Sermon: Sodom and Gomorrah by the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Sermon: Sodom and Gomorrah by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, May 9, 2004
Sermons on Audio

Genesis 19:4-14, 24-25 Sodom and Gomorrah

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom, both young and old, surrounded the house. They called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have relations with them."

Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, "No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof."

"Get out of our way," they replied. And they said, "This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We'll treat you worse than them." They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.

But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door.

The two men said to Lot, "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, because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it."

So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were pledged to marry his daughters. He said, "Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city!" But his sons-in-law thought he was joking. . . .

Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities, and also the vegetation in the land.

Matthew 8:18-22 The cost of following Jesus

When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go."

Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."

Another disciple said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."

But Jesus told him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."

Arcana Coelestia #2220 The meaning of Sodom

In the Bible, "Sodom" means every evil that flows from selfish love. In Genesis 19 it seems as if Sodom means the evil of the worst form of adultery. But in the inner meaning, nothing else is meant by it than evil that flows from selfish love. In the Bible, the horrible things that well up out of selfish love are represented by various kinds of adultery. In general, "Sodom" means every evil that flows from selfish love, and "Gomorrah" every falsity that comes from that evil.

Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities, and also the vegetation in the land. (Genesis 19:24, 25)

This is one of the most difficult stories in the Bible. Last week we read a much nicer story--but it was leading up to the destruction of this week. Last week we talked about Abraham pleading for Sodom: how he went through the fifty, the forty-five, the forty, the thirty, the twenty, and the ten, pleading with the Lord to see if there was any way that the city could be saved. We talked about how this speaks of the great mercy of the Lord: that if there is any good and truth left in us that God can reach out to, God will reach out to us, and will bring us out of the evil--out of the destruction.

This week we look at the question: What if we utterly reject goodness and truth, and choose evil instead? How does the Lord deal with us when we entirely reject goodness? When we entirely reject God? When there is nothing good and true left in us because we refuse to let it be there, or we corrupt it for our own evil purposes?

There is another way of looking and this story--one that is more hopeful for us. The story of Sodom can be seen as God's mercy taking away the evil and falsity within us. It can be seen as God destroying the things in us that we are troubled with and that we struggle against. We all have our struggles. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is about God taking away that pain and hardship from our lives.

Finally, in the inner life of Jesus, it is about the Lord completely rejecting everything evil and false. The Lord rejected every wrong motive and every false thought. In doing this, he delivered us from the clutches of hell. And that is also what the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about.

From the teachings of our church and from looking more carefully at the overall Bible narrative, we find that this is not an entirely "bad" story. It does have something hopeful about it. Next time we will talk about how Lot and his family escaped--which I hope is what all of us will do from the spiritual devastation represented by the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. And that is certainly a message of hope.

For today, we ask: What is this story all about, with its tale of the evil things those men were trying to do, and of the destruction that followed as a consequence?

Many Biblical literalists and Christian conservatives will say that this chapter is all about homosexuality. Of course, we could read it that way. But if we want to make an argument about homosexuality based on the literal sense of the Bible, there are other passages that are much clearer than this one. Why? Because what those men in Genesis 19 wanted to do would be evil no matter whom it was directed at, whether male or female. Gang rape is a horrible evil regardless of whether it is homosexual or heterosexual. Lot offered his daughters to the men. (He was not a particularly admirable character!) And it would have been just as evil if they had carried out their intentions on Lot's virginal daughters as if they had done it to the men who were visiting Lot.

This story is not really about homosexuality. Rather, the prophet Ezekiel tells us what the sin of Sodom was:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them, as you have seen. (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

This is very close to what Swedenborg says is the real meaning of "Sodom and Gomorrah" in the spiritual sense of the Bible. He says that Sodom represents the evil of selfish love--especially the selfish love of dominating others--and Gomorrah represents all the false ideas that come from this selfishness and desire to dominate.

We have all had some experience of this. We have all had the experience of being bent on something that we know in our heart is not right, but that we really want to do. And our brain is ingenious at coming up with excuses and rationalizations for why we should go ahead--and why it would actually be right to do so. Sodom is our desire for self-indulgence and power; Gomorrah is the justifications and rationalizations that we come up with to back up our desires. This is what those cities represent spiritually.

So the sin of Sodom was not what it is usually considered to be. Rather, both the Bible and Swedenborg say that the sin of Sodom is arrogance, violence, and blatant disregard for the needs of others. In other words, Sodom represents rank selfishness. That's what this story is all about. Anyone who would treat others in such an atrocious way is obviously involved in rank selfishness leading to a total disregard for the well-being of others.

That is the meaning of the story, both literally spiritually. The message is that this kind of rank selfishness, this kind of total disregard for the well-being of others and exclusive focus on our own pleasure and happiness, leads to our own destruction.

Now let's talk about who destroyed Sodom. In the Bible story, it says quite clearly that fire and brimstone rained down out of heaven from God. So we are told that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. (Though we should also notice that the angels speaking with Sodom said that they were going to destroy the city.)

I would submit to you that this is the way God presents it to us when we are opposed to God's way. Think about someone who is brought before the judge. This person has robbed or murdered or raped, and is in front of the judge being convicted of the crime he has committed. Who is he going to blame it on? He is not going to blame it on himself. He's going to blame it on the judge, the jury, the victim--on everyone but himself! In the same way, when we have done something evil, we will often blame God for any bad consequences that come from our own sin.

The Bible often talks in terms of how we humans perceive things. From our point of view, when we do something wrong and we get in trouble for it, it is usually someone else's fault. It is our parents' fault. It is the judge's fault. Or if we are religious, it is God's fault. God is the one who is causing this punishment to come upon us.

