As it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded (Luke 17:28). We are familiar with this warning from our Lord and readily recognise its general applicability to these times immediately prior to the return of our Master. The warning reminds us of the spiritual bankruptcy of Sodom, a name which has been appropriated to describe gross immorality which is abhorrent to Almighty God, and we lament that, at least in Western society, there is a growing tolerance of homosexuality. Even among the churches it is increasingly tolerated: the Episcopal (Anglican) Church in the United States has even ordained as a bishop a man who is in an openly homosexual relationship, in clear contradiction of several aspects of the qualifications of bishops as listed by Paul in 1 Timothy 3:1–6.

There is a risk, however, that recent trends towards the toleration of homosexuality may distort our appreciation of the full import of our Master’s warning about the last days as recorded in Luke 17. When the Bible refers to Sodom, the issue of brazen immorality is presented almost as an incidental fact. In fact it was not sodomy which was the primary cause of God’s punishment of the city. Immoral activity was the by-product only of that which was the primary sin of the city. As Ezekiel says, “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Ezek 16:49).

When we focus on the sexual immorality of Sodom there is potential for us to feel somewhat removed and even superior. We would never be guilty of such heinous acts! When we focus, however, on Ezekiel’s summation of their problem it is not so easy to feel detached. Prosperity was the root cause of Sodom’s moral decay. The moral crimes with which we associate Sodom are readily discernible in Western society today, and the underlying prosperity and materialism is even more readily discernible – both in the world around us and even to some extent in the brotherhood.

Over the past two years the world has been shaken by economic tremors that have destabilised markets and nations across the globe. A decade or more of rampant growth in many nations has overheated the world’s economy. Vast markets such as India have developed an insatiable appetite for raw materials and investment and several consecutive years of double-digit economic growth in China, the worlds single biggest economy, has fuelled demand around the globe. Mineral-rich nations like Australia have benefited from high prices for their products and the major oil producers have been able to demand higher and higher prices for that precious black liquid that lubricates not just machinery but the whole superstructure of modern industry. This age of abundance appears to be catching up with the world and the economic strains are becoming more and more obvious.

In the July issue of The Christadelphian a lengthy article by Brother Stephen Whitehouse under the title “Global financial meltdown – prelude to a new world order” outlines how recent instability in financial markets and rapidly escalating oil prices is leading to a fundamental realignment of economic power and influence in the world, with the centre of power shifting away from the United States and back to Europe and, to a lesser extent, the Middle East. He also outlines some of the economic implications for Russia. The article is well worth reading and I do not propose to recapitulate his points in this article. Rather, I wish to draw attention to how some of the same issues relate to the Lord’s comments about the days of Lot as a sign of his imminent return.

Oil prices

For over a year the steadily increasing price of oil has dominated the popular media in Australia. In the first half of this year the price of oil soared and fuel prices rose with it. As these lines are written in late July the price has come off the boil slightly but it is still vastly higher than it was only a few years ago.

Given the centrality of oil to a modern economy it is not surprising that analysts and policy makers should be concerned about the increase in the price of the commodity. For a remote nation like Australia which is so heavily dependent economically on the export of raw materials like coal, iron ore, natural gas, wool and wheat, a rapid increase in the cost of fuel has the potential to make some commodities too expensive overseas. There are good reasons, therefore, for political leaders to be concerned about the price of oil.

It is a sad fact, however, that much of the media comment about this subject has not focused on the fundamentals of the economy but instead has focused on the hardship being experienced by private consumers. Newspapers have been full of stories about the impact of rising fuel costs on families with multiple cars, the imposition being felt by the owners of motor boats, and the threat posed to holiday resorts in remote locations where an increase in the price of air travel is leading to declining bookings.

Sub-prime mortgages

A few years ago only finance industry analysts would have been familiar with the term ‘sub-prime mortgages’. In the last twelve months, however, it has become a familiar phrase in newspapers and magazines. In essence the term refers to mortgages granted to customers whose financial situation is so precarious they would normally be disqualified from the mortgage market. In an effort to grow their business and thus prime demand in the housing market some lenders gave loans to customers who in many instances could not afford them. All of this in the name of promoting home ownership – “they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded.” Thus tens of thousands of low income earners were encouraged to live beyond their means and buy homes they could not afford.

Such irresponsible lending practices had the effect of fuelling inflation in property markets and, at least in the United States, stimulating unrealistic demand in the housing market creating an economic bubble. That bubble has now burst. House prices have fallen dramatically in cities across America and many developers have been left with houses for which there are few if any buyers. House prices have also declined sharply in much of the United Kingdom.

The decline in house prices has coincided with steep rises in the price of fuel and food. This has been a devastating combination for many poorer mortgage holders who, being unable to keep up with repayments on a house now worth less than the loan, have defaulted. It has also coincided with a sharp decline in share values, which has also had a deadening effect on the economy. The Economist, (12 July 2008) under the ominous headline “On the ropes”, commented on declining consumer confidence in both the United States and the United Kingdom and its adverse implications across the economy.

Interest rate cuts in the United States have been implemented in an attempt to turn the economy around, so far with only minimal effect. Ironically, in Australia interest rates during this period have been steadily rising as the Reserve Bank seeks to dampen demand in an overheated economy. One of the first signs that the central bank’s strategy is beginning to bite has been a decline in house prices in most major cities over the past year. This has had serious consequences for those who borrowed heavily at low interest rates and now find themselves unable to meet loan repayments for a property worth less than the mortgage – “they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded.” And while Australian banks were never as cavalier about lending to high-risk customers as some of their American counterparts, they have not escaped completely unscathed. A number of major banks have announced significant write-downs as they have brought to book losses incurred through their exposure to the American sub-prime market.

Not just the poor!

It is not just the poor who have been adversely affected by this downturn. The credit crunch in the United States has had a dramatic effect on some highly paid employees in the finance industry. On 12 July 2008 The Australian carried an article headlined “Rich find a wealth of reasons to divorce in rocky economy”. The article reported that “The credit crunch in the US is putting a mighty squeeze on the marriages of New York’s super-wealthy, as a record number of couples with $US10 million or more in assets sue for divorce.” The article went on to describe one man, who was so worried that his wife would leave him if she discovered that he was now only worth $8 million, that “he was trying to mask his declining fortune by borrowing to pay for her clothes and holidays”. How lavishly are they living that they need to borrow for clothes and holidays when they have $8 million in assets? What were the words Ezekiel used of Sodom? – “pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness”.

Closer to home, Ralph Norris, Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Bank (quoted in an article in The Advertiser on 26 July 2008) drew attention to fact that inflation in Australia is not just driven by rising fuel prices and interest rates. He pointed out that “The major problem for the Reserve Bank is that inflation outcomes could remain uncomfortably high unless there is a significant weakening in household spending.” In other words, the materialistic lifestyle of ordinary Australians is posing a fundamental threat to the economic wellbeing of the nation. Mr Norris noted that booming mining exports are cushioning Australia from the worst of the economic downturn affecting so many nations. This could quickly change if economic growth in India or China were to falter.

Consumers in the United States and United Kingdom need to spend more, while their counterparts in Australia need to spend less! This is indicative of the complex and fragile nature of the world’s economy.

Remember Lot’s wife

It is so easy for us to observe these economic signs of the times and “tut, tut” about the mismanagement of man. Let us be careful, however, that we are not overcome by the “pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness” that was the underlying problem in Sodom and is the underlying problem of so much of the moral malaise in modern society. “But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all. Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed.”

Our Master is near. The economic turmoil in which the world is enmeshed is just one of many sure signs of that fact. The materialism of the modern world is so seductive and we can so easily become ensnared by the ‘stuff’ with which men and women in the world fill their empty lives. Let us remember, however, that we are soon to leave this all behind: “In that day, he which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away” (Luke 17:31). A clear focus on that which is eternal will help us to weather the economic storms that are sweeping over the world while we look with confidence to the day of the Son of Man.

STOP PRESS

The following article relates to events taking place just prior to this issue of “The Lampstand” going to the press. We felt they were so significant that we should immediately bring them to the notice of readers. (Ed)

Georgia and the Bear

On 8 August explosions rent the sky over Beijing as fireworks marked the opening of the Olympic Games. Six thousand kilometres away explosions also rent the sky over Georgia, but the noise in this case came from artillery and fighter jets, not pyrotechnics. Presumably hoping the Olympics would distract the West, Russia invaded Georgia in support of rebellious South Ossetians, an ethnic minority in Georgia’s north bordering Russia.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union a range of nations formerly dominated by Russia achieved independence. Among these was Georgia, a fertile nation on the Black Sea in the Caucasus region (between the Black and Caspian Seas). While many ethnic groups like the Georgians were able to achieve national self-determination, several others were absorbed within the borders of nations that emerged from the former Soviet Union. Among these were the Chechnyans, whose bid for independence was brutally squashed by Russia, and the South Ossetians, whose desire for independence has been violently resisted by Georgia.

For some years the Georgian government has harshly suppressed calls for autonomy from South Ossetia and from Abkhazia, another separatist region in Georgia that also borders Russia. On 7 August Georgian authorities launched military action against the rebels in South Ossetia. The following day Russia responded with considerable force. Stratfor observed on 8 August that “Given the speed with which the Russians reacted to Georgia’s incursion into South Ossetia, Moscow was clearly ready to intervene. We suspect the Georgians were set up for this in some way, but at this point the buildup to the conflict no longer matters. What matters is the message that Russia is sending to the West. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev summed this message up best: ‘Historically Russia has been, and will continue to be, a guarantor of security for peoples of the Caucasus.’”

The Caucasus region lies between Russia and the Middle East. Historically it was part of the Ottoman Empire until that empire dried up in accordance with the terms of the sixth vial (Rev 16:12–16). The sixth vial unites both the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the work of the froglike spirits as a catalyst for Armageddon. The full significance of this link is explained in a two-part article entitled “Armageddon” in The Testimony magazine (January and February 2007). What the recent conflict between Russia and Georgia demonstrates is that the destabilising spirit of nationalism (the frog-like spirits) in the territory formerly occupied by the Ottoman Turks has the potential to provoke Russia into moving south to secure a strategic advantage.

In Elpis Israel Brother Thomas made a suggestion that seems remarkably insightful in the light of the recent war between Russia and Georgia. “It is not to be supposed that the Autocrat [Russia] would attack the Porte [Turkey] without some provocation, real or pretended. It is therefore the mission of the Frogs… to bring about such a state of things as will involve the Autocrat and Sultan in war… The policy they [the Frogs] originate is to involve the whole habitable in war the more immediate effect of which will be, that ‘the king of the north shall enter the countries, and shall overflow and pass over’. To ‘enter into the countries’ implies invasion; but to ‘overflow and pass over’ indicates conquest.” (14th edition, p419; 15th edition, p451)

Russia’s invasion of Georgia has echoes of the Soviet Union’s military suppression of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. It is a confirmation that, after a decade or more in the doldrums, Russia has revived and is again an aggressive and powerful force. Given Russia’s treatment of Chechnya it is impossible to believe that its ‘support’ for the South Ossetians and Abkhazians is altruistic. It seems clear that the spirit of nationalism will be a force that will draw Russia into the Middle East – perhaps one day to come to the aid of oppressed Palestine like it has come to the rescue of South Ossetia!

It is a curious fact that one of Georgia’s first responses to the Russian invasion was to recall its troops stationed in Iraq where they have assisted the West to bring stability to that nation. The Russians appear to have scored twice in this regard – stamping its authority on its own borders while undermining the peace process in Iraq. The world might have been distracted by the ‘bread and circuses’ in Beijing but the angels have remained busy working out God’s plan and purpose with nations.