Sermon - 7th January 2018
God's long-term plan
Scripture - Genesis 19:1-8, 30-38
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
As LGBT Christians, we have found our way to this church where we proclaim God’s unconditional love for all; but, most of us will have had the experience of church elsewhere, and for many of us, that experience will not have a been pleasant one because of who we are. Even if it has not been our direct experience, we will be aware of how some so-called Christians and certain churches use the Bible as a blunt weapon to condemn us.
In the coming weeks, we will have an occasional series of sermons which will look at some Biblical texts: some, like the accounts of David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, which can offer comfort and inspiration; others, which can be misused, taken out of context and will have caused many of us pain, and we will seek to look at them afresh.
This week, we are going to look at the account of the destruction of the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, which can be found in Genesis. The town’s very name is the origin of the word “sodomy”, a word to describe a gay sex act which remained a criminal offence in the UK until 50 years ago!
We can make three mistakes when looking at the account of Sodom: firstly, using it as a blunt weapon to condemn homosexuality outright; secondly, to dismiss the account as a now meaningless myth which has no value for the 21st century; thirdly, to take the account out of the larger context of the whole Bible narrative.
Before we hear read to us the account of the final night of Sodom, a warning that our readings today are not easy, not comfortable…
<Reading: Genesis 19:1-8>
I would like to lead you through this Old Testament story, showing you the small pictures, towards a glimpse of the larger picture through which God was able to work out His purpose in His long-term plan.
Lot was Abraham’s nephew. Initially, they travelled together and settled in Canaan, part of modern-day Israel. Later, Lot went to live near and then in the city of Sodom. As we heard, one day, two angels came to warn Lot of the city’s imminent destruction.
Because of the misuse of this Biblical text, many of us will be familiar with the part where a local mob wanted to have sex with the two male visitors. But in answer to those so-called Christians who misuse this text to hurt us, we have two very simple replies:
The account is not about same-sex love or relationships. The men of Sodom intended rape. Lot refused the demands which would have betrayed the hospitality he offered the visitors.
The rest of the Bible does not support the interpretation that the account of Sodom is a condemnation of homosexuality. The prophet Ezekiel (16:29-30) says this: “[Sodom] and her daughters 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 and did the things that I hate, so I destroyed them, as you well know.”
Jesus is also recorded three times mentioning Sodom (Matthew 10, 11 and Luke 17), and each time, He compares Sodom with the places where God’s word is rejected. We must also not forget that the Jesus of the Gospels is silent on same-sex relationships, and there are passages which contain implicit affirmations, like the story of the Roman centurion and his ‘servant’.
For the remainder of the sermon, I want to change perspective, away from the larger topic of Sodom and homosexuality, because, this passage in the Bible has nothing to do with same-sex love or relationships. I would like us to focus on the dynamics within Lot’s family, comprising him, his wife and his two (unnamed) daughters. From a part of the passage we have not read, we know the daughters are of marriageable age, as their husbands-to-be refuse to leave with the family.
In our first reading, you will most probably have been alarmed by the last verse, where Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the rampant mob.
This passage is a very dark and difficult part of the Bible. In addition to having the passage read to us, let us look at how this account has been portrayed through other media, to help us engage with the emotions in the story.
Firstly, an artist’s representation: we see the cities burning in the background, and Lot’s wife as a pillar of salt, and a very homely looking scene with Lot and his daughters drinking wine around what seems to be a table with a table cloth! To me, it seems a very sanitised, unreal view.
Secondly, I would like to show you a film clip. In the 1990s, the TV broadcasters of Europe made a series of 13 films in English entitled “The Bible”, the second of which, “Abraham” (played by the late Richard Harris), includes Lot’s story and the flight from Sodom. Watching this, you may get a more real sense of the terror which Lot and his daughters felt before and once they reached the cave.
I said this passage in the Bible is very dark and difficult, and it is about to get darker…
<Reading: Genesis 19:30-38>
When preparing this sermon, I found myself asking many questions, but I want to focus on four:
Why would a father offer his daughters to a mob for sex?
