Over the last year I’ve worked my way through several books. I’ve listened to the authors, taken down notes, applauded, wept a few times, and had a rather one-sided debate with a few of them as I read along. I love books. I love authors. I love the way putting words down on paper incarnates ideas that might otherwise remain ghosts of the mind, flitting here and there in our gray matter.
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.