HEAVEN & HELL
St Barnabas and St Michael’s 29th September 2013
Reading – Luke 16:19-31
If you were here last week, you will know that the bishop left me with a bit of a challenge. He was preaching on the story of the dishonest manager in Luke 16:1-13 and if I heard him right, his message seemed to be, “It’s all terribly complex, there’s lots we don’t understand but Tim will sort it out next week”. I’m not sure that message was terribly helpful, but if you’ve spent the last seven days puzzling over the passage, then I hope I can put you out of your misery.
In essence the story is about a manager who is called to account by his master. He knows the day of reckoning is coming up, so he does something positive in order to be ready for it. Now we can argue about the details, and we may be uncertain about some of the finer points of this parable. But the overall message is clear. Here is someone who will stop at nothing to avoid the pain of judgement. He is willing to risk his good name, his job, his wealth, if only he can gain his master’s approval.
And as such this manager stands in complete contrast to the rich man we find in today’s passage. Here is someone who seems to have it all. He is dressed in purple and fine linen, the very best fabric and colours of the day. He has rows of Armani suits in his wardrobe, and thinks nothing of buying yet another outfit from Versace or Gucci. He lives in luxury every day. Somewhere along the line he saw an opportunity in the market and he ruthlessly exploited it. Now he owns the home of his dreams, with the indoor swimming pool, the home cinema, and the panoramic sea view. He can just sit back and watch the money come rolling in.
But there is one problem with this rich man. He is tragically blind to the fact one day he will give an account of his life. His life is centred about his wants and his desires. He doesn’t think much about the people who scrape out an existence just beyond his gated mansion, except how they might benefit him financially. And he certainly doesn’t think about his eternal destiny – except, of course, when it’s far, far too late.
So the question these two stories ask of us is this: who are we like? Are we like the manager who does everything to get ready for the day of reckoning? Or the rich man who takes no action and continues to live in exactly the same old, complacent way? Because the stark truth is, there is a day of judgement coming.
That’s what Jesus tells us quite plainly here, and I see no reason to doubt His word. One day you, me, our families, our friends, our neighbours, in fact every single person who has ever lived on this planet, will be called to account. And the decisions we make now will affect our eternal destiny. We can’t decide to think it about later or pretend the message is for somebody else. There is an inevitable reality one day we will all face, and there is something we must do.
Now in many ways I wish I didn’t have to preach on this subject. I wish I could take as my theme a couple of lines from my favourite poet, or talk about the weather, or even dissect the fortunes of my favourite football team. But I can’t. Because in today’s passage Jesus gives us some of the clearest and most unambiguous teaching He ever delivered about heaven and hell, and as your minister I would be failing in my duty if I did not seek to expound His message. Not because I want to frighten you with visions of fire and brimstone – after all, as far as I am concerned no-one is ever truly converted by fear and terror. But neither because I want to give you false comfort that everything will turn out all right in the end – and somehow we don’t have to worry about our final destiny.
No I want to expound this passage in such a way that you realise there is a choice to be made, and you are able to see clearly for yourself how and why you should choose.
So where to begin?
Well, the first and most obvious point from this passage is that Jesus tells us there is a heaven and a hell. The poor man dies and ends up in heaven. The rich man dies and ends up in hell. Now Jesus doesn’t give us much more information about heaven and hell than that. The purpose of his story is not to describe to us the nature of our afterlife, but to alert us to the decision we need to make now. And I am not sure in any case we would have the language to describe adequately what life then will be like.
But we do have some small clues from the story. We are told in verse 22: The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side or more literally Abraham’s bosom. This suggests at the very least heaven is a place of comfort and peace. In heaven there is no more poverty, no more pain, no more tears, no more sorrow. It is a place of rest where we can join with the saints around the very throne of God. And I for one know there are times when I cannot wait to get there.
On the other hand The rich man also died and was buriedand, according to the story, this burial is the last honour ever accorded to him. For he ends up in hell, in torment, in the agony of the fire. Not, I believe, because hell literally is a place where there are devils with their toasting forks watching you burn. But because when you are in hell you suddenly realise you are in the wrong place. Not just for a little time, or for the length of your sentence. But forever, shut out from the love of God eternally. And to look back and see how you made the wrong choice in this life must be the most unimaginable torment. No wonder Jesus likens this experience to the agony of fire. There can be no more awful situation than to realise this will be the reality you face from now on.
It’s not surprising really that over the ages various well-meaning people have for the very best of reasons tried to soften Jesus’ teaching. Some people have simply deleted everything Jesus taught about hell and simply taught about the joy and wonder of heaven. Now I agree that is where our focus and our attention should lie. As we’ve seen in our studies from Colossians, the whole of our Christian life should flow from the hope stored up for us in heaven (Col 1:5).
But if we delete every reference to hell we can end up giving the message that no matter what you believe, no matter how you behave, everyone is going to end up in heaven. All I can say is if I go to heaven and find Hitler and Stalin there I want my money back. If God is a God of love, and I am passionate this is the case, there must be some form of judgement. If you love someone deeply, you don’t simply let them get away with everything and pretend there are no consequences to your actions. No, you warn them, you let them know of the pain of rejection, you keep on persisting, but in the end you have to action. Why should that be any less true of God?
