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Seizing The Joyous Opportunities God Sets Before Us

Luke 16:19-31

Pastor James F. Wright

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
St John Lutheran Church  
Champaign, IL

Sun, Oct 14, 2001 

By his grace, God provides us with so many opportunities -- opportunities to be saved as well as opportunities to serve him. From the story of the rich man and Lazarus we learn to seize these joyous opportunities in life as they come along. Any discussion of joy may seem strange to this text and out of place since there seems to be no joy in our text, at least not from the perspective of the rich man. After all, the rich man ends up in hell. He squanders the opportunities that God had set before him. From the rich man's prospective, what he learns in hell is tragic. But for us, life doesn't have to conclude as it did for the rich man. Eternal death doesn't have to have to be the sad ending to our mortal life. As long as we are alive God is still presenting us with opportunities and options no longer available to the rich man. For us -- there is still time and grace to make the most of every opportunity to believe the gospel of salvation and to live a life of faith that leads to good works.

Not so, with the rich man. He wasted every occasion to do the will of God. Everyday as he stepped over the ailing and beggarly Lazarus, the rich man overlooked his opportunity to find true meaning in life by doing the will of God. After all, Lazarus only asked for what fell from the rich man's table. This indicates that the rich man had an excess amount to give that wouldn't have left him short. The rich man walks past Lazarus everyday, aware of his need, suggesting that not helping Lazarus was not some innocent oversight on his part. The text bears out that the rich man could've cared less about the needs of his impoverished and ailing neighbor Lazarus who lay so pathetically at his gate with the dogs licking his open wounds. The fact that the rich man knew Lazarus' name indicates that he also knew of Lazarus' plight and deliberately chose not to respond with any charity or assistance.

Though this exchange between the rich man and Lazarus happened over twenty centuries ago, the rich man's preoccupation with material wealth resembles our own modern mindset with amazing accuracy. The rich man dressed in purple and in fine linen is reminiscent of our own consumer mentality with its emphasis on appearance over substance. In other words, as a culture we are far more concerned that we look good than that we are good. Our age is obsessed with money and what money can buy. As a culture we are so focused on how others can serve us and meet our needs that we can easily miss the whole point of life. Life isn't about getting. It's about giving. Life is not about being served. It's about serving God and our neighbor. Our Lord Jesus leads the way by saying, "I did not come to be served, but to serve and to give my life as a ransom in exchange for the many." (MT 20:28)

To understand our text we need to understand Jesus' audience. Luke says that our Lord was addressing, "The Pharisees who loved money" (LK 16:14) when he tells them about the rich man and Lazarus. Today, Jesus still uses their story to address our own modern sinful obsession with money and possessions. Unlike the rich man, the Lord does not want us to hoard our wealth, but to use it to help the poor and needy. Watching recent television film footage of the people in Afghanistan living in such desperate poverty frankly condemns me for my complacent and comfortable American lifestyle. I'm not suggesting that America is somehow responsible for recent atrocities through its unshared wealth with third world nations. I'm only suggesting that you and I are responsible to God. When I see how others in the world live, I realize that I have so much, and others have so little. And I have to ask myself, "Did God give me all of this only to lavish on myself? Is all that I have just for me, or is it more like a trust fund from which heaven would have me meet the needs of those with any earthly need?

Whenever and wherever we see need in our world it begs the question, "Who is the Lazarus at our doorstep?" Who needs my help? Who am I overlooking - not only halfway around the world, but in my own neighborhood -- because of my sinful complacence and obsession with meeting my own needs? My assistance to others may require money, but my responsibility to help others doesn't end there. God gives us many opportunities and many ways to help those in need. It may be a physical need, it may be a spiritual need, it may be a friend, or it may be a complete stranger -- but there is a Lazarus at your gate. There is someone in trouble you over overlooking to help or something good you are overlooking to do. Jesus reminds us not to walk past any opportunity to use our gifts and abilities to the glory of God and for the good of our neighbor.

The Christian actually finds great joy in the opportunities God gives us to serve others. Every sacrificial act of service that we do by faith reminds us of the great sacrifice our Lord made for us upon Calvary. It reminds me that I truly have faith whenever I see my faith in action - as I help others in need. On the other hand, the sin that still resides in me as well as the narcissistic world around me keeps telling me that it's more important to think about my own needs. But this selfish approach to life leaves me and the commandment unfulfilled. Selfishness is not what God intended when he created me. It's certainly not what God purposed when he redeemed me. The Spirit teaches me to love and to serve others in Jesus' name. This is the same Jesus who loved me and gave himself for me.

How you live outwardly reveals what you believe inwardly. Good works done by the hand are proof that there is a living faith in the heart. When as a Christian I love and serve in Jesus' name, it shows the deep influence that my faith in Christ has had upon me. Faith now influences my actions as a Christian. I love others because I believe that Jesus first loved me. I give to others believing that Jesus first gave his life for me. I serve others believing that as a man Jesus came to serve me. What I do and say and how I live as a Christian is then very closely connected to what I believe about my Savior, Jesus Christ. Christians help others as they find themselves relying on help from God. Christians encourage and strengthen others because they believe in the gospel's power that is at work in their own lives.

