Words shared this morning at Howland (ME) United Methodist Church.
Lord, open our lips and our mouth will proclaim your praise. Blessed are You, Sovereign God, creator of all, to You be glory and praise forever. You founded the earth in the beginning and the heavens are the work of Your hands. In the fullness of time You made us in your image, and in these last days you have spoken to us in Your Son Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. As we rejoice in the gift of Your presence among us let the light of Your love always shine in our hearts, Your Spirit ever renew our lives and Your praises ever be on our lips. The night has passed, and the day lies open before us; let us pray with one heart and mind. As we rejoice in the gift of this new day, so may the light of Your presence, O God, set our hearts on fire with love for You; now and forever. Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Blessed be God forever. Amen.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
I want to do some visualization this morning, so sit back and relax. You can close your eyes but only if you promise not to fall asleep.
The setting is a little hospital chapel. The chaplain is behind the pulpit delivering his sermon. There are a few doctors and nurses and a couple of people from the community in the congregation. And there is a woman with three small children under the age of five.
Since it’s a chapel, there are no tables for the two and four year old and since this is in the dark ages — early ’80s — there were no tablets to keep the children entertained.
The two and four year old were on their knees, backs to the preacher, coloring on pieces of construction paper in the pew. Whenever the two year old needed a different color, he would get up, go to the next pew, go through it and return to his pew, get the crayon and reverse himself. Of course, he did this as quietly as a two year old could be … and it seemed he needed a different color just about 10 seconds.
After a couple minutes of this shuffling, the four year old girl started to get annoyed … especially when the two year old wanted the exact shade of red the four year old was using. With a chorus of “I’m using it now!” and “But I want that color” their little voices got louder and louder. Mom, rocking the newborn, tried to hush the other two, but their actions started riling the sleeping infant who started with a small whimper that evolved into a cry.
The padre had had enough. He scolded the woman. “Can’t you control your children? They’re disrupting my sermon!”
The exasperated woman, with tears in her eyes, stood up and grabbed the children. As she walked out of that chapel, she turned to the priest and said, “I’m sorry, Father. I was just trying to be a good Catholic and go to Mass.”
I’ll get back to that in a sec. The more important question is, WWYD? What would you do?
The story, unfortunately, is real. I was there. And I can tell you what I and my fellow Mass attendees did.
That’s right. Absolutely nothing. Nothing to help the woman. Nothing to help the children. No response to the priest. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
There were no souls saved that Sunday morning. There was a few, however, that may have been lost.
In my defense, I did react to the scene in my mind. I know what I should have done. I know what I wanted to do. But I just didn’t do it. I did nothing but watch a crying young mother leave the chapel with her three children.
What I was formulating in my mind was helping the young woman by taking her out of the chapel before the rude comments by the chaplain. It was a hospital … a small, rural hospital which, on a busy week, had about 25% of its rooms occupied. I wanted to — no, I should have taken her into the hall, flagged down a nurse and brought her to a vacant room where she could watch the service on closed circuit television while giving the two and four year olds a little space. I wanted to — no, I should have colored with the youngsters and kept them occupied with a story or two. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I should have done.
Instead. I did nothing but sit in my pew as a silent witness to a religious meltdown. I couldn’t listen to the chaplain or his sermon. My mind kept racing back to the woman.
Now, that’s what I didn’t do. The question again is what would Jesus have done in that situation?
I believe in my heart, my reasoning was in line with Jesus’ thinking and action. Yet I failed to deliver. At that moment in time I was a Pharisee. I was about as far away from being a Christian as I could be because I knew what should have been done, yet I did nothing.
So, again, what do you think Jesus would have done?
In truth, I honestly don’t know what Jesus would have done in that situation. I don’t think He would have rebuked the woman had He been the preacher. I think He would have somehow helped the woman either directly or indirectly. I could see Him putting the children on His lap to settle them down.
Those are pictures painted in Scripture. The problem is, pictures aren’t real life. We don’t act with parables. We act with action.
