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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:Love the Strangers
Text:Hebrews 13:2 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Neighbours
 
Preached:2017
Added:2017-05-14
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 103:8,9                                                                                       

Ps 15:1,2,3

Reading – Genesis 18:1-15; Hebrews 13

Ps 112:1,2,3,4,5

Sermon – Hebrews 13:2

Hy 28:6,7

Ps 146:1,4,5

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in Christ, we all know the story of the Good Samaritan. We see that man by the side of the road: robbed, wounded, and all alone. Forsaken, even by those you would’ve expected to help him, a priest and a Levite. He probably would’ve died if not for the Samaritan who had mercy on this stranger, who bandaged his wounds and carried him to safety.

It’s a memorable story, also for the lesson it teaches: “Who is my neighbour?” the expert in the law had asked Jesus; “Who’s the one I have to show kindness to?” And Jesus says that it’s whomever God sets before us. It’s the stranger we encounter on life’s pathway. It’s our next-door neighbour. It’s the lady in the grocery store. It’s the customer and the salesperson, the little child and the fellow saint. Meet your neighbour!

We know the story, and we know the lesson, yet how hard it is to show this kind of love. How hard it is, especially when we’re in that position of actually having to do something! When you have to reach out to someone you’ve got no reason to love. To look beyond someone’s outer appearance, to get over what we know about them, to step outside our bubble of comfort: it’s not easy to love your neighbour. The priest and the Levite in that parable show how hard it can be.

Yet this is the command of the Scriptures: that as God’s people we should be active in loving not just those who love us in return, but active in loving all people—neighbours and visitors and strangers alike. That’s the lesson of our text, Hebrews 13:2, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have unwittingly entertained angels.” I preach God’s Word to you,

Do not forget to entertain strangers:

  1. an important command
  2. a lesson from the past
  3. an application for today

 

1) an important command: Our text is a little snippet from the letter to the Hebrews. We don’t know who wrote this letter, but some commentators suggest that it’s actually a sermon from the early years of the church. They’ve looked at the structure of Hebrews, its style and its language, and they say these thirteen chapters sound a lot like a first-century speech or sermon.

If it is a sermon it certainly includes things that we expect from good preaching: there is explanation, and there is application. Doctrine and practice, if you will. In the preceding chapters the author has explained some major points of Christian doctrine, particularly about the person and work of Jesus Christ. He has shown how Jesus’ sacrifice is the once-and-for-all offering for sin. Now the author goes on to speak about how we should live since that perfect atonement through blood. How do you show God your thanks for his amazing grace? How do you demonstrate that you’ve really experienced the life-changing love of Christ?

That’s what the author will tell us in chapter 13. This chapter is full of practical exhortations about our conduct as the people of Christ. And where does the Christian style of life begin? What’s the most important rule for the way we live as fellow saints, and for the way that we live in this world? Like the Spirit tells us in 1 Corinthians 13, we need to love.

The writer to the Hebrews puts that front and centre in his closing words to the congregation: “Let brotherly love continue” (v 1). If you’ve truly been washed with Christ’s blood, and if you are drawing near to God with a sincere heart, then this is what you’ll do: You will love, with a real and an active love.

Now, it’s not as if the Christians reading this letter hadn’t heard this before. They were “Hebrews,” after all, like the letter’s title tells us. These were Jews who had put their faith in the Christ, promised in Scripture. They had grown up in the synagogue, hearing the first and greatest commandment; and the second one like it, that they were to love their neighbours as themselves.

They knew God’s commandment, and more importantly, they put it into practice. Notice how the author puts his exhortation, “Let brotherly love continue.” Earlier in this letter, he spoke of how these believers had shown their Christian love so well. For instance, he describes how they had stood together with those who were suffering in jail, and how they supported those who were persecuted for the faith (10:33-34).