Yet if we look at it reasonably and objectively, we know that when something bad comes from our own actions, we are bringing that evil upon ourselves. We are the ones flouting the law. If it's a physical thing, such as an addiction or a damaging lifestyle, we are the one who is bringing the destruction upon ourselves through our actions.

So even though it appeared to be from God, what was really bringing destruction on Sodom was the evil of the people. And Swedenborg would tell us that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah actually came from hell rather than from God; from evil spirits rather than from angels.

Then why would God let it be said in the Bible that it was God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah?

Besides what I already mentioned, another answer to this question is that for many people, if God isn't the one who punishes us for our wrongdoing, then he's no kind of God at all. In the minds of such people, if God is all-powerful, it means God must be able to do both good and evil--to both reward and punish. And God allows people to believe this way so that they will respect God, and follow his commandments.

However, in our church we believe that God never brings destruction on anyone, nor is ever angry with anyone. We believe that God is entirely loving. At times he lets us think he is angry with us. But really, he loves us continually and completely--even when we turn away from him.

Yet there are times when God cannot prevent the pain and destruction that comes upon us as a result our own actions. If we engage in wrong practices such as deliberately rushing into conflict and war, the result is pain and death. And God does not stop those results from happening, because in doing such things, we reject God's help and protection.

That is what today's story is all about. It is about when we are completely unwilling to listen to God. It is about when we humans simply will not to do what God wants us to. It is about when we stubbornly go our own way, no matter what God says or does. This is what is represented by the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. And God will not prevent the resulting destruction from coming upon us. Of course, he will do the best he can to protect us and soften the blow. But if we are bent on the wrong course, God will allow us to feel the consequences of our actions. The reason for this, under God's Providence, is that God hopes that when we feel the painful consequences of our attitudes and actions, we will realize that our way is wrong, and that we need to change our attitudes and reform our lives.

This is an example of what it means when we are putting ourselves in the place of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Just to make sure it isn't all theoretical, consider addiction to a substance such as alcohol. There are many helps available. There are ways we can break that habit and get free from the addiction. But if we refuse all that help and continue to drink heavily, we will bring destruction upon ourselves. No one else is doing it to us. No one is forcing the alcohol down our throat. And if we keep at it, we will eventually find ourselves on skid row. If we would ever listen, and get the help we need, then we could escape from that destruction. But God will not stop the consequences of our actions, because if he did, we would never learn the right way; we would never truly change, from the inside out.

Earlier, I mentioned that there is another way of seeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah--a more hopeful way. So far, we have been speaking from a perspective of identifying ourselves with Sodom. In this perspective, we are the ones who are doing the evil, and we are the ones who are being destroyed as a result. And that is never pleasant!

But think about the cities and towns around Sodom and Gomorrah. Think about Lot, who was a foreigner visiting there. The inhabitants of Sodom were violating one of the most important laws of the ancient Near East: the law of hospitality. Guests were considered sacred in those days. You did not do evil things to them. In the context of that culture, for the men of those cities to gather around Lot's house to attack his guests meant that they were utterly evil and depraved.

Think about all the cities and towns near Sodom and Gomorrah. They had to deal with all those people who were bent on evil and destruction. It would be like living next to the old Combat Zone in Boston: you would live in constant fear of what might happen to you and your family because of all the criminal activity nearby. If we look at it from the perspective of the people outside Sodom and Gomorrah, the destruction of those cities was not a curse, but a blessing. It meant deliverance from people who might do them harm.

I hope this is the perspective each of us will be able to look at it from: not as if we are Sodom, but as if we are the people who are going to be saved from Sodom's influence.

In us, that influence is all of our "tendencies toward evil," in theological terms, or what in common language we call our bad habits. Sodom is everything that tends to drag us down. We know what that is in ourselves. We all have things that tend to drag us down; that we struggle against; that we sometimes lose the battle against. These are the Sodom and Gomorrah in us. And God is promising us that if we will hang on, like Lot, and follow the angels out of the city (which we will talk about next time), God will save us from those destructive tendencies in ourselves. He will destroy the evil within us so that we will no longer have to struggle against it, and it will no longer drag us down.

This is the hopeful message of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is the promise that God makes to us. If we will do our best to follow God's way, we will eventually overcome. In the words of the old spiritual: "We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day." This is the promise made by the destruction of Sodom. Some day we will overcome those personal demons that we struggle against.

Finally, there is the meaning of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the life of Jesus. The Lord never committed any evil or any sin. He was the one sinless person who ever lived on this earth, because he was God's own presence on this earth.

But this does not mean that he didn't have his struggles. We have talked in this series about how the Lord had all the tendencies toward evil and selfishness that we do. He got those tendencies from his human mother, and from the culture around him--as well as from evil influences that flowed in from hell. He had to struggle against all the same wrong and evil things that we struggle against--and many more that we can't even conceive of.

He struggled very bitterly against them. We read about his temptation in the desert after he was baptized; about his praying in Gethsemane before his crucifixion. We read the accounts of his battles with the corrupt religious authorities of the day, and of his struggles to reach so many people whose lives were focused on their own immediate pleasure and possessions. We can imagine how much agony he must have endured fighting against all of that human evil. It was the same evil that we fight against, except at a far deeper level. Jesus went through all the struggles that we go through. He had to fight against the Sodom and Gomorrah that were attacking him.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction is the story of how the Lord completely rejected all human evil and falsity. He rejected it and he overcame it. And when he overcame it, he also took to himself the power to overcome our evils. And he will deliver us from our own inner Sodom and Gomorrah if we will let him into our lives by believing in him, loving him, and obeying his commandments to the best of our abilities. Amen.

God Grant Us Peace
Bruce DeBoer

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