And truth be known, we know very little about Jesus. Sure, we have the Gospels and Epistles (letters) which give us a glimpse into this man/God we call Jesus. But what do we know of Him?
It has been claimed women speak about 20,000 words a day, about 13,000 more than men. Yet, according to Swordsearcher, a bible study research tool, we have only about 2,026 words actually spoken by Jesus … in more than three years of public ministry! That’s more than three times less than an average day for us men and about a tenth of what women say.
That’s not a heck of a lot to go on.
That makes the words and actions contained in our modern day Scripture so valuable. We savor every word. We, like Luke, our current guide, seek answers. We should research and make it a point to verify the accounts that have been passed down. We believe the four canonical gospels to be the cornerstone of God’s revelation to us and central to our belief system. We preach and teach the four canonical gospels are an accurate and authoritative representation of the life of Jesus.
But we can also learn from the apocryphal, non-canonical, Jewish-Christian and gnostic gospels. While that is a higher level of theology than most of us want to get into, nonetheless, in some cases, those writings substantiate canonical writing. In other cases, they contradict traditional Scripture or veer off in directions we may not want to consider. These non-canonical gospels might include the Jewish-Christian gospels, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Judas, infancy gospels, Harmonies, Marcion’s Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of the Lots of Mary. While it isn’t important to know the details of these writings, it is important to recognize their existence and how they influenced our current canon. In some cases they give us a different perspective. In other cases, our present canon points out the heresy of the day and provides a homogeneous collection of thought.
The same can be said about oral tradition and folklore of the day– the preferred means of everyday communication in the days Jesus walked the earth.
The lectionary readings of Jeremiah [32:1-3a, 6-15] focus on the renewal of things to come. Jeremiah 32:15 declares, houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. The waywardness that led to the lament and repentance of the Israelites is now leading to the hope of a new future in God.
Few things speak more hopefully about the future than a vineyard. Vineyards take a number of years before they are able to reward their investors. This is not a short-term investment or financially a quick return. Jeremiah definitely looks to the future here. And as he looks to the future, he has one eye on the past. He hears what Moses dictates and brings them to fruition.
This connects nicely to the gospel offered this Sunday [Luke 16:19-31]. We hear of the sufferings of Dives or the Rich Man. He ignored the plight of Lazarus, the poor beggar who was at his gate every morning. At 16:29, the parable tells us: They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them. We see this parable nicely refer back to this deuteronomic tradition shared by the books of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah.
I bring this up because the tradition of the day may have been the prompt for Luke’s inclusion of today’s parable about the rich man and Lazarus. It is the only retelling of the parable; it is not found in Mark or Matthew.
If you remember from last week, a parable is a short, fictitious narrative designed to illuminate a spiritual truth, in this case the reality of heaven and hell. With its vivid journey to the afterlife, and its exaggerated imagery of contrast, this parable fits the form of an apocalypse parable. An apocalypse serves as a wake-up call, pulling back a curtain to open our eyes to something we urgently need to see before it is too late.
It is plausible Jesus — through Luke — is addressing the Pharisees who were known to talk the walk but not necessarily to walk the talk. They had a tendency to be ritualistic, although not as bad as the upper class Sadducees, who were snobbish toward the poor and disadvantaged. In fact, Luke characterizes the Pharisees as lovers of money (16:14).
In the Lucan tradition, this is another of those reversal of fortunes texts pointing out material wealth doesn’t equate to eternal salvation.
Luke makes clear over and over the poor are a focus of Jesus’ ministry. In His inaugural sermon, Jesus declares He has been anointed by the Spirit of the Lord to bring good news to the poor (4:18; see also 7:22). Jesus admonishes His followers not just to invite to their parties the friends and neighbors who can repay them, but to extend their invitations to the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind (14:13). This is echoed when Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a wedding banquet where the invitation has been extended to the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind (14:21).
Here, in a Scrooge-like way, we get to see the two principals engaging after death, despite the fact the rich man had no part of the beggar Lazarus during life.
