Lot Wars, Episode 1: A False Hope (Genesis 13:5-18)

When we first met Abram, he was living in the far east, beyond the Euphrates river, somewhere along the border between what we now call Iraq and Iran. He grew up worshiping local gods — gods that live in mountains and trees and rivers and rocks — with the moon above all.

But then a god even greater than the moon told him to leave his father’s land, his father’s nation, and his father’s household. This god asked Abram to step out in faith and let himself be led to a new, unknown land. And to help encourage Abram to make this step of faith, this god promised to make him the father over his own household, his own nation, his own land. And above all, this god promised that “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

And Abram did step out in faith! He left his father’s land, his father’s nation — but he did not quite leave all of his father’s household: he brought his nephew Lot with him.

This is because Abram’s own wife, Sarai, is unable to have children. She is unable to make Abram a father. So Abram has apparently adopted his nephew Lot as his heir. That way, even if Abram never has children of his own, he can still do his duty to his father and make sure the family line is carried on through Lot’s children.

So what this means is that Abram’s hope is in God…and in his nephew Lot. Abram believes that God will give him a family, but he believes that this is going to happen through his adopted son Lot.

So in Abram’s mind, job number one is protecting Lot’s life, Lot’s future. Sarai…is nice! She’s beautiful and everything. But she is expendable compared to Lot. Lot is the future of Abram’s family. If Lot dies, so does Abram’s hope for the future.

And last week we saw how these messed-up priorities worked out: Abram put his wife in danger to save his own life. He thought he was helping God out by preserving the male family line. But the truth is, Abram actually put the entire future of his family line in danger!

So this week, finally, God is going to remove this false hope from Abram’s life.

And this is how it happened:

Last week there was a famine, the first of several that are going to happen over the next few generations. Food supplies were running low. Money was running out. Instead of trusting God to provide, Abram moved to Egypt and behaved very badly. God allowed him — and Sarai — to suffer the consequences of Abram’s sin for a while. Then he rebuked Abram and sent him back home to Canaan with more money and food than he could ever hope to consume in a lifetime.

It’s as if God is saying, “See, Abram? You can trust me! I said I would feed you, I am going to feed you! Famines and kings cannot stop me!”

So [5] now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents

— in other words: Lot, as part of Abram’s household, has also benefited from God’s blessings upon Abram.

[6] But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. [7] And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s.

And: the Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time.

These men — father and adopted son — are now so rich that they are running out of local resources: grass and water and places to camp. Not to mention the other nations who are already living there in the land.

And there is an irony at work here in this situation: God is blessing Abram with incredible wealth. But this blessing is actually creating a problem between Abram and Lot.

In other words: God’s blessing upon Abram is actually beginning to separate Abram from his false hope.

Isn’t that interesting?

[8] So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives.

Abram wants to fix the problem — and rightly so. It is good for Abram to act as a peacemaker here!

But Abram is not acting as a peacemaker just out of the goodness of his heart. As with all of us, his good motivations are mixed with ulterior motivations. Abram’s concern to reconcile with Lot is — at least partially —  selfish. Because Lot is Abram’s hope for the future. Lot is Abram’s idol. And, like all of us, Abram wants to maintain a good relationship with his idol!

So, just as he did last week in Egypt, Abram tries to manage the situation. He says this: [9] “Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”

Now, by giving Lot first choice, in one sense Abram is trusting God’s promise that the land will one day belong to him.

But, in another sense, Abram’s proposal is an attempt to manipulate the situation. And by doing this he is gambling on at least two levels:

First, he is gambling that his proposal will shame Lot into reconciling. See, in those days, reverence for your father was considered the highest of all values. Abram is Lot’s father. So when Abram dishonours himself like this by offering Lot the first choice, Lot — if he is a good son — should come to his senses and say, “Oh, what am I doing disrespecting my own father like this? No, no, no, Dad, let’s not part ways! I’m so sorry! Listen: I’m gonna get my men under control, we’re gonna figure this out!” At the very least, Lot should say, “No, no, Father, if we must part ways, you should have first choice!” Abram is gambling that Lot will be shamed into reconciling.

