Monday, October 01, 2007

"God is my Help." (Luke 16:19-31)

In the Name of Jesus

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
In the words of the hymn:

Forgive us Lord, for selfish thanks and praise,
For words that speak at variance with deeds;
Forgive our thanks for walking pleasant ways
Unmindful of a broken brother's needs. (LSB 788:3)

The Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke, the sixteenth chapter:
[And Jesus said to them,] “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.  The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.  The rich man also died and was buried.  (Luke 16:19-22 ESV)

If the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus was made into a realistic video game, it would have to be rated GDHS for its Graphic Depiction of Human Suffering — human suffering both at the hands of a man with ample means to render aid and alleviate human suffering, and — if that wasn't enough — at the hands (actually the teeth) of ravenous dogs of the street on the prowl for a free meal as soon as this weak soul could not fend off the advances of their tongues.  
An invalid left parked on the sidewalk outside of the gated residence of a man who dressed to the hilt with clothes usually reserved for royalty and dined daily on the most delicious of dinners.
Poor, pitiful Lazarus.  Incapable of providing for himself the most meager of necessities, he is laid at the gate of one who proclaimed with his clothes and his feasts that he — a child of Abraham — was deserving of all placed into his large lap of luxury.  
And day by day, with all the festivities and merry-making, this rich man plunged himself deeper and deeper into his preoccupation of living the good life, living the blessed life.  Was it because he had spied the helpless man on the other side of the wall that separated his estate from his neighbors and their needs and quiet pleas for leftovers?  Was it because he refused to entertain the idea that he should lift even a finger for one he had convinced himself somehow deserved his miserable fate?  In any event, although we will later hear that he knows this helpless man's name (Lazarus, which means "God has helped") he fails miserably in alleviating the misery of a man who's only hope was a share in the scraps that inadvertently fell off the over-abundant table.
And if the contrast presented between these two men is stark during their earthly life, then it is as sharp as a razor at their deaths.  
Lazarus' death is met with the very angels from heaven, who lovingly carry a man who had only God's help to hope for.
He is not brought to lie outside a heavenly gate to be attended by Saint Bernards with whiskey kegs strapped to their collars.  His body is restored to health, his sores removed.  He is cleansed and clothed in the finest of linens to be brought to recline with Father Abraham himself as they join the wedding feast that has no end.
And what do we hear of the rich man's demise?  The description is matter-of-fact: "The rich man also died and was buried."  No angels.  No cleansing.  No clothing.  He died.  He was buried.  End of story.
With this parable Jesus paints the clearest of themes: the theme that the Saint Luke spotlights so well in his Gospel account: the Great Reversal of salvation that recounts again and again the judgment that awaits for those who live their lives in faith in response to the goodness and grace of God — and for those who do not.  One judgment for those who persist in their rebellion against God's call to repent, believe in his Son, and serve him freely by serving the needy God places before them, and acquital for all who would receive God's calling and promises in faith.
The Great Reversal announced by Christ and preserved in Luke's Gospel, from Mary in her singing of the Magnificat.  From Simeon as he holds the glory of Israel and the Light for the Gentiles in his hands.  And now from Jesus as he presents yet another parable to the Pharisees, who, as we heard last Sunday, were, with few exceptions, "lovers of money."
Our gracious and merciful God has called those who have abundantly been given his riches to freely, graciously, lovingly, serve the poor and helpless in joyful response to the mercies they have also been shown.  And the only way that can become a reality in our lives is as a fruit of faith in God's atoning mercy as he gives us who deserved only his wrath and punishment everything in his Son.
Have we followed the will of our heavenly Father as clearly presented by God's own mouthpieces: Moses and the Prophets?  Or have we succumbed to the temptation to believe that the helpless are simply getting their just deserts for their laziness and stupidity and lack of ambition to be what we have made ourselves into?
God forgive us and change our hearts.  God forgive us and open our eyes and our hearts to those whose cries for help are drowned out by our cries of merry-making and day-to-day excess.  

