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Nov 16 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

November 14, 2010

 And the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child when I am so old?'”  Genesis 18:13 (1-15)

INTRO: As we step into the story and look around, where are we?

We are not far from Jerusalem, where spread out on a hillside we see a cluster of tents
(made from goat skins that have been sewn together)
– the homestead of an old man and woman with an empty nest
– in fact, that’s the hint of sorrow in the old lady’s eyes–their nest has always been empty
Their whole marriage she has suffered the stigma of being “barren”

Vv. 1-2, We enter story through the eyes of Abraham

Biblical narratives are not usually descriptive of scenery or background
– instead, they draw us into the story visually through other means
Here, the storyteller gives us our first glimpse at what is coming in verse 1, “Now the LORD appeared to Abraham”
– then we have what seems like redundancy in describing his experience: “lifted his eyes and looked, behold . . . saw”

God’s appearance and Abraham lifting his eyes have been an ongoing theme in his story (e.g. 12:7; 17:1 & 13:10, 14)
– Abraham may have been dozing, because it seems as if his visitors caught him off guard

Vv. 3, Abraham was afraid they would pass without enjoying his hospitality

We’ve been told that he was merely playing the role of a gracious host that was typical for that time
– but I can’t help wondering if he discerned something special about these men

Vv. 4-5, Abrham offers them water, tree (shade) and bread–wash, rest, refresh

Vv. 6-8, In these verses we find ourselves running around with Abraham

The text rushes around trying to keep up with him, “ hurried . . . Quickly . . . ran . . . hurried . . .”
– then it comes to a stand-still when the food is set before the guests
– but Abraham is still on his feet in case they need anything else

Vv. 9-15, They have news for Abraham and this is the reason they’ve ventured near his home

The storyteller gives us a reminder, v. 11:

 “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing”

Being out of sight, Sarah thought she was unnoticed
– it seemed safe to laugh to herself and think up a cynical comeback
– but she’s called out

This is the pivotal moment in story
– up until now, when the guests spoke we read “they said” (or “He said” in v. 10)
– it is as though they spoke with one voice
– but in verse 13, “the LORD said . . .” and it is the personal name of God that is used here, “Yahweh”
It would seem that Yahweh is speaking through his disguise
– this is not actually a disguise, but what biblical scholars refer to as a theophany, a visible manifestation of God’s presence

The thunderstorm on Mt. Sinai and in Job 38 were theophanies, as were the cloud and fire that led Israel through the wilderness. But perhaps the most common theophany was the angel of Yahweh. When he delivered God’s messages, it was often in the first person as though Yahweh were speaking directly through him (e.g., Ex. 3:2, 6, 13-15)

Sarah blurted out, “I did not laugh” – and in doing so she gave herself away (she had been eavesdropping)
– but the Lord wouldn’t let her off the hook, “No, but you did”
– what happened next? A tense silence?
I like to think that Abraham started to giggle
– then the three guests, and then they all had a good laugh–which later became the name given to the baby (21:1-7)

Why do you suppose God gave us gift of laughter?

  • it’s a way of coping with our brokenness – the alternative would be to despair
  • it’s a way of taking a victorious attitude (Job 39:13-18)
  •  it’s also a revelation of how wrong we are about God – when his promise seemed too good to be true
    – Jesus in Jairus’ home (Mk. 5:38-40)

God’s response to our cynicism: “Is anything too difficult for Yahweh?”

There’s another way to look at and enter this story

Children’s Bible story books are filled with pictures

The same is true of old family Bibles that have wood engravings by Gustave Dore

For similar reasons, frescoes of Bible stories are painted on interior of chapel walls in Orthodox monasteries

These various places where we find scenes from the Bible depicted are a good place to begin thinking about icons

Nothing in my religious upbringing prepared me for icons
– if anything, I grew up thinking they were idols or at the least, weird-looking art
– a few years ago I discovered icons define sacred space in Orthodox churches
Icons can evoke the kind of reverence that is appropriate to worship and direct our thoughts toward God

“But aren’t icons a form of idolatry? Aren’t we forbidden from making images of anything in heaven or on earth?” (Ex. 20:4)
– we are not to make anything with the intention of worshiping or serving what we make as if it were a god or the representation of a god
– but there is a place for sacred art in those places that we have dedicated to prayer and worship
– and this is by God’s command, for small statues of cherubim were sculpted and placed on the ark of the covenant and figures of cherubim (angels who are associated with God’s holy presence, as guardians of it) were woven into fabric that formed the inner walls of God’s sacred tent (Ex. 25:17-22; 26:1)

