St Barnabas and St Michael’s 3rd February 2013
Reading – Genesis 13:1-8
Decisions, decisions, decisions. Our life is full of decisions. Over the past few months I have become profoundly aware that many of us face deep and difficult decisions, sometimes with no easy solution. We face decisions as a church: how to develop an effective work with our young people, how to make best use of the facilities at St Barnabas, how to raise up leaders for the urgent gospel work in these two parishes and beyond. We face decisions on a personal level: where to live, what job to do, how to spend our money.
So how does an ancient book written over the course of many centuries help us in our decision making? Last week I preached a big sermon on a big subject – the theme of covenant which unites the Old Testament and points forward to the New. We sometimes need the big picture of Scripture so we understand just what a mighty, majestic and gracious God we worship. But we also need to be able to connect Scripture to the situations we face, to know how to translate our faith into the nitty-gritty, everyday decisions which are so important, but often so difficult.
Let me start, then, by focusing on one verse from our Old Testament reading this morning, a verse which is perhaps quite easy to overlook: Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, towards Zoar. (Genesis 13:10).
Some background to this verse: After a disastrous stay in Egypt Abram and his nephew Lot return to the land which the Lord has promised. They have become wealthy in livestock and silver and gold. Life is good. Their flocks are increasing. They get a good price at the local markets. Mention Abram and Lot to any passing Canaanite, and he will tell you they are the perfect example of a Bronze Age business partnership, even if they are a pair of cowboys.
Yet as is often the case with business partnerships, success breeds its own problems. Verse 6 tells us: the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great. More animals require more pasture and more water. In a land where rainfall is seasonal and vegetation quickly withers in the heat, this is a serious problem. It’s not too surprising, then, that the employees of Abram and Lot start falling out. This land ain’t big enough for the two of them.
But instead of Abram and Lot squaring up to each other and maybe even coming to blows, Abram graciously gives Lot a choice: Let’s not have any quarrelling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.
So I want you to imagine for a moment you are Lot. How are you going to make your decision? How will you know you have made the right choice? Here you are, presumably standing on high ground, able to look over a vast expanse of land. The choice you make will affect you and those you support for years to come. You have complete freedom. Abram isn’t there in the background, dropping hints or trying to make helpful suggestions. It’s up to you.
Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, towards Zoar. Now one of the great things about Scripture is that it allows stories to speak for themselves. It’s not often that the human authors interrupt and tell us if someone makes a good or a terrible decision. The Lord doesn’t hold up a divine scorecard and give Lot a one or a ten. He lets us enjoy the story and then leave us to figure out the lessons for ourselves.
So what was wrong with Lot’s decision? Let me suggest three possible issues:
First of all, there is no evidence he consulted the Lord. He looked up and saw the plain of Jordan. But there is no indication he looked to the Lord as well.
That may be an obvious point, but it’s a very important one. When we need to decide, we need to pray. We have a God who wants to guide us, who promises that when we pray in Jesus’ name, He will answer. Sounds simple? Well, I know from my own experience I can’t judge Lot too harshly. There seems to be something deep within us which means that when it comes to making the big decisions we too often leave the Lord out, or at least only include Him after we’ve already made our choice.
Brothers and sisters, we need to learn to get into the habit of walking with the Lord day by day. Because in the end that’s the only way we show that our faith makes a difference when the chips are down. It’s why at the root of our Mission Action Plan we say as our first goal that: We aim for every church member to have some pattern of regular, personal devotion with Jesus.
Now I realise sometimes we find our devotions hard. We struggle to get into a disciplined habit of prayer and Bible reading. But if we want to make godly decisions, if we want to know the right way to go, it is just so important we have gotten into the habit of listening to the Lord. If you’re not praying about the little things of each day, there’s little chance you are going to pray when the pressure’s really on.
Secondly, Lot only looked at the externals of the situation. As he looked and pondered, it all seemed so easy. He needed pasture and water for his animals. Where was the best place to find them? On a flat piece of ground by a river, obviously. No wonder he went for the plain of Jordan.
But there was something else he didn’t take into account. Verse 10 adds an ominous footnote: This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. And even if you’ve never read this part of the Bible before, you probably know already that Sodom and Gomorrah were not good news. The names of these Bronze Age settlements have passed into our language as places of sin and deprivation, and there’s plenty of detail about what they got up to in Genesis 19 – not really suitable for an All-Age Worship, but well worth reading, even if with a 15 certificate.
Lot thought about his material desires, not about the spiritual danger he was putting himself in. Is this something you can relate to? Perhaps you have been offered a well-paid job. The pay is fantastic. The hours are absolutely ideal. There are plenty of perks and benefits. It’s what you have always wanted to do. Before you know it, your CV is in, and your interview date is fixed. It can be so easy in that kind of situation to ignore the fact the company has a dodgy sales policy, or will make it difficult for you to practise your faith, or even you might be asked to do something illegal. Is that where the Lord is really calling you?
