Don't Look Back

Genesis 19

We have 4 Athens, 3 Corinths, 5 Parises, 5 Romes, 2 Londons, 3 Moscows, 5 Palestines, 5 Lebanons, 3 Bethanys and even a Nazareth.  But of all the names that have travelled from other continents to this one, no one has ever named their city Sodom or Gomorrah.  Even for folks who have never read a Bible, the ancient names of those two cities conjure up images of wickedness and destruction. 

When we left Abraham in Genesis 18, he was watching the two angels of the Lord descend the forty miles from Hebron, and the great oaks of Mamre to the plains where those two cities thrived.  His conversation with the Lord, moments earlier had been an eleventh hour plea for the reprieve of those two cities, but even his hard won allowance for ten righteous people left little hope that the morning would see their salvation.

His only hope now was for his nephew Lot and his family.  Years earlier, Lot had chosen the fertile plains for his home, leaving Abraham with the rugged hills in which to live and work.  Lot had done well.  While Abraham still lived in tents, Lot owned a house in the center of the city.  Given the choice, Lot had selected the easy road, the certain success, but at what cost?  What had he compromised, how deeply had the wickedness and sin of Sodom penetrated his life in living among them?

The angelic messengers arrive just as the sun is beginning to set.  No time for strangers to be out.  Who do they meet at the city gates but Lot himself.  With hospitality that falls short of his uncle Abraham’s, Lot invites the two travelers to stay the night in his house.  “No, we will stay in the town square.”  They had come on a mission.  Lot persists and finally the two agree to spend the night in his home.  A meal is prepared, but as the sun sets over the city, Sodom comes to life.

A pounding on the door.  Lot looks out and sees every man from the city, young and old, surrounding his house.  Those outside shout, “Those two men who came home with you – send them out – we are going to have sex with them.”  The wickedness of their homosexuality wasn’t hidden in dark alleys and behind locked doors, it was flaunted in the streets.

We learn something about Lot here and it’s hard to like or even understand.  I guess it was a gesture of hospitality (after all, his guests were his responsibility), but Lot refuses to allow this.  Instead, he offers to send out his two virgin daughters for the men to rape and molest and do with what they will.  Lot, how could you?  So perverse is their lust, they have no interest in his daughters.  They despise this man who would question their morality.  Listen to vs. 9:  “Get out of the way… This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge!”

Lot is still viewed as an outsider by the residents of this city.  They despise him for interfering in their pursuit of their wickedness and perversion.

And then things start to get ugly.  They threaten Lot with worse than they are going to do to the strangers and then start to push him toward the door.  As the crowd surges forward and Lot is crushed against the door, suddenly it swings open, and the angels pull Lot inside to momentary safety.

A brilliant flash of light outside blinds all of the men surrounding the house.  They begin staggering around, not merely blinded, but confused and disoriented.

Inside the house the urgency of the situation is pressed upon Lot.  The two angels announce their mission to destroy Sodom.  Lot is now faced with leaving everything he has worked for and built for himself and fleeing for his life.

The angels ask, “Do you have anyone else here – sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you?  Get them out of here.”  Both of Lot’s daughters are engaged to be married and Lot rushes to warn the two young men – “Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy this city!”  But they both thought he was joking and refused to leave.

As the dawn begins to break, the angels urge Lot to hurry and flee with his wife and daughters, lest they be swept away when the city is destroyed.  Lot continues to hesitate.  Five times the angels urge him to hurry and flee.  Finally they take him by the arms and lead him out of the city gates. 

“Flee for your lives!  Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain!  Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!”

If I were Lot, I wouldn’t have heard the last words because I would be running so hard to get away.  But not Lot – he begs them to let him run just a little way to a small town and be safe there.  Their patience is just about stretched to the breaking point with this man who does not sense the tremendous urgency of their mission and the terrible danger that he is in.  But they agree and Lot and his family flee to Zoar, a town a few miles distant from Sodom.

As they arrive in the little town of refuge, the Lord begins the devastation of the cities of the plain.  Fire and brimstone, burning sulfur rain down upon the cities and their inhabitants until everything and everyone is just a scorched spot in the desert.  Not a living thing left – only the stench of sulfur and smoke rising from the land where once life had thrived.  And vs. 27 says, Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the LORD. He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace.

The tragic story ends with the statement that Lot’s wife had looked back, disobeying the explicit command of the angels, and she had become a pillar of salt.  A horrifying reminder to everyone who saw her that the Lord means what he says.

It’s hard to read this story and not see similarities between that day and our day.  And perhaps to learn some valuable lessons from Lot’s experience.

