Thursday, June 30, 2016

Trinity 1 (Luke 16:19-31)

“If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, ‘Appearances are deceiving;’ ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover;’ ‘You can’t see into the heart.’ These are not biblical phrases, but popular expressions, meant to keep us from judging others based on what our eyes see. Our culture’s obsession with ‘tolerance’ and ‘acceptance’ is founded on these ideas, the basic premise that appearances don’t tell the whole story, that we are not to condemn others on sight, but must learn to know their character. This is hardly new. The nineteenth century writer Jane Austen set up each of her still-popular novels with the idea that something (or usually someone) is not as they appear. Mistaken identity was the driving force behind the mishaps and misunderstandings that filled her pages, and when they were finally resolved, the heroine lived happily ever after. Austen’s message was simple: don’t trust your eyes; appearances are deceiving! But we don’t listen. We still trust our eyes, no matter how many people tell us differently. In our human relationships, this can lead to drama and comedy on the one hand, or racism and violence on the other, but theologically the stakes are even higher: trusting your eyes can lead you straight to hell.

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” What do your eyes see? They see luxury, they see abundance, they see success. They see a banquet table piled high, filled with abundance for this man and all his acquaintances. He is held in high esteem by all, he is exalted by the masses, envied by his friends, honored by his family. He lives the kind of life that we want to lead, he has the standard of living that we aspire to, that all the commercials promise us. But there’s even more to this, a theological element. You see, this guy’s a child of Abraham, a member of the church. This takes our observations to a whole new level. This man isn’t just successful because he pursued the right opportunity, he is blessed by God Himself! Just look at him! He oozes evidence of God’s blessings! He must have a powerful faith, he must say the right prayers, he must live the upright life that God has called him to lead. How do we know? We can see it! He is showing every evidence of God’s favor in the abundance that fills his life, the same abundance that the preachers promised him. And we can contrast the blessings we see inside the rich man’s house with the curse that we observe outside his door.

“And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.” What do your eyes see? They see poverty, they see deprivation, they see failure. They see ribs sticking out, an emaciated frame, a life that has little to live for. He is looked down upon by all, he is ignored by the masses, rejected by his friends, abandoned by his family. He lives the kind of life that we are glad to have avoided, because we worked hard, while he obviously didn’t, and now he subsists only on the generosity of others and the welfare of the state. ‘Get a job’ we mutter as we pass him by, ‘Quit trying to make me feel sorry for you!’ But there’s even more to this, a theological element. You see, this man is a child of Abraham, a member of the church. This takes our observations to a whole new level. This man isn’t just impoverished because he has no work ethic, he is cursed by God Himself! Just look at him! He quite literally oozes evidence of God’s abandonment, God’s curse! He must have a weak faith, he must not say the right prayers, he must not live the upright life that God has called him to lead. He must not believe hard enough, pray hard enough, and must be truly wicked, rotten to the core. How do we know? We can see it! He is showing every evidence of God’s curse in the poverty and suffering that fills his life, the same poverty and suffering that the preachers warned him about.

These men have nothing in common; absolutely nothing. One shows every evidence of faithfulness to God in the material blessings that fill his life. The other shows every evidence of wickedness in the poverty that has consumed him. Our eyes tell us that one has God’s blessing, while the other has been condemned by God’s curse. But then they die. The one thing they have in common is death. And at death, what our eyes have seen, what we have observed, is proved to be completely and utterly false.

“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.” Death makes all things clear. It removes all the external trappings of this life, all those material things which we use to make our judgments. All those things are gone, and when they are gone, the truth is plain. This man, who suffered so completely in this life, was not cursed by God, He was not abandoned and rejected by Him. No, instead he was blessed, so blessed in fact, that after a lifetime of suffering he is given an eternity of comfort. Appearances are deceiving. Lazarus was not saved by his poverty, he was saved because he heard the Word and believed it. He is saved because He has a Savior, Jesus Christ, who hung upon a cross to deliver him from the poverty that consumed him, the sores that covered him, the death that one day would take him. He is saved because he did not put his trust in what his eyes saw. He did not look to his life as evidence of God’s favor or curse. No, instead he looked to Jesus. No matter how poor and miserable his life became, Lazarus looked to Jesus to know what God thought of him. He rests at the side of Abraham because Jesus made Himself poor and miserable, even submitting to death for Lazarus’ sake. Now, Lazarus feasts eternally, for he is covered with the victory of Jesus; no more will he be deprived, no more will he hunger. Like father Abraham, Lazarus “believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”

The rich man is an entirely different story. “The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.” Death makes all things clear. Certainly the rich man had a lavish funeral, while the body of Lazarus was more than likely tossed in a ditch, but there was no mistaking that the same death had claimed them both. And on the day of his death, the rich man discovered, to his eternal sorrow, that appearances are deceiving. He thought his wealth was evidence of God’s great favor, but his wealth had nothing to do with God’s eternal pleasure or displeasure. Instead, it was a blessing in this world, given freely by the God that gives all good things, given as an opportunity to show love. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” The rich man’s refusal to show Lazarus love flowed from a heart that had no love toward God, a heart that had not been converted. “We love because He first loved us.”

The rich man refused to relieve the suffering of Lazarus, even though he passed him every single day, and now, for eternity, the rich man suffers. The rich man was not condemned for being rich; he was not even condemned for his lack of love toward Lazarus (Jesus died for that sin, too!), he was condemned for refusing the love of God in Christ, for refusing to repent and receive forgiveness for his greed, for trusting himself rather than in Jesus. Having rejected God’s love, having refused to receive or give such love, he can only receive wrath. His trust, his dependence, was in what his eyes saw; he thought that his material blessings were evidence of God’s favor, but he abandoned and rejected the Word, the Word of Law which called on him to love his neighbor, and the Word of Gospel which proclaimed the Savior who loved him and died to deliver him from that awful place.

Even in hell he continues to distrust the Word. Having failed to obtain relief for his sufferings, the rich man now thinks of those who are left behind, his brothers who, like him, trust in what their eyes see. “Then I beg you, father, to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.” Abraham’s answer is to point to the very thing the rich man had constantly rejected: the Word. “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” The rich man’s response is telling. “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” The Word is not sufficient, the Word is not enough, only miracles will suffice. He who trusted his eyes throughout his life continues to trust them even in hell. But Abraham points us all to our ears. “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

Appearances are deceiving. In your hands you hold a Bible, a book bound and printed like any other book, published and distributed throughout the world. You come to this place and hear a man, an ordinary man, a sinful man, stand up here and talk, reading from the Bible, applying and explaining it to you. You go home, and maybe your bank account increases, maybe not; perhaps you suffer greatly. But you do not trust what your eyes see, whether they see good or bad, success or suffering. You trust what the Word says, even though it seems to contradict all you see. Do not trust your eyes, do not let them tell you what God thinks of you; trust your ears, for into your ears comes the Word, and the Word proclaims to you the One who did rise from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. It is at the cross that you are told what God thinks of you: He loves you, He took on human flesh to bear your sin to the cross and there pay the price for them, and He pours out these gifts in abundance in the Word. You have a place in the bosom of father Abraham, and on the day when the angels carry you to his side, you will enjoy the banquet of heaven forever, knowing that nothing will ever snatch you from your seat at the table, that there your eyes will see what your ears heard, forever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

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