They had loved as God commanded, but there’s always more work to do. And then there’s always the temptation for us to fall back into our selfish ways of living. That’s our default position, isn’t it, when we’re self-absorbed and don’t care for others? “So work on this,” the author says. “Don’t forget this. Don’t withdraw into yourself and your own interests. But keep loving each other.”

And then he tells them about two ways that they can show this love, in verse 2 and verse 3. The first is our text, that command to “entertain strangers.” Now, let’s be clear about the meaning of that word “entertain.” We’re not talking about hosting a movie night, or putting on a clown costume, or doing any other kind of “entertainment.” The Greek word that is used is a compound word, made of a couple different parts, and it means literally “the love-of-strangers.”

What’s he referring to? What does it mean to practice “the love-of-strangers?” It’s being hospitable, it’s being welcoming. Showing love—and not just to those people that you know well, or those people you like. But yes, to strangers! There are those fellow saints whom you’re not so familiar with; there are people passing through your life; and there are unbelievers whom God places on your path—love the strangers! Faith in Christ gets put into practice when we’re willing to share what we have with others, and when we’re willing to open our homes to them.

In the early years of the church this kind of hospitality was important. There was a real need for believers to open up their homes to one another. And why was there such a need? Sometimes it was so that they could hold a worship service. Other times it was so that a traveling preacher could have a place to stay. Also when Christians traveled from place to place, it could be difficult for them to find accommodation. So if they could stick together—if a Christian in Italy didn’t mind hosting a bunch of Christians from Egypt, and if believers would do this wherever they were—then the church would be strengthened, unified in love. For the first readers of this letter, showing hospitality was nothing less than building the church!

We might say that there’s less of that immediate requirement for hospitality. No one’s going to go hungry if we don’t invite them up for lunch. Ministers get provided with housing—indeed, we all have decent homes to live in. The requirement to be hospitable doesn’t seem so great as it used to be, when it met a very practical need.

The culture has changed, and we have more resources, but the basis of Christian hospitality hasn’t changed at all. What’s the basis? We are family, brothers and sisters in Christ. We share the gift of eternal salvation, and we are bound together as one through the Holy Spirit. And what is the unchanging motive for hospitality? We should want to show one another the love of Christ, to the glory of God.

So in another New Testament letter we hear Paul lay down an unchanging command, “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (Rom 12:13). And let’s be clear that hospitality doesn’t take only one form. This kind of hospitality is making time to have someone over for coffee, or for supper. But it’s also making a visitor feel “at home” in the church by introducing yourself. It’s making the effort to get to know a new member, reaching out to them and letting them know they belong. It’s shown by offering to help someone with what you have, making a meal for them, or giving a ride in your car. It’s shown by service. It’s still nothing less than building the church! And it’s what the saints have always done.

           

2) a lesson from the past: If the letter to the Hebrews is actually a sermon, then in our text we find another good practice for preaching: the use of examples. We’ve been told to show an active love, so now the author brings forward an illustration of this. He says, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.”

It’s just a brief illustration, but one that “the Hebrews” would pick up on. They were Jewish, we said; these were people who knew the Old Testament well. Even a passing reference would be enough for them to understand.

“Some have entertained angels.” Probably the first example that popped into their minds would’ve been the story in Genesis 18. There the patriarch Abraham is very active in “the loving-of-strangers.” The scene opens with him sitting at the entrance of his tent, “in the heat of the day” it says (v 1), which is the time of the day when no one feels like being hospitable. That’s when you just want to be lazy and take a nap.

But Abraham suddenly sees those three men standing nearby. Without delay, he springs into action. “If I have now found favour in your sight, do not pass on by your servant,” he says. “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. And I will bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh your hearts” (vv 4-5). Notice how he acts as if he would be honoured to serve them, that this is something important for him to do! Then a fine meal is prepared for them, and the wealthy Abraham even waits on his guests like a lowly servant would, standing nearby while they ate.

Of course, we know the identity of these three visitors all along. We know that two are angels, and the third is none other than “the LORD.” But does Abraham know? Does Sarah? There’s no hint that they knew. They are “entertaining angels unwittingly,” without knowing it.

