Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"FOR PEOPLE’S INSTRUCTION GOD EXPOSES THE ROOTS OF SODOM’S SINS."
Genesis 19:1-13; 24,25
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
The events in Bali a week ago have touched all Australians in a very painful way. We found September 11 a terrible thing, ugly and evil. But October 12 –though just as terrible, just as ugly, just as evil- happened to us. Bali is our back yard, the victims come from our own communities, the bereaved are people we meet in the shopping center or at work. Through that attack we learned that we are vulnerable, that our lifestyle is under attack. Quite understandably, the Prime Minister has declared this Sunday to be a day of mourning throughout Australia. And, in accordance with Art 66 of the Church Order, the churches are today also called to a Day of Prayer on account of this tragedy. Our hearts go out to the families and loved ones of the dead as well as to the victims. We have prayed and continue to pray that the Lord will comfort and strengthen in the face of adversity, yes, will work opening for the gospel and repentance in Australia.
For only with the word of the Lord God can any sense be made of the events of last Saturday night. God our Creator is righteous, also in His justice, and by His standards we all have offended against Him and therefore deserve His eternal anger. Because He was so touched by the misery of fallen, sinful man, the Lord God sent His only Son into the world – so that the wrath to which we provoke God through our sins might be poured out on Jesus Christ instead of on us who deserve it. So Christ on Calvary’s cross bore the weight of God’s eternal wrath and satisfied God’s justice – so that undeserving sinners might go free of the judgment we deserve. No condemnation for sinners: that is the glorious gospel of Holy Scripture!
Yet it’s not a gospel God gives indiscriminately to each and every person living on earth. It’s a gospel available for all, but the duty of each is to believe the gracious gift God prepared in Jesus Christ. And faith always reveals itself in trust, trusting God, trusting that whatever behavior God has said is good for us in fact is good (and therefore doing it), trusting that whatever behavior God has said is bad for us in fact is bad (and therefore making a determined effort not to do it). On those who believe in God, and so trust Him and therefore obey His commands, God’s love abides – and not even a bomb blast can tear such a one from God’s loving arms. But on those who refuse to believe in God’s forgiving grace in Jesus Christ, and who therefore do not trust Him and obey His commands, God’s wrath remains – both in this life and the life to come. We all are vulnerable, mortal –we learned it again last Saturday- and so it is so imperative that we all are right before God.
As usual, I had begun today’s sermon preparations early last Monday morning, intent on preparing a sermon on Ezekiel 16. As the magnitude of the disaster became more apparent, and the request came through to devote special attention to this calamity today, I felt uncomfortable to carry on with my intended program – and that was to lay before you the marvel of God’s undeserved mercy as portrayed in the closing verses of our chapter. The Lord willing, I will come back to that another time. Meanwhile, it seems to me that Ezekiel 16 still has so very much to say to us on this day of national mourning. For the words of our text form such a strikingly accurate description of today’s Australia. "Pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness": it is our land to a T as we’ve experienced it over the years. So, for that matter, is the reference in vs 50 to "committing abomination", and even the reference at the end of vs 50 to God’s punishment on Sodom seems somehow to fit in today’s Australia. Given that it’s so imperative that we believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so trust in God (a trust we display through obeying God’s commands), it is fitting that we on this day of mourning pay some attention to what God says in these pointed words of Ezekiel 16.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
FOR PEOPLE’S INSTRUCTION GOD EXPOSES THE ROOTS OF SODOM’S SINS.
1. The Description of Sodom’s sins.
Everybody knows about Sodom. In church and outside Sodom is well known as the place of homosexual licentiousness, the place that was judged and destroyed because of its promiscuity. Our culture also knows the phrase ‘fire and brimstone’; it’s understood to have something to do with judgment, even hell. The phrase comes from the Bible’s description of the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24). My point is: everybody knows about Sodom; the mention of the term prompts our minds to think immediately of promiscuity and judgment. And that’s very much in agreement with the picture of Genesis 19.
Precisely that reality, congregation, makes the formulation of our text so striking. The Lord speaks here about Sodom, even mentions her judgment at the end of vs 50, but describes her sins in ways so different than we usually do. He doesn’t speak of homosexuality or licentiousness; He speaks instead of "pride, and fullness of food, and abundance of idleness," speaks also of refusing to help the poor and of "committing abomination." We need to know why God doesn’t speak here of sexual perversion, why He mentions instead these qualities in relation to Sodom.
