Genesis 19

Meet the Righteous Man Who Couldn't Do Anything Right

Let me tell you about a man who never met a challenge he didn’t fail. At least in the stories about him, he has a bad habit of making the wrong decision. Warn him about a cliff, and he’ll fall off it. Show him a snake, and he’ll get bit. His life is a painful series of unfortunate events. And because of that, I can’t help but feel a kinship with him. Those of you who’ve always chosen wisely, who’ve kept to the straight and narrow, probably won’t appreciate his story, so you can go on about your business. Everyone else, meet our friend, and fellow failure, Lot. Lot’s first mistake was his zip code. His home was on the corner of Wicked and Sinful in the city of Sodom. No one forced him to move there. He made the decision quite willfully. When he and Abraham needed to split up because there was strife between their herdsmen, Uncle Abraham gave him first dibs. Lot surveyed the land, saw that the acreage around Sodom was “like the garden of the Lord,” so he chose to sink roots there. The grass was greener on the other side of the fence. The only problem was the other side of that fence was Sodom, where his neighbors were “wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord,” (Gen 13:13). Mistake #1.

Things went to pot quickly. After Lot settled there, the rulers of the city decided they weren’t going to pay their overlords any more. So these overlords took the city behind the woodshed and gave them a thrashing. They took all the goods of Sodom, all their food supply, and—wouldn’t you know it—they took Lot and his family, too. Abraham came to the rescue. He defeated the attackers, brought back all the spoils of war, along with the citizens of Sodom who’d been kidnapped, including Lot. After all this happened, you would think Lot might consider relocating. But, no, he stayed in Sodom. And things got still worse.

While our friend was sitting at the city gate one evening, two travelers showed up. He insisted they join him and his family for dinner and spend the evening in his home. In the middle of the night, the men of the city surrounded Lot’s house and demanded he bring out the two visitors so they could have sex with them. Lot begins well enough. He says, “Please, my brothers, do not act wickedly,” (19:7). But he’s not finished. Lot has an alternative in mind. “Look,” he says, “I have two daughters who’ve never had sex with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof,” (19:8). Yes, you read that right. Lot is offering his two virgin daughters to a rape-hungry mob. Thankfully, the two visitors (who were actually angels) save the day. They blind the would-be rapists. They warn Lot that God is about to reduce the city to ashes. And in the morning, they lead the family out of the city to safety. So to Lot’s growing resume we can now add: utter failure as a father.

But we’re not done yet. Let’s put the icing on the cake. Lot’s wife didn’t make it far out of Sodom. Against the express warning of the angels, she paused and stared back at the city as it was being destroyed. The fire and brimstone overtook her and she became the well-known “pillar of salt.” All that remained were Lot and his two girls. But these daughters, whom Lot had offered up for rape, turn the tables on their father. They pull out the wineskin, get dad drunk as a skunk and have sex with him, one girl one night and the other the next. And both end up pregnant. Lot becomes both father and grandfather to two baby boys.

Knowing all this about Lot, it probably comes as quite a shock when, of all adjectives, Peter chooses to put “righteous” in front of Lot’s name—not once, not twice, but three times. He says that God “rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard),” (2 Peter 2:7-8). You might be wondering if Peter was reading the same stories from Genesis that we are. Lot, righteous? Really? You mean the foolish Lot who chose to live in Sodom? The heartless Lot who almost got his two daughters gang-raped? The drunk Lot who had incestuous relations with these same two daughters? That’s the Lot you’re calling “righteous,” Peter?

There’s more to Lot than meets the eye. There’s always more to a believer than meets the eye. And that’s why, as I said earlier, I feel a certain kinship with him. No, I’ve never done what Lot has done, but those who know a little about my life know that my bio is full of foolish choices, moral failures, and shameful conduct. And perhaps yours is, too. Most of us have wandered from the straight and narrow at one time or another; some of us have fallen off the map altogether. Some of Lot’s decisions disgust me, but I’d bet that if Lot knew our stories, he’d find plenty worthy of condemnation as well. As it turns out, all finger-pointing amongst sinners is in vain. Every transgressor just happens to screw up a little differently than you do.