And for the writer to the Hebrews, that’s the whole point. These three dusty travelers could’ve been anyone. They could’ve been from anywhere. In the end, they might’ve proved to be hostile visitors, or shown themselves to be grumpy and ungrateful guests, but that doesn’t keep Abraham from being hospitable. He demonstrates love for these strangers, and he doesn’t have any hope that he’ll receive something in return.

A chapter later, we see the same activity in action. The setting is quite different, for it’s the wicked city of Sodom. But the two angels are greeted at the city gate by Abraham’s nephew Lot: “‘My lords, please turn aside to your servant’s house’” (19:2). When they decline the invite, Lot even insists on it. Later he comes to the angels’ defense when the Sodomites try to abuse his guests. Once again, there’s no sense that Lot understands who’s visiting. He just receives them, and he shows them neighbourly love.      

There are more examples. There’s the story of Gideon, who presented a gift of food to the visiting angel (Judges 6). There’s the story of Manoah, the father of Samson, who welcomed the angel of the LORD and offered him a meal (Judges 13). I think the frequency of these events in the Old Testament shows just how normal it was to offer hospitality to strangers.

No, it wasn’t always an angel who “dropped in.” There wasn’t always a special message sent from heaven. But it looks like the saints were used to doing this. Being hospitable was their custom, their normal way of doing things. Abraham, for example, could almost be following a checklist as he welcomes his heavenly visitors: he officially invites them, then he shows them a place to sit, then he gets water for their feet, then prepares a meal. He knows exactly what has to happen for a person to feel welcome.

Let’s underline again that there are no questions asked. Abraham doesn’t say, “Who are you, and where are you from? Staying long? What’s your business? Anything that you can offer me?” Rather, the guests in all these stories are welcomed quickly, and they’re welcomed eagerly. Conversation comes later.

You can be sure it wasn’t always convenient for those who hosted. Being hospitable meant there was a cost, and an awkwardness. What’s also striking is that these Old Testament saints had never heard an explicit rule from the LORD to be hospitable, or a commandment to share with those in need. And yet they “kept” the command. They honoured the obligation to love one’s neighbour. That’s what they did back then, and that’s what we must do today.

 

3) an application for today: There’s a question everyone asks when they read this text, “So will angels in disguise appear to us today? If we welcome a complete stranger, if we show kindness to someone who is utterly foreign to us, could it be that this man, this woman, is actually an angel sent from God?”

You can be sure that there are stories to support this. A quick Google search gives you numerous tales from people who are almost certain that they once encountered an angel. That person in the snowstorm, that beggar on the sidewalk, that blind man on the train—these weren’t just passing strangers, but they were heavenly messengers! 

What do we do with this? Do we believe these tales? Is it strictly impossible that God would place an “undercover angel” on our path? Perhaps He would so in order to test us, to see if we’ll put our faith into practice when we see someone in need?

Let’s notice how the text doesn’t teach us to expect this sort of appearance. It doesn’t say that these things still happen. Instead, the lesson is about how we actually treat the people around us. The Holy Spirit doesn’t want us to listen to this text, and then to debate the question, “So will angels appear to us today? Might we be hosting cherubim and seraphim without realizing it?” If that’s the question we ask, then we’ve missed the point. The Spirit wants us to listen to this text and to ask one another question, “So what about the people coming in and out of our life? Do we love them? Have we been welcoming those whom we don’t know very well, the strangers? How can I better meet their needs, and build them up?”

This is why the Spirit brings forward the illustration, because He wants to show the lasting importance of Christian love. That great “cloud of witnesses” shows us how it’s done. Many things have changed from the days of Abraham, but not the obligation to love our neighbour! We still need to do so, even to the unexpected visitors and the passing strangers.

We’re a congregation made up of many members. So we don’t always know each other well. We have good friends, and there are other people whom we might be inclined to have over once in a while. There’s also our family—parents and children and grandchildren—and we have them over a lot. That’s fine, but there are other people around us too.

