Sometimes I preach a sermon and then think of extra things I could have included, or maybe even should have included. This sermon was one of those times. I won’t take anything back that I wrote, but if I did it again I’d emphasize the forgiveness of sins, and Christ’s atonement, more. That was our purchase price, and the forgiveness of our sins by God is the “price of admission” to heaven, so to speak — and He provides it Himself! The forgiveness Christ gives is the link between heaven and earth for us — how we can leave this world and be carried by the angels in Christ’s holy presence.
I would also have urged people to view the Sacrament as their personal guarantee that they will escape hell and be welcomed into heaven, for Jesus’ sake. This past Sunday we celebrated the Holy Communion, and I realized (again) how central it is to our lives as Christians and as a church. It truly is the food of heaven, given to us poor sinners here on earth, to strengthen us for our pilgrimage through this fallen world. Jesus gives us Himself to strengthen our faith and to keep our hearts focused on Him, while all the world glitters and shines around us, tempting us and trying to turn our heads. We need His holy medicine for our souls, or we too will become infected with the greed, avarice, and blind unbelief of this world.
That’s the nice thing about preaching more than once on the same text — you get to rectify some of those shortcomings from the first time. Peace be with you.
19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, 28for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30” ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” (luke 16:19-31 niv)
There’s no other part of Scripture that’s quite like our gospel for today. First of all, is it a parable, or is it not? A lot of people assume that it has to be a parable because of the story it tells. Yet Jesus never introduces it as a parable, as he typically does. Nothing is really illustrated or compared, as is usual with parables. It seems too real to be figurative. It’s got many more details than the average parable of Jesus. One of the people in it even is named, which doesn’t happen anywhere else in the parables of Jesus as far as I know. Is this an account of something that Jesus knew had actually happened, but that we have no other knowledge of? It’s possible, but we can’t say for sure.
This text talks about heaven and hell. Other parts of Scripture do too, but none in quite the same way. We start pondering and thinking about the details of this text, and we can end up with more questions than answers if we get carried away. We can start asking if the fire was real fire, how it is that Lazarus and the rich man have bodies, how they can all see each other and talk to each other — all sorts of questions that don’t have answers. We may wish we knew more specifics and more of the details of this account, but God has not seen fit to reveal everything to us. Even if he did try to explain it to us as it really is, we wouldn’t be able to understand it. So God uses language we can understand to explain unexplainable things, and we are content with that.
Even with so much we’d wish to know, there’s still plenty that we can understand perfectly fine. Therefore we need to pay attention to what Jesus says. As we consider these verses, we’ll ask: What’s your final destination? We’ll see what kind of place we’re going to. We’ll see why we’re going there.
Jesus begins by sketching two very different individuals: a rich man and a street person named Lazarus. Let’s look at the rich man first. He’s dressed in purple and fine linen – today he’d be wearing designer clothes, custom-made suits, and thousand-dollar Italian shoes, and driving a Mercedes. Nothing but the finest for this guy. That applies to the rest of his lifestyle, too – he’s living it up. Every day is a holiday for this guy. He’s fit, tanned, healthy, strong, rich, and secure. He doesn’t have a care in the world.
By the gate of his estate there lies a homeless man named Lazarus, and a greater contrast could hardly be imagined. Someone dumped him off here so he could beg from the rich man. He has no friends, no one to care for him. He’s hungry, he’s sick, he’s covered with festering sores and boils. He smells abominable. He’s too weak to shoo away the dogs that come and lick his sores, but he’s kind of grateful because it actually feels good. That’s his life: painful, humiliating, no future.
So in the course of time both Lazarus and the rich man die, and they go to very different places. The angels stood by Lazarus in the final moments of his wretched life, and when he finally breathes his last they bring him to Abraham’s side. Here he’s like a baby cradled in Abraham’s arms – perfectly safe, secure, lacking nothing. At peace and happy as he never got to be in life, for all eternity. The rich man dies, and he ends up in hell. The flames whoosh and crackle and the rich man can’t stop them from eating away at his flesh. The pain is intense and it never stops. He can hardly breathe, the air is so hot and thick with sulphurous fumes. His mouth is dry as cotton. He can’t get away. Maybe the worst part is that he can actually see how blessed and happy Lazarus is in heaven now, and it just makes his suffering that much worse. This is where he’s going to stay, for all eternity.
Now let’s be clear on one thing: it is not simply having money that landed the rich man in hell. Nor is it the mere lack of money that got Lazarus to heaven. It’s the attitude of their hearts that led to their final destinations. Lazarus had nothing in this life, yet he still trusted that God would give him nothing but good. Despite his outward circumstances, he held fast to his faith that God loved him and would always help him. He knew that this life is only temporary, but God’s goodness lasts forever for those who fear him. Thus his faith lets him enter the bliss of heaven, along with Abraham and all who believe like him. The rich man had everything, and that was part of his problem – but only part. Being rich is in itself no sin. Matthew, David, Job, Abraham himself, were all rich. But they never loved their money. This rich man did. It was all he thought about, all he was fond of, all he appreciated or wanted for himself. The finer things that this world has to offer – that’s all he wanted, and all he ever got.
Here we see the soul-destroying power of greed, and how it can topple you into unbelief. It can start out as something as simple as appreciating and paying attention too much to the luxuries and fun things of this world, and it can end up in hell. Greed can harden your heart against God little by little over time, until you no longer believe in God and you don’t care. Money and what it can let you do, craving for pleasure – these can crowd faith right out of your heart.
