First Lesson: Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15
Responsive Reading: Psalm 91: 1-6, 14-16
Second Lesson: 1 Timothy 6: 6-19
Gospel Lesson: Luke 16: 19-31
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Let me begin with a story. Once upon a time, a funeral home called a young preacher. A man had died who had no family living in the immediate area. The funeral home wished for the preacher to do a graveside service with only the cemetery workers present. The preacher agreed.
There was a problem though, as the preacher had never been to the cemetery. On the way, the preacher got lost. Finally, off in the distance, he saw a little church with what appeared to be a cemetery and three guys just standing around. The preacher gets out of the car, sees shovels and a large pile of dirt, and figures he’s in the right place. He then proceeds to walk towards the grave site.
He tells the workers, I can see you’ve already done the burial, though let me say a few words. The workers figured they should remove their hats as the preacher began to pray. The service then starts. The young preacher gave a beautiful sermon about finding Christian hope upon a cross in death. The service then concludes.
Afterward, one of the men approaches the preacher with a big smile on his face before declaring: “Preacher, I gotta say that was the best funeral for a septic tank that I’ve ever heard.”
Why were the Preacher’s words so powerful for a septic tank? The reality is as Christian people; there is no more important topic than death or “What happens when we die?”
The following story leads us into a question for this morning? What do we really know about death and dying?
In 1989, Don Piper was a Baptist minister driving home from a church conference in Texas. Upon crossing a bridge, Piper’s Ford Escort was struck by a semi-truck. When medical personnel arrived at the scene, Don Piper appeared to be dead. He was covered by a tarp while waiting for the medical examiner to arrive. Don Piper’s body would show no signs of life for 90 minutes. What happened in these 90 minutes? Don Piper believes that he visited Heaven. Piper reunited with long-lost family members and sang alleluias with the heavenly choir. After these 90 minutes, Piper is prayed back to life. Piper proceeds to write a very popular book called 90 Minutes in Heaven.
Piper’s story is not unique, several years back, a Nebraska Pastor named Todd Burpo described the experiences of his three-year-old son Colton who was forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy. While on the operating table, young Colton Burpo described leaving his body and visiting heaven. What Colton described amazed his family, he was able to give in-depth explanations about family members of whom he had never met or even heard.
In 2012, an accomplished neuroscientist named Eben Alexander described his own experiences in a meningitis-induced coma where he describes his brain visiting another realm of existence which would appear to be proof of a visit to heaven.
So what can Christian people take from these near-death experiences? It’s worth noting that none of these people were biologically death. It’s also worth noting that these experiences tend to have different descriptions of what they “each” call heaven.. For example, the Baptist preacher describes people in heaven looking like they did when they died, whereas the other preacher’s son the little boy Colton describes everyone as looking young, like in the prime of their life.
When thinking about death, here’s what we do know. Near-death experiences take place across a wide swath of religious traditions. Muslims describe being greeted by 70 virgins in Heaven, Hindus describe themselves as meeting Vishnu, Mormons get to meet Joseph Smith, Catholics place a lot of emphasis on meeting the Virgin Mother. Now, I’m sure all people who claim to have had near-death experiences are sincere in their faith, but at the same time, I would caution against accepting these stories as giving literal truth about the afterlife.
So if near-death experiences don’t shed answers into the afterlife, we turn instead to our scriptures. Today’s Gospel from Luke 16 begins to answer our questions about life everlasting?
Within our lesson, two men die. Lazarus and a Rich Man who goes unnamed. Lazarus is a poor man. Lazarus spends his days as a panhandler asking for money. Lazarus is so poor that his ideal meal is whatever he can find in other’s people trash. Lazarus had as rough a life as a person could have then Lazarus dies. As for the Rich Man, he had everything he could want, yet he also dies.
So what happens upon the death of both men? Lazarus and the Rich Man are both transported to Hades. While in Hades, the Rich Man is tormented while Lazarus is comforted. The Rich Man can see Lazarus residing in a much, better part of Hades.
The Rich Man cries out for mercy from the Father of the Nation of Israel in Abraham:
“Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”
Abraham then informs the Rich Man that the divide between these two parts of Hades where Lazarus and the Rich Man reside within eyesight is so great they cannot be crossed. The Rich Man then begs Abraham to go to warn his five brothers about their pending fate. Abraham then informs the Rich Man that the dead aren’t meant to communicate with the living apart from the Word of God. Abraham tells the Rich Man how some won’t even believe if they witness a Resurrection from the dead such as Jesus own’.
So how should we interpret this Gospel tale?? The question to ask is, how would people in Jesus’ day have understood the Afterlife?
The Old Testament doesn’t place a lot of emphasis upon the Afterlife. The two most prominent Jewish groups in Jesus’ day the Pharisees and the Sadducees were divided on this issue. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, and the Sadducees didn’t.
