Sermon: The Great Bargain

The Abrahamic Covenant requires us to obey God, but the story of Abraham’s Bargaining with God in Genesis 18 tells us that there is a great deal more to the Covenant than we think.


Abraham and the angels - He Qi
Abraham and the Angels by Chinese Artist He Qi

Our reading from the Book of Genesis this morning is part of major turning point in the Biblical narrative: a fundamental redefinition of the nature of God’s relationship with us.

In the first 17 chapters of Genesis, we read about the classic Judgmental and often distant God of the Old Testament. The God we read about in the Creation, the Fall, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. But then we arrive here, at the story of Abraham, whom all the great monotheistic faiths claim as their forebear.

Abraham’s story begins with this distant God commanding him to leave his ancestral home in Harran, which he does: taking along his wife Sarah; his nephew, Lot; and all of their goods and possessions. They eventually settle in Canaan.

And there, Lot and Abraham part ways. And soon after, Abraham rescues Lot when Lot and his family are kidnapped in a raid by the enemies of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Then we read about the declaration of God’s new Covenant with Abraham, which we examined in a sermon here over a year ago. At that time we learned how Abraham’s Covenant demonstrates that God hears all of us and sees all of us. That we are all included in this Covenant with God; and that it is one from which none of us shall ever be rejected. But now we will see how Abraham’s Covenant changes the nature of our relationship with God.

The sticking point is that up until this moment, it has been a one-way relationship: God tells Abraham what to do; Abraham does it. We even see this in the Covenant’s requirement that Abraham and all of his household be circumcised. Abraham immediately does this not only to himself and his son Ishmael, but “all of the men of the house, slaves born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner.”

But, this is no longer a one-way relationship. So, how does the other direction of this relationship work? By virtue of the Covenant, God must be responding to us in some way. This also means that God must be open to being changed by us. And, that is exactly what seems to be happening in this morning’s reading.

It begins with God deciding that the Covenant does not permit the hiding of God’s intentions from Abraham. (This in itself is a new level of transparency which we have a hard time understanding, let alone believing, even now!) So, God tells Abraham her plan, saying “I’ve heard terrible things – urgent and outraged cries for help coming from the Cities of Sodom and Gomorrah”, and that God plans to go down to see if they are true. But, it is important to note, She says nothing about what will happen if they are true!

We then see the great bargain play out: Abraham asks if God will condemn the good and true people of Sodom and Gomorrah along with the guilty. What if there are 50? 45? 40? And finally, God agrees to spare the city for the sake of 10 Good and True people.

Now remember, God never actually said what would happen to the cities if what was heard is true. Abraham assumes and fears that a harsh judgment will occur. (And, in fact, we later read that Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed.)

Abraham is extremely humble and tentative in his bargaining with God, just as he was earlier, when offering the three men a meal.

And why, I wonder, does Abraham so diligently bargain to save Sodom? Yes, Lot and his family live there, but why plead for the whole city? Why not simply ask that Lot’s family be rescued? And since Lot’s family has only 4 members, stopping the bargaining at ten is quite a risk: it left Abraham with no certainty that Lot and his family will be saved.

There is not much to go on to tell us the nature of the relationship between Abraham and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah: it seems they were good neighbors, but we do not know if it went farther than that. Given the clear demonstrations of Abraham’s moral nature versus the immoral nature of the cities’ inhabitants, it may be that they were not friends.

In fact, when the two men (or angels) later arrive in Sodom, Lot is quick to invite them into his house before nightfall, getting them out of harm’s way.  And, the people of Sodom clearly consider Lot and his family to be outsiders, despite his living among them. So, it may be that Abraham’s pleading for the people shows us that when God said that all people are part of the Covenant, then that must include those whom we find distasteful. And yet, we must to “stick up” for them too, as part of our obligations under the Covenant.

Now, I’m not a fan of such sentiments, especially when it comes to the many strident voices of hate and bigotry and denial that we constantly hear and read about these days. But on the other hand, God loves them.   Therefore, so must we.   But how?

And as for why Abraham did not simply plead specifically for Lot’s rescue, remember that God did send Lot and his family out of the doomed city before its destruction. Perhaps Abraham trusted God to do this, which means that Abraham’s pleading for the people of the city really was out his desire for mercy and justice for all others, just as God knew he would do.

Whether or not this is true, Abraham did entrust Lot’s fate to God, which means that he trusted God to love Lot and the people of that city, too. In which case, why plead for their safety at all? And, if God truly is omnipotent and omniscient, then the end was already set; and Abraham must have known he could do nothing to influence it. So, maybe his pleading had no effect!

