Scripture Readings: Genesis 18:20-32 GNB
Psalm 85 NRSV (said responsively)
Luke 11:1-13 GNB
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
This week, I have been thinking about a minister friend of mine, now retired after long and varied career. He had served in a number of very ordinary west of Scotland parishes, and had also served as a university chaplain and with a major Christian charity. Not long after his retirement he started to work as a locum in a church in Fife, and found himself preaching to a congregation which, on most Sundays, included the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. But my friend took it in his stride, because he realised that the Prime Minister needed to hear the Word of God as much as an old lady in a housing scheme in Paisley.
This week we have seen a change of Prime Minister, and almost a change of government. It is good to be reminded, then, that Christians are called to pray for the common good of their nation. And even if we do not like them, or disagree with them, or did not vote for them, still we should pray for our leaders, for the sake of the nation. A Church of Scotland minister who lives in Switzerland told me this week that when he conducts worship there, he prays for the President of the Swiss Federal Republic, because that is where he lives now. And I was reminded of an Anglican church in Germany I sometimes attended, an American congregation in Church of England building, where they used to pray for the President of the United States, Her Majesty the Queen, and the President of Germany.
It so happens that the Gospel reading for today is all about prayer. The disciples ask Jesus ‘Teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples’. It was not that they did not know how to pray. These were men and women who had been brought up in the Jewish faith, in which prayers in the synagogue and home are central. Some of them may once been disciples of John the Baptist: that phrase ‘just as John taught his disciples’ is really quite interesting.
Our image of John is that of a prophet figure, calling the people to repentance and baptism, and fatally getting into trouble for criticizing the local ruler, King Herod. He seems a man of action, someone calling for change in the world. But he taught his disciples how to pray. Here is a hint that the great prophet and social justice warrior also had, what we might call a mystical or spiritual side to him: he taught his disciples that prayer had to be central to the faith of someone who had turned to God in repentance. Perhaps he had a special prayer for them, or had taught them to pray in a particular way. However he did it, he was teaching them that they could not be all action and no spirituality. Action and prayer go together. As we try to love our neighbour, we need to be tuned in to God. We cannot change the world just by praying- we need to working for a better and most just world. Yet we cannot do so without prayer. Prayer and action go together.
And so Jesus’ disciples ask him to do as John did, and teach them to pray. They do so just after they have seen him praying- his example has inspired them. Luke gives us a rather short version of what we know as The Lord’s Prayer here; Matthew’s Gospel has a more elaborate version. But the essentials are here: They may address God as ‘Father’, yet be in awe of God’s holiness. They should pray for the reign of God to become a reality. They should pray for the forgiveness of their sins, for their daily bread, and that they might resist temptation. This is a prayer about the everyday concerns of a Christian, and it is a prayer for us to pray every day. In a sense, it is also a summary of the Christian faith: a prayer to the Father who treats as his sons and daughters.
I have no idea whether our new Prime Minister is a man who prays. But down through the centuries, Christians have thought it important to pray for those who rule us, whoever they are. For that is part of what it means to pray for the society or the country of which we happen to be a part. In the New Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, in a very direct way, that the sons and daughters of the Father belong to another Kingdom:
There is no permanent city for us here on earth; we are looking for the city which is to come.
In other words, we Christians may be citizens of a kingdom or a city here on earth. But our ultimate loyalty is to another kingdom: the Kingdom of God. We might be citizens of Inverness, but we are also citizens of the New Jerusalem. That’s why our patriotism always has to be qualified. For Christians, it can never be a case of ‘my country, right or wrong’. We have a higher patriotism- our loyalty to God comes before any other loyalty.
But that does not mean we are not be concerned with the cities, kingdoms and nations of the earth. Consider the story we read earlier, from the Book of Genesis: the story of Abraham pleading for Sodom.
Sodom and Gomorrah are two of the most famous cities in the Bible- or rather, infamous cities. They are best known for the story, which turns up in the passage we have just read, in which they are destroyed by God because of their wickedness. Our passage comes just after Abraham’s son-in-law, Lot, has gone to live in Sodom. Abraham is with two men, who are, in fact, something like angels: messengers of God in human form. Earlier, Abraham had welcomed the men to his tent and offered them hospitality: he had entertained angels without knowing it. Now they stand on a hillside, looking down on Sodom. God tells Abraham that the sins of Sodom cry out to heaven, and the two angelic messengers go into the city to investigate whether the accusations against the city are true.
And at this point, Abraham does a very bold thing. Abraham begins to argue with God. He knows that God intends to destroy the cities- but, he reasons, that that would mean destroying the innocent with the guilty. Suppose there are fifty innocent people in the city, says Abraham- will God still destroy the city? It would be wrong to kill the innocent along with the guilty: ‘The judge of all the world has to act justly’, says Abraham.
We tend to think of God as a being who cannot be argued with. Who are we to define tell God what is just and unjust? Who are we to tell God that God might be about to do wrong? Yet in this tale, Abraham does exactly that. It is a fascinating encounter, because it reads like a folk tale, but it grapples with really incredibly deep questions of philosophy, theology and ethics. Abraham becomes the judge, we might even say, the accuser, of God. It really is quite incredible.
