Psalm 39: 4-7, 12-13, John 1:1-14
Welcome to this short sermon series on hospitality. We’ll have three Sundays on the subject; Hospitable God this week, a pause next week for the Youth led Advent Service and then 2 more weeks on ‘hospitable church’; asking what it might mean for us to be truly hospitable to one another within the church family, and then ‘hospitable community’; what about being hospitable to those who are not part of the church community.
Why this topic?
Two reasons; first, Advent is coming, and in Advent we get ready to welcome Jesus into the world, into our communities and into our lives. We get ready to be hospitable to Him and those who come in his name. Advent is a good time to think about hospitality.
Secondly, we’ve talked a lot about ‘going deeper’ recently - deeper into prayer, deeper into trust in God, deeper into lives that are vulnerable and open to God’s radical love and the radical call that he places on our lives. Deeper into a way of life that is more than just ‘a bit of church on Sunday’, but which is shaped at every level by our desire to follow Jesus.
And we want to ask what it means to ‘go deeper in our hospitality’? Because hospitality is an absolutely central theme that runs throughout the bible. And what I want to do is to show today that it’s central, not because God thinks being hospitable is a nice thing to do, but because it is central to who God is. That the practice of hospitality is an expression of a godly life because it’s what God is like.
And then on subsequent Sundays we can look at how that might look practically within the church family and towards those that are not yet part of the community.
The Old Testament is full of stories of hospitality to strangers, and direct commands to show hospitality. Almost every book includes something - so in Genesis 18, Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, welcomes 3 men who are passing his tent; washing their feet, making them food and giving them rest from their long journey. It turns out that they aren’t just random passing strangers, and they leave giving the mysterious news that Abraham and his wife, Sarah, will soon have the child they have longed for.
And many of the most virtuous people in the Old Testament are marked out by the quality of their hospitality. Joseph - he of techni-coloured coat fame - despite being wronged by his brothers shows them kindness and hospitality when they seek his help. Job, who was tested by God, is chosen for this challenge in part because he has lived such a good life and is known for his welcome to widow and orphan. Boaz allowed Ruth, a homeless refugee, to glean the corner of his fields. King David handed food sacrificed in the Temple to all those who needed it.
And in the books of the law the people of Israel are told to care for widows and orphans, to share food with the hungry, to offer shelter to the homeless and to clothe the naked. And when things go wrong for Israel, it’s often because they have forgotten how to be hospitable. Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah all berate their listeners for the failure to show the right kind of hospitality.
The call to be hospitable is everywhere in the Old Testament.
But hospitality goes deeper than that. Because hospitality is more than just something that we’re told to ‘do’ - it is also at the very heart of who God is. God never tells us to behave in a way that he does not behave; he never says ‘do as I say, but not as I do’ - he only ever says ‘do as I say because it’s who I am.’
And lying beneath the clear and consistent Scriptural instruction to show hospitality, is the insistence that God, in His very being, is hospitable.
The psalm that we heard read just now, Psalm 39, includes, towards the end, the line ‘Hear my prayer O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.’
We are guests in God’s good home. We are not just a collection of atoms, directed by some DNA, struggling our way through an ultimately meaningless existence - we belong; we have a place, we are at home. God knows how easy it is for us to feel abandoned and alone, and so He welcomes us into His home. He has thrown open the doors of his heavenly house and invited us to call it our own.
At one level that home is creation - this beautiful earth which we get to live in. At a deeper level again it’s God himself that we are called to dwell in. In John’s gospel Jesus uses the language of ‘dwelling’ - which is like talking about ‘being at home’ - to describe his relationship with his Father, and, through him, our relationship with God as well. We are to dwell in God, to be at home in him.
Paul, speaking in Athens to the Greek philosophers put it like this "in God we live and move and have our being” . We live in God, we are at home in God. God isn’t just a distant old man in the sky that we can call out to - we get to be at home with Him, to be at home in Him.
And in a moment, when we come forward for communion, anyone who puts their hand out will receive ‘the host’ - the traditional name for the bread. God is the host and we are invited, as guests, to be at home in him.
What does it mean to you to be ‘at home’?
Perhaps home is where you’re safe. Where you can be yourself. Home is family, love, kindness. Home is a place where, in the give and take of relationships, we learn about ourselves - sometimes painfully. Home is where the heart is.
And we invited to be at home with our hospitable, homely God.
What does that really mean for you? To be at home with God?
Sometimes though it feels like we’re not at home - as if that sense of homeliness and safety has gone. It’s like the doors to God’s home are closed against us; suffering, our own failures, a sense of unworthiness - these can all make us feel ‘home-less’.
The story of the Prodigal Son is a story of someone who feels like that. The young man leaves home to explore life. When the fun finishes and he finds himself homeless in the dirt, with nowhere to turn, his mind turns back to home. He doesn’t expect to be allowed back in, after all he’s done, but long before he gets to the front door he sees his Dad, and then feels his arms embrace him, and then he’s welcomed back home. The story of the Prodigal Son could just as well be called ‘The homecoming Son’.
So when we feel like we’ve traveled far from God’s home, when we’re rootless and drifting, there is always a way back home. A way back to the place where we belong. In God’s home.
God calls us to be hospitable because we’re to be like him, and God, in his very being, is hospitable.
And then there’s another level to all this. We are guests in God’s home, but we’re also called to be hosts in turn. And to be host to God himself, who has now become our guest.
In the gospel we just heard, we are told that ‘the word became flesh and lived among us’ or in the older translation ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’. We, who have been made so welcome by the Lord, are now invited to welcome him in turn. God doesn’t just welcome us into his home and tell us to put our feet up, he welcomes us in so that we can, in turn welcome others. And to show us how important that is, the first guest we’re invited to welcome is Jesus himself. When we become a Christian we are invited to dwell in God, and we are also at the same time, invited to let Jesus come and dwell in our hearts. It’s Paul’s prayer to the Ephesians - that Christ ‘may dwell in your hearts through faith’.
What a glorious mystery - that God, who invites us to come and be at home in Him, is also at work in Jesus, knocking on the door of our hearts, asking if he can come in and be at home in us.
That’s the Advent journey we are about embark upon. The journey deeper into being at home in God, so that we are better prepared to welcome Jesus - and all those in whose place he stands - into our homes and our lives; into our church and our community.
More practical thoughts on how we might do that in the coming weeks, but for now, two questions for you.
What does it mean for you to be ‘at home’ in God’s love?
What do you need to do to get ready to welcome Jesus to dwell in your hearts again?
Read Genesis 18:1-15. What does it tell you about hospitality?
What does it mean for you to 'be at home'?
What does it mean for you to be 'at home' in God's love?
Read Ephesians 3:14-19. What does it tell you about a life that is 'at home' with God? What does it tell you about welcoming Jesus Christ into your life?
What will you do as a result of this discussion?