Promises, pleadings and punsihment - Genesis 18

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 13th February 2005.

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It was 60 years ago that Auschwitz concentration camp was discovered by the Soviet Army in 1945. One of those found was a 15 year old Hungarian Jewish boy named Elie Wiesel. He, his mother and sister were separated at the camp, never to see each other again. He wrote: 'Never shall I forget that night the first night of the camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke, never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forevershall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Some talked of God, of his mysterious ways, of the sins of the Jewish people, and of their future deliverance. But I ceased to pray. How I sympathised with Job! I did not deny God's existence, but I doubted his absolute justice.' And I think that many people looking at the vast evils being unleashed in world today- Dophor and the Sudan for example- either deny God's existence outright or like Wiesel, deny his justice. But strange though it may seem, this can all be turned on its head and the very fact that evil is being perpetrated has been taken by some to point to the existence, or at least the need, of a God who will act justly. This is sometimes called 'the argument from damnation.' This is the way the Christian sociologist, Peter Berger puts it: 'It's our experience in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged that the only adequate response to the offence as to the offender seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions.' He goes on to say that 'deeds that cry out to heaven also cry out for hell.' In other words, unless there is final and absolute justice, to which our deepest instincts testify should be the case, then all our actions are ultimately rendered meaningless. The kindness of Mother Teresa and the wickedness of Hitler are reduced to the same insignificant level of value. Hitler liked to kill people, Mother Teresa like to save them- so what's the difference if there is no God to judge between the two? And so the argument goes, only an all powerful, all knowing, all just God can ensure that this will happen. "The evidence that God exists", Winston Churchill once said, "was the existence of Lenin and Trotsky, for whom hell was needed."

And tonight we are looking at a passage which, although may not be in line with the political correct thinking of the post-enlightenment West, does confirm that our basic moral instincts in this regard are right: that there are deeds which properly draw forth divine condemnation as well as commendation. So do turn with me to Genesis 18 and 19.

First of all, let's take a look at the cry for judgement. It was the French atheist, Jean Paul Sartre who wrote a play called 'The Devil and the Good Lord' in which the main character was a butchering soldier, Goetz, who decided to give up his murderous ways and become a Christian. As the play proceeds, Goetz becomes increasingly disillusioned with what he considers to be God's silence. He finally bursts out: 'I prayed, I demanded a sign. I sent messages to heaven, no reply. Heaven ignored my very name. Each minute I wondered what I could be in the eyes of God. Now I know the answer: nothing. God does not see me, God does not hear me. God does not know me. You see this emptiness over our heads? That is God. You see this gap in the door? It is God. You see that hole in the ground? That is God again. Silence is God. Absence is God. God is the loneliness of man.' And maybe you are here tonight and you very much identify with that sentiment. If so, then I invite you to listen to the voice of another man, a native of Iraq, who found the exist opposite- Abraham. He discovered that far from God being silent-he speaks. Far from God being indifferent, he cares. Far from God being passive, he acts. What does he hear? Well, he hears the cry for justice. Look at Chapter 18:20 'Then the Lord said, " 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.' And what does God do? He carries out judgement, chapter 19:13 we read the heavenly representatives saying of Sodom, 'The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.'

And just how bad things have become so that there is a screaming to heaven for justice, is nauseatingly illustrated by the events of chapter 19 and the attempted homosexual gang rape of the two visitors of God.-v1, 'The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. "My lords," he said, "please turn aside to your servant's house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning." "No," they answered, "we will spend the night in the square." But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom--both young and old--surrounded the house. They called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them." Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, "No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof." "Get out of our way," they replied. And they said, "This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We'll treat you worse than them." They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.

We cannot even begin to comprehend the shear terror that Lot and his family must have experienced that night. The intimidation of a crowd on the rampage is frightening enough; but the nightmare of being subject to sustained, violent sexual abuse is too mind numbing to even contemplate. But that is what is happening. What we see here is simply one of the most grotesque expressions of the moral degeneration which has infected this city. And as if to underscore how widespread this is, we are told in v 4 that this involved 'all the men from every part of the city young and old'. So this is not just the action of a few lager louts who have had one too many to drink; this is the determined and set behaviour of everyone whose sense of values have become so twisted that no one is safe. The moral rot is extensive and intensive. That is why the cry went up to God to do something.

