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Abraham is God's School House of Prayer

Abraham is God's School House of Prayer

A Sermon delivered on Oct 6, 2013 at Christ Church Anglican on the Mainline, Wayne, PA.

By Dr. James Ferguson
Special to Virtueonline
October 8, 2013

NOTE: This sermon was delivered by a layman, a veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania. I challenge anybody reading it to tell me that any ordained Episcopal or Anglican preacher can do as good a job as this man did in the pulpit. If you want to know where renewal is coming from, it is coming from lay men (and women) like Jim Ferguson who, if given the pulpit, can out preach 95% of ordained preachers today. David W. Virtue DD

The reading is to be found in Genesis 18:23-32. 'Let's pray. May the words of my mouth and meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen."

Open your bulletins to today's OT reading:

[23] Then Abraham drew near and said, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?

[24] Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?

[25] Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death 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?"

[26] And the Lord said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake."

[27] Abraham answered and said, "Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.

[28] Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?" And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there."

[29] Again he spoke to him and said, "Suppose forty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of forty I will not do it."

[30] Then he said, "Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there." He answered, "I will not do it, if I find thirty there."

[31] He said, "Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it."

[32] Then he said, "Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there." He answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it."

In this dialogue between Abraham and God concerning God's impending actions against Sodom and Gomorrah, two key questions are asked by Abraham: 1) Will you destroy the innocent with the guilty? 2) Shall not the judge of the earth do justice? Further (theologian) Brueggemann suggests that the phrase "Far be it from thee to do such a thing." May be translated as "this is profane", contaminated, impure, polluted, suggesting Abraham is greatly offended by God's destruction of the innocent with the wicked. We need to consider God's purpose in bringing Abraham into His action. God is using His coming judgment of Sodom and the surrounding region to instruct Abraham concerning divine righteousness and justice.

To gain a perspective on this encounter between God and Abraham, we should examine some background: 1) issues surrounding Abraham; 2) issues concerning Sodom and the cities of the plane; 3) God's purposes in engaging Abraham in His intended intervention. Then we will explore what God is "speaking" to Abraham and what He is saying to us.

First, Abraham. Chapter 18 is just about in the middle of the Biblical account of Abraham's life, which begins at Genesis 12 and extends to Genesis 23. We don't know the exact dates when Abraham lived, but Biblical accounts suggest he lived during the Middle Bronze Age, about 2000 to 1450 BCE, probably closer to 1800 to 2000 BCE.

Genesis 12:1-3 outlines God's promises to Abraham. "Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. [2] And 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. [3] I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

There are four elements to God's promise to Abram: 1) God promises he will be progenitor of a numerous people; 2) God promises him a blessing of material and spiritual prosperity; 3) God promises his name will be exalted; 4) God promises that all nations will be blessed through him. At this point, God's only requirement is that Abram go. Lot, his nephew, goes with him, but other than Sarai, that is all the family Abram has at this time.

Once Abram reaches Canaan, the land God promises him, Lot and Abram thrive. Their flocks and herds become so large conflict arises between their herdsmen. Lot and Abram survey the land from near Ai and Abraham offers Lot first choice of staying where they stand, west of the Jordan River in Canaan, or choosing east of river in the Jordan Valley. Genesis 13 tells us the Jordan Valley was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt. It was the choicest land. Sodom was the dominant city of the Jordan Valley; it was prosperous; and commanded five other cities on the Kikkar plane. Lot chose Sodom. Abraham stayed in the land of Canaan. God seemed pleased with Abram's choice as he re-affirmed His promise of this land to his descendants.

For Abram and Sarai, despite material prosperity, things are not quite working out according to a promise for an heir. He is 86 and Sarah is 76 and no heir has come forth from her womb. Sarai felt the Lord was preventing her from bearing children, so she convinces Abram to take things into their own hands by having Hagar, Sarai's Egyptian attendant, bear a son to Abram, which Sarai can claim as her own. A son is born, Ishmael. Thirteen years pass and God revisits Abram, declaring "I am God Almighty", identifying Himself specifically for the first time in any of His encounters with Abram. He rejects Ishmael as Abram's heir and re-asserting that an heir will come from Sarai's womb. But God now adds a significant, additional caveat to the promise: Abram is to walk before Him, wholehearted and blameless (17:1-2). He and Sarai's taking matters into to their own actions for an heir must be corrected. This is a new covenant and new requirement for Abram. To emphasize its importance, God changes Abram's name to Abraham and Sarai's name to Sarah, meaning he and she will be a father and mother of a multitude. He is to walk before God, adopting a certain way of going, doing, living and being. He is no longer to act on his own initiative as he had done with Ishmael. He is to understand that children are a gift of God, not just a mere material product of one's loins. He is to be a father under God's authority.