See how the Spirit says, “Let brotherly love continue” (v 1). “Brotherly” is a family word. We are brothers and sisters in the faith, united under one Father. And the thing about being family is that you can’t choose who you’re going to be nice to. You have to show love—that’s what families do. And that’s what we must do. That’s the truest test of hospitality, when there are people you don’t know very well, but you reach out anyway. Or when you’re not really ready to have someone over, or not ready to help someone, but you know that you need to.

There might be church members who wrestle with loneliness every day. There might those who are in need of some kind of help, or who just want to talk. In a way, they’re “strangers.” We don’t really know them, for we’ve never really talked. But don’t assume that everyone is doing fine. We should reach out with a hand of fellowship, and show brotherly and sisterly love. That’s the blessing of communion.

These things surely happen in our congregation, when there are gestures of love and hospitality. There are surely those who make meals for each other, who are generous with their gifts, those who open their homes, and those who reach out and lend a hand.

But aren’t there also those who go uninvited, those who feel neglected and overlooked. Do we see the single adults among us? Or do we notice the widows and widowers? Do we think about those who have recently moved into the congregation? What about those who we know are struggling, or who we suspect are struggling? Even if there is a spirit of love in the congregation, there’s always work to do. Notice again the “continue” in verse 1, “Let brotherly love continue,” the Holy Spirit tells us. “And do not forget to love the strangers.”

It can be a hard step, to pick up the phone and invite someone over. It can be intimidating, to have certain people in your house, just because of what you know about them, or what you think you know about them. Or you might say, “Well, I never had them over before, so why start now?” So it’s easier not to do it. It’s easier to make an excuse about your house not being clean. Or to say that some people are awkward. Hospitality can feel like an burden. Is it any wonder that Peter says this in his letter? “Be hospitable, without grumbling.” Whatever our hang-up or obstacle, we should let it go: Love, without grumbling.

Don’t forget that this kind of love also needs to reach across an even greater distance, out into the world. For the world is full of “strangers,” people of different colours and classes and cultures. When we meet them, we have no idea who they are. They could be anyone; they could be from anywhere. We don’t know their stories or positions. They could be people of different religions, or no religion at all. What must we do?

We must treat them with love. We must treat them as if the angels themselves were in our midst. We must treat them as if God Himself sent them among us—in fact, God has sent these people into our lives! The people in the grocery store. The people on our street, or in our store, fixing our car or cutting our hair. These are the people to love, the people whom God has placed on our life’s pathway. Instead of looking the other way, or hoping someone else will do it, these are the strangers we are called to love.

Let’s love our fellow saints, the friends and the strangers, the brothers and the sisters and the neighbours. May your humble service follow the example of Jesus himself. Remember our Saviour, the one who washed the feet of his disciples, the one who showed love in word and in deed, and called us to do the same (John 13).

And just like Jesus says in John 13, there’s a great blessing in showing love. It’s not just good for the person who’s on the receiving end. It’s good for the one who did the loving, the inviting and the hosting. Showing hospitality teaches us how to love. Showing hospitality makes us better listeners, and it makes us more aware of the lives of others, and how we can help them.

Particularly when believers share a meal, or you have a coffee, together with some holy conversation, you experience the blessed unity that there is between you. You’ve shared something, more than just a tray of cookies or a good meal, but something far deeper. There’s been a communion in the Spirit. After a time of fellowship, there’s often a new appreciation: “You know, we’re in this together. We’re not alone. There’s others around me, those I can help, and those who can help me.” And that’s good to know. It’s a blessing and encouragement to us.

Most importantly, our love and hospitality become acts of worship before God. As the Spirit says a bit later in this chapter, “Do not forget to do good and to share for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (v 16). This is something to do—not just for others, not just for us, but for God. We glorify the LORD when we show His kind of love: free and impartial and generous love. May God help us to be a people who love like Him!  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was: http://frcmn.org/sermons/

(c) Copyright 2017, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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