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Prayer on the Edge

July 28, 2019
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our Old Testament reading, wherein Moses records, Then [Abraham] said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” [The Lord] answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

The calm before the storm. That’s the best way to describe our Old Testament pericope. Abraham and Sarah have just been visited by three holy guests as they were encamped near the oaks of Mamre. These three visitors tell Sarah that, one year hence, she will be pregnant, in spite of the fact that she is nearly a century old and has been barren all her life. Now the visitors have left, and Abraham’s gone along with them to see them on their way. As they are going, one of the visitors, who Moses refers to as YHWH, reveals to Abraham what He’s about to do, and it is not pleasant to hear. “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”

We can imagine Abraham’s eyes growing large as he hears what is about to transpire. He knows what the people of these cities are like, the delight they take in wickedness and evil and sin. He knows that they are more than deserving of any punishment that the Creator saw fit. Trouble is, he knows that his nephew, Lot, and his family are also down there, living amongst the wicked and perverse people … and that they are about to get caught up in the righteous cataclysm that YHWH was about to mete out. Things are made critical when two of the visitors continue on down the road, while Abraham and YHWH stop, presumably in sight of the cities about to be annihilated.

So what does Abraham do? He prays. I’ll grant you, it doesn’t quite sound like a prayer – truth be told, it sounds more like haggling that you would hear at a bazaar. Abraham begins by saying, “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?” Honestly, sounds a little brazen to be speaking with the Creator in such a manner. However, because of the covenantal relationship that YHWH established with Abraham, the patriarch has the right to question God, to bargain and to argue with Him. Thus it is perhaps unsurprising that YHWH replies, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

But Abraham knows these cities, their perversity, their immorality. Suppose, in the entirety of the metropolis’s population – some speculate in the tens, maybe hundreds of thousands -- not even 50 righteous people could be found? It certainly wasn’t outside the realm of possibility, so Abraham warily asks further if there are only 45 righteous that could be found, if YHWH would spare the cities. Again, YHWH tells him, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Abraham decides to go further, asking for the sake of 40 righteous … then thirty … then twenty … finally, he says, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” Only ten righteous. Two more than the eight souls whom YHWH saved from the great flood. Surely, God would not wipe away the wicked if a few more righteous were found there than were preserved through the deluge. And again, God says, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And they go their separate ways – Abraham back to his tent, and YHWH on to do what He intended.

Yup, that entire exchange was prayer. Granted, it didn’t sound like it, really. But make no mistake: this was prayer, spoken by Abraham as he stood face-to-face with YHWH in theophanic form. It was a prayer spoken upon the edge of destruction. It was a prayer that attempted to blanket the wicked with God’s mercy and grace for the sake of a very few righteous, who did not act as the wicked did. It was a prayer of lament, of intercession, of love.

Ultimately, God remains faithful to Abraham, in spite of there being only FOUR in the city who will heed His warning. He has the two visitors go to the house and rush the family out of the city before the metropolis is literally overturned. But here’s the kicker: those same individuals who are saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? They still act wickedly. Lot’s wife doesn’t even make it to safety with the others; she looks back at the destruction, despite the warning not to, and becomes a pillar of salt. Lot’s daughters get him drunk and sleep with him in order to have children and preserve the bloodline.

Did Lot and his family deserve to die in Sodom and Gomorrah, along with the rest of the wicked? Come to think of it, don’t we? Don’t we all deserve the worst hell imaginable? We do. Lot did. Abraham did. Sarah did. All of humanity, from the greatest to the least, deserves what the people of Sodom and Gomorrah got, and worse. None of us is righteous. We’re sinners, through and through. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Abraham prayed as he did, because he recognized his own wretchedness, and feared that the cataclysm would consume him, too. If our prayer was truly that God would spare the righteous from the wrath allotted to the wicked, none of us would be spared. There is not one who is righteous; no, not even one. We are all evil sinners, and we deserve a fate worse than Sodom.

And yet … Abraham interceded on Lot’s behalf. Because he had a covenantal relationship with YHWH, Abraham had the right to boldly beg God to spare his nephew. He interceded on his behalf, and because YHWH is faithful (even when we are wicked), He spared Lot, counting him as righteous for the sake of Abraham.

We also have One who intercedes on our behalf. He prays for us. Asks God the Father to spare us from the just punishment we rightly deserve. He’s both Abraham’s descendant and Abraham’s Lord. What we see in Abraham’s prayer of intercession is a prefiguring, a glimpse of what Jesus would do for all humanity nearly 2000 years later, and the results are the same. Our Intercessor intercedes for us, not because we are righteous, but because He alone is perfectly righteous! The difference is, where Abraham prayed and went back to his tent, Jesus prayed … and went to the cross. He marched directly into the line of fire. The destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim don’t hold a flame to the unadulterated, unrestrained wrath that God poured out upon Abraham’s descendant as He hung on the cross. And still … even as He was bleeding, dying, struggling just to breathe …Jesus manages to pray, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. His prayer is one of pure love – not for the righteous, but for the sinful who need Him. It’s a prayer for you and for me and for all humanity.

God was faithful to His covenant with Abraham, and He did spare Lot and his family, counting them as righteous. God is faithful to us, counting us as righteous for Jesus’s sake. We needn’t fear God’s wrath – we’ve been declared righteous by our great Intercessor!

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.