Forgive us, Lord, for feast that knows no fast.
For joy in things that meanwhile starve the soul.
For walls and [gates] that hide your mercies vast
And blur our vision of the Kingdom goal.  (LSB 788:5)

Jesus continues his parable:
"And in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.  And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’  But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.  And besides all this, 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.’ "  (Luke 16:23-26 ESV)

He just doesn't get it.  Although the nameless rich man has come to grips with the meeting out of just deserts after a life of excess and success at the expense of such as poor Lazarus, he continues in his belief that Lazarus (and Father Abraham) are merely waiting to carry out his requests.  "Hey, Father Abraham, I'm thirsty over here.  Send errand boy Lazarus over here to re-fill my water glass."
No repentance.  No regrets.  Only the first inklings that the consequences for hoarding God's good gifts, for self-centered rebellion against God's merciful will, for neglecting the plight of the needy are just beginning.
Abraham announces the finality of the final judgment.  No deal-making.  No request-making.  No changing places.  Those who's only hope is in the grace of God — and his Son — find themselves comforted.  Those who's only hope is in the ordering of the universe with themselves in the center find themselves in anguish.

  Forgive us, Lord, for shallow thankfulness,
For dull content with warmth and sheltered care,
For songs of praise for food and harvest press,
While of your richer gifts we're unaware.  (LSB 788:1)

Lazarus longed for mere table scraps, the leftovers that we might assign to the garbage disposal or the plastic bowls of our house pets.  But despite the agony he experienced left for dead on the sidewalk, God had given him a name and a faith to trust that, despite all appearances, God had promised to be his help.  Lazarus longed for leftovers, but in Christ, God has lavashly given him his very best, the very life-blood of the one who was crowned with purple and a one-of-a-kind crown that he might win for all a heavenly robe and a chair at the banquet table with Abraham and all the faithful.
The eighth chapter of Second Corinthians tells us that Christ became poor that we might become rich.  Christ came to be our help and rescue from all that would come and devour us and leave us for dead.
Christ robed himself in our incurable sores and diseased skin.  Christ took upon himself our weakness and helplessness and abandonment - that we might be received by heaven's angels and readied for the feast with all who died trusting only in God and his only-begotten Son as their help and redemption.
Jesus concludes his parable:

"And [the rich man] said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’  But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’  And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’  He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ”  (Luke 16:27-31 ESV)

With increased resignation, the rich man turns his requests to those of his own house, those who joined him in his daily routine of gulping and gorging.  "O.K., well, if it's too late for me, warn those I care for.  Send a word to my five brothers from someone they will listen to: someone who has come back from the dead!"
Now we see why Lazarus is comforted and the rich man is destined for an eternity separated from God's grace and mercy and gifts at table.
You see, in this life and in the next, it's all about which word we put our trust in.
Will we believe a word from those who claim to have been brought back from the dead — or will we believe the Word through whom heaven and earth was created?
Will we believe the spirit of Christmas past — or will we believe the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us?
Will we believe those who claim to have a word from the great beyond — or will we believe the Word in whom Moses and the Prophets and Abraham and Lazarus put their faith: even Christ Jesus, the Word Incarnate.
It is Christ who laid aside the riches of his glory for Lazarus and for all who would confess that their only help is in God and his loving-kindness for those who, before him, hold only their sins in their hands.
We too have been found helpless and abandoned, unable to fend off the attacks of the world, the devil and our own sinful flesh.  But we have not been left for dead. At your Baptism, God gave you a name and a faith in his Word, a faith to trust that, despite all appearances, God had promised to be your help.  Being found in Christ, you have been washed and given the whitest of robes, that you might dine on the richest of foods at the wedding feast of the Lamb in his eternal Kingdom.
We pray:

Open our eyes to see your love's intent,
To know with minds and hearts its depths and height;
May thankfulness be days in service spent,
Reflections of Christ's life and love and light.  (LSB 788:6)

In the Name of our only help, Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen