(Genesis 18: 22-33)
I know I’m in the midst of this sermon series on Living Biblically and reading excerpts from A.J. Jacobs’ book and all, but I thought I’d start this morning off with another book. I got this one years ago; I think someone left it for me on my office desk or something. It’s called Children’s Letters To God, and it’s a collection of various notes – usually a sentence or two – that children have penned to God. What would yousay to God if you could write God a letter?
Well, young Joyce wrote, Dear God, thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.
Ginny writes, Dear God, please put another holiday between Christmas and Easter. There is nothing good in there now.
I like Bruce’s prayer and the rationale for it: Dear God, please send me a pony. I’ve never asked for anything before. You can look it up.
Tim offers perhaps the most heartfelt prayer: Dear God, I wish there was no such thing as sin. I wish there was no such thing as war. Me too, Tim.
Denise’s prayer to God is, if nothing else, honest: Dear God, if we come back as something, please don’t let me be Jennifer Horton, because I hate her.
Same goes for Peter: Dear God, please send Dennis Clark to a different camp this year.
And Sam as well: Dear God, I want to be just like my Dad when I get big, but not with so much hair all over.
The things kids prayer for! Although truth be told, it’s not just the little ones, is it? We “mature” adults have been known to offer up some doozies of our own, have we not?
Dear God, please let the Panthers get this first down!
Dear God, kindly compel this nice officer who just pulled me over to issue a warning instead of a ticket.
Dear God, please let me pass this Calculus exam I didn’t study for.
Dear God, if you get me through this birthday sleepover, I will praise your name till the day I die, AMEN!
And those are just the prayers I’ve offered up!
But seriously, let’s talk about prayer, shall we? Prayer. Images comes to mind: a child kneeling beside their bed, eyes shut tight, hands folded like this. A group of people, a congregation, heads bowed as the minister up front speaks on their behalf. An extended family around the Thanksgiving dinner table, or around the hospital bedside, hands held, words spoken and then silence, which is in many ways its own kind of prayer.
Why do we pray? Is it to get something? Is it to affect the outcome of things in such a way that benefit us or please us or save us from ourselves? Or is it more elemental than that? Is prayer nothing more than having a conversation with the One who is always with us, the One who has always loved us?
A youth group at a former church of mine would conclude every Sunday night youth group time with prayer. But they didn’t call it that. They called it, “Talking to God.” So when the time came they’d circle up, but they would not say, “Let’s pray.” They’d say, “Okay, now let’s talk to God.” And they did. Because that’s what prayer is. That’s all prayer is.
Our Bible is chopped full of these “talking to God” instances – long ones, short ones, simple and strange. And there is perhaps none stranger than the one we find in our scripture today – this little back-and-forth between the great patriarch Abraham and God. I’ll be totally honest with you: I had no idea this conversation was even in the Bible until I read A.J.’s book. Somehow it flew below my radar.
The subject of this exchange is the ancient city of Sodom, a city who was facing God’s divine wrath for an egregious sin. And this would be a good time, as is any time Sodom and Gomorrah are brought up, to clarify exactly what their sin was, because over many years we’ve acquired a tragic misunderstanding of the sin of Sodom. Traditional thinking would have us believe that Sodom’s sin was sexual in nature, which is why Sodom and Gomorrah are referenced time and time again from the anti-homosexual community.
But look closer, people of God: that is not what happened. Not even close. If we pay attention to what’s actually in the Bible (which is kind of what we’re supposed to do), we find that the sin of Sodom in fact was the sin of inhospitality. The sin of inhospitality. These people in Sodom were woefully lacking when it came to welcoming the stranger and caring for the vulnerable – things at the spiritual center of the Hebrew faith, as we found in our gleaning the corners sermon a couple of weeks ago and will find again in a couple of weeks. And it was more than just not being nice or kind or welcoming; Sodom was downright hostile and violent toward the foreigner and the stranger.
So it is because of their inhospitality – and not the other thing – that Sodom is doomed. And for reasons that aren’t quite explained to us, Abraham did not want this to happen. So he engages God in this back-and-forth to try and convince God otherwise. And it’s amazing how it all unfolds.
It starts with Abraham going to God: Hey God, I know you’ve got it in for Sodom. And I’ll admit, those people are crazy mean. But you know, and I’m just saying, what if there were fifty righteous people in that city? That’d be a shame to lose them, don’t you think? You think fifty righteous people would be worth sparing Sodom, maybe? God gives this some thought and agrees, okay, if there are fifty, the city will be spared.
Abraham is pleased, but he’s not done. Maybe he’s not certain there are fifty righteous people! Better to be safe than sorry, right? So he goes back to God: Hey God, that’s a great decision in my opinion. But just for argument’s said, what if we’re not talking fifty but, I don’t know, 45? I mean, that’s only five less. Think you might spare the city still? God says sure, 45 is enough.
Abraham’s on a roll – why stop now? Wow, God, you’re awesome! But you knew that already. So I’m just wondering if forty righteous souls would be enough to spare Sodom. I think it would – what about you? God agrees. And Abraham keeps going, back and forth like this – to thirty, to twenty, to ten. And in the end, Abraham gets God to agree to spare the city of Sodom for just ten righteous souls. Not a bad negotiation, now, is it?
