'Each to their own' - Does it matter what we believe? (Summer in the City guest service) - Luke 16:19-31

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 18th June 2006.

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I want to thank you for getting out of bed this morning and coming along to church. I know that after a busy, stressful and demanding week a few more hours in a warm, comfortable bed are exactly what many people desire at the weekend. So thank you very much for making the effort to come along this morning. I heard the story this week of a mother who was trying to wake her son for a church service on one particular Sunday morning. She was very concerned that he would be late and so again and again she shouted up to him to get out of bed. Eventually she heard a voice from behind the bedroom door. “Let me give you two reasons why I don’t want to. First of all, they don’t like me and, secondly, I don’t like them.” And with that he turned over and tried to get back to sleep. His mother however, was having none of this and so she marched upstairs, banged on the door and demanded that her son got out of bed. A voice shouted back, “Give me two reasons why I should.” His mum replied, “First of all, you are 49. And, secondly, you are the vicar.” So let me say again, thank you very much for coming along to church this morning, especially if you are here for the first time, as we consider what I think is one of the most relevant questions of our generation: Does it matter what we believe?

How many times have you heard phrases like this? “I don’t want to impose my beliefs on them. I want them to make up their own minds. I want them to decide for themselves.” Or has anyone ever said this to you, “If it works for you, fine. If it makes you happy, great. But whatever you do please don’t impose your beliefs on me.” “Each to their own my friend. It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it sincerely.” Is this not the theme tune of our generation? Well, yes and no. Yes, because it is the motto most people use when talking about religion. But, no, because in so many other areas of life we do not function like this.

Do you remember the famous British historian David Irving? He was the man who caused outrage when he denied the Holocaust ever took place. Apparently, he sincerely believes that 6 million Jews did not die during the Second World War. Now if we were truly consistent with our motto, “If it works for you, fine. But please do not impose your opinions on me,” then why was the world so concerned to show that his views were wrong? Quite simply, because in certain situations we do think what people believe is important.

Or just imagine going home today, sitting down for lunch, you’re about to tuck into a massive Yorkshire Pudding swimming in gravy when your son or daughter or husband or wife or partner or whoever turns round to you and says, “You know I’ve been thinking a lot about gravity recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that instead of gravity pulling us down it actually pushes us up. And so right after dinner I am heading straight for the roof to achieve my ambition to fly.” Would I be correct in assuming that none of us would reply, “Well, if that’s what you sincerely believe who am I to impose my understanding of gravity on you?”

So why do we speak like this when we talk about God? Let me suggest it’s because most people have, what I call, a cruise liner view of religion. They think every single one of us is on the boat of life and this boat is heading for a very pleasant destination. No one is exactly sure where it is going. Admittedly, quite a number of passengers have a made a suggestion but wherever it ends up we can be guaranteed all will be well for everybody on board the ship. Or at least almost everybody. A few nasty characters like Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein have already been thrown over the edge because of their outrageous behaviour but for the majority of people on HMS Eternity there is nothing to worry about. All will be well. The only decision for us is how we spend our time as we wait for the ship to dock. The choices are numerous. You can be a Buddhist on floor 52. You can be Muslim on floor 27.

And if you prefer Christianity why not settle down with the others on floor 36? Or if none of this takes your fancy why not pay a visit to the massive store on the ground floor, pick and choose what you like, and then indulge in a bit a DIY as you create your own religion? There is only one guiding principle: Find out whatever works for you and then put it into practice. But remember in the end it doesn’t really matter what we choose because almost everyone on the boat is going to arrive at the same eternal destination. Or at least that’s what most people in Britain would like to think. But here is our crucial question for this morning: Is such a view of our future in touch with reality? Is it true? Or is it merely a bit of wishful thinking?

Well, let me show you what Jesus had to say. And for this it would be a great help if you could find the handout with Luke 16 printed on it and when you have let me ask you to have a look at verse 19. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.  20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.”

It’s very obvious that Jesus is telling a story about the truth of eternity. It is a very shocking story and no doubt by the end of my sermon some of you will accuse me of trying to ruin your day. But can I say in my defence that I didn’t write this story. These words are not my opinions about the future. Instead they come from the mouth of the most loving man who has ever walked on this planet. And although they may ruin our day my prayer is that for some of us they may change our eternal destiny. So let’s try and work out what the story means.

