Sermon for Trinity 1, 2016
Luke 16:19-31 • Rev. William Gleason
The joyous glory of Easter is over; the splendor of Pentecost and the majesty of Trinity Sunday are now behind us. So, today, the first Sunday after Trinity, we enter into that part of our liturgical year called the Time of the Church. Our focus on everything our Lord Jesus has done for us, from Advent to Ascension, now shifts slightly from adoring Him to following in His holy way.
And the first Gospel we hear as we follow our Savior is the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus. It serves as a prologue to a half year of lessons that end with its fulfillment at Judgment Day and the separation of the sheep and goats. This is a story of two men whose lives in this world are so very different; and whose lives in the world to come remained so very separate. It’s as though they are an illustration of those closing words of the Athanasian Creed we recited last Sunday: “At [Christ’s] coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.” Now, says Jesus, this is what that looks like: “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”
Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees, whom St. Luke pointed out in verse 14 “were lovers of money.” The description of the Rich Man fit most of them to a tee. Imagine Jesus telling a story to us that started out: “There was a Lutheran who came to church dressed in comfortable clothes and ate very well at potlucks.” Not one of us could exclude ourselves from that description. Neither could the Pharisees; they understood exactly of whom our Lord was referring.
Jesus, however, was not singling out the Pharisees in this story, such as He did in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Rich Man here was both unnamed and, except for his wealthy portrayal, untitled. He could be anyone that owned property, or did business, or enjoyed the comforts of this world. Such as…you and me.
That’s one of the points of this story. The Rich Man was simply a man of the world, and a successful man of the world. That’s why he “was clothed in purple and fine linen and…feasted sumptuously every day.” He understood how the world worked, what made men tick, and how to exploit it to his advantage. But, in spite of all his savvy and success that made him so rich in this world, he died the poor, miserable sinner he was when he was born. And the rewards he enjoyed in this world could not save him from the condemnation that rested on him and every sinner. That is the warning our Lord has for all who may hear this word.
The contrast with the other man could not be starker. He was not rich, but poor, tragically poor. His raiment was sores and ulcers. His food was the garbage that was thrown out and for which he probably had to fight off the same dogs that licked his sores. Yet, in spite of his suffering and deprivations, Jesus calls him by name: Lazarus, which means “He who is Helped by God.” The man who had nothing but sorrow in this world still had a Helper who cared for him and would deliver him. Lazarus may have asked countless times, “From where shall my help come?” And the answer was always, “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” This man—this poor and suffering sinner—rather than the other man, was carried up to join all the faithful in heaven. That’s because he relied solely on the mercy and grace of God for his help. And that is the promise our Lord holds out to all who hear this word.
Notice that Jesus did not then say, “Which do you want to be?” He does not give us choice in the matter. But, He does make it undeniably clear that there is a difference between the one man and the other, and between their differing ends. It is a difference that in eternity can never be reconciled, but in this world still may be. It is a reconciliation that comes through Christ.
Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners. He atoned for all sins through His death and resurrection, fulfilling everything that Moses and the prophets had written. When He had finished His work and ascended to His Father, He then sent His Apostles to preach that word of grace and forgiveness to the world so that all who hear may believe and be saved.
Jesus, like Lazarus, was a poor man laid at our gate. He had no place to lay His head. He bore the cankerous infirmities of our sins. On the cross, He was surrounded by the blood-thirsty dogs that desired His wounds and relished in His suffering. His food was only to do His Father’s will, even if it meant suffering and death. And, throughout all of this, He trusted God to help Him. He put His confidence in God, the God who “kills and brings to life; [who] brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD [who] makes poor and makes rich; [who] brings low and he exalts. [Who] raises up the poor from the dust; [who] lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” (1 Samuel 2:6-8)
And that image of our suffering Savior goes forth with the proclamation, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And with that announcement comes the promise: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” This is the Gospel that has been proclaimed from the beginning of this world’s history. It is the Gospel that Moses and the prophets preached. It is the Gospel that Abraham heard and believed, and in believing was counted righteous. It is the Gospel that raises up the poor, miserable sinner from the dust of death; and lifts the needy beggars from the ash heap of sin to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor in the Father’s kingdom. It is the Gospel of Him who has risen from the dead to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to all men, rich and poor alike, that they may escape the eternal torments of hell. It is the powerful word of God that can save all people who hear and believe this good news. Through His word, God helps us in our infirmities, in our suffering, and in our need, upholding us in our faith to endure to the end.
So now, we, who have been raised up from the dust of death through our baptism into Christ, are called to love in the same way our Savior loved us. Without complaining when suffering comes upon us; with patience and trust in God’s help, knowing and believing the love that God has for us. For, although, as John said, we have not seen God, we have beheld our Savior in His Word and in His Supper. And it is only by His Spirit that we may confess that Jesus, our Lord, is the Son of God; and by that same Spirit we abide in God and God in us. That is our confidence in this world now, and it shall be our confidence in the Day of Judgment. Amen.