What a beautiful image is conjured by this story which captures the fragrance of a far off time. It has the same feel as that lovely line earlier in Genesis of The Lord was walking in the garden in the cool of the day evoking something deep and timeless, peaceful and yet expectant. This is the narrator alerting us to the importance of what we are about to hear. Abraham knows nothing He looked up and saw three men standing near him. Perhaps he thought he had dozed off in the heat and not noticed their approach which might explain his hurry: when he saw then he ran from the tent entrance to meet them. He welcomes the visitors, persuading them to stay by offering what travelers will most appreciate, a little water to wash their feet and a rest in the shade of a tree. He goes on to offer a morsel of bread.
Here his hospitality is so much more than a slice of pitta - he asks Sarah to knead three measures of choice flour into cakes, he selects a calf tender and good all at full speed so a lavish feast is energetically prepared and like a good host he waits discreetly by the tree while the three visitors enjoy it.
Paul was later to write in his letter to the Hebrews “ “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
This idea was in time to form the basis of the construction of the monasteries - the Abbot always slept in a cell near the main gate which in turn was near the kitchen and the guest chamber so that if someone came to knock on the door they were welcomed by none other than the abbot himself and the hospitality was immediately nearby. Ideally the abbot would be alerted to the approach of a visitor so he could go to meet them.
Unexpected visitors can indeed be surprising. Our farmhouse in Bedfordshire is at the end of a driveway that often people mistake for a road to a house that they are looking for. So when I was sitting in the heat of the afternoon in the front of the house one day and a car appeared I was not surprised except that the car instead of turning round stopped on the drive with its three women, each of a different generation and spent time looking at the house. I ran across the little green in front of the kitchen window to find out what they wanted - the car began to back down the drive but waving I persuaded them to stop intending to direct them to where they were really going. Now they were not angels but it turned out the eldest had lived in the house when she was a girl and so I set about making a pot of tea and looking for biscuits while they looked around enjoying the old parts and marvelling at the new ones.
The thing is that it was very unusual for me to be in the front of the house at all - there is much more garden at the back. The likelihood was that they would have driven up the drive reversed and I should have been unaware of their visit.
But - you see God always puts you where you are meant to be. The question is why was Abraham just then sitting in the doorway of his tent in the heat of the day? There is much for a wandering man to do, calves and sheep to look after seed to grind and so on. So many times have I been surprised - I have set off to go somewhere and then maybe changed my mind and on the spur of the moment decided to visit a different place to walk the dog or to buy some supper and then there is a meeting with someone, with whom there is an important conversation (maybe they need to borrow a telephone charger) or perhaps at the last moment I have decided not to go out and there is a visitor in need.
In Abraham’s case we can see from the way that the story is told that God put him there. My question is why am I still surprised after so many events like this - why do I not expect God to put me in the right place at the right time - why is it not a matter of course for us?
Well he is the God of Surprises and this aspect reinforces our wonder and our worship and allows us to walk in the same awe as Abraham as he hears “I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”
The Lord appeared to Abraham as he sat at the entrance to his tent by the oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day.