The man under the tree is God. It is a thing of wonder.
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6).
And now He’s sitting under a tree. But why? How? What wonder is this—God under an oak tree out in the desert!
Well, for one thing, He’s God. This tree is as much His as any other. He can sit there if He wants. But the principal reason why is different, very different from divine right, or coming to His own and getting rejected. He’s really here as a stranger receiving Bedouin hospitality.
For all we know, someone has just spotted Him and two of His companions on their break during a walk across the Middle East’s Middle Bronze Age desert. Or maybe He hasn’t been walking at all. Maybe He simply let Abraham see them standing there over against him. That was all Abraham needed to race out to the three men, prostrate himself to the earth, and hold out his wonderful Bedouin invitation before one of the three: “Come to my house for a while, please, sir, if it’s all right with You,” he says in the singular, because there is this one among the three who compels more respect than standard decency requires.
You see three strangers; you see them all for the first time, standing together; but you know immediately that this man is in charge. Not that you mean to take Him away from His friends: “I’ll get a little water, wash everybody’s feet, and all of you can rest under my oak tree; we’ll get some food for you all, refresh your souls, then, if you want, you may continue your walk. After all, that’s the reason why you all came to visit me.”
Christmas celebrations are not all created alike, because it is not Jesus, but we, who determine the celebrations. And He would not have it otherwise, for He cannot oblige us by fiat to welcome and adore Him, or give ourselves in self-sacrificing service. “The exercise of force is contrary to the principles of [His] government; He desires only the service of love; and love cannot be commanded; it cannot be won by force or authority.”1
Yet it does not follow that heaven’s King must be rejected when He comes to earth. The Savior who is Christ the Lord is not, by some eternal ideal, designed to be nailed to a tree. His self-offering does not, per se, demand our utmost brutality. Whatever divine genius makes of our fiend-inspired madness, rejecting Him is still our blight. “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him,” Jesus explained. “But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21).
No, He does not have to be the victim of our vilest treachery. He would have come just because of Adam’s first betrayal in Eden. It did not require our multiplications of evil.He comes seeking a place in somebody’s heart, and a seat under his oak tree. He comes because He yearns to be among us (Ex. 25:8). Abraham’s Christ-coming celebration is not attended with a luminous cloud, or a flame of fire, or shining, celestial songsters in full cry—only by two beings from the companies of glory garbed as men like himself. And yet his must be among the most precious welcomes that our blighted, fallen earth may conceive—an earnest act of gift giving to God-in-a-body among men.
Though Abraham, it must be said, cannot have the foggiest notion of what his kindheartedness is getting him into.
Not that it matters. Wilderness travelers deserve the best. And Abe lays it out like few around him ever would. His wealth is for service—whether leading forth hundreds of his own servants, born and trained in his own hacienda, in a campaign of deliverance for the poor victims of a grand Mesopotamian invasion; or setting out a sumptuous meal of deliverance from desert heat and loneliness for three wandering strangers in need of food, water, and a tree under which to rest.
Abraham needs no idea who his guests might be. He already knows the maxims of his stewardship: “Cast thy bread upon the waters” (Eccl. 11:1, KJV). Looking for returns on investments of charity is not charity. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers” (Heb. 13:2, KJV). Commitment to entertainment based on guest list quality is not the basic message of Hebrews 13:2. The text does report what has been known to happen—that by disinterested benevolence some have received heavenly visitors in their homes. Abraham is into entertaining, into the least of these, not into entertaining angels. Much less the Lord Himself. True hospitality will be for hospitality’s sake.
Abraham doesn’t expect his guests to return any compliment. That isn’t why he asks them in. He simply cares that there are better ways to be diligent than fainting in the desert at high noon, or drinking at mirages. The proffered cups of cold water that bring reward are offered for service, not for gain.
But Abraham is in for the reward of his life. The conversation he starts with a simple invitation goes off in directions he could never have dreamed: he will have a son next year, he learns; and he is not to ask how come. How come he is not to ask, he wants to know. Whereupon he, in turn, is asked another question: “Is anything too wonderful for the one whose name is wonderful?” (see Gen. 18:14).
