When you make a petition to someone, when you ask someone for something what do you base it on? Children, at least my children, simply seem to think that they ought to get whatever they want whenever they want it. As we get older, petitions often take the form of a negotiation: you do this for me and I’ll do this for you. Mom, if you let me spend the night at my friend’s house, I’ll clean my room. Dad, if you let me take the car, I’ll wash it. Honey, if you get up to change this diaper, I’ll get the next one. In the worlds of business and academics, petitions are usually merit-based: I’ve worked here for 2 years, I deserve more vacation time. I’ve got a 4.0 GPA, I deserve to get this scholarship. But what about when we make our petitions to God? Every time we pray, we are petitioning God for something, asking him for something that we can’t do or achieve on our own. On what should we base our prayers? On blind presumption? On what we can do for God in return? On our past or present merit? How bold would you be, could you be, if the basis of your prayer was yourself? And yet Jesus both invites and commands us to pray – and to pray boldly (Luke 11:1-13). What’s the secret to prayer like that? Today, Abraham shows us.
Genesis chapter 18 is not only a remarkable chapter in the life of Abraham, it’s a remarkable window into God’s heart. The incident before us takes place years after God had called Abraham out of his life of idolatry to faith (Genesis 12), after Abraham and his nephew Lot had gone their separate ways (Genesis 13), and after God had confirmed his covenant of grace (Genesis 15). Perhaps the most notable context, however, is that this incident occurs shortly after Abraham had rescued both his nephew Lot and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah from the hands of the Elamites (Genesis 14). In the name of the Most High God (Genesis 14:22) Abraham had rescued the kings and people of these two cities – and yet just a few years later, almost to a person, they had turned away from God in unbelief and expressed their unbelief by engaging in depraved sexual behavior (Jude 7).
At the beginning of chapter 18, the LORD (the pre-incarnate Christ) appeared to Abraham (Genesis 18:1) accompanied by two angels. He had come for two reasons, first, to restate his promise to give Sarah and Abraham a son in their old age, and second, to conduct an investigation. As verses 20 and 21 state the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 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. And, while the angels continue on their way, the LORD stays with Abraham for a little pow-wow. The LORD not only revealed his plans for Sodom and Gomorrah to Abraham, but he stayed behind to hear Abraham’s thoughts on the issue. He treated Abraham like a friend (Isaiah 41:8).
Here’s the first truth that makes us bold to pray: even though God is the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent King of the universe, he invites you to present your requests at his heavenly throne and promises to consider them. And that’s not just my opinion, that’s what Jesus promised when he said ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened (Luke 11:9-10). Just like with Abraham, God is present with you – he has revealed his heart to you in his Word; and his gift of prayer is his invitation to open up your heart to him. God is eager to listen to your prayers – so boldly take him up on his offer!
Which brings us to Abraham’s prayer. I won’t reread it in full, but doesn’t it strike you as bold, bordering on rude? Who does Abraham think he is asking a holy God to change his mind, to spare the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah at all, much less refuse to take “yes” for an answer? Maybe a better question is, why don’t we pray like that? Why aren’t we bold, persistent, almost rude in prayer – even though Jesus made it clear that God wants us to “bother” him (Luke 11:7-8)? Are we too proud to ask more than once? Don’t we believe he is listening? Do is it because we think we have everything under control – that we trust our own strength to solve all our problems? Is it guilt or shame? “Why should God listen to me? Why should he care what I have to say? I’ve sinned too much and failed to do too much good to have any right to ask for favors from God. I don’t dare be bold in prayer.” Or is it the other extreme: a lack of faith in God’s promises? “I’ve poured my heart and soul out to God asking for something in the past and all I heard were crickets. No reaction. No response. Nothing happened.” Do you see the problem with all of those reasons? It grounds the basis for prayer in me and my worthiness and my perception and my emotions. If our prayers are based on who we are and what we’ve done, then it’s true, we have no right to come to God and no right to expect him to answer – because we have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23) and our sins do separate us from him so that he does not hear us (Isaiah 59:2).
Clearly, Abraham understood that. Did you notice how he appeared to sense that he was treading on thin ice? He says now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes and twice he pleads may the Lord not be angry. But he boldly forged ahead. Why? Because his prayer wasn’t based on who he was but on who God is! Listen to how Abraham hangs his petition on God’s character: 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? Abraham was bold because Abraham knew God. He knew that God is just. Abraham doesn’t defend Sodom and Gomorrah. He doesn’t try to excuse their sin by calling them “enlightened” or “progressive.” In fact, he doesn’t mention their sin at all. But he does plead with the Lord to spare those cities for the sake of the righteous. Abraham knew that even as a just Judge cannot let the guilty go unpunished, neither can he rightly punish the righteous.
