The destruction of Sodom

Genesis 18:16-19:29

8 March 2009

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning service


In the P.G.Wodehouse novel that I've just been reading the following scene occurs.

Bertie Wooster and Reginald (Kipper) Herring are in the drawing room. Suddenly Bobbie Wickham, formerly engaged to Kipper but now dis-engaged, enters the room. This is how Bertie describes her entry,

Then her eye fell on Kipper and she stiffened in every limb, rather like Lot's wife, who, as you probably know, did the wrong thing that time there was all that unpleasantness with the cities of the plain and got turned into a pillar of salt, though what was the thought behind this I've never been able to understand. Salt, I mean. Seems so bizarre somehow and not at all what you would expect.

Well, we'll be coming to Lot's wife later, but first we need to deal with "all that unpleasantness with the cities of the plain" . What a quintessentially English way to refer to the destruction of a civilisation. But we mustn't hide behind euphemisms this morning. What this story forces us to consider is the judgement of God.

Over the course of the last few weeks, as we've been working through the life of Abraham, we've seen how his understanding of God has been growing. God has brought Abraham into relationship with him, and slowly — very slowly at times — Abraham has been learning what sort of God he has got involved with.

And we need to learn that too. Every one of us should be striving to know our God better and better.

Abraham could only know God because God chose to reveal himself to him. We see that in verse 17 at the beginning of our reading. God says, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?ref God could have hidden his thinking from Abraham, but he chooses instead to reveal himself, because he has brought Abraham into relationship.

We all have pre-conceived ideas of what God ought to be like, or what we want him to be like. But the only way we can truly know him is as he reveals himself to us. Only in the Bible do we find out what he is actually like.

Here we find Abraham's knowledge of God taking a big step forward. And perhaps our own knowledge of God will grow as well.

What kind of God would destroy these cities?

So God tells Abraham that he is about to judge Sodom and Gomorrah. And Abraham's big question is found in verse 15: Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?ref.

Abraham has learned that God is judge. And he's learned that God's domain of authority is the whole earth: he is no little, local deity. But what kind of judge is he?

To Abraham's alarm it's beginning to look like God is entirely the wrong sort of judge: the sort of judge who does not discriminate between the guilty and the innocent, the wicked and the righteous. And what's the good of a judge like that?

Will God turn out to be capricious and tyrannical: unpredictably and irrationally meting out destruction on those under his power, like some cosmic concentration camp guard? Or is he a corrupt judge, handing down judgements to suit his own ends? Or is he simply incompetent, unable to distinguish between those who deserve to be punished and those who don't?

These are Abraham's concerns as he pleads with God: 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 of all the earth do right?ref

This is Abraham's plea, What kind of God would destroy these cities? What kind of God would do this?

We find the answer as the story unfolds. And the answer we find is that the God who destroys Sodom is fair, he is just and he is merciful.

God is a Fair Judge (18:16-33)

In verses 16 to 33 of chapter 18, we find that God is a fair judge. He is not capricious, he is not corrupt, he is not incompetent.

God is at pains to make this point. First, he chooses to reveal his thinking to Abraham. If he'd simply smited the cities without a word, he would have been open to the charge of capriciousness, but God is careful to explain to Abraham his thinking. Verse 20, The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievousref he explains.

Second he goes down to investigate, verse 21. Obviously the omniscient God does not need to go down and investigate! But the point is that he wants to be seen by Abraham to be doing the right thing. A fair judge weighs the evidence.

Third, he enters into dialogue with Abraham. A fair judge is answerable for his judgements, and, in an extraordinary scene, God discusses the impending judgement with Abraham. Effectively, he says to Abraham: you're so sure you know what is just, you dictate the terms on which I should judge the city.

But even on Abraham's terms the city fails the judgement.

God is a Just Judge (19:1-13)

Not only is God fair, he is also just.

We see that in chapter 19, verses 1 to 13. I'm not going to dwell on the sin of Sodom since we covered it to some extent a few weeks ago when David Stillman was preaching on the life of Lot.

