Having the Lord as Your Reward – or not

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Sermon for Trinity 1

Genesis 15:1-6  +  1 John 4:16-21  +  Luke 16:19-31

To the unspiritual mind, to the person without the Spirit of God, to the unbeliever, to the world, today’s Gospel about the rich man and poor Lazarus is very simple:  The poor go to heaven, the rich go to hell; and if you’re rich and don’t want to go to hell, then you’d better part with some of your money, and fast.

That, my friends, is not at all the message of God’s Holy Spirit.

Our three Scripture lessons work together beautifully to describe the Christian faith for us with utmost clarity.  They speak of faith and love, life and death, heaven and hell.  And it’s all very, very down to earth and real.

We’ll start with Abraham in Genesis 15.  He was rich.  He was famous. He had a beautiful, loving and submissive wife. He had the respect of his peers.  And he had God’s promises to him of something even greater—an offspring who would be a blessing to him and to all nations. God comes to him and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.”

But Abraham was still afraid and desperate.  None of it meant anything to him. Why? Because the Lord hadn’t yet given him the promised reward of that offspring.  All of his hopes and dreams were wrapped up in that special offspring who would be the blessing to all nations. We know him as Jesus, the Christ.  But Abram, at the moment, was shaken with doubt because his eyes told him, “You have no offspring and you never will.”

But God renewed his promise to Abram.  He gave Abram his Word, his promise: you don’t have an offspring right now.  But you will have one, who comes from your own body. And Abram believed the Lord.  He believed the Lord’s promise, trusting that the Lord God would do what he said he would do.

And it was credited to Abram as righteousness.  He was justified before God—absolved of all sin and unrighteousness, counted as righteous—not because of his riches, not because of any works of obedience or love he had performed. Justified by faith in the promise of the Lord.  God’s love for Abram is what calmed Abram’s fears; God’s promise to Abram is what comforted Abram, and with that promise, Abram embraced the Lord as his reward.

Move ahead to the Epistle lesson where the Apostle John describes how those who are justified by faith, how those who know and believe in God’s love go on to filter that love to their neighbor, and especially to their brothers and sisters in the faith. It’s not a matter of, “You must love God and your neighbor if you want to be justified!”  That’s Satanic. We love God—that is, we are devoted to serving him—because he first loved us—he was devoted to serving us; gave his only-begotten Son and slaughtered him out of love for his enemies, for sinners, for us.  That’s why we believers in Jesus love God. And if we love him, we will love our neighbor and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. And if someone claims to love God—to be devoted to serving God—but doesn’t love his brother, then his “love” for God is a sham, according to the Apostle John. Whoever does not love his brother hates his brother, and everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and no murderer has eternal life dwelling in him.

Now, that’s not how we’re used to talking about love and hatred in our everyday speech. Just because you don’t love someone doesn’t necessarily mean that you hate them.  But in God’s vocabulary, that’s exactly what it means. In Biblical language, as far as God is concerned, there is no in between between love and hatred.  Either you’re devoted to serving a person or not, and if not, then God calls that hatred, and God calls that murder.

Which brings us to the Gospel.  The rich man went to hell because he was a murderer.  No, he didn’t stab poor Lazarus or poison him or harm him in any way.  But he did hate him.  No, not in an angry way or a bitter way or by wishing him any evil or harm whatsoever.  But he didn’t love him.  He wasn’t devoted to serving him, even though he was a fellow Israelite, a brother in the faith, even though he was placed right there at the rich man’s gate day in and day out.  The rich man hated Lazarus by not loving him.

But here’s the point we can’t miss.  He didn’t love Lazarus, because he didn’t know or believe in the love of God.  He claimed to!  He claimed a place in the people of Israel.  You can tell in how he addresses Abraham, “Father Abraham, Father Abraham, Father Abraham!” But the rich man didn’t love God.  God was not the rich man’s exceedingly great reward.  Instead, the rich man loved his expensive, trendy clothes.  He was devoted to his earthly happiness, his friends, his family, his food.  He was fooled by his riches into thinking that he was rich, and so he failed to realize that he was nothing but a poor beggar before God, a miserable sinner who needed God to pour his love and forgiveness into the rich man’s lap, which God wanted so desperately to do. God is love.  But the rich man didn’t want the Lord God of Israel for a reward during this life, and so he was tormented for eternity in the fires of hell, where even the love of God does not reach.

