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This summer I’m preaching a series of sermons titled “The Wisdom of …..” and today’s sermon was “The Wisdom of Justice and Mercy.”  Each of the 8 sermons is based on a text from the revised common lectionary for that day.  Here’s today’s sermon:

The Wisdom of Justice and Mercy

Genesis 18:20-32

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.”

22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD.  23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there 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? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge [c] of all the earth do right?”

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

27 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, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?”

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

29 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.”

30 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.”

31 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.”

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

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

The Story Before Our Story

This story of Abraham comes right after the visit of three men, often thought to be angels.  However, the dialogue in the chapter switches back and forth from the visitors speaking to God speaking, which leads theologians to describe the visit of these men to Abraham and Sarah as a theophany — an appearance of God in another form.

Whether they were angels, or the presence of God, the message is that when they return in a year, Sarah will have a son.  Abraham will have a son, too, which is what they both had been hoping against hope for.  But both Abraham and Sarah are well up in years (approximately 100  and 90 respectively), and so this news comes as both a surprise, and an uncertainty.  So uncertain is Sarah that she laughs at the prospect, and God catches her in her doubting laughter.

Abraham Bargains With God

But that’s not the point of our story today.  As the visitors are departing, the narrator switches to the voice of God who says, “I’m going down to check on Sodom and Gomorrah, because I’ve been hearing bad things about them.”  God continues, “I’m going to see if they are really that bad, and if they are, I’m going to destroy both cities.”

This gives Abraham some concern.  Primarily, I imagine, because his nephew Lot and his family live in Sodom.  So, Abraham begins this rather indirect dialogue with God.

“Okay, but if there are 50 righteous people there, you won’t destroy it, will you?  After all, you wouldn’t destroy the good with the bad.  Can’t we depend upon the Judge of the earth to do right?”

And you know how this goes.  Abraham and God go back and forth, as Abraham negotiates the lowest possible number for God to spare Sodom.  From 50, Abraham asks God to spare the cities if 45 are there.  God agrees.

From 45, Abraham asks for 40.  God agrees.  Then 30, and again God agrees.  Then 20, and once more God says yes.  Then 10, and God says, “Okay, if there are 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah I won’t destroy them.  I think Abraham is counting Lot’s family — his wife and two daughters, and some of Lot’s servants which he hopes are righteous.  So, maybe Lot’s immediate household will be enough to spare the city from God’s judgment and wrath.

The Incident at Sodom and The Destruction of the Cities

The visitors, which now number two instead of three, arrive at Sodom, and meet Lot, who insists they come to his house for dinner and a place to stay. While they are inside Lot’s house, men from the town gather in front of Lot’s home.

“Who are the good looking strangers that have come to visit you?” they ask.  “Send them out so we can have a big party with them (this is my paraphrase to keep this G-rated).  Lot protests and instead offers his daughters, which is a terrible thing to do by any account and even in that day.

But the men of Sodom demand that the handsome strangers come out.  In their desparate attempt to get at Lot’s guests, they try to crash the front door of Lot’s house.  The angels pull Lot back inside, and strike all of the mob blind so that they can’t find the door.

With that problem solved, and with the evidence mounting that Sodom is indeed a wicked place, the angels tell Lot to get his family together and leave immediately.  “Flee for the hills” is their actual advice.  But Lot says, “We’ll never make it to the hills before disaster falls on us, too.  How about I stop off at Zoar instead?”  Reluctantly the angels agree, but warn Lot’s family not to look back on the destruction that is to befall Sodom and Gomorrah.

You know the rest of the story.  Lot’s family leaves, fire and brimstone rain down from the heavens, and Sodom and Gomorrah are piles of smoldering ruins.  But, unfortunately, Lot’s wife cannot help herself, and looks back.  She is turned into a pillar of salt for doing so, while Lot and his two daughters trudge ahead to Zoar.  There the story turns even uglier for Lot and his daughters, but we’ll stop there because we’ve had enough salacious material for one day.

The Back Story

Okay, so what do we know about all of this and the justice of God.  Plus, God’s mercy, too.  Both are in this story, and both are important to the nation of Israel.

First, let’s look at the cities themselves.  Sodom and Gomorrah were part of a group of five cities called the Pentapolis.  The cities were Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboim, and Bela — also known as Zoar.  So, when Lot flees Sodom, he’s really not going very far, and he stays within the Cities of the Plain, as these were also known.

Secondly, what was the problem there?  Well, it’s obvious that some inappropriate activity was taking place in both of those cities, as we can tell from the visit of the two angels.  And, most of us would say that is why God destroyed them.

But in Jewish literature, these cities were not only places of immorality, which are not even mentioned in the Jewish writings, but were known as places that were inhospitable to strangers, and had disregard for the poor, and disadvantaged among them.  Among their crimes it is reported that in Sodom, wealthy merchants would give beggars a bar of gold with their name on it.  But in a cruel conspiracy, they would refuse to sell the beggar any food, and he would eventually starve to death.  When that happened, they simply retrieved the bar of gold, and waited for their next victim.

They were also guilty of violence and bloodshed, and Abraham had saved the King of Sodom and his army from defeat, and rescued his nephew Lot in the process. So, these were not nice people if you were a stranger in their town.