Or again some people have tried to soften Jesus’ teaching by saying that God gives us a second chance after death, that those who die without committing mortal sins have a chance for their souls to be purified and so made ready for heaven. Again, it’s a deeply attractive teaching, and one that has arisen for the best of reasons. But it’s rather scuppered by Abraham’s words to the rich man in Luke 16:26: And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us. You see, whenever Jesus teaches about the final day of reckoning, he always talks in terms of a great separation. Think of the wheat and the tares, the sheep and the goats. There is no suggestion a tare can turn into a blade of wheat, or a goat into a sheep. No, according to Jesus, the great chasm has been fixed. There are only two alternatives, heaven and hell and there is no middle ground.
So Jesus tells us first of all there is a heaven and hell.
Secondly, He tells us we might be surprised by who goes where.
Let’s go back to the rich man. Here he is, dressed in his designer gear, living in his executive mansion, no doubt with the latest Aston Martin in the garage. The tragedy is, he thinks he is essentially a good man. After all, he is religious. We know that because when he ends up in hell he calls out in his agony: Father Abraham. This suggests at the very least he had some understanding of the Jewish law. Indeed, he may even have considered all his wealth as a blessing from God, as some kind of reward for his good behaviour.
But tragically all his knowledge about God didn’t actually affect the way he lived. The person he could have helped most went hungry. Oh yes, this rich man had probably recited many, many times the commands to love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. (Mark 12:33). But he never really thought about what he was saying, and what it meant for him personally. If you want one example in Scripture of the danger of empty, useless religion then here it is. Religion on its own cannot save you. But if you’re not careful it might lead you into hell.
And what about the poor man? He lives at the rich man’s gate because frankly he has nowhere else to go. He would love to go and join in with the worship every Sabbath but he knows he can’t. Nobody would let in somebody hungry and covered in sores. He was considered unclean, cursed by God. If anyone gave him any thought, he was seen as a social problem that needed solving, rather a person to be helped.
Yet the shock of the story is that this man ends up in heaven. Why? Not because Jesus is saying somehow it is good to be poor, or there is virtue in suffering. But because those who are poor are the ones who are so often most open to God. They have no riches to insulate them from the realities of daily life. They have no interest in empty religion that’s full of hollow words. When they ask God for their daily bread, they mean it. And it is because this poor man knows he can only believe and trust, he is carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. That’s the radical, subversive message of this story and it’s one we need to hear.
Because, thirdly, Jesus tells us ignorance is no defence.
As you can imagine, once the rich man realises his fate, he becomes deeply, deeply concerned for the rest of his family still living. In fact he pleads with Abraham: send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment. Can you see how by this stage the rich man’s focus has changed? The designer suits, the fine dining, the gated mansion have all been forgotten. He realises there is something even more important, the state of his brothers’ souls. And if there is one thing he wishes above all else is that they are spared the same judgement.
But as Abraham himself points out, there is in fact no reason why his family should be ignorant of the judgement to come. Verse 29: They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them. Because if they were really listening to the Scriptures read out week by week they would know all about the judgement of the Lord, and the choices they had to make. After all, and I really want you to understand this, we don’t have a cruel, vindictive God who takes delight in punishing innocent victims, or convicting us of breaking rules we know nothing about. Right from the very beginning, from the act of creation itself, God has always revealed who He is and what He expects of our lives.
For example, think back to the Garden of Eden. God created such a beautiful garden for Adam and Eve, where He shared fellowship with them, and He gave them only one simple command to obey. Yet Adam and Eve chose to disobey it, with such tragic and awful consequences. Could they blame God they hadn’t been warned? Of course not. They heard, but they weren’t willing to listen. And ever since God has been revealing Himself, whether through the scriptures or through the still, small voice of conscience. But in our pride and sin we have chosen to ignore what He has been saying and then we have blamed Him for not making Himself known. The rich man’s brothers had Moses and the Prophets – that is, what we would call the Old Testament. They were familiar with its contents. But they were not listening.
So is there anything more that God could do to make them listen? Well, here we get to the real point of the story, as the rich man pleads with Abraham: if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent. After all, if you encountered someone who had been through heaven and hell, wouldn’t that stop you in your tracks? Make you reconsider your ways, help you start thinking seriously about your eternal destiny?
Well, the good news is that someone has come from the dead to tell us exactly who God is and to show us how we can be saved from the day of reckoning. In fact that person is the very one telling the story, Jesus, who we believe descended into hell and bore the sting of death, so that we could find our way to heaven, to the peace and comfort of an eternal relationship with God our Heavenly Father. That’s why Jesus came. That’s why we call Him Saviour. He is literally the one who rescues us so that when we stand before God on the day of judgement His blood will cover every sin, every wrongdoing, every guilty act you, I have ever committed.
Yet the real tragedy is, even with all this good news, there are still so many who are not listening. As Abraham tells the rich man right at the end of our passage: If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. Because as I said a few weeks back the evidence you accept is the evidence you choose to believe in. And the sad truth, many people refuse to believe in Jesus, not because they don’t like the idea of a man rising from the dead, or someone who can offer them eternal life. But the dreams of a good life, the designer gear, the home of their dreams are still more important. They don’t want to accept the fact Jesus might want to change their lives, even if it is for their eternal good.
And what about us? What is your response to all Jesus says in this passage this morning? Because it seems to me that if what Jesus is saying is true, then there is action all of us need to take. This isn’t a message we can think about later or can assume is aimed at someone else. It’s a message that we respond to while we can. There really is a heaven and hell. There is bad news for the rich and complacent, but good news for the poor and needy. And none of us can claim ignorance of what that news might be. So have you been listening? Are you willing to admit your need of Jesus as your Saviour? And will you live with these eternal realities in view so that through you others too will see the need to repent and believe in Him?