St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 9th March 2014
Reading – Genesis 18:16-33
There’s no doubt – Plymouth is a beautiful city, isn’t it? I’ve been looking through my old photos recently and I’ve just picked out some of the many views we can enjoy – whether it’s looking over to the Hoe, or across the harbour, or out to the Sound (this shot was taken during the America’s cup), or across to Mount Edgcumbe, or even towards the cemetery in Ford Park. Plymouth is a busy, bustling city with so much history and so much going on today.
So imagine how you would feel if the Lord told you that very soon it was all going to be destroyed? How would you react? Shock, maybe, possibly anger, possibly disbelief. You’d certainly have all kinds of questions going through your mind, and if you had any shred of emotion, you’d be heartbroken at the prospect. How could the Lord possibly justify such senseless and such total destruction?
Well, in our Old Testament reading, the Lord reveals to Abraham that this is precisely what He is going to do to the city of Sodom. Verses 20-21: The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know. Now we know very little about the ancient city of Sodom because nothing of it remains. The best guess is that it lies somewhere underneath the south end of the Dead Sea, for there even today we find Mount Sodom, a remarkable hill made almost entirely out of salt that rises 200m above the surrounding countryside. But wherever exactly, it was the memory of Sodom lives on in the rest of the Scripture as a place of utter depravity, a byword for the sort of city that deserves judgement, and indeed it has lent its name to a variety of unpleasant words that still exist in the English language today. Sodom was a place where the most unspeakable things were going on.
And yet, and yet, behind the headlines, was Sodom really that much worse than many cities today? Jesus tells us in Luke 17:28 it was a place where: People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. That doesn’t sound too different from all the ordinary kinds of activities that go on today. Yes, there may have been a rough end of town and there may have been some pretty unpleasant characters, but did the Lord really have to destroy it all?
That was the big question Abraham was forced to wrestle with. Now I guess in some ways we could just treat this story as a far-off tale from the very beginning of the Bible that has very little to do with us. But in other ways I think it is important for us to try and get to grips with it, because it raises the most fundamental question any of us can ever ask which is quite simply: “Why, Lord?” In other words, “Why do you let such terrible things happen?” “What about your mercy and your grace and your love?” I’m pretty sure that if I was to ask each and every one of here, I wouldn’t find a single person who has never asked this question.
So, I know this morning’s passage is more than a little heavy. But sometimes if we are to grow in our faith, we need on occasions to look at the parts of the Bible we’d rather not read, and see if there’s any way we can make sense of them. After all, if we don’t try and wrestle with these issues, how do we respond when others ask exactly the same questions about our faith that we ourselves are asking?
That’s why I’m going to look carefully at Abraham’s response and see what clues we can learn from his reaction. And I think the first thing to notice is, quite simply, is the pain of Abraham.
Because for all that we think of Abraham as some great figure from the Old Testament, he was an ordinary human being just like any single one of us. And so just like us, his immediate response is that it all seems so unfair. Verses 23-24: Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Surely, he reasons there must be some good people in this place, and if there are some good people in this place, not only these people but the very city itself ought to be spared. Because that’s only right and proper, isn’t it? Yes, there may be some people who deserve judgement, and maybe the Lord ought to deal with them, but doesn’t natural justice demand the righteous are spared?
But there’s a deeper issue involved with Abraham as well. I don’t know how many of you know the story of Abraham, but he was originally a nomad living with his family far up north in what is now the country of Iraq. At the Lord’s call he had left everything to come down to the country of Canaan, and from that very time the Lord called him, he had been living by the promises of God. This didn’t mean life had been easy – far from it. He had experienced famine, he had been involved if not in war, then certainly some violent skirmishes, and most personally of all, he had endured years of heartache because his wife was childless. But he thought he knew the Lord in whom he had trusted. And suddenly here was the Lord doing something he just couldn’t understand.
Verse 25: Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? Now again I wonder how far you can relate with Abraham’s questioning. I suspect that many of us have had occasion when something has happened which has really shaken our faith. Whatever the Lord is doing, it seems so out of character, so unexpected that it really has been hard to make sense of what’s going on. I certainly know it’s been true in my own life.
Now I want you to note something really important from this passage. Because the one thing the Lord does not do is rebuke Abraham for asking questions. Indeed if you go on through Scripture, you will see that the Lord never rebukes believers who come openly and honestly with their questions. The issue is not whether we should have questions, but what we do with our questions.
If we had time in our sermon series we would have looked at the story of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, who quite literally spent the whole night wrestling with a mysterious man of God. By the end of the night he is exhausted, he is injured, but he will not give in. And even as the new dawns, he says to the angel with whom he’s been struggling: I will not let you go unless you bless me. (Gen 32:26). That, it seems to me, is the right kind of reaction when our faith is being challenged, when we have questions which appear to have no answers – not to let go of God in prayer, until and only when our Lord chooses to bless us. And that’s what Abraham is doing here – refusing to let go of God until he has some answer, some explanation for all that’s going on.
