When Your Life is Stuck on Pause: Pray Before our Great Friend and Priest (Gen. 18:16-33)
Last time we saw that being in covenant with God means that the Lord extends His friendship to us. The church as a covenant community is a community of friends. Tim Keller, in The Meaning of Marriage defines friendship as a “deep oneness that develops as two people journey together toward the same destination, helping one another through the dangers and challenges along the way.” Notice the words, “same destination.” It is not simply looking at each other for something, but looking toward the same goal, in our case, Jesus Christ, our lover and friend. The more we look at Him, the more unified and intimate we become. And it is this friendship God wants to cultivate with us despite how “stuck” our life has become.
Friendship is so foundational to life. The Bible calls Abraham, a friend of God (2 Chron. 20:7; Is. 41:8; Jam. 2:23). What humility and condescension of God to come near to us as His friends. And we know He draws near to us in friendship because Jesus became God’s enemy (Eph. 2:13). We all crave intimacy in friendship, for someone to know us and still love us.
But being in a true relationship with anybody changes you, so being in a relationship with God changes you like nothing else! Proverbs tells us that a friend loves at all times, even during adversity (Prov. 17:17). There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24). So one of the characteristics of a good friendship is constancy. True friends do not let you down. God has been a great friend to Abraham, even though Abraham has not been one to God. God has not let him down. So what’s amazing is that even though Abraham has let God down and has not been constant, God still calls Abraham a friend!
But we are going to see another characteristic of a good friend revealed to us in Genesis 18. It is transparency. A true friend does not let you down (constancy), but also let’s you in (transparency).  Jesus says, “…I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). God is going to let Abraham in on His heart. When your life is stuck on pause, know that God wants to cultivate with you a friendship that is constant and transparent, not simply for you to enjoy it, but to help you introduce this friend of all friends to the lost. How do you cultivate this kind of friendship with God? First of all:
I. The friendship of the Lord is cultivated through intimacy in prayer (vv.16-21)
The covenantal meal being over, Abraham, the eager and excellent host, now escorts his guests (two angels and the Lord Jesus) as they depart from his tent in Gen. 18:16. Notice the phrase “they looked down toward Sodom.” This is perhaps a clue of the author telling us that judgment is coming. Last time God “looked down” was in Gen. 11:5 where the LORD “came down to see.” And we know how that ended. I want to highlight some things here about cultivating intimate prayer. How do we do it? First of all:
a) Make room for intimacy
Paul Miller in his book A Praying Life says, “Any relationship, if it is going to grow, needs private space, time together without an agenda, where you can get to know each other. This creates an environment where closeness can happen, where we can begin to understand each other’s hearts. You don’t create intimacy; you make room for it. This is true whether you are talking about your spouse, your friend, or God. You need space to be together. Efficiency, multitasking, and busyness all kill intimacy. In short, you can’t get to know God on the fly.”
If you want intimacy with the Lord, you make room for it. Notice Abraham “went with them.” Remember how God told Abraham to enjoy the benefits of the covenant? Gen. 17:1: “Walk before and be blameless,” where “blameless” means to “be whole.” And what is Abraham doing? Walking with God. Having dined with the Lord, now he walks with Him and talks with Him. He makes room to be intimate with the Lord. This chapter is a good picture of the believer’s walk before the Lord. What does it mean to walk with the Lord? You are serving for the Lord, you have fellowship with the Lord and you intercede for others before the Lord.
And then the Lord has this dialogue with Himself or with the other two men in Gen. 18:17. God says He is going to choose to let Abraham in on where His heart is. This is like if someone tells you, “I don’t know if I should tell you this…” Once they say that, you know they’re going to tell you. It’s a way to tell you that they trust you. God is going to trust Abraham with some things in God’s heart. One author says, “Fellowship with God is always associated with the knowledge of His will. Servants do not know their master’s purposes, but friends and intimates do.” A true friend lets you in to your heart. God brings up the covenant again. Since He has covenanted His heart with Abraham’s, how can He not disclose His heart to him? Look in Gen. 18:19 where God says, “I have chosen him.” The text literally reads, “I have known him” (i.e., “I have an intimate relationship with him.” This is deep, personal and intimate knowledge. God has already covenanted His heart with ours, but for us to enjoy that, we must make room for intimacy. Abraham would not have received this revelation going back to take a nap in his tent.
