From Sodom to Oak Park
June 2, 1996
Genesis 19 tells one of the most dramatic stories in all the Bible. Even people who never go to church know that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with a flood of burning sulphur. They have heard about Lot’s encounter with the angelic visitors, the desperate last-second escape, and the strange, sad tale of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt. As if that weren’t enough, tucked away at the end of the chapter is a sordid story of sexual perversion. No wonder Hollywood has made several movies based on this chapter, it has all they are looking for.
But there is another angle to consider. For many years skeptics proclaimed this story a legend because no one could find the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, in recent years new excavations at the southern end of the Dead Sea have uncovered ruins of ancient cities built near tar pits. These cities appear to have been suddenly destroyed in a devastating fire, which fits the description found in Genesis 19.
Lot Makes Good
As this chapter opens we find Lot sitting in the gateway of the city (v.1). To us that might not mean much, but to ancient readers it meant that Lot had finally “arrived.” Although he was a nephew of Abraham who grew up in the rural areas, he had come to the big city and done well. In fact, to sit at the city gates means that he had become one of the chief rulers of the city, something like a modern alderman or village trustee. The people brought their concerns to the city gate where all the leaders gathered for discussion and settling of disputes.
So now Lot, the man of God has become a leader in a city given over to moral perversion. A study of his life reveals a slow, sad, downward spiral:
First, he looked at Sodom (13:10).
Second, he lived near Sodom (13:12).
Third, he lived in Sodom (14:12).
Fourth, he ruled over Sodom (19:1).
I pause to comment that no doubt Lot meant well. I don’t think he even intended to do harm to himself or his family by moving to the “Big City.” Perhaps he even hoped to do some good by mingling with the pagans who lived there. As I have pointed out in an earlier sermon, Christians must be in Sodom because they can save Sodom. So there is nothing intrinsically wrong with living in a sinful city. However, motivation makes all the difference. Some people go to the mission field because they are called by God; others live in the world because they love the world and its attractions. Lot seems to belong to the latter category.
Lot and the Angels
The Bible tells us that two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening. Because he was a gracious man, and because it was the custom of the day, Lot invited the two men to spend the night with him. He had no idea they were angels. This was simply an act of hospitality.
As word spread throughout Sodom that two men had come to visit Lot, the true character of the city becomes clear. Verses 4-5 tell the story so plainly that little comment is needed:
Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, ‘‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”
The men of Sodom were homosexuals who wanted to have sex with the two strangers. From this shameful episode comes the word “sodomy” and “sodomites” to describe both the sin and the perpetrators of homosexual acts. It would be hard to find a more perverse, disgusting picture in all the Bible. Here are hundreds of men inflamed with lust coming after two visitors to their city.
In response to their lewd cries, Lot does something even more terrible. He offers to give the mad mob his two virgin daughters to do with as they will (vv. 6-8). But the mob would have none of it. Inflamed with unnatural desire, they again demanded that the two men be given to them. In response, the angels pulled Lot back inside and then struck the crowd blind (vv. 9-11).
At this point Lot begins to realize who these two visitors are. They have been sent by God to destroy the city. But first they must give Lot and his family one last chance to escape. When Lot tells his sons-in-law about the coming judgment, they laughed, thinking he was joking. As the dawn breaks, the time has come for Lot, his wife, and their two daughters to leave Sodom. The angels now deliver one final message:
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.” (v. 15)
Verse 16 adds a sad and tragic phrase—“When he hesitated.” Lot hesitated because he loved the city of Sodom. Here were his friends, his neighbors, his co-workers. Here were all the pleasures of the world. Here was the good life he and his wife so much enjoyed. Here he could indulge himself. Never mind that he himself was no homosexual. Never mind that he personally found homosexuality repulsive. He would live with that ugliness simply because he loved all that Sodom represented.
In biblical terms, Lot loved the world. Not as in “God so loved the world”(John 3:16), but as in “love not the world, or anything in the world” (I John 2:15). God’s love is pure and redemptive and completely separate from evil, but the love 1John warns against is the love of one who loves all the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Most of us have heard that we should be in the world but not of the world. D. L. Moody illustrated that point by saying that, “when the boat is in the water, that’s good. But when the water is in the boat, that’s bad.” Lot hesitated because the water was definitely in the boat. He loved Sodom so much that he was nearly destroyed with it.
His Tact Nearly Cost Him His Soul
Don Cole offers this helpful analysis of Lot’s dilemma:
Lot was the soul of tact, but it nearly cost him his soul. He was tactful when he should have been indignant, if not downright angry. There are occasions when it’s better to be politely blunt than tactful.
There are occasions when it’s better to be politely blunt than tactful.
As a politician, he was accustomed to the speech of conciliation; he had a smooth tongue. The rub is that this occasion called for holy indignation, not smooth words; reproof, not persuasive words of conciliation.
Lot’s weakness lay in his lack of conviction. His sense of the sinfulness of sin sufficed to make him uncomfortable in Sodom, but it was not enough to make Sodom unendurable. He had adjusted to it quite nicely; otherwise, he would have left, for he certainly had had opportunity to do so. Lack of conviction had kept him there, whereas profound conviction kept his uncle Abraham in the promise land, notwithstanding his years of disappointment.
In that city of perverts, Lot’s sense of values had become perverted. (Abraham, pp. 83-84)
In fact, he was so enamored with the world that he begged to be allowed to go to a nearby town instead of fleeing into the mountains (vv. 18-20). Perhaps he couldn’t bear to leave the evil city or perhaps he didn’t quite believe what the angels were saying. In any case, they agreed because they couldn’t do anything until he and his family left Sodom.
Several things now happens in quick succession: First, the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed in broad daylight by burning sulfur (vv. 23-25). Second, Lot’s wife looked back at the destruction and was became a pillar of salt (v. 26). Third, the next morning Abraham stood and surveyed the smoking ruins (vv. 27-29). Fourth, the daughters of Lot got their father to drink wine, and while he was drunk, they committed incest with him (vv. 30-38).
This last episode is so sordid that one might wonder why the Bible includes it. On one level it explains the origin of the Moabites and Ammonites—nations that were perpetual enemies of Israel. On another level it shows how polluted Lot’s family had become. Even though Sodom is destroyed, the spirit of the city is reborn in the cave. Thus do we learn that the problem is ultimately in the human heart. Cities aren’t evil, people are evil. Unless the heart is radically changed, you can destroy every city in America but the sin of the nation would be reborn in a cornfield.
Why God Destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah
As we stand back and look at the events recorded in Genesis 19, several questions come to mind. The central one relates to the actions of God. Why did he destroy these cities? After all, surely many others cities were also extremely sinful. Why Sodom and Gomorrah and why now and why is such a fiery conflagration?
1. Because the city was utterly given over to moral persversion. If there is ever any question as to how God feels about homosexuality, this chapter should put all questions to rest. Genesis 19 serves as an Old Testament illustration of Romans 1. Any nation or city or village that permits or encourages homosexuality comes under God’s judgment. These are the words of Andy McQuitty:
Homosexuality represents man’s wholesale abandonment of God’s ways with respect to sexuality. Romans 1:23-26 lays out three kinds of “exchanges” that men make in their abandonment. First, the worship of God is exchanged for various forms of idolatry (23). Next, the truth about God is exchanged for lies (25). And finally, natural sexual relations are abandoned for unnatural ones(26-27). Homosexuality is the end of the line for rejectors of God.
That’s why homosexuality is unformly condemned in the Bible as “wickedness” (Gen. 19:7), “abomination” (Lev.18:22), “a detestable act” (Lev. 20:13), “folly” (Judges 19:23-24), “unnatural and degrading passions (Rom. 1:27), and “gross immorality” (Jude 7). To say that homosexuality is an alternative form of sexuality is like saying that bulimia is an alternative form of eating and drunkenness is an alternative form of drinking. It is not simply a benign “alternate lifestyle.” It is a perversion of God’s plan for mankind resulting in misery, sin and death. (Andy McQuitty, “When Wrongs Become Rights,” July 3-4, 1993, p. 2).
2. As a warning to the ungodly. Jude 7 makes the same point: “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” God judges these wicked cities so that the ungodly will know that he does judge sin. Let any one doubts this truth visit the Dead Sea today. It’s dead because those ancient cities are nothing but charred rubble.
3. As an act of mercy to the surrounding cities. By judging Sodom and Gomorrah so swiftly the Lord ensured that their wickedness would not spread any further. This was a form of massive capital punishment that served the common good. These cities were so evil that by destroying them, God removed a moral pollutant from the earth.
4. Because the righteous failed to make a difference. If ever the salt had lost its savor, it happened right here. Even though the 2 Peter 2;7 calls Lot a righteous man who was vexed by filthy lives of the Sodomites, he himself was so in love with the city that he was powerless to change it. He lost his testimony and in so doing, he lost his own family, and almost lost his own life.