As a sign of God's covenant promise and his call to walk blameless before God, he is to circumcise all male members of his household. God is instructing Abraham that male members of his household are to be domesticated and sanctified, to remember God, rather than be those who fight, rule, and make their name great as in the surrounding peoples (Katz, 314). It is not enough to be successful in wealth and power. If Abraham is to be a father of a great people, he must command his children and his household in the ways of the Lord. Abraham must learn what it means to be righteous and just.

And now Abraham enters God's school for exactly that purpose. Three men appear as messengers to Abraham to confirm an heir will be born in the next year to he and Sarah, despite their age of 99 and 90 years, respectively. Genesis 18:17- 19, reveals the purpose of why God is drawing Abraham into the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Genesis 18:17-32 (ESV) The Lord said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, [18] seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? [19] For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him."

God's purpose for Abraham is instructive that he would train his children in the way of the Lord. To not follow the way of the Lord has dire consequences. Sodom and Gomorrah are the mechanism God will use to instruct Abraham concerning Divine righteousness and justice.

God's drawing Adam into the judgment of Sodom. This action confirms Abraham's standing as the historical bearer of God's purposes (Brueggemann). God wants Abraham in on what is to happen - why - God draws in Abraham to be His partner in execution of His justice. Abraham is not a disaffected by-stander of Sodom's wickedness and God's actions, but he is to be a conveyor, an instructor of God's righteous and justice so God's promises may be realized in him. He has to understand the implications of this charge.

Abraham is in the school of God's instruction.

Sodom. Genesis 13:13 tells us that "the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord." The picture Paul gives of Gentiles in Ephesians 4, Isaiah identifies the sin of Sodom as injustice. Jeremiah as irresponsible acts, and Ezekial as pride, gluttony , and indifference to the needy. Sodom is a society organized against God. The Lord will assess if the iniquity of the Sodomites was complete. . Lest we treat this story lightly, Dr. Steve Collins has identified Tall el-Hamman as an archaeological site, 8 miles from the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley, as Sodom. It is a mound located at the western edge of the foot hills of the Transjordan with immense walls and is a site of massive, sudden destruction in the middle bronze age. For hundreds of years the city on this site thrived, it was impregnable with walls 3 stories high and 12 feet thick, sitting on ramparts 150 feet long with 35 degree slopes, impossible to approach the city easily. Excavation of the site reveals sudden destruction with intense heat turning clay pots and vases to glass and mud bricks fried; the smell of ash still detectable. Skeletal remains wrenched and contorted in homes and streets, seemingly blown apart. The site has no evidence of habitation for 700 years despite copious water and favorable land for agriculture. People were afraid to live there, as Genesis says (19:30): "Now Lot went up out of Zoar and lived in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to live in Zoar."

If God is instructing Abraham in his ways, what is he teaching him? Let's consider three commentaries 1) Calvin: God was teaching Abraham about humanity; 2) Katz, a Jewish commentator: God was teaching Abraham about what it means to be a father and a patriarch, a leader of a group of people and the institution of political justice; 3) and Brueggemann sees God teaching Abraham a new theology, a theology of grace. Each captures an aspect we can learn from.

Abraham stands before the Lord and questions Him concerning His plans for Sodom. Leslie Newbegin, in his book "The Gospel in a Pluralist Society" says that "the office of a priest is to stand before God on behalf of people and to stand before people on behalf of God." This little phrase, "Abraham still stood before the Lord" suggests he is performing a priestly function of intercession for the people of Sodom.

Calvin sees this as Abraham demonstrating his humanity, his concern for the people of Sodom. He talks to God as an equal and is bold enough to question God's justice in destroying the innocent with the guilty. Abraham is concerned for the cities destruction and is interceding for God to stay His destruction if righteous people be present. Possibly in this questioning, Abraham is wondering if God will keep His promises to him. If God would kill the righteous with the wicked, then maybe God will not fulfill His promise to him. Maybe events outside his control will cause God to wipe him out due to wickedness around him. Or maybe Abraham is thinking about Lot living in Sodom, and he wants God to spare Sodom for the sake of Lot, but can't ask directly for Lot's rescue. Abraham is probing God, but it is Abraham who through this probing is being instructed by God to consider his reasoning.

