A Divine Rescue Mission

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, May 23, 2004
Sermons on Audio

Readings

Genesis 19:1-3, 15-23, 26-29 Lot and his family rescued

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. "My lords," he said, "please turn aside to your servant's house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning."

"No," they answered, "we will spend the night in the square."

But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. . . .

With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, "Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished."

When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them. As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, "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!"

But Lot said to them, "No, my Lord, please! Your servant has found favor in your eyes, and you have shown great kindness to me in sparing my life. But I can't flee to the mountains; this disaster will overtake me, and I'll die. Look, here is a town near enough to run to, and it is small. Let me flee to it--it is very small, isn't it? Then my life will be spared."

He said to him, "Very well, I will grant this request too; I will not overthrow the town you speak of. But flee there quickly, because I cannot do anything until you reach it." (That is why the town was called Zoar.) By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land. . . .

But Lot's wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.

Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the Lord. He looked down towards Sodom and Gomorrah, towards all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace.

So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.

Luke 5:27-32 The calling of Levi

After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. "Follow me," Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything, and followed him.

Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?"

Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

Arcana Coelestia #2457 Rescue by the Lord

The separation of the good from the evil, and the salvation of the good but condemnation of the evil, was achieved solely through the Lord's Divine Essence united to his Human Essence. Otherwise, all those people represented by Lot would also have perished along with the rest.

Sermon

So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived. (Genesis 19:29)

Tales of brave rescue from the clutches of evil and from impending disaster have always been a staple of popular storytelling. Traditionally, a damsel in distress is rescued from death or dishonor, as in the ancient myth of Perseus and Andromeda, or in a more complicated plot, Helen of Troy. However, it is not always women who are saved from peril. For example, in the popular 1998 World War II movie Saving Private Ryan, the object of the rescue mission was a male soldier stationed behind enemy lines.

In today's story from Genesis 19, it is a whole family that needs rescuing. And the rescuers are not soldiers or heroes with winged feet, but angels acting for the Lord.

Two weeks ago we looked at the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but we passed over the parts about the rescue of Lot and his wife and two daughters. As I said then, the destruction of those cities is all about the inevitable destruction that we bring upon ourselves when we persist in evil ways of living. It is also about the destruction of evil motives and false ideas within us when we are willing to be led by the Lord. And in the case of the Lord Jesus, it is about his battling and overcoming all the influences of evil and hell that tried to destroy him.

In overcoming hell and evil, the Lord took to himself the power to rescue us from the grip of evil, too. That is what today's sections of the story are all about.

As objects of rescue go, Lot was less like Andromeda, the innocent damsel in distress condemned to die because of the jealousy of her rivals, and more like Helen of Troy, who willingly engaged in an affair with Paris, the prince of Troy. In other words, Lot was a mixed character, and his predicament was at least partly of his own making. Of course, Lot can't be blamed for the corrupt character of the inhabitants of Sodom. However, he would have been in much better shape if he had not chosen to live among them.

This is emblematic of the situation that we humans tend to find ourselves in. We can't be personally blamed for all the materialistic and evil influences of the culture around us. The culture into which we were born was there before we even existed, and it is a lot bigger than we are. Human culture is a stubborn beast; there is not a lot that we as individuals can do to change it. Every once in a while a rare spiritual and moral leader comes along who does spearhead a wave of societal change. But most of us will be quite content if we can simply make things a little better in our own neighborhood.

However, truth be told, most of us end out doing less changing of our surrounding culture and more adapting to it. Going against popular trends is difficult and tiring. It is so much easier just to go along to get along. So we find the vast bulk of the population simply going along with whatever the flow of the culture happens to be, whether it is good or bad, moral or immoral. And we have to admit that we ourselves are often in this category.

Lot certainly was. It's not that he was a bad man. He did offer hospitality to the two angels, in contrast to the men of the city who wanted to abuse them. At the angels' suggestion, he even pleaded with his intended future sons-in-law to try to save them from the imminent destruction of the city.

Lot was not a bad man. Rather, he tended to be apathetic and resistant to the higher impulses. This is symbolized by his settling down in the low-lying city of Sodom, instead of in the highlands where his uncle Abraham settled. It is shown in his willingness to live in such a corrupt city. And it is seen in his character as the story unfolds.

