Sermon 09-25-2022: “The Length, Width, Height, and Depth of God’s Love”

Scripture: Luke 16:19-31

An article in the Los Angeles Times last week estimated that the total cost of the queen’s funeral was more than six billion dollars. Of course, that includes literally everything—even, for instance, the cost of all the banks in Britain closing down for a bank holiday, not to mention the cost of all the security for the world leaders who attended the funeral. 1

Is this the most expensive funeral of all time? Maybe. Of course the Royal Family isn’t footing the bill for most of this six billion. But I’m sure their part of the bill was expensive… and I’m also sure they can afford an incredibly expensive funeral. 

But here’s a profound and sobering truth: All the money in the world can make literally no difference in the queen’s life now—all her wealth has made no difference in her life from the moment she breathed her last breath on September 8th until now. 

Money doesn’t protect anyone from death and what comes after.

But… the queen was a Christian; she understood this truth! She planned her own funeral. And part of that plan included the reading of a poem by 17th-century English poet John Donne. The poem describes heaven with these words:

There shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity.

Death doesn’t discriminate between the wealthy and the poor, between royalty and paupers, and heaven doesn’t either! The poorest beggar who’s received eternal life in Christ is now exactly as wealthy as the wealthiest monarch who’s received eternal life in Christ.

In its own way, the queen’s funeral communicated this truth… a truth that the Rich Man in today’s scripture had a hard time understanding!

Let’s not make the same mistake… Let’s understand it.

I want to help us understand by exploring three important points that emerge from the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus: First, the destinations of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Second, the main difference between the Rich Man and Lazarus. And, third, the depth of God’s love for us sinners, which this parable reveals. 

Destinations, difference, and depth… That’s what this sermon is about.

First, destinations… 

In this parable, Jesus bluntly describes both heaven and hell. And to say the least, words such as these pose a contemporary challenge to Christianity. Modern people—including many Christians—have a hard time comprehending how a God of love could send people to hell in the first place.

And yet, most of these same people are confident that God is a God of love… And the reason most of them think this is Jesus: he is God in the flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity, and he—more than anyone who’s ever lived—demonstrates through his words and actions what true love looks like

So what does it mean, therefore, that most of what we know about hell comes not from Paul or the other apostles, not from John the Baptist or the other prophets, not from anyone in the Old Testament, not from the Book of Revelation, but from the lips of Jesus himself. 

Isn’t it clear from this parable that Jesus himself believed in hell? He believed that God sent people to hell…

And as I suggest, there are many other places Jesus talks about it! If we think Jesus was wrong about hell, why do we think he’s right about the parts of his teachings that we happen to agree with—or that our culture at large agrees with! We don’t get to pick and choose. 

Years ago there was a fiercely atheistic and skeptical professor—I can’t remember which one—who was debating a Christian about Jesus and the truth of Christianity. And he said he strongly disagreed with even many of his skeptical colleagues about the person of Jesus. His colleagues believed that while Christianity wasn’t true, of course, Jesus was, in their opinion, a “great moral teacher.” And he said no way. If Jesus were a great moral teacher, why on earth would he talk so much about eternal punishment in hell? He found Jesus’ teaching on hell to be barbaric and bloodthirsty, which, in his opinion, disqualified Jesus from being considered any kind of great moral teacher. 

And I want to give this atheist some credit… I mean, of course he’s completely wrong about Jesus, but at least he’s read the gospels. At least he’s trying to deal with the Jesus that he finds there—rather than the Jesus of popular imagination! The Jesus of the gospels talks a lot about hell and God’s wrath and God’s judgment!

So I give this atheist some credit… 

But let me spend a few moments helping us address the challenges that the doctrine of hell poses for people in our modern world.

One reason we often struggle with the doctrine of hell, after all, is because we worry that the moment someone finds themselves in hell they realize their mistake and become penitent… They’re sorry for their sins. They see the error of their ways… and now they want nothing more than to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus… if only God would let them! 

But not so fast… After all, where’s the evidence of the Rich Man’s repentance? Maybe verse 24? Okay, let’s look at it: “And he [the Rich Man] called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me…” Well, that sounds a little like repentance. But first, notice the Rich Man isn’t asking God for mercy because of his sins; rather, he’s asking Abraham to do something merciful for him: to fetch him some water to “cool his tongue.” 