Sacred art surrounds us with beauty, provides reminders of God’s majesty and revealed truth and in so doing, enhances our encounter with God

Icons are like a parable–they work from what we can see and know to what cannot be seen or known apart from revelation
– the justification that early church theologians provided for icons was the Incarnation of Christ—“the Word became flesh” (Jesus as the icon–Greek eikon–of God, 2 Cor. 4:4)
– in icons, the glory of heaven shines through something physical

An icon is not a photographic reproduction – no attempt is made at creating a resemblance
– icon painters do try to copy features, but to communicate an experience of the truth
– for that reason, we don’t look at icons (like art in a gallery), but we look through them, like looking through a window
– and from the other side of the icon, something like light pours through them to us

Icons are not meant to be read literally
– like the “water,” “tree,” and “bread” in Genesis 4, which were objects that can also be symbols
– symbols have the job of carrying or transmitting a meaning
– religious symbols have the job of transmitting grace

Orthodox icons that have been reproduced since the Byzantine era do appear as strange-looking art forms
– bodies frequently appear in impossible, exaggerated postures–but what do these postures symbolize? That is the question we are meant to ask
– but the artist does not want us to think of these people as representing God or Christ or the Spirit
– they are there to say something to us about God, through symbols, in the same way that the Bible says something about God through words

James Forest observed that the icon is silent—mouths are never opened
– nothing suggests sound, so we do not listen to icons with our ears but with the imagination, heart, spirit
– we provide the sound with our living voices as we worship and pray–the icon is simply there to inspire

Icons generally employ “inverse perspective”
– in other words, in most paintings, the background moves away from us, as if fading into the distance
– so buildings in the foreground have slanted lines toward the background, suggesting that the part of the building that is furthest from us looks smaller
– the inverse perspective, however, makes the icon look as if it were coming off the canvas toward the viewer
– icons require someone to stand before them and view them to be complete
– this is yet another way that they invoke a sense of encounter

The sacred art of icons draws our minds into a world of grace
– even physical scenes in the icon connect with the world of the Spirit

Henri Nouwen in Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons, pointed out that we choose what we will look at, and to gaze on an icon has a positive influence in the same way that looking at evil can turn our hearts that direction. He says, “I have chosen icons because they are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible. Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God.”

Think of an icon as a good spiritual, devotional book
– it warms your heart toward Christ and takes your thoughts to God
– it helps you pay attention and focus your concentration

One of most famous icons is that of the three angels seated at Abraham’s table
– it is most commonly referred to as “The Holy Trinity” icon, and the most famous rendering of it is that which was made by the Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev

In this icon, the meal shared by Abraham’s three guests is not merely a historical event locked in the past
– instead, what we witness is an ongoing relationship, conversation and communion
– the icon reminds us that at a particular moment, in a certain place, grace entered the world

Once, when I was studying the Trinity icon, it struck me that God made himself visible to Abraham and Sarah
– he made himself that real to them; he let them know he was that near
– that experience awakened in me a sense of how close he was in that particular moment of my life and in that place where I stood
– icons bring the story and everything it reveals close to us

A friend of mine, Lela Gilbert, wrote a book with Elizabeth Zelensky on icons entitled Windows to Heaven
– in one place Lela had this to say regarding the Holy Trinity icon:

Behind the Father is his house, with “many dwelling places. . . .”
Behind the Son, a tree. Eden’s Tree of Life or Calvary’s Tree of Death? The oak of Mamre, yes, but more.
Behind the angel of the Spirit, a holy mountain, where his still small voice can be more clearly heard. Perhaps it is the secret place of the Most High; a lonely place, where each of us retreats from time to time.
Above all else, however, it is the peaceable conversation that speaks most to me, and the relaxed, unhurried quality of the three beings. When I was a child, I would awaken and hear the voices of my parents in the next room. It gave me a sense of security, knowing they were there, talking just out of sight. Much more comforting is the conversation of the Three, the voice of Holy Wisdom, speaking, perhaps from time to time, my name.

CONC: Sarah was ninety years old when Isaac was born

I find that very encouraging
– she obviously kept herself busy; she certainly didn’t waste her life even though she did give up on her dream
– yet even after all that, God blessed her with a son

While we wait, we also keep ourselves busy with our spiritual journey
– or as Peter said, we apply “all diligence” to developing Christian virtues, which he lists like steps on a staircase where one follows another:

faith to moral excellence to knowledge to self-control to perseverance to godliness to brotherly kindness to love–concluding with the promise:

For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful [baren] in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pe. 1:8)

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