"Ten Righteous Men"
June 13, 2021 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis
Passage: Genesis 18:16-33
Ten Righteous Men
June 13, 2021
Before we get into our Scripture verses and the sermon today, I am going to ask your indulgence for something personal from me.
This past week marked the twentieth anniversary of my father’s death. He was relatively young – 67 – when cancer from the pipe he smoked for years took his life. My mom died five years later.
Early Wednesday, my brother texted my sister and me. My brother carries my dad’s name and has been the most overtly reflective over the years regarding the losses we have experienced in our parents’ deaths.
I thought I would share my return texts with you because I suspect some of you may resonate with the sentiments I shared:
I remember walking around Louisville (at a General Assembly) in a bit of a daze, trying to make plane arrangements to get home later that day. There's a bit of that same funk today.
That said, I also am tremendously grateful for the gift of faith he shared with us. I know there are times when I stand on the foundation of the example he gave. I take confidence and hope from the way he knew, trusted, and served Jesus. There is a tremendous peace that comes from knowing his "new birth into a living hope."
I have probably told this story before, but it is worth sharing again today. Much of my own personal faith was shaped by two things: first, the example of my parents; and second, their service as 4th and 5th Grade Sunday School teachers for years. Unless we were actively ill or physically incapable of attending because of weather, we were in worship. It was that important to them. Then, for much of my childhood, I remember them working on lesson plans, practicing their lessons on me, and having me serve as a player in their skit productions of parables and Old Testament stories.
I still feel the loss from my dad’s death. The pain is not as acute as it was in 2001, but there is a dull ache when I think about all the adventures and experiences we were not able to share with him. And, at the same time, I am so deeply – deeply – grateful for the peace his faith provides for me. The last time I saw him, he was mostly bedridden because of the cancer. We had a conversation, just the two of us, where he told me how proud of me he was, how he loved me, and how he was not afraid of death. His peace in Christ then continues to provide me peace now.
I share this so you know me a little better; but also to encourage and plead with you: if you have not shared your faith with your children, your family, and friends, please do so. Whether you write a letter, sit down and talk with them, or leave a video or whatever – somehow communicate with them the peace you have in Jesus Christ. Use the words. It matters. The peace you share will be a blessing to them now and for a long time to come.
Read Genesis 18:16-33
This is the Word of the LORD.
Prayer of Invocation
This is part two of a four part story. Genesis 18 and 19 are one extended story of a rather eventful couple of days in Abraham’s life. The story starts with Abraham hosting three mysterious men, continues with our passage today, is followed by the account of God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah the next morning, and concludes with Lot’s disgrace.
In the first scene, Abraham was about ready to take a mid-day siesta when he spotted three men in his vicinity. The narrator tells us that the LORD appeared to Abraham. Hospitality was a very big deal in the ancient world, and Abraham’s conduct towards the three men was exemplary. He invited the men in, provided them with refreshment, and treated them with tremendous respect –respect appropriate for human encounters with God.
Then, after the meal and some conversation about Sarah and the promised birth of Isaac, the men set out. Abraham went with them for a distance as the last measure of his hospitality: to make sure they got on the road safely. It is here that we pick up the story.
Dwelling in God’s presence.
Abraham traveled with the men for a distance. As they were walking, the narrator gives us insight into the thoughts of the LORD – specifically, the LORD decided to reveal to Abraham what he was about to do.
In other words, during the walk after the meal, Abraham learned about God’s plan to deal with Sodom. Abraham learned about God’s plan only by spending time with God. The revelation did not happen at the meal, or during a planned meeting, or in response to press conference questioning – the revelation took place in God’s time as Abraham walked along with him.
How much time do you spending walking with the LORD? It is a simple principle: if we do not spend time with the LORD, we will not understand his ways. If we do not spend time engaged in prayer and reflection, we will be confused in our thinking about God. It is true; when many people ask, “Why did God let this happen?” often they are more interested in judging God’s job performance than spending time with God.
It takes time to dwell in God’s presence. This may seem obvious, but it is widely overlooked. Time is such a precious commodity to us. I often hear people say, “I would love to do that, if I had time.” There are so many things we try to cram into our days, our weeks, and our lives. We try to catch up with God on the fly. We do it as we are falling asleep, doing something else, or when we catch a moment. Our prayers are like texting while driving – dangerous multi-tasking. We make time to tell God what we want him to do, we do not spend much time listening to find out if there are things God would like to tell us to do. Abraham, on the other hand, opened up the hospitality of his life to the service of the LORD; and, as a result, the LORD revealed to Abraham what he was about to do.
