The First Sunday after Trinity
June 23, 2019
“Heaven or Hell”
"There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hell, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, '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 said, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.' Then he said, 'I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him 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.' Abraham said to him, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' But he said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.' " Luke 16:19-31
Everyone dies. When you die, you either go to heaven or you go to hell. Heaven is a place of pure love, peace, and joy. It lasts forever. It is God’s gift to unworthy sinners. Jesus earned it for them. Hell is what sinners deserve. It is a place of eternal suffering and punishment. Sinners earn hell by their sins. The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
More people believe in heaven than believe in hell. Go figure. People want a positive religion that provides them with hope. They don’t want a religion that teaches eternal damnation. Some religions formally deny the existence of hell. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists teach that there is no such place as hell where people suffer eternal punishment for their sins. They argue that a loving God could not send anyone to a place of eternal torment. Many Protestants and Roman Catholics also deny hell. They may say that hell exists but that nobody goes there.
Jesus tells us this story to teach us about heaven and hell. He teaches us that heaven and hell are real places where real people go. He teaches us that those who go to heaven stay there and those who go to hell stay there. At the resurrection, those in heaven will be reunited with their bodies. Their bodies will be raised from the grave and glorified. They will enjoy forever the new heavens and the new earth that God has prepared for his children. At the resurrection, those in hell will also rejoin their bodies, but their bodies will not be glorified. They will rise only to be publicly condemned and sentenced to eternal misery.
We don’t plan on dying anytime soon, but we are living on the edge of eternity. Today could be the last day of our life here on this earth. You could die before you go to bed this evening. You are going to die. It’s not a question of whether. It’s only a question of when. It could be next month, next week, or today.
Are you ready to die? The rich man was not ready to die. Lazarus was ready to die. The rich man did not go to hell because he was rich. Lazarus did not go to heaven because he was poor. There is no sin in being rich. God blessed Abraham, Job, and David with great wealth. They went to heaven. Many poor people go to hell. It is not a sin to be rich. It is not a virtue to be poor. God loves rich and poor alike.
The rich man went to hell because he rejected the God of love revealed in Christ who forgives undeserving sinners. He rejected the true God and worshiped his money instead. Jesus said that you cannot serve both God and money. The rich man chose his wealth as his god, worshipped it, bound himself to it, and his god failed him when his help was most sorely needed. Everything in this world is headed toward destruction. To trust in things that will be destroyed is to embrace destruction. It is to choose hell for your home.
The rich man knew the Bible. He heard the Bible preached. He knew what Moses and the prophets taught. He despised the word of God while trusting in his expensive clothes, beautiful home, delectable food, and fat bank account. He was likely a highly regarded man. The rich often are. The world around him admired him. They didn’t see his sin. Jesus doesn’t describe him as a murderer, an adulterer, or a blasphemer. He was a successful church-going man who went to hell.
He went to hell because he trusted in his riches. Jesus told this story shortly after rebuking the Pharisees for their love of money. They thought that if you were rich it meant that God favored you. Material wealth was a sign of divine blessing. Many people think this way today. They think that if they have a lot of money they have a special status. They do have a special status before men. Those looking for money don’t seek out the poor. They seek out the rich. A rich fool is someone who thinks that because people honor him God must honor him too.
St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi: “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound.” (Philippians 4:11b-12a) When your god is money you will never be content. You will never be satisfied. St. Paul wrote to Timothy,
To believe in the existence of God is not to believe in God. St. James writes,
Faith and love are bound together. We receive God’s love in Christ through faith in the gospel. Faith receives God’s love. When God loves us he freely forgives us all our sins for Christ’s sake. The love we receive through faith is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. He brings this love into our lives. We believe. We love. We love because of what we believe. We love because of what faith receives. What we receive is what we give. That’s how faith and love go together.
The rich man did not love because he had not received love. He was an unbeliever. He wasn’t interested in the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. He thought sound theology to be irrelevant to his life. When the preacher preached about the forgiveness of sins his mind wandered off. What did he care about such things? He had it made! He lived in the lap of luxury. He had everything his heart desired. His heart did not desire God. He did not have God.
Just as faith in the things that you can touch, taste, and see cannot coexist with faith in the invisible God, so love for the things you own will crowd out all other kinds of love. The rich man did Lazarus no harm. He did him no good, either. He did not love him. He couldn’t love him. His heart was devoted to a god who wouldn’t let him love him. The god of mammon – the god of loving your money – is a cruel god. He won’t tolerate any competition and when you are facing the end of your life here on earth he abandons you.
Lazarus looked like a total loser. He was sick. He was poorly clothed. He was hungry. He saw wealth that he could not have. He was a poor man. So it would appear. Appearances can be deceiving. What appears to be is not what is. The name “Lazarus” means God is my help. It didn’t look like it. It often appears that God has abandoned his children. Appearances can be deceiving. God would not leave Lazarus in poverty. God had come to him in his holy word. God had brought Lazarus to faith. God sustained that poor beggar in the true Christian faith through his word. When Lazarus died his faith was vindicated. The rich man is buried and his soul goes to hell. Lazarus is taken to the bosom of Abraham, the father of the faithful. Lazarus was honored and loved. He was filled with joy. He was comforted.
Lazarus was denied the comfort of material wealth on earth, but that lack did not define him. Nobody can see true wealth. It is always hidden. It is hidden under poverty. It is hidden under suffering. If it is hidden, how do we know we have it? We are wealthy – wealthy beyond measurement – when we have God’s word.
The rich man’s poverty became crystal clear when he was in hell. His spiritual discernment is nil. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to talk to his brothers about the hell in which he suffered. So Abraham is God? Abraham can raise the dead? What foolishness! Abraham told him that his brothers had Moses and the prophets. They had the Bible. They should listen to the Bible. Oh, no! Not that! No, but if someone were to rise from the dead, well, then they would believe. To which Abraham replied if they won’t believe the Bible they won’t believe even if someone were to rise from the dead.
Faith comes from God’s word and from nowhere else. People want signs and wonders. They put God to the test. Prove yourself! As if they can order God this way or that. No, if the gospel of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake does not convert a sinner, nothing will. Those who despise God’s word cannot be saved.
Compare your earthly possessions to God’s word and judge their relative value. Your money promises you what your eyes now see. In the end it cannot deliver. It will fail you when you die. It cannot bring you from death to life. God’s word promises you what you cannot now see, but in the end it will deliver. You cannot see the blood of Jesus washing away your sin, but in heaven you will experience the purity, the innocence, and the blessedness of seeing God face to face and not shrinking away in fear but embracing the beatific vision with pure joy. You cannot see Jesus crushing the devil under his feet, but in heaven you will see Christ exalted in victory over the devil and all that is evil. You cannot see the wisdom of the world brought to nothing, but in heaven you will. You will know God even as God knows you. Compare your earthly possessions to God’s word and see their relative value.
Rolf D. Preus