Second, Abram is gambling that — even if Lot does not come to his senses — distance might make the heart grow fonder. Perhaps, by removing the immediate points of tension, their relationship might improve, and Lot can continue to be Abram’s hope for a future family.

Last week Abram tried to “manage” his situation in Egypt. He gambled his own marriage…and he lost.

Abram loses this gamble as well:

[10] Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) [11] So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: [12] Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom.

Now, if you have been travelling with us through the book of Genesis so far, you have learned some of the literary hints that Moses likes to drop when he wants his readers to think, “Uh oh, this is a mistake!” And you may have noticed that this little paragraph is packed full of those literary hints:

Lot sees and takes for himself — just like Eve did, in the garden of the Lord.

Lot travels eastward — just like Cain did, just like the builders of Babyon did.

Lot settles among cities that are on a plain — just like the city of Babel on the plain of Shinar.

Lot has just moved away from the land of Canaan, and moved to a land like the land of Egypt

— and, gee, let me think: who just did that — like five minutes ago! — and found himself in terrible trouble because of his disobedience?

So it should be pretty clear that Lot is making a mistake!

But as Moses read back over this paragraph he just wrote, he must have thought to himself, “Okay, I’ve dropped all these hints that Lot is making a mistake. But what if my readers miss all those hints and misunderstand what I’m saying?”

So then Moses just goes ahead and says it explicitly in verse 13: Now the people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord.

So now it is impossible for us to misunderstand what Moses is saying: Lot is making a terrible mistake. He is acting like Eve did in the garden of the Lord. He is acting like Cain did, who murdered his brother. He is acting like the builders of Babylon on the plain of Shinar. He is deliberately returning to the Cities of Confusion in the east. He is deliberately walking away from his relationship with Abram.

And on a theological level, what this means is that Lot is also deliberately walking away from his relationship with Abram’s God. God has promised blessings to Abram, not to Lot. The blessings Lot has enjoyed so far are only because he had a relationship with Abram, who has a relationship with God. Abram is the mediator — the middle man — between Lot and God.

So if Lot walks away from his relationship with Abram, he is also walking away from God’s blessings. Or, to put it another way: if he chooses to curse Abram by selfishly choosing the best land for himself…well, refresh my memory: how did the other half of God’s promise to Abram go again? “I will bless those who bless you, but whoever curses you…”

That’s right: by leaving his relationship with Abram, by walking away from God’s blessings, Lot is actually bringing God’s curse upon himself.

But here is another irony about this situation: God will not need to actively curse Lot, all he has to do is let Lot reap the consequences of his own disobedient actions. In other words: Lot is going to curse himself! Moses has made it very clear that Lot is moving to live next to godless cities, false centers of worship. And so far in Genesis, every time people have done that, they have eventually compromised with that system of false worship, they have eventually fallen into slavery under that system of false worship, and then they have found themselves caught in God’s judgement when it falls upon that system of false worship.

Moses is showing us that Abram’s relationship with Lot is now over, beyond repair. Lot has made a fatal mistake. He is a dead man. Still alive biologically! but alive under the curse of God.

And now that Lot is dead…so is Abram’s hope for the future.

Abram’s strange new god has just used his own blessings upon Abram to deliberately destroy Abram’s hope for the future. God did this to Abram, and he did it through the blessing of incredible wealth! And that is horrifying! That would be horrifying!

— except that, so far, as Abram has been getting to know this strange new god, he has been discovering that this god is very different from all the other gods men worship. The other gods are all cruel tyrants with limited powers; they destroy men’s hopes as a punishment for bad behaviour. But this god has apparently unlimited powers…and a generous, kind, merciful character. Which means that, when he destroys Abram’s hope…then he must be doing it out of love and kindness. Abram’s hope must have been a false hope, a self-destructive idol. And Abram’s God must actually be rescuing Abram from his slavery to that false worship.