What we have here are the final days of a society which has morally imploded. So Lot could rightly maintain that this is a 'wicked thing'-it is not culturally relative, it is absolutely wrong. But, as is so often the case, the victimizers claim to be the victimized-v9 'this foreigner' has made himself judge over us.' 'How dare he, who does he think he is?' As far as they are concerned it is more of an affront for a foreigner to question them than for them to sexually abuse a foreigner. But that is what sin does; it totally darkens and corrupts our sense of values.

Now tell me? If there is a God, do you honestly want him to turn a blind eye to this sort of thing? Is he to shrug his shoulders with that 'whatever' air of indifference with which we are now so familiar in our culture? If God is worthy of the name, then he must act- which was the anguish of Wiesel in Auschwitz. But maybe this is all too remote from us? Sodom and Gomorrah has become so much part of common folklore that they seem as distant and as unreal as Camelot and Atlantis. So let me bring you up to date.

A few years back in Nottingham a judge sentenced a family to prison after hearing how the children, some of them in nappies, had been pulled from their beds and sexually assaulted at sex parties. The judge told the two mothers, 'You must have sat there when these parties were going on and heard your children screaming and did nothing about it.' And are we not to say that such things are wrong and not simply distasteful? What about the terrible damage done to those children, are we not to think that God did not hear those screams and that he will not call those parents to account? You see, Sodom and Gomorrah is in our midst. And that is the cry for judgement.

So what is the basis for judgement? The objection of Elie Wiesel that he no longer believed in a God of absolute justice, whilst emotionally strong is logically weak. Just think of it. If we claim that God is not a God of absolute justice, we have a problem. For where did our notion of 'justice' come from by which we judge God to be unjust? If we say there is a standard of justice behind God, then where did that come from? By definition God is the standard of justice from which all our notions of justice are derived. You see, where we go wrong is to begin with what is happening in the world in terms of evil, thinking this is the complete picture, that we have access to all the facts and then charge God with being unjust, because he doesn't seem to have done anything about yet. But what if we come at it from the other way around? What if we begin with the belief that God is absolutely just and view present evils in the light of that truth? Then might we not conclude that there is more to come, that we don't see the total story; that further chapters are yet to be written, including the final chapter- the day of judgement. You see, judgement postponed is not judgement denied.

And it is upon that understanding, that Abraham approaches God in prayer: chapter 18: 23: 'Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham approached him and said: "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? Far be it from you to do such a thing--to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" Now notice what Abraham is doing and how he is going about it. Abraham approaches God on the understanding that he is a God of absolute justice- 'Will not the judge of all the earth do right?' Of course he will. He is the judge of the earth, infinitely superior to any human judge. That is a given-an absolute. So on the basis of that knowledge, he approaches God to, as it were, plead bargain for the inhabitants of the city, which includes, his nephew Lot. On the face of it, it would appear that God is going to do something which would bring his holy character into question, destroy everybody regardless- but Abraham knows that can't be right and so he respectfully enters into a dialogue with God- something remarkable in itself. Abraham is actually being encouraged to intercede for the Canaanites. It is unthinkable that God would do anything like sweep away the righteous with the unrighteous. And Abraham reverently reminds God of that. Do you see why God might be eliciting this type of prayer from Abraham? First, by so doing he is getting Abraham to think morally and act compassionately. Abraham is concerned for some people who might be lost in God's judgement and he wants God to be seen to do the right thing. That is why he prays as he does. And God is delighted with that. He is showing moral maturity. It is like a parent seeing the toddler take his first few steps- she stands at a distance urging him on. Or the teacher seeing the pupil making gigantic leaps in understanding, that is going to be encouraged. But secondly, God is in the process gradually revealing more and more of the kind of God he is, and so why we can trust him that he will act justly. You see, as well as being a just God, who will do what is right despite appearances to the contrary, he is a personal and gracious God. Notice in v 20 he personally 'comes down' to check out the facts for himself. He is not a remote God who is unconcerned about what is going on in his world, or a cold God who as a matter of course impersonally and indiscriminately administers justice like some cosmic Robocop. This is a judge who is at pains to know all the facts. He is also a God who does not act without giving warning. In v 17 he decides to disclose to Abraham what he is going to do, so Abraham can do something about it- pray! And at the very least that is something we can do when faced with evil. Instead of putting God in the dock and demanding that he answers our questions about what is happening, we can get down on our knees and plead the cause of the righteous. Could I ask: are you doing that? As you read of what is happening in our cities, as your heart is moved by righteous indignation, do you just resign yourself to it or act the Pharisee thinking at least I'm not that bad? Or do you ask God that in his anger will also show mercy? And this in part answers the question why God hasn't acted yet and leaves evil to run its course- he is showing patience, holding back on judgement until the proper time has come. You see, if he had destroyed Sodom back in chapter 13, then what would have happened to Lot and his family? Well, they would have been destroyed along with it. Then God would have proved unjust, one who failed to keep his word, because earlier in chapter 12 he had promised Abraham that those who blessed him would themselves be blessed, and that included Lot. You see, God's justice is impeccable. His word is reliable.