I suspect the rich man had a great funeral in which many dignitaries attended. Speaker after speaker probably related what a great, wonderful, religious man he was. He had to have been blessed by God because of all the wealth he enjoyed. I’m sure they reported he had gone on to his reward in heaven. But one split second after the rich man died, he got the strange feeling something wasn’t right. This wasn’t heaven.
In contrast, when the beggar Lazarus had died, it doesn’t say he was buried like the rich man. His body was probably dumped on some garbage pile. Yet Jesus said the angels escorted his soul into the presence of Abraham — heaven as it might have been understood at the time.
The first realization the rich man had was being able to look up and see this beggar in the bosom of Abraham. And he remembered all he did and didn’t do. Recognizing his fate in what we call hell today, the rich man realizes there is no hope for himself, so his thoughts turn to his family.
He had five brothers, and they were all like him, religious but lost. So he says in verse 27, I beg you, Father Abraham, send Lazarus to my house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment. Suddenly, the rich man in hell becomes a wannabe soul winner. He develops a missionary spirit. He expresses a concern for the lost people in his family. It’s too bad he didn’t have that same fear of hell before he died!
The rich man rationalizes if Lazarus is allowed to go back and warn his brothers to stay away from hell, when they see a man from the grave warning them, he is certain they will repent.
I tend to agree with the analysis of David Dykes, who taught, “Imagine I’m not a Christian and somebody knocks on my door some evening. When I open the door, I’m shocked to see an old boy whose funeral I attended a few weeks earlier standing there. He says, ‘I’ve come to talk to you about Jesus, can I come in?’ After my initial shock I say, ‘Of corpse you can come in.’ The man begins to say, ‘I’ve just come back from heaven to especially warn you there is a hell because your older brother is there now. He asked me to come warn you not to come to that place. So if you will admit you are a sinner, turn from your sins and trust Jesus, you can be forgiven today. Would you like to bow your head right now and receive Christ?’
“Something like that would literally scare the hell out of me — scare me out of hell.”
But Abraham said, “If they don’t believe God’s Word, they won’t believe if someone rises from the dead.”
Huh!? Not the response I would have expected.
If this parable is an apocalypse, then Luke is situating the audience not so much in the role of either Lazarus or the rich man, but in the role of the five siblings who are still alive. The five siblings still have time to open their eyes. They have time to see the poor people at their gates before the chasm becomes permanent. Send Lazarus to them, that he might warn them, cries the rich man on behalf of his brothers, so they do not come to this place of torment. The terrifyingly vivid apocalyptic journey to Hades awakens a sense of urgency on the part of Luke’s audience — you and me, right here, today.
In this story, God’s eternal judgment has everything to do with how we use wealth in this life and whether we attend to those less fortunate in our midst.
A few weeks after Jesus told this story to the Jews, He was crucified, buried but most of all resurrected — and some still scoffed and rejected Him. They still do today.
Like the rich man’s five brothers, we have been given all the warning we need. Will we see? Will we heed the warning, before it’s too late?
Let’s close by playing “what if” for a moment. It’s an exercise Dr. Dykes proposed to his congregation at Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, TX. What if God offered to let you spend 30 seconds in heaven or 30 seconds in hell today? Which would you choose? This is not forever; it’s just a 30 second visit. Which location do you think would make you a stronger, more mature follower of Christ? Seeing the glory and majesty of heaven would probably make you a stronger Christian, but would it give you a greater burden for lost people?
If God gave me that option, I would ask Him to let me spend those 30 seconds in hell. I know the Lord and I know I am going to spend eternity in heaven, but I think 30 seconds in hell would change me for the rest of my life. If I could see the agony and hear those voices, I think I would come back and be the most evangelistic Christian on earth. According to the parable, people in hell are concerned for lost people who are headed for hell. That’s something from hell we need to do … be concerned as well.
And the people of God say … Amen!
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: All things in life are temporary. If it’s going well — enjoy it. That won’t last long. If it’s going badly, don’t worry. That won’t last long either.