Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost based on Luke 16:19-31
Dear hearers of the Word: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
The rich man and Lazarus both died. Their funerals must have been very different. Lazarus must not have had friends or family since no one helped him when he was in need. Maybe no one even attended his funeral and the pastor alone was there for the funeral service. Without money for food, Lazarus certainly didn’t have money for a fancy casket or graveside flowers.
The rich man, on the other hand, would have undoubtedly had the church packed for the funeral. Friends, family, and feasting companions all gathering together, bringing flowers and admiring the gold-plating on the casket while the pastor is talking about what a good man he was. After all, the text says nothing about the rich man getting his money through deceitful means or being a thief or a cheat. As far as those around him were concerned, the rich man was a good man.
Just as their funerals were very different, so is their existence after death. Lazarus is at Abraham’s bosom in comfort. The rich man is in Hades in torment, tortured in the flames of hell.
Lazarus did not end up in heaven because he was poor and suffering in this life, and the rich man did not end up in hell because he was rich and feasting sumptuously. Being poor or rich has nothing to do with heaven or hell.
The important difference between the rich man and Lazarus is when it comes to hearing Moses and the Prophets. Lazarus heard Moses and the Prophets, while the rich man joined his five brothers. Abraham says concerning the brothers, “They have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them.” The rich man doesn’t think that this is enough, for he also had Moses and the Prophets but he neglected to hear them. That means that he didn’t go to church because that would have been the only place for him to hear God’s Word. He didn’t go to church to hear God’s Word or receive forgiveness, and he knew his brothers did not either. While he was alive, he didn’t think hearing God’s Word would save him, and even in hell, he still thinks the same.
That’s tough for us to hear. We would be much more comfortable if Jesus had said that Lazarus had faith but the rich man did not. Faith saves while unbelief damns, that’s why Lazarus went to heaven and the rich man went to hell. Instead, Jesus says that Lazarus went to church and thus he went to heaven, while the rich man did not go to church and thus went to hell.
This is not because going to church is a good work that earns you a place in heaven. It’s not because going to church makes God happy with you. Rather, church is where God’s Word is heard and faith is created and sustained. Faith comes from hearing (Rom. 10:17). If you don’t hear God’s Word, you cannot have faith. If you neglect Moses and the Prophets, your faith will not be sustained. The idea that everyone has faith apart from hearing God’s Word just because their name is in the church directory is utterly wrong!
Faith desires nothing more than to hear God’s Word and receive His forgiveness. Faith desires nothing more than to receive the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. Faith comes from hearing the Word of God and nowhere else. Faith is sustained by the Word of God and nothing else. Even Baptism and the Lord’s Supper would be nothing more than water and bread and wine without the Word of God.
The rich man thought if Lazarus would return to life and go warn his brothers about hell, then they would listen. If some great miracle happened in their lives, then they would heed the warnings of hell and be saved.
Maybe we are sometimes tempted to think similarly if we have friends or family members that have long neglected hearing God’s Word. If God would miraculously cure their illness, then they would return to church. If God would appear to them in a dream and warn them of hell, then they would listen and be saved. But they have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them. If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if they would see a miracle or have a special dream or vision.
This is because the power to save is in the Gospel (Rom. 1:16). There is no other way to be saved than the Gospel. Faith is created by hearing that Jesus died on the cross for your sins, not by being healed. Faith is created by hearing that your sins are forgiven, not in having a special dream or even in seeing the dead raised to life.
The rich man was surprised to find himself in hell, and he knew his brothers would be surprised, too. He thought everything was good in his life and that he was a pretty good person. He certainly considered himself to be part of the church. After all, he calls Abraham his father. His name was in the church directory and his photograph in the pictorial directory.
The task of the church is to let such people know that they are neglecting Moses and the Prophets. The church is to warn such people of the torment of hell. The church must tell such people that faith comes from hearing, so come hear; faith is sustained by hearing, so come listen.
If he listens, then we have gained a brother. If he does not listen, the church is to tell him that he is demonstrating that he does not have faith and that he is outside the church. Excommunication is not kicking someone out of the church. Excommunication is recognizing that someone is already outside the church. Excommunication is a warning to such a person to wake up and realize that he does not have faith, because faith comes only from hearing.
The goal of church discipline is always the salvation of the one disciplined. It is always done with the hope that he will repent and return to hearing God’s Word. It is done to prevent such people from going to hell surprised because they thought they were in the church and everything was fine even though they never came to hear God’s Word.
But going to church is not all about Law. I already told you earlier that going to church is not a good work that earns you a place in heaven. Going to church is much more about the Gospel.
Going to church is about hearing God’s Word which creates faith. God’s Word powerfully creates faith even in an infant through Baptism. God’s Word powerfully pronounces all our sins forgiven through Absolution. God’s Word powerfully and miraculously gives us the body and blood of Jesus with the bread and wine for the forgiveness of all of our sins.
Going to church is about forgiveness. We daily sin because of our sinful nature, so we regularly need to hear about God’s forgiveness and receive that forgiveness. We regularly need to hear God’s Word which sustains our faith.
We receive the Holy Spirit and forgiveness in our Baptism (Acts 2:38), but our spiritual life is like breathing. The Holy Spirit isn’t just given to us once, but continually. When we hear God’s Word, we receive the Holy Spirit (John 6:63; Gal. 3:1-5). In the Lord’s Supper we receive the Spirit-filled food and drink that forgives and sustains us (I Cor. 10:3-4, 12:13). We continually need the Holy Spirit and forgiveness of sins or we will spiritually die, just like we continually need oxygen or we will physically die.
This is indeed what God gives to us in His Word. He gives us life. He gives us forgiveness. This is true whether we are rich like the rich man or poor like Lazarus. This is true whether we are blessed with more comfort in this life like the rich man or more suffering like Lazarus.
Faith comes from hearing. The Word of God gives and sustains faith. There is nothing else that gives or sustains faith. Only the Word of God has the power to save you and give you eternal life. The Word of God will continue to keep you in the faith until at last when you will be carried home by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.