June 6, 2021
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHAT HELL HAS THAT THIS CHURCH NEEDS
I miss “Far Side”. This was a series of funny, quirky cartoons that came to an end back in 1995 when its creator, Gary Larson, retired. I used to always get a “Far Side” calendar as a Christmas gift, the kind with a peel-off cartoon for each day of the year. Here’s one of my favorite’s. People in hell are milling around in front of a coffee pot and one of them says, “Oh, man! The coffee’s cold! They thought of everything!!”
This is an actual question that was on a mid-term exam for engineering students at the University of Washington. “Is hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)?” It was a creative attempt to get the students to apply Boyle’s Law. As I’m sure you all remember, Boyle’s Law states that gas cools off when it expands and heats up when it contracts.
But what does Boyle’s Law have to say about hell? Is hell expanding or contracting? One of the students turned this in:
There are two possibilities:
1) If hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter hell, then the temperature and pressure will increase until all hell breaks loose.
2) If hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until hell freezes over.
So which is it? If we accept the postulate given to me by Ms. Teresa Banyan during my freshman year that, “It will be a cold day in hell before you get to first base with me”, and take into account the fact that I still have not succeeded in getting to first base with her, then #2 cannot be true and therefore hell is exothermic and will not freeze.
The professor must have liked the answer because this student received the only “A” given in that class.
So what does hell have that this church needs? Some of you are thinking these sermons are getting stranger the closer I get to retirement. Well, the scripture we are looking at today is one of the stranger scriptures you will ever read!
It’s the story of two men. One of them isn’t even given a name. He’s just called “a rich man”. He has everything. The other is given a name. Lazarus. He is a poor man. He has nothing. Lazarus is lying on the ground at the gate that leads to the rich man’s fabulous estate. He is starving. Once in a while he gets a scrap of food from the rich man’s garbage can. He is covered with sores. We’re even given the delightful detail that dogs come and lick these open wounds. The rich man would have had to have seen Lazarus lying there every time he left home or came back home. Couldn’t have missed him. But the rich man did nothing for him. The rich man was just living his life enjoying being rich.
That’s the first act of the story. The second act is out of this world. Literally. It takes place in two otherworldly places, heaven and hell. Lazarus and the rich man both have died. Lazarus is now in heaven. The rich man is in hell. It’s about as dramatic a role reversal as you can imagine. Lazarus, who suffered so horribly in this life is now discovering how good life can be. And the rich man who had it so good in this life is now suffering horribly.
A third character is introduced in this second act, Abraham. When Lazarus, dies he is taken “to the place of honor next to Abraham”. This is often referred to as “Abraham’s bosom.” You might even remember the song, “Rock-a My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.”
So, here’s a question: What is Abraham doing there? How did Abraham get into heaven? It’s one of those questions preachers get from time to time. If faith in Jesus is what it takes to get to heaven, then what about all the people who lived and died before Jesus? Are they all in hell now, drinking cold coffee? The best answer I can give is that God has it covered. We don’t need to worry about it. I cannot imagine that God is not smart enough to figure out a way for some of his best people, Abraham included, to get into heaven.
So now we have two people in heaven. Abraham and Lazarus. And we have one person in hell. The rich man. But the rich man is able to talk to Abraham. That’s a little strange. In this picture of the afterlife, heaven and hell are close to each other, separated by a chasm. Picture a deep, narrow canyon with no bridge across. People on each side can see each other and even hear each other, but they have no way to reach each other. There is no way to get across. That’s the way it was with the rich man on one side of this great divide and Abraham next to Lazarus on the other. Which brings us to the first of four things hell has that this church needs.
The rich man in hell looks up from his torment and there in the distance he can see Abraham and Lazarus in heaven. Because even in hell there is a vision of heaven. And we need that in this church. We need to be able to see what heaven looks like. If we wait till we get there, we might never get there! We need a vision of heaven so we’ll know how wonderful it is and want to go there. So we’ll put our entire faith and trust in Jesus so we can go there. But we also need a vision of heaven so we’ll know what we need to do while we’re still here on earth to make earth look more like heaven. We never want to be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good!
Michelangelo had a vision of heaven. He painted it on the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel. He was a great painter but his vision of heaven wasn’t all that great. Because the people he had in heaven were all white and almost all male. But the Bible says Christ died for all people. Michelangelo missed that. God doesn’t favor men over women. God doesn’t favor one color of skin over another color of skin. “God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11).
So if God does not show favoritism, but we do; if God loves everyone, but we have nothing to do with people who are not like us; if, to use the example of this parable, we don’t give a damn about people who are poor and in need, then we are doing a lousy job of making earth look like heaven!
Some of you may have noticed I just used a bad word. You might think I’m so close to retirement, I don’t give a damn. I heard about a preacher who used that same word in a sermon. He said, “There are a billion starving people in the world, and you don’t give a damn.” He paused for a moment while the congregation reacted. Then he continued. “And the real tragedy is that you are more concerned that I just said ‘damn’ than you are that there are a billion starving people in the world.”
If we have a vision of heaven, we will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, welcome the stranger, and visit those who are in prison (Matthew 25). Jesus was pretty clear that simple things like this bring heaven to earth. Simple things like this please God. And simple things like this need to be at the heart of the ministry of this church.