Four Questions For Lot
In his sermon on this passage Ray Stedman poses four questions that we should ask Lot at this point. They serve to remind of the sin of dabbling in the world. First, we need to ask Lot, “How has living in Sodom affected you personally?” The verse in 2 Peter tells us that Lot was a righteous man who was deeply distressed by the evil he saw all around him. He hated what the homosexuals had done and how completely they had taken control of the city. Proverbs 29:2 reminds us that “when the righteous thrive, the people rejoice; when the wicked rule, the people groan.” Truly the righteous were thriving in Sodom and Lot groaned in his spirit when he saw the city so corrupted.
Lot wanted the best of both worlds. In doing so he lost everything.
That leads to a second question we would like to ask Lot: “How much have you influenced the city for good?” This is embarrassing because the answer is that he didn’t influence the city at all. His own sons-in-law laughed at him. His daughters committed incest with him, and his wife was turned into a pillar of salt. “His political power was great, but his spiritual influence was absolutely nil.”
Third, we would like to ask Lot, “What do you have to show for years in Sodom? What did you gain by living there?” Remember, he chose the well-watered plain near Sodom because he thought it offered a good place for his flocks. Surely Lot has become a rich man through his association with Sodom. The truth is, although he may have become rich, when the city was destroyed, he lost it all. Ponder this penetrating paragraph by Ray Stedman:
If you want to know how much Lot made in Sodom, I suggest you make a trip to the Holy Land. Go and stand by the shores of the Dead Sea and look out over that lifeless, brackish waste, the lowest and most desolate spot on the fact of the earth, 1300 feet below sea level, and listen to the lifeless waves lap on the beach in an unending monotone of death. Nothing grows there, nothing lives, nothing moves in all that forsaken valley. (“The Wasted Years,” p. 5)
How much did Lot lose? He lost it all. Absolutely everything. All his wealth vanished in the smoke. All his herds were utterly destroyed. He left Sodom with nothing but the clothes on his back.
The fourth question is most terrible one of all. “Lot, what happened to your family?” He lost that, too. His wife was destroyed and his daughters should have died for their evil sin. Although his daughters are technical virgins, they had already become whores at heart. They had become so accustomed to obscenity and unrestrained passion that in the cave they seized the thinnest reason to commit a heinous act of sexual sin. Jesus told us that whoever tries to save his own life will lose it in the end. Lot wanted to get the best of both worlds. In so doing, he lost everything—his home, his family, his family, his children, his career, his fortune, and his reputation. Four thousand years have passed and Lot still stands the ultimate picture of the worldly Christian who loves the world and loses it all.
Lingering Lessons From an Ancient Tragedy
Before we leave this story let’s wrap up some lessons for today.
1. The Seductive Power of Small Decisions. Lot didn’t come to be an alderman in Sodom overnight. It happened because he made the wrong choice in the beginning. Even so, small decisions made today may lead to disaster tomorrow. Remember this: Every decision either leads you toward the light or deeper into the darkness. You never made a meaningless choice and you never will. From tiny acorns grow mighty oaks. Even so, from momentary choices come vast consequences.
2. The Deadening Effect of Moral Compromise. Little by little Lot became adjusted to the evils of Sodom. Like the frog in the boiling pot, things around him changed so slowly that he become comfortable with situations that once made him very uneasy. Even so we who live in the 20th century face that same temptation. Is it true that we no longer blush at sin? Is it possible that sin doesn’t seem so sinful anymore? Can it be that we have allowed so much moral filth to flow into our homes and cars that it seems almost natural to us? Have we become so accustomed to evil that we are no longer repelled by it? The answer for many of us is yes.
3. The Certainty of God’s Judgment on Sin. This is the primary lesson drawn by the New Testament from this story. If you doubt that God will judge sin, take another look at those smoldering ruins. Don’t ever mistake God’s patience for his approval. We know that it is the patience of God that gives sinful men an opportunity to be saved. That’s why he hasn’t destroyed America yet. As Billy Graham has often pointed out, if God doesn’t judge America, he’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.
4. The Terrible Cost of Living in Two Worlds. You can have the world or you can have God, but not both. No man can serve two masters. If you are trying to live that way, you will lose it all, just as Lot did. Many people fight their way to the top of the heap by adopting the ways of the world only to say with the songwriter, “Is that all there is?” If you decide to live in the world, you will eventually look back on a burned-out life, with nothing to show for your efforts but wasted years and missed opportunities.
How desperately we need to teach these things to our young people.
