Twickenham URC 25 Feb 2001
God the Judge (Genesis 19, 1-26)
Part 1: Gen. 19: 1-14: Tried and found wanting; 15-26: The few are saved
If you’ve been here for earlier parts of this series you’ll have heard me mention the way in which as this story unfolds the different players in it appear and disappear from the narrative. We last heard of Lot in part 3 when he and Abram go their separate ways and in part 4 when Abram has to rescue him.
The years have rolled by and Lot has gone from being someone who keeps his herds in the verdant valley to someone who has been drawn into Sodom society.
You’ll recall from last time that two of Abraham’s mysterious visitors set off for Sodom to see whether the stories they had been told were true, and this is the beginning of today’s narrative. As they come into the city, Lot is sitting there at the city gates, thus indicating that he is now a civic leader, and in manner similar to that shown by Abraham he offers them hospitality. In 2 Peter 2.7 we are told that Lot was a good man distressed by the habits of the society in which he lived, and perhaps this is one reason that he was so ready to open his home to them, anxious to see that the visitors were looked after properly.
We struggle to understand what happened next. The two strangers have been seen by those with less hospitable motives who surround the house and make their unsavoury demands. It must have been truly frightening – we are told that every man in Sodom was there – and only one thing would satisfy them.
Lot, no doubt in fear of his own safety and conscious of his duty to his guests pleads with them not to press their cause. Their reply is sharp and sarcastic. What gives you the right, they ask, to judge us and tell us how we should behave? We will treat you even worse than we will treat them. Lot thought he could reach an accommodation with the men, and in thinking this he was sadly mistaken. More than a few misjudged Hitler in the 1930’s. There can be no compromise with evil.
How can we understand Lot’s suggestion that he offers them his virgin daughters instead? To our way of thinking the suggestion is horrific and stomach churning. As far as the commentators are concerned, the explanation seems to be that at that time the duty owed to a guest was even higher than that owed to one’s own family. You can find a similar story in the second part of Judges 19.
If the two strangers had any doubt about what the place was like, they now knew. The moral blindness of the mob was now matched by their physical blindness. The time for judgement had come. You have to get out, they tell Lot. You can imagine some run down factory where the workers have got so used to the lack of safety that they never notice; then in come the factory inspectors and they see the leaking chemicals, unguarded machinery or whatever and insist that everyone gets out, and now.
The final warning had been given. Lot tries to persuade his two future sons-in-law that their only chance is to come with him but they laugh at the suggestion.
It’s now dawn and the moment of destruction is approaching. Lot himself hesitates. To quote one commentator: “Lot is in the worst of all possible places: he has too much of the world to be happy in the Lord and too much of the Lord to be happy in the world”. He would linger but the angels grab him, his wife and two daughters, and they make their escape.
It’s amazing what people will do when there is only one sensible thing to do. At least one aircrash study has reported on people being desperate to take their duty-free with them as they are being urged to flee from the crashed aircraft. The angels need Lot and his family out of the way so that judgement can be let loose: there are apparently but four good people in the city and God will not destroy them; he has no room for the notion of ‘collateral damage’, the 1990’s notion that killing innocent civilians is sometimes a price worth paying.
Even at this point Lot gets into a lengthy discussion with his rescuers and gets them to agree that the town of Zoar – the name means small – will be their safe haven I think that I suggested a while ago that if Arthur ever wanted an idea for a series he could take us round all the chapels in a mythical Welsh village explaining the significance of their names: Salem, Bethesda, Bethel and so on. Nearer home, when I worked at the Hounslow Coop in the 1960’s its car park adjoined the Zoar Baptist Chapel – I’m, not sure whether I knew why it was so named in those days. So Zoar becomes their place of safety whilst destruction sweeps across Sodom. It had been a place of lush grass and water, a place of prosperity. The people had seen God at work through Abraham and Melchizedek. Their response … you’ve just heard about it.
Three are saved; one is not. Lot’s wife cannot resist the temptation to look back – one commentator suggests that the words generally translated as ‘looked back’ may mean lagged behind or returned .back Like the person who escapes the burning house and goes back for the cat, never to be seen again, it’s a decision that costs her dear.
We all have good things in our past lives that we can look back on with affection, memories of times, places and people that may well give us the strength to carry on through difficult times. There are also things we need to walk away from, and when we have done so we need to resolve never to go back down that road again: people who have escaped addiction come to mind.
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Part 2: Gen. 19: 27-29: A terrible sight; 19: 30-38: The legacy of Sodom
We have to mention Abraham, or you might ask for your ticket money back at the end. As he had pleaded for the city, conscious of Lot’s presence there, 50, 45, 40 down to 10, he must have known inwardly that even finding even ten good people was unlikely. And now from his rugged viewpoint he looks on at a scene of unimaginable destruction. He just does not know what has happened to Lot. Have his prayers been answered. Some of you may have had similar experiences in the last war: the V1 or V2 goes quiet and then the explosion comes from a direction where your friends or family live. What has happened? He need not fear. God’s judgement has been exercised, but the few good people in the city have been saved – or would have been had they followed instructions. His prayers for his nephew have not gone unanswered.
Lot and his daughters have been saved. Are they grateful? Do they drop to their knees in relief and thankfulness at being plucked from the burning? No. Does Lot think that perhaps they could make for the high ground where he and his uncle parted so many years before, just in case they can link up with him No. His daughters, described earlier as virgin daughters decide to act in a way that would have been unthinkable. The mores of Sodom have evidently affected them. They will get their father drunk – did they insist on bringin their duty-free with them – and then take advantage of him. One line of argument is faced with the perception that they were the only people left on earth, it was their responsibility to repopulate the earth, and they knew that their father’s moral sense would not allow him to voluntarily go ahead in the way that they felt was necessary. If so, we are looking at a re-run of Abraham and Hagar – men and women deciding that God needs a helping hand and thinking that they know best. And as we know well in our modern age, the price that people and society can pay for an evening’s thoughtlessness and self-indulgence can be a high one. Lot’s two daughters do fall pregnant, as they planned. The names that the boys are given show that their mothers have no shame: Moab, “from my father” and Ben-ammi, “son of my father’s kinsman”. Their sons will be the founders of dynasties that cause no end of trouble to God’s chosen people, though of course Ruth, the Moabite will be the grandmother of David – God always makes it possible for those who have strayed from him to find their way back.
Chapter 19 of Genesis started in a pretty shocking way, and ends that way too. The weakness and fallibility of mankind is spelt out with an X certificate. Ages before society had got so bad that God was left with no option but to act and only Noah and his immediate family were saved. This time the judgement is not world-wide, but carefully targeted. I did not know when I planned out this series that this part would follow the discovery of foot and mouth disease. You are reading about, seeing on TV, the action that has to be taken when it is found. Ruthless action to stamp it out; mass killing of animals to ensure that every trace of the disease is eliminated. As the farmers in affected areas face the situation they know that this action must be taken. There is no place for being soft.
Thus for God when faced with sin: he cannot condone it. He is an all loving God, but one who will come to judge us all. We are not to spend idle hours speculating about when this will be. We are called to be ready. None of us, on our own can present ourselves as being free of sin. We have all fallen short. But we have the promise that through Jesus Christ our sins will be forgiven, and because of him we will be amongst those who are saved. It’s a message we have to share with others, even if their response is the same as that of Lot’s sons-in-law.
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Hymns: God the Lord, the King almighty (Christopher Idle); 637: The day of the Lord shall come; Thou judge by whom each empire fell (Percy Dearmer); 628: O Holy City, seen by John