God is not in heaven, where God belongs; God is in our world, walking around, taking in the sights, shooting the breeze, and, as this scripture shows us, stopping off for a bit of supper. It may throw us for a loop, but no one in the book of Genesis seems to think much of this sort of thing: that God should be out and about on earth, that God should have to hoof it from here to there, that God should get along by means of God’s own two feet such that, after a long day’s trek, the deity is worn and hungry and would welcome shelter for the night – within the story-world of the Bible, none of this occasions even a raise of the eyebrow. When God deigns to hobnob with terrestrials, God is happy to do as they do; God follows the paths they trod and eats the food they prepare. (And if you think sawing into a choice cut of veal is not metaphysically proper to God, I suggest you take that up with God, who is evidently glad enough to be seen with fork in hand, right here, in holy writ, and who is easiergoing about theological propriety than most Christians I know… only… if you do take that up with God, do not say I sent you, because, well, I, for one, would not want to come between a hungry God and a hot meal.)
God is not in heaven, where God belongs; God is in our world – and Abraham and Sarah are not in the least startled, or even surprised to see God here among them. Their eyes do not bulge at the sight of God; their bones do not shake at the sound of God’s voice. Neither thinks to genuflect or burn incense or sing a hymn. Neither says, ‘If I had known God was coming, I would have done something with my hair.’ God pops by and they put out a party platter. God could not be more comfortable and at ease in their company, and they could not be more comfortable and at ease in God’s. This scripture gives us to imagine that, in the normal course of things, God calls upon us – and that the encounter is something physical. This scripture gives us to imagine that there is solidity to God’s presence, that it is not only a feeling you have in your gut, or the goosebumps you get, but is right there, plain as day, a person… sort of. I say ‘sort of’ because this story is shot through with mystery. Abraham and Sarah host not one visitor, but three – or… is it one? Sometimes the three seem to blur into a single figure and to speak in unison, and other times, this, that or the other of them stands out in relief. Abraham addresses them as a conglomerate, calling all of them, taken together, ‘my lord,’ but he also addresses them in the plural.
Probably, we are to picture God, with angels on either side. But, this only brings us back to where we started: God and the angels both, who we understand to be spirit beings, here appear to have assumed bodies. To put a point on that – they do not only appear to have taken on flesh, but, for all anyone can see, they are fleshy through and through! They do not have the phantasmal, buttery tootsies of those who frolic from cloud to cloud; they have dirty, calloused, dust-caked feet in need of washing. And, what is more, they eat! They chow down! And it never occurs to the narrator or to the Spirit guiding the pen of any of the innumerable scribes down the millennia to wink at the reader and offer a clarifying aside to the effect of, ‘It was well known in the ancient Near East that the heavenly host are endowed with most splendid digestive tracts, which enable them, quite surprisingly, to metabolize prime rib.’ No, as strange and wondrous as it may seem, this scripture gives us to imagine something altogether more ordinary and, in that, extraordinary – that God is not in heaven, where God belongs, but that God is in our world, and not brooding invisibly and imperceptibly, but there, before our eyes, so that, while at first blush, we might be forgiven for seeing three Joe-Shmoes sitting by a fire, a fuller beholding reveals that God is truly with us, that God is this mysterious somebody who looks to us, at one and the same time, to be both a human, and the Holy One.
In one of the first sermons I ever preached, I got it in my head to yammer on about how, well, all those scriptures where somebody hears God’s voice, hears it, not in a dream or under general anesthesia, but audibly, how it all amounts to baloney. God cannot speak, because God has no mouth from which to speak. And anyway, how would one go about measuring the sound waves echoing on? To claim to have heard God’s voice, so I said then, is only to pay a high compliment to one’s own hunches. And probably it is only the grumbling of the burrito you had for dinner the night before. This was a terrible sermon. And a year or so later, a woman came up to me. And she looked me in the eye. And she was shaking a little. And she said, ‘I have thought a great deal about what you said. And I want you to know that I disagree.’ Her hands were still trembling. She said, ‘I disagree. God has spoken to me. That’s all.’ What she should have said, what maybe she might have said were she not a good, kind Christian woman, was, ‘You are a pill, pastor.’ What she should have said was, ‘What a sad, pale imitation of reality you have crafted for yourself, where what you see is what you get.’ What she should have said was, ‘Sometimes we smarter-than-thou progressives can seem to be theologically scared of our own shadows, no? How terrified you are of letting belief get the better of you!’ What she should have said was, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your small, liberal Protestant, it’s-all-only-symbolic sort of rationalism.’
What she should have said was, ‘We modern people have had to unlearn a great many truths. And we are the poorer for that. At the last day, when the physicists and philosophers of mind stand finally triumphant, having solved the riddles of the cosmos and of consciousness, which surely they will, the world will be no less enchanted for that. Perhaps it will be in the techno-utopia that is prophesied, or perhaps we will blow ourselves up and it will be in but the ruins of all that was, but angels will yet walk among us. In our flesh, we shall see God. Of that you may be sure.’ What she should have said was, ‘I am not crazy, okay? But I believe God visits us from beyond. And not in your explain-it-away (you and your preacherly way with words!), insofar-as-God-is-in-each-of-us-yes-it-can-be-said-that-God-is-in-our-midst sense of things. I believe God is truly with us, a mysterious somebody who might sit beside us on a park bench or bump us in a crowd or peer up at us from the street corner. I believe God is truly with us, walking among us, if only we have eyes to see.’ To which I would only ever have been able to say, ‘Amen. Amen. May it be so.’