The poor man Lazarus, on the other hand, died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s lap where he was comforted from all his poverty, sorrows and sicknesses.  He didn’t go to heaven because he was poor. There are plenty of poor people in the world who hate their poverty and hate the rich people and hate the Lord who could have made them rich, but didn’t.  Lazarus went to heaven because he had the Lord as his reward. He was justified by faith in the promises of the God of Israel, just like Abraham was, the only reason why anyone goes to heaven. Lazarus didn’t see a hint of evidence in his life that God is love, except, perhaps, for the dogs that came and licked his sores. That’s foolishness to the world. The world would interpret such a thing as demeaning and evidence that God is cruel. A believer can see behind it a sign of God’s love, a love that may be masked almost beyond recognition in this life, a love to be revealed properly in the future.

The rich man will never know love again.  He didn’t want God’s love in life.  He doesn’t want it now, either.  He doesn’t say a word about God in his agony or in his dialogue with Abraham.  Unlike Abraham, he didn’t want God for a reward, but rather riches and fun and earthly friends.  He didn’t love his neighbor, his brother, sitting there begging at his gate each day, not even enough to share a morsel of his banquets.  That would have been enough for Lazarus.

Now the rich man can’t get a morsel of relief from Lazarus.  And Abraham makes it clear, it’s not a matter of lovelessness on their part.  God established our earthly life as the time to love our neighbor and help him in his bodily needs.  The rich man’s time of grace was past. Not only that, but they couldn’t cross back and forth.  By God’s own choice, the time for faith, the time for grace, the time for helping your brother in his need is during this life.


The rich man realizes it’s too late for him, but now he remembers his family, and knows that they are on the same deadly path he was on – the path of unbelief and lovelessness. He still doesn’t get it.  He still doesn’t care about God or know Him who is love.  He still has no faith whatsoever in the Word of God.  Only a miracle will help his brothers!, he thinks.

No, Abraham says. Only Moses and the Prophets can help them—can help anyone. Only the Word of God’s love converts. Only the Word of God’s love creates faith.  Only the Word instills Him who is love into the heart of a man so that the man loves as God loves.  If the Word doesn’t convert a person, nothing will.  The Word of God is the message of man’s sin and God’s love, and the solution God gave in His love, His only-begotten Son. If the image of God’s Son hanging on a cross in the sinner’s place is not sufficient to turn a person from hating God to loving God, then not even a miraculous resurrection will accomplish anything.  Not even proof of Christ’s resurrection will convert anyone, which is another reason why Jesus didn’t bother appearing to his enemies after he rose from the dead.  The image of God’s love is Jesus dying on a cross.  For those who know and believe in the love of God there, an eternity of love awaits.  For those who don’t want God’s love there, in the cross, there is no other love to be found.  The resurrection of Jesus is the event that proved his victory over sin and death.  The event that proved his love more than any other was the crucifixion.

So, to summarize, love in a Christian is a sign of faith, not a condition for faith or an ingredient in faith.  You are not saved or justified before God by faith and love, but by faith alone, for faith embraces Christ, the Mediator, Christ who is love incarnate, love in human flesh.  To believe in Christ is to have his love counted before God in place of your lovelessness, and you are counted righteous for his sake.

Now those who embrace Him who is love by faith cannot help but love their brothers and sisters, because the love of God dwells in him or her. That doesn’t make it easy to be devoted to your brothers and sisters; your flesh always wants to be served by others and hates the thought of loving other people, especially the ones you don’t like very much.  But the love of God is stronger than your flesh, and his forgiveness for you will enable you to crucify your flesh every day, to deny yourself and to love even those are unlovable, which, remember!, is how God found you to be, too.

If you do not love these brothers and sisters of yours, or if you only love the ones you like and hate the ones you don’t, then your faith is a sham and the love of God does not abide in you. If that is the case, then repent before it’s too late, before you join the rich man. Confess your bitterness.  Confess your apathy.  Confess your self-serving heart.  Acknowledge that you are a beggar, like the rest of us, and then look to the Lord as your reward—to the Lord who knows your lovelessness and still gave His Son to die for you, who brought you to the baptismal font to wash away your sins, who sets out a banquet for you again today and makes a promise to you as sure and certain as his promise to Abraham, “This is my body; this is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” See! The Lord gives himself to you here as your shield from sin, from death and from condemnation. The Lord gives himself to you here as your exceedingly great reward!  Amen.

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