Ash Wednesday: Time to Remember One of God’s Greatest Hits
Even people unaccountably inclined to blame God for our human failings must occasionally admit that He has some great moments, even if they refuse to say so. In the Biblical account of God’s life, one of the most thoroughly awesome moments is also a fine moment for the human being involved. It occurs in the account of Abram (Abraham) and Lot, his brother, including the events leading up to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Now, the Bible makes clear the righteousness of Abraham, ascribed to him because he trusted the promises of God. This contrasts with the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, for which God decides to destroy them.
However, Abraham’s brother, Lot, has taken up residence among the Sodomites. So, as God proceeds against Sodom, He tells Abraham what is coming to pass. There follows the famous passage in which Abraham pleads with God for reasons to spare the city:
And the Lord said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know. And the men turned their faces from thence and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the Lord.
And Abraham drew near, and said, “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
And the Lord said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.”
And Abraham answered and said, “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes: Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five?”
And he said, “If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it.”
And he spake unto him yet again, and said, “Peradventure there shall be forty found there.”
And he said, “I will not do it for forty’s sake.”
Abraham continued to reduce the number, with God agreeing every time, until finally:
…he[Abraham]said “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there.”
And he [the Lord] said,” I will not destroy it for ten’s sake. And the Lord went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place. (Genesis 18:20-28)
It’s hard to say which is more remarkable: That Abraham confidently presumed upon God’s righteousness to the extent that he did; or that Almighty God, the Creator, of all things, patiently accepted the logic he used to do so. Yet it’s precisely because God is responsible for Creation that Abraham is right to assume He is bound only by His own benevolent will toward His Creation. So, nothing stands in the way if He finds reason to show mercy. In this respect, Abraham trusts in God’s goodwill. He rightly assumes that God’s awesome power will be governed by God’s standard of right.
By trusting in God’s righteousness, Abraham proves his own. For he understands that God will do right by others, even as, for the sake of His Creation, all others are bound to do right by Him. Those who respect God’s justice may thus live in the expectation of His mercy, even despite transgressions which are not their own, but which affect them in consequence of the kinship they find in the community of others, kinship that therein represents the obligation to do right, which all humanity has in common.
For all human beings are subject to the righteous will of God. All may, therefore, live with the expectation that God respects what they do when it accords with His will. Since they exercise right, according to God, they have the right as they do so, despite the punishment that, on the whole, humanity merits for its otherwise sinful condition. This is the exceptional quality of justice, on account of which God’s mercy is freely available to those who accept to be constrained by the determinations of His good will.
Such voluntarily, God-compliant, self-constraint exemplifies the government of law, empowered by the consent of those who do right, according to the will of their Creator, God. But in the time of Abraham, something was lacking. So, the whole of Sodom fell short of being saved. The one thing needful was Jesus Christ, who represents God’s willingness to supply the deficiency in all those who accept and trust to live by the promise He fulfills, in and through His Son. Such was the trust that, despite their obvious share in humanity’s transgressions, the Founders of the United States were willing to take as the common ground of hope for their new nation.
In our day, it is a trust betrayed. What Lincoln observed in the midst of civil war in 1863 is even more precisely true of our nation today:
We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God.
Yet the remedy remains within reach. It requires that Americans seek first the kingdom of God, and the leadership of the only one capable of representing the whole number God will, in His mercy, find sufficient to save our nation. One body is enough, if it be the living body of Christ. For in him the Judge of all the earth has already done right by us, and all the rest of His Creation.
The time has long since come when we must stop presuming to ask God for His blessings, and instead remember the sins by which we mar and forfeit them. Then our heartbroken will to heed Christ’s gospel of repentance will lead us to brave God’s judgment, as Abraham did. And we will plead for mercy, more boldly perhaps than Abraham. For we will do so in the name of Christ our Lord, who has, by God’s request, already obtained what we, all on our own, cannot deserve.
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