I guess we too often fail to realise there is a spiritual dimension in so many decisions we face. We think of spiritual warfare as direct threats to our physical or mental well-being. Actually, it’s usually more subtle than that, and we may not even notice it. It’s about using the freedom to choose wisely. And as Scripture says again and again, that wisdom comes only from a right and proper fear of the Lord, an awareness of His presence and His priorities in any given situation.
But then again, there’s also some indication Lot misunderstood the nature of the Lord’s blessing. Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the Lord. I won’t labour the point, but there is a particular stream of the Christian faith which equates God’s blessing with material prosperity. If something looks good, something makes me richer or happier, it must be from God, right? Not if you have understood the message of the cross. Of course the Lord may decide to bless you with abundant wealth, but if He does, it’s only because He has given you a greater responsibility to give it away. Lot thought the plain of the Jordan was like the garden of the Lord, and therefore it was a place blessed by God. How wrong could he be!
And yet even in this situation God was in control. You see, if the Lord is Lord, then actually His purposes are not defeated by our sin and our wrongdoing. That’s a really important point to grasp. So often we think that when we get it wrong, somehow the Lord cannot use us or change the situation. For example, six months into a job, you realise you should never applied for the post. OK, you may not be in a good place. You may need to start out again somewhere else. But that does not mean the Lord cannot work through you for however long you stay in that situation. God’s grace means that He continues to act in and through us even when we are most undeserving of His love – which come to think of it, is in reality most of the time.
That certainly was the case with Lot. Yes, Lot ended up in Sodom which clearly wasn’t the ideal location for a man of faith. But it did mean that the people of Sodom heard about the Lord. How do we know this? Because in 2 Peter 2:8 we read Lot described as a righteous man, living among them day after day… who was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard.
So despite all the evidence to the contrary Sodom was not a God-forsaken place. The Lord left behind a reliable witness who could tell of His love and goodness. That’s why, when you read of the terrible destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, don’t imagine for a moment the Lord smiting an innocent, unsuspecting people. Yes, Lot shouldn’t have gone to Sodom in the first place, but the Lord was able to use him even there.
Meanwhile, what of Abram? What did he think as Lot wandered off into the distance with his flocks and servants behind him? Did he secretly wish he’d had first choice? Did he shake his head at the foolish decision of his nephew? We don’t know.
But what we do know is that even as Lot disappeared over the horizon, the Lord came to Abram and confirmed the amazing promises He had first made to him back in Haran.
Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west.
All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring for ever.
I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth,
so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.
Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.
What an amazing series of promises! From a human point of view the land left to Abram seemed inferior. It did not have the pasture and the land like the plain of Jordan. Yet Abram’s share turns out to be the place of blessing. Second choice turns out to be God’s choice. And that turns out to be far more important than any human consideration. Here God would establish His people. Here He would make them grow into a great nation. And the wonderful, amazing fact is that even today we are heirs of that promise through faith in Jesus Christ. The church is that great nation in every part of the world, the people of God under the blessing of God.
But before I get carried away and turn this into another big sermon, let’s stop and see what we can learn from our passage this morning.
First of all, Lot shows us how not to make a decision. He did not consult the Lord, he did not consider the spiritual aspect of His choice, he did not understand the nature of God’s blessing. What about you? If you are wrestling with some big decision this morning, then I hope you can see there are real lessons to learn. Of course, on your own, you may find it hard to discover what the Lord wants. That’s why praying with someone else is so important. Take time to seek the Lord’s will with a friend. Take time to ponder God’s word together. You may just be surprised how your prayers are answered.
Secondly, even though Lot made a bad decision, the Lord remained in control. Do you have that confidence in the Lord? His grace and His love for you is so great He can use you, even if you are struggling with the consequences of some poor decision you have already made. There is no place where the Lord cannot keep you. If the Lord could use Lot in Sodom, there’s more than a fair chance he can use you where you are. So take the opportunity to find out this morning how you can witness to God’s grace in whatever place you find yourself this morning.
Thirdly, if it seems you have got a raw deal, remember the Lord often blesses us in those situations that seem less than ideal. We can easily rant and rave we haven’t got the home or the job that we wanted, especially as we live in a culture which says we have a right to expect a good life. But if the Lord is watching over you, then you can trust Him for the reason you’ve ended up with your second, third, fourth choice. Focus instead on God’s covenant blessings and the fact that, thanks to Jesus, His promises to you always stand secure.
After all, it is basic to our Christian faith to declare that Jesus is Lord. And when we say that, we are not just giving Jesus a title, or saying He has some authority over certain parts of our life. We are saying that He reigns over everything we say, or do or decide. So let’s show the evidence that Jesus is Lord in our lives day by day. Let’s not be like the people in our gospel reading who eat and drink without any thought of the Lord’s presence. Let Jesus reign over every plan, every choice, every decision, and maybe, just maybe, others will see the practical difference that our faith makes.