In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Many of us are probably at least somewhat familiar with this story. It’s one of those stories that stand out because it’s so dramatic. There’s an awful lot of crazy going on in this story. Everything from God’s intention to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to Lot’s offer of his daughters to the townspeople.
And all of this is set in the context of the previous chapter in which God says to Abraham:
20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.
In preparing us for this story, the Bible tells us that God has judged Sodom and Gomorrah because of its sinfulness. So, in the narrative, we should not be surprised at the wickedness that we see in this passage. But still for a lot of people, this story is troubling. It’s troubling because it seems to present a picture of God that we don’t like. It presents, to some people, a picture of an angry God and judgmental God.
And I agree that this kind of idea can be difficult to comprehend. But this leads us to some things that we generally keep in mind as far as how we read the bible. In particular, we are dealing with narrative here – presumably historical narrative. And we need to place this narrative within the greater narrative of Abraham’s story, the story of Genesis, and of the greater Biblical story. In that light, and I may be being redundant here, but I want to review a few main elements of the story we’ve encountered in Genesis so far:
- God created the heavens and the earth and it was very good.
- Sin entered the world because of the willfulness of human beings.
- Sin is illustrated as choosing our own way, which is both an active as well as a consequential rejection of God’s way.
- The result of this is death – this was not a surprise.
- Human beings grew in their sinfulness
- We saw this in the story of Cain, we saw that in the story of Noah (above), and we saw that in the story of Babel.
- And we saw that there are logical and theological consequences for our sin – our rejection of God.
- Nevertheless, in spite of our sin, God desired to restore humanity to Himself, to show grace to those who had and have rebelled against Him. This is what we’re seeing in the story of Abraham.
And in the story of Abraham, we’ve seen God speak with Abraham on three separate occasions, instituting a covenant. In the last passage we discussed, we’ve seen the first instance of those three where God requires something of Abraham. Previously, God’s covenant was characterized entirely (almost?) by what God would do – nothing was asked of Abraham. But in the last passage, we saw that Abraham was required to be circumcised and to circumcise all of his male descendants. This was to be a sign of the covenant – a mark of belonging.
Perhaps it’s this story that helps us understand what’s going on in our passage today. In some respect, in chapter 17, Abraham is asked to “choose.” Make no mistake, God is sovereign in instituting his covenant, but Abraham is still invited, by the sign of circumcision to participate in it. Circumcision, then, becomes a sign of a decision, at some level, to live under the covenant.
Perhaps, then, this story is meant to illustrate or demonstrate the opposite of being part of God’s covenant? Remember that we mentioned the possibility that Lot serves as a foil to Abraham. Lot chose a different path from Abraham, chose to live outside the covenant, literally choosing the land that was outside of the promised land.
Perhaps our story today serves as a reminder, quite simply, that there are consequences to sin – consequences to being outside of God’s covenant? We’ve seen this already in the Biblical story: in Cain’s story, in Noah’s story, and in the story of Babel.
As I said, I understand that people struggle with passages like this and other passages of God’s judgment in the Bible. And I understand that many people struggle with the notion of a God who judges. But what we need to understand is the theology that this is helping us to grasp. We need to try to understand this passage from the point of view of:
- The Sovereignty of God
- The Holiness of God
- The Sinfulness of Humanity
So, again, perhaps this story serves, in part, to remind us of what it looks like, ultimately, when we are outside of God’s covenant promises. That ultimately to be apart from God is to be apart from life – it leads to death.
So What Now…?
Now I know that’s not usually what we want to hear. That’s one of the main issues that people have with Christianity. People are no longer willing to hear that we are sinners. This is nothing new, but the current climate, our current culture has made it more and more difficult to talk about. The current worldview, in its variety of forms, says that the ultimate judge of things, the final arbiter of right and wrong, of what’s good and what’s not good, is ourselves.
Now you don’t have to travel too far down the path of a relativistic, human-centered, individual-focussed philosophy to realize that ultimately it’s self-defeating. And we’ve lived long enough trying to figure it out by ourselves to understand that we can’t figure it out by ourselves.
What the biblical story tells us is that we are not the judge and decider of all things. What the biblical story tells us is that there is a God. And that God is actually God. He is not simply an extension of human ego – not just an extension of ourselves (simply a bigger, smarter, more powerful version of ourselves). He is not a genie to serve our desires and pleasures. He is not a purveyor of spiritual commodities. He is in fact, God. He is big in a way that we cannot understand big-ness. He is wise in a way that we do not understand wisdom. He is powerful beyond our comprehension or our imagination. And He is good. He is truly good. He is not just better-than. But He is ultimately and finally good. So we cannot understand the judgments of God on the basis of “what I would do.” Nor can we judge God on the basis of what I would prefer.
Now, believe it or not, I think this story has an upside. We shudder at the thought of a God who would judge entire cities. I want to suggest that, though it’s hard to understand, it is a good thing that God judges sin. Because sin is precisely that which should not be. Sin is precisely that which is contrary to anything good – that is, God. To everyone who says, how can a good God allow evil in the world, in the end of things, this is the answer – He doesn’t. All evil, all sin will be judged and done away with.
And of course, we are all sinners and we don’t want to be judged. But God provides opportunity for any of us to be delivered from that judgment if we put our faith in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Because of the work of Jesus, the righteousness of Christ is counted as ours.
So, like Abraham, we all have a choice. Will we be part of God’s saving work, His plans for restoration, His eradication of sin and evil in His creation? Or will we choose to go our own way? And thereby, will we choose to receive what is the consequence of our way? We have a choice.
Joshua 24:15 says:
15 But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
I hope each of us will choose to serve the LORD.