Only, he’s not even doing that. The Rich Man would never ask “father Abraham” to do that. Abraham is too important and powerful. The Rich Man knows his place; he has too much respect for “father Abraham” to ask him to do something so menial. But the Rich Man recognizes that guy at Abraham’s side—Lazarus. Lazarus is that nobody who used to sit at the entrance of his gate and beg. Lazarus doesn’t matter. He’s no better than a slave anyway, so, “Father Abraham, would you please send him to fetch water and cool my tongue.” 

And then in verse 27, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to go warn his brothers: Because his attitude toward Lazarus in death is exactly the same as it was when he was alive. He still places himself way above Lazarus. Where’s the repentance?

And you might say, “Yes, but surely the Rich Man softens his heart in verse 27… After all, he has genuine compassion for his brothers… because he doesn’t want them to suffer.” 

But not so fast… Maybe he has a little compassion for his brothers, but let’s not get carried away… As more than a few preachers and commentators have pointed out, the main reason the Rich Man wants Lazarus to go warn his brothers is not so much because of compassion as anger: he believes that what’s happened to him is unfair! He’s basically saying, “Nobody told me about this place! I didn’t have enough information! No one gave me adequate warning about hell! And I don’t want this same injustice to be done to my brothers.”

In other words, it’s as if the Rich Man were saying, “It’s not fair what God has done to me.”

But why isn’t it fair? If you spend your lifetime rebelling against God, refusing to submit to God’s will, refusing to obey him, refusing to repent and put yourself in a right relationship with him, aren’t you telling God, through your thoughts, words, and deeds, “I don’t want you, God.”

I mean, I’ve known plenty of people, even friends who’ve grown up in church, who’ve told me, “Yeah, I’m not so sure I can believe in God or Christianity. I have these questions. I have these doubts.” And that’s fine—I am all about trying to answer questions and help people with doubts. But at what point do these questions and doubts become a dodge, a smokescreen, an excuse? Because these same people have often done very little to investigate the matter for themselves… By their own admission, they believe Christianity might be true, but they’re not curious enough to spend even a single lunch hour reading a book about Christianity, for instance, in an effort to get their questions answered… or to resolve their doubts once and for all, one way or another. Even if they said, “I’ve looked into it. I don’t believe it’s true,” that would be one thing… But they often don’t even do that. They often live their lives having never bothered to settle their questions or doubts!

Why? What is their life saying to God? 

Something like this: “I don’t want you, God!” “My very lack of curiosity about you, my lack of interest in you, proves that I don’t want you.”

And in the end—whether they like it or not—God will respect their wishes… God will give them what they’ve told God—through a lifetime of rebellion against him… what they want most of all: to be left alone by God!

As C.S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” 

Besides, if you have a problem with the doctrine of hell, Lewis writes,

What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does. 2

Hell is precisely what happens when God leaves us alone… when God separates himself from us. None of us knows what that’s like in this world right now, because God is present everywhere. His grace is everywhere, and it’s experienced to some extent by everyone. As Jesus says, “[Our Father] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” 3

Hell is what happens when God removes even this much grace.

And that’s Point Number One… Hell is real; it is one of two eternal destinations that awaits everyone who’s ever lived. 

So how can I not talk about it? How can I not warn about it? Especially when Jesus so often warns about it? I’m not wiser than he is, to say the least.

But this brings us to Point Number Two: What is the difference between Lazarus and the Rich Man? Lazarus goes to heaven; the Rich Man goes to hell. If we want to avoid the Rich Man’s fate we better be clear on the difference between the two, right?

Let me say off the bat it wasn’t because they were rich or poor. 

For one thing… Do you know who was fabulously wealthy? Abraham, the very one that we see in heaven alongside Lazarus in this parable! 

It’s not about being poor or rich. No, the main difference between Lazarus and the Rich Man is this… Are you ready?

Lazarus has a name… and the Rich Man doesn’t. Let me explain…

In all of Jesus’ parables, this is the only one in which a character in a parable has a proper name—other parables have kings and subjects, judges and widows, sheep and shepherds, fathers and sons—farmers, bridesmaids, day laborers, slaves, and managers… no names for a single one of them!Only this one poor beggar has a name. That must mean something… And it does… In Hebrew, the name of this poor beggar means “God is my help.” In other words, at the very center of Lazarus’s identity is his trust in God, his relationship with God. God is everything to Lazarus, his source of strength and hope. As the psalm says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” 4 That’s who Lazarus is! He is someone whose help comes from the Lord.

By contrast, the Rich Man’s identity is defined solely by what? By his riches… his wealth. This is is who he is… This is all he is… His wealth gives him all his meaning and purpose in life. 

