Sunday, April 8, 2012

April 8, 2012
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First United Methodist Church

IF YOU SHOULD DIE BEFORE YOU WAKE

Luke 16:19-31, 24:1-11

Even if someone should rise from the dead, they still won’t believe.  That’s the way the parable ends.  And then we read the Easter scripture that proclaims that someone has indeed risen from the dead.  Today’s question is, will we believe?

It was early Sunday morning.  Some women were reaching the tomb where Jesus had been laid to rest.  They were carrying the spices and ointments that were traditionally used to anoint a lifeless body.  We can hear their gasp as they discover that the tomb is empty.  There is no body to anoint.  What can this mean?  And then suddenly, two angels are there asking, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  They remind the women how Jesus had said he would rise from the grave.  They remember.  They hadn’t thought much too much about it before.  But now they realize it’s happened!  It’s true!  He’s alive!  They hurry to the disciples to share this unbelievable news.  And they discover that for these disciples it is indeed unbelievable news.  It “seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them.”  Yes, even if someone should rise from the dead, they still won’t believe.

We’ve been looking at some of the parables of Jesus the last few weeks.  Jesus would often communicate deep spiritual truth by telling stories.  One of the more memorable stories he told is this parable about Lazarus and the rich man.

The rich man lives the lifestyle one would expect a rich man to live — fine clothing, fine food, all the finer things in life.  Lazarus, in contrast, is as poor as the rich man is rich.  He’s starving.  He wishes he could eat the scraps of rotten food that go into the rich man’s dumpster.  His body is covered with open sores.  Jesus finds it necessary to tell us that dogs come and lick these sores.  I don’t know about you, but I really didn’t need to know that.  It’s a graphic picture to help us see the stark contrast between these two men.  It would be hard to imagine any two human beings who were as far apart in their life circumstances as the rich man and Lazarus.  That’s the first picture Jesus wants us to see.  That’s scene one.  The rich man in his palace and Lazarus lying on the ground just outside the  palace gate.

Scene two takes us out of this world and into the next world.  Lazarus and the rich man now both have died.  The words aren’t used but it’s pretty easy to figure out that Lazarus is in heaven and the rich man is in hell.  It’s the ultimate role reversal.  Now Lazarus is the one who is sitting pretty.  Lazarus who was so poor on earth is enjoying all the riches heaven has to offer.  And now the rich man is suffering even worse than Lazarus was suffering when he was starving and the dogs were licking his wounds.  Hell, it turns out, is just as hot as advertised.  And the rich man who wouldn’t help Lazarus in this life now wants Lazarus to help him find relief from this awful heat.  Just a drop of water.  That’s all he is asking.  He learns it doesn’t work that way in hell.  His misery is inescapable.

Then the rich man for once in his life thinks of someone other than himself.  He thinks of his five brothers who are still alive.  If Lazarus can’t help me, then maybe at least Lazarus can come back to life and go help them.  Maybe Lazarus can warn them that hell is real and that that’s where they’re headed if they keep living the way they’re living.  Again the rich man is told “no”.  His brothers already have all the warning they need in the Bible.  Besides, they won’t believe even if someone should rise from the dead.

I wonder if those who have died who knew us and loved us now look down upon us and wish it were permitted for them to come back and convey to us some news we desperately need to hear.  I wonder what they would say to us if only they could.

The older you get, the more people you know who have crossed over to the other side.  I lost a good friend just a few days ago.  Ed Paup was the bishop of theUnitedMethodistChurchassigned toOregonandIdahobetween the years 1996 and 2004.  We worked closely together.  These last few days my mind has been flooded with memories, so many memories, of how his life touched mine.  I heard him preach a lot of sermons.  I remember specifically how he said he loved to preach on Easter Sunday.  He considered it such a privilege to be the one on Easter who gets to stand in front of the congregation and proclaim the good news.  I wonder what Bishop Paup would have to say to us today if he were the one giving the sermon and not me.  I know we’d all be listening.

Death is a great mystery.  For a child fortunate enough to grow up in a family where there is love and there is food and there is shelter, this world seems so perfect.  It was a rude awakening that day we realized that we don’t to get keep on living here on earth forever.  Sometimes parents shelter their children from this cold, hard fact.  The bedtime prayer many of you grew up with said, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  You may know it’s been revised now.  The version used by most modern parents has a substitute line:  “May angels watch me through the night and wake me with the morning light.”  That’s nicer, but the truth is sometimes children do go to sleep and not wake up.  Not nearly as often as was the case in earlier times.  But even in this age of medical miracles, we’re all going to die.  And in spite of what the life expectancy charts predict, death could come to any of us at any time.

What happens after we die?  Today we proclaim the incredible good news of the resurrection, but still all our questions are not answered.  Death remains a great mystery.  The parable of Lazarus and the rich man was not told for the purpose of providing us a detailed description of what it’s going to be like after we die.  There’s a lot we don’t know and apparently God thinks we don’t need to know.  But the question raised by this parable seems to be, what if we knew now what we will know then?  What if all our deepest questions about life and death could be answered for us before we die?  How would we then live differently?