And this is obviously a good thing!

But from Abram’s perspective, this feels like a very bad thing. This feels like God is acting just like all the other gods: reaching down and crushing his hopes for no apparent reason at all.

And God knows that. God knows what agony Abram is experiencing. So he comes and speaks to his son. God turns Abram’s gaze away from his false hope in Lot by repeating the promises he has already made:

[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.”

Now: that is pretty clear, isn’t it! Even without Lot in his life, Abram is going to become the father of a household, the father of a nation, and the father of a land. Abram does not know how this is going to happen, but this is God’s promise.

God is refining Abram’s faith, inviting him back again and again into God’s presence.

[18] So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the Lord.

When Abram first moved to Canaan, he traveled through the land from north to south, building altars as a way of claiming the land for his God. Last week we saw how he travelled too far south and ended up in Egypt, and had to retrace his steps back up through the land from south to north, revisiting the places where he had built his altars before.

Here, with his hope of a future restored, Abram continues the process of claiming this land for the Lord. He travels again from north to south, and finally settles near the city of Hebron, in the midst of a grove of sacred trees.

And this place where Abram settles — Hebron, with its collection of sacred trees — was very significant, for a number of reasons:

First, the city of Hebron is the highest city in Palestine, even today: it is built high in the mountains.

Second, it is near the center of those mountains.

Third, these sacred trees were very large and very ancient. In fact, they were still standing during the time of Christ, and one of those trees was so remarkably huge and old that the local people believed it had been there since the dawn of creation.

And what this all adds up to is that Hebron was a major sacred center for the false Canaanite religion: it was the highest place in the land, the oldest place, the most central placethe place with the most powerful gods. So for Abram to settle beside this city, among these trees, and then build an altar…this was his way of announcing, “My God owns all this land! Everything that I can see from this highest point — north, south, east, west — I hearby claim it for my God and for my descendants!”

What a bold act of faith in God’s promises!

And so, as this episode draws to a close here, we find that Moses has set up a deliberate contrast for us between Lot and Abram. Both men have settled near cities — that is not the problem, it is okay for God’s people to live near or in cities —

— but Lot is living outside God’s sacred land, on a plain that is rich like the land of Egypt, which was a land famous for its false worship. And so far in Genesis, those three elements — false worship, on a plain, away from God’s presence — have been a recipe for disaster.

Abram, however, is living inside God’s sacred land, on a mountain that is famous for false worship — but he is publicly confronting that false worship by setting up an altar of true worship. And so far in Genesis, those three elements —  true worship, on a mountain, in God’s presence — all point us back to the garden of Eden.

Basically, Moses is telling us that Abram is now living in the garden of Eden. Or perhaps it would be better to say that Abram is now laying the foundation for the new garden of Eden.

So, as we do every week, we’ve come to this place where we want to ask what this means for us. What is our Father God saying to us, today?

Well, just like Abram, we are learning more and more about who our God really is, and what kind of relationship he wants to have with us. Abram is learning that this strange new god is very very good — so good, in fact, that he is not content with just the outward rituals of worship. He wants to transform Abram’s heart. He wants to reprogram Abram.

And God has two reasons for doing this.

First: he loves Abram as a father loves his children. He is not going to leave the poison of false hope and idolatry festering in Abram’s heart.

Second, God’s plan from the beginning has been to bring mankind back into the garden of Eden. But if God does that without also reprogramming mankind, then when we get back into the garden we’ll just defile a second time!

So Abram has been learning that God is going to reprogram his heart. And now Abram is learning that the way God does this is through blessing.

