Opposite of elimination – Genesis 18: 20-32
I chose this morning’s reading through a process of elimination. If you’re familiar with the lectionary, the three year cycle that moves through Scripture and the church year and unites us with Christians around the world, thinking and reflecting on these same passages, it usually lists five or six passages; a first reading and psalm (from the Hebrew scriptures), an alternative reading and psalm, a second reading (usually an epistle) and a gospel reading.
This week the gospel was Luke 11, Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, and it just didn’t feel like that long ago since I preached on that passage. The first reading, however, was Hosea which Rev Dr Jeanette Mathews has covered rather too well, so, by elimination, I settled on the alternative Hebrew reading, Genesis 18
But it’s appropriate I chose it by elimination because this passage is all about elimination, isn’t it? ‘Sodom and Gomorrah!’ Don’t we hear those names and think immediately of the next chapter where God, “[rains] down burning sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah – out of the heavens…destroying all those living…—and also the vegetation in the land”? Don’t we visualise this? (John Martin’s The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.) Don’t we simply, as Wikipedia says, associate these two cities with impenitent sin and divine retribution?
But speaking of two cities there’s two things we should clear up.
Firstly, apparently there were four cities destroyed, four of the five cities of the plain (only Zoar was spared; Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim. Perhaps if you are preaching a fiery sermon against homosexuality – of the ‘gays will burn in hell’ variety – ‘Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim’ don’t trip off the tongue quite as easily!
But the second is this. Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim were not condemned for homosexuality! According to the prophet Ezekiel the sin of Sodom was pride and affluence, “excess of food and prosperous ease,” and ignoring the plight of the poor and needy. These were the abominable things they did before the Lord. And the behaviour of Jerusalem, Ezekiel adds, is even worse! (We could add other city names perhaps. That burning sulphur strikes a little closer to home!) Also, and this is very important, the scene described in Genesis 19, the men of Sodom demanding to have sex with Lot’s guests, is not sex, but rape, and also, in the ancient world, an appalling violation of the code of hospitality. We are very aware that rape is not about sex but all about power and control; that rape is violent crime.
But coming back to our passage, that sits between the Lord’s re-affirming of the covenant with Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre and the destruction of these cities, I think it has more to teach us than the wicked will be punished. I think we’re meant to learn, just as the Lord sets up Abraham to learn, that we are to be a people of blessing. That’s it’s not preaching ‘elimination’ after all. The opposite in fact! It is preaching about nomination; about preservation; about our vocation as God’s people.
Because the first thing that strikes me in this passage is the extraordinary intimacy between Abraham and the Lord.
The great patriarch Enoch was famous for this kind of intimacy. According to Genesis 5, he ”walked with God and then he was no more, because God took him.” And here is Abraham, too, walking with God. Walking and talking because the Lord, decides to confide in him. In verse 17 (just before our reading) the Lord says, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” Then, in verse 22, “The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord.” The original text was, ‘But Yahweh remained standing before Abraham’, but because ‘to stand before’ can mean ‘to worship’, the ancient scribes reversed the two. But however, you read it, or rewrite it, it is a depiction of incredible intimacy or communion, of God’s nomination of Abraham.
Alastair Roberts, the editor of the Political Theology network speaks of other instances in Scripture where humans are invited into the council of Yahweh, where Yahweh counsels them and invites their counsel!
In Amos 3:7, the prophet declares, “Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.” The prophets have access to the council of YHWH, and their intercession shapes the determinations that the council reaches. We see such an incident in the vision of Isaiah 6. The prophet speaks on behalf of the divine council to the people, and speaks on behalf of the people within the divine council.”
This is what is happening in Genesis 18. Abraham is nominated to the divine council. As Roberts concludes, “This hints…that Israel’s future greatness and vocation as an agent of blessing may be wrought, less by military might and national splendour, than by prophetic faithfulness…and… justice…. Israel was to become an advocate for the nations.”
And what of us, of God’s people today? 1 Peter 2 says: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, [chosen] in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
We too have been nominated to speak of God to others, and of others to God.
The second thing that strikes me about this passage is its depiction of God’s mercy!