Lot’s troubles began when he put himself in the path of sin.

You can just hear Lot telling himself:  “I see the sinfulness of the city, but I just won’t let it affect me.” 

We turn on the TV and the first time we heard the “s” word we were outraged – “can you believe they let that on TV?” Now we turn on the TV and it’s laced through every show, whether drama or comedy, from every character, whether young or old, and we think, “well, that’s just the way it is now.”  The first time they had a gay character on, we couldn’t believe it – now every show has to have a gay character on (and that character is always the kindest, most ethical, most likeable, while the villain is usually the hypocritical Christian) – “well, that’s just the way it is now.”

Sin always starts small, works its way in, makes a home and takes over.  Nobody wakes up one day and thinks, “I’m going to become an alcoholic today.”  Nobody heads to the office thinking, “Today’s the day I’m going to have an affair and destroy my marriage and my family.”  Sin rarely “just happens.”  It begins small and grows – like Eve in the garden, over weeks and perhaps even months she walked by the tree and spoke with the serpent and each time she grew a little more accustomed to his presence and his words.  Each time, he became a little more persuasive, and her defenses came down just a little more, until finally she saw, she took and she ate.  Yes, that was the day she sinned – but the sin had its roots days and weeks earlier.  Remember James’ words:  … but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. (James 1:14-16)

I don’t know when the change came, but Lot stopped looking at Sodom as those people and started thinking of them as his people – look at vs. 6:  Lot went outside to meet them… and said, “No my friends…” 

Where did Lot meet the two angels?  At the city gate – the hub of activity, the center of government and civil affairs.  He was immersed in their culture – he thought of himself as one of them.

Lot allowed his daughters to choose their potential husbands from among the young men of the city – men whom we are led to believe practiced the same perversions as every other man in the city.  When Lot warned them of the impending danger, they both laughed and thought he was joking.

Lot wasn’t innocent by any means – when the men came to his door for the two strangers, he offered them his own daughters instead.  Lot’s life – if it isn’t a sooty black, it is a dingy gray.  He had forsaken the call of God to come out from the wickedness of the world.  He had compromised and adapted until there was very little that made him different from them.

Lot’s hesitancy and resistance to the urgent plea of the angels to flee tells us the kind of hold that life had on him.  Lot’s wife, even more than Lot, had left her heart back in Sodom.  Fleeing from the destruction, she looks back, disobeying what the angels had commanded (“One more look – how I’m going to miss it.  If only I could go back”) and she turns into a pillar of salt.    Forever frozen in time as a memorial to the enslaving power of sin.

Sin has that kind of power.  It deceives us into thinking it has no power over us – we’re strong, it can’t affect us.  I can wallow in the midst of it and come out sparkling pure.  Satan is the father of lies.  Paul writes:  They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:17-24)

And looking at Lot we see ourselves.  Satan’s greatest power is to obscure the urgent.  We always have a little more time.  Nothing is so important that it can’t be put off.  We can always count on tomorrow to get started on our good intentions.  If there is no urgency, there is no importance.  If there is no importance then it can wait.  But God takes sin seriously:  First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.  (2 Peter 3:3-12)

Even when we turn and walk away from sin, sin always beckons us back.  Like a tantalizing temptress it entices us to return, promising rewards it can never deliver.  Sin is a never satisfying mirage, but its power lingers long after we have left it behind us.  Paul writes of letting sin linger – “do not give the Devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:27)

Sin addicts – just as powerfully as cigarettes or alcohol or heroin.  Pride and greed and lust are just as addictive.  We all have our substance of choice – and with only our own strength and willpower to withstand it – we will fall.  The first step is to admit that you are powerless over sin.  And the second step is to believe that God has the power to deliver you from that sin.

In Romans 7, Paul describes his own struggle with sin – you remember his words:  I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  And so, at the end of the chapter he says:  So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.

And in a cry that echoes in our own souls, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

But Paul is not without hope, because understands where the power comes from:  “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Let’s take one more lesson from Lot’s wife:  when you have left sin, don’t look back.

When Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes landed at Vera Cruz in 1519 to begin his conquest of Mexico with a small force of seven hundred men, after they had landed and brought their supplies ashore, he sent men back out to set fire to his fleet of eleven ships.  His men on the shore watched their only means of retreat sink to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.  There was now only one direction – to move forward into the Mexican interior to meet whatever might come their way.

Don’t just turn away from sin – burn your ships.  Whatever connections you had to your old life, leave them behind – friends, habits – cut your connections.  And most of all, rely on the Holy Spirit to give you the power to say no and mean it.