Sermon audio here.
I had an interesting conversation earlier this week with a guy who works at the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru window. Seeing that I was clergy, he said to me, “Hi, father. So, do you think the End is near?” And then he started talking about the Middle East and all of these supposed “signs” of the Apocalypse. I told Him the same thing Jesus says: nobody knows the day or hour except the Father (Matthew 24:36). Anyone who says otherwise is a liar. What we do know, I told him, is that Jesus He’s coming at an hour you do not expect, so be ready (Matthew 24:44).
This sent him into something of a panic. He got really quiet and serious, leaned in and said, “I know I’m not good enough for heaven, but I don’t think I’m bad enough for hell.”
That was almost an orthodox confession of faith. Had he just stopped with “I know I’m not good enough for heaven”, he would have been fine. But that last part about not thinking he was bad enough for hell, though a common enough thought, is blasphemy.
Blasphemy isn’t just denying God’s existence. To disagree with God is just as blasphemous as not believing in Him. To think you aren’t bad enough for hell is to disagree with what God says about your sin.
Psalm 49 speaks of how God ransomed the psalmist’s soul from the power of Sheol. As you know, a ransom is a payment demanded for the release of a prisoner. When the psalmist confesses that God ransomed him from Sheol, he is acknowledging that because of his sin he was a prisoner of Satan who deserved hell.
Do you really believe you deserve hell? You say you do every week: “we justly deserve Your temporal and eternal punishment.” Blasphemous though it was, at least the confession from the guy at Dunkin’ Donuts was honest. I suspect most of us feel the same way as him: probably not good enough for heaven, but not bad enough for hell, either. But honesty never got anybody into heaven. Being honest about your blasphemy isn’t the same thing as repenting of it.
Reason can’t grasp the extent of our corruption, and this is why we have a hard time believing we are as bad as God says we are. The only way to know the full truth about your own corruption is to believe what Scripture says about it (SA III:I, 3). You might have a sense of your sin, but Scripture says you’re even worse than you thought you were.
St. Paul says, “no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12; cf. Psalm 14); Moses writes that every intention of the thoughts of the heart are only evil continually (Genesis 6:5). The prophet Isaiah has some harsh things to say about our so-called virtue, comparing it to menstrual rags (Isaiah 64:6; וּכְבֶגֶד עִדִּים)—and if that’s what your virtue’s like, you can only imagine what God thinks about your sin.
Ultimately, to not believe you are bad enough for hell is to not believe in hell at all.
Nobody believes they are bad enough for hell because we are inherently self-righteousness. To believe what God says about the depth of your sin and the reality of hell is to know that God is to be feared, not taken for granted. You should never doubt Christ’s love for you. What you should worry about is your own love for Him, and repent.
Today’s Holy Gospel affirmed reality of hell. That’s not something the rich man gave much thought to during his lifetime. He went about his business, saw what was in front of him, and heaven and hell probably weren’t even on his radar. That’s why he begs Abraham to miraculously raise Lazarus up and send him to his brothers. He wants them to “have the chance he never had” (or so he thought), to warn them about the reality of hell, which is a not-so-subtle accusation against God: “if only you had done that for me, God, this never would have happened. It’s all Your fault!”
Like us, the rich man was looking for something more than what God gives. Abraham tells him as plain as day: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” The rich man eventually realized that what he and his brothers needed was repentance, but he didn’t think Moses and the Prophets would do the trick. “No, father Abraham”, he objects, “but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Preaching and God’s Word just seems so mundane. But it’s like Abraham said: “If they do no hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” As Abraham says, hell is for real. Be warned, therefore, and repent, while there’s still time.
Preaching and God’s Word is the only warning you and your loved ones are going to get. The rich man began to worry about his brothers after it was too late. It’s not pleasant to think about you going to hell or your loved ones going to hell, but everyone in hell was once loved by somebody. God loved them too; He even died on the cross for them, but they would not have it. As our Lord lamented,
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, [there’s our sin; yet, nevertheless Christ continues:] how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing,” (Mat 23:37).
Jesus doesn’t want you to be like the rich man, in hell and worried about the fate of your loved ones. There comes a point of no return, and the rich man had passed it. As Abraham told him, “Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” It may have been too late for the rich man, but there’s still time for you and your loved ones. But God’s patience won’t last forever, so make sure you and everyone you love is hearing God’s Word and receiving the Sacrament while there’s still time. Yes, that means bring them to church.
Unfortunately, the rich man was too preoccupied with the things of this world while he was alive to worry much about Word & Sacrament. He was so consumed by his love for the things of the world that he probably didn’t even realize there was a poor man starving to death right outside of his gate! Even the dogs were more compassionate to Lazarus than the rich man. At least the dogs noticed him, and they had the decency to come by and lick his sores, which is how animals tend to soothe their own wounds.
St. John wrote as he did in today’s epistle since your tendency is, like the rich man, to be preoccupied with yourself. “God is love”, the apostle writes, “and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him… And this is the commandment we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love His brother.”
The rich man may very well have been a churchgoer. He may have even said he believed in God. But his disregard for Lazarus was proof that the things of this world were his true god. There is certainly place for enjoying the good things God has given you, as Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes (3:13), but if that’s all you do with them—horde what God has given you for yourself—then you’re just as lost as the rich man.
That’s not to say that generosity will earn you God’s favor. Even the greatest acts of human generosity are always tainted by selfish motivations. This brings us back to what Moses, Isaiah, and St. Paul said earlier about our sinful flesh. Even our best good deeds—our virtue—is never entirely pure. The sinful flesh only acts for one of two reasons: fear of punishment or desire for reward. As those born of water and the Spirit, faith and love certainly motivate us too, but as long as we abide in this sinful flesh, our love always remains impure.
Sometimes churches give people the impression that it’s possible to give with glad and generous hearts, whether it’s serving those around us or giving to the church. That may be possible to an extent according to the Spirit at work within you, but your sinful flesh is always angry with God that He hasn’t given you more. The pittance you finally do give (begrudgingly) to others or to God you’ve had to wrestle out of your own grip.
You don’t want to believe you’re really as bad as God says you are. You don’t want to think of yourself or your loved ones as poor, miserable sinners. But it’s the truth, and the more lost you realize you are, the more tightly you will cling to your Savior. “Small sins”, if they actually existed, would only need a small Savior. To diminish the severity of your sin is to diminish the glory of your Savior.
It’s never fun to tell someone, “Hell is for real, and you deserve it”, but that’s exactly what I told the guy at Dunkin’ Donuts. But that’s not all I told him, and what I said to him I say also to you:
You could never do enough to get into heaven. Quit thinking you’re not that bad and look to Christ. His bloody death on the cross—His innocent suffering and death—should give you a pretty good visual of the ugliness of your sin. You could never be good enough, but Jesus was more than good enough for you. Repent, and believe the Gospel.
This is easy to forget, especially for the self-righteous sinful flesh. This is why you need to keep hearing the preaching of Moses and the Prophets. This is why you need to keep coming back again and again for the Sacrament. Despair of yourself and trust in the Lord’s faithfulness. In Him, all of your sin is forgiven, and the gates of heaven are opened up to you. For your sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). As the Psalmist says: “O Lord, I have trusted in Your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.
Soli Deo Gloria
+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Luke 16:19–31
The First Sunday after Trinity, 2015: “Hell is for Real”
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Steadfast Throwdown: http://steadfastthrowdown.org/