Monday, September 26, 2016

Sermon on Luke 16:19-31, for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, "The one whom God helps"

·         Jesus the greatest teacher and master storyteller
·         Stories convey deep spiritual truth; designed to get our attention
·         Unique among His stories, character of Lazarus has a name; significant to meaning of the story: “The one whom God helps”
·         Looking at his life—the rich man feasts lavishly, and living in luxury, while poor Lazarus suffers quietly in misery, licked by dogs outside his gate, until he dies—you might think it a cruel joke that his name means “the one whom God helps.” Ironic? Doesn’t his suffering show evidence that God had abandoned him?
·         Natural way of thinking: life is prosperous and well; God must be showing favor—but if life is filled with suffering and evil things, that God must be showing secret displeasure or open punishment. Many of Jesus’ teachings explode that myth, but it’s a widely held idea. We think good times = everything is right between us and God, but bad times = God must have it out for us. Not true, but hard idea to give up.
·          But in the end, this parable shows God has uniquely helped Lazarus, despite appearances.
·         One level of meaning--change thoughts and treatment of the poor. Teaches use of possessions—not selfishly, but generously for the good of others as well.
·          On another level—eternal life, and the way of salvation. Last of a series of three stories about “wasting possessions.” Prodigal or Lost Son”:  son wastes his father’s possessions. Parable of the dishonest manager:  manager wastes the possessions of his master. Today, a rich man wastes his own possessions. At the deeper level, these are each stories about eternal life and salvation.
·         Lazarus is helpless; “laid” at the gate of the rich man—abandoned? best hope for help? Unable to move. “Desired” to be fed…not “cried out daily” etc…
·         Denied even table scraps for the dogs, and only the dogs comfort him, licking his wounds. Appalling; indignation. Does that stir of indignation return to our own lack of action? Do we feel the same sense of passion for the homeless and the outcasts among us? Who are they?
·         Notice no explicit judgment of the rich man is given, even by Abraham. Not even a statement of what he should have done, or was expected to do. It’s self-evident why he is condemned. His lack of compassion, and His acknowledged failure to repent and believe God’s Word.
·         Extremely low threshold for compassion and action—one person, who only wanted table scraps. Did not even meet this. What level of compassion is required of us? Wrong question. Should we be content with throwing our table scraps to the poor, like dogs? Rather, reframe our thinking. Elevate our compassion and service…no upper limits to our compassion
·         Famous quote by the poet John Donne: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Quality utterly missing rich man’s life: No sense of common humanity, or involvement in Lazarus’ death or suffering.
·         Common bond of humanity and the dignity of life that crosses ethnic, cultural, religious, social, national, and all other barriers. Part of my humanity dies if callous to the suffering or death of another. Devaluing their life devalues my own. Danger of “compassion fatigue” or apathy by the size of the problem and the constant exposure to sufferings of others. Truth of common humanity—how would have changed the care and help offered?
·         Our duty? Have a heart that is shaped after God’s own heart. To have compassionate eyes and hands to see and do what we are able in our time and place. Society and politics are filled with bitter arguments about policies, solutions, ideas, who’s responsible or not. None of that matters nearly so much as actually doing something. “Whatever you do for the least of these…” “remember the poor; the very thing I was eager to do”. Lazarus means “the one whom God has helped”—we have an opportunity to be the hands that do that helping
·         So far, looked at the significance for this life—but the main thrust of the story is about eternal life. How does one get there? Rich in life = ticket to hell? Poor in life = ticket to heaven? No. But ?’s between rich man and Abraham agree upon the fact that repentance and hearing God’s Word are key to avoiding the torment of hell, and going to heaven.
·         Rich man realizes that hearing the Word of God hasn’t or won’t change the hearts of his brothers (as it didn’t for him). But hopes that someone rising from the dead will. Abraham says no, not even this will.
·         Another man named Lazarus is actually raised from the dead, by Jesus. Brother of Mary and Martha—dead 4 days. Astonishing miracle witnessed by many. Those who didn’t believe in Jesus before, didn’t change after Lazarus was raised, but began plotting against both Jesus and Lazarus to kill them!! Our sinful nature is deeply resistant to God’s Word—and can be stubborn even against overwhelming evidence. But even more importantly, Jesus Himself died on the cross for our sins, our selfishness, stubbornness, lack of compassion and love, and He rose from His grave. Yet even when He was raised from the dead, many were not convinced.
·         Rich man longed to be “the one whom God helped”, but too late. Lazarus’ life and name was no cruel joke, but rather God helped in a far more important way. Carried by angels to the heavenly feast with Abraham, he experienced true joy and comfort.
·         Jesus calls us to both be receptive hearers of God’s Word, to believe the promises of a Savior, Christ Jesus—and also to believe on account of the fact that Jesus is risen from the dead. A life of repentance and faith in Him will be “self-evident” in a life that is marked by merciful and compassionate actions. These are the outward signs that living faith in Jesus is “ticking” in our hearts.
·         Last written words of Martin Luther, at his death: “We are beggars all, this is true.” We are all like Lazarus, covered with the sores and suffering of our sins, helpless, and cast at the gate. But we, as beggars, are invited to the feast of God’s grace and mercy in Christ Jesus. We are not left outside, nor are we fed table scraps, but are carried into God’s house, and invited to the goodness of His generosity, forgiveness, and grace. God is not meager with His grace, but feeds us generously and richly. As beggars, we come with no illusions about our standing, like the rich man—no illusions about what we think we “deserve” or are privileged to—but we  come humbly to accept and receive His grace in Christ Jesus. And we can and should always point others to where the banquet is also! Come! Because in Christ Jesus we find the One who pours out God’s gifts full and free. And receiving these gifts, we will find that we also have become “the one whom God helps.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Luke 16:19-31 is not identified as a parable, but fits the same format of Jesus’ many parables. It is, however, the only one of Jesus’ stories where a character has a name: “Lazarus”—so the name must be significant. The name comes from Aramaic (the common language of Jesus’ day, and “cousin” to Hebrew), and the name means: “the one who God helps”. Why would it appear that his name was a “cruel joke” or ironic? How does the parable then reveal how God indeed helps Lazarus?
  2. What kind of feelings (or “unfeeling”) does the rich man display toward Lazarus? In what ways do his attitudes remain unchanged, even after death? Where has his “concern” always been directed? What attitude or concern does Jesus desire to inspire in us instead? Philippians 2:3-8
  3. What do those in heaven and in hell experience? Luke 13:27-30. Is the message of the story that being rich is the ticket to hell, and being poor the ticket to heaven? Is it hard to enter the kingdom of God? How is it possible? Matthew 19:23-26
  4. When Abraham describes the “great chasm” fixed between heaven and hell, and the fact that they cannot move to and from there, what implication does that have for superstitions like hauntings or ghosts? What does the Bible say happens upon our death? Hebrews 9:27
  5. The rich man’s questions in Luke 16:27-31 imply that neither he nor his brothers would listen to Moses and the Prophets. What does he correctly identify that they need to do, in order to avoid coming to this torment? Luke 16:28, 30.
  6. A man named Lazarus was actually raised from the dead (before or after Jesus taught this parable, we do not know). Did the Pharisees and high priests believe after this? John 11:38-53; 12:9-11.
  7. Jesus Himself rose from the dead. How did this affect the unbelief of those who never believed Him during His ministry? Matthew 28:1-15. How is believing in Jesus’ resurrection the ultimate help that God gives?

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