Jewish rabbinical scholars throughout history see God’s reason for destroying Sodom not because of the homosexuality – as is the case with many Christian scholars, for which we LGBT people have suffered and still are suffering – but God destroyed these cities because of their appalling hospitality. Lot, in this passage, and Abraham twice in other passages, used their family members in order to protect themselves.
The esteem in which women were held was very different to our modern concepts of equality: women – the wife and the daughters - were viewed as the man’s property. That notwithstanding, how would these young women have felt, when their own father, the man to whom they looked for protection, offered them to a rampant mob? Surely, they would have been terrified beyond our ability to express in words; and their respect for him would have been utterly destroyed.
So Lot has made some appalling choices: by being in Sodom, and by offering his daughters to the mob. It is a very broken family which flees the city.
Why were the daughters so convinced that they would not find another man, and so felt they had no choice but to seduce their own father?
Having had their father try to hand them over to a rampant mob, then flee their home city which was then destroyed cataclysmically, lose their mother (when she was turned into a pillar of salt), then be driven again from their temporary refuge in Zoar, it is clear that these two women were not in a good place for making rational decisions. Either they feared that there were literally no men left alive other than their own father, or they feared that because of the stigma of being cursed in being from Sodom no man would ever want them. The women were in a blind panic! It is to be noted that the passage does not at all pass any moral judgement on the women: it is a straightforward narration.
So, in a very broken family, in desperate physical circumstances, these two young women chose a horrifying course of action.
Why is this story in the Bible?
When we get to verses 37 and 38 in the passage, the naming of the children, some Bible scholars would say that this is a reason for this passage’s inclusion: it explains the origins of Israel’s greatest enemies – the tribes of the Moabites and the Ammonites.
Names are powerful things: today they identify us, and make us stand out in fame or infamy… Neil Armstrong, Adolf Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, William Shakespeare. And in Biblical times, names were often chosen by parents to convey meaning:
The boys were named Moab, meaning “of the father”, and Ben-Ammi, meaning “son of the people”. Their very names expose the sin through which they were conceived: their mothers seduced their own father. Some scholars would say that by highlighting this fact, it was a political weapon to help maintain the hatred which Israel had for these enemies.
So, out of the line of crazy decisions taken by both Lot and his daughters, two babies are born.
So, can this appalling story relate to us today? How does God make the best of this awful situation?
After this passage, we do not hear any more about Lot or his daughters.
Have you ever read the family histories of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, or did you just skip over that bit? If you did, you missed something. When we look at the ancestry of Jesus, we see: Ruth, a Moabite, is an ancestor of Jesus; King Solomon’s wife Na’amah was an Ammonite, another ancestor of Jesus. The children born out of the terrible events in the cave find redemption in the family tree of Jesus Himself!
So when we look once again at the bigger picture, God worked out His purpose: God had a long-term plan. Even though Lot and his daughters made terrible, crazy decisions, some good came of it, albeit not immediately. God was able to redeem - make good - this situation, which on first reading seemed utterly impossible.
Many of us will have had similar experiences, where our lives will have been torn apart in ways that will have brought us to the very end of our strength, but we are here today: we got through it. For many of us, that time in our life may have been connected with our sexual orientation or our gender identity, like those of you here today who fled your countries of birth to seek asylum here, because you are gay or lesbian.
We have been forced on a journey into the unknown, because, unlike Lot’s wife, we do not want to look back. The situation will have been desperate, and the decisions we have had to make may have seemed at times crazy, and it may have felt that we have had no real choice at all. However, maybe we can see the parallels with our own situation in this Bible passage regarding decision-making and God’s purpose.
Jesus, whose ancestry includes the two who were born out of the desperate situation in that cave, teaches us this in Matthew’s Gospel (6:31-34):
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the unbelievers run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
In the face of a desperate situation, God will work His purpose out.