Notice here that God is more eager to show Abraham than Abraham is to receive it. As Jonathan Edwards says, “God is as ready, and more ready, to bestow than we are to ask, and more ready to open than we are to knock.” His hand is on the doorknob before our knuckles hit the wood. Satan would want us to see God as a cruel taker instead of God as a lavish giver. But we must create a space for Him to draw near and fill our cups.
I don’t know about you, but I am not good at praying. It takes about 15 seconds when I start to pray for me to think about lunch or who won the game last night. It is something I feel like I will be working on for the rest of my life. It is when I start praying that I realize how unspiritual I really am. As Miller says, “Nothing exposes our selfishness and spiritual powerlessness like prayer.” This is because everything in us says, “Get to work!” or “Get entertained!”
But I think the biggest reason prayer is hard for us is because we make it about the praying instead of making it about the Gospel. What do I mean? The Gospel says we are freely accepted on the basis of what Jesus has done for us. He saved us when we were helpless. We did not have it together. We were dead, lost and helpless. The only way the Gospel can be received is through helplessness. But after we are saved, we start to think we can help ourselves. Self-confidence and self-sufficiency sets in. Now I feel like I have to pray because that what Christians do and I so mumble something I think God wants to hear and then give up as I feel like a hypocrite. How can He accept me when I can’t even pray? See what’s happening? Did He accept me in the first place because I was a good “pray-er”? No. He accepted me on the basis of Jesus Christ and now I have made it about Him accepting me on the basis of how well I prayed.
Miller adds that, “…The very thing we are allergic to—our helplessness—is what makes prayer work. It works because we are helpless. We can’t do life on our own. Prayer mirrors the gospel. In the gospel, the Father takes us as we are because of Jesus and gives us his gift of salvation. In prayer, the Father receives us as we are because of Jesus and gives us his gift of help. We look at the inadequacy of our praying and give up, thinking something is wrong with us. God looks at the adequacy of his Son and delights in our sloppy, meandering prayers.”
A strong Christian prays more, but they pray more because they see their weakness better. Our maturity in Christ begins when we see how immature we are. This is why we can learn so much from children. I remember Annabelle, my almost 2 year old, the other day running to me with yogurt all over her face as the rest of her lunch was all over her shirt and pants. She didn’t once think I’m sure, “Well my father is home. Let me properly present myself or he will not accept me. Oh my! I am quite a mess. I should have properly swallowed these dairy products since they have a potential for such uncleanness. Let me change my attire and clean my face or else. Let me also prepare a long list of items I would like for him to accomplish while he is here.” She didn’t care how she looked. She ran to me with her arms raised never doubting for a second that I will not pick her up. She cupped my face into her tiny hands and said, “Daddy!” And I grabbed her face into my hands and said, “Where’s the paper towel?!” Yes, I am an imperfect father, but I can tell you that I cannot resist my child, regardless of how they look, when they simply want to be with me. As Jesus would say, how much more our Heavenly Father?
Practically speaking, I would encourage you to start small. Take wobbly steps like a toddler learning to walk. Try five minutes. Change the space. Take a walk. Go for a drive. I would also encourage you to remember that we are created for rhythm. The creation was created with an “evening and morning” (Gen. 1) rhythm. The nights and evenings are connected. If you pray in the morning, the best thing you can do is prepare for your morning prayer time on the evening before. I find that when my thoughts the night before are on the Lord and meditating on Him and His goodness, it is a lot easier to draw near to Him the next morning when I wake up.
But more than tips, I want to go to the root issues. If you are neglecting prayer in your life, is it because you are looking more at the adequacy of your praying more than the adequacy of Jesus? Are you focused on praying or on God? Do you draw near to God only when you don’t feel less messy or in the middle of your messiness, distraction and pride? How helpless are you? Helplessness makes us humble and God cannot resist the humble. Secondly,
b) Take the blessing to others
Gen. 18:19 gives us the purpose for God’s friendship and intimacy with Abraham is not simply for Abraham. Abraham is blessed to be a blessing (Gen. 12:3). He is to be a channel of blessing to the nations, but where does it start? It starts with “his children and his household after him.” God is asking Him to make disciples, right where he is. Don’t get far too ahead Abraham. Let’s start by being faithful at home. The best thing you can do for your family is to walk with God. So when God shares His heart with you and puts His heart in your hands, it is so that you can share it with those around you, starting with those in covenant with you in your family.
