June 10, 2012
The 1st. Sunday after Trinity
Gospel: St. Luke xvi.19
Some time back the Church of England issued a theological report on Hell and it proposed that if there is a Hell, it is empty. However, it did not suggest that everyone was going to Heaven, either. The report said: “In the past the imagery of hell-fire and eternal torment and punishment was used to frighten men and women.” It concluded by saying: “Hell is not eternal torment, but is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely that the only end is total non-being.”
So it would seem that Hell has fallen into rather lean times. There was a time when Christians, regardless of their denominational affiliation, believed that Hell was a real place where the wicked and the impenitent go when they died. The very thought of the pains and torments of Hell was enough to scare the sinners straight. It used to be that ministers of the Gospel would preach on the horrors of Hell and persuade their members to repentance, But not anymore. Most American mainline churches stopped preaching about Hell years ago because it made people uncomfortable. It was old-fashioned. It was bad for attendance and income. It damaged people’s self-esteem. Oh yes, we use it as a curse word, as a metaphoric description of our worst experiences – as in “war is hell” – but hardly anyone today believes that the word “hell” corresponds to any real objective.
It appears that we have papered over Hell to the detriment and peril of our souls. But, yes, my people the Devil believes in a Hell. That is why he is working so tirelessly in our world. The demons Jesus exorcised from people believed in Hell and pleaded with Him not to send them there. Jesus certainly believed in Hell. The top three topics our Lord spent most of His time speaking about in His earthly teaching ministry were money and material possessions, Hell, and the Kingdom of Heaven. And the Master’s words about Hell are sober, dire, and serious. His constant admonition to His hearers was this: Do whatever you must to avoid Hell.
Hell is the subject of Jesus’ parable, called The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, today’s gospel. This parable, an earthly story with a spiritual and heavenly meaning, is unique among the Lord’s parables for two reasons. The first is that this parable appears only in Luke’s Gospel and nowhere else. And second it is the only parable of Jesus in which one of the characters in the story is named. All the rest of Jesus’ parables begin with “There was a certain man…, there was a certain woman…, there was a certain father, brother, farmer, or king who….” But not this parable. This parable is about a rich man and Lazarus. Because of its uniqueness we must read and heed it.
Here we are introduced to two men who couldn’t be more different and, who, according to Jesus, share nothing but geographical proximity to one another. There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day. And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs, which fell from the rich man’s table; and also the dogs came and licked his sores.
Look at the stark contrast. The rich man is very rich. He was clearly a man of great fortune, reputation, influence and self-interest. Now Lazarus, on the other hand, was a man of total poverty. His name is a derivative of the Hebrew name “Eleazor”, meaning “God, my helper.” Apart from his name there is nothing humanly appealing about his lot in life. He was a cripple and had to be laid at the rich man’s gate to beg. He was covered with ulcers and open sores, and dogs came and licked his wounds. Lazarus was so hungry that he would have happily eaten whatever fell from the rich man’s table. One of the two men – the rich man and Lazarus – which one would you rather be? Be careful and think before you answer. The surprise comes in verse 22 when Jesus reveals the inversion, or the great exchange in station that occurs after the two men died. (And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom; the rich man also died, and was buried. And in Hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
Now we need to be clear: This part of the parable, the revelation of where each man ended up after death, would have astonished and overturned the assumptions that were dearly-held in Jesus’ day. The common assumption among the Jews was that the rich were the recipients of God’s blessing and favor and therefore right in His eyes; the poor and crippled, on the other hand, were suffering God’s reproach and therefore must be sinful. But Jesus inverts the standing of these two men after death and reveals that the rich man, far from enjoying the power, prestige, comfort and ease he had on earth was now in torment, and Lazarus was now far from suffering the hunger, disease and neglect he had experienced at the rich man’s gate and was in paradise. Notice one more important detail: The rich man is not convicted of any great moral trespass, and Lazarus is not rewarded for some Herculean deed of righteousness. The rich man is not condemned to Hell simply because he was rich, and Lazarus was not ushered to Abraham’s bosom because he was poor. The rich man was condemned because his heart was not right with God, and his self-absorption and neglect of Lazarus’s need, right in front of his nose, were merely symptoms. Lazarus, however, not having any material distractions, and as his name implied, simply, with child-like faith, trusted God.