The first term the Lord uses concerning Sodom is ‘pride’. The Hebrew word translated here as ‘pride’ is used numerous times in Scripture of God Himself, and then it’s translated as ‘greatness’ or ‘majesty’. After Israel crossed the Red Sea through the path God made for His people, the people sang a song, and one line in this song says: "in the greatness of your excellence You have overthrown those who rose against You" (Ex 15:7). "Greatness": in Hebrew the same word is used as in our text – where it’s translated as ‘pride’. The psalmist says of God that "the Lord reigns, He is clothed with majesty" (Ps 93:1). ‘Majesty’: it’s again the same word. We understand: the term ‘greatness’ or ‘majesty’ very much characterizes God, and expresses that His God-ness, that He is over all.
Well now, in our text God uses this term in relation to Sodom. That is: God says of this city that it attributed to itself a characteristic that belonged to God! Specifically, the city put itself on top of the ladder and so would take instruction from no one; Sodom adopted for itself the attitude that they knew best themselves what sort of behavior was acceptable and good.
We recognize that in this sense the term very much describes the way the average Australian responds to God. Australia as a nation acts as if there is no Creator in heaven who can tell His creatures how to live, and so set standards of right and wrong. Though the Lord God says clearly in His Word that sex belongs in marriage (and not outside or before), Australian society condones adultery. Though the Lord says clearly in His Word that homosexuality is an abomination, Australian society takes no notice of God’s condemnation of that activity – witness the recent changes in West Australian law. Though the Lord says plainly in His Word that one may not kill, thousands of unborn children are killed in our country year by year. Yes, it is all evil and it is all sin, but the root, congregation, lies in a spirit of pride, of assuming there is no God over us, and so deciding for ourselves what is acceptable behavior….
The second term the Lord uses concerning Sodom is "fullness of food." The point of the phrase is drawn out for us through the conversation Abram had with Lot back in Gen 13. You will recall that there was strife between the herdsmen of Lot and those of Abram, and so Abram suggested to Lot that they part ways. Then we read this description of Sodom: "Lot lifted his eyes and saw all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere (…) like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt…," and so Lot decided to settle on those plains, in Sodom (Gen 13:10f). The area was like "the garden of the Lord"; that’s a reference to Paradise – such was its abundance, it’s luxury! "Fullness of food," prosperity: Sodom supplied the easy life and the comforts that come with abundance – Paradise on earth! What gracious blessings from the God on whom all creatures depend!
Again we recognize that the phrase "fullness of food" very aptly describes our land today. Not only do we have supermarkets with an abundance of food; we also have homes with abundance of luxuries – be it clothing for all weather conditions and activities, be it kitchen appliances, be it entertainment units, be it cars and caravans and boats. Fullness of food: the God who gives food to whom He wills gives so much material wealth to us Australians!
The third term the Lord mentions about Sodom is "abundance of idleness," or, as we can better translate the phrase, "prosperous ease" (ESV). The point is that there was not a cloud in the sky to give the people of Sodom any anxiety. They had peace and they had prosperity, and so could be unconcerned as they enjoyed the abundant food God gave. A good mix of work and leisure time, of sweat and beer, of seriousness and laughter…, a fun-loving and carefree way of life. So Australian….
After these three characteristics of Sodom –"pride, fullness of bread, prosperous ease"- the Lord mentions a fourth – and this one is not a positive. Says God at the end of vs 49: "she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy." With the words ‘poor and needy’ the Lord does not refer simply to those who had nothing, the down-and-outers of society. The term used here for ‘poor’ describes first of all the person suffering some kind of disability or distress, and that includes one who is socially in need of protection (TWOT). One may think here, then, of how one treats strangers, sojourners. I think of the two angels who came to Sodom one evening. The people of town did not take them in for the night; only Lot the newcomer did. But when night fell the people of Sodom surrounded Lot’s house with the demand to have those two men (Gen 19). That refusal to grant hospitality illustrates the attitude caught in the Lord’s words in our text: they did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. Instead of supporting and assisting those with any needs, they abused the vulnerable – and so demonstrated a radical lack of love for the neighbor and an equally radical infatuation with themselves and their own desires.
Therein they displayed, says the Lord at the beginning of vs 50, that they were "haughty". The point here is that they thought much of self, thought only of self, saw the other as there only for the sake of the self.
The last in the list God mentions is that the people of Sodom "committed abomination before Me," says God in vs 50. The ‘abomination’ referred to here is specifically their sexual sins, self-gratification at the expense of another.
At the end of vs 50 the Lord describes the consequence of Sodom’s iniquities: "Therefore I took them away as I saw fit." We know the details from Gen 19. The outcry of the city had grown great before the face of the Lord (vs 13), and so God "rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah" (vs 24), destroyed these cities from the face of the earth.