Katz in his commentary says Abraham is demonstrating an awareness of the other, an awareness of community. Whereas Abraham saved Lot earlier for kinship reasons, now he does not bring up Lot's name and appears to shift his concern for a people he does not know. Abraham moves from an emphasis on the righteousness of individuals to a view of the entire city. Is sparing of the wicked for the sake of the righteous the best course for governing a city?

Abraham doesn't question the moral right for God to punish the wicked, but he questions God's moral right to destroy the righteous with the wicked if He wipes out the entire city. Can the innocent spare the guilty, or are the innocent swept up with the guilty in God's wrath? Is retributive judgment always the last word for humans?

Is each person is getting what they deserve? Is your divine justice anything like my concept of justice, the good shall prosper, the wicked shall suffer? How is justice for a city related to justice for individuals? Katz sees God training Abraham to see beyond individuals to the community. God wants Abraham to be the avenue by which the Lord's righteous ways are brought into world. Righteousness refers to one's character, one's actions not just one's beliefs; justice refers to judgment, passing and executing judgment on unrighteousness. Righteousness is an individual action, but justice involves community. God is placing before Abraham not just personal behavior, but behavior of a community of people. If Abraham is to be the father of a people, he must understand the difference between relationships within a kinship group and those within a group of unrelated people living together.

Abraham's concept of justice, sparing the wicked for the sake of a few righteous leads to injustice, treating the wicked the same as the righteous and ignores God's abhorrence of sin. Abraham stops at 10, because he realizes through the questioning the divine perspective of justice for the whole city. One must be willing to overlook, to some extent, preferences for one's own kin and the demand for absolute justice for each individual if justice for a city or nation is to be preserved. Abraham is brought to realize that the life of communities and cities necessarily involves the suffering of at least some innocent and righteous people. Political justice is not altogether just (Katz).

Abraham's concept of the innocent sparing the wicked for the sake of the righteous is not quite God's view of the issue, as he doesn't account for God's holiness and the need to deal with sin. God is patient, watching for the "fullness of their iniquity to be filled" before acting. We see this patience throughout scripture. However, we also see God intervenes at some point to make redress of wickedness. God will make provision for a saving remnant only if it is possible to lift up the city as a whole to effect reform. Think of Jonah and the story of Ninevah. Otherwise, God will draw His remnant out. Ezekiel 14:12-20 (ESV) And the word of the Lord came to me: [13] "Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, [14] even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord God." The righteous spared, but not the wicked.

Brueggeman sees a deeper theological issue entering into this conversation between Abraham and God. The sparing of the wicked for the innocent is a concept of grace. It is evident in God's sparing Lot for the sake of Abraham. Lot was spared for the sake of God's remembrance of Abraham, not for any intrinsic character of Lot. The sparing of the wicked for the sake of the righteous is in God's plan, but not as Abraham perceived it. God would deal with sin through His righteousness and death on a cross.

Sin is a serious offense before a Holy God. Jews recently celebrated Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, the day to repent and atone for the sins of the past year before God (Lev. 16:29-34; 23:26). Fasting, repentance, confession mark the day. ("This day is, essentially, your last appeal, your last chance to change the judgment, to demonstrate your repentance and make amends to God.).

However, historically, the Day of Atonement was also marked by sacrifice. The sacrifice of a bull was offered for the sins of the priest, and a goat was sacrificed for the sins of the people. In addition, the priest laid hands on the head of a second goat on which he confessed all the iniquities of the people and then sent the "scape-goat" away into the wilderness, symbolically removing sin from the community. Thus, the Israelites annually dealt with their sin before a Holy God through sacrifice and sending away. But it was not a permanent solution and needed annual repetition.

Abraham looked for the presence of a righteous person to save Sodom. Paul identified the problem, "None is righteous, no, not one" (Rom. 3:10) and "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). Thus, Sodom was doomed. But so should we be. Newbigin says, "If we received justice instead of charity we would be on our way to perdition." We have all "filled up the fullness of our iniquity" before a Holy God and deserve to burn in fire and brimstone. Wayne should be smoke and ashes, except for the forbearance of God and His desire to preserve the honor of His name.

