Altar Your Life
by Jack Wald | September 25th, 2016

Genesis 18-19

Over the past few weeks we have been focusing on Abraham’s journey of faith from Ur to Haran to Canaan. I mentioned last week that God promised Abraham when he was in Haran that he would have a son and land and that he repeated that promise seven more times over the course of Abraham’s life. God took Abraham from a polytheistic culture, believing in many gods, to a monotheistic faith, believing in one God.

This morning we will look at Genesis 18 and 19. Genesis 18 tells the story of three heavenly visitors coming to see Abraham and then Genesis 19 tells the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Although there is a connection between the two chapters – at the end of Genesis 18 Abraham bargains for Lot to be spared the destruction of Sodom – most often these two chapters are viewed separately. But as I read through the accounts, it seemed to me that the two chapters are meant to be viewed together. As I read the accounts, it seems to me that Genesis 18 and 19 draw a contrast between the life of Abraham and the life of Lot.

Both Abraham and Lot made the journey from Haran to Canaan. Both Abraham and Lot prospered in this new land. When arguments broke out between their herders, they decided to separate and when they had separated, their lives moved in two very different directions.

I will begin by sharing what I believe made the key difference in their lives and then draw lessons for us from the different directions their lives took.

When Abraham was living in Haran, God told him, (Genesis 12:1–8)
“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you;

Abraham left his country, his people, and his father’s household and traveled to Canaan. The account tells us he arrived at Shechem, in the middle of Canaan. What did he do when he arrived? God repeated his promise to Abraham and then, “he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.”

The next verse tells us he went toward the hills east of Bethel, between Bethel and Ai, and what did Abraham do? “There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.”

When there was a famine in the land, Abraham left for Egypt. But when he returned, to the place between Bethel and Ai where he had built an altar, what did he do? (Genesis 13:4) “There Abram called on the name of the Lord.”

Abraham and Lot prospered and their herdsmen quarreled, so Abraham told Lot they needed to separate. He gave Lot the choice of where he would go and Lot chose the fertile plains, east of Canaan.

Where did God call Abraham to go? Canaan. When Abraham offered Lot his choice of where to go, he created the possibility that Lot would choose Canaan and then Abraham would move away from where God had called him to go. But Lot choose to move east of Canaan and Abraham remained in the land God had promised to him.

After Lot left, what happened to Abraham? God repeated his promise.
14 The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

Abraham moved to Hebron and, “There he built an altar to the Lord.”

Whenever Abraham arrived at where God told him to go, he built an altar and worshiped God who had called him. Whenever Abraham moved, he build an altar. Whenever Abraham returned to a place where God had spoken to him, he worshiped at the altar he had built.

Abraham regularly took time to worship God. When Abraham took Isaac up the mountain and Isaac asked his father where the sacrifice for the altar was, he asked because he had often seen his father make a sacrifice to God on the altar. Abraham’s life was centered on his relationship with God.

In contrast, there is no indication in the Bible that Lot ever built an altar.

This is the key difference between Abraham and Lot and Genesis 18 and 19 shows us what difference that made in their lives.

The first difference that is contrasted between Abraham and Lot in Genesis 18 and 19 is seen in where they lived.

Wherever Abraham went, he built an altar. He was led and directed by God. It is not that he was perfect and never made mistakes, but he kept looking to God for direction and guidance.

What about Lot? What happened to him?

When Abraham and Lot separated, Lot chose the lush, fertile land of the valley in which lay the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah that were later destroyed because, as it is written in Genesis 13, “Now the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord.”

After Lot chose the plains of the Jordan valley, we read that: (Genesis 13:12) “Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom.” Lot made his choice and then Abraham built an altar and worshiped the Lord, but Lot pitched his tents near Sodom.

Later there was a battle and Lot and his possessions were captured. (Genesis 14:12) “They also carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom.” Lot pitched his tents near Sodom and when the kings captured him he had moved and was now living in Sodom.

When angels arrived to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of the great evil in those cities, where was Lot to be found? (Genesis 19:1) “The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city.”

Lot pitched his tent near Sodom, then lived in Sodom, and finally sat as a city elder in the gates of Sodom. Lot drifted with the culture; Abraham followed God.

The first verses of the first psalm in the Bible are a story of Abraham in contrast with Lot. (Psalm 1:1–3)
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

Lot walked by Sodom, then stood in Sodom, and finally sat in Sodom. Abraham continued to build altars and follow God. Abraham was like a tree planted by streams of water and he prospered.

Abraham was a pilgrim with his eyes fixed on God’s kingdom. In the great chapter of heros of faith, the writer of Hebrews comments: (Hebrews 11:9–10)
By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Lot never set out on pilgrimage. Pilgrims do not settle down and accommodate to the culture, they move forward, bringing the values of the Kingdom of God into their world. Pilgrims are aliens and strangers, moving through the land, not accommodating to the culture. Peter encouraged us to take this view of ourselves in his letter: (I Peter 2:11) “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.”