Initially it appears, in this wonderful exchange, where Abraham, like a skilled negotiator, a practiced haggler, brings God down from fifty to ten, that the focus is on saving the righteous. And that the Lord knows nothing about haggling!
Because, when Abraham starts the negotiation at fifty, the Lord does not raise his figure, saying he will spare the cities for the sake of a hundred. Again, as Roberts points out, “There is no alternation of competing terms, steadily converging on a mutually acceptable figure. No, not a single one of Abraham’s requests meets with the slightest resistance. Fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, even ten: YHWH would spare Sodom for even ten righteous.”
The emphasis is not on how many righteous people God would save, but how few righteous God requires to justify saving these cities. The emphasis is not on elimination, but preservation. As Roberts writes, “The assumption that God is eager to condemn and that mercy can only be wrangled or finagled out of him with considerable difficulty is punctured beyond repair.”
In the words of the song we just sang, the words of the psalmist, “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.” Or as Jonah said in today’s dramatic reading: “I shoulda known. I shoulda known. You’re like what all them priests in the temple say, you’re ‘slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ and all that stuff.”
I don’t know how God will judge the wicked or decide who they are. As we know from this story, these cities are destroyed. There are not even ten righteous people left – enough to save them. Perhaps this destruction is simply the result of their own greed and cruelty. But what I read in Scripture continues to blow the image I have acquired, that the world has taught me, of a miserly, distant, punitive God out of the water. And challenges me to change my own behaviour as a result.
For the third thing, that thing that follows from having a new image of a merciful God, is that we of mercy, is that we, as God’s people, are called to be merciful.
To love our enemies. To do good to them. To bless those who curse us. To pray for those who mistreat us. To give without expecting to get anything back… “Then,” Jesus says, “you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
God gives us a vocation, to share the mercy we have received.
There is a powerful story, many of you know, of a young man, detained, at the end of WW2, in a Prisoner of War Camp in Scotland. He had been a reluctant soldier in the German army, and at the end of the war, with the cities of his homeland having been reduced to rubble, he could not imagine what the future held.
“Then,” he writes, “came what was for me the worst of all. In September 1945…we were confronted with pictures of Belsen and Auschwitz. They were pinned up in one of the huts, without comment… Slowly and inexorably the truth filtered into our awareness…. Was this what we had fought for? Had my generation…been driven to our deaths so that the concentration camp murderers could go on killing…?
Shame saturated him; filled him with despair. Yet amid this shame and despair God found him. A visiting chaplain gave him a Bible and, with little else to do, he began reading it. In the lament Psalms he heard resonant voices, the agony of people who felt God had abandoned them. In the story of Christ, he encountered a God who knew what it was to experience suffering, abandonment, and shame.
In 1947 he was given permission to attend a Christian conference bringing together young people from across the world. The Dutch participants asked to meet with the German POWs who had fought in the Netherlands. He was one of them. He went to that meeting full of fear, guilt and shame, feelings that intensified as the Dutch Christians spoke of the pain Hitler had inflicted, of the dread the Gestapo bred in their hearts, of the family and friends they had lost. But the Dutch Christians did not speak out of a spirit of vindictiveness but came to offer forgiveness. It was completely unexpected. They embodied the love the German soldier had read about in the story of Christ and it turned his life upside down. He discovered despite all that had passed, “God look[s] on us with ‘the shining eyes’ of his eternal joy”; that there was hope for the future.
That German soldier was Juergen Moltmann, who would go on to become one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. Years later, with the image of a God of mercy still indelibly printed on his heart, he wrote these words.
Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God’s first love. (Source: The Source of Life. The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life. Fortress Press 1977)
The story of God and Abraham counselling together. The story of Jonah discovering a God who even loved Israel’s enemies. The story of Jurgen Moltmann. In all of these we see the love and mercy of God that was expressed in Jesus. We see God’s work in our world is not a process of elimination – but of nomination, of perseveration, of giving us a vocation to be a people through whom all will be blessed, who seek to preserve the world from condemnation, who refuse to abandon it to its own destruction.