Suffice it to say that the wickedness of Sodom had become so great that it would have been unjust of God not to judge it. We are going to destroy this place conclude the messengers in verse 13. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.ref

It is as wrong to acquit the guilty as it is to condemn the innocent. God is a just judge. He must destroy the wicked.

And he does destroy the wicked. We are left in no doubt that it is God who has done this, and the destruction is complete. Verse 24, Then the Lord rained down burning sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah — from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities — and also the vegetation in the land.ref

God is a Merciful Judge (19:14-29)

However, God is also a merciful judge. Although Lot and his family scarcely deserve it, God rescues them from the destruction.

God takes great care in protecting this tiny righteous remnant of the city. The men plead with Lot to leave, and as he hesitates they physically drag the family away. Verse 15, With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished. When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them.ref

But still Lot hesitates, so God postpones the destruction a little while longer, and spares a little town all to give Lot and his family a safe place to be.

For those who love and trust him, no matter how undeserving they are, God will do everything necessary to spare them from judgement.

So we see how this story works to show Abraham what kind of God he has fallen in with. In destroying the cities of the plain God acts fairly, he acts justly and he acts mercifully.

Abraham is bold to negotiate with God, but ultimately his prayer for Sodom was a failure: not even ten righteous people could be found. In the end only three escaped. I've often wondered why Abraham stopped at ten. Perhaps he was confident that with Lot and his family and sons-in-law and perhaps a few domestic servants ten would be enough to save the city. But in the end the point is made: Sodom fully deserved to be destroyed.

What kind of people deserve to be destroyed like this?

This brings me to the second question I want to ask. We've looked at the question, What kind of God would destroy these cities? Now I want to turn it around and ask the question, What kind of people deserve to be destroyed like this?

If all we derive from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is that God will destroy those who attempt homosexual gang rape, then we've missed the point.

To understand the full significance of what was happening "that time there was all that unpleasantness with the cities of the plain" , we need to look at how the rest of the Bible views it. What does the New Testament make of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Interestingly, in the New Testament, it is Jesus who speaks about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah more than anyone else. And it is very instructive to see what he says.

Please turn with me if you can to Luke chapter 17, verse 28 [page 1052]. Jesus is talking about his triumphant return to judge the world, and he says this: Luke 17 verse 28, It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulphur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed.ref

Jesus' point is that the destruction of Sodom is just a foretaste. There is a bigger judgement to come: a day when the whole world will be judged and destroyed. And Jesus claims that he himself is the judge who will destroy.

In Sodom, people were going about their business, Jesus says, when suddenly God rained down destruction on them. And he says it will be just like this for us. One day, the people of Woodley will be going about their business — popping down to the shops; driving to work; mowing the lawn; waiting at the school gate; watching television — when the destruction will begin. Jesus will return with fire and our houses and shops and offices and churches, and many, many lives, will all be destroyed.

The obliteration of Sodom is only a foretaste of the universal judgement to come.

But that doesn't quite answer our question. What kind of people deserve to be destroyed like this?

Jesus answers that question in Luke chapter 10. So please turn back a few pages to Luke chapter 10, verse 8 [page 1041]. Jesus is training the 72 disciples whom he was sending out to proclaim the kingdom of God.

When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, 'The kingdom of God is near you.' But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God is near.' I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.ref

Jesus says that, when he returns, there will be those who suffer a worse fate even than Sodom. Namely, those who reject his message.

Whatever the actual sins of Sodom, we can see that they are expressions of a deeper underlying sin: the rejection of God. And today, the majority of the world is deep in the same sin. Most of the world has rejected God; for most of the world, Jesus' return will be more unbearable than the destruction of Sodom.

What kind of people deserve to be destroyed in this way? Those who have rejected God. Those who have rejected Jesus. Those who have rejected his message. Because, in doing so, they have pushed away the one thing that could save them. They have refused to take the one medicine that could make them well.

