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Sermon for Trinity 1
1 John 4:16-21 + Luke 16:19-31
Our Gospel gives us a few things we could talk about today. We could take about riches and poverty in general, the good and the bad of both. We could talk about the companionship of dogs, like the ones that licked Lazarus’ sores. We could talk about angels. We could talk about fatherhood on Father’s day, taking our cue from Father Abraham, who comforted his son Lazarus but who had no comfort at all for his other “son.”
But there is a main emphasis in this Gospel and we need to focus on it for now. The point? No matter what your earthly life was like, good or bad, pleasant, painful, easy, hard, or a great big rollercoaster running through it all, you’re going to die. Everyone dies. And then everyone goes either to heaven to be comforted or to hell to be tormented. And what you received in this life is not necessarily an indicator of what you will receive in the next.
Look at the two men in our Gospel, the rich man and poor Lazarus. They had some things in common. They lived side by side in the same city. Both of them, by birth, had Abraham for a father. Both were Israelites, which meant they were not just fellow countrymen, but also fellow church members in the Church of Israel, which, at that time, was the Church of the true God. And, of course, they had death in common. Neither poverty nor riches nor anything else could prevent them from receiving the “wages of sin.” Their death proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that both were sinners.
They had other things not in common. They had two very different lots in life, and Jesus doesn’t indicate whether either of them was responsible for what he had, either the rich man for his riches or the poor man for his poverty. Sometimes our actions can produce one or the other. But it is also true that God does not provide equal opportunities for everyone. The rich are not necessarily rich because they worked so hard, and the poor are not necessarily poor because they made so many mistakes in life. (We could talk more about that, but we have more pressing things to discuss.) As a result of their different situations, the two men had other things not in common. One was hungry, the other full. One was sickly, the other healthy. One longed and begged his way through this life, while the other enjoyed his life and all that he had.
And, of course, their souls were taken to two very different destinations after they died. One was taken to heaven, to Paradise, where he was forevermore to be comforted at Abraham’s side. The other went to hell, where he was in perpetual torment.
That reveals to us another difference between the two that may have been harder or even impossible to see in this life. One trusted in the Lord God during his earthly life; the other didn’t. Lazarus was not eternally saved by his poverty, nor was the rich man condemned for his luxury. Lazarus could have cursed God for his lot in life. He could have despaired of God’s help and grace and ended up in hell. And the rich man could have remained rich while still mourning over his sinfulness and putting his trust, not in his riches, but in God and His promise of a Messiah, in which case, he would have ended up in heaven. But their final state shows us what their earthly state was truly like: Lazarus a penitent believer, the rich man an impenitent unbeliever.
Now, in the afterlife, the roles are reversed. The rich man is now the one who is longing for what Lazarus has. He has now become the beggar. Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
But Abraham explains that it’s too late. Once a person reaches heaven or hell, there’s nothing more to be done. Those in hell can never enter heaven or receive any good thing from heaven, and those in heaven cannot help the souls in hell. After this life is over is not the time to repent and change one’s ways. After this life, it is what it is. No, this life is the time appointed for repentance. This life is the time appointed for compassion, for deeds of love and service to one’s neighbor.
The rich man in hell learns that hard lesson, too late for himself. He hopes there’s still time for his five brothers, who were still alive. So he pleads again, I beg you therefore, father, that you would send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ He thinks, maybe a dead man coming back to life can jar his brothers out of their apathy and impenitence and convince them that it’s what’s coming after this life that they need to think about. In modern terms, he’s looking for Lazarus to cry out to them, “Get off your iPad, your phone, your screen! Look up from your work, from your pleasure, from your family time, from your vacation, from your pain! There are more important things! You’ll be sorry if you keep living as you are! Repent now! Become different people now!”
Ah, but no. Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ For this life, Moses and the Prophets are assigned, the Holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. These are they that testify of Me, Jesus said. God the Holy Spirit has chosen to work only through the Word to convict, to call to repentance, to bring to repentance, to grant faith, and to engender works of love.
The point? Again, everyone dies. And then everyone goes either to heaven to be comforted forever or to hell to be tormented forever. Heaven has to be the goal. This life is the time appointed for repentance to life, to confess our sins, to look to Christ, to receive forgiveness. This life is also the time appointed for compassion, for deeds of love. After this life, it will be too late. And after this life, everyone will see that both the temporary suffering and the temporary pleasures of this life do not compare with what awaits, with either the rest or the torment.
And therefore, since this life must be lived with the goal #1 of reaching eternal life in heaven, and the only way to know Jesus as the Savior is by hearing God’s voice in the Holy Scriptures, the Scriptures have to be priority #1, because they are the tool necessary to accomplish goal #1.
That’s why the first step in becoming a Christian is hearing the Word of God and receiving the Sacrament of Holy baptism, and the first part of living as a Christian is the regular hearing of God’s Word and the reception of His Sacrament. Because the world invades your existence every day. It’s always there, with its pleasures or with its pains, always pulling at you, tugging at you, to live for yourself, or, to wallow in your sorrow. But the Word of God calls out to you, Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?
And for those who make the excuse that they read Scripture once in a while on their own and so don’t need to gather for worship, what does Abraham say? They have Moses and the prophets; let them read them. No, let them hear them.
Hearing is where it begins, but not where it ends, of course. Hearing leads to believing: believing that you are a poor, miserable sinner; believing that God gave His Son to die for your sins and to be raised to life for your justification; believing that God forgives you your sins for the sake of Christ alone, that He has made you His child through holy Baptism, that He will continue to preserve you in faith through Word and Sacrament, and that He will hear your prayers and help you through this life into the next.
What if you’re more like Lazarus in this life—poor, suffering, in pain? That hearing of God’s Word will sustain you through it all and hold that better life before your eyes. What if you’re more like the rich man? That hearing will keep you mindful of your sinful condition, even if you are given to enjoy some nice things in this life, so that you don’t depend on them or get too attached to them. Hearing will keep your focus on Christ, who then points you to your neighbor, and especially your brother—your fellow church member and fellow Christian. What can I do for him or for her today?
Because believing always leads to love. Believing in Christ means a new life of obedience here in this world, a life of love. If it doesn’t, if love is not present, then faith is not present, either. As John said in the Epistle, we love God because He first loved us. And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.
So hear God’s Word calling out to you today! Look up from your life, whatever kind of life it is, and remember that you’re going to die. But Jesus died so that your death may lead to heaven and not to hell. See your sin as your greatest problem, and Christ Jesus as the only cure! Know that heaven is guaranteed to you who believe in Him, for His sake alone and by faith alone, no matter what things look like here below. And, as you have opportunity, lift up your eyes to see the ones who have been laid at your gate, to love them and to do what you can to help them. That’s, very simply, the purpose of this life, not to become absorbed with yourself and your life in this world, but to know Christ, and to love like Christ, so that after you die, you may be carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. Amen.