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A tale of two sermons

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Luke 16:19-31

I have been preaching for 32 years, but I’ve never done what I’m going to do today–preach two sermons in one service. I’m going to preach first the sermon I had planned before Tuesday’s Dallas Morning News was published, and then the sermon I need to preach in light of its front page.

Since I’m not Joshua and cannot make the sun stop or time stand still, both of my sermons will be as brief as I can make them. Then I’ll show you how they relate to each other, and why I believe they are so crucial to our souls today.

The story

First let’s walk through our parable, one of the most striking stories in all of Scripture. It begins: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day” (v. 19). Jesus could not have painted a more picturesque image.

He “was dressed”–the Greek means to dress continually in this way. “Purple” was made from the shellfish murax, requiring ten thousand to produce an ounce. “Fine linen” was imported from Egypt, and was extremely expensive.

He “lived in luxury”–the Greek is lampros, “to shine brilliantly.” He was one of the leading social figures of his day, wealthy beyond measure, someone like a famous movie star, athlete, or tycoon today.

By contrast, “at his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores” (vs. 20-21). This is the only character to be named in any of Jesus’ parables. Note that he receives a name, but the rich man does not.

He was “laid” by the gate–Luke’s Greek means that he was thrown there every day. He was “covered with sores,” a medical term occurring only here in the New Testament; it means to be covered with ulcers or bedsores.

He was “longing to eat”–the original means to desire without satisfaction, to yearn for something you cannot have. He wanted to eat “what fell from the rich man’s table.” Wealthy people used bread to wipe their hands after a meal, then threw the bread out.

This beggar longed to eat such bread, but “the dogs came” and most likely ate it. Dogs were not pets in Jewish society, as they might eat or touch something which was legally unclean. They would gather in packs around the doors of the wealthy and eat the bread which was thrown out. That’s Jesus’ picture here.

In contrast to the rich man’s purple robes, Lazarus’ rags are so poor that they do not even cover his body. As a result, “the dogs came and licked his sores,” rendering him ritually unclean as well.

Now comes the shock: “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.  In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side” (vs. 22-23).

In Jesus’ day it was conventional wisdom that the wealthy are blessed by God, while the poor must be cursed and punished by him. For Lazarus to go to “Abraham’s side,” a metaphor for heaven, was a great shock. For the rich man to go to “hell, where he was in torment,” was an even greater shock.

The irony is remarkable. Lazarus was likely not buried, his body thrown out into the garbage called Gehenna, a biblical image for hell. The rich man was buried with great pomp and ceremony. Now the rich man is in hell, and Lazarus is in the paradise and palace of heaven.

The rich man makes two responses. First, he asked Abraham to “have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire” (v. 24). This is what a servant would do for his master.

Failing this, he wants Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers (v. 28). This again is something a servant would do for his master. But Abraham refuses to send his impoverished saint in heaven to serve this wealthy sinner in hell. What a powerful story Jesus told that day.

The first sermon

Here’s the point of the sermon I was planning to preach before Tuesday: our relationship with Lazarus reveals our relationship with God. It doesn’t create it, but it reveals it. The way I love my neighbor shows the way I really love my Lord.

How you treat my children shows your real regard for me. How we relate to those we don’t have to treat well reveals the nature of our relationship with God. Here’s the biblical logic behind my assertion.

The rich man is in hell. Scripture clearly teaches that we don’t go to hell because of our relationships with people, but our relationship with God. Jesus was blunt about this: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18).

If the rich man was condemned purely for his treatment of Lazarus, our salvation would be based on works, not grace through faith. He is in hell because he has rejected the word and love of God.

But Jesus’ story shows us the best indication of that spiritual condition: his treatment of Lazarus. He could have fed him the bread which the dogs ate. Better, he could have brought him into his mansion, cared for his wounds, and given him a new life. He had the means to change Lazarus’ life, but he did not.

Even in hell, he continues to treat Lazarus as his servant, asking that he be sent to give him some water or to bring a message to his family. His relationship with Lazarus reveals his true relationship with God.

This fact is taught throughout Scripture. For instance, Jesus told us that when we feed the hungry or clothe the sick or visit the imprisoned, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). James requires us to care for the poor as well as the rich. How we relate to people we don’t have to treat well is the best indication of our true character.