How desperately we need to teach things to our young people. Many Christian teenagers feel the pull of the world, wanting to be popular and to have what everyone else has. They want to be liked by their friends at school and also by their friends at church. They want the Lord and the approval of the worldly crowd as well. That’s why so many of them do exactly what Lot did—compromise little by little, trying to have it all. They put popularity above Jesus and self above Christ. Some dabble in the sins of the world—drinking, drugs, and sexual experimentation. They do it because they think this is way to be accepted by the crowd. Or they do it because they are tired of being so tied down at home. That’s why they go to the youth retreat one weekend and the Homecoming Dance the next.
5. The Tragic Cost of Compromise. Not only did Lot hurt himself, his compromise ultimately destroyed those he loved the ones he loved the most. What was the greatest pang in his heart that day as he watched his beloved city go up in smoke? Was it not what his compromise had cost his family?
Our children watch us close to see what we value the most.
In much the same way our children watch us close to see what we value the most. They know that you go to church and give your money, but they also know how much you want to be liked and respected by the world. They know that you will move your family just to get a higher salary or a nicer home even though you already have everything you need. Your children know what you do in your spare time, they watch the shows you watch, and they listen to the words you say. They know that you would rather buy a new car than give money to world missions. They know that you would rather stay at home than go to a prayer meeting or make excuses than volunteer to serve in Awana. They see it all.
What happens then?
Bit by bit they lose interest in the bible, Sunday School and church. They resolve to get ahead in the world and win the respect of Sodom, no matter what moral restraint they have to throw overboard to do it. This is why we see the tragedy of Christian homes in which children are turning from God. And the sorrow you will carry to your grave, the deepest sorrow of your heart will be that, though you still have your own faith, yet because of your compromise, you have lost your children. This tragic story of Lot is taking place right here and now in the modern Sodom and Gomorrah in which we live. (Ray Stedman, “The Wasted Years,” p. 7)
It Doesn’t Have to End This Way
Let me close this sermon with two final points. First, things don’t have to end this way for any of us. A few weeks ago when I preached on Genesis 13 and how Lot chose the well-watered plains and left the rest to Abraham, I asked the question, “Who won?” From the standpoint of the world, Lot won and Abraham lost. The clever nephew pulled a fast one on his doddering old uncle. But now the tables are turned. As Abraham stands and surveys the smoldering ruins of Sodom, ask yourself again, “Who won?” The answer is clear. In the end Abraham won it all and Lot lost it all.
If you follow Lot and choose the way of the world, you will lose it all in the end. But if you follow Abraham and live by faith, though it may mean taking the lesser place in terms of worldly achievements, in the end you will be the winner.
He’s Going to Start With Us
Second, when God judges Oak Park, he will begin with us. Let me remind you of some strange and unsettling words of Jesus in Matthew 11:20-24
Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. ‘‘Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
Because of the moral condition of Oak Park, we may be tempted to think that God’s judgment will begin with gross sinners. Not so. Jesus said that Capernuam would be judged more severely than Sodom. Why? Because Capernaum ignored the miracles of Jesus and paid no attention to the Son of God. Their sin was greater because they had more light. The greater the light, the greater the judgment when the light is rejected.
A Little Lot in All of Us
Certainly Capernaum was a nicer place to live. They didn’t have all so those corrupt perverts running around and boasting about their sin. But God said that if Jesus had worked his miracles in Sodom, the people would have responded in faith and love. But when Jesus worked miracles in Capernaum, the people yawned. Jesus wasn’t very exciting to them.
Let us take these words to heart whenever we are tempted to think we are better than we really are. When God judges Oak Park, he won’t start with the gays and lesbians. He’ll start right here at 931 Lake Street. I’m not saying God won’t judge the sinners of our village. He will, but the first sinners to face him will be self-righteous, religious sinners.
That leads me to one last word. Lot lingered and lost it all. Jesus exhorted us to “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32). While we’re at it, let’s remember Lot’s wife’s husband. He didn’t fare so well either. What happened to him can happen to any of us who love the world more than we love God.
As we consider these solemn truths, let us in response flee to the Cross and lay hold upon Jesus Christ by faith. He died so that our sins could be forgiven. He rose from the dead so that we might be justified. It is only by his power that we will overcome the world.
Sodom still lives today—not just outside but on the inside. There’s more than a little Lot in each of us. What he did we can all too easily do ourselves. We can follow Abraham or we can go the way of Lot. If we forget his story, we will almost certainly repeat his mistakes.