Notice the “way of the Lord.” Eugene H. Merrill explains, “The way (derek) is … the whole course of life lived in conformity to covenant obligation.” As you are walking with the Lord in your whole life, instruct the children to do the same. Carry God’s heart of righteousness and justice with you as you are walking. Righteousness here means rightly ordering a community where God is God and live by His rule. Waltke adds, “A righteous person rightly orders community, and a just one restores broken community, especially by punishing the oppressor and delivering the oppressed.” In other words, carry God’s heart to others. He is righteous and just.
All of these blessings are for you to be a blessing Abraham to the nations. We know that we are an answer to that. We are blessed because of the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ! God pours into us always not to fill us, but to empty us out for others. In case Abraham does not know what God’s heart of righteousness and justice is like in Gen. 18:20, he gets an illustration from God. Notice the word “outcry.” This word is used in Scripture to describe the cries of the oppressed and brutalized, like the oppressed widow or orphan (cf. Ex. 22:22, 23), the cry of the oppressed servant (cf. Deut. 24:15), and the cries of the Israelites in Egypt (cf. Ex. 2:23; 3:7, 9).” There are victims of cruelty and social injustice crying out for help (whether or not they know the Lord, God hears them).
There is not one abuse that is going on in the world today that God does not hear. He is a defender of the weak. God is a God of rescue. We tend to think of Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin as just sexual perversion, but Ezekiel 16:49 says, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” God’s heart breaks for injustice. Remember right before the Flood God was grieved in His heart (Gen. 6:6)? God has chosen to knit His heart with ours so that “His own joy is so deeply tied with us such that when he sees something going wrong with our life, He experiences the deepest and most shattering pain possible.”
Here like Abel’s blood crying from the ground (Gen. 4:10), God’s heart again is breaking at the brokenness of sin. There is something about injustice that hushes all the harps in heaven and makes God turn His head. He is not indifferent. Notice in Gen. 18:21 that God says He “will go down to see.” You might be wondering why God has to walk and go down instead of just flying down or beaming over. All of this language means He is personally involved. A fair judge sees the evidence firsthand. There is a difference between knowing something and having it demonstrated before your eyes. Pastor Kent Hughes says, “By this He assured Abraham that he would base his judgment on full, accurate information. God would send his angels on a fact-finding mission—to gather information he already perfectly knew.”
God calls us to have the same heart. But do we? Recently, Jenny and I have been becoming more aware of an epidemic in the world called sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is when you take someone by deception, force, threat or fraud to use them for sexual exploitation. This is essentially what people are doing when they look at pornography. This is a growing problem in the world, but it is closer to home than you think. Here are some stats that may shock you:
- Did you know that more than $9.5 billion in profits are generated worldwide from trafficking in human beings. It is the second largest and the fastest growing criminal industry in the world today, after drug dealing (US. DOS, 2008)?
- The number of people trafficked across international borders each year according to the State Department is 600,000-800,000 (U.S. DOS, 2008).
- Of the foreign victims trafficked into the U.S., approximately 50 % are under the age of 18 years, and 80% are female (U.S.DOJ, 2003).
- In a 2003 article, The New York Times labeled Chicago as a national hub for human trafficking (Frederick, 2007).
- Among the Midwest ports of entry, Chicago experiences the highest volume of arriving immigrants and as such is more likely to be a point of entry for trafficking victims (Jones & Yousefzadeh, 2006).
- Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, because of its strategic location and importance, is considered a highly used transit location by traffickers to transport victims and disperse them as needed to other cities and states.
- Traffickers seize opportunities for increased profits by trafficking greater numbers of women for sexual exploitation into Chicago during events where the city is filled with large numbers of tourists (Tanagho, 2007).