I heard recently about an employer with a very perceptive hiring practice. He would schedule a prospective employee interview, but make the person wait in his assistant’s reception area for 15-20 minutes. Afterwards he would ask her how the person treated her. If he was kind and gracious, he was usually hired. If he was condescending or demeaning, almost never. The employer said he had found this test to be the truest indicator of an employee’s real nature.

Who is your Lazarus? Who is that person you don’t have to treat well this week? When you meet him, remember that you’re really meeting Jesus.

The second sermon

Such was my first sermon this week. Then Tuesday’s Dallas Morning News featured on its front page an article titled, “On religion, there are few absolutes.” The Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life released an extensive study of American attitudes on religious subjects. Here we learn some troubling facts.

70% of the religious public, 65% of Texans, and 61% of Southern Baptists believe that many religions can lead to eternal life.

Only 59% of Americans believe in hell.

Only 50% of college graduates believe that religious is very important.

There are some perplexing statistics in the survey as well. For instance, 10% of atheists say they pray daily. To whom, we’re not sure.

The survey reflects a pattern which has been going on in America for more than a generation: the shift to truth as subjective and personal. There are many philosophical and sociological reasons for this pattern, but the result is that truth is what you say it is, the way your mind interprets your sense data. You have no right to force your beliefs on me. I may say homosexuality or abortion are wrong for me, but I have no right to judge you. If you want to sleep together before marriage, who am I to judge?

93% of Americans say that they are their own sole determiner of moral truth. Oprah Winfrey encourages us to find and live by our “personal truth.” Be sincere in your beliefs and tolerant of the beliefs of others–this is the mantra of our day.

What Americans don’t stop to realize is that our opinions don’t change reality. C. S. Lewis remarked that the man who denies the sunrise doesn’t harm the sun. To deny the existence of hell makes it no less real. As a pastor, it is very important to me that you know the biblical truth on the subject. Jesus’ parable makes some facts crystal clear.

One: Hell is a real place, mentioned 23 times in the New Testament, 15 times by Jesus himself. The Bible describes it as “fire” (v. 24) and “darkness” (Matthew 22:13). It is a place of separation from God (v. 26). It is permanent (v. 26), the “second death” (Revelation 20:14).

Two: Who goes there? Jesus was clear: He is the way, truth, and life; no one goes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). Those who refuse Jesus’ offer of eternal life, choose hell instead. The word of God is clear: those whose names are not found written in the “Lamb’s book of life” are cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20.15).

Three: Is hell fair? The rich man in our story never protests. He knows he deserves to go there. Heaven is a perfect place. One sin would ruin it. So Jesus died to pay for our sins, to cleanse us from them. But if we refuse his salvation, we must pay for them ourselves. This means that we are unable to come into the presence of God, forever.

I especially appreciate the way Calvin Miller puts it: “God, can you be merciful and send me off to hell and lock me in forever?” “No, Pilgrim, I will not send you there, but if you chose to go there, I could never lock you out.”

Let me be clear and urgent: You must ask Jesus Christ to forgive your sins and become your Savior and Lord, or you will go to hell. If you do, you will go to heaven.

The same is true for every person you know. It’s not enough to be a good person who believes in God, or to go to church or join a church. You must have a personal encounter with the personal God of the universe. Salvation is a gift only he can give. But you must open that gift before it is yours. Have you opened yours? Are you praying for those you know to open theirs?

Conclusion

I just finished a fascinating book, titled 50 years from today. The famous journalist Mike Wallace edited a collection of essays written by 60 Nobel laureates, brilliant scholars, and political leaders from around the world, each predicting what the world will be like in the year 2058.

These scholars envision a world transformed by nanotechnology, minute computers which will do everything from killing cancer to reproducing limbs and tissue. Some of them see space cities which provide unlimited resources of new energy and materials.

Ocean resources will be developed further, and “aquaculture” will be a common term. The era of robots and artificial intelligence will arrive, enabling us to communicate merely by thinking. Globalization will replace nationalism. Environmental pollution will be reduced, and poverty lessened if not abolished. The average life expectancy will exceed 100 years.

Of course, Albert Einstein said in 1931, “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable.” It’s hard to predict the future with clarity.

Here’s what I do know: in 50 years, most of us will be in heaven or hell. All of us will be there some day, based on our relationship with Jesus Christ. The way we relate to our Lazarus, the person we don’t have to treat well, reveals that relationship.

So here are the questions of the day: do you know Jesus? Would your Lazarus say that you do?