The rich man certainly would have lived his life differently.  His sin was not that he was rich.  And Lazarus’ virtue was not that he was poor.  The sin that apparently resulted in the rich man ending up in the place where none of us wants to end up is that he never once used these riches to help someone like Lazarus he so easily could have helped.  Every time he came home to his gated community and pushed the remote control button to open his gate, he couldn’t help but see Lazarus lying there.  Apparently, he even knew him by name.  Lazarus is the only character is all of Jesus’ parables who is given a name.  Maybe that’s why.  So we can see that this rich man knew him by name and still didn’t help him.  We’re not told that he did anything bad to Lazarus.  He just didn’t do anything at all.  His riches which made it possible for him to do a lot to make life better for this unfortunate soul were instead hoarded.  His riches were used as riches often are used as a way to anesthetize himself from the uncomfortable realization that one day he will die and will go to a place where riches won’t make a bit of difference.  His riches essentially stood between him and God.  In this life that separation could be camouflaged.  In the next life it could not.  That’s one definition of hell.  Eternal separation from God.  If he’d understood that before it was too late, he most certainly would have lived his life very differently.

It was too late for him, but it wasn’t too late for his brothers.  His brothers were apparently living the same way he had lived.  They were getting all the enjoyment they could out of life while they could.  They were doing their best not to think about unpleasant topics like their own impending death.  They were focusing on now.  They would worry about later later.  Just like their brother who ended up in hell.  He could now see how wrong he had been and he would do anything to warn his brothers.  But the dead are not allowed to warn the living.  Kind of like parents are not allowed to warn their children.  They can try but the children won’t listen.  They have to learn for themselves.

Who are we in this parable?  Who do we identify with?  Are we the rich man who ignores the needy?  Are we the poor man who suffers in this life but is rewarded in the next?  You know what I think?  I think we are neither.  I think we are one of the five brothers.  Or sisters, if that’s your gender.  We are one of those who are still living and whose lives could still be totally changed if only we knew what someone who crossed over to the other side could tell us.  It’s not yet too late for us.

Someday it will be.  Someday soon for some of you, and not necessarily those of you who are older.  Every day we live could be the last day we live on this earth and we could suddenly find ourselves in the position of wishing we could warn our family and friends.

But the truth is, we have been warned.  We already know what we need to know.  We have Moses and the prophets.  We have the Bible.  We have Jesus.  And today of all days we have the glorious news that Jesus is alive, death could not hold him, the tomb is empty, he lives and reigns forever!   That means we have Jesus right here, alive in us!  We know all this.  But do we believe?  In others words, does what we know make a difference in the way we will live?  Or will we be like the rich man?  Will we be like the five brothers?  Will we be like the eleven disciples to whom those women went running that first Easter morning?  Will we, even if someone should rise from the dead, still not believe?

Easter is a warning.  There’s more to life than meets the eye.  God is real.  God is powerful.  God has more in mind for you than tip-toeing through life so you can reach death safely.  God has a great plan for you in this life.  Find that plan and live it before it’s too late.  That’s the warning.

But Easter is also a blessing.  It is good news, the best news.  Death is no longer something we need to fear.  Christ has defeated death.  He has taken away its sting.  He has taken away its victory.  He has set us free to live fully and triumphantly and fearlessly!

There’s a corny joke that may or may not help here.  A duck went up to a bartender and asked, “Do you have any grapes?”  The bartender said, “No.  This is a bar, not a grocery store.  We don’t have any grapes.”  The next day the duck was back.  “Do you have any grapes?”  The bartender said, “I told you, we don’t have any grapes.  Get out of here.”  But this was a persistent duck.  The next day he was back in the same bar with the same question.  “Do you have any grapes?”  By now the bartender was not just annoyed.  He was angry.  He said, “This is the third time I’ve told you we don’t have any grapes.  If you ask me that stupid question one more time, so help me, I’m going to nail your feet to the floor!”  The next day the duck was back.  “Do you have any nails?”   Not the question the bartender expected.  He said, “No, we don’t have any nails.”  And so the duck had one more question:  “Do you have any grapes?’

When you’re not afraid, you can be daring.  When you know no one can hurt you, you don’t worry about getting hurt.  You can be brave and bold and do what you might not otherwise do.  When you see that the risk is less than the reward, you just might risk everything.  When you believe the good news of Easter Sunday, you just might really start to live!

It’s a sad day when someone dies without ever really starting to live.  “If you should die before you wake,” can you die knowing you have lived the life God gave you to live?

In this parable about Lazarus and the rich man and the five brothers who represent you and me, Jesus actually turns that question around.  It’s not, “if I should die before I wake.”  It’s, “if I should wake before I die.”  Easter is a great day to wake up and to start living the way we already know we can and should be living.

Thank you, God for one more Easter in which to sing your praises.  What a glorious day this is!  What a glorious season this is with all of nature coming back to life again!  What a glorious truth that Christ is risen and that because he lives we can live also, in this world and in the world to come!  So may it be in the name of Christ, our Risen Lord.   Amen.