Unbelief in Christ is the only thing that will land you in hell. All the other sins someone may commit, including greed, are just unbelief in action in various forms. The one great sin that is at the root of all other sins, the only sin you can be sent to hell for, is unbelief in God and in his Son, Jesus Christ. Any other sin, no matter how great or small, is an expression of unbelief against the one true God, and unbelief will not go unpunished. Hell has kind of become a joke in the modern world. Most of the modern world is united in telling itself that hell doesn’t really exist. We may even not really take hell seriously. It’s shown in a humorous or a lighthearted way in movies, in books, in magazines. People joke about it: “If I’m going, at least all my friends will be there. I’d rather be there, because that’s where all the interesting people are. That’s where the party is.” Ever see any of those Far Side cartoons by Gary Larsen? That’s most people’s idea of hell: just the setup for a cartoon punch line, nothing more real than that. Hell is real. In some way, the fire is real. The pain is real. The regret, the sorrow, the fear, the hopelessness – they’re all real. God really does turn his back for all eternity on those who are sent there. An eternity of torment for those who turn their backs on Christ. The mind recoils at the horror of unrelenting punishment for all eternity. We shrink back from fully contemplating what hell is like, because it’s just too terrible to think about. That’s why so many people don’t believe in hell anymore – they don’t want to believe that it’s true.
People we know, maybe a lot of the people we know, maybe people we see every day, are going to go there. They will suffer what we see the rich man suffering here, if they do not believe in Christ. Once you’re there, you’re there. There is no possibility of anyone leaving or of anybody rescuing them to heaven. Jesus tells us as much: “Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” So how does someone avoid hell? How can any of those people we know not be condemned to an eternity separated from God? How can any of us escape being condemned to hell? Christ tells us through the conversation that Abraham and the rich man have.
The rich man doesn’t want his five brothers to end up with him. That’s actually kind of nice, and he’s right to be concerned, because unbelief, like faith, can often be traced through families. So the rich man thinks of a plan. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers. That will do it. That will keep them from going to hell. The rich man is so sure that this is the way to go that he even stubbornly argues with Abraham. Like he knows what it takes to avoid hell! Here he is, armpit deep in the lake of fire, and he’s insisting that Abraham is wrong and he’s right about how to get to heaven. How absurd! Could anything be more foolish? Yet that’s what the damned are like. They never believed God in life, and they never do in eternity. Even through all eternity they are never converted, so what else can God do with them but lock them in hell?
Abraham knows what it takes to avoid hell. His answer is simple and immovable: “They have Moses and the prophets, let them listen to them.” That’s all he says, even after the rich man starts arguing with him. It almost sounds callous, doesn’t it? Why won’t Abraham do something else to help save those five brothers? Because God’s Word is all they need. Nothing else works. Nothing else is needed. God’s Word has everything the sinner needs to avoid hell. It tells us what we’re truly like, even if we don’t want to believe it. It tells us of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who suffered the pain of hell in our place. It declares to us that all our sins are forgiven, we are at peace with God, and through faith in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we are no longer objects of God’s wrath. It announces to us that the prison bars of hell will not close over us, the flames will not set us ablaze, because Christ our Savior loves us and shields us with his grace. He has done everything, suffered everything, endured everything that we poor sinners need, and one day – not if we are lucky or if we behave ourselves, but purely out of God’s unmerited grace and the forgiveness Christ won for us – one day angels will stand around your bed as you draw your last rattling breaths, and as your eyelids close and your spirit flees this world, they will gather you up in their arms and bear you up to the judgment seat of God, where Christ will acquit you of everything wrong you’ve ever done, purely for his own sake, and you will enter into everlasting joy and blessedness and peace – forever.
God’s Word is the only place you’ll hear that. It’s the only thing that actually gives you Christ’s forgiveness. It’s the only thing that works the faith that saves you. Only God’s Word offers eternal life to all who believe in Christ’s name. Only God’s Word guarantees that you will – not might, not maybe, not perhaps, you will – make it there, only and because Jesus died for your sins and rose to life and he created faith in your heart through his Word – through Moses and the prophets.
God’s Word has the power to deliver you from hell. It has the power to purify your soul so you can enter God’s holy presence in heaven. Nothing in all heaven and earth is more powerful than this. So if there’s someone whose eternal salvation you’re worried about, apply God’s Word and leave the rest up to God. That’s all anybody can do. God’s Word is all we have to help save someone – but it’s all we need. Just keep telling them what God says in his Word, and let God do what he’s going to do. As long as you’re using the one thing we know saves people, God will be glorified. Share his Word, and the rest is in his infinitely wise, just, and loving hands.
If you’re scared at the thought of hell, just remember: that’s what Christ went through to save you. He experienced all of it so that you will never have to. Because he suffered in your place, you will never have to go there. If you’re worried for yourself about your eternal salvation, turn to the Word. Listen to Jesus’ promises about your eternal salvation. Know that your going to heaven is not based on a throw of the dice or on blind chance or even your own good works, but on Christ’s perfect, holy person and all-sufficient work, and the way you receive Christ’s benefits for yourself is through faith. The one thing that builds faith is God’s Word. So listen to Moses and the prophets. They teach you about Christ and all he’s done for you. Trust in Christ, trust in his Word, and you too will enter into eternal life. Praise be to Christ, who saves us from the fires of hell. See you at Abraham’s side. Amen.