Sermon: Nostalgia or Promise?

What do you have eyes to see? When I first got glasses, one of the tests they give is the Ishihara test. They put up a bunch of color-dotted plates and you try to see numbers within them. I have a couple here on the screen. What do you see? I can’t see anything there. What number is it? Thanks, Lee, we can take them down.

What do you have eyes to see? I can see and I can even see colors, but my eyes do not have whatever it is they need in order to see those colors and connect the dots. It is right there in front of me and many of you can see it, but I cannot. I do not have eyes that can see those colors.

Our passage this morning is about vision, even if it doesn’t look like it at first. What do you have eyes to see? Two men – Abram and Lot – will go and look at the land around them. One will see only what the world invites him to see and will head toward destruction. The other will see with the eyes of faith. It is Genesis, chapter 13, beginning in verse 1. Genesis 13, beginning in verse 1. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s Word.

Listen closely and listen well for these are the very words of God:

So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.

From the Negev, he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the LORD.

Now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. But the land could not support them while they stayed together, because their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s. The Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time.

So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, because we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”

Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well-watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt. (This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah). So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. Now the people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD.

The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tent. There he built an altar to the LORD.

This is the Word of the LORD. Thanks be to God.

Abram leaves Egypt filled to the brim with blessing. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold. His blessing is so great it begins to overflow to his nephew, Lot, who is traveling with him. Verse 5: Now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. But the land could not support them while they stayed together, because their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together.

Throughout the Old Testament and particularly in the story of Abram, wealth was often considered a blessing from God. Wealth itself was not evil, but it often caused problems. Both Abram and Lot had massive herds and the land could not support them both. They began to compete for space and resources and, we are told, quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s. Wealth caused strife.

We see regularly the conflict caused by wealth. Mom or Dad dies and suddenly people, maybe even we ourselves, change from loving siblings to ravenous wolves fighting and biting for every dime and every scrap of land. We see all too often how inheritances which were meant to bless the next generation can end up tearing them apart. We hear that “money changes people” and we have ample evidence to back it up.

But wealth itself is not the problem, the problem lies in our hearts. Money, land, livestock all serve to give us more power to accomplish what is in our hearts. With money, we can more easily do exactly what our hearts desire, whether selfish or service. This is why scripture does not condemn money, but does say that the “love of money is the root of all evil.” Wealth magnifies the desires of our hearts. If you have been following the news this week, you might have heard about the CEO of Amazon, who has a wealth of $131B and increased by about $25m an hour. In itself, this is not problem, but an incredible blessing. Yet how does he plan to spend this money? Largely on space travel. The more money we have, the more easily we can accomplish the desires of our hearts, but those desires are not always good. It is the sin and idolatry in our hearts that money reveals, that greed cultivates, that makes money the cause of such strife in our world. The problem caused by wealth lies much closer to home, within the human heart.

God blessed Abram with great wealth and by drawing near to Abram, Lot too shared in this blessing. But this blessing led to quarreling as the herds began to compete for the same land, same food, and same water. Abundant blessings became the occasion for conflict.

But Abram has a solution. Verses 8 and 9: So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, because we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”

We should note that Abram himself takes no part in the quarrel. The fighting between the herders may eventually work its way up to a conflict between Abram and Lot, so Abram wants to do everything in his power to prevent the fight. He would rather they separate on good terms now then be forced to separate by bitter conflict later.

So Abram proposes that they part ways and gives the first choice of land to Lot. While the conflict is important, we need to pay most attention to how Abram and Lot respond differently in this parting. It brings us back to our initial question of vision: What do we have eyes to see?

First, what does Lot see? Verses 10-13: Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well-watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt. (This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah). So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. Now the people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD.

Lot is selfish and greedy. He looks around and see what he believes to be the best land, the plain of the Jordan. So he takes it. It is no accident that Moses says that “Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan.” Abram, the older of the two, should have had the first choice, but he gives it up in favor of his younger nephew. Lot takes the choice and picks what he believes is best for Lot. He cares little for Abram, only for himself. As Calvin says, “whosoever is too eagerly intent upon his own advantage, is wanting in humanity towards others.” Lot sees what is best for him and he takes it, with no concern for his uncle. Note the sacrificial love of Abram for his selfish nephew. He gives up the first choice, the best of what he could see, for one he loves, who cares so little about him. Abram gives, while Lot only takes.

