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Twickenham URC 6 June 1999

The life of Abraham part 4: He brought me to his banqueting table

(Genesis 14:1-24 + Hebrews 6:19-7:28)

In part 3 of this series we looked at the story of Abram and Lot parting company and Lot's decision to move to the vicinity of Sodom, attracted by the lush grazing and plentiful water. As we said last time, appearances can be deceptive, and it was not long before conflict broke out. We need not worry too much about all the names, but we are basically looking at a number of city states which formed alliances with one another. For twelve years five of these city states including Sodom, Gomorrah and Zoar (which we will return to later in this series) had evidently been making some sort of payment to Kedorlaomer, king of Elam to ensure their continued security. And as so often happens in situations of this sort, be they between individuals or between countries, the five who were paying up decided that enough was enough and they rebelled. The King's response was to get three other states to join him in taking action against the rebels, no doubt promising them a share of the booty. When it came to the battle, four against five the rebels were routed, and in the confusion many ran away and fell into the tar pits. The victorious forces went through Sodom and Gomorrah, seizing goods, food and people, and amongst the latter was Lot.

Note that when we last met Lot he had taken his herds and servants to go and live in the vicinity of Sodom. By now he is living in the city, a decision which leads to his capture. Later in this series we will find him getting absorbed into the society of that wicked city. If you are not prepared to draw boundaries you may well find yourself caught up in situations that are not of your choosing and which might not have arisen had you been stronger.

A bit later in this series we will come to the point where Abraham pleads for Sodom: will God save it if he can find 50, 40 ,30. Such a bargaining process can be used to entrap us: surely only the worse sort of pedant would consider doing x to be wrong. And no wishing to be so described you reluctantly agree. But if you can do that then what's the real difference betweeen doing x and doing y. And so people who thought themselves to be decent and honest find themselves being sucked into things like the Maxwell scandal. We are challenged to reflect on what is right and wrong and draw firm boundaries.

A theme that recurs throughout this series is how so very often the people of God fail to do what is right, whilst those who have no such faith or allegiance are not found wanting. And so someone who was presumably a native of Sodom puts his own personal safety and welfare at risk to bring news to Abram about what has happened to his nephew. Note that Abram is described as Abram the Hebrew, the first use of this word.

Abram might have felt tempted to say that Lot had made his choice and now he must accept the consequences, but his nephew had been to him the son that he and Sarah had never had, and so he was deeply troubled and stirred to action. We can get some idea of the size of his settlement by the fact that he was able to raise a force of 318 of his own men - men who owed their allegiance to him, not mercenaries - and they set off to rescue the hapless Lot. Given that he was taking on the forces of four city states we see the hand of God at work here. The small force splits into two and attacks by night, rescuing Lot, his possessions, and all those who had been captured.

When Abram returns victorious there is a double reception party to greet him. To take the two accounts in reverse order, the King of Sodom must have been somewhat humbled by the way in which this foreign stranger had pulled off a victory with his small force that the combined forces of five cities could not. He asks for his people back and tells Abram that he can keep all the goods that they have recovered.

Presumably to the king's surprise Abram declares that he will not accept anything from him, not so much as a shoelace. He is a servant of God and in God, in God alone will he trust. He knows the reputation of Sodom and will not entertain the prospect of someone saying at a future date that he is rich because of the king's generosity. Indeed he probably sees the danger of the king of Sodom coming back at a later date and trying to exercise a claim over him. Equally note that whilst he is clear about what he must do, he does not seek to impose his own morality on others who have joined in the campaign; if they wish to accept what is offered, then that is their choice.

We need to be careful about what we accept and from whom. I am sure that the United Reformed Church policy of generally not seeking grants from the lottery is a correct one. Chuck Smith, a pastor in California, whom some of you may have heard on Premier Radio, tells the story of when his church was trying to acquire a site for their new church - if I mention that it was 11 acres you will realise that we live in somewhat different worlds. A well-to-do person approached him and offered to write out a cheque for the cost. After prayer and not a little soul searching the offer was declined, and when Chuck Smith explained why, the potential donor understood. Nearer home when the Methodists built the Central Hall in Westminster, all members of the church were asked to give the same amount - something like one shilling - so that all could claim to have played an equal part in its building, rather than it being a memorial to a handful of rich people.

The other person to greet Abram is something of a mystery. The account we read earlier is short and to the point: "Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand." Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything". Melchizedek then gets mentioned once in Psalm 110, and then, 2000 years later, this incident is unpacked in the letter to the Hebrews. Firstly he is described as a king. His name means "king of righteousness", a concept which recurs throughtout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, also, "king of Salem", Salem which we identify with Jerusalem, meaning peace.

He is described as a priest - a word that carries a lot of meaning. So far in Genesis we have come across a number of stories where God speaks to individuals. And now we come to this notion of a priest. God is all powerful, all knowing, and perfect. Man is none of these. So how can man come into the presence of God. And thus the concept of a priest, someone who is set aside to live a holy life which allows him to act as an intermediary between God and man. He can listen to people and then present their petitions and sacrifices to God. He can hear from God and then pass the message back. In due course the priesthood would be entrusted to the descendants of Levi, the Levites. No one chose to be a priest, they were born to it.

But this priest was different. No one knew from where he had come or what became of him. And so the writer of Hebrews sees him as a prefiguration of Jesus Christ, and when people ask how Jesus Christ can be seen as the one who bridges the gap between them and God the answer is seen in him being in the succcession of Melchizedek.

Note too the ascription given to God - he is God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. Perhaps at this point Abram's perception of God is suddenly expanded. Up to now God has been someone with whom he has had, we might say, a 'one-to-one' with, and now this priest before him speaks of the power and might of God.

So Melchizedek is a king, a priest. He brings out bread and wine. These things of the world are given sacramental significance many hundreds of years before the first Passover meal. In eating together there is fellowship - be it here, the last supper, the broken bread at Emmaus or the barbecued fish on the beach. The initiative comes from God. Time and again we reminded of this, and if we stop to reflect on it we are humbled. "He drew me to his banqueting table", "Thou spreadst a table in my sight", "Go out into the fields and hedges and tell people that the banquet is ready". One of our hymns says: "Jesus invites his saints to meet around his board", whilst another starts with "Come Living Lord and deign to be our guest", before the writer and we are reminded that things are the other way round: "Nay let us be thy guests, the feast is thine". We may have sung the chorus "I have decided to follow Jesus", but we make that decision because he has called us. As you've been told more than a few times, the Prodigal Son's father was at the gate looking out for him and willing him to come home long before he did so.

Bread and wine are produced, signs of God's care and providence. What will our response be? Something told Abram that one tenth of what he had would be appropriate. In the last few verses of our reading today we come across the first references to priesthood, to bread and wine, to tithing.

So what do we learn from today's reading: God's hand is on Abram giving him victory in difficult circumstances. He sees the need to trust in God's providence rather than taking the easy way out. In Melchizedek our vision of God is expanded. He is someone with whom we can relate but his power and greatness are beyond our comprehension. He is a God who reaches out to us and to whom we should respond. And lest we feel that the gap between our humble selves and God is too wide, then we have Jesus Christ as our High Priest interceding for us.

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Hymns: Christ triumphant, ever reigning; 556: When a knight won his spurs; 552: The King of love my Shepherd is; 342: People draw near to God in their distress; 746: God, your glory we have seen in your son

In art: The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, Rubens, c. 1626