Although there are some obvious problems with this story, which may be the reason we don’t hear it much. Namely that the city of Sodom was not spared – either because God changed God’s mind, which is certainly God’s right to do; or perhaps because there weren’tten righteous souls in the city, which is pretty sad if that’s the case.
The other problem with the story is this whole “negotiating-with-God” thing – not something that readily jives with our Reformed theology and way of thinking. God is God. God is not someone to be bargained with, manipulated or swayed in any direction other than the direction God is already going. Conversations with God are notconversations between equals. Abraham’s exchange seems to fly in the face of that.
Except for one important difference we should pay attention to here – and that is that Abraham is not lobbying for himself. He’s not trying to get something for him. Abraham is doing it for the benefit of others. And that’s what makes this little exchange a prayer.
In his book simply titled Prayer, author Richard Foster talks about some of the common types of prayers. There’s the prayer of adoration, which is the “spontaneous yearning of the heart to glorify and praise God.” Foster also talks about prayers where we hand our burdens over to God, which he calls prayers of relinquishment. There’s the prayer of thanksgiving, where we give thanks to God for the many blessings God has bestowed on us. You also have prayers of petition, where we come before God and ask something for ourselves. If I had to guess, I’d say that’s probably the prayers God hears most.
There’s one other type of prayer, and it’s the one I think about when I read today’s story – Foster calls it intercessory prayer. The word means “the act of intervening on behalf of another.” The idea is that you’re asking for something, but it’s not for you. You’re not praying for your health, or that you’ll get that great job, or that your team will win. You’re praying that something will happen for someone else.
Just listen to how our friend A.J. Jacobs experiences it:
I’ve discovered another category of prayer that I like: praying on behalf of others, for the sick, needy, depressed—anyone who’s been kicked around by fate. Intercessory prayer, as it’s called.
(I think Abraham’s story in Genesis 18 is an intercessory prayer. And I must confess..), at first I found the whole Abraham passage comical. I mean, here’s Abraham sounding like a salesman at a bazaar trying to get rid of his last decorative vase. But on reflection, what’s wrong with what he did? It’s actually a noble, beautiful—if ultimately doomed—attempt to save the lives of his fellow humans.
I’m not finished with my year, so I’m withholding judgment, but my rational side says that intercessory prayer today is no more effective than Abraham’s effort. I still cannot wrap my brain around the notion that God would change God’s mind because we ask God to.
And yet I still love these prayers. To me they’re moral weight training.
And so every night I pray for others for ten minutes—a friend about to undergo a cornea operation, my great-aunt whose sweet husband just died in their swimming pool, the guy I met in a Bible study class whose head was dented in a subway accident. It’s ten minutes where it’s impossible to be self-centered. Ten minutes where I cannot think about my career, or my Amazon book ranking, or that blog in San Francisco that made snarky comments about my latest Esquire article.
It’s only ten minutes of intercessory prayer. But I really, really like it.
Ten minutes, he says. Ten minutes a day when he prays to God, but he prays for everyone and everything other than himself.
Think on this, people of God: think of ten minutes – 600 seconds – in your average day. Ten unplanned minutes where you’re not working or running errands or sleeping. When you truly have time to think. What do you typically do with those ten minutes? Watch one-third of your favorite half-hour sitcom? Play on your phone?
Now think about what those ten minutes would look like if we all followed A.J.’s lead and engaged in a little intercessory prayer of our own. Heck, we’ll even borrow his lingo and give it a name – we’ll call it “The 10-Minute Moral Weight Training Regimen.” Granted, it doesn’t quite flow off the tongue, but it is what it is.
Ten minutes of prayer – kneeling at our bedside or driving in our car or walking down the grocery store aisle (although I’d suggest silently there). Ten minutes of prayer, where we pray not for our needs, our desires, but for the needs and desires of others. It can be a set time every day, or something we engage in as the time presents itself to us.
And I should probably mention that I’m not posing this hypothetically – I mean this. I’m seriously suggesting that you and I get in the habit of allocating ten minutes of our day for intercessory prayer. And don’t think for a second that you won’t have enough stuff to fill the time. Turn on the news. Scroll through your feed. Listen to your family and friends. There are people hurting out there. There are people whose lives are being turned upside down and inside out. There are more and more folks slipping through the precarious safety nets of our structures and cities. There are families being separated at our southern border, children not being cared for. There are people caught in the crossfire, facing brokenness, feeling like they have nowhere to turn.
Every last one of them needs prayer. And not because prayer is some kind of negotiation that will always get us what we want. Prayer doesn’t work because it’s “results-driven.” Prayer works because it’s “relationship-driven.” A conversation between Creator and Created, drawing others into the dialogue. Helping us realize and feel in the bottom of our hearts that we are connected – connected to each other and connected to God.
See, I think Abraham got that. I think those kids with their cute funny prayers got that. Sure, it’s bizarre to bargain with God. Yeah, it’s a little crude to pray for a pony or ask never to become Jennifer Norton. But you know what they say – you don’t talk to someone if you don’t believe they’re there.
May our prayers, our intercessions, our talks with an almighty and loving God serve as witness, to ourselves and others, of our unwavering belief in a God who hears all prayers and longs for the day when there is nothing more for us to intercede on.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.