Yet along comes Peter and calls us righteous. Lot, me, you—all of us who, by faith, have a borrowed righteousness. It belongs to Jesus but he lets us have it. We wear his clothes. We are covered in his goodness. It’s a righteousness with no gaps. In it the heavenly Father easily mistakes you for Jesus. Actually, he sees you as nothing but his son. That’s how completely covered you are. Like Jacob received the blessing of his father by dressing in the clothes of his older brother, so we are robed in the garments of our elder brother, Christ, and thus receive the inheritance of the Father.

There’s more to Lot than meets the eye, as there’s more to us than meets the eye. But what ultimately matters is what meets the eye of God. When he sees us, he sees the child whom he loves. He sees one who is deeply troubled by the evil in the world. He sees one whose life is not one long string of failures but an unbroken chain of obedience. For when God sees Lot, and when he sees us, what meets his eye is the one who meets us at the cross, folds us into himself, and cloaks us with a compassion that envelops all of who we are.

The Story of Sodom Is About Much More than Homosexuality

A quick scan of any map will reveal towns all around the US with biblical place names. There’s Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Bethany, Oklahoma and Goshen, Indiana—just to name a few. But you’ll find no Sodom, Arizona or Gomorrah, Tennessee. Towns totally annihilated by God don’t make for popular namesakes. No community wants that kind of backstory. But what exactly is the backstory—the full backstory—of Sodom and Gomorrah? What prompted such judgment against them? Contrary to what you’ll hear in most sermons, the issue in Sodom was much more than homosexuality. It is deeper and more pervasive. The root cause of their razing was rejection of the God who is mercy.

We often forget that before God destroyed these cities, he had saved them. They were the recipients of divine mercy. When foreign armies sacked their cities, God sent Abraham to rescue them (Genesis 14). He pursued these armies with a small force of men, defeated them, and brought back all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, along with his nephew Lot and the other citizens who had been taken captive. The patriarch gave everything back to the king of Sodom and demanded nothing in return for himself. In Abraham’s own words, he wouldn’t keep “a thread or a sandal thong or anything else” that belong to Sodom’s king, lest that ruler say he had made Abraham rich (Gen 14:23). Though “the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinners against the Lord,” (13:13), nevertheless he acted graciously toward them in the person and work of his chosen servant.

So what went wrong? What happened in the intervening years between their deliverance by Abraham and the announcement of their impending destruction? The same thing that has happened over and over throughout the history of humanity. The merciful actions of God towards undeserving sinners were forgotten. Like Nineveh, which repented when it heard the preaching of Jonah, but later slipped right back into evil and was eventually destroyed; like Jerusalem, which seesawed between repenting and rebelling until it too was finally ravaged by the Romans; so Sodom and Gomorrah, one-time beneficiaries of divine deliverance, treated that gift as trash until finally their cities were reduces to smoldering ashes.

In the rest of the Scriptures, Sodom and Gomorrah became emblematic of cities, nations, and indeed a world that steadfastly refuses to believe in the God of mercy and truth and justice, and instead follow their own hearts. Isaiah calls the hearers of his day the “rulers of Sodom” and the “people of Gomorrah” (1:10). Why? Because, while going hog wild in outward religiosity, their hands were soaked in blood. He told them, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless; defend the orphan, plead for the widow,” (1:17). Through Jeremiah too, God says that his people have become to him “like Sodom, and her inhabitants like Gomorrah,” (23:14). Why? Because the prophets of Jerusalem were committing adultery and walking in falsehood. Not only did they do nothing to stop evil; they actively encouraged it. Ezekiel too chastises the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel for acting like Sodom. Through this prophet, God says, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister, Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before me. Therefore, I removed them when I saw it,” (16:49-50).

