Note: This is my sermon manuscript adopted as an article.
When I think of the deepest stories of pain in my life and in the world, the prayers I approach God with end up being confrontational. Why? Because during these times, I question God’s sense of justice. Here are some ways I’ve expressed it: “How could you let this happen?” “Are you done punishing me now?” “This is not fair!” “Is this happening because of what I did last week?” “I thought you loved me!” During these times I rarely feel like I my prayers are answered. The silence I have experienced in these times of darkness have sometimes been unbearable. Does this resonate with you? some of us may have felt like this in the past, some of us may currently be in such a time now, and some of us may experience it in the future. In our passage today, we see Abraham who is also put in a situation that provokes him to approach God with such a prayer. In his prayer, he challenges God’s concept of justice. Just like us, in times of trouble, he points the finger to God and says; “not fair!” God responds graciously and starts a dialogue, teaching Abraham a lesson about His concept of justice. We, along with Abraham can learn from this dialogue, the three things I want to point out are: God’s invitation to evaluate His justice, God’s longing to explain His justice, and God’s plan to love in His justice.
22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 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.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.
Point 1: God’s Invitation to Evaluate His Justice
If you are anything like me, when my mind wanders and starts to question God’s sense of justice, I also start to feel guilty. I start hearing my self both attacking God and defending God, it usually goes something like this: “How could you let this happen? Oh I’m sure He has a reason, there is a reason for everything.” There is a verse used as a cliché for that one, Romans 8:28. Right? “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” Or maybe the conversation in our heads goes this way: “How could You let this happen? I thought You loved me! Oh but I’m sure He does, I just need to stop questioning Him.” There is a cliché verse for that one too, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Now am I saying that these verses are bad? Of course not, they are good. They are the very words of God that He has given to save and sanctify His children. What I am saying is we often misuse them as an easy out to shy away from how we really feel towards God, and it ends up pushing us away from God instead of encouraging us to approach Him as the loving Father He is. Here’s a rule of thumb, if a Biblical truth is used to numb you and guilt you away from bringing your true emotions to your heavenly Father, it’s being misused. His Word is meant to romance you towards Him, never to numb you away from Him. We will see here, that God is actually the one who invites you to approach Him with your heart, even in your darkest hour.
Read with me Genesis 18:17&19, in these verses the narrator of Genesis tells us the reasoning of why God decided to tell Abraham His plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah: The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do… 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.” See, God Himself is the one who initiated the dialogue between Him and Abraham about Sodom and Gomorrah. Why did God want to invite Abraham to wrestle about God’s justice concept of justice? So “that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.”
Not only did the narrator tell us that God desired Abraham to approach Him with His questions, but he also describes the way in which God provoked Abraham to approach Him. Look here in verse 22, it says: “so the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord.” In the previous scene before God and Abraham’s dialogue about Sodom and Gomorrah, there were three men that approached Abraham to tell him and his wife, Sarah, that they will have a child in their barren age. The narrator addressed these men as “the Lord.” Abraham himself saw these three men and also addressed them as “the Lord.” Then in verse 22 of our passage, we are presented with more detail about these men; it says: “So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord.” Ok, so now we know that the three men separated, two went towards Sodom and one, who is addressed as “the Lord” stayed with Abraham. So who were these two other men? If you read Genesis 19:1 it says that these 2 other men were angels: “The two angels came to Sodom in the evening.”
So here is the picture: The Lord came with two angels, told Abraham the good news about having a long desired child in his barren age. He then wanted Abraham to understand the concept of justice and does so by telling Abraham about His plan to destroy Sodom. Then He sends the two angels to go to Sodom but He Himself stays there before Abraham as if gesturing: “now what?” as if asking Abraham “How does this make you feel?” as if inviting him: “I know you feel horrible about this, come to me, talk to me, be honest with me about the anger I already know how you feel in your heart.” Why did God stay behind and invited Abraham to express how he feels? Because by this interchange Abraham will better understand the concept of true justice, which will bless him and bless the rest of God’s people.
See, there are deeper truths that you can’t just learn from a textbook or in a classroom, in order to truly understand some truths, you must experience them. God wanted Abraham to experience the truth behind God’s justice. He wasn’t satisfied with Abraham simply memorizing some verse about it, He wanted Abraham to truly embody it. To not just be able to spit out head knowledge to others about it, but to be able to enter into their struggles with them. Abraham is not just called to teach his household what to think about God’s justice, but how to truly be affected by it and affect others with it. In order to do this, God knows that he must invite Abraham into a hard conversation that stems out of a real life experience so that a deeper understanding of God’s justice may push Abraham to fall into deeper love with Him. As weird as this sounds, I want to encourage you to come to Him with your questions. I hope this point will embolden you to move towards God with your complaints; He wants to interact with you. Even with the anger you may feel towards Him, come to Him even with the darkest chapters of your story, the ones you feel is most unfair. Come to Him, He is big enough to handle it. Listen now to how He handles our approach as we enter into God’s dialogue with Abraham.
