Genesis 18: 22-33
September 16, 2012
Living Biblically and reading excerpts from A.J. Jacobs’ book and all, but I thought I’d start off this morning by reading from another book. I got this years ago; I think someone left it for me on my office desk or something. It’s called Children’s Letters To God, and it’s a collection of various notes – usually just a sentence or two – that children have penned to God. I get the sense some clever Sunday school teacher came up with the idea – all the way down to the Xeroxed text of the letters, and even drawings to boot.
I think my favorite section is the one that highlights some of their prayers. Here’s just a sampling:
Dear God, thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.
Dear God, please put another holiday between Christmas and Easter.
There is nothing good in there now.
Dear God, please send me a pony. I’ve never asked for anything before.
You can look it up.
Dear God, if we come back as something,
please don’t let me be Jennifer Horton, because I hate her.
Dear God, please send Dennis Clark to a different camp this year.
Dear God, I want to be just like my Dad when I get big,
but not with so much hair all over.
(from Children's Letters To God, compiled by Stuart Hample & Eric Marshall: Workman Publishing, New York, 1991).
Ah, the things kids pray for! But it’s not just the little ones, you know. We mature adults have been known to dish out some doozys from time to time, haven’t we? Dear God, please let the Panthers get this first down. Dear God, kindly compel this police offer to issue me a warning instead of a ticket. Dear God, if you get me through this birthday sleepover, I will praise your name till the day I die, AMEN! And those are just the ones I’ve offered up; I feel certain you have your own.
The thing is, all of us lift up all different kinds of prayers for all different kinds of reasons. For prayers, as we know, are nothing more than conversations with God. I love that our Beacons, whenever they close one of their Sunday night programs, they don’t pray” – they “talk to God.” Because really, that’s all it is. It’s a conversation, a mutual exchange between the human and divine.
And there is perhaps no stranger conversation than the one we find in our scripture today – this little back-and-forth between the great patriarch Abraham and God. I’ll be totally honest with you: I had no idea this conversation was even in the Bible until I read A.J.’s book. Somehow it flew below my radar all this time.
Here’s the scene: the ancient city of Sodom is facing divine wrath for some egregious sin. Now most of us have been brought up to believe that this sin was something sexual, when in fact if you read the Bible (which we’re trying to do a better job of in this sermon series), what you find is that the city’s sin was the sin of inhospitability. These people in Sodom were just not very welcoming to the stranger and the vulnerable – our widows and orphans from last week. They were downright hostile to them, in fact. No “Most Friendliest City” award here, folks!
So because of their inhospitability, Sodom is doomed. And for reasons that aren’t quite explained to us, Abraham didn’t want this to happen. So he engages God in this back-and-forth to try and convince God otherwise. And it really is astounding what unfolds.
It starts with Abraham going to God: Hey God, I know you’ve got it in for ol’ Sodom there. And I’ll admit, those people are pretty mean. But you know, and I’m just saying, what if there were fifty righteous people in that city? That’d be a shame to destroy them, don’t you think? You think fifty righteous people would be worth sparing Sodom, maybe? God gives this some thought and agrees, okay, if there are fifty, the city will be spared.
Abraham is pleased, but he’s not done yet. Maybe he’s not certain that there are fifty righteous people! Better to be safe than sorry, right? So he goes back to God: Hey God, that’s great, thanks! But just for argument’s said, what if we’re not talking fifty but, I don’t know, 45? I mean, that’s only five less, you know. Think you might spare the city still? God says sure, 45 is enough.
Abraham’s on a roll – why stop now? Wow, God, you’re a generous God! You’re awesome! But you knew that already. So I’m just wondering if forty righteous souls would be enough to spare Sodom. I think it’d be – don’t you? God agrees. And Abraham keeps going, back and forth with God – to thirty, to twenty, to ten. And in the end, Abraham gets God to agree to spare the city of Sodom for just ten righteous souls. That’s some pretty slick negotiating, don’t you think? I need to get this man to help me buy my next car.
Now there are some obvious problems with this story, which may be the reason we don’t hear about it much. There’s the basic fact that the city Sodom was not spared – either because God changed God’s mind, which God is certainly entitled to do; or because there weren’t ten righteous souls in the city. Which is pretty sad, since I feel certain we have ten righteous souls in a single pew in this sanctuary this morning!
The other problem with the story has to do this whole “negotiating-with-God” thing – not something that really jives with our theology. God is not someone to be bargained with, to be manipulated or swayed in any direction other than the direction God is already heading. Conversations with God are not conversations between two equals. And that’s true, of course. But you know, there’s a key difference in Abraham’s conversation with God – did you notice this? Abraham is not negotiating for himself. He’s not trying to get something out of it for him. Abraham is doing this for the benefit of others. And that’s what makes this little exchange a prayer.
