The First Sunday after Trinity| Rolf D. Preus| June 10, 2012| St. Luke 16:19-31
“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 Hades, 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.’ ” St. Luke 16:19-31
Jesus is filled with mercy and love. If you want to see the lovingkindness of God, look to the man Jesus. There you will see love incarnate. There you will see mercy. There you will see patience, empathy, and deep compassion. And when you listen to what Jesus says you learn some startling things! You learn from this loving and merciful Jesus that there is a real hell and that real people go there to suffer forever.
But doesn’t this contradict what the Bible says about God’s love? St. John writes: “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” God is love. But how can a God of love damn people to endless perdition? How can a loving God condemn sinners to hell?
Many people don’t believe it is possible. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Unitarian-Universalists, and most contemporary liberal Protestants all deny eternal damnation. They are convinced that God’s love and eternal damnation are utterly irreconcilable.
There is a real temptation to follow their lead. Who wants to believe in hell? I don’t. I have always been repelled by the idea. It is simply incompatible with love. Who can embrace the idea of hell without a great deal of personal anguish?
Why do we react as we do when we hear descriptions of hell? Is it not because we know God is love? But that’s just the point. God is love. We are not. We need God’s love. We need it for us. We need it given to us. We need it within us. Without God’s love, we are all doomed to hell. That’s because hell is where God’s love does not enter.
You can see hell already in the man who was clothed in fine clothes and who feasted on delicacies every day. You can see hell in his callused disregard for the suffering of Lazarus. The rich man cared nothing for his fellow man. He cared only for himself. Perhaps he made a show of his love for God. Undoubtedly he practiced some sort of religion. But where was his love? He ignored his neighbor in need because he didn’t care about him. He cared only for himself.
Where is the love in this man? It is nowhere to be found. Don’t talk about loving God whom you have not seen if you don’t love your brother whom you have seen! The rich man symbolizes the self-satisfied who, when they have all they want for themselves, are content. They are the center of their own universe. They know no higher good than to please themselves. This is why they trust in the things that they have instead of the God who gave them the things that they have. They don’t love God. They love only themselves. So they worship at the altar of their own selfishness.
Lazarus represents the person who has nothing in which he can put his trust. He is pictured as a poor beggar in poor health. He relies on God because he cannot rely on himself. His name means, “the one whom God helps.” Lazarus cannot rely on anyone but God. No one else can help. No one else will help. Only God’s love and God’s help will do. The rich man ignores him, but God saves him.
Folks willingly believe there is a real heaven where real people go after they die to enjoy peace, happiness, and the end of suffering and sorrow. Folks aren’t so willing to admit that there is a real hell to which real people go after they die where they suffer torment. When the Bible talks about heaven and hell it uses much symbolic language, but it is nevertheless talking about very real places. Obviously, Abraham’s bosom is symbolic of something. To be at Abraham’s side is to be in perfect fellowship with God. It is to be a true child of Abraham, that is to say, a true child of God. It is to share everything God promised to Abraham. It is to enjoy a home where you are surrounded by pure love forever and ever. There will be no regrets. There will be no bitterness. There will be no sorrow or pain. There will be no hatred. There will be the perfect and permanent manifestation of pure and holy love forever and ever.
Likewise, the flames of hell are symbolic of something. They represent that place where love is entirely absent. There is no fellowship, except the fellowship of mutual contempt and hatred. There is no forgiveness. No amount of remorse will take away the guilt because remorse never was enough to wash away sin. Only the blood of the Lamb could wash sins away and only Christ is that Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Those in hell are those who refused God’s love. In refusing God’s love, they did not love God. They lived for themselves. They did not live for others because they did not love them. Having refused God’s love, they are punished forever by the total absence of that love. Hell is the complete and permanent absence of God’s love. There is no peace, no fellowship with God, and no love. It is being tormented by a fire that cannot be quenched because only God’s grace can quench it and it is the denial of God’s grace that brings sinners to hell in the first place.
The rich man in the story went to hell and could not get out. There was only one man who ever went to hell and got out. That man was Jesus. It was as Jesus suffered on the cross that he experienced hell. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That was the cry of the damned. That was the condemned Man, crying out in His pain. Jesus did not cry out to Elijah, as the crowd foolishly thought. He didn’t cry out to Abraham, as the condemned rich man did. He cried out to God. Look at him as he suffers! He is begotten of the Father’s love from all eternity. He has lived in perfect fellowship with divine love from before time began. He has never shown anything but pure and holy love in his dealings with his neighbor. He has been and done everything that love requires, and now look at him. He must bear the hatred – the deep, bitter, violent, and cruel hatred – of sin. He must bear it all alone. He must suffer hell. And then he must die.
We look at the suffering of Jesus to see God’s love for us. God forsook Jesus instead of forsaking us. He condemned Jesus instead of condemning us. The hell Jesus suffered has brought heaven to us.
We look to Jesus dying for us to see our true need. It is only when we see our own personal lovelessness and cry out to God for His grace in Christ Jesus that we can find true love. No one can learn to love his neighbor until he admits that he has not loved his neighbor. It is only those who cannot help themselves who can be like Lazarus: helped by God. And so it is only in our repentance, our own personal repentance, that we can find the love of God that brings us to heaven.
The rich man saw no need for mercy – either for himself or for others – until he was in hell and it was too late. Then he cried out for mercy to Abraham. The Christian cries out for mercy to God, and he cries out now and throughout his life in this world. God, for Christ’s sake, is merciful. He does not hold our sins against us. He forgives us for Jesus’ sake. For the sake of Jesus suffering hell on the cross for us, God delivers our souls from hell. This is what the Bible teaches us. From Moses and the prophets to Christ and His apostles, the Bible reveals the love of God in Christ from cover to cover. This is why we read the Bible, why we preach it, why we confess it, and why we refuse to compromise its teaching. It may be fashionable to define hell out of existence, but denying reality won’t make it go away. The only God who exists is the Triune God. The only Jesus who exists is the Jesus of the Bible. It is the unfathomable love of Christ that has borne away all of our sins and made us fit for heaven. It is this love, sent into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, which flows through us in love to one another. We love one another because God in Christ loved us first. Receiving this love in Christ’s gospel and sacraments is our foretaste of heaven.
Let us pray:
Lord, let at last thine angels come,
To Abraham’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me
That these mine eyes with joy may see
O Son of God, thy glorious face
My Savior and my fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise you without end. Amen