I began this point by asking attention for the way the Lord describes Sodom. Why, I asked, why did the Lord not come straight out and mention Sodom’s sin as we all know it to be, that sin of ‘committing abomination’, homosexuality? Why mention first her pride and her fullness of food and her prosperous ease and even her refusal to support the down-and-outers before mentioning her sexual immorality? The answer, congregation, is that Sodom’s abominations have their roots in her attitude so that the immorality is the ripe fruit of her pride. That’s our second point:
2. The Interconnectedness of Sodom’s sins.
"Fullness of food" is a rich blessing from God. In fact, the Lord promised precisely this to His people Israel when He mentioned what riches He would give on covenant obedience (Lev 26:5). The same is true for the "prosperous ease" God mentions in our text; it is a blessing God promised to Israel on covenant obedience (Lev 26:5c). Let no one begrudge the Sodomites their prosperity and their ease.
But the thing is that these people of Sodom had exalted themselves, had attributed to themselves the majesty and greatness that belongs to God, and so refused to submit to God’s instructions; they considered themselves on top of the ladder and so could set their own standards of right and wrong. If now you mix such an attitude with "fullness of food", what do you get? You get a love affair with material possessions. Material wealth, "fullness of food", is –I repeat- a blessing. But when God gives material wealth, the Lord wants people to use it as His property, for "the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof" (Ps 24:1). That means specifically: use it to build God’s kingdom, glorify His Name. But once people become proud, become a god to themselves so that one serves the self and sets his own rules for what is acceptable behavior, then the "fullness of food" God gives is abused. For that prosperity is used for self instead of for God, is used for own pleasure, own comfort, fulfilling own appetites. It is called materialism.
The same is true in relation to the ‘prosperous ease’ Sodom enjoyed. Prosperous ease in itself is a great blessing. Paul even tells Timothy that he is to pray "for kings and all who are in authority that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life" (1 Tim 2:1f), and that’s the life of ease mentioned in our text. But again, if your attitude is characterized by pride, by being god to yourself so that you make your own laws and look out for your own interest, you invariably abuse the ease and peace God gives – and use this peace and leisure not to build up God’s kingdom but to do your own thing. If God then also gives material prosperity, it follows logically that depraved people use the peace to enlarge their personal wealth and comfort and pleasures more and more.
Do you see, congregation, the interconnectedness between the three characteristics mentioned in vs 49? To the humble, those who place themselves under God, fullness of food and prosperous ease are delightful blessings – to be both enjoyed and directed to the upbuilding of God’s kingdom. But for the pride, those who see themselves as on top of the ladder, fullness of food and prosperous ease are a dangerous mix, a fertilizer to make the lust of pleasure inherent in every person grow more and more.
Precisely that is what has happened in the last years in our land. Submission to God there is not, there is instead pride, being gods to ourselves, setting our own rules for acceptable behavior. The Lord has given our land fullness of food and prosperous ease. The combination of the three –pride, material prosperity, and ease- has produced the culture as we see it in our land today where Australians have ample opportunity to live out their passions with one another, be it in embracing comfort and luxury, be it in traveling to exotic resorts, be it in sexual promiscuity. Northbridge, Kuta, King’s Cross: the evidence is there for the taking….
Now we need to take it a step further. Can this tree of self-love produce the self-denial necessary to show compassion to the poor and needy? Let us be honest. If I set myself up as god for myself so that I set the rules for what is acceptable behavior, and if I abuse God’s gifts of material prosperity and peace to build my own kingdom, to satisfy my own desires, then the poor and the needy are a nuisance, a bother I don’t want. So instead of helping them I ignore them, send them away.
And that fruit, tragically, is abundant in our land. Our fullness of food and prosperous ease makes our land the envy of millions around the world who themselves live in abject poverty, yes, have no future for themselves or their children. Yet our country is willing to accept only a few thousand refugees per year –and why so few?- because receiving too many refugees will lower our standard of living too much. Similarly, vulnerable children are killed by the thousands in our land because these unborn babies are unwanted, are a threat to the freedom and comforts of the mothers who carry them and the fathers responsible for them.
But ignoring the poor and needy is not the only fruit of this pride-mixed-with-prosperity-and-ease. That pride-mixed-with-prosperity-and-ease invariably leads also to all manner of sexual perversions. That’s logical: if your world is as big as yourself, and you use the material abundance God gives to satisfy your own desires, why should you suddenly deny yourself when it comes to sexual desires?! Satisfying your desires with each other is the ripe fruit of the pride that began the cycle.