Whenever I hear this text about the rich man and Lazarus, I'm always tempted to feel sorry for Lazarus, though the saddest part of this story actually has nothing to do with Lazarus. For even though Lazarus suffered terribly while on this earth, later we see him happy and beyond all sadness in heaven. His agony ends and his joy begins in heaven. The real sadness here is the rich man who failed to hear and believe the Word of God. The rich man overlooked opportunity after opportunity to be saved by the Word of God.

It's obvious that death catches him off guard as we see the rich man living only for momentary pleasures. From his words in hell we understand exactly why the rich man was sent to hell. For even the flames of hell had effected no change in him. While suffering in the torments of hell the rich man still looks for others to attend to him and to satisfy his needs as he calls for heaven to send Lazarus to serve him. Learning nothing from being in hell, he is still just as selfish and sinful as ever. Given a thousand more opportunities, it would not have changed him. This only confirms God's just judgment in consigning the rich man to hell.

However, in his dialogue with father Abraham the rich man intimates that God had dealt unfairly with him. Implied in his desire to return to earth to warn his brothers is the very subtle accusation that God had not provided him the opportunity or the means to be saved. But like his brothers, the rich man had access to the Bible - known in his day simply as "Moses and the Prophets". The rich man had his whole life to investigate the words and the promises of God. But the luxury of life and its sensual indulgences were obviously his lifetime priority. Though rich in worldly acquisition, as it turns out, the rich man was spiritually impoverished. He knew nothing about the Word of God, or else he would not have asked Abraham to take pity on him in hell. If the rich man had known anything about the Word he would've known that the time for God's mercy ends when a person dies in unbelief. If he knew anything about the Word he would've known about the great chasm that has been fixed between heaven and hell that keeps anyone from crossing over after death and judgment.

What scares me are the times that I see the same kind of apathy and neglect of the Word exhibited in the rich man, in me and in other Christians. In a culture so deeply rooted in pleasure and leisure, it's as easy to neglect the Word. In a life so heavily invested in what money can buy, at times don't you find yourself more focused on what you want than on what God wants for your life? Frankly, as sinful as our world has become, it's amazes me that anyone of us can be saved. Everyday God gives us an opportunity to hear read, study, and learn the Word of God. But how many of us make good use of the life-giving Word on a daily basis? How many of us fail to listen to the Word today, thinking that there will be a tomorrow? September the eleventh has recently reminded us differently. The third commandment commands us to sanctify the holy day - to make special time in our lives to devote our full attention to the Word of God. But even among truest disciples of the Word - how many of us give the Word only half of our attention whenever we have the opportunity to read it or hear it?

The Christian however finds joy in those opportunities to be saved and strengthened by the Word. The Word comforted Lazarus. His poverty and sores were a blessing in disguise in that they caused Lazarus to cling to the Word's promise of a better and brighter day in heaven. God's Word promised Lazarus God's free and undeserved grace in Christ - something only a beggar like Lazarus could truly appreciate or understand. Luther once said that we Christians are all beggars before God with our hand out. We are all Lazarus's -- spiritual lepers and beggars - needy before God. God's Word provides the opportunity for our rescue and redemption from sin and all of its associated misery. Like hungry beggars devouring tasty morsels, we Christians want to make the most of our every opportunity to consume the Word. For the Word is that means by which God saves us and brings us to trust that we have God's grace and favor through Jesus Christ.

Speaking from hell, the rich man fakes a concern for the salvation of his five brothers. Had he been sincerely concerned about their souls the rich man would've shared the Word of salvation with his brothers while he was alive and still able to witness to them. As mentioned previously, his real intention here is not to warn his brothers but to accuse God. Many today in answering the question why some are saved but not others accuse God of some impropriety in sending anyone to hell. Among their other objections, these people will argue that it's unfair to condemn people to hell who haven't had an opportunity to hear the gospel. And yet these very same people would never see their own opportunity or obligation to share the gospel with others.

We need to all ask ourselves, "When have we overlooked important opportunities to share our faith?" A Christian by the name of Bill Faye, returned to his home in Denver on Monday, Sept. 10. On his American Airline flight back to Denver he saw a flight attendant breaking up ice with a wine bottle. He got up from his seat and asked her if there wasn't another way she could more safely do it. He said he was afraid she would hurt herself. She was moved that he would be so concerned. He then gave her a gospel tract to read when she had a spare moment. A short time later she found Bill and told him that this was the sixth gospel tract she had received from someone. "What does God want from me?" This led into a wonderful discussion about our Savior, which led the woman to faith. After Tuesday's terrible attack on America, Bill looked up the names of those on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane that crashed into them World Trade Center. The flight attendant's name was listed.

When have we had the occasion to warn our brother regarding his sin and to witness to him regarding salvation and have neglected to do so? How many people have passed through our life without us sharing our faith in Christ with them? How many people have met us without ever knowing that we were Christians? These are missed opportunities that we can never be retrieve.

As Christians we find joy in those opportunities to share our faith with others. Our motive unlike the rich man is not because we believe that God is somehow unjust or unfair in his decisions to send people to heaven or hell. Our reason for sharing the good news about Jesus is because it is such good news for our country as it faces the prospect war, the fear of further terrorist attack, and uncertainty about its economic future.

God sets before us many joyous opportunities. We have daily opportunities to be saved by the Word, to share that Word, and to serve according to God's Word. If we miss these opportunities we will end up like the nameless rich man. If we seize these joyous opportunities, like Lazarus, God will know our name and our struggles, and rescue us from them all, amen.

Copyright 1998-2011 James F. Wright. All rights reserved.

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