In our reading two weeks ago, when the men of the city were surrounding his house and demanding that his guests be brought out to them, Lot took a brave stance against them. Well . . . sort of! What he actually did was attempt to barter with them, offering them his two virgin daughters instead of his guests. I don't know about you, but at that point, I don't think I'd be very happy to have Lot as my father! And as we'll see in another two weeks, the daughters afterward got their own rather twisted comeuppance him.

Lot's character of apathy and taking the easy way is also shown in today's reading. First, when the angels urged him to flee the city, he hesitated. He did not want to leave his home and his familiar surroundings, even in the midst of rank abuse and threat of destruction. The angels had to grab him and his family by the hand and practically drag them out of the city. Then, when the angels told him to take his family up into the mountains to get clean away from the destruction of the cities in the plain, Lot not only hesitated, but argued with them, begging them to let him go to a nearby town instead of up into the mountains, which he was somehow convinced would lead to his destruction--contrary to what the angels were telling him. So the angels let him take this halfway measure; and for Lot's sake they spared the little town of Zoar from the destruction raining down all around it.

All of this is just a little too familiar if we put ourselves in Lot's shoes. Most of us are not great heroes or charismatic spiritual leaders. We are ordinary folks with the ordinary human feebles and foibles. Instead of standing out from the crowd, we tend to go along with the crowd. When we see something wrong going on around us, we tend to figure that it is someone else's problem, and we just mind our own business. Inevitably, we find ourselves gradually adopting the easy values of the culture around us. Just like Lot.

And like Lot, when we hear a call from the Lord to leave behind that rather lazy and accommodating spiritual and moral life, we hesitate. "What's the big deal?" we say to ourselves. "Everyone does it, and they seem to get along okay. It can't be all that bad. Besides, don't I deserve a bit of harmless pleasure?" So we say to ourselves as we continue down a road that will lead us to our own physical, moral, or spiritual destruction. It is much easier just to continue in our old familiar habits.

Even when circumstances and the Lord's inner voice do manage to overcome our resistance to change, we stubbornly resist major change. The mountain of true, wholehearted spiritual life looks too forbidding to us. We can't be that good! So we backpedal and make excuses for changing as little as possible while still saving our own skin. We switch one addiction for another. Maybe the liver is almost gone, but the lungs can take it for a while. We stop engaging in open battles with our spouse, but continue a campaign of griping and complaining with a resigned sigh. We realize that sooner or later, the fights will break up our marriage; so we ratchet back to what we figure we can get away with.

And so it goes, for so many different areas of life. The Lord calls for major change. But we drive a hard bargain, attempting to save whatever we can of our old habits and lifestyle. We re-enact Lot's story over and over again, with as many variations as there are of individual personalities and personal bad habits.

The truly amazing thing is that the Lord still wants to save us! The Lord still wants to rescue us from the pain, sorrow, and destruction that we are bringing upon ourselves through our apathetic ways. This is the wonder of God's love for us. Even when we are trying to get away with as much as we can, the Lord continues to reach out to whatever good impulses are left in us, no matter how small, and use them to pull us to a place of greater spiritual and emotional safety. Those angels did not insist on having their way. They respected Lot's character and freedom, and did as much for him and his family as they could.

This is where the Lord Jesus was in the deepest meaning of the story of Lot's rescue. As we read the Gospels--especially the Gospel of John--it becomes crystal clear that the Lord had the highest ideals and aspirations for humankind. He was not one to settle for halfway measures; he sought a total commitment from his followers. He told them, "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). And to the rich young man who was proud both of his own moral perfection and of his worldly wealth, Jesus said, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21). There are no halfway measures here!

Yet those high ideals and aspirations were always running up against the reality of the apathy and low moral state of the actual human beings Jesus encountered. He managed to gather only twelve who would follow him closely enough to be his full disciples--and even then, one of them turned out to be a bad apple. What about that vast mass of human beings swirling all around him, most of whom were simply interested in getting along in the world with the least pain and trouble for themselves?

The great mercy of the Lord for us fallen, apathetic, compromised human beings is that he reaches out to us exactly where we are, no matter how low our state. This is shown in our New Testament reading, in which Jesus reaches out to sinners and the corrupt wealthy alike, saying, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

This was a mission that required great inner struggle on the Lord's part. His ideal was to lift everyone to the highest state of perfection. But the mercy within him prompted him to engage in a divine rescue mission even to the lowest and least worthy of human beings.

Doesn't this mean that he is offering his powerful hand of rescue to each one of us as well?

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Music: A Distant Shore
Bruce DeBoer