Straight away Jesus introduces two very different people. A rich man who seems to have everything and a poor man who seems to have nothing. Verse 19. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.” This man had it all. He had been dealt two aces and two kings in the game of life.

Designer clothes were in his wardrobe, Tesco’s Finest were in his fridge and no doubt he would have lived in the ancient equivalent of Newland Park. He was Mr Successful. He was the complete opposite of the man who slept outside his mansion. Verse 20. “At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.” Lazarus may have had a Newland Park postcode but his situation was one of utter desperation. Do you not feel for him? No purple coat or linen boxer shorts for this beggar. His only covering was painful sores. And while the rich man feasted this man starved. And then just when you are thinking to yourself, “Surely his situation cannot get any worse” we are told that even the neighbourhood mongrels came and licked his sores. It is a horrific scene isn’t it? One of them seems to have everything and the other one seems to have nothing. The inequality between them is blatant for all to see. 

Until, that is, we get to verse 22. “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.” 95 million people die every year. That means 3 people die every second, 11,000 people will have died during our morning service and 260,000 people will be dead before the end of the day. We need to realise that death is not a spectator sport. I know most of us act as if it is but one day the Grim Reaper will announce that we are in his squad. The rich man may have been a show off and Lazarus may have been a right off but in the end they both died. Although their lives on the earth were marked by agonising inequality both of them eventually had to meet their maker. And this is when we are told about a great reversal.

Many people think death is the great equalizer. When the hearts stops beating and when the curtain finally closes many people think that is it. And if they are right, if our final breath really is our grand finale then death is the ultimate way to make everybody equal.

But, according to the Lord Jesus Christ, death is not the end for anyone. Regardless of who we are there is a guaranteed future beyond the grave. So the question this morning is not: Will I continue to exist after the doctor tells everybody in the emergency room to stop? No, the question is: Where will I continue to exist after the doctor tells everybody else to stop? Will I be joining Lazarus in heaven or will I be joining the rich man in hell?

I don’t smoke but for the purposes of this sermon I have managed to get hold of a very cheap packet of cigars. Now I’ll be honest with you, I don’t understand much about the dangerous chemicals that cigarettes are made of but even I can see that for some reason they are bad for your health. Blazoned across every packet is a clear and direct government health warning: Smoking Kills. Now I’m very aware that most smokers would rather the warning did not appear on the outside of their cigarette packets. In fact, there is even a website called www.smokingstickers.co.uk which sells alternative slogans that a person can stick over the real health warning to avoid looking at it! It’s amazing, isn’t it, what some people will do to ignore reality. But let’s ask the obvious question: Why is the warning on the packet? Yes, it may spoil the experience of a smoker if they choose to read it but, come on, surely nobody is suggesting that in an attempt to take the fun out of smoking a government committee simply decided to slap a few warnings on the outside of the packet? Of course not! The warning is designed for the benefit of the smoker. They may choose to ignore it but it is designed to make someone change their mind before it is too late. And the same is true when Jesus talks about hell in this story. He is not out to spoil our day; he is out to win our soul. So let’s pay attention to what Jesus teaches us about hell.

First of all, he says it is terrible. Have a look at verse 23. “In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.  24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’” Or have a look at verse 25. “Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.”

I don't know how many people here this morning have ever visited Sydney. I am told you can swim in parts of the harbour and along the neighbouring coastline, which must be a wonderful experience. Just imagine being able to swim alongside the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It would be amazing! I would love to do it. But, in order, to keep the public safe these particular swimming areas are well defined and netted off to prevent sharks from getting in.  Unfortunately, however, a number of years ago the sharks managed to get through the netting and began to swim close to the shore off some of the beaches in Sydney. The authorities were then forced to put up notices, which said: "Beware of the sharks!" And underneath they painted a picture of a gruesome shark with vicious teeth. Now, apparently, one mother complained to the authorities that the signs were frightening her children and asked if the shark could be made to look less scary. But she had completely missed the point. The signs were meant to be frightening. They were supposed to accurately represent the danger that lay just ahead of you.

It’s the same with Jesus’ words in this story. He is using picture language. And so, therefore, we are not to press the details and work out from these verses the temperature of life outside God’s presence. But, nevertheless, these words were deliberately spoken to warn us about a great danger that we should avoid at all costs. Hell is real and, according to Jesus, hell is terrible. 

Secondly, hell is permanent. Did you see that in verse 26? Abraham says to the rich man: “…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.’”