And this is how that works: as God fills Abram’s life up with blessings, it is going to leave less and less room for idols and false hopes. As God faithfully keeps his promises one by one, Abram is going to see God’s good character more and more clearly. And as Abram sees the beauty and the goodness of God more and more clearly…his own secret false gods are going to look more and more ugly by comparison, and Abram is going to want to be rescued from them more and more.

And God, his loving Father, is going to do that!

Abram’s experience is our experience. As baptized, adopted believers in Christ, we are the children of God. Which means that our loving Father is not going to let the poison of our false hopes and idolatries continue to fester within us. Little by little he is going to reveal to us the secret idols that have enslaved us! And as we discovered last week, he often reveals our idols to us by allowing them to come to life in us. He often allows us to sin, and allows us to experience some of the consequences of our disobedience, and through this process our secret idols are revealed.

But our Father does not just want to reveal our idols, he wants to remove them. He wants to cut them out of us like a cancer. And what we have discovered this week is that he does this by filling our lives up with so many blessings that they leave no room for those false hopes and idols.

Now, at this point, some among us are going to say, “Really? Because…I don’t feel very blessed. I’m not rich. I’m not healthy. I don’t have a spouse. I don’t have children. I’m not progressing in my career…” And it is true that there are many hundreds of millions of Christians in the world today who are suffering economically, politically, physically. They do not look very blessed!

So if blessing is the scalpel God uses to surgically remove a Christian’s idols, how do we explain this?

Well, some church leaders today explain this by saying that if you are not rich, not healthy, not married, without children, without success in your career…then you are not blessed by God. Which means you are not actually a Christian. They would tell you that true Christians are always blessed with health and wealth and every good thing in this life, just like Abram was. They would say that all you have to do is believe, have faith, and all good things will come to you.

Friends, I am going to tell you very clearly, right here, right now: this is a false teaching. Those church leaders are in extreme danger of judgement. Those leaders have followed the way of Lot, who followed the way of Cain: they have looked around and seen that some parts of the world are getting rich, and so they have chosen for themselves to leave the mountain of God and descend to live among the cities of the plain. Those church leaders have made wealth their idol, and they are trying to manipulate God into giving them more. As Paul says in the New Testament, “Their mind is set on earthly things. Their god is their stomach. Their destiny is destruction.” They are as dead as Lot is. Still alive biologically! but alive under the curse of God. They will fall under Christ’s judgement, unless — and until — they repent.

So, if you are in a church that teaches such things…flee. If you are listening to teachers online and you are thinking to yourselves, “Well, they do say these things 20% of the time…but still: 80% of what they say is good!” — if that is you, then take Jude’s advice form the New Testament: do not even touch their clothing, do not even shake their hands! lest you be infected by that 20%. Run for your lives, so that you will not be caught up in the fires of God’s judgement when it falls upon them.

Now, this is the true, biblical explanation for why Christians often do not look very blessed in the eyes of the world:

Those visible blessings that Abram received — his wealth, his household, his nation, his land — all of these blessings were actually signs pointing to the true blessing God gave Abram. The true blessing God gave Abram was the privilege of actually getting to know God as his loving Father. The true blessing God gave Abram was getting to re-enter the garden of God’s presence.

Knowing God, seeing God face to face, is the greatest blessing that a human being can possibly experience. The way God cured Abram of his idols and false hopes was by filling him up more and more with the blessing of the vision of the beauty of the true character of God!

And that is the ultimate blessing God gives us as well.

And this is why — even though we often do not look very blessed in the eyes of the world — we are actually the most blessed of all people on earth, because we have actually seen God face to face! We get to call the almighty creator of the universe our Father! We get to call ourselves the children of God!

And as we get to see the beauty and the goodness of God more and more clearly in our lives, the wealth of this world is going to look more and more ugly by comparison. As we are filled more and more with the true knowledge of God, we are going to find less and less room in our lives for false hopes and idols.

This is how John makes this point in the New Testament: see what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.

