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September 1 lesson: Faithful During Distress

August 19, 2019
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Faithful During Distress

Fall Quarter: Responding to God’s Grace

Sunday school lesson for the week of September 1, 2019
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard

Lesson Scripture: Genesis 19: 1, 4, 5, 15-26, 29
Key Verse: Genesis 19:29
When God destroyed the cities on the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.

Lesson Aim: to understand, experience, and respond to God’s grace in the midst of social and personal distress

Geographical context
The events in the text occur on the Jordon Plain. The plain is a large circular area just prior to the Jordon emptying into the Dead Sea. The plain was well watered and served as good grazing land. The plain was compared to the Garden of Eden in Gen. 13:10. In the thirteenth chapter it is stated that this lush grazing land was destroyed by the judgement upon Sodom and Gomorrah, leaving it a wasteland. As Abraham and Lot, along with their households, left Ur and traveled to Canaan, Lot decided to part and settle on the plain, near the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Historical/ theological introduction of narrative
The book of Genesis introduces us to God’s covenant with humanity. The opening chapters introduce us to the fact that it is the God of creation who calls us into relationship. However, the fall from grace led to repetitive experiences of our introducing chaos and distress into God’s creation, recreation, and creative order. Into God’s serene garden we brought sin and alienation. The story of Cain and Abel reveals that humankind brought violence and hatred into our new beginning outside of Eden. This thread of chaos being inflicted upon God’s peace continues through the stories of Babel and Noah, leading to the climactic moment in Genesis when God initiates the loving relationship of covenant with us through Abraham. Yet, our text reveals that humanity has continued to bring distress, suffering, and adversity into the world, thus establishing our constant need of God’s forgiveness, empowerment and the gift of new beginnings.

Abraham, Sarah and family began the journey of covenant from Ur toward Canaan. Abraham’s beloved nephew Lot and his household were allowed to join them. As the families multiplied, along with the herds, Lot chose to separate from Abraham and create a home on the beautiful Jordon Plain, near the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The plain offered an area for Lot’s herd to thrive and for his household to prosper. However the narrative declares that in the midst of a land offering great potential, the residents violated such possibility with their sin. The text uses the strong word “wicked” to describe their lifestyle, and adds the emphatic phrase “they sinned greatly against the Lord.” Therefore, Lot and his family could expect to experience the distress created through such sinfulness. As is true for all, they were not insulated from the consequences of their own sin, nor from the sins of others.

The wickedness described precedes the Mosaic Law. Consequently, we might ask, “What was the foundation for defining behavior as wicked or sinful?” Created in the image of God, we each possess a prevenient awareness of right and wrong. Acts were judged as righteous or wicked mostly based upon the manner in which people treated each other. Prevenient grace is an important belief in our Wesleyan understanding of our faith. Prevenient grace is “grace that goes before.” In this narrative we are reading of a knowledge of moral law that goes before the introduction of the Mosaic Law (see Romans 1:18-23). Every tribe functioned and maintained social order on the basis of a shared moral understanding. Mutual respect of life and property were key to an orderly life in the near eastern world. One of the basic moral laws that helped to maintain peace and order was the “law of hospitality.” Strangers and sojourners were to be treated with respect and kindness. Their need for food and shelter were to be tended. Violation of this law was judged a serious infraction, creating destructive consequences for the individual, the city, and tribe. Sodom and Gomorrah violated this law with great arrogance. It is certain the events that led to the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction were not new to the cities. The nineteenth chapter of Genesis reveals there had been “an outcry against them” to God. Consequently, the cities had earned a reputation in the Jordon Plain of violence and inhospitality against others. Now they would treat the angels in our text as they had been treating others: with violence.

This scenario leads to the text for this lesson. God’s grace and mercy will be experienced not only in God’s redemptive activity for Abraham, Lot, and their families, but also in the judgement against the wickedness.

Theological reflection upon Genesis 19:1,4-5,15-26,29

Genesis 19:4
Two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening. Angels were intermediaries between God and humanity. A boundary existed between finite humankind and the eternal God. The Hebrew people believed if one said the name of God, saw God, or stepped into the holy without invitation, severe and serious consequences ensued. Therefore, angels were the instruments through which God spoke and interacted with men and women. Most often the appearance of angels sparked the reaction of fear in the listener. However, these angels were bringing a message of deliverance and appeared as common men to avoid frightening Lot. With the passing of time Lot must have gained a measure of respect in the city; therefore, we discover him at the city gate where the leaders and wise men gathered to conduct business and discuss important issues of the day. As the angels approach, Lot treats them with great respect, bowing low to the ground as he welcomed them.