But just as significant as Lot’s selfish motives for his choice is the land that he chooses. Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well-watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt. What Lot sees is land that looks like Eden, the garden of the LORD. When Lot chooses land for his people, land for himself, he chooses to go where it looks like Eden. Lot’s choice is an act of nostalgia. The land reminds him of Eden, of the good old days when everything was good and new and abundant. He picks the land that reminds him most of the glorious past. There is almost a sense in which Lot seems to want to go back there, to bypass all the problems of the present in order to return to the golden age. Lot looked around and saw a land like the garden of the LORD and it was there that he wanted to go.

Lot’s choice reflects a common impulse. We, too, wish we could go back to the good old days. The older we get, the more powerful this emotion can become. We remember when life was simpler, when the churches were full, there were plenty of children running around, when everything was better. Nevermind that those days were never golden, but always filled with struggle, failure, and frustration too. But more than just remembering, like Lot, we wish we were back there. We would love to be able to settle again in that land, in that time. We want to return to the well-watered land, like the garden of the LORD.

But friends, we cannot go back. Just as Lot would soon learn, there is no well-watered land that is “like the garden of the LORD.” We cannot jump over the past back to some golden age. Since we first left Eden, there have been no golden ages, but even so we cannot go back to the past, we can only move forward, like Abram, trusting in the promise of God.

The past is important and memory significant. As evangelical churches, we need to deepen our memory of the history of the church. However, nostalgia is dangerous for the church, because it seeks to avoid the challenges of the present by returning to the past. It doesn’t seek to learn from the past, but to go back there. It is a lie and a dangerous one. Nostalgia can render us unable to see the dangers of the present.

For Lot, all he saw was that the whole plain of Jordan looked like the garden of the LORD, but he could not see Sodom. Lot looked for Eden, but ended up in Sodom. Twice in this short description, we are reminded of the character of Sodom. We are given a spoiler that Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed by the LORD and we are told that the people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD. Yet, Lot couldn’t see it. Nostalgia had blinded him to the perils of the present and he pitched his tents at the gates of Sodom. As Calvin says, “Lot, when he fancied that he was dwelling in paradise, was nearly plunged into the depths of hell.”

Lot looks to nostalgia, but Abram looks to the promise. Unlike Lot, Abram does not trust his own eyes. Instead, he waits for the LORD. Only once Lot has departed is Abram invited to look and see. The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

At the command of the LORD, Abram’s eyes are opened and he can see the land of promise. Lot trusted his own eyes and ended up in Sodom while looking for Eden. Abram waited for the LORD and again received God’s word of promise. Abram trusted what God could see over what he could see. Abram saw no offspring, but God said they would be as numerous as the dust of the earth. In faith, Abram was to walk the land God would give to offspring he had yet to see.

The conflict created by the abundant blessing of God revealed a lot about the character of Abram and Lot. Lot demonstrated selfish grabbing of whatever would work toward his advantage, while Abram patiently gave, trusting that what the LORD had for him was far better than whatever he could see. But the biggest difference lay in their vision. Lot looked to a return to Eden, a return to the golden days of ease, success, and comfort. Abram had eyes only for the promise of God, a future he could not see that would take him down a narrow road through hardship he could not anticipate. Those two visions led to two very different destinations. Lot pitched his tent at the gates of Sodom, while Abram pitched his tent in the promised land and built an altar to the LORD.

The hard truth of this passage is that apart from Jesus Christ, we will follow Lot every time. It is the path that many churches take that blinds us to the perils of the present as we seek to relive the past. The search to return to an idealized past is the goal of both major parties in our current political climate and it is part of the poisoning of our politics. Instead of learning from and wrestling with the gifts and brokenness of our histories, we so easily choose to ignore it in favor of nostalgia. Apart from Christ, we will go with Lot every time.

We need a new vision, a new way of seeing. We need eyes to see the promises of God in the gospel. At the table, we see the promise of God. While the world wants us to either grab what we can for ourselves right now, or to reach back and re-enter some ideal past, God presents his promises to us in bread and a cup. We are called not to nostalgia, but to remembrance, where our story is joined with the story of God’s redemption. At the table, God invites us, like Abram, to look around us with a renewed vision and to walk the length and breadth of the land in the way of Christ. What Abram saw dimly is made visible in Jesus Christ, in his living, dying, and rising.

As the catechism says, “as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup shared with me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross.” At the table, we see the promises of God. Again: “as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood.” At the table, we see the promises of God.

Brothers and sisters, come to the table. Come taste and see that the LORD is good. Come remember what was promised and accomplished for you. Come taste and see that what the LORD offers is far better than our eyes of flesh can comprehend. Come taste the promise of the gospel.

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