July 27, 2014 – Abraham, God, and a lesson in prayer

Matthew 5:43-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Galatians 3:6-9

Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.

Genesis 18:16-33

Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, “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? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.

Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 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?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

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Pentecost 7   July 27, 2014   Matthew 5:43-48, Galatians 3:6-9, Genesis 18:16-33

Abraham, God, and a lesson in prayer

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God has this strange way of appearing to Abraham periodically at strategic moments. Earlier in this chapter, three men (who turn out to be angels) show up at the entrance of Abraham’s tent. He orders his servants to kill a fatted calf and prepare a bountiful meal. His wife Sarah bakes an abundance of bread. Abe hastens to make sure these visitors are well fed and cared for. We see Abraham as a model of the radical hospitality that we’ve been studying here in recent months.

After the feast, the angels – one of whom is now evidently either the LORD or chief spokesperson for the Almighty – are about to head off to the nearby city of Sodom for one last look to be sure the reports of this city’s great wickedness are true – before destroying the city.

And now in one of the most pivotal and poignant scenes in all the bible, God mulls over whether or not to tell Abraham what’s going on. Up to now, God has not been in the habit of letting humans know his plans. But God has chosen Abraham to be his special agent of new beginnings. And God has promised to bless Abe and make him a blessing for all the nations, all the families of earth. So God decides now to confide in Abraham about what God’s about to do…

God lets Abraham know… Sodom’s about to be judged. And immediately Abraham pleads with God not to destroy the city. Not if there’s even fifty righteous persons in the city. ‘Surely, God, who is righteous, will not commit the grave injustice of sweeping away the righteous with the unrighteous,’ Abraham says. Sounding a bit like a child reminding his teacher of what’s he’s been taught. Reminding God of God’s job description, saying, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?

But God certainly doesn’t seem to take any offense. Perhaps this is even what God hopes to hear. Since God now says “If I find fifty righteous in Sodom, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.

And it helps to remember bargaining was the norm in the Ancient Near East. Nobody expected their first offer to be accepted. Scholars suggest Abraham probably thought God would come back with a counter-offer, like, “Sorry, Abe, you know I can’t save a city this sinful for only fifty righteous. But hey, if I can find a hundred righteous – maybe we can talk.” Then Abraham would counter with sixty, and God could come down to ninety, and eventually they’d meet in the middle and agree on seventy five righteous people as sufficient to save the city… And they’d have a meal and a drink together, and the deal would be done.

But now here’s God really messing with Abraham’s strategy – agreeing right away with Abe’s first offer. Abraham maintains his good manners and composure, to be sure, but his next several offers now seem (in retrospect) far too conservative, way too close to his first offer… As he says now, “Excuse me Lord, but what then if there’s forty-five righteous?” And God says immediately, “Sure, no problem.” Then Abe comes back with, “Well how about if there’s forty?” And again God says, “Sure, no problem.”

Now Abe says, “Forgive me Lord, but what if there are thirty?” And “I’m fine with thirty,” God says. (And – what can be going on here? Abe must be thinking. He’s probably having a hard time believing this conversation and where it seems to be going… and – )

Please don’t be upset, Lord, but what if there’s twenty righteous?” Abe now says. And right back God replies, “I can save the city for twenty”.

So we’re down to – “Oh Lord, please don’t be angry with me if I speak just once more, but – Suppose ten are found there?” And again “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it,” God says in reply…

And now God heads off to Sodom… And Abraham returns to his place to ponder… And we’re left to ponder also…

What God might have said… if Abraham had kept going?

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Abraham is the poster child for faith and grace for all the nations of the earth. The apostle Paul tells us God gave the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying “All the Gentiles – all the nations of earth – shall be blessed in him…” For this reason, Paul says, all of us who believe in Jesus are blessed with Abraham who first believed. For this reason, all who believe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ receive the blessing of Abraham – to be a blessing – for all the nations of earth…

Our mission is to be like Abraham, and intercede even for the most wretched of sinners. As Jesus tells us – we’re to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, so we may be children of our Father in heaven who makes his sun shine on the good bad and ugly, and his rain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous.

And there’s no doubt that the men of Sodom were great sinners… Even God who is all-merciful couldn’t find even one righteous among them. And as we know, Sodom became ancient history in the next chapter. With only Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and his wife and daughters escaping with him… (Even his wife famously turning into a pillar of salt when she turned back.)

And even though he had serious character flaws – evident already back in chapter 13 where he chooses to live in metro Sodom – still, Lot is the closest we get to righteous in Sodom – the only one to offer hospitality to the angels of God… whom the rest of the men of that town try to rape. And the sin of Sodom is hardness of heart and hatred of strangers.

Bible scholar Nahum Sarna points out in his book Understanding Genesis: “…Lot, in offering hospitality to the strangers, had violated the norms of the society in which he lived, and the angry citizens soon came to give vent to their sense of outrage.” The men of Sodom were enraged that Lot welcomed strangers into their closed society. That’s why they try to break down his doors to rape angel visitors.

Sodom becomes a biblical metaphor for heartless and flagrant sin. The prophet Ezekiel (16:49) speaking to the people of Jerusalem after the city fell to Babylon, says, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom. She… had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” The prophet Isaiah (1:9-10, 16-20) also preached to leaders of Jerusalem saying, “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! …Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good – seek justice – rescue the oppressed – defend the orphan – plead for the widow.”

Sodom was so very heartless that even God who is always merciful decides to destroy it…(Perhaps in hopes of halting the spread of heartlessness.) And the sin of Sodom is violence against strangers – who now turn out to be angels of God.

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From beginning to end, sacred Scripture commands us to be hospitable to strangers and sojourners. Saying– “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt…” (Exodus 22:21). And again – “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9). And yet again the bible says, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God…” (Leviticus 19:33-34)…

Jesus says when we welcome or fail to welcome the stranger – we welcome or fail to welcome Him (Matthew 25:31-46). And near the end of the New Testament, Hebrews (13:2) tells us – “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Bringing us full circle, back to Abraham. Who, again, as St Paul tells us, is a foretaste of the gospel. A Christian prototype, even before the incarnation of Jesus.

And to this day we still look to Abraham… and imitate his faith and hope. Abraham our father in faith, who knew the depravity of Sodom – but sought it’s salvation anyway.

Notice again – Abraham doesn’t pray just for his relatives and friends. He prays for the whole wicked city… Even the vilest offenders… Hoping against hope that God will indeed spare the whole city… (Which God does not do… But…)

God does say – he is willing – very willing – to save a whole city full of horrendous sinners – for the sake of even ten righteous persons in a city. An extraordinary precedent – that lets us know – the lives of the righteous have great power to save – not only their own lives, but the lives of those around them.

But still the question –

Can God find even ten righteous?

Or, depending on how high God chooses to set the bar –

Can God find even one?

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But thanks be to God we remember –

God so loved the world –

the whole world, not just part of it –

that God gave his only begotten Son –

so that whomsoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

So we pray for the righteous and unrighteous – (and God knows which is which) –

that all may believe, and all may be saved…

Because this is how we’ve been taught to pray by Abraham our father in faith…

By God our Father in heaven…

And most of all by Jesus our Lord and Savior…

For whom we always say –

Thanks be to God.

Thanks be to God…

Let’s pray always…

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