On the night before Sodom was destroyed, the men of the city, young and old, attempted to gang-rape the angels (disguised as men) who were guests in Lot's home (Gen 19:4-5). But this attempted violence, as horrific as it was, was an outgrowth of a more pervasive evil within. The ultimate source of sin in Sodom, Gomorrah, Nineveh, Jerusalem, and every other city, is the ultimate source of sin in our hearts: we do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. We reject the God who is love itself, and instead set up idols of pleasure or power or falsehood in the shrines of our hearts. And from there, as from a poisoned spring, flow forth all the tributaries of evil in our lives and in the world.

Our more serious problem is not sins but sin itself. The problem is not what we do but who we are. We are not sinners because we sin; we are sinners and therefore we sin. This was as true for the Sodomites as for the San Antonians or the New Yorkers.

That’s why God does not merely fix us, as if we’re an old junker that just needs an overhaul. We don’t need to be fixed; we need to be recreated. What we need is to come to an end, to fall headfirst into a grave flooded with water, drown in that dark pool, and rise again to newness of life in Christ. The Father remakes us in the waters of baptism to bear the image and likeness of Jesus, who makes all things new. He removes our hearts of Sodom to give us a heart of Zion—a heart pumped full of the atoning blood of Jesus. Far from condemning us, he declares us innocent, for his Son has already become the guilty one in our place. In the eyes of God, you are pure, beautiful, loved, welcomed, perfect, for he sees every inch of you through the prism of Christ. In Christ, you are not a failure, a felon, or a freak, but a friend of God. In Christ, you are not dirty or depraved for you have been washed, you have been sanctified, you have been made new. Your past does not define you; your sins do not define you; Christ does.

The story of Sodom is about much more than homosexuality. It is ultimately about the God of mercy—the God who is your Father in Jesus Christ. The Father who rescues you as he rescued Lot. The Father who makes you saints. The Father who is patient, forgiving, and loving to all, for all have been reconciled to him in the cross of Jesus Christ.

A Tale of Two Sodoms: The Difficulty of Escaping from Our Past

When I walked through his back door, one glance at his deeply furrowed brow told me something was askew. I knew that aged face well. For years it had greeted me with a country howdy and near toothless smile when I stopped by to bring him and his wife Holy Communion. We’d sit in their kitchen, the air of which was heavy with a lifetime of fried meals. As we sipped coffee, we’d chat about his aching feet and her arthritic hip and their lost days of lighthearted youth. Then, eventually, we’d shove aside the week-old newspapers and piled-up ashtrays to transform the table into a makeshift altar, over which, in the King James tongue he insisted upon, I’d intone the liturgy of the Supper for these homebound saints. But today was different. For months he’d been adjusting not so well to being a widower, passing the days in his newfound, unwelcome loneliness. But as I joined him on an adjacent stool, and he began to shake his head at the open Bible in front of him, I sensed the issue was something new. He wasn’t sad because of his loneliness. He wasn’t in pain because of his feet. No, he was awful upset, he began to explain, by a story he’d happened upon in his Bible reading. He paged through Genesis until he came to chapter 19, in which the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were charcoaled by the Almighty. But that wasn’t the account that had him all riled up; he’d learned that tale in Sunday School decades before. It was the after-story that had him shocked, the biblical postscript of Sodom’s destruction. Jabbing an indicting finger at the page, he said, “Pastor, I can hardly believe what I read this week. It says here,” he said, poking the page, “that when Lot and his daughters got up into the mountains, both of them girls got their dad drunk and had sex with him. And got pregnant!”  Then closing the Bible as if it were too revolting even to have it open to that chapter, he added, “I wish I’d never read that story.”

