Twickenham URC 4 Nov 2000
Bargaining with God (Genesis 18, 17-33 + 2 Peter 3:1-9)
In the last part of this series three visitors turned up at Abraham’s tent and were made welcome by him and Sarah. As the ever considerate host and following the customs of the time Abraham set off with his guests as they started they onward journey. As Chuck Swindoll points out, those who are willing to walk with God are those who are the ones who are likely to be let in on his plans.
So Abraham and his three companions go on to some high place from where one could look down on the verdant valley in which Sodom lay, the place of ample greenery and water that had attracted Lot so many years before.
At this point through one of the three, identified as The Lord, speaks again to Abraham, this time letting him to his plans. I am going down to Sodom and Gomorrah, he says, to see whether the accusations that have been made against them are true. I know the reputation of these cities but I will do nothing until I have first hand reliable evidence. So two of three three go off, leaving the one identified as The Lord with Abraham and they enter into a one-to-one. Abraham’s heart sinks. His companion may have decided to do nothing until more evidence is forthcoming, but Abraham knows already what the report will be, and as they he reflects on what the consequences of such a report will be. He is conscious of Lot and his family, and of the help he had received from Sodom’s king.
His conscience is stirred, his emotions aroused. Suddenly it all comes tumbling out in what we might regard as the first prayer of intercession in the Bible: “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?“.
As this point one might understand it if Abraham received the response that Job did in Chapter 40 (6-8): Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm: “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? but he does not. Abraham’s query as to whether the city would be destroyed if there were fifty righteous people in it is met with a positive answer. He remembers his place in scheme of things and describing himself as being dust and ashes repeats the question for forty five. Yes I will spare it for 45. Then, as we read, and as we recited in our last hymn, the number is gradually lowered down to ten. Peake, in his commentary notes how the teller of the story avoids mere repetition by using a new form of request each time. I’ve never been to the Middle East but have been told that if you go into a market and agree to pay the asking price, the trader feels cheated (though probably not for long) – for him the bargaining is part of life.
And as the bargaining goes on, God reveals another side of his character. He is not, contrary to many people’s belief, like a Chertsey Road speed camera, desperately keen to nail every and any minor offence. Rather as Peter’s letter tells us, whilst he must be true to himself and exercise judgement when necessary he is desperately anxious that people should turn or return to him. Judgement on a whole city will be deferred if ten righteous people can be found.
So what does this rather beguiling story have to say to us today?
We may not stand before God as Abraham did, yet we believe that through Jesus Christ we have the same access to the Father. He wants us to share in his plans. He wants us to be free to express our inner thoughts. But when we do, let it be on the basis of what we know about God through reading his word. God cannot deny himself so if our prayers are founded on his word we can pray them with confidence.
One of the reasons for Abraham’s boldness of speech was his concern as to how precipitate action by God would be viewed by the people all around. Are we concerned as to how those around us view him. What image of him do they get from the way we talk and live?
Then we see Abraham’s concern for others, even if few in number. We live in an age of generalisations: the insurance company is likely to decide on your premium on the basis of your postcode. Building societies allegedly red-line areas within which they will not lend money. We watch the news and all too readily fall into the trap of labelling a whole group of people.Nothing new as we read in John 1,45-46: Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote– Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
Behind the label are real people, individuals who matter to God, and who should not be discarded by us. I’ll confess that on more than a few occasions over the last thirty years I have looked at the news coverage of terrorism and violence in Northern Ireland, now thankfully rare, with too many of our soldiers paying the price and have thought that we would do ourselves a favour to withdraw and let them get on with it. And then I read this story and find myself rebuked. Whilst there are ten righteous people in that place, says God, I’m not giving up on them. How dare you do so. It was very appropriate that we had this reading at our United Nations Association service a couple of weeks ago – by our support for the work of the United Nations we declare that we cannot be indifferent to the needs of countless unknown people in many far-flung lands.
This story and our reading from 1 Peter help us understand why evil goes on in the world. It is not because God does not care. Rather the fact that he stays his hand should be seen as an opportunity. Every day, every year, that God gives to the world is a further chance for men to repent and turn to him. It gives us an opportunity as individuals and as a church to seek to bring God’s message to those we come into contact with.Here are some words from Ezekiel 18 (23-32)
Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” … If a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin, he will die for it; because of the sin he has committed he will die. But if a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life. Because he considers all the offences he has committed and turns away from them, he will surely live; he will not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Are my ways unjust, O house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are unjust? “Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offences; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offences you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!
The end of the world, the day of judgement will come. But not before God has given everyone a chance to turn to him. May we do so, and may we have Abraham’s concern for others, that they too might be counted as righteous, and through Jesus Christ be found acceptable to the Father.
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Hymns: R&S 104: Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven – Slow to chide and swift to bless; 716: My soul, repeat his praise; Gomorrah and Sodom were terrible cities (Alan Gaunt); Almighty God, we come to make confession of help withheld, concern and love restricted; 338: Stay with us, God, as longed-for peace eludes us – Work out in us your love’s determination to bear your children’s guilt and wickedness
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Some thoughts from Rabbi Jonathan Romain:
The story of the infamy of Sodom and Gomorrah represents all that can go wrong in a society. What was remarkable about Abraham was his reluctance to abandon all the inhabitants to their fate as long as it also meant condemning all the innocents in the city. In a similar way, we should not condemn all the citizens of a country because we disagree with the actions of its government.
Abraham cared so much about Lot and any other ‘righteous’ Sodomites that he was even willing to stand up to God and argue his case. His bargaining session with God can be seen as one of the first prayers in the Bible. It shows that an individual can have a two-way relationship with God. While acknowledging God’s awesome power, we understand that God hears our heartfelt requests.
From ‘Abraham and his sons‘, James Harpur