Prioritizing to make time with God is a discipline. It means not allowing other things to come first. That is not easy; we are easily distracted, and we find lots of reasons why other things need to be attended before we stop and spend time in prayer. This is true of pastors, too. We can get so busy doing the business of the church that we forget the purpose of the church. There is an old story about a church staff meeting where the senior pastor was lamenting the lack of financial support for the building project. When someone else on the staff suggested that they pray about it, the senior pastor responded, “It hasn’t come to that, has it?”
The importance of dwelling in the presence of the LORD is highlighted in the New Testament. In Luke 10, we have the story of Jesus’ visit at the home of Mary and Martha. Martha was the head of the house and
“She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”” (Luke 10:39-42 NRSV)
Make time to dwell in the presence of the LORD. It is the better part.
God invited Abraham to intercede.
As Abraham spent time with the LORD, the LORD revealed to Abraham what was about to happen in Sodom and Gomorrah. As recounted by the narrator, God chose to tell Abraham so Abraham would be able to teach his children the importance of the way of righteousness. But it also seems like the LORD was opening the door for Abraham to intercede. The LORD seems to invite Abraham’s perspective.
Abraham’s concern for Sodom seems odd. Remember when we talked about Melchizedek? Abraham had rescued Lot, the people of Sodom and their possessions. Abraham had gone out, risked his own life and resources. When he returned the king of Sodom had not treated Abraham very well; the king made demands Abraham was not required to accept. But Abraham did not respond in kind. Instead, after giving a tithe of the bounty to Melchizedek, he gave the king back everything: the people and the rest of the property he had recovered. It was not the kind of encounter that would make us think Abraham would have a favorable opinion of Sodom.
Nonetheless, Abraham took up Sodom’s cause with the LORD. As he had done previously, Abraham interceded again on behalf of Sodom.
So, what do we take from this? Why would God want Abraham to intercede?
- Intercession is a conversation with God.
Conversation is part of the relationship. Here, we see the character of God is to share his plans before they happen. It is a way of inviting Abraham to see the LORD’s sovereignty, to get to know the LORD better. The conversation that follows God’s revelation of his plan was the conversation between two friends. To be sure, it is a two-way conversation in which God was always God and Abraham always was not God. Each spoke, each listened. They were engaged with each other.
So, why would God want Abraham to intercede? He wanted Abraham to intercede because God wanted to talk with him.
2. Intercessory prayer is a form of blessing.
Abraham’s intercession for Sodom was consistent with God’s original promise to him. Remember Chapter 12? “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God repeated the same thought in verses 17-18, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” Abraham was pleading on behalf of the people of Canaan, a completely different nation. Interceding on someone else’s behalf – whether they know it or not – is being a blessing to them.
Does intercessory prayer bless others? From a human perspective it is difficult to measure. How do you know whether someone is blessed by intercessory prayer?
Over the years, there have been efforts to measure the benefits of intercessory prayer scientifically. A number of studies of infertile women and cardiac patients have demonstrated better outcomes and fewer complications for those who receive intercessory prayer; while other studies do not confirm any benefit.
The problem with the studies is that blessings are not always measured in terms of human perspective; that is, the lack of physical complications and shorter hospital stays are good things, but they may not be the whole story . There is an entire spiritual realm that we do not see, we do not know, and we cannot control. There is no measure of how the prayers may have been answered by the patients’ drawing closer to God or how the one praying may be blessed by God in the prayer.
Yet we know, because God has declared, that Abraham was being used as a blessing to all the families of the earth and his intercessory prayer on behalf of Sodom was considered a manifestation of that blessing. So it is with us: we may not understand all the intricacies of how intercessory prayer is a blessing, but we have confidence it is because God has declared it.
So, why would God want Abraham to intercede for Sodom? He wanted to talk with him, and God also wanted Abraham to, indeed, be a blessing to all the families of the earth.
- Perhaps Abraham’s intercession yielded a better understanding of God for Abraham rather than a change of heart for God.
Threefold repetition is commonplace in biblical narrative; the doubling of the pattern here is significant and gives Abraham’s intercession solemnity and weight.