In his book simply titled Prayer, author Richard Foster talks about some of the common types of prayers in our lives. There’s the prayer of adoration, which is the “spontaneous yearning of the heart to glorify and praise God.” Foster also talks about prayers in which we hand our burdens over to God, which he calls the prayer of relinquishment. There’s the prayer of thanksgiving, where we give thanks to God for the many blessings God has bestowed on us. These are the prayers my family and I try to say before every meal, including one that our youngest came up with a few weeks ago:
God, thank you for our food. Amen!
Isn’t that great!
So, prayers of adoration, prayers of relinquishment, prayers of thanksgiving. You also have the prayer of petition, where we come before God and ask for something for ourselves. If I had to guess, I’d say that God probably hears these prayers the most.
The last type of prayer, though, is the one I think about when I read today’s story – Foster calls it intercessory prayer. The deal is that you’re asking for something, so in that sense it’s kind of like a prayer of petition. But the difference is that you’re not asking it for you. You’re not praying for your health, or that you’ll get that great job, or that your team will win the game. You’re praying that something good will happen to someone else.
And see, that’s why Abraham’s conversation with God is less a negotiation and more a prayer of intercession. Listen to how our friend A.J. describes it:
I’ve discovered another category of prayer that I like: praying on behalf of others, for the sick, needy, depressed—anyone who’s been kicked around by fate. Intercessory prayer, as it’s called.
(I think Abraham’s story in Genesis 18 is an intercessory prayer. And I must confess..), at first I found the whole Abraham passage comical. I mean, here’s Abraham sounding like a salesman at a bazaar trying to get rid of his last decorative vase. But on reflection, what’s wrong with what he did? It’s actually a noble, beautiful—if ultimately doomed—attempt to save the lives of his fellow humans.
I’m not finished with my year, so I’m withholding judgment, but my rational side says that intercessory prayer today is no more effective than Abraham’s effort. I still can’t wrap my brain around the notion that God would change God’s mind because we ask God to.
And yet I still love these prayers. To me they’re moral weight training.
And so every night I pray for others for ten minutes—a friend about to undergo a cornea operation, my great-aunt whose sweet husband just died in their swimming pool, the guy I met in a Bible study class whose head was dented in a subway accident. It’s ten minutes where it’s impossible to be self-centered. Ten minutes where I can’t think about my career, or my Amazon.com book ranking, or that a blog in San Francisco made snarky comments about my latest Esquire article.
It’s only ten minutes of intercessory prayer. But I really like it.
(The Year Of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, pgs. 127-128)
Ten minutes, he says. Ten minutes a day when he prays to God, but – and this is important – he prays to God for everyone and everything other than himself.
Chew on this, would you: think of ten minutes – 600 seconds – in your average day. Ten unplanned minutes where you’re not working or running errands or sleeping. When you truly have time to think. What do you typically do with those ten minutes? Watch one-third of your favorite TV sitcom? Facebook-browsing?
Now think about what those ten minutes would look like if we all followed A.J.’s lead and engaged in a little intercessory prayer of our own. Heck, we’ll even borrow his own lingo and call it “The 10-Minute Moral Weight Training Regimen.” Ten minutes of prayer – kneeling at our bedside or driving in our car or walking down the grocery store aisle (although I’d suggest silently there). Ten minutes of prayer, where we pray not for our needs, not for our desires, but for the needs and desires of others. It can be a set time every day, or something we engage in as the time comes to us. But ten minutes every single day….
And I should probably mention, folks, that I’m not posing this hypothetically – I mean this. I’m seriously suggesting that each one of us give ten minutes out of every day to intercessory prayer. And don’t think for a minute that we won’t have ten minutes of stuff to pray about. Turn on the news. Scan your Facebook news feed. There are people hurting out there, near and far. There are embassies on the other side of the world getting blown up and people losing their lives. There are families right here in our town who are overburdened and stressed to the breaking point. There are more and more people showing up at Friends Feeding Friends every Thursday night, and at the food pantry, and at the door of First Presbyterian Church trying to get something to eat. There are people caught in the crossfire, suffering sicknesses, feeling like they have nowhere to turn.
Every last one of them needs us to pray for them. And not because those prayers are a negotiation that will always get them what they need. Prayer doesn’t work because it’s “results-driven.” Prayer works because it’s “relationship-driven.” A conversation between Creator and Created, drawing others in with us. Helping us to realize and feel in the bottom of our hearts that we are all part of this together, that we are not unto ourselves; that we are never, ever alone.
And see, I think Abraham got that. I think those kids with their prayers got that. Sure, it’s kind of bizarre to bargain with God. Yeah, it’s a little crude to pray for a pony or ask never to become Jennifer Norton. But you know what they say – you don’t talk to someone you don’t believe is there. Let our prayers, our intercessions, our conversations with an almighty and loving God serve as witness, to ourselves and to others, our unwavering belief in a God who hears all our prayers and longs for the day when there is literally no more brokenness for us to intercede on. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.