Sermon - 23rd July 2017
Dialogue with God
Scripture - Genesis 18:16-33
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Over the past few weeks, we have read and learnt a lot about Abraham, the great ancestor of the major faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He was a man whose life was filled with waiting for the fulfilment of God’s promises. He learnt patience, waiting a life-time for a child; and he learnt trust and obedience, even to the point of giving up his precious son; and we have explored the parallels between Abraham and Jesus’ mission.
The account of Abraham in Genesis is interrupted just after Abraham welcomes the three visitors to his home, when Isaac’s birth is foretold, with the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The ancient towns of Sodom and Gomorrah and their destruction are infamous in history, and their names are, even today, a byword for immorality. For LGBT people, one verse in reference to the behaviour of some men in the town of Sodom has been used as a weapon against us for centuries. Sadly, the fundamentalists choose to ignore two key verses in the Old Testament Prophet, Ezekiel: “[Sodom and Gomorrah] were proud because they had plenty to eat and lived in peace and quiet, but they did not take care of the poor and the underprivileged. They were proud and stubborn… so I destroyed them” (Ezekiel 16:49-50)
Often overshadowed by the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a beautiful passage in which Abraham prays for the towns. It is the first recorded prayer in the Bible. Our reading today is this passage from Genesis chapter 18; however, we will be hearing it in a different form, from a European film entitled “Abraham”, the lead role played by Richard Harris, perhaps better known as Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter!
What is prayer? Prayer is talking with God. Is this episode in Abraham’s life a prayer? Well, Abraham talks with God; he asks God questions; he expresses his concern for others to God. Abraham begins: “Are you really going to destroy the innocent with the guilty?” Now, that is a big prayer!
Many of us learnt to pray when we were children, maybe taught by others in our families, at church or school. If prayer is so powerful, why do so many stop praying, stop coming to church, stop believing?
Maybe you have had the experience of visiting Santa or writing a letter to Santa as a child, or maybe you have done these with your own children or relatives. In some ways, this is similar to prayer, asking a “higher being” for the desires of our hearts.
As children grow, they out-grow the belief in Santa: their understanding of the world changes. In similar ways, the same happens in the faith journeys of many: their prayer life never matures. Last week, Philip preached on Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the Seeds. We can also apply this parable to prayer lives: the plants in the rocky soil which whither quickly.
Looking back at Abraham’s prayer with God, it was very different in nature. Firstly, Abraham and God have a relationship: each knows and loves the other; each knows and respects the other. Secondly, the prayer is a dialogue, each contributing a part; each of the speaks; each of them listens. Thirdly, the subject of the prayer is born out of love and compassion for others.
For those whose prayer-lives are stuck in “Santa mode”, offering a list of wishes up to mystical someone without any relationship, and never entering into dialogue, it is little wonder that faith is lost. No friendship or intimate relationship could survive without effective dialogue.
Let us consider the dialogue between God and Abraham: Abraham is horrified at the prospect of the destruction of Sodom. After all, it is where his nephew, Lot, and his family live. When we think of cities today, we think of populations in their hundreds of thousands of even millions: in ancient times, hundreds or a few thousand would have been a city, so 50 people would have been a significant number.
Abraham’s understanding of God is challenged. Rather than walking away from God, as we have read in other accounts of Abraham, he is not slow to speak up, even to God! In verse 25, we read: “Surely you won't kill the innocent with the guilty. That's impossible! You can't do that. If you did, the innocent would be punished along with the guilty. That is impossible. The judge of all the earth has to act justly.”
The dialogue then begins between God and Abraham; however, we should note that Abraham is mindful of his position before God: he remains respectful, remembering that he is not God’s equal: he is the created, not the Creator.
This prayer of Abraham has parallels with Jesus’ mission: as Abraham prayed for Lot and the people of Sodom; Jesus prayed for us. And we, as the people of God, the church, should pray for those in need.
They may be things in our lives or in our world which trouble us. Maybe we have told God about them in prayer, but have we tried to enter into a dialogue with God about them?
In Abraham’s account, he seems to hear an audible voice: that is how the writers of Genesis recorded it; however, throughout Scripture and history, the authentic voice of God is perceived in silence.
In a moment, we are going to sing a hymn, after which we will have an extended period of silence for prayer, during which we invite you to seek to enter into a dialogue with God about something that is on your heart.
Let us speak to God, and give God space to answer. Amen.