Those of you who were here last week will remember that I said God is holding out to us the most amazing offer. He offers not just to be a God, but to be our God.
I also said that this amazing offer comes to us only through Jesus.
What I didn’t do was elaborate on what that means. Why is it so special to have God as our God? What difference does it make? What does it look like? What blessings come from it?
Basically: Why would anyone want to be a Christian? And what’s so good about being one if you are?
I didn’t elaborate on those things last time, but today I will. We had Isaac’s birth promised in chapter 17. It doesn’t happen until chapter 21. And in between we get some stories that show how the privilege of “I will be your God” cashes out.
In the portion we had read this morning, those privileges come under two main headings.
1. Relationship with God
First, we have the privilege of a relationship with God. A relationship with God.
And this is a two-way relationship.
I was speaking to someone the other day who’s children were a bit disoriented to see their grandpa on the telly. They were used to talking to him through Skype. He appears on the screen, he talks to them, they talk to him, they have a conversation. But when it was a programme on the BBC, he was talking, but they couldn’t talk back, and he couldn’t hear them. Very confusing. And not a real relationship at that point.
We have the privilege of a relationship with God, and it really is two-way.
Let’s think about each direction of the relationship in turn.
God speaks to us
To start with, God speaks to us.
In chapter 18, verses 16 to 21 we hear God deliberating with himself. Shall I tell Abraham what I’m about to do?
In the end, God decides that he must. God’s going to bless the world through Abraham. For that to happen, God needs Abraham to teach and to train his children. Verse 19, his children need to keep the way of the Lord. That is to say: His family after him need to trust God’s promises, and to live the way that God wants.
And Abraham can’t train his family like this if he doesn’t know God’s mind.
So, so that Abraham can live for God, so that Abraham can train his children how to live for God, God makes his plan known to him.
Picture the staff at the local bank branch where you go occasionally to pay cheques in. In charge is a bank manager. They need to train their staff how to be good representatives of Lloyds, Barclays, or whichever bank it is. But unless head office communicates to the manager, and lets him or her know the company plan and the company culture, they can’t do it. They’d have their hands tied behind their back.
So Abraham must know God’s mind. What he’s thinking. What his plan is.
And knowing these things is part of our privilege too. Ephesians chapter 1, verse 9 and 10, say this: God made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. God’s grand plan is to unite everything in Jesus. And God has made that plan known to his church, so that we can live in the light of it.
God made that plan known through the apostles, like Paul. That’s what Paul explains in chapter 3. And these people wrote the New Testament half of our Bibles, so that we, in our day, might know God’s grand plan. We have the Bible, and we can read it, and read all about God’s big plan for the universe and where we fit in. God put that plan into effect when he sent Jesus, and through the Bible he speaks to us and tells us all about it. That allows us to live in the light of Jesus, and to train our children and grandchildren to do the same.
God speaks to us.
We speak to God.
But as the young boy watching his grandfather discovered, that’s only one half of a real relationship. And with God, our privilege is to have a two-way relationship. We speak to God.
God has shown Abraham his plan for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and then Abraham turns to speak to God. What a privilege it is to do that!
Let’s notice a few little details of how he does so.
First, he’s respectful. He remembers his place. He never forgets who he’s talking to. I’d be terrified if I got the chance to go and meet the Queen. Would I manage to be suitably respectful? Abraham gets it right. Verse 27: Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. He knows his place.
Second he’s responsive. Verse 25: Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death 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.
He doesn’t ask God for just anything. He responds. He knows what God has told us about himself, and he asks God to be consistent with his own word.
And the third, he’s persistent. 50, 45, 40, 30, 20, 10… would you sweep away the whole city even if there are those righteous people within it?
Respectful. Responsive. Persistent. We speak to God.
And Abraham is held up by the New Testament as a model for his faith in God. He’s a model for us. We, too, can pray. Jesus said that we can ask him for anything in his name, and he will do it.
And that little phrase, in his name, captures those two details of Abraham’s prayer. We pray in his name – we remember who we talk to. And we pray in his name – we pray in the light of what God has shown us of himself in the person of Jesus.
But we, too, can come directly into the presence of God. We speak to God.
Imagine a meeting in Washington. In the White House. In the Oval Office. All the most senior members of the US Government administration are having their regular meeting with the President. And suddenly the door flies open. Every pair of eyes in the room turn to see who has just entered the room. Daddy, says a small voice, please could we have that game of table tennis you promised once you’ve finished this meeting. Of course we can, says the man behind the desk with a smile.
We speak to God.
I think we Christians forget what a privilege we have. God has revealed his mind to us. He’s given us access to his inmost thoughts. And we can come and speak to him.
That’s what it means to have God as our God. It’s not drudgery. We have a two-way relationship with the one who made Saturn and Jupiter.
And if you’re someone who’s still looking into the Christian faith, wouldn’t you love to have a two-way relationship with God like this?
A relationship with God.
2. Rescue from God’s Judgement
Second, we have the privilege of a rescue from God’s judgement. A rescue from God’s judgement.
At this point in the story, the dilemma is set. God is going to destroy Sodom. But what if there are some righteous people in the city. What will God do about that? Will he destroy them anyway? Or will he let the whole city off because of a few righteous individuals. That would be equally unjust. So what will God do?
If I can put it this way, God has a problem. He’s the just judge of all the earth, and yet he wishes to bless his people.
What God does teaches us a lot about God’s judgement and about his mercy. And in the process, we see that another privilege of being in God’s people is a rescue from God’s judgement.
Judgement. Mercy. Let’s think about each in turn.
What do we learn about God’s judgement?
