Do you want to read the text of the Bible first?
- In the days of King Amraphel of Shinar, King Arioch of Ellasar, King Chedorlaomer of Elam, and King Tidal of Goiim,
- these kings made war with King Bera of Sodom, King Birsha of Gomorrah, King Shinab of Admah, King Shemeber of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar).
- All these joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Dead Sea).
- Twelve years they had served Chedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled.
- In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him came and subdued the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim,
- and the Horites in the hill country of Seir as far as El-paran on the edge of the wilderness;
- then they turned back and came to En-mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and subdued all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who lived in Hazazon-tamar.
- Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim
- with King Chedorlaomer of Elam, King Tidal of Goiim, King Amraphel of Shinar, and King Arioch of Ellasar, four kings against five.
- Now the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits; and as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the hill country.
- So the enemy took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way;
- they also took Lot, the son of Abram's brother, who lived in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.
- Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner; these were allies of Abram.
- When Abram heard that his nephew had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred eighteen of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.
- He divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and routed them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus.
- Then he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his nephew Lot with his goods, and the women and the people.
- After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley).
- Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, "Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself."
- But Abram said to the king of Sodom, "I have sworn to the Lord, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth,
- that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say, "I have made Abram rich.'
- I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me—Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre. Let them take their share."
Last held on the 18th of August 2002 at Hattem
Abraham is on the warpath. That may be special news for us and a bit disappointing. Who would have thought that of Abraham, who is called 'the father of the faithful'? We see him as a kind of rancher wandering in tents, but not as an army captain. Yet he is in a tough battle.
By the way, in our chapter it's all clattering of weapons. Did you by reading stumble at the strange names of all these kings, countries and cities? It doesn't matter. In short, it's said in the following.
The great empires in the vast area east of Israel, where Iran and Iraq now lie, had allied in a coalition. One can compare it to NATO or the European Union. That gave them great power far west. And so the small city-states in the vicinity of the present-day Dead Sea, including Sodom and Gomorrah, had become their vassal states. They had to serve them, a nice word for: they were exploited by them. One can compare it to the power of the former Soviet Union over the Eastern European states: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria. Or to be honest and a little closer to home for Dutch people: one also can compare it to the power we used to have over our colonies: the Indies, - formerly Indonesia - Suriname, the Antilles. The Netherlands also profited from those countries.
But after twelve years of service and oppression, the city lords revolted. We can compare it with the Hungarian uprising and the Prague spring. And also with Indonesia's struggle for freedom. That's why the kings from the east made a punitive expedition to them. Think of the entering the Warsaw Pact tanks in Budapest and Prague. I write this with respect for the Dutch soldiers who were involved, but we also can think of the Dutch so-called 'police actions' in the Indies. The eastern kings at first passed the uprising cities with their armies, going farther south, to secure the trade routes to Egypt above all. Trade and economy are often the driving forces behind wars. We can compare it with the Gulf War, that we cannot see in isolation from the oil resources in that area. But superior as they were, on the way back they made short work of these weak vassal lords. Although they've had enough time to prepare for the attack and line up in battle, these lords were dispersed. And fleeing into the mountains, where the hiding places were, many ended up in the valleys before in treacherous asphalt pits. A viscous mass, hidden under a thin layer of sand, that will inevitably suck you to death.
The writer of 'Ecclesiastes' is right: nothing new under the sun. It is the time-honoured song in all of world history. Up to now. On the one hand, forging alliances, coalitions, treaties, to increase power and wealth, destroying weak enemies, brutally taking possession of people and their properties. On the other hand, being oppressed, exploited, colonized. And also: revolting and be knocked down, being put on the run, perishing in the violence of war.
Abraham, the first person, to whom God gave faith, lived in such a world. And so we also do live now, the congregation of Jesus Christ, thousands of years later. It even got worse because the weapons became much more effective and destructive. The rifle came, the canon, the atomic bomb, the scud missile.
They are the signs of the times Jesus pointed out. 'And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom (Matth. 24:6).