Sometimes we think this kind of stuff is going on in some poor country somewhere. It is actually in our neighborhoods! I’m sharing these things so that we are aware of something that God seems to always notice: injustice and oppression. These trafficked kids and men and women are in slavery. They do not have a voice, but God hears their cry and God calls us to be part of their rescue in some way. Because when God extends His friendship to us and we cultivate intimacy with him in prayer, we start to see what God sees and we start to hear what God hears and we start to feel what God feels. We are always so concerned about ourselves that we forget that God’s heart is others-centered, totally torn apart with injustice. What does it say about our heart when the thing that grieves us the most is our sports team losing or missing our favorite television show? So lastly,
II. The friendship of the Lord is to partner as a priest for the lost (vv.22-33)
God’s friendship with us is always for God’s mission to be accomplished through us. A good friendship has something outside of the friends themselves that connect them together like common hobbies or interests. There is a mission that keeps the friendship together. Similarly, God, the friend of Abraham, is now going to invite Abraham to partner with Him in mission, as a priest for the lost. This is how Abraham will be a blessing to the nations. God says, “I’m going down to investigate and judge, but I am going to invite you to step forward and intervene.”
Abraham gets a big picture of God’s broken heart. What will he do with that? Look at Gen. 18:22. He stands before the Lord. It’s almost as if something serious is about to happen. Interestingly the word “drew near” in Gen. 18:23 is a legal word, “often used for someone about to deliver a legal plea.” You may have seen lawyers ask, “Permission to approach the bench, your honor”? Likewise, Abraham is a legal representative here, a mediator, for his enemies.
This is pretty surprising. Notice he is not just asking God to take his nephew, Lot, and his family out and to destroy the rest of those “dirty pagans.” No mention here of Lot at all (though I am sure he is thinking of him). He is actually asking for the entire city. Remember that Abraham saved these people through the war (Gen. 14). He might be asking for these people he loved. And these people are Canaanites! What a big heart for those who could potentially kill Abraham! This is a big risk. This is a unique intercession. All other intercession of God’s prophets in the Bible is for God’s own people (Moses in Ex. 32–34, Samuel (1 Sam 12:23), Amos (7:1–9), and Jeremiah (e.g., Jer. 14:7–9, 13; 15:1). Abraham is a priest, advocating for the mercy of God on behalf of his enemies. As Keith Krell says, “Abraham is never more like God than at the moment he is praying for Sodom.”
What do we mean by righteous and wicked? The righteous are those who have a relationship with God through the covenant of God and the wicked do not. Remember that Gentiles were also welcome into this covenant (Gen. 17:12-13). Abraham is asking God for mercy. Abraham starts at the justice of God in Gen. 18:25. You are a law-giving God and you are a righteous God. I’m not saying you are not just, God, Abraham says. But what Abraham is asking is if God could value the righteousness of a few to cover the unrighteousness and undeserving of the many? If people break your law God, is that it? Is there a way someone else’s record can be used to forgive us?
We don’t know where he got the number 50. Some say if you had 100 fighting men, you had a city, so perhaps Abraham is assuming that if you have half a city of believers, could God take that fact and use their righteousness to cover the other unrighteous half of the city. What is happening here? This is more than just persistent prayer or “nagging God.” Abraham in his priestly duties is exploring the depth, the breadth and the length of God’s incredible grace. And it is not because God ignores sin, but that God so values righteousness that God can spare a city with a very few number of righteous people. If you look here Abraham is not arrogant, but very humble, acknowledging his origin as dust and headed towards ashes (Gen. 18:27). He is humble, yet confident and bold. This is what a relationship with the Lord looks like. One author says, “Outside of the gospel, we may feel like ‘dust and ashes’ and that we don’t deserve to go to God. Or we may feel that we are good enough to go to God, but we would never have Abraham’s humility and passion for lost people.” The gospel makes us humble and confident at the same time!
Abraham then lowers the number by 5 twice to 40 and then goes down by 10s. I think each time Abraham is shocked to find that God’s will to save is stronger than his desire to punish! He might have gone down by tens because ten people represent a community. Could there be one righteous community there?