So, now, finally we are drawn to the conclusion of this story and Jesus’ instruction to His original audience and to us. We must first see that Hell is a real place of conscious anguish. The rich man did wake up in Hell and was in torment. He was not dreaming. His Hell was not on earth, He was conscious, aware of his surroundings, he could feel, speak, experience thirst, and was in anguish. Second, Hell is a place of regret. Maybe for the first time in his life he is uncomfortable and the discomfort has caused him to consider others. “I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house. For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” Thirdly, Hell is a place of inarguable justice. “Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime received thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.”
Today people wince and squirm at the thought of Hell because we think it seems cruel, and we have a hard time reconciling Hell with God’s love. We think God cannot be cruel, it is wrong to separate God’s love from His justice. After all, scripture doesn’t. In Romans Paul says: Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness. It is significant that the rich man nowhere argues a case that he didn’t deserve to be where he ended up, he only pleaded for escape or relief.
Scripture describes Hell as a place of outer darkness, a lake of fire, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, a place of torment, and a prison. Liberal scholars today say these descriptions are merely symbolic. Do not take any comfort in that for if these images are indeed symbols, then we must conclude that the reality is worse than the symbol suggests.
This parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus, is deathly serious. There are two explicit lessons and one implicit lesson here. The first explicit lesson is that you must be ready every hour of every day for eternity. The rich man died unprepared for eternity. He probably thought he had lots of time to get right with God. What will it profit a man, Jesus asks, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? It is a question that expects a negative answer. You gain nothing. You lose everything. You better be ready today for eternity, because you aren’t guaranteed another day for another breath. The second explicit lesson is that God owes you no special revelation. This rich man begged to have Lazarus sent that he might go and warn his five brothers about Hell. Jesus said, that his brothers had the revelation of God in the Law and the Prophets.
Have you ever heard someone say: “Well, if God would just show Himself to me I would believe?” HE already has, in Creation, in Scripture, and in His Son Jesus Christ. He even resurrected His Son to demonstrate that this revelation was authentic, and the religious crowd responded by paying the guards that stood watch at His tomb to lie and say His body was stolen, and by attempting to silence its witnesses with persecution. We have all the revelation we are going to get. We must believe…
The implicit lesson is to avoid Hell at all costs. Remember Jesus said: that if our eyes, or hands, or feet offend us we would be better to cut them off and go into eternity disabled than to be whole and cast our body and soul into Hell. His point is not to start cutting off our limbs, but rather to do whatever we must do in order to avoid Hell.
J.C.Ryle, a great 19th century Bishop of Liverpool said: “The watchman who keeps silent when he sees a fire is guilty of gross neglect. The doctor who tells us we are getting better when we are dying is a false friend. And the minister who keeps back Hell from his people in his sermons is neither a faithful nor a charitable man.”
Hell can be a word of hope to the righteous that the scales of justice in the universe will be finally balanced and that evil will be judged, condemned and eradicated. Hell is bad news because actual people actually go there. Perhaps the most important question in the world is: “What must I do to be saved?” Paul says: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” There will be judgment and Jesus Christ is the only escape. Listen to the Gospel of John: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
The Gospel is that God the Father sent His only-begotten Son to save us from sin and Hell. Jesus took our sins upon Himself and on the Cross, he died the death for sin when we should have died. He stood as our penal substitute and assuaged the wrath of God for our sins. “If any man sin we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous; and he is the propitiation – the sin payment – for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. Jesus Christ is God’s one and only saving provision from Hell. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one – no one – could come to the Father except through Him.
The Gospel message is a simple one. It isn’t an ‘if’ or ‘then’ proposition, as in if you work, and work, and work, and give money to the church, and try to keep the Ten Commandments, then God will reward you in Heaven. The Gospel is a because/therefore proposition, Because God punished your sin in Jesus Christ, and because He is the only salvation and rescue from the wrath of God, therefore repent and believe. That’s right! Repent: Turn from sin – forsake it and reject it. Believe: Put your trust in Christ as your only means of salvation. Do not wait until your deathbed. Decide NOW. Salvation is a gift of grace, but it must be received. Becoming a Christian is as simple as 1,2,3. Acknowledge your need; accept the free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ by receiving Him as your Savior and submitting to Him as Lord; and ask Him to save you. St. Paul says that anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. “Anyone” includes all of us. “Thank you Lord for saving my soul; thank you Lord for making me whole; Thank you Lord for giving to me thy great salvation so rich and free. Thank you Lord….