It really is true! What we do in life echoes into eternity. The choices we make now will determine our destiny. Where we will be in 1000 years depends on how we respond to the message of Jesus Christ. But let us be clear about this: Once we are dead there is no more opportunity to make a difference. Over the gates of hell are written the most haunting words in the English language: “It’s too late!” It is too late. The time for decision is now.

And that’s why the rich man wanted to send a message to his five brothers who were still alive. Verse 27. He answered Abraham, “‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house,  28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ 30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”  

Why do you think the rich man went to hell? Was it because of his bank balance? And so therefore is the big lesson from this story “Let’s all become Church of England vicars so that we can avoid earning too much money”? No. And we can be sure of this for one simple reason. Abraham was absolutely loaded when he was alive. His bank balance was huge and yet there is no doubt that Abraham is in heaven today. So why did the rich man go to hell? I think the clue is in verse 30. He wants his brothers to do what he failed to do. He wants them to repent before it is too late. He may have been a son of Abraham, that is a member of the Jewish people, but never in his life did he repent of his sins and allow God to tell him what to do. And for that reason he secured his own place in hell.

But what about his brothers? By this point his own destiny cannot be changed but for his brothers there is still time. And so, therefore, he devises what he thinks is a winning strategy to warn his relatives of the great danger that is ahead. Send Lazarus. It is a very simple plan but the rich man is confident it will be effective. Surely if Lazarus is send back from the grave his brothers will immediately believe what he says?

But that’s not what we read in verse 31, is it? Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets (that is, the written Word of God), they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” You see the problem facing the rich man’s brothers is not lack of information. They have the written Word of God in front of them, the primary way God has chosen to teach the human race everything we need to know. Their problem was not an intellectual one, it was a moral one.

Listen to these words from a well known atheist about why he did not believe in God: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently I assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.” Isn’t that interesting? His intellectual reasons for unbelief came after his choice to be morally disobedient. And so therefore do you see why he would never repent? Not because there was no evidence to believe. There is plenty of evidence in the Bible. Why not check it out? Why not pick up a Gospel from the bookstall after the service? It will be over there to my right hand side. No, the problem for this atheist was not an intellectual one, it was a moral one. Like so many people today his intellectual questions about the existence of God were a smokescreen to justify the continuation of his chosen behaviour. But let us be clear about this: the consequences for such an attitude are eternally serious.

Have you ever tried to imagine the funeral of the rich man? I’m sure he would have had the best coffin. I’m sure the food at his wake would have been the best money could buy. And no doubt the obituary columns would have been filled with memories of his financial achievements. “What a busy person. A man who lived life to the max who is now beginning to enjoy a well earned rest.” But nothing could have been further from the truth. He was not resting, he was in agony. And all because he didn’t repent.

So let’s ask the vital question: What is repentance? Repentance is a change of direction word. It is a boomerang word. It does not mean simply to feel sorry for how we have treated God in the past. It is a personal decision to allow God to be King. When someone repents they stop acting as the ruler of their life and hand over control to Jesus. So repentance is not about saying sorry and then continuing in the same way as before. No, repentance means to change the whole direction of our lives. It means to stop rejecting Jesus as King and from this day forward accepting his rule over every area of our life. And that’s what a Christian is. Not someone who goes to church regularly or someone who has been confirmed or even someone who thinks of themselves as a decent human being but someone who has repented. Someone who has asked Jesus to be the King of their life and received his forgiveness for their previous rebellion. And it’s only when a person does this when they can be assured of spending eternity with God and with his people. 

So let me ask you: Can you afford not to check out if this is true? We run a course at St Johns called Christianity Explored. It’s a great way to discover the answers to the biggest questions in life. Over six weeks you will have the opportunity to meet with a few others to explore what Christians really believe about Jesus. We promise you will not be asked to read out loud or pray or sing but you can ask any questions you like.

Now we are planning to run a new course in September and so we’ve left contact cards at the end of each row for you to fill in if you are remotely interested in coming on this course. On the back of the card there is space for you to fill in your name, address and phone number and the plan is for us to contact you nearer the time with more details of where and when we will be running Christianity Explored. Now if you fill one of these in and put it in the box at the back of church it does not mean you have to come on the course, it simply means we will contact you with more information nearer the time. But can I encourage you, if you have never checked out the evidence for yourself as an adult then please give this a try. Don’t be like the jury that makes up its mind before the evidence is presented. Be smart, come along and check out why it really does matter what we believe.

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