They are the signs of our Fall with his great consequences. The signs that tell us this world will end itself sooner or later. It's not without reason that Jesus speaks about these signs of the times in his speech about the last things. These signs are crying out: 'Thy Kingdom come', are crying for God's Kingdom of peace and justice.
Every day we read in the newspaper about war, violence, oppression, exploitation, and the countless victims so made. We also see it on the telly. Did we get cold and callous? Or are we ashamed and saddened by the evil we are doing and for which we collectively are to blame? Do they arouse us all the more to seek our salvation in the Lord Jesus, the true king of peace and justice, because He is the only one who can let us escape the self-destruction of this world?
And do we take care of the victims by praying for them and reaching out a helping hand? After all, Abraham acts the same when he hears the kings of the east took Lot as spoil. Don't think that the great horrible world events always pass us, individuals. Sometimes they roll over us. Just like the Second World War rolled over many peoples and had enormous consequences for countless personal lives. The elderly still remember well. We become irrevocably involved in it. We become fellows of Lot. Only how that happens can differ. As there's also a difference between Lot and Abraham on this point.
For Lot has chosen the fertile Jordan plains with the prosperous cities there. He moved to Sodom, the wicked city. And he deviated from God's way. He settled in the middle of the world, attracted by the well-being, the comfort there. He wasn't aware of the dangers there. For then actually, you take the risk to become a victim of the harsh laws of dominion and violence that apply in this world. Even if you think you're strong, one time you come across a more powerful one, against whom you will loose. The kings around the Jordan plains also thought they were strong enough to free themselves from the yoke of the Eastern kings. Some of their tribes are even giants, according to biblical data elsewhere: the Rephaim, the Zuzim, and the Emim. But they are defeated. And Lot, who has joined them, is taken into it. And not only he but also his property, which means not only his property but also his family and staff. An extra responsibility we bear. We not only endanger ourselves when we associate too closely with the evil forces but also those who are close to us: our wife, husband, children, our staff and company. Indeed, God's children can get involved in it unintentionally. They don't live on an uninhabited island. But if we settle in the middle of this world, adapt ourselves entirely to the way of life of the unbelievers, we should not be surprised that it'll work against us. That we, like Lot, are dragged along by the economic, political and military powers of this world. We lose our freedom. We become captive of those powers. In the world, you always seem to have freedom and joy, but it eventually turns into sad captivity. One drags you into slavery. Ever further away. Further from the land of God's promises. Be careful. Life in this world outside of God seems so beautiful, but it could make you so unhappy and rob you of everything. Lot is like a warning beacon in the sea.
And Abraham? It first goes beyond him, because he, as a stranger, resides in the land of God's promises, which was a desert region of no interest to the world forces. He's left alone. It already seems like a blessing from God on the right choice Abraham made. We would say: stay where you are. It's wonderful to get out of the world powers in this way. Maybe we think so too secretly. Terrible, the abuses that for instance, existed and still exist in the Balkans, between Israel and Palestine, in Chechnia, Colombia, many areas of this world. But still, a blessing that it has passed us so far. It just has to stay that way. Terrible, all those refugees and asylum seekers in this world, just like Lot by evil powers dragged away from where they feel at home. And something needs to be done. But if the authorities house them in large numbers in your village or city, you don't like, and possibly are going to protest. That's how it works.
But what does Abraham do when a fugitive comes to tell him that Lot has been taken captive? He comes to in for the rescue of his nephew. He doesn't say it's Lot's fault. He shouldn't have made the wrong choice and live in Sodom. He should have stayed on God's way. He also doesn't say: I want to help, you know, but what can I do on my own against those great armies? It would be an act of suicide. Abraham has enough excuses to remain neutral, to keep aloof, not to walk into a hornet's nest. And we find those reasons too, valid and not valid excuses. If that's the way, they want it, to fight each other to death. And what's the point of my help? There's so much need. Isn't it just a drop in the ocean?