God sends the two angels down to Sodom to investigate. The Old Testament stipulated that any serious crime needed a minimum of two witnesses. God’s already heard the cries of the people who have been oppressed in Sodom, but this is his way of showing that he only punishes anyone if there’s a definite reason to do so.
And what the angels find bears this out. So notice the contrast. Abraham entertained the 3 men with a lavish meal. Lot entertained the two angels with dinner, bed and breakfast. But the people of Sodom wish to attack and consume the guests who have come to their town.
And what they’d do is the worst possible combination. The Bible clearly condemns homosexual sex; the Bible clearly condemns rape. What we have here is homosexual gang rape. It’s truly awful, and mercifully the angels intervene to make sure nothing actually happens.
And the writer is at pains to show that the gang outside Lot’s door is every single male inhabitant of Sodom, down to the last man. Chapter 19, verse 4: The men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house. If God were to destroy everyone who lived there, there would not be one innocent person who died.
Before the judgement falls, the angels prompt Lot to go out and warn his sons-in-law. Here is their chance to get out. But they just laugh it off. Judgement won’t fall. It’s just a wind-up. It’s one of the most tragic moments in the whole Bible, because this was no joke. But they had their chance.
You see the picture here that we get of God’s judgment. He checks very carefully what has been done. He never judges on a whim. He only punishes people who are actually guilty. He only punishes someone after giving them a chance to change. God’s justice never miscarries.
This is totally unlike our civil courts. It’s not uncommon for someone to be found guilty after a complex trial, only for there to be a long and drawn out appeal. You can only appeal a conviction if fresh evidence comes to light, but often it does. But God never misses a single piece of evidence. He never gets it wrong.
Now, at this point, the chances are that some of us are thinking that this was all just in the Old Testament. That the New Testament God isn’t like this.
The thing is that Jesus treated this account as history. He also used it as a pattern for the final judgement, when he will be the judge of every one of us.
In Matthew 11, Jesus talks about the cities who saw his miracles, heard his teaching, and ignored both. “You Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgement for the land of Sodom than for you.”
Jesus is saying that he is just. Therefore, the people who knew all about Jesus and still did not turn to him are guilty of more than the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are.
Many of us go through life hoping we won’t get caught. We hope the speed camera had no film in. We hope nobody will check our tax return. We hope nobody saw me out last night.
The justice of God does not leave any wriggle room. We can’t leave it to chance that we might not get caught. When Jesus returns, he will examine every piece of evidence, and he will judge each one of us with total justice.
What do we learn about God’s mercy?
Well remember the dilemma. The issue is: How can God be just, and yet not sweep away the righteous in the process?
The answer to this is God’s mercy. His mercy does not mean that he spares the whole city for the sake of his people. Rather, God treats his people differently. He knows how to differentiate.
And so it is that Lot is spared. The account is clear: God remembered Abraham. He looked after Abraham’s family, just as he promised to.
And notice just how merciful God is to Lot.
First, Lot was in Sodom by his own choice. If you remember from chapter 13, he chose to live there! Second, when the moment came to leave Sodom, he dithered. He hesitated. He didn’t really want to leave. God was compassionate, and the angels grabbed him by the hand and pulled him out. And then third, he got outside, looked to the hills, and decided they looked a bit too far away. He would have to move too far. It looked too costly. Can’t I just go to this little town instead?
And yet in spite of all of that, God was merciful to him.
It is the death of Jesus that makes it possible for God to treat his people differently. God will bless his people, but he doesn’t do so by denying his justice, and pretending that wrong doesn’t matter. Instead, he differentiates. God the Father allowed Jesus to bear the punishment for the sins of his people, so that for them – and only for them – they don’t need to face the consequences themselves.
And this is God being so merciful to us. First, it’s our own fault that we need God to rescue us. It’s my sin, and nobody else’s, that means I need to be rescued. Second, when the moment comes to say “yes” to Jesus, we dither. We hesitate. We aren’t sure if we want to go. But God is compassionate, and he grabs us by the hand and pulls us to Jesus. And third, most of us sometimes look at following Jesus and decide it looks a bit costly. We try to renegotiate the terms.
And yet for all of that, God is merciful.
When Napoleon was the emperor of France, a soldier in his army committed a crime that the emperor deemed worthy of execution. The soldier’s mother came to him and pleaded with Napoleon to spare her son: ‘Sire, please have mercy! Let him off this terrible punishment.’ The emperor replied, ‘Why? He doesn’t deserve it.’ The desperate woman retorted, ‘Sire, if he deserved it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’
That is one of the blessings of being one of God’s special people. The God of perfect justice can treat us differently. He can show us mercy.
The story of Lot ends with two warnings for us.
There’s Lot’s wife. She looks back, and is turned into a pillar of salt. Lot’s wife warns us against receiving God’s mercy, but hankering for the old life. Wishing you could live like those who know nothing of God’s mercy. If we are going to receive the mercy God holds out to us in Jesus, that has to mean no looking back.
And then there’s Lot’s daughters. They warn us that you can take Lot’s family out of Sodom, but it’s far harder to take Sodom out of Lot’s family. But isn’t that also reassuring? Here was Lot’s family. Plenty of Sodom still in them. And yet there they were. Safe. Rescued. There’s plenty of Sodom in all of us. And yet if we’ve let God take us by the hand through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are safe. Rescued.
So what God offers us is the chance to be one of his special people. To have him, the God of the universe, as our God.
How does that blessing cash out?
It means a relationship with God. A proper, two-way relationship. He speaks to us. We can speak to him.
And it means rescue from God’s judgement. God’s justice is perfect. He will judge justly. But those who are God’s special people can be certain that they will be spared when the day for judgement comes.
What a privilege! Is there anywhere else you’d rather be?