Genesis 19:4-5
Lot treats them with the respect and honor that is due every visitor and traveler. The messengers inform Lot they will sleep in the city square. However, Lot is emphatic that they be his guests. Lot is noted as a “righteous man” in II Peter 2:7. This indicates that Lot’s moral life stood in contrast to the wickedness enacted in Sodom and Gomorrah. The wickedness of Sodom rears its ugly head later as the men of the city, of every age, gather outside Lot’s house. The desire to have sex with the visitors was far more base and destructive than lust; they wanted to engage in the act of rape, which is a horrific act of violence. There are other far-reaching consequences of such violence. The victim is violated physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The young of Sodom are being reared in an environment of wickedness and inhospitality, thus creating the possibility of perpetuating such violence. Since such sin was committed throughout the entire community, the spiritual and emotional lives of the residents had to be disastrously affected. It is difficult for us to understand Lot’s offering of his daughters to the men in the place of his guests. However, his action reveals the importance of the Law of Hospitality and the seriousness with which righteous men treated it.

In what manner does our culture engage in acts of inhospitality? In what manner today are such acts violent? What are the consequences experienced by the victim, the one guilty of its infliction, and the community that ignores it or participates in it?

Genesis 19:15-29
Lot protected the angelic visitors throughout the night. The men eventually turned on Lot. The men of the city were struck blind in order to protect Lot and his family. As dawn neared, the angels proclaimed their message of approaching judgement. Lot was to take his wife and daughters and flee the city, for God’s judgement would fall upon them if they remained. Sadly, one of the consequences of societal sin is that everyone suffers. Lot and his family, though righteous, will experience the judgement along with the residents of the city if they do not flee.

In what manner do you observe the suffering of the innocent due to the sin of humanity as a whole? How can we “flee” in order to disengage from the sinful attitudes and actions around us?

Lot hesitated in leaving. His reluctance to immediately flee is understandable. He had just received the news and probably was taken aback and stunned. Secondly, Sodom was his home. His business and family life were rooted in the area. He was being asked to leave everything. Thirdly, where will he go? Like his uncle Abraham, Lot was being told to step into the unknown, leaving all behind. His leaving would be an act of faith.

What would be our reaction to the angel’s message? What are some of the things we might have to leave behind as we choose not to participate in the sins of our culture? How costly would it be for us?

Genesis 19:16
The angels grabbed the hands of Lot and family and led them from the city. What a beautiful picture of grace! The eternal reaching for the mortal! Images come to mind of Jesus touching the eyes of the blind, his touching the leper, or Peter and John grasping the hand of the man at the Gate Beautiful in Acts 3. The text continues, “for the Lord was merciful to them.” The Hebrew word for “mercy” (chemiah) is used only “commiserating.” In other words, God, through the angels, understands what Lot is feeling and experiencing. The mercy of God here implies that indescribable grace which transcends our ability to fully grasp its meaning. Thus, the inspired text does not want twice in the entire O.T. The word means “compassion” but also reveals the concept of the reality of judgement to overshadow the majesty and wonder of God’s grace, mercy and love for us.

Can you identify moments when God has “grabbed you” from painful consequences? In what ways has the church identified with your suffering and the suffering of others? How has the church been the “hand of God” in saving you?

Genesis 19:17
The warning of the angels was dire. “Don’t look back! Don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains!” The spiritual reality that we journey with God through life is a constant thread running throughout the Bible. Implied in our journey with God is the truth that we are not to look back or become preoccupied with past. Grace has brought us to new place; we live in a new day. Though the past should be our teacher, it can become a heavy spiritual weight. Thus, Paul informs the Philippians they are to “forget that which is behind.” Jesus taught that once we put our hand to the plow we are not to look back. The wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah will teach the children of Abraham how to live differently, and what attitudes and behaviors to avoid. However, they must leave the attitudes and behaviors of sinful Sodom and Gomorrah behind and strain forward towards God’s future. Tragically, Lot’s wife looks back and is turned to a pillar of salt. In order to leave the past behind and experience the new life God has for us we cannot stop and look back. We cannot become preoccupied with “what was” when it prohibits us from experiencing “what can be.”

Can you describe ways in which we “look back” when our eyes should be fixed on a new beginning? Can you recall moments in your life of “looking back” and the consequences that followed?

It is tempting to view the judgement of God upon wickedness as disconnected from mercy. However, compassion and mercy are also present in judgement and consequences. Sodom and Gomorrah are going to reap the consequences their wicked behavior created. If God did not allow the consequences to occur, where would humankind morally stand in relation to God’s righteousness? Thank God for the lessons we learn in judgement and consequences! When mercy has delivered us, we should not return to the place of oppression and bondage. We must flee!

How would the world appear and behave if not for the consequences of past wickedness? Can you describe how different life would be?

How can we discern the “past as teacher” from the past as a spiritual weight that impedes our journey? What are the practical ways we can “flee” from the past? Is it possible not to completely separate ourselves from past sin? How can we totally remove ourselves from past attitudes and behaviors that are destructive to us and others?

