come to fruition. It has been a life filled with barrenness and brokenness. It has been a journey of criss-crossed paths and heartbreak. Their lives have been a call to hope and yet they have often demonstrated fear, distrust, and hopelessness.
There have been bright spots. Moments of renewed hope, places of renewed purpose. But our story finds Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent in the noon-day sun. The sweltering heat beats down on his brow as he considers the dust. The dust of his life. The barren ground reflective of his and Sarah’s own barrenness. The text says that the Lord appeared to Abraham as three men. This scene is reminiscent of Moses’ burning bush. Abraham is unaware of a divine moment unfolding before his eyes as God comes to him in the most unassuming way – as a human.
As is the cultural custom, Abraham leaps to his feet and welcomes his surprise visitor(s) with every comfort and courtesy. Abraham lavishes extravagance upon his guests, serving as host and servant. The meal mimics sacrifice. Purification of washing, grain offerings, and the slaughter of the fattened calf. Sarah and Abraham are still unaware of God-among-them and yet their posture of generosity and service reflects something deeper, the mystery of communion. Washing feet and breaking bread embody the elemental practices of communion between humanity and divinity. It is often through human relationships engaged in generosity that God is most present.
The meal is finished and dialogue resumes. The visitor(s) inquire about Abraham’s wife who has remained in the tent, hidden, and unacknowledged until now. Her absence is perhaps culturally expected and yet she is no less a bearer of God’s call and promise. Her labors are in the meal and yet she is conspicuously absent, pushed to the boundary of the scene. God names that absence. “Where is your wife?” Abraham’s service to his guests has simultaneously left his partner outside of the scene, distanced from encountering the Other. “She is in the tent.” Simple. Easy. Unabashed. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind.
Where Abraham has separated, God brings back into the picture of possibility and potential. “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son” (v. 10). The promise is reissued to the person at the very margin of the communion, hidden behind the cultural flaps of the tent. Promises of hope, new life, and new potential seek Sarah out and remind her that she has been called. Abraham bears witness and will benefit but he will not bear the promise alone. Communion with God bears new life for those not only present at the table but those whose lives are often shrouded in obscurity.
God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah is given again. Despite the promise restated, the waiting will continue for a season. The signs of barrenness will give way to signs of new life. Slowly, surely, startlingly. New life will be given but there will be pain and discomfort in the waiting. Communion bears new promises, new hope, but does not erase or negate the waiting. It does not erase the labor pains but makes them bearable through the proleptic hope to which it gives witness. “In a year’s time…” suggests the time is coming and is beginning but still remains in the distance just beyond their vision. The once-wandering-couple now have a realized hope pulling them into a new and surprising future. The isolation and desolation of barrenness are broken by communion with God. This God seeks out Abraham and Sarah and calls them again to remember the promise.
The life of discipleship confronts us in this story. We are called and sent, often without a clue where we are headed. We find ourselves in a barren landscape of impossibilities and impotence. Our eyes are downcast, our wandering has led us into the far reaches of hopelessness. Though the promise has been given, the delayed fulfillment of God’s promises sometimes leaves us despondent and without an awareness to see God in the mundane. We fail to see God at work in the emptiness, in the stranger’s face, in the Bread and Cup, in the hands and feet. Some we welcome readily into communion, while others remain hidden within our camp. But it is in those very mundane vessels where we might catch a glimpse of the divine life breaking through. The promise is given again, and again, and again. Those near the Table are surprised by God’s presence. Those at a distance are beckoned to come and receive God’s grace (gift). Where we do not expect divine encounter, God may very well show up to surprise us.
Our journeys are often fraught with fear and failure. In our wilderness, God reminds us that our barrenness does not have the final say. Our future is not of our making. Our hope is not rooted in our power to create new possibilities. Even in the most basic of earthly elements, God can offer new life. Wheat and fruit of the vine. Bread and wine. Body and blood. Flesh and bone. Creation re-created by the Creator who tills the soil of our barren hearts and lives. The hardened soil of our disobedience, our exclusive politics, our despondent doubting, our vacuous vanities. Just as God’s promise makes the barren womb fertile soil for the seeds of new life, so too God’s promises plow the soul and body for hope of new life given – both now and in the time to come. So, we pray that our barren lives would be disrupted by the God who seeks and surprises us with new life in the wildernesses where we have camped.