Thursday, 8 March 2012

Heaven and Hell

Reading Jeremiah 17

5This is what the LORD says:

   Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the LORD.

6 He will be like a bush in the wastelands; he will not see prosperity when it comes. He will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no-one lives.

7But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him.

8 He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.

9The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? 

10I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.

Gospel Luke 16

Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.
The Lord is a great God, O that today you would listen to his voice.
Harden not your hearts.
All Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

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.

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.

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.'

25 But 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.

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.'

27 He answered, '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.'

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


Whom do you trust? It’s a choice we have to make all the time. Jeremiah says the person who trusts only in himself is cursed. Blessed is the person who trusts in God, whose confidence is in him.

The parable about Lazarus is about trust as much as it is about money or compassion. The rich man has every luxury, but each day ignores Lazarus who is dumped by his gate in abject poverty and want, not even able to fend off the neighbourhood dogs.

Both men die. Lazarus is in heaven. The rich man is tormented in hell. Not because of his past riches, but what he did with them. Or rather, didn’t do.

The desire for money to provide for your future is sensible. The Bible is full of people rewarded by God with prosperity for their prudence. But obscene luxury and a refusal to help the poor are both sins. Those were the reasons for the rich man’s fate.

Even after the realisation of death, the rich man still doesn’t get it. He treats Abraham as his equal. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus over to serve him with a cooling drink. He wants Lazarus to be consigned to his father’s house as a warning. Only someone risen from the grave will do. The rich man’s brothers will not trust in any messenger on earth, but only believe when the warning is irrefutable and impossible to doubt.

No, says Abraham. They won’t even trust a heavenly messenger. As Jeremiah says, trust not in man, whose heart turns away from the Lord. Trust in God, and have confidence in him.

Hellfire preaching is deeply unfashionable these days, but I think we do well to heed the warnings. If there is paradise, maybe there is the torment of hell? Perhaps not burning fire, although the absence of God would be hell enough without physical torture. Or maybe death is death – oblivion – for those who are not in heaven.

Jesus teaches of the afterlife. From the cross, he assures a repentant criminal “Truly I tell you: Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Notice it’s immediate. There’s no waiting for the end of time.

But between one place and the other is a great chasm. No one can cross from the one place to the other, even if they want to. Frightening people in the way the church did in past times is wrong, but watering down the realities of the implications of the choices we must make does not help either.

So let’s use Lent for a period of self-examination and reflection. And as part of that process, read the gospels and consider before it’s too late what our lives are like, and what awaits us when our all too brief stay on earth comes to and end. Amen

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