But Abraham acts it differently. He goes out to save Lot. He voluntarily throws himself into the dangerous turmoil of the world powers; to free someone who has become trapped between those powers. For his cousin, Lot nevertheless is spiritually his brother. The brother who has gone astray, but still is his brother, as we read. And then, as a Christian congregation, we do not only think of Abraham but also of the great son of the offspring of Abraham, the Lord Jesus. He could also have kept his distance, staying close to his Father in heaven but didn't. 'He, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness' (Phil. 2:6-7). He could have said: it's your fault, humankind, you shouldn't have fallen in sins. It's your fault that you're a prisoner of the evil powers that you've created yourself. It's God's judgment on you. No, in his great love and loyalty, he descends into the fray of this earth. He heads towards the powers, between Pilate, Herod, the Pharisees. He puts his life at risk for us. He pursues the forces of evil in his particular way, exposes them, disarms them, conquers them. To save us from them. Nor is he ashamed to call us His brothers and sisters (Hebr. 2:11). He, our great eldest brother, liberates us through his death on the cross and his resurrection. The powers also seem to crush and kill Him, but He emerges as Conqueror and Deliverer. How wonderful that Lot still has Abraham, and the latter in brotherly solidarity risks his life for Lot's liberation. How wonderful that we, who strayed away from God, and so are the toy of the worldly powers, still have the Lord Jesus as our Deliverer. We are trapped in evil by our sins and guilt. We are dragged along by the 'ruler of this world'. But we are mercifully saved from evil by Jesus. We are carried along by our sins but graciously led back by Jesus to be allowed to start again. What a Liberation!
Do we see ourselves behind Lot? But do we also see the Lord Jesus behind Abraham? For that's the gospel. The gospel of the redemption of lost, to the evil devoted sinners, by the loving, faithful, all-power conquering Jesus. Do we believe this gospel? That's wonderful. It gives us real comfort and tranquillity.
But if we know we're saved by the Lord Jesus, doesn't that change our whole life? Also, our attitude towards people who are crushed between the evil forces? Don't we go the way of Abraham, I also mean, the way after Jesus, by not standing on the sidelines, making up all kinds of excuses, but helping and saving when our neighbours are in need? They're our brothers and sisters, whom we cannot abandon. Just as Jesus didn't abandon us, we also will go out. Despite the objections and the danger. They may be sheep, strayed away from the flock, called the church, and from the shepherd, called God, just as Lot had gone astray. They may then have become too absorbed in the world, which caused them trouble, as was the case with Lot. We're going to help them anyway. I'm thinking of the person who is in danger of starvation, caused by drought, but much more by war or a corrupt criminal government. And as well of the person who languishes in a refugee camp. I'm thinking of the many asylum seekers. But it also can be that sick or lonely neighbour.
But you can't handle the whole world on your own, can you? No, but you don't have to. It's about the one or a few, whom God places in our path. Just as Abraham feels especially responsible for Lot. And it's important that we also involve others. Just as Abraham took his faithful servants and also went out in alliance with his neighbours, the Amorites Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Much good can happen with others. Together we can perform many healing and liberating acts. We can do it together with people with whom we share our faith. By just spontaneously putting our heads together to jump helping and aiding in the area's where the need is. I'm thinking of the relief efforts for people in Eastern Europe, Romania, Ukraine. Or in the more structured context of a committee in our parish, an ecclesiastical foundation. The diaconate, locally and worldwide. The service of mercy and justice. And we also can work together with people of a different philosophy of life, who are committed to the same. Abraham also works with his Amorite neighbours. I'm thinking of Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, Amnesty International.
And so Abraham is going on the warpath. With three hundred and eighteen men. The interpreters value this number very differently. According to some, comparison with extra-biblical data from that time suggests it was a respectable army. After all, the population density was still low then. Others call it a small, weak group, a kind of Gideon gang - after all, Gideon only went with 300 men towards a much stronger enemy - and see it as a miracle of God that Abraham wins the battle with them. In any case, it also seems to me Abraham must have been far in the minority. Because in a well-prepared punitive expedition, large and sprawling eastern empires must have mobilized more people than Abraham, who could only gather some desert dwellers in the short term.