God is still just today. He will always do what is right even if we don’t understand it. In recent days, the death of Jeffrey Epstein behind bars again raised the question: did he escape justice for all his wicked deeds? The Biblical answer is that God is just. He will not leave the guilty unpunished nor will he punish the righteous. And we can hang our prayers on this truth about God. Whenever you pray your will be done – understand that God’s will is to punish the wicked and spare the righteous. When you pray for God to heal your body and cure your diseases, know that God’s answer – whether he says “yes,” “no,” or “not yet” is the right answer for you at this time. When you pray for a relative who has fallen away from faith – know that God will deal with them justly. Maybe most importantly, when you are confronted by the death of someone who was not a confessing believer, when you wonder where they are – you must understand that wherever they are: God didn’t act without all the evidence, he didn’t treat them unfairly – wherever they are, God is and remains perfectly just. We may not always see or understand it now, but don’t ever doubt that, in the end, God will do what is right – you can base your bold, persistent prayers on it!
Now, you may be thinking: how is the fact that God is just supposed to make me bold and confident in prayer? After all, I just admitted that I’m a sinner who deserves nothing but his wrath and punishment. Well, that’s true, but that’s not the whole truth. There’s a story told about a circuit judge who had built a reputation for fair and firm judgments. Without fail he punished the guilty and acquitted the innocent. One day, his son was brought into his courtroom to stand trial, charged with driving 50 mph over the speed limit. “How do you plead?” he asked. “Guilty,” his son replied. “Good, because you are. Guilty as charged.” He bangs down his gavel, “the sentence is a $500 fine or a week in jail.” Well, the son didn’t have $500. But just as the bailiff came to take him away, his father, the just judge, steps down from his bench, takes off his robe, reaches into his pocket and writes out a check for $500 to the court. He paid the penalty for his son’s crime himself.
This story illustrates the other side of Abraham’s knowledge of the Judge of all the earth. He is just, yes; but he is also gracious. That’s something no one would ever know unless God revealed it – and God had certainly revealed his grace to Abraham. It was nothing but grace that led the LORD to choose Abraham and declare him to be the Father of all believers as he did at the beginning of our text (Genesis 18:18-19). Abraham knew God was gracious and he appealed to this grace in his petition on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. And how did the Lord react to this bold and reckless request? He never lost his patience, he never got angry, he never said “now you’ve gone too far!” God had called and justified Abraham – he had made him his child. That relationship is why God patiently listened and heard Abraham’s plea. Keep that in mind. In baptism, through sheer grace, the Judge of the universe became your Father. A Father who never tires of hearing your voice, a Father for whom no request is too big or small, a Father who has the patience of God, a Father who will listen and answer in his own time and way.
In the end, God did not find even 10 righteous people (Genesis 19:15) in Sodom and Gomorrah and he rained down burning sulfur [on them] (Genesis 19:24) to carry out his justice. But even there we see God’s grace, don’t we? For even though he didn’t find 10 righteous people, he did spare Lot and his family – his grace extended even beyond Abraham’s wildest request! (Incidentally, how many times has God not given us what we ask, only to give us more than we asked for?)
But something still doesn’t add up, right? How can God be perfectly just and perfectly gracious at the same time? If God doesn’t punish us as our sins deserve, doesn’t that mean that he’s unjust? And if God only spares good people, that’s not really grace at all, is it? How do we resolve this tension between God’s grace and his justice? That’s the big question, isn’t it? That’s what people wonder when they see a world where the wicked seem to prosper and the righteous seem to suffer. Where is this just, gracious God now? How do we resolve this tension? We can’t, only God can.
God’s justice demanded that he punish sin with death and hell – and God’s grace demanded that he forgive wickedness, rebellion and sin (Exodus 34:7). How did God maintain both perfect justice and perfect grace? Through the cross. The cross satisfied God’s demand for justice because on it, Jesus suffered under the unmitigated wrath of God’s justice and paid for the sins of the whole world – yes, even sins like those of Sodom and Gomorrah. Because Christ satisfied God’s justice, God was freed to show us grace, to forgive our sins and declare us not-guilty. You may have wondered how Abraham could allege that anyone, even 10 men, were righteous when the Bible says that no one is righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10). Only through faith in Jesus can anyone be counted righteous before God (Romans 3:22). Through faith, Jesus takes your sins and gives you his righteousness. Jesus’ righteousness will shield you from God’s judgment on the Last Day – a judgment that will make Sodom and Gomorrah look like child’s play – just as surely as he spared Lot and his family. And knowing that, knowing that because of Christ you stand in God’s good graces, that is what makes you bold in prayer.
The secret to bold prayer, then, is not to look in the mirror, but to look to the cross. There you see what kind of God you have: a God who is right here with you, for you; a God who is perfectly just and a God who is perfectly gracious. Pray boldly. Pray boldly that God would execute his justice on earth – punishing the wicked and sparing the righteous. Pray boldly to the Father who has already declared you “not guilty” for the sake of his Son. When you pray like that, you can be sure that God has heard and will answer, because his answer is right there, hanging on the cross in your place. That’s who your God is. Amen.