In other words: the reason the world does not see just how blessed we are is because the world has not seen God. Mankind as a whole lives outside the garden of God’s presence, its gates guarded by the angels of death. A life lived outside the presence of God is a life without vision, without hope. And a life without hope is no life at all. And the only solution to this problem is to somehow see God face to face, and be filled with the wonder of who he is. This is the only true source of hope in our lives. No other kind of blessing can match it.

And the evidence for all this is right here in this episode: God did bless Abram with great wealth — but Abram did not experience that wealth as a blessing. In fact, that wealth ended up destroying Abram’s hope for the future! Now, as we’ve seen, that was ultimately a good thing — but it did not feel like a good thing to Abram at the time! And in just a couple of chapters we are going to hear Abram complain bitterly to God about how all this wealth actually feels like a curse.

That is the irony at work in this episode, and that is the irony at work in our own Christian lives: many times those who are under a curse look like they are being blessed through the roof, having no trouble in their lives! — while we who are actually God’s children feel like we are under a curse.

Now, why does it have to be that way? Why can’t God just bless us all with great wealth, like he did for Abram?

This is why:

God did bless Abram with great wealth, but that blessing was given to Abram for a particular purpose: Abram was specifically called to lay the foundation for the new garden of Eden. Abram was the first step in God’s 2000-year-long plan to re-open the gates of the garden to mankind. Abram needed wealth to do this job. So God gave him what he needed.

We are not Abram. Abram’s job is done: the gates of the garden are already open, they have been standing open for 2000 years! The tree of life is already there, in the garden’s center. The river of life is already flowing. Which means we have a different job from Abram. Our job is to enter the garden, eat from the tree of life, drink from the river of life, and call the world in to join us.

And apparently, God has decided that most Christians do not need wealth in order to accomplish this task. In fact, Jesus warned his disciples that wealth can actually get in the way of accomplishing this task. That is a warning we need to take seriously: wealth is dangerous! because it is very easy to fall in love with. And I have to tell you the truth: we are all going to be faced with Lot’s choice many times during our lives. And we are going to have to decide many times: will we follow the broad highway that leads down to the cities on the plain? Will we compromise with the false gods of the world and pursue the path that guarantees wealth and comfort? — or will we choose to remain in the mountains with Abram, confronting the false gods of the world, trusting that Abram’s God will carry us through?

I can assure you, personally, that this is always a tough choice. Once upon a time, when I lived in Los Angeles, there was a famine in the land: the economy was depressed, and the only job I could find was part-time as a bouncer for a nightclub. I was only making about $200 a week, and I had a pregnant wife and a baby daughter. And $200 a week in LA is not anywhere near enough money. So a friend of mine, who knew I had a family to feed, offered me a job working security at his club for about $200 every night.

Clearly this was a blessing from God, right?

Except that my friend’s club was a special kind of club. In a normal nightclub the customers paid do the dancing. In my friend’s club it was certain special employees who did the dancing, while the customers paid to watch.

— I think you understand what I mean.

Anyway…I knew it was wrong. But I also knew that it’s wrong to let your wife and little girl starve. And so what should have been an easy choice for me suddenly became a very tough one. So, as I often do when I have a difficult decision to make, I discussed it with my wife. I presented her with our options: $1000 a week at my friend’s special nightclub…or starvation.

After about one millisecond of careful reflection my wife opted for starvation. Those were her literal words: “Are you kidding me! I would rather starve!” Which really helped clear my head of confusion.

And, as you can see, we did not starve. Nor did I have to compromise my faith. Abram’s God carried us through.

So when those moments of decision come, remember that it is always better to gamble on God’s faithfulness. Those cities on the plain will always betray you in the end. The economy will crash. The government will change. Wars will come. And everything you compromised your soul to accumulate…will be lost.

But our Father God never lets us down.

So what now? What do we do with this Good News?