Abraham is tactically smart. He splits his army into groups, which at night launch surprise attacks on the enemy from different sides. And so Lot is liberated with others. The Bible even mentions that the enemy is being pursued far, to the north of Damascus. And the holy book clearly portrayed Abraham as the hero who inflicts an ignominious defeat on the evil powers. I see in this the great, saving hand of God, which successfully crowns Abraham's act of solidarity. And this has to do with Abraham's calling! That calling contained the promise: I will bless you, but at the same time also the command: be a blessing. And now that Abraham fulfils this assignment, the Lord also keeps his promise. Whoever follows the path of solidarity, love and loyalty, the path of liberating aid to those who are crushed by worldly powers, is nevertheless strong in his weakness, because the Lord is on his side. He, at last, will overcome, as true as Jesus Christ overcame and rose as a strong hero from the utter weakness of death. It's not in vain if we strive for the rescue of our neighbour from the clutches of evil. We then may have all the courage and confidence because we follow the Lord Jesus.
But I still have some trouble with this story, you may think. Then Abraham is going on the warpath after all. With arms in hand. Prepared to kill fellow humans. He's fighting for a good and just cause, but should you be committed to it in that way? Is there a just war anyway? It's a difficult ethical problem, the old question of pacifism. Surely, in the coming peaceful kingdom of God, the nations will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Mica 4:3). War is and will remain evil, but it's sometimes necessary to stop the evil powers on their destroying path. What should have happened if the Allies hadn't attacked Germany's Hitler Empire to liberate us in the Netherlands? And although things went wrong in Srebrenica, the United Nations peacekeepers in many trouble spots in this world did and still do important work.
On the other hand, we always must beware of the temptation to adapt completely to the life pattern of this world. It isn't good to remain uninvolved. It sometimes is required to jump in rescuing. But then it's also important to maintain the necessary distance again. One must not try, under the guise of seeking peace and justice, to expand and enrich one's own political and economic power. I think about Abraham's meeting with the king of Sodom. It's not clear whether it is the same one who lost the battle against the Eastern kings and ended up in the asphalt pits with his mates. Did he manage to get out of it, or is it his successor? In any case, he wants to make a deal with Abraham. Certainly, by worldly standards, the victor has the right to all the spoils; to people who can serve as slaves, and to everything that could be taken from the enemy like food, tools, weapons, etc. But losing everything is quite something. It's the worst that can happen to a person who only expects things out of this world. And what must Abraham do with so many men in the desert? So the king of Sodom said: 'Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.' But Abraham gives everything back and thereby swears by his God. He doesn't want to commit to world powers. Abraham wants to remain completely free from them and prevent them from exerting any moral pressure on him and claiming him for one thing or another. He doesn't want to be made rich by them, only by his God, the Lord Most High. For the wealth of the world enslaves you, but the wealth of God makes you free. Abraham doesn't lose sight of his sense of responsibility for others. He thinks of his servants and allies. They may receive their share. They also have to live, and they behaved courageously. But he doesn't claim anything for himself. Not even 'a thread or a sandal-thong'. He was quite willing to get his hands dirty in the liberation of those who were dragged along by the world powers. He even had gone very far in that. But at the same time, he wants to have his hands free towards the world and his forces, not bound by anything. He must remain able to serve God and to live from God's blessings and gifts. He relinquishes the power over people, and the wealth of goods, that's ready for the taking, for the sake of his spiritual freedom, the freedom to be able to serve his God. The freedom to give God all the credit for his rich gifts and blessings. No one should ever say: I made Abraham rich. That he only likes tot reserve for the Lord. Do we also have this attitude? That we're focussed on the Lord, not aiming the glory of others or ourself, but the glory of God? Listen, my dears, the Lord has made me very rich! In that respect, I'm Abraham's companion.
It's not easy. You fully dive into the world. You don't remain at a distance but liberate victims. But you don't participate in the pattern of thought and action that this world has. May God Himself give us this art of living through His Holy Spirit. Then we also experience that wonderful combination, that we're a blessing to others and at the same time are richly blessed ourselves. Amen.