Genesis 19:18-19
Lot is afraid. We can hear fear in his words: “No, my lords, please!” Lot is now attempting to bargain. He requests that God allow his family to escape to a small town. The fact that he emphasizes it is a small town is interesting. Is he informing God that a small town cannot allow him to prosper as the larger town of Sodom? If so, Lot is accepting this as the penalty for not completely leaving the area. But, it is Lot attempting to set his own penalty in contrast to accepting what God has declared. Or, Lot could be expressing the myth that small towns cannot be as corrupt as larger cities. Thus, he is arguing he will be a safer and better man if he is allowed to settle in Zoar. Whatever his rationale, Lot is bargaining. However, unlike Abraham’s bargaining to save the residents, Lot is trying to save himself and his own family. When we are afraid of that over which we have no control, it is tempting to bargain with God. The cost of leaving is high and Lot is considering what it is he will lose if he leaves. He desires to find a way to both stay safe and escape the wickedness. He is willing to give up a part of his life, but not all.

Attempting to have our cake and eat it too results in irrational thinking and behaviors. Lot is expressing fear from what “might happen” as opposed to fearing what is certainly “going to happen!” Sadly, we hear his willingness to accept God’s favor along with his unwillingness to accept God’s warning. He says, “Your servant has found favor in your eye, and you have shown great kindness to me in sparing my life. But I can’t flee to the mountains; this disaster will overtake me, and I’ll die.” In other words, Lot is saying, “I trust what you’ve done for me, but not completely.” Righteousness cannot ultimately coexist with evil. Eventually light, love, and truth will drive away the darkness of sin and wickedness. Thus, Lot cannot straddle the fence. He must choose to remain or go. The separation from Sodom and Gomorrah must be complete. They are not to stop until their feet stand upon the ground of a different land. God desires to give them a new beginning. It is almost always costly to make a righteous stand against evil. The entire night the men pressed against the door, not only to engage in violence against Lot’s guests, but against Lot as well. They had turned on Lot and had they not been stricken blind, Lot could have become a victim of their wickedness. Lot most likely internally felt every knock and push against the door. He was risking his life. Thus, he is afraid of what happens if he remains in the city, and fears what might happen when he leaves. Once again, God’s mercy understands Lot’s fear and allows Lot and family to escape to the smaller town of Zoar. Yet, Lot’s fear is not totally dispelled in Zoar as he realizes he must obey the angels and flee to the mountain. Therefore, he leaves Zoar and settles in the heights overlooking the plain. He and his family have survived by nothing more than God’s mercy and the willingness to have faith in that mercy.

Can you recall a difficult moment when you found it tempting to find middle ground? What is the cost of attempting to straddle the fence? Can you identify examples of irrational thinking as a result of fear? What are the moments when you are aware that you have survived physically, emotionally, and spiritually by trusting in God’

Lesson Summary
We live in a violent, inhospitable world. As a culture and society, we reap and experience the consequences of the violence. The violence is physical, emotional, economic, and spiritual. In 2015 there were an estimated 15,700 homicides. In homes in the United States, 20 people a minute are abused by their intimate partner. Our schools are trying to deal with the ever- expanding issue of bullying. There are large numbers suffering from low incomes and great debt.

As in Lot’s day, it is a day of great distress. God’s judgement is usually experienced in our reaping and experiencing the consequences of such attitudes and behavior. Yet, the pain of these consequences can be used of God to awaken the morality that exists in the human heart, especially the heart enlivened by Christ. It can lead us to take action that we might otherwise never consider. Most of the charitable and helpful foundations in the U.S. were started as a result of the suffering we can create. For example, Mothers Against Drunk Driving was created by those who lost loved ones to the violence of drinking and driving. This inner awakening is an act of God’s mercy. God does not forget us. As stated in the text, he understands and feels our despair, fear, and pain. It is from God’s choice to identify with us that divine mercy is given.

Jesus is the special gift of God’s understanding and mercy. In Christ, God has established a new covenant of love in the heart. John records, “A new commandment I give unto you that you love one another as I have loved you.” It is this love that saves and redeems. As people of faith, let us not give in to the distress. May we fix our eyes upon God’s future of loving relationships and mutual respect. May the moral awakening we witness in the midst of the distress remind of us that God is at work even in the pain.

Prayer
Almighty God, increase our vision beyond the plain, to gaze upon a place in life that his higher, more noble, and above all, righteous. Empower us to perceive the divine will in all of life. Increase our vision to see that light which is present even in darkness. Grant us the courage to walk by faith, trusting in your great mercy for all people, as revealed through Christ. Teach us to trust your love, walk by faith, and live in hope. In Jesus name, Amen.

Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at craigrikard169@yahoo.com.

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