Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 7/29/07

Have you ever bargained with God?  It’s not uncommon actually, not an uncommon form of prayer.  It would go something like this; “Lord, if you’ll just get me through…whatever crisis it is you happen to be going through, then I’ll…worship and praise you, be in church every Sunday for the rest of my life, I’ll tithe, serve on the council, teach Sunday school, whatever you need Lord, I’m yours…if…you’ll get me out of this one.”

It’s a classic, time honored form of prayer; some of the Psalms even do this kind of bargaining, Psalm 35 being a classic example.  It’s a psalm of complaint where the psalmist calls for God to bring down wrath on his enemies with statements like, “Let ruin come on them unawares.  And let the net they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it—to their ruin.  Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his deliverance.  All my bones shall say, “O Lord, who is like you?”  It goes on…bargaining with God…if you’ll do my bidding, then I’ll do yours.      

That’s Martin Luther’s story actually; July 2, 1505, caught in a thunderstorm, hurled to the ground by lightning, scared to death, in terror he cried, “Help, St. Anne, I will become a monk.”  He survived, and afraid of what would happen if he broke a promise to God, he became a monk and the rest is history.  In fact, if it wasn’t for his bargain with God, who knows, maybe we’d all be Catholic.  Most people though aren’t as afraid as Luther was to break a promise to God; they might keep their end of the bargain for awhile, but then they start to think, “Maybe it wasn’t God.  Maybe it was dumb luck or, better still, maybe it was my own resourcefulness.”

In today’s first lesson from Genesis, Abraham bargains with God, but it’s a different kind of bargaining that he does.   This is part of the Sodom and Gomorrah story and I should preface it by saying that it’s not clear what the sin of Sodom is.  Tradition makes the sin homosexual behavior but the Bible itself isn’t clear or consistent about this.  The sin of Sodom is referred to in several other places in the Bible but it means different things in different places.  It’s mentioned a couple of times in Isaiah and there the sin has to do with injustice; in Jeremiah it refers to a whole host of irresponsible acts; in Ezekiel the sin is pride, an excess of food, prosperous ease and an indifference to the needy.  So rather than worry about the specifics of what was wrong in Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps it’s best just to say that their sin had to do with the general disorder of a society organized against the commands and will of God.  That also makes it a little harder to let ourselves off the hook as we hear this story.

Anyway, whatever the sin was, it seems that the Lord had had it with these communities and was intent on their destruction…unless someone or something could convince him otherwise.  Enter Abraham to begin the bargaining; except that while there is an if/then component to his bargaining,   it’s more a case of Abraham trying to convince God to be the God that Abraham and his people are sure that he is; that is a God different from all the other competitors. 

In many ways ancient Israel had adopted the prevailing theology of the ancient Near East, what’s called retributive theology where the system is pretty simplistic and closed, where good people prosper and evil people suffer, the good are rewarded by God, the bad receive appropriate punishment.  That was the prevailing theology and there is much in the Old Testament that reflects it.  I think it’s also true that despite the fact that every one of us can think of countless examples where this theology falls apart, we all probably still hang on to it to some degree today.  According to that understanding though, Sodom and Gomorrah were sinful and God had every right to destroy them, they deserved it.  Here’s your crime…here’s your punishment; case closed.

But Abraham wasn’t willing to leave it at that.  He knows this God to be different.  He knows the God whose steadfast love endures forever, the God who will not abandon the works of his hands as it says in today’s psalm.  Abraham dares to suggest to God that the God he knows is not bound by this eye for an eye retributive theology because he’s not like all those other gods. 

In essence, what Abraham tells the Lord is that if he follows through on his desire to destroy these communities it really amounts to an affront to his own holiness; such practice is not worthy of this God as Abraham knows him.  So he bargains, reminding God that if he does this, innocent people will die.  Shouldn’t God be more concerned about caring for the righteous than he is about punishing the wicked?  So he bargains with God, ending with, “Suppose ten righteous are there; will you still destroy the city?’  And God says, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

If you keep reading on into chapter 19 you find that in rather dramatic fashion the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were utterly destroyed, Lot and his family were allowed to escape except Lot’s wife who was turned into a pillar of salt because after being told not to, she looked back to watch the destruction.  Despite Abraham’s bargaining with God, the cities were still destroyed. 

Do we conclude then that there weren’t even ten righteous people in Sodom?  Possibly; but I think it more likely that this bargaining passage exists as something of a minority report in the middle of this story.  You could take these verses out and the Sodom and Gomorrah story would read quite well as a majority report of that retributive, closed theology where you get what you deserve. 

But I think one of the fascinating things about the Old Testament is that when a book like Genesis was put together in the form that we know it, it wasn’t edited so that it presented a consistent majority report.  Other voices are allowed their say, often side by side with more dominant voices, and that creates tension by raising questions about what may seem to be settled answers.  In this case the question is, “Are things as closed as much of the Old Testament make it sound, as closed as the end of the Sodom and Gomorrah story make it sound, or might this God not be bound by such a closed arrangement?”  The presence of these minority voices results in the idea of grace and a gracious God being introduced, the idea that God isn’t just up there keeping score, good deeds on this side, bad deeds on the other side, waiting to see which way the balance will tip.

Keep in mind though that in this story the minority report doesn’t win out as we might like it to; despite Abraham’s bargaining, Sodom and Gomorrah do get wiped out because of their sin, but the question of an alternative has been raised and I think that’s what’s most interesting; that voice is allowed its say, it’s allowed to raise its questions. 

Of course from our perspective as Christians we look at things differently; minority report and majority report are flipped around.  For us the story of a gracious God revealed in Jesus is our majority report so our minority reports are the alternatives that conflict with grace, alternatives where God is seen as harsh and judgmental and they bother us which is why some people have trouble with what they see as the wrathful God of the Old Testament.  It’s not quite that simple though, the tension is always there between grace and judgment, tension between what Luther called law and gospel.  Whatever part of the Bible you look at, you deal with the tension, you live with the tension from one side or the other.

As far as bargaining with God goes, I tend to think that God isn’t terribly interested in our if/then bargaining.  I think though that there is more biblical evidence of God responding to the kind of bargaining Abraham did, “reminders” for lack of a better word, reminders of the kind of God we believe him to be.  In Abraham’s bargaining, that’s really what he was doing and in many ways, when we pray the Lord’s prayer, the prayer Jesus taught us, that’s what we’re doing; we’re just asking God, reminding God to do those things we expect him to do; provide for us, forgive us, deliver us.  This is what we believe to be God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

We can approach God with this prayer, calling him Father because that’s the kind of relationship into which we have been invited.  We respond to God then, in obedience, not because we’re trying to keep our part of a bargain we’ve made, but because in baptism we’ve been invited into, made part of this divine relationship.  That’s a bargain.  To quote the words of the old rock band The Who, “I call that a bargain, the best I ever had.” 


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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