But see now: the God whose greatness and majesty Sodom ignored, yes, claimed for itself, remained that great and majestic God. The Lord proved that reality by reaching dramatically into Sodom’s prosperous and licentious existence, and ending it suddenly. Vs 50: "Therefore I took them away as I saw fit." That’s a reference to the fire and brimstone that fell on the people of Sodom in the midst of their partying. Notice the Lord’s use of the word ‘therefore’. That is: God has placed a logical connection between giving oneself to blatant sin and attracting the judgment of God. Sodom tasted that connection. On what grounds will Australia escape?! In fact, over the generations our land has heard of God’s grace in Jesus Christ and rejected that gospel. Must it then not go worse with Australia than it did for Sodom? (cf Mt 11:23f). It is so imperative that our land repent of its pride – and therefore of its love with self that leads to neglect of the vulnerable and needy as well as to sexual immorality. People are not on top of the ladder, but God is. And God has given His Son to pay for sins, the sins of all those who believe in Him – irrespective of the nature of those sins! Pride, selfishness, neglecting the world’s poor, killing defenseless babies, licentious living: God forgives it all where there is faith in Jesus Christ. Let the horrors of last week drive us all to repentance before the God of justice!
So we find ourselves in our third point:
3. The Lesson of Sodom’s sins.
I have given ample attention to the words of vss 49 and 50, but have said yet nothing about the context in which they appear. The Lord willing, I will come back to that context next time in detail. Suffice it for now to say that Ezekiel must speak of these transgressions of Sodom and their interrelatedness to Israel’s exiles in Babylon - why?- so that Sodom might function as a mirror for the exiles in which they might see their own sins. For –as the chapter as a whole makes plain- these Israelites –though God’s people by covenant!- were guilty of the same sins because they tolerated the same initial attitude.
The same sins, I said. Are we to understand that Jerusalem committed the identical offences Sodom did? No, brothers and sisters, on the outside Jerusalem’s behavior was not near as repulsive as Sodom’s was, if only because we read nowhere in Scripture that the men of Jerusalem demanded the strangers that came for the night that they might engage them in homosexual activity (Gen 19:5). But the Lord says in vs 52 that Jerusalem’s sins were worse, and that, congregation, is because the root of Sodom’s sin was found also in Jerusalem even though Jerusalem had received the riches of the gospel! And that root was their pride, their setting themselves up as gods for themselves and so making their own rules for what was acceptable behavior. So they used their prosperity and their ease to serve other gods – instead of acknowledging that their material abundance and their peace were God’s gifts to them in His covenant love. Because they were busy with themselves, abused God’s gifts for their own selfish pleasures, the people of Israel considered the poor a nuisance; how often do the prophets not fault Israel for neglecting the poor, robbing the poor?!
And here, brothers and sisters, the matter cuts so close to home for us, God’s children today. To us belongs God’s covenant of grace and the preaching of the gospel, to us have been given the wealth of the confessions and the treasure of God-centered schools. Talk about rich! Therefore the question is pressing: how have we used the abundant "fullness of food" and the "prosperous ease" that has characterized our country in the last number of years? Have we used them for ourselves and our wishes or for the benefit of others? That’s the question: what attitude determines our approach to this prosperity and peace? An attitude of self-denial, of humbly seeking how we could best use this prosperity and peace to benefit others less privileged than ourselves? Or an attitude of: we’ve worked for this, it’s ours, and so we can stroke our desire for comfort, satisfy our urge for a fancier house, give ourselves and our children the latest of toys to excite our adrenalin in our free time? To put the question in terms of our text: have we made it our business to strengthen the hand of the needy –at home and aboard- or do we consider the poor a nuisance, a threat to our comforts and desires?
Given the interconnectedness of which our text speaks, the question is important, brothers and sisters, critically important. For if we set our own standards for how to use our money, it’s only a matter of time before we set our own standards for how we use our sexuality – and then we and our children will give ourselves to the same excesses as Sodom did. You see: the difference between the church and the world cannot lie in the last characteristic God mentioned in our text, the abominations, the sexuality (as in: we don’t give ourselves to adultery and nightclubbing as the world does); no, the difference between the church and the world lies in that first term the Lord uses, the term ‘pride’, whether we claim for ourselves the ‘right’ to decide what is right or wrong or whether we place ourselves completely under God’s instructions. And the evidence of whether pride governs the heart is how we treat prosperity and peace, that is, whether we use this prosperity and peace to "strengthen the hand of the poor and needy" or whether we consider the poor of our community –local and international- a nuisance.
Last week’s events in Bali have come from the God of heaven and earth, and form a loud call for Australians to repent. But, dearly beloved of the Lord, it’s not only the Australian community as a whole that needs to engage in self-examination. You and I need to also. What place do we give to pride? Remember the proverb: "Pride goes before destruction" (Prov 16:18).
May God grant that His work in Bali bears rich fruit in Australia, lest worse befall us. Amen.