The second thing hell has that this church needs is prayer. As soon as the rich man looks across that chasm into heaven, he yells out a very brief but a very sincere prayer. “Father Abraham, have pity on me!” Anne Lamott says all our prayers fit into one of three categories: “help”, “thanks”, or “wow”. This is a “help!” prayer for sure. That’s the most basic kind. That’s the prayer even atheists pray when they find themselves in foxholes.
It’s interesting when you think about it that there would be prayer in hell. You would think people who pray would be people who would not be likely to end up in hell. But prayer is a basic human instinct. Even people who don’t pray find themselves praying when their situation gets desperate enough. It’s a pity that the rich man finds himself in the one place where his prayer cannot be answered. Because God answers prayer.
When you become a member of this church, you are asked to support our church in four ways: prayer, presence, gifts, and service. All four are important. But if you were to ask me which of these four is the most important, I would have to say “prayer”. A church cannot exist without prayer. And with prayer comes everything else. The people, the money, the ministry. But prayer has to come first. We can do nothing without prayer.
Notice next what the rich man specifically prays for. “Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and touch my tongue for I am suffering terribly in this fire.” He prays for water. What is it they say? People in hell want ice water. The rich man would have been content with warm water. Or cold coffee. Anything to relieve his desperate thirst. And that’s what we need in this church, too. A desperate thirst.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” said Jesus, “for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). God made us so that when we are functioning as we were designed to function, we will deeply desire the things we most need. We can’t live without oxygen. So what do you crave when you hold your breath for a few seconds? A breath of fresh air. We can’t live without food. So what do you crave when it’s been too long since your last meal? Something to eat. We can’t live without water. So what do you crave when your body is getting dehydrated? Something to drink. It works the same way with our spiritual lives. We can’t live without God. So what do you crave when God hasn’t been a part of your life as much as God would like to be? Good question. Because the sad truth is that sometimes we feel that deep thirst for God and sometimes we don’t.
It’s a gift when we do. And something has gone haywire inside when we don’t. Augustine prayed this prayer: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they come to rest in you.” Our spirits are thirsty until they drink from the living water of God’s grace.
This church needs that kind of a thirst for God. So that God’s work is not just one thing among many that we dabble with in our spare time. So that “know Christ, love God, serve others” is not just a nice slogan. So that church is not just something we’re involved in because we know it’s good for us. There’s a difference between wanting a glass of water because you know it’s good for your skin and wanting a glass of water because you are dying of thirst. When you pray daily, pray that this church will get really thirsty for God!
One more. This story has a strange ending. As if it weren’t already strange enough. Once the rich man learns that there is no such thing as ice water in hell, he has one more request. He wants to warn his five brothers. They are still alive. They are, presumably, on their way to hell but they don’t know it. Or if they do know it, they don’t care. They have no idea how awful hell really is. So he wants to be allowed to go back to earth just long enough to tell his brothers they had better shape up before it’s too late. He does not want them to end up in this awful place. It’s too late for him but it’s not too late for them. It was a rare moment of this rich man actually being unselfish. He had a genuine concern for the lost. This church needs that, too.
I don’t take this story Jesus told literally. It’s a story. It’s there to make a point. I believe in heaven. I’m not sure what I believe about hell. I’m pretty sure I don’t believe it’s a real place with flames and pitchforks and people screaming out in pain for ever and ever. So keeping people out of hell is not as big a deal to me as I know it is for some Christians. The big deal for me is two-fold:
(1) Helping people out of the hellish conditions they find themselves in here on earth and leading them to Jesus so they can experience the abundant life that is available to them before they die. That’s one. And, (2) helping people get to heaven so they won’t have to find out for themselves the real truth about hell.
Lost people matter. People who have lost their way in life. People who have lost their connection with God. They matter to God. And they matter to us. This church must never lose its genuine concern for the lost.
Of course, Father Abraham won’t let the rich man go back to warn his brothers. He explains that his five brothers already have all the warning they need. They have the Bible. They have “Moses and the prophets”. It’s not like they are living the way they are living because they don’t know any better.
But the rich man persists. “Let me go back,” he says. “Let me go back because if my brothers see someone who has come back from the dead, that will scare the hell right out of them! That will get them back on the road that leads to heaven!”
And Father Abraham has an answer for that, too. It’s a pretty good answer. You might even call it a zinger. This is a parable with a punch line. And here it is: “If they won’t pay attention to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even to someone who comes back from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
Think about that one. Someone has come back from the dead. Remember? Easter? Are we going to listen to our Risen Savior? Are we going to live the way he invites us to live? Or will we too refuse to listen “even to someone who comes back from the dead”?
God, we do pray for our church. And we do pray for ourselves. We pray for that clear vision of heaven so we can be more clear about our purpose here on earth. We pray that we will truly be people who pray, not just when we are in trouble, but without ceasing. We pray for that thirst that comes only from you, that leads us to you with an urgency we cannot manufacture. And we pray that we will truly care about lost people and will therefore reach out to them, share Jesus with them, and love them right into your Kingdom. For what we do while we walk this earth matters. It matters in the here and now. And it matters eternally. In Jesus’ name, Amen.