This is the struggle of every generation. Even the generation that comes to faith in a great awakening or revival sees the drift that takes place in the years after revival. This is why the influence of the church in the world rises and falls over time.

When we take our eyes off of the teachings of Scripture and put them on the values of our culture, we inevitably drift. Even when we keep one eye on Scripture and the other on our culture, we drift.  And as we drift, we drift east into Sodom.

When I say this, you are thinking immediately that I am talking about homosexuality. That was certainly part of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, but it was only one small part. In our modern Christian culture, the worst sin is sexual sin, but in the culture of Abraham, the worst sin was to be inhospitable.

This leads me to the second contrast between Abraham and Lot in Genesis 18 and 19 and that concerns hospitality.

Hospitality is disappearing in our modern world. At least in many countries in the Western world, you can live next door to someone in a house or an apartment and not know your neighbors. Strangers are not welcomed, they are looked at with suspicion and distrust.

This was not at all the case in the world of Abraham or in the world of Jesus and it is not the case in the cultures of North Africa and the Middle East.

In Abraham’s world, hospitality originated in nomadic life. People did not travel for pleasure, only for necessity and a traveler never knew when he would require help or assistance from someone. So it was expected that a traveler would be welcomed, given a place to sleep, food to eat.

Hospitality was so necessary and so highly valued that a murderer would find protection in the tent of his host even if the host was the son of the one who had been murdered. In time, villages began maintaining rooms for travelers with the expenses shared by the villagers.

In the culture of Palestine at the time of Jesus, guest rooms were added on to the one-room homes to offer hospitality to travelers. One of these guest rooms in Bethlehem was full when Mary and Joseph came so the family invited them to share their room. At the end of the room there was a lower level where the animals were kept. The food for the animals was put in the manger at the end of the family’s room. This manger is where Jesus was laid when he was born. It was inconcivable that Mary and Joseph would not be invited into a home. The reputation of Bethlehem depended on offering hospitality to visitors, especially to a pregnant woman and her husband, a local boy, who was from the line of David.

When the West reads Genesis 18 and 19 and other parts of the Bible, they undervalue the importance of hospitality and miss the meaning of what we read. The West reads Genesis 19 and sees the sin of homosexuality, but in the world of Abraham, the greater offense was how rudely the three visitors were treated in Sodom.

Genesis 18 and 19 make the contrast between how the visitors were treated by Abraham and how they were treated in Sodom.

Abraham was sitting in the shade of trees during the heat of the day when he saw three men standing nearby.
When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
3 He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

Abraham is a wealthy, powerful man and yet he hurries to them. He bows low to the ground. He calls himself their servant. This is the hospitality of his culture. He honors them by generously welcoming them.

Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”
7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

Abraham hurried. He told Sarah to get the finest flour. He ran to the herd and picked the most tender meat. His servant hurried to prepare it. And then when he brought them the food, he stood near them under a tree while they ate.

This is wonderful hospitality. This is a model of what hospitality looks like. The three visitors are the honored ones; Abraham is their servant. Abraham did what a host was supposed to do.

This hospitality is contrasted with how the three visitors were treated in Sodom. (Genesis 19:1-9)
The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. 2 “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”
“No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.”
3 But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate.

Notice that Lot greeted the men with respect and honor. Like Abraham, when he saw them, he got up and went to them. He bowed down with his face to the ground. He invited them to his home and kept on inviting them. He prepared a meal for them. He did what a hospitable host was supposed to do.

But Lot had drifted with the culture and was living in the midst of the sin of Sodom. The men of the city came demanding he give them the three visitors so they could have sex with them. Lot protested and even offered his daughters to them if they would not violate the hospitality he was offering. We are shocked when we read this. We have a very difficult time understanding this, but that is because we undervalue the importance of hospitality in Abraham’s culture.

The point is that Lot had drifted with the culture and was now in a position where he was unable to protect his visitors and put his own daughters in jeopardy.

Abraham built altars and Lot drifted. This put them in two very different positions. Lot was helpless but Abraham was able to speak with the three visitors before they left for Sodom and intercede for Lot and his family.

The visitor identified as the Lord said, (Genesis 18:20-21)
“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

In the culture of Abraham, Abraham never asked directly that his nephew Lot and his family would be spared. Instead he asks,
“Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Then Abraham asked with deference if he would destroy Sodom if there were only forty-five who were righteous. Then forty, then thirty, then twenty, then ten. At this point, Abraham figured that with Lot, his wife, his daughters, their sons-in-law, and four others they would be spared.

Abraham was able to intercede for Lot, but Lot was helpless.

When we drift with the culture, we are less able to be an influence for good in the world. We lose our opportunities to speak life into the lives of people.

A third contrast between Abraham and Lot in Genesis 18 and 19 is seen in the blessing they received.