Despite God’s statement that he was headed to Sodom to investigate, there is a sense in which God was allowing Abraham to come to the conclusion God had already reached; specifically, there were no righteous men in Sodom. Look at the negotiating pattern:
- Abraham started by asking God about 50 men. What was special about that number? “Fifty righteous.” It is not clear why Abraham began with fifty and worked down to ten. Elsewhere in Scripture (Amos 3) suggests a small city could field a hundred fighting men; consequently, fifty might represent half the city. So Abraham may be starting from the hypothetical situation of equal numbers of righteous and wicked in the city. It would be unjust to destroy all because half were sinners. He then worked down to less obvious cases. Ten men was considered to be the minimum necessary for proper worship. Thus, it seems that Abraham’s argument went from half the city to the minimum needed for worship.
- By the time Abraham has asked six times, even Abraham had to wonder if it would be worth saving Sodom if so few righteous men existed. Even so, there lingered and was never answered a question about whether God would destroy Sodom if even one righteous man were found there.
Abraham learned a lot about God during this conversation. He learned that he was able to have an extended conversation with God. He learned that God hears the prayers and cries of all people – God had heard the outcry against the sinfulness that was taking place. And, He learned that God is patient, not stupid. (He probably knew that already; however, it was re-confirmed.)
Let me repeat that for our benefit:
God is patient, not stupid.
Abraham does not question God’s authority, right, and responsibility to judge Sodom. There is absolutely no question that God is the judge, and that righteousness is the appropriate standard. Abraham does not ask for a sliding scale of “good enough” or “not as bad as those other people”; instead, he pitches for the righteous who might be harmed in the midst of the appropriate judgment against the unrighteous.
I think the conversation goes on as long as it does because Abraham did not offer God anything in exchange other than his understanding of God’s character. “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous 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?” His argument is based on his understanding of who God is, not on the worthiness of the people or even his own standing with God. Abraham does not claim the authority or self-righteousness to demand God obey him. Instead, he confesses his unworthiness, “I who am but dust and ashes.” There is no ultimatum. There is no, “I cannot believe in a God who would do such a thing – and that’s my final offer.” Abraham submitted to God’s sovereignty unconditionally.
I wonder if I would be so savvy. I would like to think so, but I have heard my own prayers that throw in contingency clauses, “God, I will obey and do this thing if you …” Trying to manipulate God is never a successful strategy. In my experience, my efforts to manipulate God generally mean that I am more interested in getting my own way than listening to God. The ugly truth is: demanding my way over God’s way is disobedience. I had a friend say once, “Delayed obedience is disobedience.”
Burt Reynolds starred in an old film entitled “The End.” In the film, Reynolds’ character named Sonny is diagnosed with a blood disorder and the doctor tells him he has six months to live. Instead of waiting for the disease, Sonny decides to commit suicide by swimming out as far as he can until he is exhausted and then just go under. But after going under he is looking at the surface from the underside and decides not to go through with it. As he breaks the surface of the water he screams: “I want to live! I want to live!” He then begins to try to swim to shore, but it is a very long way off.
As he begins to swim he talks to God. He promises to obey all of the Ten Commandments and then realizes he doesn’t know what they are, so he promises to learn them.
Then, in his panic, he says, “Lord, if you get me out of this, I will give you 80% of everything I have.” As he takes a few strokes he can just begin to see the shoreline. When he can make out details on the beach, he promises, “50% of everything – and that’s gross, not net!”
As he continues to swim he feels his strength holding out and says, “Lord, if you help me to get to shore alive I will give you 10% of all my earnings.” And, finally, he struggles to the place where he sees that he is just going to be able to make it to land and says, “Well, Lord, let’s just forget about what I said before. I think I can make it from here on my own.”
Sonny, you, and I all know God is not fooled. We would expect some sort of instant divine retribution, but Sonny is not struck down on the beach (although his friend tries to “help” him by pushing him back into the surf). As Paul would write later in Romans 2, “Do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”
So, what do we learn from this odd little encounter? We learn that spending time with God is a blessing, it is how we discover who God is and what God’s plans are. We learn that God invites us into conversation with him and considers those conversations a manifestation of being a blessing to others. We learn that God is patient and kind, but God’s patience is not the same as tolerance. God calls us into relationship.
- When and how do you spend time with God?
- What have you learned about God because you have spent time with God?
- How would you respond to someone who asked, “I do not know how to talk to God. Can you teach me or help me?”