'Will not the judge of all the earth do right?' Remember that text for it is a source of great assurance. Here are some questions this verse answers: What of those who have never heard? What of those who die in infancy? What of those who are mentally handicapped and don't seem to have the ability to respond to the Gospel? What of members of our own family who have died? How will God deal with them? Those are genuine concerns-the sort Abraham had and wasn't afraid of talking to God about. But often behind them all is the niggling doubt that maybe they will not be dealt with properly. That somehow they will get rough justice. Not so. Look; if we expect high standards from human judges, we can expect no less than perfection when it comes to God. He is the God who will do it absolutely right. Whatever mitigating circumstances, whatever chances people had or didn't have, he will weigh them all perfectly, taking everything into account because of his infinite knowledge and will make a perfect judgement because of his infinite goodness. Thankfully I am not people's final judge and thankfully neither are you. We are not qualified-God is, so lets leave it in his capable hands.

Now is it not tragic that God could not find even ten persons in the cities who were righteous and not deserving judgement? Of course in an absolute sense there is no one who is righteous, including ourselves. So what we all desperately need is not only a God who judges but a God who saves for as we point a finger at other people's sins there are three pointing back at ourselves. So let's finally look at the escape from judgement.

Here is a story of grace focused on Lot. Now just in case you think that somehow Lot deserved special treatment because he was exceptionally good we need to note several things about him. In chapter 19 and verse 1 we read that Lot was sitting in the 'gateway of the city'. He wasn't there selling the big issue, this was the place where the city officials sat as they discussed business. So he is well and truly ensconced he is one of their top men. In v 8 he offers his two daughters for sex with the mob- thanks Dad! No trust in God. No calling on the help of his divine visitors just a cowardly willingness to sacrifice his daughters in this dreadful way- so maybe he was already infected with the vice of Sodom. And when in v 17 he and his family are commanded to flee to the mountains, he wants to go to a nearby town- Zoar, not because it contains righteous people, but because it is small, so he can survive thereby proving himself fearful, selfish and faithless. Lot is not exactly your model believer is he? But God saves him nonetheless. Twice in fact. First, from the mob by the miraculous intervention of the angels-v11-sending blindness on the men, and then from the final destruction-v 12. Why? Not because he is good, but because God is faithful and keeps his promises, v 29 ' So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.'

If God is going to save you and me from the final judgement which, if we are to take the Bible seriously, will make this appalling desolation and misery look like a firework display in the park- how will he do it? Well, in the same way as he did here. God has chosen his man to be a blessing to all people. So those who come to him are, as it were, protected by their association with him. This man also reflects the character of God. He is compassionate, he is just, and he intercedes for sinners. From him, the messengers go to proclaim the coming judgement and the need to flee from that judgement- that is the Gospel, the Good news that death is not inevitable; there is a way of escape. All of that we see here in Abraham. But all of that was to be fulfilled in the great descendant of Abraham, the Lord Jesus Christ. And today he is calling you to flee from the wrath to come. Flee where? Well, flee to him of course. To the place where God's anger and grace meet- the cross. And as you hear this message, don't make the mistake of Lot's son-in laws in v 14, dismissing it as a joke. Hell and judgement are no joke. Jesus bleeding for you on a cross is no joke. And don't make the mistake of Lot's wife either-in v26, starting out on the Christian path but then looking back- you keep going on come what may.

The Holy Spirit has caused this to be recorded for us today living at the beginning of the 21st century. He is pleading with us to take it seriously.

Christ didn't come to save us from boredom; he came to save us from the judgement to come. The question is: has he saved you? Now would be a brilliant time for it to be so.

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