You see, God's judgement is always deserved. The Bible is crystal clear that every one of our hearts is bad. Every one of us deserves this judgement from God. Our very best good deeds are just filthy rags in the blinding white heat of his holiness. We deserve to be destroyed every bit as much as the people of Sodom.

God's judgement is always deserved. But God's mercy is never deserved.

For those who love and trust him, no matter how undeserving they are, God will do everything necessary to spare them from judgement. Even to the extent of dying as a man a horrible death on a Roman cross.

When we obey God's command to flee the judgement to come, that's where we need to go: to the cross. That's where we find God's mercy at work. That's where we find him taking bearing the punishment in our place. There is nowhere else to flee to.

What kind of people deserve to be destroyed like this? Answer: every one of us. It's just that some of us know where to run to in order to find safety.

Whom will we identify with?

The question I want to finish with is, which character in the story will we identify with this morning?

Lot's sons-in-law

There are probably some here this morning who on hearing all this talk about judgement to come will choose to be like Lot's sons-in-law. Lot said to them Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city! But his sons-in-law thought he was joking.ref They were given a chance to escape, but they dismissed it as a joke and were destroyed with the rest.

You may be thinking: all this talk about judgement is so old-fashioned, so primitive. I don't believe there is a God who will hold anyone accountable. Or, I believe in a god who is love, not a God who judges.

If this is where you are at — dismissive of the judgement — then I want to urge you to read the Bible to find out what God is really like.

When a grizzly bear is about to attack you, there's no point saying, "I thought bears were cute and cuddly. My teddy bear wouldn't hurt a soul!" Do you have a teddy-bear god: cuddly, clawless and a great comfort in distress? It pays to do your research: get to know the Judge of all the earth before you have to face him.

Lot's wife

Or, perhaps, like Lot's wife, you've started out on the journey, but you are in danger of turning back.

We often think of Lot's wife as being punished for just glancing back at Sodom, her former home. But a closer look suggests that she more likely actually turned round and went back to the city. That's why she was turned to salt, like the rest of the inhabitants, as the fire and sulphur rained down on it.

Lot's wife was too attached to what she'd left behind to make a good escape. Her attachment to the world blinded her to the coming judgement.

In the excellent 1995 movie Heat there is a piece of advice which could have been written for Christians. (For current purposes, we'll overlook the fact that in the movie it was about how to survive life as a master criminal.)

The Robert De Niro character summarises a big theme of the movie as follows, "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." If only Lot's wife had thought like this. If only you and I thought like this!

In the judgement all this will be gone. Don't get more attached to anything in this world that you are to God.

Lot himself

Or will you be like Lot: prepared, however reluctantly, to escape?

Will you put your trust in God to save you? Will you say to God, "Lord, I know that all I deserve from you is condemnation. I desperately need your forgiveness; I need your help. Please by my God, my life is yours" ?

If we will come to God on these terms, he will save us. Not because we deserve it, but because of his mercy in giving Jesus to die for us on the cross.

If you want to escape the judgement, please don't delay. You can come to God today. Don't leave it too late, as Lot very nearly did.

When the terrible fires in Australia were burning a few weeks ago, the official advice was for residents either to evacuate early or to stay and defend their homes. Sadly, many people left it too late: as they fled in their cars the flames overtook them and they burned to death.

I wouldn't advise you to stay and defend yourself against Judge of all the earth. As Lot fled to Zoar, will you flee to the cross of Jesus Christ? Please don't leave it too late; you can do it today.


Finally, will you be like Abraham? Will you pray for Woodley?

In the last verse of our reading we find a great encouragement. In chapter 19 verse 29 we read, So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had livedref.

God remembered Abraham! To Abraham, perhaps it felt like his prayer had been a failure: despite his bargaining, Sodom was destroyed. But in the end Abraham's prayer was effective; because of him some lives were saved.

So, will you pray for Woodley? Will you pray in the evening, in the morning and in the middle of the day that God would save some from Woodley?