Within a year of the visit of the three heavenly visitors, Sarah gave birth to Isaac. After Sarah died, Abraham married again and had six more sons. Abraham gave gifts to the children of his concubines and then passed on his wealth to his son, Isaac.(Genesis 25:8)
Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.

Abraham lived a long life, surrounded by the many blessings in his life. How did Lot finish his life?

Lot escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah but his wife was killed in the process. His daughters got him drunk so they could sleep with him and bear children. He had no wealth, no possessions, and lived in a cave.

Genesis 18 and 19 make a clear statement about the different paths Abraham and Lot took. They each made choices and those choices led them to where they ended up.

It’s not that Abraham was perfect. Abraham did not always choose well. When he traveled and feared Sarah would be desired by the ruler of that region, he had her tell people she was his sister so he would not be killed. If a ruler desired Sarah and could have her by killing her husband, that would be an easy thing to do. Abraham had great faith but not enough to trust that God would protect his relationship with Sarah.

Abraham did this twice. And, perhaps, it was a mistake as well to sleep with Hagar. Abraham did not always choose well.  But God took his mistakes and blessed them. God interceded for Abraham and Sarah with the Pharaoh of Egypt and with Abimelek, king of Gerar. In each case Abraham left a wealthier man.

When Isaac was born and Sarah insisted Hagar and Ishmael leave, God reassured Abraham that he would take care of them and bless them. God told Abraham (Genesis 21:13) “I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

Because of Abraham, Ishmael was blessed and Lot was saved when Sodom was destroyed. Because of Lot, his wife died and his daughters were led to dishonorable behavior.

The choices Abraham and Lot made had consequences for more than just themselves.

Like Abraham and Lot, we have to make choices every day. We make little decisions and sometimes major decisions, but we have to choose each day if we will make choices that will lead to life or choices that will lead to death. And like Abraham and Lot, our choices will have an impact on more than just ourselves.

Paul wrote in Romans 12:1–2
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Will we offer ourselves to Jesus at our daily altar? Will we begin our day with a desire to serve Jesus that day? Will we take time through the day to remember who it is we serve as we have to make decisions at our school or work? Will we remember how Jesus loves us as we interact with people through the day?

When we face temptations, how will we handle them? Will we resist? Will we get the help and support of brothers and sisters in Christ to help us resist?

As we move through life, will we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, being led by the Bible God has given to direct us through the choices we have to make in our lives? Or will we allow ourselves to drift with the culture.

The drift of the culture in the years I have been a follower of Jesus has been disheartening. What the Bible has to say about sexual behavior has been pushed to the side in favor of what the culture says about the freedom to have sex without restrictions. “As long as they love each other, it is ok,” has taken over from the Biblical teaching that sexual relations belong within the bonds of marriage of one man to one woman.

The Bible tells us in Philippians 2:3–4
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
but our culture is increasingly self-absorbed, self-centered, concerned only with “what’s in it for me?”

We have to resist the cultural drift that will pull us away from Jesus. We think we know better. But how arrogant is it to think that we have it all figured out and know better than God how to life a life that is pleasing to him and good for us? We need to trust God and the word he has given us to guide us through life and resist the pull of the world and its values.

There is one more bit of good news that comes out of today’s text.

Lot’s daughters became the mothers of the nations of Moab and Ammon. These two nations were despised by Israel and mocked because of how they started. But as I said earlier in this sermon series, the good news is that when Jesus died, the curtain of the Most Holy Place was torn and the entire world was invited to come into the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God was no longer an exclusive club open only to Jews. It was now open to the entire world. In the Old Testament there are events that foreshadow this. One of these is in the book of Ruth. Ruth is a Moabitess, a descendant of the older daughter of Lot. She is honored and chosen by Boaz to be his wife. She became the great-grandmother of King David and is listed in the genealogy of the ancestors of Jesus.

Lot ended his life in disgrace. His daughters behaved dishonorably. But God loved them and he loves their descendants.

Even the most dishonorable characters of the Bible can be redeemed by the love of God. There is no person on earth at present or in the past who we can write off. We seriously underestimate the love of God that reaches into every life in any way possible. Remember that the people you most dislike and most distrust are people God loves and wants to come into his kingdom.

What this means is that God can and will reach into your life. Regardless of what dark secret you keep from others, God can create beauty in your life. Regardless of how unworthy you feel, God loves you, can forgive you your sin, and embrace you as his daughter or son.

God blesses those who are faithful to him. Abraham was blessed by God. He was not perfect and we are not perfect. In the words of Brennan Manning that I quoted last Sunday, God comes to us and says, “I dare you to trust that I love you just as you are and not as you should be, because you’re never gonna be as you should be.”

Love God. Choose well. Repent from the heart. Receive the love of Jesus. Fix your eyes on Jesus. Be guided by the Bible God has given us. Resist the pull of the world’s culture. Know you are loved by the pre-existing creator of the world.