Sermon: One Who Is Righteous

This morning we begin the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In doing so, we are entering a story that sits quite uncomfortably with many in the late-modern West. The destruction of the cities has been weaponized in the wars of sexuality in the church. Fire and brimstone raining down from heaven and burning a city to the ground raises all sorts of difficult questions about the character of God. Some of this we will wrestle with this morning and much of it next week. Assuming we do not have a baby in the next week, which is a big assumption, we will be finishing the story of Sodom and Gomorrah next Sunday. I advise you to read ahead to prepare yourself. And parents of small children, it may be especially important for you as your kids will likely have questions.

This morning, however, we sit and listen at the LORD’s feet as he speaks to us from Genesis 18:16-33. Genesis is the first book in the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Genesis 18:16-33. But before we hear God’s Word, 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:

When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. Then the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin is so grievous, that I will go down and see if what they have done is as great as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham approached him and said, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if they 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, to treat the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

Then the LORD said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Then Abraham spoke up again, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the LORD, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”

“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”

He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

Then he said, “May the LORD not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”

He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the LORD, what if only twenty can be found there?”

He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

Then he said, “May the LORD not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found?”

He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

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

Friends, this morning there is good news, bad news, and then more good news. I would ask you which you would like to hear first, but I think it is important we hear it in that order. First, the good news: God is just and will by no means leave the wicked unpunished. Listen to verses 20 and 21:

Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin is so grievous, that I will go down and see if what they have done is as great as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

God has heard the outcry against the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah and will come in judgment. The phrase ‘come down and see’ is the same one used when the LORD descended to scatter the peoples at the tower of Babel. ‘Come down and see’ is a phrase of coming in power and judgment, which is confirmed by Abraham’s conversation with the LORD. God reveals to Abraham that he has heard the cries against Sodom and Gomorrah and will come in judgment to destroy the cities. This is good news.

But before we see that, there is something we must understand: The judgment on Sodom is not some weird Old Testament story. God’s just judgment is found consistently throughout the Bible. The same LORD we see here is the one made known in Jesus Christ. From the exile of Adam and Eve from the garden, through the judgment of the flood, and the plagues poured out upon Egypt, we have seen that God hears the outcry against sin and comes down in judgment. Through the calls of the psalmist to ‘strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked,’ through the prophets’ call to repent lest we fall under judgment into the New Testament, where Jesus curses fig trees, promises the separation of sheep and goats, and flips temple tables, where Ananias and Saphira are condemned to death at a word, until the final judgment, we see the just judgment of God on display. We cannot claim God’s judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah is some crazy Old Testament story in contrast to the loving New Testament Jesus. There is one LORD, one God, who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. This God heard the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and came in judgment. This judgment is good news.

But to our middle-class, white, western ears, this does not usually sound like good news. In our contemporary culture, we are unnerved by the destruction promised upon Sodom and Gomorrah. The idea of God’s wrath or vengeance sits uncomfortably.

Yet in a world where children are shot in schools,

     where families seeking safety are ripped apart at the border,

     where tyrants force abortions in order to exterminate the Christian menace,

In a world filled with drone strikes,

     car bombs,

          concerts shot up,

               vehicles driven through crowded markets

It is precisely in these moments, when the wicked violence of the world seems most vivid, that we are able to see how the just judgment of God is good news. God hears the cries of the oppressed. When the outcry went up against Sodom and Gomorrah, God was not silent. God did not sit by and watch and do nothing. A God who did not judge, who did not respond to the evil of the world, who did not break the teeth of the wicked so that they were no longer able to devour the righteous, would be a God who did not care.

The theologian Miroslav Volf, who grew up under the political oppression in Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Serbia, argues that God’s just judgment is fundamentally good news, particularly for the oppressed, downtrodden, and marginalized. He says this:

My thesis is that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance…My thesis will be unpopular with man in the West…But imagine speaking to people (as I have) whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit…Your point to them–we should not retaliate? Why not? I say–the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God…Violence thrives today, secretly nourished by the belief that God refuses to take the sword…It takes the quiet of a suburb for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence is a result of a God who refuses to judge. In a scorched land–soaked in the blood of the innocent, the idea will invariably die, like other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind…if God were NOT angry at injustice and deception and did NOT make a final end of violence, that God would not be worthy of our worship. (Exclusion and Embrace)

Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin is so grievous, that I will go down and see if what they have done is as great as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

This is good news. God’s vengeance is a form of his love for his creation and for his beloved people. It is the holy jealousy by which God will not let wickedness carry on forever. A silent God, a God who could not judge, would be a good who did not care about the suffering, sin, and evil of the world. The God revealed in Scripture is no such God. He hears and comes in judgment. This is good news.