Interestingly, Sodom and Gomorrah are also mentioned in Islamic writings, and there in addition to the sins of immorality, their other sins are listed as: gambling by playing backgammon, racing pigeons, holding fights between dogs, rams or roosters; immodesty and showing off by not covering their private parts in front of other people of the same sex, entering bathhouses naked, and opening the shirt to show the chest; wearing long pants which drag on the ground out of pride or arrogance; cheating with regard to weights and measures; and whistling with the fingers.  Apparently, whistling with the fingers is a bad thing to do.

Our Role in  God’s Justice and Mercy

But, back to our story.  This Sodom and Gomorrah story is a great example of God’s justice and mercy.  Let’s look at justice first.

We often confuse the idea of justice with punishment.  As in “I’ll be glad when justice is finally done, and he gets what’s coming to him.”  But justice is not punishment.

Punishment is just that, punishment.  Punishment is also called “retribution.”  And the system of justice that administers punishment is called a system of “retributive justice.”  That’s pretty much what we have in our criminal justice system here in the United States.  Les could put the fine point on that general statement, because there are instances of mercy, leniency, compassion, and so forth exhibited in the criminal justice system, but generally, if you do the crime, you expect to do the time (or some equivalent thereof).

But the idea of justice isn’t about punishment, it’s about fairness.  A just society is a society that treats all of its citizens alike.  That’s why the civil rights movement was a struggle for justice — African Americans were denied the right to vote, the right to eat in public restaurants, the right to stay in public accommodations, and the right to attend public schools.  We in the United States treated one segment of our population differently than the majority, and that was a social injustice.

So, a just society is a society that treats all of its members with the same degree of fairness.

God’s justice is also a fair treatment of all his creation.  Violate God’s laws and there is a price to pay.  Even natural law applies fairly and across the board.  Take gravity for instance.  Gravity works for all of us.  Jump out one of these windows and you will fall down, not up.  Regardless of your race, creed, religion, or national origin.  Gravity applies to all.

Jesus pointed out that God sends the rain on the “just and the unjust.”  Aren’t we glad rainfall, which we need desparately, isn’t reserved just for the righteous?  Our yards might look worse than they do now!  God is a just God in the administration of his Creation and natural law.

Okay, so why is God destroying Sodom and Gomorrah?  First, this is before the Law given to Moses, so it’s not because they’re breaking the Ten Commandments.  But, there is still a law, a standard, that God expects to uphold.  The story of Noah and the flood is an account of God’s judgment and punishment of a world gone wild.

But what makes this story interesting is not that God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, but that God almost doesn’t.  If there are 50 righteous people living in a city of at least thousands, then God will spare the city.  Or if there are 45, or 40, or 30, or 20, or 10.  Ten righteous people (probably meaning men, and later the number required to start a synagogue), then God will spare the city.

God’s mercy is greater than God’s wrath.  Why, because God’s mercy is also part of God’s justice.  Justice demands that all be treated the same, that all be held to the same standard.

Judgment determines if the standard has been met.  If not, the person, community, or nation is deemed to have violated the law of God, and there is punishment for that.

The late Ray Anderson, brilliant professor of theology at Fuller Seminary, says that the wrongdoer cannot escape judgment.  Judgment says, “What you have done is wrong.”  God’s judgment is based on his even-handedness with his creation.  The Bible says, “God is no respecter of persons.”  Which means it doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you have, how smart you are, how much you’ve achieved, who your daddy was, or any of those things by which we measure people and show favoritism.

“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” Paul says in Romans 3:23.  And he also adds, “The wages of sin is death” in Romans 6:23.  So, there’s the judgment, and the punishment, both part of God’s justice.

But, Paul also adds, “But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  (Romans 6:23)  There’s the mercy.  There is no doubt we are sinners.  There is no doubt that the penalty for sin, the wages (which means what we have earned for our sin) is death.  We can’t change either of those facts.  So, we have been judged and sentenced.  But, that’s where mercy comes in.  God desires mercy.  God provides a way.  God sends Jesus.  Jesus lives, dies, rises again, all to demonstrate that the words of Hosea the prophet are true:

“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice….” — Hosea 6:6

But, God’s mercy also includes us.  In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God’s being willing to save the cities if there were as few as 10 righteous people there, God’s mercy is made available by the presence of God’s people.

It’s the New Testament idea of being salt and light.  Of the Kingdom of God as the mustard seed that starts small, but grows to be a huge tree.  It’s the idea of a little leaven leavens the whole loaf.  There is a quality to the community of faith that carries with it access to the mercy of God on behalf of others.

You and I, this church, we are vital to this community.  We are the salt and light, we are the leaven in the lump of dough, we are the mustard seed, we are the preservers of humankind.  And, not just us, but all others in all other communities like ours.  We are God’s people and we preserve this Creation of God’s.  Our presence makes possible God’s mercy to those who rebel against him.

But we cannot be salt that has lost its flavor, or lights that have gone dark. We cannot be dead yeast, for the bread will not be affected.  Our action, our activity in this community lived as God’s representatives has a preserving, merciful effect on all around us.

If God can find 50, or 45, or 40, or 30, or 20, or even 10 people who love him and live in right relationship with him and with others, then God’s mercy is still available.  Hope for the future still prevails, the message of salvation still goes out, and God still stays his punishment.

That’s something for us to think about in our world gone wild.  God desires mercy, not sacrifice.  And we can help make that mercy a reality for our community, our state, our nation, our world.