So the reason for the divide between the Pharisees and the Sadducees has to do with how little the Old Testament describes life after death.
Sheol in brief reference within the Old Testament is the common destination of the dead. When our lesson for Today refers to Hades, Hades would be the Greek term in which the New Testament was written for Sheol in which the Hebrew language Old Testament was written. Sheol was understood to be the destination of both the faithful such as Lazarus and unfaithful such as the Rich Man both living and dead. The Book of Revelation refers to Death, Sheol, and Hades as the same.
So the Gospel lesson for Today describing Lazarus, and the Rich Man visiting the same place of Hades as a common grave right after their death would have been consistent with the understanding of the day.
Another common understanding in Jesus’ day is that upon death, the faithful such as Lazarus will be comforted in a place called Abraham’s bosom. Our lesson is the only place in the scriptures where such a place is mentioned, but other writings in the Early Church point to the widespread belief that Abraham’s bosom served as a waiting area of sorts between Death and the Resurrection of the last day.
How should we interpret our Gospel passage? There is no passage within the Christian scriptures that I’ve spent more time discussing with fellow ministers than this one. I would caution against interpreting it as the final description of the afterlife.
For when the scriptures describe the afterlife, the emphasis is not on the time immediately after a believers’ death. The focus is instead on Christ’s return to Earth and the final resurrection of the dead. When the Book of Revelation describes the famous images associated with heaven: pearly gates and streets paved with gold. These are realities meant to describe what the New Heaven and the New Earth will be like.
So what happens at the moment of our death? I believe that those like Lazarus who cling to God’s great promise given in Christ Jesus will have their every earthly fortune reversed as they enter the presence of God. I look to the famous encounter from later in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus hangs alongside a common thief on his cross?
Jesus declares to the thief: ‘Today, you shall be with me in Paradise”- Luke 23:43.
I believe that all our loved ones who cling to Christ’s promises are currently just like Lazarus in a state of comfort and bliss awaiting the great reunion that will eventually take place at the second coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The great Christian hope is laid out in the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel as Jesus is seeking to prepare the Disciples for his upcoming death. The words that Jesus speaks are famous for having been spoken at countless Christian funerals: “In My Father’s House are many rooms.”
The words from this passage that we tend to gloss over though might be the most comforting words for those who mourn : verse 3 has Jesus promising “And if I go to prepare a place for you, I WILL COME BACK for you to be with me that you also may be where I Am.”
As Christian people, we will all experience loss. We will lose grandparents, parents, spouses, friends and perhaps even children. We want the absolute best for our loved ones after their death.
Whenever I go back to Lindstrom, there is a void knowing that I’m no longer able to visit my grandma not only for newspaper and sermon material though.
I recall my last visit, being taken back when she was polite saying “please” and “thank you” rather than her usual colorful outspoken self that I miss so much. What brings me comfort is this.
I don’t know quite what the afterlife looks like for us. Whether Grandma is merely resting to be awakened at the second coming of Christ or whether she is actively being comforted, such as Lazarus within our lesson. My comfort comes from her being entrusted to the continual care of our Savior, whose love and grace know no limits. I can still hear Grandma’s distinct laugh as she hears tales like the preacher leading the funeral service for a septic tank. Amen
 Hamby, John. “What Happens When We Die?” Sermon Central. 13.Sept.2004. Web. Sept.5.2019.
 Hamby, John. “What Happens When We Die?” Sermon Central.
 Hamby, John. “What Happens When We Die?” Sermon Central.
 “90 Minutes in Heaven.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 28.July.2019. Web. Sept.5.2019.
 90 Minutes in Heaven.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
 Challies, Tim. “Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven.” Challies. 10.May.2007. Web. Sept.5.2019. The following serves as a critical critique of Piper’s book.
 “Heaven Is for Real.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 23.Aug.2019. Web. Sept.5.2019.
 “Heaven Is for Real.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
 “Eben Alexander.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 18.July.2019. Web. Sept.5.2019.
 Luke 16:19-31
 Hoezee, Scott. “Luke 16:19-31.” Center for Excellence in Preaching. Calvin Seminary. Grand Rapids, MI. 19. Sept.2016. Web. Sept.5.2019.
 Luke 16:21.
 Luke 16:23.
 Luke 16:24
 Luke 16:26.
 Luke 16:28.
 Luke 16:29.
 Luke 16:31.
 “Sheol.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 20.Aug.2019. Web. Sept.5.2019.
 “Christian views on Hades.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 22.July.2019. Web. Sept.5.2019.
 “Bosom of Abraham.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 20.Aug.2019. Web. Sept.5.2019.
 Revelation 21:21.
 John 14:2.
 John 14:3.