Aargh, Theology!!

So, why did God tell Abraham what was about to happen? What good did it do?

At the beginning of our reading, The Eternal One says “I have chosen him for a reason, namely that he will carefully instruct his children and his household to keep themselves strong in relationship to Me and to walk in My ways by doing what is good and right in the world and by showing mercy and justice to all others [including the people of Sodom and Gomorrah]. God then went on to say “I know he will uphold his end of the covenant, so that he can ensure My promises to him will be fulfilled and upheld as well.

God already knew Abraham would plead for the people of the two cities out of his concern for mercy and justice for all. God knows that Abraham will uphold his end of the Covenant.

So, is this a test?   Mmmm, not really: God already knows what will happen. By definition, a test does not have a certain outcome, unless it really isn’t a test!

Instead, is this a chance to teach Abraham how to uphold his end of the Covenant? “To ensure,” as God said, “that My promises to him will be fulfilled and upheld as well?”

To fulfill the Covenant, Abraham has to be willing to do more than obey God, he must be willing to uphold his end of the Covenant by challenging God to be merciful and just. He needs opportunities to challenge God on this, and She gives him one here. But, it was not easy for him to challenge God that first time!

We see a similar narrative in the last half of our reading from Luke, where a friend comes over late at night and bangs on the door, demanding we lend him three loaves of bread, and keeps knocking until we do.

Lending bread that will soon be eaten, is not a loan! And then there’s the ending vignette: where Jesus asks us if we’d feed our hungry child a snake when they ask for fish; or a scorpion when they want an egg?

We all know that we should love God, and Love our neighbor. Jesus is helping us to be prepared to love when it is neither easy, nor simple, to do so. Just like how God is helping Abraham to learn how to challenge God out of his desire for mercy and justice for all others.

The point is not whether this bargaining or challenging of God is successful. The story of Abraham begins with God wondering if what is about to happen should be hidden from Abraham, or not. God knows Abraham will uphold his end of the Covenant, but God is also wondering what the Covenant requires of Her. It requires that She give us opportunities to grow, to learn how to demonstrate and enact our love for our neighbors and for God, and it requires Her to listen to us: otherwise there is no bargaining, no challenge. That God listens is one of the reasons why we pray.

In turn, the Covenant requires us to be persistent. Like the man knocking at the door, like Abraham’s bargaining with God until the number of Good and True people that must be found is reduced to 10. As Jesus said: “All who keep asking will receive, all who keep seeking will find, and the doors will be open to those who keep knocking.” Love is persistent: not giving up even when the progress being made is barely perceptible, if there is any progress at all.

We are not called to solve all the problems of the world. Certainly not all at once! We can’t. The world’s problems are solved one step at a time, through love. Loving the annoying man at the door, loving that annoying politician on TV; loving that relative or friend who regurgitates all that hateful election campaign rhetoric. It means loving the people we don’t like, or perhaps fear, in that neighborhood on the other side of the tracks; it means loving those seeking a safe refuge after fleeing from one of the many places in this world where all hope is dying. And, it means loving ourselves, too.

We are not perfect creatures. Abraham wasn’t. Lot wasn’t. The people of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Galilee weren’t. The disciples weren’t. Hillary Clinton isn’t, and Donald Trump isn’t (even though he may believe otherwise).  …; Although, perhaps we’ll need to make an exception for Bernie…

God listens to us, all of us – even Hillary and Donald. God responds to us, She loves us – despite our flaws and our failures and our pride and our delusions. God depends on us to fulfill our part of the Covenant. So, we are called to love in return, and to not give up. We are called to continually converse with God – through prayer, through our actions, and through our relationships with everyone we encounter.  And it is through that continual effort, that determination to never give up, that willingness to interact with someone who is “other”, and our willingness to be changed by our love of all others, that Love takes root and then flourishes within us and within God’s Creation.

The Great Bargain never ends. We are called to confront injustice wherever we find it in God’s Creation – calling upon God and upon our fellow human beings to show justice and mercy for all.

We are always conversing with the God who loves us, the God who is still speaking, and the God who is still listening, and always will be!

Amen.

Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, July 24, 2016.

Scripture Readings:
Genesis 18:16-32 (The Voice)
Luke 11:1-13 (The Voice)

 

 

Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Author: Allen

A would be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is a father of two (ages 28 & 7). He and his wife enjoy life near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/ or on Twitter @allenvm3.

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