God has revealed His compassionate justice in human history in His holiness through Jesus Christ. God came down and received into His body all our sin and iniquity for all time. The ultimate hope for humanity is rooted in God's defense of his own character and reputation. God acts to preserve the glory of His name.

Ezekiel 20:9 (ESV) "But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them out of the land of Egypt." And He does this by taking our sin and His wrath into himself. One is enough to save, but it is God himself.

Hosea 11:8-9 Hosea 11:8-9 (ESV) How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. [9] I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

Admah and Zeboiim reference Sodom/Gomorrah and in this passage God takes the "recoil", the "earthquake" the "overthrow" into His own person rather than against the city. God turns His passion of righteousness and wrath upon himself for the sake of the world. He will not profane His name by ignoring sin.

Paul in Romans 3:21-26 further sees this righteous action of God: Romans 3:21-26 (ESV) But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, ... [22] the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: [23] for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, [24] and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, [25] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. [26] It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

We have a great high priest, in the line of Melchizedek, Jesus Christ, in whom dwells the full righteousness of God, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood for our sin. While Abraham looked for one righteous, we have one righteous, who by His death on the cross saved us from our sin. So by grace we are saved by faith. As article 11 of the 39 articles states: "We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings."

There can be no expiation of man's sin without propitiation of God's wrath (Stott). God's holy antagonism to sin must somehow be turned away if sin is to be forgiven and the sinner restored. Abraham desired the righteous to spare the wicked, but the sin of the wicked was not dealt with. In silence he watches the smoke rise from Sodom, because he understood his reasoning was a dead end and unjust. Sin must be dealt with if God is just and holy. He cannot just ignore it.

The death of one righteous god-man saves us from the fullness of our iniquity. When the fullness of mankind's iniquity had been filled, God sent His own Son, to die on the cross in atonement for own sin. He sealed the promise of eternal life with his resurrection on the third day. He makes intercession for us at the right hand of the Father and has promised our sanctification through his sending the Holy Spirit to dwell in His people.

Abraham sought salvation for Sodom in the works of righteous people. However, our deeds can never be the basis of our salvation. William Temple poignantly said "What I have to offer God is only the sin from which I need to be redeemed." By grace we have been saved through faith...it is a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:8).

So what does it mean for us, Christ Church Anglican on the Main Line, here in Wayne. 1) training our youth in the ways of the Lord; 2) Intercession for our community; 2) witness of God's mercy and God's judgment.

Training our youth. Everyone is concerned with reaching Generation None - no belief, no faith in authority or our leaders. Current events certainly don't help that view. However, a recent survey identified the problem. Considering young adults who left the faith, if they had grown up in a household with strong meaningful faith, only 11% left the church; whereas if they didn't 89% left the faith. Abraham was commanded to instruct his children in the way of the Lord. The failure of faith in young adults is the failure of instruction by parents. The church's mission is to instruct parents in instructing their children in to walk blameless before the Lord.

Abraham looked to Sodom and stood before God and sought for God to stay His hand of judgment. We stand here in Wayne, as the local church, as God's embassy in this particular place (Newbegin). We are both a sign of God's mercy and God's judgment for Wayne. We stand as a congregation of priests called to intercession for this local place. Phil's walking the bounds is an example of this intercession, but all of us are called to pray for our neighbors and our communities. The exercise of our priesthood is not within these walls but in the daily business of our worlds. We are here by supernatural design for this time and season of the Lord. We exist to be the place from which good news overflows in good action into this community and into our places where we live and work. We are called to a sacrificial love for our neighbors in this place.

Some things remain the same; human beings are lost. We stand under the just judgment of God in sin and rebelliousness. But, we have the good news that Abraham sought. Our mission is a timeless mission. To share the good news of the gospel to the world around us. We believe the testimony of the Gospels that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the one appointed and sent by God to fulfill the unique mission of Old Testament Israel, that is to bring the blessing of God's salvation to all nations, as God promised to Abraham. (Cape Town Commitment, Lausanne). We affirm our love for Jesus Christ by trusting him, obeying him and making him known. We are His witness of grace and judgment here in this place, by His Holy appointment. May we be faithful to His call.


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