Yet the Bible, and perhaps especially the Hebrew Scriptures, have other examples of people questioning God. The example which spring to mind immediately is the Book of Job, in which a good man who suffers tragedy, misfortune and pain argues with God about the unfairness of it all. The prophet Amos also argues with God to stop judgement and destruction. The Psalms are full of examples of prayers which ask ‘why’ of God. On the cross, as he dies, Jesus has a verse from one such Psalm on his lips: ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?’
Abraham succeeds in his argument with God:
If I find fifty innocent people in Sodom, I will spare the whole city for their sake
says the Lord. Yet Abraham, boldly, pushes the point. Suppose there are only forty five? Will you destroy the whole city because there are five too few?’ Or supposing there are only forty? Or thirty, or twenty innocent people? In each case, God concedes the point. Finally, Abraham asks- supposing there are only ten? Again, God says he will not destroy the city if there are only ten good people in the city.
It’s a remarkable passage, and one which is not just speculative theology- it also had- and has- practical implications. It establishes a moral rule: that the innocent should not be punished for the sins of others. In fact, in the Book of Jonah, the situation is reversed. At the end of that book, it’s the prophet Jonah, who wants God to punish the city of Nineveh (the capital of an empire which was infamously cruel). But the people of the city have repented of their sins, so God does not destroy the city. Jonah feels a bit of a fool, for he had prophesied that destruction was coming. So he complains to God, and gets the reply that God was entitled to spare the city, as it contained many innocent children and animals!
A few years ago, I heard that the trouble with wars nowadays is that the innocent suffer the most. Whereas in the First World War, something like 90 per cent of casualties were military casualties, today 90 per cent of casualties in places like Syria or Yemen and non-combatants: women, children, the elderly. The military call it ‘collateral damage’ when drone hits a wedding party, or shells slam into a hospital, or a town is gassed with poison. Too often it is the innocents who suffer.
There are so many tales of death and destruction in the Old Testament that we are sometimes tempted to write it all off, for what kind of God would allow these things? Yet these text show that their authors were deeply interested in the question of God’s judgement. After all there were occasions when it seemed God was punishing people, but seemingly innocent people were also affected. In many ways there is no answer to the pain and suffering of the innocents. Children continue to die war, starve in famines, or drown in the sea as they try to flee to safety. And these are questions which will come to haunt us again and again: could anything justify the destruction of Dresden or Hiroshima or Nagasaki in 1945? Would there ever be a situation where a Prime Minister might order the use of nuclear weapons? What it there are ten good people in the target zone?
What I love about the Old Testament is that it grapples with these problems, and asks these questions. When the AIDS virus started appearing in the news in the 1980s, some church people suggested that perhaps this new virus was God’s judgement on homosexuals. As it happened, the only person with HIV I knew was a family member who was a haemophiliac who had been infected by a blood product. So I was with Abraham, and still am- if AIDS this was a judgement by God, it was pretty careless way for God to do it.
In the next chapter, Sodom is destroyed after all, with only Lot’s family escaping (though his wife famously looks back on the cities having sulphur rained upon them and is turned to salt). Quite often we think of Sodom’s fate as having to do with homosexuality. I’d need to do another sermon on that passage, but the event which provokes God is an attempted rape, and a breach of the custom of hospitality.
Sodom’s sins were very, very serious. Yet Abraham took the bold step of speaking up for the city- or rather, speaking up for the innocents in the city. He pleaded to God for those who suffered because of the sins of others. And since Abraham was speaking to God as he pleaded for the city- well, that’s prayer. Abraham was praying for the city. Abraham interceding with God on behalf of the powerless, the forgotten, the innocent.
We Christians pray, as Jesus taught us, ‘thy Kingdom come’. And the Kingdom, says Jesus, is where there is a place at the table for all, where the first are last and the last are first. If you want be part of the Kingdom is like, says Jesus, then you have to become like a child. And the Kingdom is among us, he says.
And so we pray for our modern cities and nations, and we pray for the Kingdom to come, and we plead for the innocent who live in the midst of the sinfulness of our cities: the women trafficked into prostitution, the workers denied a fair wage, the criminals who fell into because of despair or a drug habit, the families who struggle along to the foodbank to feed themselves, the children who fear going to school because of the bullies, the foreigners who are jeered because they are different. And if we think that perhaps God should do a bit of judging occasionally, that perhaps there are cities or nations which deserve a bit of fire and brimstone, then we will be caught up short when we pray our daily prayers: forgive us our debts, forgive me for my sins, for they are many and deserve God’s judgement.
Perhaps the most terrible event which was seen as a judgement in Old Testament times was the city of Jerusalem fell, after a terrible siege, and the people were taken into exile in Babylon in 587BC. As they went, the prophet Jeremiah, who had warned of this disaster, wrote to the exiles that God was saying to them:
Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too.
So let us pray for our own city and nation, in all its sinfulness, seeking its prosperity and looking for God’s mercy. And let us pray for our leaders, for them to show mercy as God shows mercy, for them to be blessed with wisdom they and we did not know they had. For if we ask, we might be surprised and receive, for bad as we are, we have a merciful Father.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo
 Hebrews 13.14
 Amos 7.1-9
 Jeremiah 29.7