26 Jul Sunday, July 26, 2020: Live Worship on You Tube
As the story of Abraham unfolds in the book of Genesis, we see all sorts of major overlapping themes. One theme that recurs in this morning’s text has to do with families. Think about your family. Not just the people you live with or your family of origin but also your extended family—grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces, etc. Family life can be complex, full of different personalities, viewpoints, joys, and shared experiences. And if you’re like most people, you’ve got at least one family member who is a little challenging or odd.
In her book Irregular People, author Joyce Landorf writes about the person in your life “who really bugs you to death.” She’s not talking about the crazy driver who cuts you off or the clerk at the store who ignores you while talking on their cell phone. She says, “The irregular person I’m talking about is a person you are related to—like your parents, a brother, sister, cousin, uncle, aunt, or in-laws.”
Dale Galloway calls such irregular people “EGR” people—Extra Grace Required. Jenny Cudahy first introduced me to the concept of EGR more than a decade ago. At a previous church where she served as Director of Family Ministry, EGR became the code between the teachers of young children and the staff. When an EGR alert went out, it meant that a child was having a meltdown, and extra hands were urgently needed. I always thought that was wonderful way to identify children who would be helped by a little extra attention and loving care while their parents were in worship.
The extended family of Abraham and Sarah contains some irregular people for whom extra grace is required. At times, Abraham and Sarah were themselves the EGR ones, but in today’s story, we see that Lot is resurfacing as the irregular person in the extended tribe.
When Abram and Sarai left their hometown in Ur of the Chaldees, Abram’s nephew, Lot went with them. Sometime after embarking on this adventure together, their combined flocks were so huge that the herders of their livestock were fighting. As we saw in a previous sermon, Abram says, “Lot, we’re family; let’s not quarrel about this. Look at the land all around us. Choose any direction you want to go, and I will take my flocks in the opposite direction.” Abram graciously gives Lot first dibs. Lot sees that the Jordan River plain is watered, rich, and settled with cities, so he chooses that prime location for himself. Abram and Lot separate, and Lot goes to lives in the town of Sodom.
Things don’t go well for Lot in his new hometown. Four conquering kings join forces to raid Sodom, and in the process, take off with Lot and his belongings. Abram hears about it, takes 300 of his best-trained warriors, and rescues Lot. That story is in Genesis 14. Clearly Abraham loves Lot and feels a duty to protect him. They separate again, this time for a long time.
Sodom was famous for its depravity and disregard for human dignity. The people were arrogant, they had no compassion or concern for people in need, and they had no sense regarding appropriate sexual conduct. The prophet Ezekiel sums it up this way: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me” (16:49-50a).
Lot rose to a position of prominence in Sodom, sort of like being the mayor or having a seat on the town council. His own actions can at times best be described as disgusting and despicable. Yet, the story of Genesis is not a contrast between the purity of Abraham and the sin of Lot because as we have seen, both men fall short of faithfulness and obedience many times—just as we all do. Just as God repeatedly showed grace and mercy to Abraham, so Abraham showed grace and mercy to his nephew—which leads to one of the most fascinating conversations in scripture, a conversation between Abraham and God.
God says, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!” Upon hearing God’s plan to destroy the perverse cities, Abraham approaches God and says, “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? Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the bargaining begins. What about forty-five, God? How about forty? Thirty? Surely for twenty? Say just ten? Until the Lord says, “For the sake of ten [righteous people] I will not destroy [the city.]” But, of course, we know what happens. Not even ten righteous men and women can be found in Sodom to save the city from destruction.
Still, even when God comes to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, “God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow” (19:29). Notice that Lot is saved, not because he is good but because Abraham intercedes for him. Abraham asks for the same mercy for Lot that Abraham himself had received from God.
This story calls to mind a story Jesus tells that is recorded in Luke 15. We often call it the story of the Prodigal Son which is the tale of a young man who demands his inheritance from his father, then abandons his dad and brother to go live it up in the “far country” where he squanders his money until he is reduced to feeding pigs, who are eating better than he is. When the son finally comes to his senses, he starts the long road home, ready to beg his father for a chance to be treated like a servant in the home he had abandoned.
Luke tells us, however, that “while [the young man] was still a long way off, his father saw him…” (15:20). There is only one way his dad could have seen him from afar and that is if the father is watching for him. Watching and waiting, and watching and waiting, and watching and watching and watching some more. As his son approaches, the most dominant characteristic of the landscape are the huge, joy-filled eyes of the father, looking, longing, and loving the son of his heart.
We all find ourselves at times in the “far country.” Abraham, like the irregular, EGR prodigal son experienced it when he tried to substitute his wife for his own safety by passing her off as his sister to Pharaoh. He tried to substitute Hagar for Sarah as the mother of his children. Yet always the huge loving eyes of God were looking, longing, loving this son of God’s heart. Time and again, God comes to Abraham after he falls and picks him up.
Just as God treated Abraham by looking and longing for him, so Abraham treats Lot in the same way. It is a beautiful picture of how we can relate to the irregular people in our own lives. God had said, “Abram, I will bless you so that you will be a blessing.” Abram passes the blessing to his irregular, EGR nephew, Lot—Lot who chose the best land for himself and chose to live in a town famous for its audacious, wicked appetites. Yet it was Abraham who gave Lot the choice of the best land, Abraham who rescued him, Abraham who intercedes for him when Sodom is about to be destroyed. None of these blessings were because Lot deserved them. Abraham had received grace—which he also didn’t deserve—and with the same generosity of heart, he passed it on.
One of the most poignant things that is said about Abraham in scripture is that he is called, “a friend of God.” What’s remarkable about that designation is that it is not Abraham who makes that statement but God. Isaiah records God saying, “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend” (41:8). We see it again in Jehoshaphat’s prayer: “Did you not, O God drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of your friend Abraham?” (2 Chronicles 20:7). In the New Testament James says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called the friend of God” (2:23).
Friendship with God is something Jesus talked about as well. In the Upper Room at the Last Supper, Jesus said to his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). Jesus calls you, who embrace and trust and follow him, his friend. This is not us singing “What a friend we have in Jesus” but rather it is Jesus saying, “What a friend I have in you.”
What kind of a friend are you? What kind of a friend to Jesus are you? Think about what makes for a great friendship. The freedom to talk any time, about anything. The freedom to be together without talking at all. It’s showing up in your friend’s life when the chips are down, or they’ve run into hard times. It’s extending mercy to your friend when he or she is in an “EGR” place.
A great friendship is built on more than a feeling. As we’ve moved through the story of Abraham and Sarah, there has been a pattern of behavior that tells us something important about Abraham’s friendship with God. After Abram and Sarai start out on their journey, following God’s call to leave their home, we read in Genesis 12:7 that Abram built an altar to the Lord. After some more travel, Abram builds another altar and dedicates it to God. In chapter 13 we find Abram returning to one of the altars he has built and invoking God’s name. After still more travel, he builds yet another altar. In other words, Abraham made it a point to spend time with God.
I can’t help but think that for all the rollercoaster ups and downs of Abraham’s story, for all the mistakes he made, being a friend of God, having a dynamic, living, genuine relationship with the Lord who loved him was what grounded Abraham in the hard times, in the times when he had blown it and needed mercy, in the times he doubted and struggled and wondered how God could possibly make good on what seemed like some pretty outlandish promises. It was his friendship with God, trusting that God loved him, that enabled his faith to grow and mature through the years. If that was true for Abraham, is it really any different for us?
Thanks be to God. Amen.