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A Merciful Lord

Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city, bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the LORD, and the LORD has sent us to destroy it.” So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, “Up! Get out of this place, for the LORD is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting. As morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.” But he lingered. So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the LORD being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city. Genesis 19.12-16.

The “city” referred to here is Sodom; and the two men/angels are, it seems, two of the three “men” in whom God himself has appeared to Abraham just a short while earlier. At the start of the previous chapter we are told that “the LORD appeared to him [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him” (Genesis 18.1-2). Then later, after Abraham has shown hospitality to them, “the men turned from there and went toward Sodom” (Genesis 18.22) but Abraham bargains with “the Lord” (presumably one of the three) for the lives of any who are righteous in the city.

Be that as it may, what strikes me this morning is that the God who is committed to the destruction of evil (as represented here by Sodom) is the same God who then goes to ultimate lengths to rescue folk from the destruction. (I wonder if God was secretly amused at Abraham’s needless bargaining.) First, the Lord (through the men) throws out a blanket invitation to Lot: “Have you any here that you want to be saved? That’s fine by us/me. Just get them out.” So Lot dutifully warns his prospective sons-in-law of what is about to happen; but they think he’s joking. And, to be fair, Lot himself doesn’t seem to have been taking it all that seriously. The fact that the “angels” had to say “Up!” to him and his wife and daughters the next day suggests that all them were unconcernedly fast asleep as dawn broke. And even then, as the angels urged Lot and his daughters to flee, “he lingered.”

Now at that point, the God of some of the “fire and brimstone” evangelists I have heard down the years would have said (almost gleefully), “Well, on your own head be it. I did warn you. If you can’t be bothered to make a run for it, you can stay where you are and burn.” But not the God of the Bible. Oh no! The God of the Bible, my God, “seized” Lot and his wife and daughters by the hand (the Hebrew word signifies a show of strength and resolution and firmness) and literally dragged them out of the city. Why? We are told in one beautiful phrase that it was simply “the LORD being merciful.”

If you ever wonder, as I do, about the ultimate destiny of those among your friends and relations who neither know the Lord nor show any interest in getting to know him, this morning’s reading should be a great comfort. Speaking of human beings as “children,” Jesus himself says: “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18.14). Paul says that God is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2.4); so I can be confident that, as Jesus demonstrated on the cross, there are no lengths to which God will not go to save those who are lost. That is not, of course, to say that everyone will be saved. I am no universalist. At the end of the day, God will allow everyone the freedom of will to turn their back on him — but only (and in my belief it is a huge “only”) after they have seen him as he really is. Mercy that would not go that far would not be mercy at all. I do believe that God will not allow anyone to reject him solely on the basis of the distorted and often ugly image of him that, all too frequently through all the centuries, the church and individual Christians have presented to the world. I do believe that every human being will (in the words of that old hymn) have to turn their eyes upon Jesus — the real Jesus — and look full in his wonderful face before the Father will allow him or her even to think of walking away.

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