Point #2: God’s Longing to Explain His Justice
In order for us to under God’s explanation to Abraham about His justice, we must look at this dialogue through both Abraham’s perspective and God’s perspective, we will discover what Abraham’s assumptions were coming into the conversation, and what God’s assumptions were coming into the conversation were different.
First, Abraham’ assumption. After God told Abraham about His plan to destroy Sodom, He stood before Abraham awaiting a response. Abraham then in verse 23 “drew near” to God. This isn’t a physical drawing near, for the Lord was already “standing before” Abraham. This is a drawing near that happens as we approach God with our hearts, this is true prayer; Abraham starts “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 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? 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?”
Do you hear the tone Abraham had in his voice? It was a demanding tone; “far be it from you!” full of disbelieve; “will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” He demanded for the righteous to not experience God’s wrath as the wicked deserves. I maybe sensed a little frustration here from Abraham that God would even consider that justice. It is clear that Abraham demanded justice, “shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” But now lets take a look at how Abraham’s tone changes as he continues to intercede for Sodom.
Both tone and word choice changed dramatically as the dialogue continues. He goes from saying “how could you?” to verse 27; “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord”, then verse 29 “Oh let not the Lord be angry”, verse 30 “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord”, and verse 31 “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once.” Do you see the change of tone here compared to in the beginning? Why the change of tone? Did he just all of a sudden loose his nerve? Or loose his courage to fight for justice? No, it is because Abraham is realizing that as he lowers the number of righteous people in the city for it to be saved, Abraham is also slowly loosing grounds for justice. See, it seems more fair when there are a lot of righteous people in the city, Abraham has more ground to base his concept of justice upon. But as he reduces the number of righteous people, he also weakens his grounds for demanding justice. And by doing so, he is slowly moving away from demanding justice and moving towards pleading for mercy. Why does his tone change? Because friends, you can demand justice all you want, but you can only plead and beg for mercy. The assumption Abraham entered into the conversation with is this: “to save these righteous people from God’s wrath is justice.”
The assumption Abraham entered into the conversation with is this: “to save these righteous people from God’s wrath is justice.”
But here’s the twist, lets look at this conversation from God’s perspective, what were His assumptions? Abraham bases his plea for justice upon his assumption that the righteousness of these hypothetical men has merited God’s blessing and should divert God’s wrath. It would be just for God to not destroy them. However, here is the key, there is a big difference between God’s definition of righteousness and Abraham’s definition of righteousness. Abraham’s thinks that these ‘righteous’ people do not deserve of God’s wrath. But did Abraham come into this dialogue with the same definition of righteousness as God? Let’s see how God defines righteousness; Isaiah 64:6: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Romans 3:23 says: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, then Romans 6:23 that describes the just penalty of that sin being death (spiritually and physically). And Psalm 53:3: “They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” See when Abraham talks of “righteous” people, it is not the same kind of righteousness that has perfectly fulfilled God’s laws and moral standards, gaining the merit of God’s blessing. But people who in general avoid sin and pursue goodness. Noah is described as righteous in the same way in Genesis 6:9. It is not the kind of saving righteousness that compares to Jesus’ righteousness.
However, here is the key, there is a big difference between God’s definition of righteousness and Abraham’s definition of righteousness.
The only one who deserves to receive God’s blessing and avert His wrath is Jesus, not these ‘righteous’ people in Sodom. Why does this matter? Here is why; if Abraham’s assumption was: “to save these righteous people from God’s wrath is justice.” God’s assumption is this: “to save these righteous people from My wrath is mercy.” If Abraham thinks he started off demanding justice then slowly moved towards pleading for mercy, for God, the whole conversation has always been about mercy. God is saying: “Abraham, you may not understand this fully, but this whole time, it has always been about mercy!” Just like Abraham, it is easy for us to have a low view of God’s standard of holiness and moral expectations and too high of a view of our holiness and morality. Causing an underdeveloped view of merit, and a subtly inaccurate but dangerous deserving mentality or, wrong view of justice. We forget, that after Adam sinned against a Holy God, any human enjoying life even in the least, has actually been living in the realm of mercy.