Dislike that tale all you want, there it is, inking the biblical skin like a tattoo gone bad. It turned the stomach of my elderly friend. Incest will do that. I don't like it for that reason too, and a whole host of others, but undergirding them all is a deeper, darker reason. And it’s a reason that hits closer to home. You see, the story of Lot and his daughters is not just about drunkenness or sexual perversion. It is, at its core, a cautionary tale for all of us. It reveals how hard it is to escape from our own past. It shows the extent to which an environment of iniquity can seep into the souls of believers, transforming them from the inside out, so that even when they “flee to the mountains,” like Lot and his girls, they take Sodom with them.

I should know. I used to live in Sodom. In fact, I’ve lived in more than one city by that name. The first was a deeply religious city, steepled churches gracing every corner. I walked its neighborhoods, Bible in hand, cross dangling round my neck. All the streets were straight, and all the people were, too. Everyone was required to confess that they were sinners, but woe betide them if they actually sinned. For although truth and judgement were in full supply, mercy was a scarce commodity in this Sodom's marketplace. And I was at home there, an upstanding citizen with a heart pumping Pharisee blood.

The second Sodom was a city of rebellion, neon signs winking lasciviously through the twenty-four hour night. I staggered through its slums, intoxicated by lust, living from pleasure to titillating pleasure. Streets wound in serpentine courses through a city whose infrastructure catered to citizens who loved being lost. There was unbounded freedom to be whoever, whatever, whenever you liked. The only law ever enforced was a strict code summed up in three words: follow your heart.

Perhaps you’ve lived in one of these Sodoms as well?  Perhaps another?  If you’re a refugee like I am, then perhaps you too can attest to how hard it is to leave Sodom once and for all. For it’s one thing to “flee to the mountains,” to try and leave behind the Sodoms of self-righteousness, the Sodoms of sex or drugs or alcohol abuse, but it’s quite another thing not to take bits of Sodom with you into exile. It seems to me that’s what Lot and his girls did. Their hometown may have burnt to ashes, but the fires of immorality kindled there still burned hot in the hearts of this family. I have flames that burn in my own chest. And chances are, if you’re a refugee, you do too.

We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes, but the greatest lesson to learn is that the opportunity to repeat those mistakes is never more than a heartbeat away. You may have fled from Sodom years or decades ago, but it’s only a bottle, a snort, a hook-up, a moment of hypocrisy away. To pretend otherwise is to deceive yourself, and to invite disaster into your life. That’s one reason why, though it is painful to do, recollection of past sins, and the hellish fallout from those, is a seeming necessity for refugees from Sodom. David wrote Psalm 51, his hymn of repentance, after committing murder and adultery. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that song was never far from his lips. He was forgiven, yes, but he needed to remind himself of exactly what he was forgiven, of what the grace of God had freed him from, that he might not repatriate himself to the Sodom from which he had fled. To recall our past sins is not to deny that they are forgiven, but to ready ourselves for a continual fight against their recurrence.

In this fight we are far from alone. We did not leave Sodom on our own initiative, our own will-power. Christ climbed over the city walls to rescue us, and then climbed back over, carrying us upon his shoulders. He bore us up into the mountains, and now, and always, never leaves our side. He knows the past fires that still burn in our chest, so he never tires of dousing those flames with the waters of baptism, daily drenching us with that divine dew. Sodom’s foolish ways he roots out to replace with the wisdom that comes from above, speaking his word over and over into us, to create new hearts and new minds within us, fashioned after his own, heart and minds devoted to higher things.

Most amazing of all, should we ever, God forbid, go astray with Lot and his daughters, letting a Sodom heart woo us back into its clutches, the Lord does not rain fire and brimstone down. He rains down himself. He floods us with the waters of baptism, calls us to repentance, douses the iniquitous flames again and again. For he is not a God who gives up on his children. Quite the opposite. He never wearies, never wavers, of beckoning us away from our past Sodoms, into the present of his grace, and onward to the heavenly Jerusalem, where stories like Sodom are part of past that will never be retold.

(I'd like to thank Pastor Christopher Seifferlein, who provided the idea that I fleshed out in this post.)