“And the disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the eighteenth chapter of Genesis. Dear friends in Christ, the Lord looked toward the city and said, “Because the outcry…is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” And the Lord turned to go, but an intercessor came up and stood between God and the city. This man interposed himself between the Lord and creator of the universe and the sinful city there below. Webster’s dictionary defines an intercessor as one who offers “mediation, pleading, or prayer in behalf of another or others.” That is exactly what this intercessor intends to do. He places himself between God and the city and goes to work.
The intercessor gets right to the point, calling on God’s just character to spare the city. “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked!” He knows who he is dealing with. God is a God of justice, and while justice may mean the punishment of the wicked, it also means the deliverance of the righteous. But God answers, “If I find…fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake. But don’t count on it. This people is rebellious and sinful, they do not hallow my Name. My Name is holy because I am holy, but these people use my Name in vain, they dishonor it by the way they live. They do not realize that every moment they bear my Name, and their sin defiles it. But if there are fifty who hallow my Name, the city will be spared.”
The intercessor is a good Old Testament Hebrew; he knows that the highest form of faith is to wrestle with God, to cry out to Him in prayer, and so he boldly pushes the envelope. “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” God wants His people to wrestle with Him in prayer, to bring every request to Him, and so He does not become angry, but answers: “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there. But don’t get your hopes up. This people wants nothing to do with my kingdom, they certainly don’t want it to come. They have things just fine the way they are, with a comfortable life, money, material goods. They don’t see that they have any need for my kingdom to come to them. But yet if there are forty-five who see their need for my just rule, the city will be spared.”
The intercessor knows that God is a god of justice, but He is also a God of grace. He wants to deliver His creation, for He loves all He made. “Again he spoke to Him and said, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’” The Lord of the universe answers, “For the sake of forty I will not do it. But I fear even so few are lacking. No one wants my will to be done, only their own. These people want their own desires fulfilled, they care nothing for my good and gracious will. They trust only in themselves, and have little room in their heart to depend on me. But if forty seek my will, I will spare the city.”
“Then he said, ‘Oh, let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” The Lord answers, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there. But there may not be thirty there who seek their daily bread from my gracious and overflowing hand. My people do not realize that I provide every good gift, and so they depend on their own labor to supply their needs. They toil away; they worry constantly about daily bread. They do not realize that I work through my creation to provide for them, they forget that it is their sin that has cursed the ground in the first place. But if thirty seek daily bread from their creator, I will not do it.”
The intercessor is one very bold individual, to bargain with God over the fate of the city. But that is what God desires from those who pray, boldness to bring every request before Him, to ask, seek and knock. And so the intercessor speaks again: “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” The Lord answers, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it. But not even twenty may be found who forgive their neighbor. Instead they hold onto their neighbor’s sin, letting it fester inside, waiting to be used at the worst possible moment. They do not even know how to say ‘I’m sorry,’ and when they do, the answer too often is ‘It’s OK,’ rather than ‘You are forgiven.’ But if twenty forgive their neighbors when they sin against them, I will spare the city.”
The intercessor is persistent with God, but he knows that God loves the persistent prayers of His people, and so he speaks one last time: “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” The Lord has a look of sadness as He answers, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it. But that deceiver, that murderer from the beginning has led all astray into temptation. They have all deserted me, they are all corrupted with sin from their first parents, as my psalmist said, ‘None is righteous, no, not one.’”
The Intercessor is not fazed by this reply, this final striking down of His prayers for the city, for its people, but instead He says, “No, Father, none of these your created people are righteous, but I am righteous, and I will stand in their place. I will become man, taking on their human flesh, and I will live the life they could not, perfectly fulfilling your Law. I will fulfill it in their place, so that it can no longer accuse and condemn them. And if the Law no longer accuses, then there will be no place for the Accuser. I will defeat the evil one, Satan, on their behalf, for their sake I will crush his head just as you promised from the beginning. And finally, I will stand between your wrath and them. Just as I have stood before you and interceded for them, so I will stand before you as the Righteous One, hung upon the tree for the sin of the world, for all of their rebellion, all of their sin, all of their falling into temptation. You are a just God, and so sin must be punished, but you are also a gracious and merciful God, and so you desire not that men die eternally but that they are reconciled to you. On the cross your justice and your mercy will meet, as wrath over sin will be poured out on me so that you can show mercy to your people. Through me you will be reconciled with your people. I willingly do this because I love these people, and you love these people; I love them so that I am willing to face your wrath for their sakes, you love them so much that you are willing to give me up, your only Son, on the altar of the cross.”
God looked in love upon His only begotten Son, the Righteous One, the One whom He loved, and said, “I could not find even ten righteous ones in the city, but for the sake of the one Righteous One, my Son Jesus Christ, I will spare the city. He will put His righteous life in the place of the sinful lives of my created people, and His death will pay for their sin forever. His sacrifice will reconcile me to my people, and I will welcome them to the heavenly banquet forever in the new heavens and the new earth into all eternity. And because He gave Himself up into death in order to conquer death, my Son will not remain in the grave. I will raise Him up on the third day victorious over all that held my beloved people captive. He will rise as the victor over death, so that my people need not fear its sting any longer, but will see it as the door to eternal glory. All who cling to my Son in faith, the faith given through the gifts of my Word and Holy Sacraments, will be delivered. He will come to them and grasp onto them, and no one will snatch them from His hand. Satan will still try to lead them into temptation, but he is a chained lion without fangs; he can no longer accuse them before me, and they can find forgiveness from my overflowing springs each and every time that they fall. When I look at them, I see my Son and His righteousness.”
Our Intercessor, the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Savior then says to us this day: “Behold, now that I have won the victory over sin, death, and the grave through my death and resurrection, I have ascended to the Father’s throne and continue to intercede for you before Him. You can take confidence and great joy in knowing that I am praying for you, praying that your faith may be strengthened and preserved until you join the saints of all ages in eternal glory. And because I now intercede for you, you can in boldness pray to my Father. You can bring any concern before Him, you can cry out to Him for deliverance, but most importantly you can now intercede for others. You can hold others up before your Father’s heavenly throne and know that you are heard, for I have delivered you. They need your prayers, they need your intercession, and here especially on Sunday mornings the entire body of Christ prays on their behalf. That is why I gave to you my prayer, because in those simple words you not only pray for yourself, but you pray for the entire world, and you pray not as strangers, not as those separated from God, but as His dear children. For my sake, you pray ‘Our Father’ until you see your Father face to face in heavenly glory.” Amen.