If Abraham thinks he started off demanding justice and then slowly moved towards pleading for mercy, for God, the whole conversation has always been about mercy.
We have a ray of questions that stem out of painful experiences in life, and no one shall minimize that, no one! In these questions we groan to the Lord with deep sorrow. Imagine the question a child has after seeing her mother abandon her and her father overdose on drugs as she is left scourging for food in the trash can, imagine the questions family members have when they see their beloved ones killed in a natural disaster, imagine the questions a woman has when she cannot bear children, imagine the questions a child has when he is bullied everyday and called nicknames names that stick until his adult life – and those are just examples I have taken out of my own personal story. Again let me repeat my self, if you are counseling or helping someone in a painful situation, don’t you dare minimize it. But in the same breath, I want you to hear God by your side, hurting with you, saying; “I know” “I know you don’t comprehend it, and maybe you wont until we meet in heaven. I know you are angry, I know you feel injustice, it is a broken world and you may not understand this fully, but this whole time, it has always been about mercy!” How can God say that? He has nor right, He doesn’t know how this feels! Yes He does, because He Himself has entered into this broken world and has experienced the darkest injustice of all.
Point #3: God’s Plan to Love in His Justice
The Gospel is written all over this passage. Look with me to verse 33, “And the Lord went his way, when He had finished speaking to Abraham.” Some of us may wonder why did Abraham stop at 10 people, why didn’t he push to, say, 1 person? There are so many explanations to this, but the all agree of at least this point, it isn’t Abraham who decided to stop at 10, it is God who left the conversation. This is a literary technique often used to get a point across, where the opening and the closing of the passage sandwiches the rest of the passage. God is the one who stayed and stood before Abraham awaiting his appeal, and God is also the one who ended the conversation by leaving Abraham at 10 people. Why? Doesn’t God want to save the people of Sodom? Why didn’t God entertain the idea of there being 1 righteous person? Oh, but He did.
There was one righteous person who died not only to save a city, but all of God’s people. There was one righteous high priest who interceded not only for the wicked with words, but with His own blood. There was one who did not only plead for God’s justice and mercy, but who in His death satisfied both God’s justice and mercy. See, this is the nature of justice, a wrong must be paid for, either the offender or the offended pays for it. If I borrow your car, wreck it, and you forgive me, it’s true that in that scenario I don’t have to pay for the wrong, but you would pay. Either you fix the car with your own money, buy another car with your own money, or go without a car. Either way someone pays.
God left His dialogue with Abraham leaving a tension He then answers generations later as God Himself hung on the cross, naked, beaten, spat on, tortured, humiliated. On that cross He said, “I will pay.” On that cross He answers: “For the sake of one righteous person I will not destroy it.” As we wrestle with God about the injustice we feel in this broken world, the pains and hurts caused by sin, in the midst of our confusion look also unto the God of the universe who was falsely accused, wrongly judged, unfairly humiliated, and unlawfully crucified, where He received the full wrath of God that we justly deserve. I hope that as we wrestle with the pains caused by injustices in this world, we may look upon Him who suffered with u. I hope that it will draw you to receive His righteousness through His death for us on the cross; the place where God’s mercy and justice meets. Why didn’t God wait until Abraham asked for 1 righteous man? Because He wanted to answer that question by sending His own Son, the one righteous man who came and saved wicked people like us. Jesus is that one righteous man.
On that cross He answers: “For the sake of one righteous person I will not destroy it.”
Here is what I am not saying: I am not saying that because Jesus died an unjust death on the cross we should feel less pain about the injustices in our lives. I am not saying that since in our sin we truly deserve God’s wrath we should be numb to any kind of suffering we experience. Here is what I am saying; as we hurt in our pains, know that our God, our high priest, justice Himself came down and willingly suffered the most unjust act known in history for our salvation.
I know of a city called Jerusalem, a city that in the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel was called worse than Sodom. But I also know of an intercessor, the one righteous man who died for the people in that city. For Jesus’ sake, the wicked people in that city (Christians) are saved, for the sake of those people this righteous man gave His life. I know, this answer does not completely satisfy you, nor should it. For there are groaning’s in this world to deep for words and as Paul said in Romans, will never be satisfied until the day we see Jesus face to face. I can’t preach a sermon that will cancel some pains you’ve had in your life, no one can. But I can direct you to the one righteous man, who unjustly suffered for you in order to love you in God’s justice. And if you rest your salvation on this one righteous man, when you see Him face to face in the New Jerusalem, in the New Earth, I promise you then, you will understand that your story has always been about mercy. You will understand how He has loved you in His justice, and your tears will be no more.