In the wake of the violence of 2017, the Christian musician Wendell Kimbrough turned to the psalm 83 to learn to pray for a world soaked in violence. He wrote this:

O God, do not be silent,

O God, do not be still,

O God, you can’t stand by and watch while your children are killed.

You heard the people screaming,

you heard the cries of pain,

You know the ones who made these plans,

you know they’ll come again.

O God, be like the hurricane,

O God, be like the storm,

O, God of justice, come like fire,

do not let them escape.

O God, do not be silent,

O God, do not be still,

O God, you can’t stand by and watch while your children are killed.

God is not silent.

Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin is so grievous, that I will go down and see if what they have done is as great as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

Abraham, upon hearing this news, comes before God in prayer. Abraham appeals for the righteous who live in Sodom, that they would not be swept away with God’s judgment of the wicked. I believe that God reveals his judgment to Abraham so that Abraham will know the destruction of Sodom is the LORD’s judgment, but also so that Abraham can show his heart in prayer.

God delights when his people pray. Abraham stands before God and intercedes for the nations, prays for the deliverance of the wicked cities for the sake of the few righteous within. Even as Abraham prays, revealing his own heart, we see the heart of God as well.

LORD, do not sweep away the righteous with the wicked. The city is full of wicked men and women, but what about the few who walk blamelessly before you. What if there are fifty of them? Will you spare the city for their sake?

Yes. For fifty, I will spare it.

But what if there are not fifty? Forty-five?

Yes. For forty-five, I will not destroy it.

What if there are only forty?

Yes. For forty, I will spare the city.

A little desperation creeps into Abraham’s voice. There are so few. What if only thirty?

Yes, for thirty.

What if only twenty?

Yes, for twenty.

(pause)

What if there are only ten?

For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.

Even if there are only ten righteous people in the city, God will spare it, for now. Justice, love, and compassion are full and perfect in the one true God.

But there is bad news. It takes us a little beyond the bounds of our passage, but it is important. There were not even ten. As we will see next week, there was not even one. As Paul says in Romans, “There is no one righteous, not even one.”

Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, for there was no one found righteous within them. The bad news is that this state of affairs is not limited to the city of Sodom.

Sodom does not have a monopoly on wickedness. The outcry that rises toward the LORD like a stench rises from us as well. When we see the evil and wickedness in the world –  shootings, bombings, racism, exploitation, sexual assault – we like to think these people are outliers, are exceptions to the rule. This doesn’t happen here or among us. But if the recent scandals of sexual abuse in the protestant church have reminded us of anything, it is that Christians are still sinners like the rest of the world.

After graduating seminary, a young Jean Vanier was advised by his priest to invite two adults with special needs to live with him. Jean agreed and the three began to live in the same house. Jean soon became frustrated and angry as his roommates refused to listen to his advice on how to improve their quality of life. He was trying to help them, after all, and they did not want to do what he thought best or grow in the way that he wanted. His anger and bitterness grew until he realized how much sin was lurking inside of him. His attempts to fix those around him revealed deep, ugly places in his heart.

Not long after our story, Abraham will stand at the exact spot where he spoke to the LORD and see the smoking remains of these cities. There were not even ten. There was not even one righteous found within.

We need one like Abraham, who will intercede for us, who will pray continually for our deliverance. And we need a righteous one, for whose sake the LORD’s wrath will be turned aside.

There is good news: There is one who ever lives to intercede for us, Jesus Christ. As Rusty Reno says, “Christ is like Abraham, petitioning his Father on our behalf: “Suppose there was one man found righteous, will you spare the city of man for his sake?” The Father’s answer is a resounding, “Yes, for the sake of one, I will save it.”

Jesus Christ is the one. He is the one who prays for us and the one who is the answer to our prayers. He is the greater Abraham, who prays on behalf of the nations. He is the righteous one, whose life spares the unrighteous. He is God himself, who has come in the flesh to die so that all who belong to him might live.

There is good news: God hears our prayers in Jesus Christ by the Spirit. The cries for justice, the outcry against all the wickedness, violence, and evil in this world has been heard, is being heard, and will be heard by the God who does not remain silent. And though none of us can be numbered among the righteous, though there is none in any city who can stand before the judgment of God for their own sake, let alone for others, God came as the man Jesus Christ to be that righteous one for us.

So people of God, pray. Pray for justice, for peace, even for God to break the teeth of the wicked. God will not be silent. Pray for deliverance, for righteousness, for salvation. God has not been silent.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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