So, secondly, let’s look more closely at the prayer of Abraham.
Here is Abraham standing before the Lord. He is filled with horror at what is about to happen. He is trying to making sense of why God would let such terrible things happen. And so he prays, pouring out his heart in fervent, anguished prayer. Now if you were hearing this story for the first time, how would you imagine the Lord would respond? Do you imagine there’d be a deafening silence? Or do you think the Lord would try to show Abraham where he’d gone wrong?
Well, the Lord does neither of these things. In fact, He appears to concede immediately that Abraham has a point. Verse 26: If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake. Does that reply surprise you? If it doesn’t, then I think it should. Abraham has told the Lord how it all seems so unfair and in effect God seems to be saying. “Yep, you’ve made a fair point there”. I don’t know about you, but if God always answered my prayers so directly and seemed so willing to agree with what I was saying, then I would absolutely delighted.
Yet what’s striking is that the passage doesn’t end there. You’d have thought that Abraham would have satisfied with such a clear answer, and you might well have expected this conversation to finish at this point. But, and this is truly remarkable, Abraham doesn’t stop praying. In fact what the Lord says only seems to spur him on into deeper and more anguished prayer, and we end up with this remarkable exchange that seems to go on forever.
So what’s going on? We can find an important clue when we look more closely at verses 27-28: Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?” “If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.” Because the more Abraham prays, the more Abraham realises exactly the god to whom he is praying. It’s as if he has rushed into prayer, poured out his heart and then suddenly remembered it’s the Lord he’s been speaking to.
And I for one can certainly relate to Abraham’s experience. It may just be me, but so often when I pray, I engage my heart and my mouth before engaging my brain and my ears. But now Abraham has paused for breath, he begins to recognise how great and mighty is the Lord He is addressing. And when he starts to understand who the Lord is, then he suddenly begins to recognise how small and unworthy he is by comparison. He is, in his own words, nothing but dust and ashes.
To put it another way, Abraham has become aware of his own weakness and his own unworthiness in God’s presence. And in so doing, he then reflects on what he has been asking the Lord. He has just asked the Lord to spare the city of Sodom if there are fifty righteous people in it. The more you think about it, the more you realise just how unlikely it is there are indeed fifty righteous people in it. A righteous person is someone who pleases God in every way and who lives a life acceptable to Him. Could there really be so many people like this in Sodom? Abraham begins to doubt this. And so gradually he reduces the number of people in his prayer from 50 to 45, then to 40 and 30, and then from 30 to 20 and finally to 10.
How do we understand what’s happening? Well, I think we can learn two important lessons from this passage. First of all, it is never wrong for us to pour out the desires of our heart before the Lord. If there’s something that’s troubling you this morning, or something you want to ask for this morning, just ask. It really is OK by God. But the second lesson is that sometimes we need to allow God to change the desires of our heart. Abraham came to God with his own idea of what was right and fair and just. But the more he prayed, the more he came to see there is a real sense in which none of us can be counted righteous by God, that all of us one way or another live in a state of rebellion against His just and kingly rule, and all deserve His punishment.
And this is the third point that we need to take away from this passage, namely the new perspective of Abraham. Because as he has seen in his own life, the way God works is according to His timing and according to His grace. If we were to read the previous half to the chapter, you will see that the Lord has appeared to Abraham and finally made good the promise he set out some fifteen years earlier, that Abraham’s wife would have a child. God didn’t fulfil this promise because Abraham was totally righteous, but only because when the time was right, He decided to fulfil His purposes.
So when it comes to praying for Sodom, Abraham begins to see that the right prayer is not to bargain with God how many righteous people there might be, but simply to trust God to be gracious and reveal His mercy to the undeserving, that even though the time had come for judgement, some would be spared according to His mercy and His love.
How does all this relate to us? Well, in just under three months we are having our mission week, Hope 2014. There’s lots to plan and to do, and over the next few weeks we’ll be sharing different ways how each and every one of us can be involved. But why have a mission in the first place? The simple answer is that not too far from this church there are people who are living and dying without knowledge of the living God.
And brothers and sisters, that should not be. We should be passionate about the gospel and long for the Lord to make a real spiritual breakthrough into the lives of people who have been perhaps resisting the good news of Jesus Christ. So if we are to be effective in mission, I suggest we need to bring to the Lord something that the pain Abraham felt at the awful prospect of people in this beautiful city not being ready to meet to their maker. I suggest we need to bring before the Lord heartfelt prayer, prayer which doesn’t just involve us telling the Lord what to do, but also allows the Lord to shape and mould the desires of our hearts. And I suggest we need to have the perspective that Abraham finally saw, that in the end God’s saving power does not depend upon our goodness but upon His mercy, and plead for the Lord to reveal His saving grace.
That’s how this prayer of Abraham relates to us – not just for a week of mission, but our continued, ongoing outreach with the good news as we love and serve the Lord day by day. So, will you pray as Abraham prayed? And will we dare to wait for God’s mercy to reach the lost and undeserving, as it has first reached us?