Abraham stops at 10 people. God, a gracious God, goes down to such a small number. But Abraham stops at 10. Why didn’t he go down to 1? Did he assume Lot, his wife, two daughters and their husbands-to-be (Gen. 19:14) and couple of others were there and he felt he had already seen God do so much? Did Abraham just freak out? We don’t really know, but Abraham did learn a lesson and that’s what praying with our gracious Friend of Friends does, it changes us. What did Abraham learn? Abraham learned that the righteousness of someone else can cover the unrighteousness of others.
But Abraham is an imperfect priest. A priest is supposed to be a mediator who “stands in the gap” between a holy God and unholy people and bring them together. Abraham is unable to save Sodom. In the end, there were just three “righteous” people: Lot and his two daughters. But those “righteous” people were barely righteous, as we will see next week, when they end up in a cave in an incestuous relationship.
But we also know something Abraham did not know. It actually takes just one completely righteous person to save the unrighteous. We have a better high priest. Centuries later, Jesus Christ, who knew no sin, the truly and utterly righteous one, stood in the gap between unrighteous man and a righteous God. He was stripped of His righteousness and robed with our unrighteousness, so we can be robed with His righteousness. Abraham prayed for a people who could have killed him, but Jesus, to save us from God’s judgment, prayed to forgive the people that were killing him. Abraham risked his life, but Jesus gave His life. Abraham learned the principle that the righteousness of a few can cover the unrighteousness of many, but Jesus executed the principle. Abraham went home failing, but Jesus lives forever interceding for us!
The book of Hebrews says, “He holds a priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). We are spared because our High Priest also became our sacrifice. So instead our name being in the judgment book, it is now engraved on His hands and is written on his heart. We are spared because as unrighteous as we are, we have come under the righteousness of the utterly righteous one. His righteousness has saved us!
I know many of us are stuck on pause and I don’t know when it will be unstuck. But God is calling us to something bigger than us. As I meditated and prayed about this, I sensed the Lord was saying, “I am your great High priest Living Hope. I am always interceding for you and I am calling you to be my priests in this city of Glendale Heights.” I felt like the Lord rebuked me gently, that we are just like Sodom and Gomorrah. We are proud, have abundance and don’t care about the lost. I need to repent. We need to repent. We have cluttered our lives with so much garbage, ease, technology, food and comfort. But the Lord calls us to something bigger. He is calling us back to intimacy with Him. And remember it is this helplessness that draws Him near to us. Our poverty of spirit unleashes the generosity of His grace and power!
Loved ones, we are here for those who are not here. We are here to intercede for those whose cries are muffled because they are oppressed. And before we go into this community, I felt the Lord was drawing near to us and calling us to come back to Him. He cups our face and our heart in His hands and says, “Come to me messy children. You don’t have the resources to do life. I will remove your blindness, so you can see what I see. I will open your deaf ears, so you can hear what I hear. I will soften your hard hearts, so you can feel what I feel.” Lord, give us grace to need this grace and as our cup overflows, pour it out to so many with empty lives around us today, for Jesus’ sake.
Keller, T. (2011). The Meaning of Marriage (115). New York, NY: Dutton.
Kidner, D. (1964). Vol. 17: Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (41–42). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Miller, Paul (2009-05-15). A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World (Kindle Locations 692-696). NavPress. Kindle Edition.
Griffith-Thomas, W.H. quoted in Tom Constable. (2003; 2003). Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Ge 18:16). Galaxie Software.
Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (2001). Genesis: A commentary (269). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Miller, P. (Kindle Location 491).
Ibid. (Kindle Locations 797-801).
Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (269).
Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: Beginning and Blessing. Preaching the Word (263). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Keller, T. as quoted by Benjamin Toh in “Divine Judgment,” http://westloop-church.org/messages/old-testament/15-genesis/171-divine-judgment-genesis-65-13 accessed 20 October 2011.
Walton, J. (2001). The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (475). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Hughes, R. K. (264).
Alter, R. (1996). Genesis: Translation and Commentary (81). New York, NY: Norton.
Wenham, G. J. (2002). Vol. 2: Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary (53). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
Krell. K. “If I was God…” http://bible.org/seriespage/if-i-was-god%E2%80%A6-genesis-1816-33#P45_19825 accessed 10 March 2012.
Wenham, G. J. (52).
Toh, Benjamin. “Friendship and Intimacy”