Abraham does not get it all at the beginning. Maybe because no one has yet told him what Isaiah will say. But we have heard Isaiah. And as surely as the awesome truth of that question finally dawned upon Abraham’s astonished consciousness, just so certainly should it arise upon ours. The fact that God sat under Abraham’s oak tree, chatted, and ate fatted calf with him, and promised him a son, is no more incredible than the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 12 centuries later that a son named Wonderful Counselor would be born to us, or its fulfillment in Mary’s arms about 800 years after that. This is the testimony of the text: “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day” (Gen. 18:1).
Yahweh was seen by Abraham, the Hebrew more literally announces. Yahweh let Abraham see Him near the Mamre oak trees as he was sitting in the tent door in the heat of the day. Incredible, we might say. Or wonderful! And Yahweh, who would not let His servant Abraham miss the truth about his noon meal guest, will not have us miss the implication of His question in Genesis 18:14.
The idea that “something is hard” in the Lord’s question “Is anything too hard?” rests on the Hebrew root pl’. Isaiah’s utterance on the messianic name immortalized in Handel’s chorus “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” is no different. Twelve centuries after Abraham hears the question, Isaiah echoes its word in his answer: “His name shall be called Wonderful [pl’], Counsellor” (Isa. 9:6, KJV).
Between Abraham and Isaiah a frightened Danite named Manoah speaks with his saner spouse: “ ‘We are doomed to die!’ . . . ‘We have seen God!’ ” (Judges 13:22). What makes him think that he has seen God? “When the angel of the Lord did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the Lord” (verse 21).2 Privileged dimwit Manoah is the model of ourselves that we dare to mock, we whose generations of human minds have been darkened by Satan’s distortions. God, the ineffable, incomprehensible, wonderful, presents Himself to souls in need of light, and instead of seeing the light, we say that His self
-revelation is proof of doom.
What was true a millennium later was certainly so in the days of Israel’s judges when men could be consigned to slaughter for having the wrong accent (Judges 12:1-6): “The earth was dark through misapprehension of God.”3 We rather flee before such deep consideration on His part that lets His veiled presence visibly come among us. We so prefer the hideous that we seek it out in Halloween entertainment, while we must flee, at the frightful thought of quiet communion with Him, to obsessions with cell phones, or the roar of subways and rush hour traffic, lest we die.
Manoah will die because the God who twice appeared to his wife has deigned to make Himself known to him, and accepted his burnt offering. The God who would be with us is a threat to us with whom He would be. His dialogue with us fails to bring the edification it should: “What is your name?” Manoah has already asked, “so that we may honor you when your word comes true?” (13:17). “Why do you ask my name?” is the response. “My name is Wonderful” (pl’y, verse 18).
The words pl’ and pl’y speak to and of our human lack of capacity, our creaturely inability to fathom the reality we encounter. We know that we are standing before unfathomable things. So we are, whether or not we sense it at first, when we stand before the Lord, invite Him out of the desert heat, and into our tent for a meal. Or when He boggles our mind with promises of blessings we have ached for but never received. We are, too, when late and benightedly, we think we shall die because He has shown Himself to us.
But we shall not die. He does not come to us in the desert of our need to slay us. He does not come to our groping in the dark so His brilliance may blind us. He does not come in the wonder of Himself to overwhelm and frighten us. One lone angel of His frightens the breath out of a legion of our macho, weapon-wielding, battle-hardened military heroes. He need not come Himself if it were for fear. He comes that we might have life, life in all its fullness (Luke 19:10).
And so He comes as a desert wanderer who accepts our fatted calf, our fine flour cakes, our curds and milk, and drinks of our water, and sits under our tree. He is still God. The man under the tree is God. It is a thing of wonder. The intimacy of our communion, the warmth of our mutuality teaches us to trust Him. He wins our confidence. Then He offers us the water of life (John 4:10, 13, 14; Rev. 21:6, 17). We take and drink deeply of the cup of His salvation, give thanks with all our heart and soul, and call Him our wonderful Lord (Ps. 116:13, 17).
And He comes as a babe bedded in cow feed, cooing and gurgling, crying to be fed and burped. The vulnerability of His innocence teaches us not to tremble as we do before the awful shining of His messengers and their mighty anthems.
We shall not flee. No, we shall bow before Him, offer our gold and incense, or play upon our drum. We shall, like Abraham, give Him the best we have. He is still God. It is a thing of wonder. The baby in the manger is God.