Sermon, Trinity 1, 2015, Gospel, Luke 16:19-31
Parables in Scripture are engaging. They are stories. They have characters with whom we can identify. They have a moral, a teaching about faith and the life of faith. Some parables are easier to understand than others. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in our Gospel text is one of the easier ones. Let me recap it for you.
Jesus starts out by describing a rich man. He doesn’t give him a name, but says he dresses in purple clothes, the expensive clothes made from a rare dye, and often reserved for kings. This man ate like a king, too, every day. His property had a gate, probably for protection and privacy. At this gate a poor man named Lazarus laid, probably by his relatives. Lazarus wanted to be fed with the scraps from the rich man’s table, the scraps that were left over from the sumptuous banquets at the rich man’s house. Lazarus was a sick man, covered with sores, therefore unclean. The rich man’s gate was designed to make sure the unclean did not enter.
Well both the rich man and Lazarus die. The poor man died and was carried to heaven by angels. The rich man is simply buried, and in Hades, a Biblical name for Hell, in torment. He saw Lazarus and Abraham far off and asks for mercy from Abraham. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus with a little bit of water to cool him, but Abraham tells him that he received his good things in his earthly lifetime and Lazarus bad things. Lazarus is comforted now, and he is tormented. Besides there is a chasm that cannot be crossed after death, to keep people from going in either direction. (A great comfort for those in heaven. They will never fall into sin again.) So the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers so they won’t end up like him. Abraham tells the rich man that they have enough, they have the Word of God spoken in the Law and the prophets, the shorthand way of saying Holy Scripture. But the rich man, being used to getting his way, contradicts Abraham. “No, father Abraham. If Lazarus, who is dead, goes to them, they will repent.” Abraham, tells the rich man that if they don’t believe the Word of Scripture, seeing someone raised from the dead won’t convince them.”
The gist of the story? The selfish unbeliever goes to hell. The poor believer goes to heaven, and those whose hearts resist the Holy Spirit won’t believe Scripture or even the sight of a man raised from the dead.
All true. The question is, who do we identify with? The poor man or the rich man?
Maybe the rich man if see ourselves trusting in our wealth more the promises of God. Maybe the poor man, crushed by his present circumstances, but looking to the promises of eternal life. That’s the wonder and depth of the Word of God. You can look at it from many angles like a cut gem. Next year, when we return to this text, I will look at a different aspect of the story if I preach on it. Today I want us to look at gates and chasms and what they mean in this story, in the bigger picture of the Bible, and in our own lives. I want you to know and believe that the gates of heaven have been opened to you by Christ’s death and resurrection, bridging the chasm of sin that separated you from God and your neighbor, allowing you to open the gates of your hearts to share the gifts of what you have received from God with your brothers and sisters both inside the gates of the city of God, and with those currently outside the walls of the city.
What is a gate? What does it do? It is a barrier that has basically two functions, to keep in and to keep out. It can be used to keep people and animals, bad and good, out. It keeps bad people, like burglars and thieves, out. And it can also keep good people out, for their own protection. In cities you see walls around construction sites to keep people from dangerous work and from falling in. There are gates for workers and other authorized people to enter, who know the dangers of the site.
Then there are gates that keep people in. There are prison and jail gates, which keep dangerous people in, but allow the guards and others to go out. Then then are gates that keep good people in. Child gates are used to restrict babies to a particular area. And gates can be used to imprison good people, the gates of the prisons where Peter and Paul and the apostles were kept.
What kind of gate is the one in today’s story? This gate is to the rich man’s house. He enters and leaves daily through it. It keeps the undesirable, unclean neighbors, like Lazarus out. You see, the rich man had set up his own little city, his own kingdom. He ate and dressed like a king within the walls of his little kingdom. It was all very controlled. Nothing unclean would enter his gate. He had what was leftover from his meals thrown out, perhaps looking on that as a gift to God, a sort of last fruits offering to the poor. Lazarus and the dogs managed to live off such scraps.
Then there is the chasm. A chasm is not a gate. It doesn’t open. In the parable it represents the eternal separation of heaven and hell. It represents sin, unbelief, which separates us from God, the sin that we all have inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. They lived in the Garden of Eden, free to explore it and the world outside the gates. They could go out and come in. They had everything they needed to live a perfect life. They knew good. They could eat of every tree and plant in the garden, except the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Tempted by the devil to mistrust the Word of God, they lost their faith and disobeyed God’s command, and were driven out of the gates of paradise. Angels with flaming swords were placed at the entrance so that they would not presume to enter again. But before they left they were promised a Savior, who would crush the head of the serpent who had deceived them. That Savior would bridge the chasm of sin with his death, so that all who believe in Him would be saved. He would reopen the gates of Paradise.
Christ is that promised Savior, who opens the gates of paradise to you and me. He said, “I am the gate. Whoever comes in by me will be saved.” (John 10:9). When He died on the cross, the gate, the curtain of the Holiest place in the temple, was torn in two from top to bottom. The chasm of sin that divided us from God has been bridged by the cross of Calvary. In Revelation 21:25 it says that in the New Jerusalem the gates will never be shut. Nothing unclean will enter it, only those written in the Lamb’s book of life. Well, brothers and sisters, the gates of the City of God, His Church, His Holy Jerusalem are open to you and me. We who were unclean and unfit to enter before, have through our Baptisms into Christ been washed, and made worthy to enter through Christ’s righteousness received in faith. Our names, like Lazarus, are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Those who do not believe in the promises of God, whose names have not been written in the book, like the rich man with no name, will not enter. Those who reject the the Word of God build a wall around their hearts and shut the gates to the Holy Spirit, who works through the hearing of that Word. The gate that they close in their hearts in their time on earth will become for them an uncrossable chasm in eternity.
Christ has opened the gates of the garden for them and us now. His Holy Spirit points to the gates of paradise. The angels with their flaming swords of the law let those wearing Christ’s righteousness pass through. We wear those robes, for we have been baptized into Him, His life, His death, and His resurrection to eternal life. Christ has not just dipped the tip of His finger to quench our thirst for righteousness, for forgiveness, He has drenched us with the waters of salvation. As Saint Paul says in his letter to Titus in the third chapter. He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and rebirth of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:5-6)
By opening up the gates of our sinful hearts to the saving Word, the Holy Spirit has opened up our sinful hearts to serve God and our neighbor. We are no longer their enemies.
In Christ, we no longer hoard what God has given us behind iron gates, tossing out a scrap here or there from what we don’t need anymore, but giving firstfruit offerings from of what we have received, giving to God before taking our share, giving sacrificially and cheerfully, trusting that our Father in Heaven will give us each day our daily bread, as He did for Lazarus. Certainly Christ, His dear Son, gives us more than the crumbs from His table. He gives us His whole self, His body and blood, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
The Holy Spirit has opened up the gates of your ears so that you may hear and believe the saving Word of the Gospel. He does when you hear the Word in Bible class and worship, in Sunday school and VBS, in your daily devotions with your families and by yourselves, and in your reading of the Bible and the confessions of the church, the Book of Concord.
Now that the gates are opened and the chasm bridged for you there is no longer a chasm or closed gate between you and God, and between you and your neighbor, for whom Christ died. You give back to God and neighbor more than crumbs, knowing that a feast is already being prepared for you in heaven. Today God is giving you a foretaste of that great feast. We pray that others may come to share the confession of the faith we have, so that they may eat and drink with us as one body of Christ, and that they may also come to the knowledge of God in Christ Jesus, who opens gates and invites in. Amen.