Presented on The Lutheran Hour on November 3, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Genesis 18
See if you remember these rules from kindergarten. I know it was a long time ago, but you'd be surprised at how much you remember. Number one: keep your hands and your feet to yourself. Number two: if you want to talk, raise your hand. Number three: if you want to go, wait your turn. Number four: treat other people like you want to be treated. Number five: never, never run with scissors. Number six: never, never talk to strangers. Now the first five rules are all different ways of saying that you should respect other people. That's what you learn in kindergarten, right? Other people are important. They matter, and you're important. You matter, and that's why we don't want you to run with scissors. You might hurt yourself. You are infinitely valued because you're a person. But then there's this last rule about strangers.
Why shouldn't we talk to strangers? They're people too, right? Well, it's because you're a kindergartner, and we don't know what they might do to you. Already in kindergarten, we are introduced to this contradiction of human being. On the one hand, you are infinitely valuable; you are important; you matter. And yet on the other hand, you are dangerous, and so is every other person that you meet. We learned this. We encounter this in kindergarten that you're important, and yet you're dangerous. See, you matter. You are one of a kind. You are, as we say in the Christian tradition, you are created in the image of God, in the likeness of God. You're important, and so is everybody else that you meet. But on the other hand, there's something about you. You are dangerous, and so is everybody else that you meet. And this is why we tell our kids don't talk to strangers, because we don't know what strangers might do. But you know that the person who is most likely to abuse a child or to harm a child—it's not the stranger—it's the person you thought you knew. And then what happens when they do that? You realize that you didn't really know them. They become like a stranger to you. And this is the contradiction of human being. Psychologist Jordan Peterson with his bestselling book, 12 Rules for Life, he has put his finger on this contradiction. He says, on the one hand, treat yourself like someone you're responsible for helping, that is, treat yourself like you are valuable, like you matter. But on the other hand, treat yourself like a loaded weapon. Treat yourself like an armed nuclear weapon. You are that dangerous. You are capable of almost unlimited harm and evil by what you say and by what you do and by what you fail to do. You're dangerous. In the Christian tradition, we call this "sin." It wasn't always like this. It wasn't like this in the beginning, but something happened to us. We got sick. The prophet Jeremiah says it. He says the human heart is deceitful above all else, and it is desperately sick. Who can understand it?
You're dangerous. You got a sick heart, and if you think you don't, you're even more dangerous, and you are in danger of being lost in this sickness forever. And yet at the same time, you are valuable. You matter. Kindergarten rules express it. The Christian tradition magnifies it. Every person is designed by God for infinite, eternal potential, for good. You are worth it to God. You were worth the sacrifice of His only Son. You are worth all the trouble. And so is every other person that you meet, even strangers.
There is an account in the Bible in the book of Genesis that puts this human contradiction on display like none other, especially as it relates to how we treat strangers. It's in Genesis 18, and it starts like this.
"The Lord appeared to Abraham near the oaks of Mamre while he was seated outside of the entrance of his tent. In the heat of the day, Abraham, he lifts up his eyes and he looks and sees, behold three strangers, three men, standing before him. He got up and he rushed toward them, and he bowed down to the ground, and he said to them, 'Oh Lord, if I have found favor in Your sight, do not pass it by Your servant. Let a little water be brought so that you all may wash your feet, and let me bring a morsel of bread so that you may refresh yourselves and rest under the tree, and then you may go on your way now that you've come to your servant.' And they said to him, 'Very well. Do as you have said.' And Abraham and his household, they prepared a feast for them. And Abraham waited on them. While they were eating, he stood near them under the tree. And they said to him, 'Where's your wife, Sarah?' And he answered, 'There in the tent.' And the Lord said to him, 'I will certainly return to you this time next year. And your wife Sarah will have a son.' Now Sarah was listening in the tent behind Him. And Abraham and Sarah, they were old. There are well advanced in years, and the way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. And so she laughed, and she said to herself, 'Now that I'm worn out. Now I'll have this pleasure.' And the Lord said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh? Why did she say, "Will I really have a child now that I am old?" Is anything too difficult for the Lord. I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.' But Sarah denied it; she lied. She was afraid and she said, 'I did not laugh. I didn't laugh.' But he said to her, 'Yes, you did laugh.'
As the men got up to leave, they turned toward the city of Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way, and the Lord said, 'Should I hide what I'm about to do from Abraham. Abraham will certainly become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him, because I have known him so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just so that the Lord will bring to Abraham what He has promised him.
And the Lord said, 'The outcry against the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is severe, and their sin is very grave. I'm going down to see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has come to Me. And if not, I will know.' And the two men turned aside and continued on toward the city. But Abraham remained standing in the presence of the Lord. And he approached Him and said to Him, 'Will You really sweep away the righteous along with the wicked? What if there are 50 righteous people in the city? Will You really sweep it away? Will You will not spare the place for the sake of the 50 righteous who are in it. Far be it from You to do such a thing, to kill the righteous along with the wicked, to treat the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from You! Will not the judge of all the earth do what is right?' And the Lord said to him, 'If I find 50 righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.' Again, Abraham spoke up and said, 'Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, even though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if there are 5 less than the 50? Will You really destroy the city because of 5 people?' And He said to him, 'If I find 45 there, I will not destroy it.' Again, Abraham said, 'What if there are only 40 there?' And He said, 'For the sake of 40, I will not destroy it.' And Abraham said, 'May the Lord not be angry, but permit me to speak. What if, what if only 30 can be found there?' And He said, 'If I find 30 there, I will not do it.' And he said, 'Now that I have been so bold to speak to the Lord, what if only 20 can be found there?' And He said, 'For the sake of 20, I will not do it.' And he said, 'May the Lord not be angry, but permit me to speak just one more time. What if only 10 can be found there?' And He said, 'For the sake of 10, I will not destroy it.' And after the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, He left, and Abraham returned to his home."
I'm told that a forest full of dead wood can be really dangerous, and actually that a forest fire can help decrease the danger. A small forest fire can help prevent a bigger forest fire. And if you keep preventing these smaller forest fires, then when the fire inevitably comes, the thing burns so hot the inferno kills everything. It even vaporizes the top soil so that nothing can grow there again. Sometimes you need a small fire to intervene.
And that's what we see happening in Genesis 19, the next chapter, you should go and read Genesis 19. It is one of the more disturbing chapters of the Bible, but you need to read it. Put yourself in this scene. You go to your front window to draw the blinds because it's night. Your guests from out of town—they're sitting at the table finishing dinner. You pull the string on the blinds, and you gasp because there is a stranger right outside your window. And your guests shout that there's someone in the back, too. And you look, and it's not just one, it's not just two, it's a mob. The whole city has surrounded your house, and now they are pounding on the windows and on the door, and they're breaking the door down because they want to come in and have their way with your guests—and with anyone who gets in their way. And then your guests turn out to be angels from God, and they strike the whole mob with blindness, and they say to you and your family, "Get out of here because we are going to destroy this place! The outcry against its people has come before the Lord, and He has sent us here to destroy it."
When I read Genesis 18 and 19 together, I can't figure out what's worse: that God destroyed those cities or that He almost spared them. Did you hear that? God doesn't even argue with Abraham. What if Abraham didn't stop? What if he had just kept on pressing for mercy? What if he had said, "Father, forgive them. Forgive them all because they don't know what they're doing?" What if ... I don't know! I don't know if God would've let that city go on like it was, treating perfect strangers like prey. I don't know.
I do know that God in His wisdom knows when we need a fire to intervene. Sodom needed a fire. What was the sin of Sodom? For a lot of people, the word Sodom has become synonymous with homosexual practice. But what does God say? He explains it very clearly through His prophet, Ezekiel. In the book of Ezekiel 16:48, He says this was the sin of Sodom: that they had pride, that they had excess of food, that they had prosperity and ease, yet they did not care for the poor and needy among them. That's what He says was the sin of Sodom. They were arrogant, overfed, at ease, and they didn't help the poor. It's not in the first place about their sexual practice. Sexual practice is a part of it, but at the root is the problem is pride. At the root, your problem is pride. My problem is pride. I don't think of pride simply as puffing up your chest and walking around and telling everybody that you're the best. Pride is simply putting yourself in the place of God. And here's what pride does: pride blinds you from seeing the human contradiction in your own heart. And pride prevents you from embracing people in their contradiction.
So how does God deal with the contradiction of being human? He humbled Himself. Jesus, even though He was in the form of God, in the nature of God, He did not count equality with God something to boast about, something to be used for His own advantage. He humbled Himself, taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient, even to the point of death, even death on the cross. The cross is where God heals the human contradiction. The cross was where Jesus, the one righteous Person on earth, embraced all sinners, all strangers, and He took the hellfire of God's wrath onto Himself.
Jesus solved the human contradiction.
But He didn't solve it like you solve a crossword puzzle. What happens when you solve a crossword puzzle? What do you do? You set it aside. No one else can participate in that puzzle anymore, but that's not how it is with the death of Jesus. He is risen from the dead, and now His Word and His Spirit goes out and brings you to participate in His death. That's what happened to you when you were baptized, or if you're not baptized, that's what will happen to you. You will participate in the death and new life in Jesus. This is the puzzling pattern that God uses to heal the human contradiction in you. God kills first, and then He makes alive.
God brings fire and judgment first, and then He restores. God humbles, and then He exalts. This is the pattern that God is working in your life to heal the human contradiction, and you can see this pattern at work in Abraham and Sarah. God's Spirit will lead you to plead, to pray for strangers, for sinners, just like He did with Abraham. God's Spirit will lead you to welcome, to show hospitality to strangers. Now, on this side of Jesus' return to raise the dead and renew all things, we will never be free from this contradiction. And just when you think that you are free from it, that's when it bites you. Consider Sarah. Why did she lie? Why did she lie about laughing? Because she was afraid of being embarrassed. She wanted to save face. She wanted to save her pride.
Jesus did not come to save your pride. Jesus came to save you and to set fire to your pride. He can handle you in all your contradiction. Is anything too difficult for the Lord? We are still strangers to His ways, but we are not strangers to Him. He knows no strangers.
Let me tell you about Kaitlyn—or the work of Jesus in Kaitlyn. Kaitlyn rarely meets a stranger. She is a baptized child of the living God, and she has Down syndrome. Her mom and dad struggled to take her out to eat because she doesn't follow the conventional social norms. She's always breaking the rules. She figures all those people under the same roof—they want to talk to her, right? So they're sitting in the restaurant, and Kaitlyn's mom looks up and Kaitlyn is gone. She's left the booth, and she doesn't know where she is. She's scanning the restaurant, and she sees Kaitlyn making a beeline for the door, and then she notices that she's on a collision course with a stranger, a big grizzly biker dude. Kaitlyn steps right in front of him at the door. She doesn't know. I mean she could be in danger. This guy could grab her and take her off. But Kaitlyn, she runs in front of the man, and she stands right in front of him, blocks his path to the door. And she gives him a great big bear hug and says to him, "Jesus loves you; you know." And just then Kaitlyn's mom gets there and pulls her back from the guy, and she notices that he's got tears in his eyes, and he says, "You have no idea how much I needed to hear that. You have no idea how much I needed to hear that."
If you're willing, I invite you to pray with me. Jesus, thank You for humbling Yourself and embracing me and all my contradiction. Amen.
Reflections for November 3, 2019
Title: Stranger Danger
Mike Zeigler: Once again, I have joining me in the studio my good friend Dr. Eric Hermann, professor of historical theology from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Thanks for coming back, Eric.
Erik Herrmann: Oh, thanks for inviting me.
Mike Zeigler: We've been talking about Genesis, and we noted last week how Martin Luther has written on Genesis. What does he do with this part of Scripture, with this part of Genesis, with Abraham kind of—what would you say—bartering with God through prayer? What does Luther say about that?
Erik Herrmann: Yeah. Well, first of all, Luther is really intrigued with this section because Luther actually has a lot to say about prayer in general, and he sees it as one of his tasks to teach people about prayer. Because there's a lot of misconceptions about what prayer should do and can do at his time, but I think that's probably true today. It's not a magic thing and nor is it a useless thing. And so this story is a great example where Abraham hears about what God is going to do, to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham, realizing it's God, decides it might be a good idea to try to change God's mind.
At first, Luther calls this a foolish prayer. I mean, it's foolish for us to think that we're going to be able to manipulate God, on the other hand. Then, he goes on and talks about how this is a praiseworthy act, that it's an example of how much Abraham trusts God to hear him. He trusts that God even cares to listen to his pleas, no matter how small or strange. He even trusts that God will let Himself be instructed on what's just and what's not just.
Mike Zeigler: I love that God will let Himself be instructed. It makes me think of you have a conversation with one of your children, maybe, when they were younger, and they're telling you all about something that they know, and the act of listening is an act of love that shows that you're interested in them. Even if you know what they're saying maybe isn't quite right, you still listen because you're their father.
Erik Herrmann: Yeah. Clearly, this is, for Luther, an example of the intimate relationship that all of God's people should recognize that they have with their Heavenly Father and that God suffers to have His mind changed, which doesn't make sense abstractly. How can God, the unchangeable God, change His mind? And doesn't He know what's best? And, really, are we going to tell Him what. But Luther, says, "Don't think about those sorts of things. Think about the relationship that we are called to seek God out and to pray, and look at how He interacts with people who do. He really listens to them." And so this story is a great encouragement for all of us to pray because, look, if God's going to listen to Abraham about things that Abraham doesn't even understand or know, He will listen to us. He truly promises to hear our prayer and answer it.
Mike Zeigler: Part of your vocation is teaching future church workers, future pastors, deaconesses, and teachers. And I know you teach a class on Luther and pastoral care. How has reading Luther affected the way that you teach about prayer for future church workers?
Erik Herrmann: Well, I teach, like you said, at a seminary, and we teach theology there, but Luther helps us kind of bring all these questions down to earth. And in some sense, Luther teaches us not to ask questions that we can't answer about God and just encourages us to follow the life that God has invited us into. Reading Luther has given me permission to pray simply and for things that maybe don't seem to be at the level of what a theology professor should be praying to God about. Right? We want world peace and everything else, not just the simple daily bread kind of things, recognizing that God kind of throws everything at me, commands and promises, to encourage that I would just talk to Him. And I think in having children involved in that too, I'm starting to see what Luther is talking about, that this conversation back and forth is of a relationship of a father and a child.
Mike Zeigler: That he's inviting you, inviting all of us into this life with Him. Right?
Erik Herrmann: Right.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you for joining me.
Erik Herrmann: Thank you.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)