Encouraged by a recent post from “Rev Garibaldi McFlurry”, I’d thought I’d post a sermon, as I haven’t done so in quite a while. There’s good reason for this (frankly it’s just too embarrassing – I know that I’m not a great writer, my grasp of English grammar must make people who can actually write wince with pain, and also the written sermon differs quite a lot from the one that I actually end up speaking in church.) But anyway here’s the one I will be delivering later this morning (God help the congregation!).
Hell is quite unfashionable these days. There was a time of course when preachers, usually with wild hair and staring eyes, would thump on pulpits and declare damnation with vivid descriptions of fire and torture and eternal hopelessness. Of course that would be sooo politically incorrect today, we talk a lot about heaven and salvation but very little about final rejection by God and the eternal punishment that results. Many Christians today just choose to ignore the subject or believe that a good and loving God would never allow such a place to exist. Others think that surely hell must just be for a time; it surely can’t be for eternity can it?
The Lord Jesus actually had quite a lot to say on the subject of hell, and one of the better-known passages includes our reading for this morning from Luke’s gospel. He starts off by saying:
‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
There is of course nothing wrong with being rich, Abraham and Jospeh of Arimathea were rich; it is what one does with ones wealth that matters. The rich man in this parable liked dressing up; purple cloth in those days was usually reserved for royalty because it was so expensive, the purple dye was extracted from shellfish and was a very expensive process. This was the kind of man who might be described as “filthy rich” (Hendriksen New Testament Commentary, Luke, Banner of Truth 1997, p.782), a strutting peacock. He wanted everyone to know that he was rich. He was in love … with himself!
20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
Here is the test for the rich man, to see if there is any kind of compassion in him or is he TOTALLY selfish! A poor man, called Lazarus lies at the gate to the rich mans mansion. The name ‘Lazarus’ means, “God has helped”, but not only was he a beggar, totally unable to provide for himself, he was covered in sores also. The poor man would have been happy even to receive the scraps, the leftovers from the rich mans table, but the rich man did not help him in any way, he continued living only for himself. Lazarus’ condition was so bad that even dogs used to come and lick his wounds.
We then learn that:
22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
The beggar’s misery had ended at last, we don’t even get any details of his burial, it probably was very short and sad. Yet what happened to his soul was far more important, he was carried by Angels, God’s own messengers to be with Abraham. The rich man however had a burial, it was probably a big funeral with lots of important guests and a lavish ceremony. His tomb was probably in an important and prominent place. What happened to his soul though was far more important, we are not told what happened to him, no angels are mentioned, but his final destination we are told is:
23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”
“Hades” is the Greek work for the place of the dead. Here it clearly is hell, the place of torment and flame. However, the descriptions that we are given are not meant to be taken literally, but that does not take away from the fact that certain definite truths about the life hereafter are conveyed to us; those who have died are not asleep but awake and of those who have died, some are saved and some are lost. Another more disturbing truth conveyed is that the destination of the dead is final, there is no second chance, no crossing over from hell to heaven or vice versa.
We are not given much detail, other that the rich man is in torment, he cries out in agony in the flames. But how can hell be a place fire and a place of darkness? Clearly these are indicative of the terrors of hell and perhaps the truth is beyond the ability of our language to tell.
The rich man calls out to Abraham for help, but Abraham reminds him that he received the good things in his life on earth, the implication being that he is receiving his punishment now because all he could think of in his life was himself and he did not care at all for his fellow man or for God. And then what makes help further impossible is the great chasm between the place where Abraham and Lazarus are and where the rich man is, there is simply no way to get across.
In desperation then the rich man pleads for his five brothers, that someone would go and warn them so that they would not end up in hell also. At last the rich man is thinking of someone other than himself (though it is too little, too late).
“They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”
To which the rich man responds:
“No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’
And of course someone did rise from the dead, the Lord Jesus, and many refused and to this day continue to refuse his offer of salvation, which He won on the cross, to all who would come to him in repentance and faith.
A few weeks ago this kept me awake most of the night. I was basically trying to have an argument with God. I could not get my head around the idea that hell is for eternity. I reasoned that no matter how bad a person is in this life, no matter what crimes they commit, they of course deserve a punishment for those sins. I could understand better if that punishment was in proportion to the crime, so a person could be in hell for the duration of their punishment, whether that was a year, a hundred years or a million years. And it is very tempting to believe in such a thing, that is one of the reasons people believe in purgatory or annihilation- it is much easier to believe in these things than hell for eternity, a never ending permanent jail sentence. After many hours of wrestling with this I fell into a short and uneasy sleep. It was still troubling me the next day and for several days afterwards. I read a lot of chapters of theology books on the subject and of course read a lot of Bible passages too. I came to the following conclusion: That the Bible is correct, that God is love, yes, but He is also a God of truth and justice. I don’t like the idea of hell, who would?! But just because I don’t like it, I don’t have the option to stop believing in it. Somebody who is walking towards the edge of a cliff might choose to believe that there is no fall ahead of them, but that does not stop the fall from happening when they take the step over the edge! We can choose not to believe in hell or pretend that it doesn’t exist, or object to it on philosophical grounds, but what help will that be? Surely the best thing we can do is try to warn people – yes they will probably think we are mad, but what a small price to pay that is if it makes a difference. How much do we pray for those we know (and even those we don’t) who do not know the reality of Christ in their lives? How often have we begged and pleaded with God with tears in our eyes for those whom we love who we so desperately want to be saved?
A mother once came to me and asked me to pray for her sons. There were tears in her eyes as she spoke of them and the kind of lives they were living. As she spoke I remembered the story of St. Augustine, one of the greatest Christians in history. Augustine was a fairly wild and ungodly youth. His Mother, Monica despaired, she went and pleaded with the local priest to try and get him to talk some sense into her son. He said to her, “… it cannot be that the son of these tears should perish.” For Monica it was the encouragement that she needed and she didn’t give up praying for her son. in later years she often recalled with him how she had taken these words as if they had sounded from heaven.
Let’s pray … Amen.