Monday, September 27, 2010

The Crossroads of Heaven and Hell

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 16:19-31
September 26, 2010
Pentecost 18/Proper 21C

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

There are so many fascinating angles to consider when it comes to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It’s one of the most unique and memorable parables Jesus ever told. It’s kind of tempting to consider some of the interesting issues that this parable raises.

For instance, how much thought have you given to hell recently? While it’s true that the word “hell” gets tossed around frequently in a variety of contexts and conversations these days, I suspect that hell isn’t getting all the publicity it used to. Preachers years ago used to spent lots of time describing the fire, the heat, the unending torment and tortures of the damned in hell. But for some reason, hell isn’t as popular a topic as it used to be. Today’s parable vividly describes the plight of a rich man in the agonies of hell, longing to receive even one drop of water on his tongue. Let there be no doubt that hell is a real place of real torment for those who depart this life rejecting the grace of God in Jesus Christ. But . . . today’s parable is not primarily about hell.

Another interesting issue in this parable is the idea of ghosts and the paranormal—or, at least, the idea that the dead can somehow communicate with the living. Too bad Halloween is still a month away. When the rich man in hell begins to be concerned for his five living brothers, he decides that they must be warned so that they don’t end up in hell like him. And who better to warn them than poor Lazarus? Surely a messenger from the dead would be the perfect plan—a spooky spirit to scare straight those wayward brothers—a word of warning from beyond the grave. That would certainly be an intriguing a topic for today. But . . . today’s parable is not primarily about spooks, spirits or ghosts.

Another angle to this parable is the contrast between the rich and the poor. There were few men richer than the rich man in this parable—with his expensive purple attire, his fine linens, and the sumptuous foods and wines that graced his table every day. And as for poor Lazarus, he was poverty-stricken well beyond what any of us can imagine. The rich man had everything; while poor Lazarus had nothing. Now, the time came when both men died. The rich man ended up in hell; while poor Lazarus was carried by the angels to heaven, to Abraham’s side. It’s tempting to conclude that this is a parable about the dangers of riches and the blessedness of poverty. But hear this: It wasn’t riches that brought the rich man to hell and it wasn’t poverty that brought poor Lazarus to heaven. No, today’s parable is not primarily about the spiritual effects of wealth or poverty.

Now, all of this is very, very interesting for those with inquiring minds. In this parable the curtain that encloses heaven and hell is temporarily drawn back, and we get a sneak peak at the life of the world to come. We get to see things and hear conversations that are not ordinarily available to mere mortals. But the things that might intrigue us are not the main thing. The horrors of hell and the sweet comforts of heaven are simply beside the point of this parable.

No, the words that matter most in this parable are those spoken by father Abraham to the rich man in hell. Right after the rich man proposes that Lazarus should be sent to warn his five brothers, Abraham says this about those brothers: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” That sentence is the key to everything. “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”

“Moses and the Prophets” was simply a shorthand way of describing the entire Old Testament, from Genesis to Malachi. Abraham is essentially saying of the rich man’s brothers, “They have God’s Word. They have the Scriptures proclaimed and preached every Sabbath. They have Bibles. Let them hear those Scriptures. Let them listen to what God is saying in His Holy Word. And the Greek word translated as “listen” means to listen in faith—to take to heart—to order one’s life around what God is saying in His Word.

Poor Lazarus had listened. Poor Lazarus had heard. Poor Lazarus had taken to heart the Word of God. And through that Word of God—through Moses and the Prophets—God was at work to save poor Lazarus and make him rich—by grace alone, through faith alone, for the sake of Jesus the Christ. It’s not rocket science. It’s not theoretical astro-physics. It’s the good news of the Gospel! And it’s so incredibly simple that even little children articulate it perfectly every time they sing, “Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” We have Bibles. We have Moses and the Prophets. We have the Evangelists and the Apostles. Let’s listen. Let’s hear and take to heart God’s Word.

Someday what happened to the rich man and Lazarus will happen to you and me. Someday you and I will depart this world to tread the crossroads of heaven and hell. And the path on which we will be ushered will depend completely and entirely on what God has told us in His Word—and whether we have received that Word in faith.

Between now and then (I’m here to tell you) there will be no one appearing from the dead to scare you straight. There will be no spooky voices sounding. Don’t be looking for any messages written in the clouds, any apparitions, visions, or special revelations to light some kind of a spiritual fire beneath you to spur you on in the faith. You don’t need any of that! For between this moment and the moment when you die, you already have all that you will ever need to depart this life in peace and joy, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. You have Moses and the Prophets. You have the inspired, infallible Word of God. You have the whole story from Genesis to Revelation—how Jesus died bearing the sins of the world and your sin—how He made Himself the least of all, like Lazarus. He who was richer than any man made Himself wretched and poor for your sake, to save you. Jesus loves you—this you know—for the Bible tells you so.

Everything that God could possibly do to save you He has already done—and He is doing it right now as His blessed Word—His strong Word that once cleaved the darkness at creation—now cleaves the darkness of human hearts with the glorious gospel that Jesus Christ has destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light. All of God’s power to love you—all of God’s power to save you—all of God’s might to deliver you from sin and death is found in the preaching and proclamation of the Word. As it says in Romans 10, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17).

Are you hearing that Word? Are you taking that Word to heart when you come here, or are you just taking up pew space and enjoying the free coffee? When was the last time you opened your Bible at home? When was the last time you attended a Bible study? When was the last time you shared something from the Word of God with someone in need—some poor, desperate person like Lazarus in the parable?

The Word of God takes us to the crossroads of heaven and hell. And what you find standing there at that crossroads is Christ the crucified. His holy cross is the sure and certain sign that the way to eternal life has been opened for you—that the gates of heaven are ready to receive you—that your sins have all been forgiven in the cleansing blood of Jesus. Your heavenly Father loves you for Jesus’ sake. And today He is waiting for you to take your place with all the other poor beggars at Abraham’s side—beggars who are now fully satisfied—who have been given life to the full.

That full life has come to you in Holy Baptism, where God lovingly washed and healed all the stinging sores of your sin. That full life comes to you this morning—not as mere crumbs from the Master’s table—but in the bread that is Jesus’ body and in the wine that is Jesus’ blood. These good gifts of Baptism and Communion are called the “visible word” in our Lutheran Confessions. In these good gifts we can taste—we can see!—the goodness of God which we hear about in the audible Word. In short, we’ve been given everything we need to join with Lazarus at the Savior’s side in everlasting glory.

For now, “We are all beggars.” That’s what Martin Luther said as he himself was about to die. We are all beggars. We are all Lazaruses—each of us—begging, hungry, helpless, sick and sore. And the good news is that Jesus Himself, the Son of God, has joined us there among the dogs, the outcasts, the losers. Jesus became a beggar to save the beggars. You can hear all about it in the Word of God. So hear what it says: Your sins are forgiven in Jesus. Your death is undone in Jesus. Because of Jesus, hell has no power over you. Amen.

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