Well, first of all, if you are here today and all this is new to you, and you are wondering how we Christians can sit here talking about seeing God and living in the garden of Eden when obviously we are not…! — please allow me to explain:

We are not crazy or delusional. We can clearly see that the world we live in is not especially kind to any of us. But we live with one foot in another world. We believe that the connecting point between earth and heaven is Christ’s Church. We believe that the garden of God’s presence is right here, right now, as we gather together in perpetual worship, and that this visible garden on earth is just one of the foundation stones of the true garden that is in heaven. And we believe that the gateway into God’s garden on earth and in heaven is Christ himself — and that this gateway is standing open to receive everyone who will come.

In short, we simply believe that we live in two worlds at once — this world and the next. We still live in this world of sin and consequence, and Christians are affected by those things the same as everyone else. But we also live in the garden of God’s presence, a garden and a presence that becomes more and more real to us as we travel deeper into our faith. And we believe that, one day, the invisible garden that is above will be reunited with the visible garden of Christ’s churches that are here on earth — and then all will be well.

So if you are here today and you are coming to realize that your hopes in this world are false hopes, and if you are wondering how you can pass through the gateway into the garden, well, this is how: get to know Jesus Christ. Start by praying: ask God to reveal himself to you. Then, read one of the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. The gospels will reveal Jesus Christ to you, very simply and directly. And here’s the thing: Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God. Knowing Christ is the same thing as knowing God. Seeing Jesus’ face means seeing God’s face. And knowing God, seeing God face to face, is the greatest blessing that a human being can possibly experience.

So pray. Read a gospel. Talk about what you are reading with a group of Christian friends. And when God’s Spirit leads you to believe, come and tell us, and be baptized and adopted into the garden of God’s presence. Come and eat and drink the first real meal of the rest of your life!

Now, if you are here today and you are already a citizen of Christ’s garden, this is what we are going to do:

No matter what happens, we are going to keep reminding one another that our ultimate blessing as Christians is the permission to call God our Father. Our ultimate blessing is to be filled with the knowledge of God.

And the reason we need to keep reminding one another of this is because, like Abram, we get discouraged. 

This is how it happens to me: so I’m going through my life fat, dumb and happy…and then I sin. I behave badly, my faith fails in one way or another. Then I begin to experience the destructive consequences of my bad behaviour. Then, as I look around at other areas of my life — maybe I’m having financial troubles, or family troubles, or career troubles — I begin to wonder if maybe God is not blessing me in these areas because I’ve been misbehaving in these areas. And then — last step — I begin to wonder if perhaps I have completely lost the blessing of God. Because how can he continue to love and bless such a disobedient child as I am?

That is when I need to be reminded that God’s blessings do not actually consist of success in career or family or money or any of those things…God’s blessing is the privilege of knowing him for who he really is: my gentle Father who always loves me, the Father who never hides his face from me.

Our Father may allow us to experience the consequences of our sins, but this does not mean that he taken away his blessings. Quite the opposite, actually! When we find our hopes for the future crushed…it may not feel like it but: this is actually the mark of our Father’s blessing. When we find our heart idols bubbling up to the surface and taking horrifying shape in our lives…it may not feel like it but: this is actually evidence that the knowledge of God is filling us more and more, forcing our secret sins up and out into the light where they can be dealt with through repentance and faith.

So in conclusion, here: heart idols produce bad behaviour. We cannot cure bad behaviour by attacking it directly, bad behaviour can only be cured by destroying the heart idol that causes it. And the only thing that destroys heart idols is the blessing of seeing God as our Father. The more we preach this truth to ourselves and to one another, the more confident we will become in our Father’s unfailing love. The more this confidence fills us, the more our idols are forced out into the light where they can be destroyed. And the more our idols are destroyed, the more obedient we become, and the more deeply we are able to eat and drink of the fruit of life in the garden of God’s presence.

That is our hope. That is our faith. That is our Gospel. So let’s preach it faithfully every chance we get.

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