By contrast, Jesus is telling us that everything we possess in this world—which isn’t of God and his kingdom—will be taken away from us in death and destroyed

Since Lazarus’s very identity was found in God alone when he was on earth, then of course he will still have his identity—he’ll still have his name—even in eternity!

In what or in whom do we find our identity, our meaning, our purpose, in our lives? It doesn’t just have to be wealth or money, although it certainly can be. But we may also find our identity in our children, our families, our careers. Or in our love lives, or friendships, or hobbies. Or in our popularity, our physical attractiveness, our athletic prowess… Or our awards, our recognition, or our academic achievements… Or alcohol, or drugs, or other addictions… You name it. These things can become objects in which we trust—ultimately we trust in them to make us happy. We need these things to be happy! 

And this is why wealth can be so dangerous. Because money—let’s face it… money gets things done in this world. Money gets results. Money greases the skids. Money talks. Remember the movie Jerry Maguire? The NFL athlete says to his agent, “Show me the money!”

I would by lying if I said I didn’t completely sympathize with the Rich Man’s trust in money. Money is uniquely seductive. And that’s why faith in money so easily becomes the perfect replacement for faithin God!

After all, look at poor Lazarus… He has faith in God, sure… but that seems to be all he has! 

Is faith in God enough? Jesus is telling us in this parable that it is—or at least it’s supposed to be!

But is it? 

I’ve been journaling my way through the Book of Deuteronomy recently, and I was struck by a couple of amazing verses I read last week in Deuteronomy 31:2 and 3. The people of Israel are about to cross over the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land, and Moses tells them that he’s not going to be able to go with them. He’s going to die. He says, in verse 2, “I am 120 years old today. I am no longer able to go out and come in. The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not go over this Jordan.’”

And I’m sure that this news was heartbreaking to the people of Israel, deeply disappointing. But look at the very next verse: “The Lord your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them…” 

While it’s true that, as disappointing as it is that Moses won’t be able to go with the people of Israel, look who is going with them instead?

God himself!

That’s much more than a consolation prize, isn’t it? That’s not exactly second best. That’s not the red ribbon that you win in elementary school Field Day, rather than the blue one, is it? 

While it’s true the people won’t be getting what they wanted—because they wanted Moses to continue to be their leader and cross over the Jordan with them—they’re getting something so much better! They’re getting God himself; he is leading them; he is with them; he is making sure they’ll be safe and successful.

If we are Christians, this is always true for us, without condition. We always enjoy God’s favor; we are nothing less than his beloved sons and daughters. God is always working circumstances out for our good; God is always for us. “So be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the Lord your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you.” Deuteronomy 31:6. “The Lord is on my side. I will not fear. What can man do to me?” Psalm 118:6. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” Romans 8:31. 

God is never giving us consolation prizes. He’s never giving us red ribbons instead of blue ribbons. He’s never giving us second best—even though, to be sure, appearances can often deceive us; our circumstances can deceive us, for example, when things don’t work out according to our plans… and we can become so easily and often disappointed.

I recently finished reading a novel by Stephen King called 11/22/63. Yes, I’m giving away spoilers, but the book came out many years ago. You should have read it by now… Anyway, that date, 11/22/63, may ring a bell. That’s the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. And in the novel the protagonist—who lives in the present day—finds a portal through which he can travel back in time… specifically, to the fall of 1958. He can hang out in the past as long as he wants to. And when he’s done, he can come back through the time portal to the present day. Only he discovers, of course, that things that he does—back in the past—will change the future—his future—and the world’s future… you know, based on what he does while he’s back in the past.

So he hatches upon what he thinks is a great plan… He decides that he’ll go back to 1958, and wait around for about five years,and then prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from killing Kennedy. And if he does that, well… he believes all kinds of bad things will be avoided—including the Vietnam War, for instance. 

He believes the world today would be a much better place if Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy, and he intends to prove it!

So that’s his plan… And spoiler alert… He’s successful! Oswald is stopped! Kennedy survives! 

Only… when the protagonist comes back to the present—after he stops Lee Harvey Oswald from killing Kennedy—everything is awful. It’s hell on earth. The present day, in 2011, is some kind of post-apocalyptic nightmare! There have been actual nuclear wars since 1963, among other things. His changing history threw everything off kilter. 

So he ends up going back in time one more time… Only this time, he leaves history alone. Unchanged.

Why? Because, as he learns, he clearly is not good at deciding what’s best for him, or for people he loves, or for his country, or for the world… He’s not good, in other words, at running the universe…

And I was really pleased that this secular author—who wasn’t writing from a Christian perspective—ended up affirming a truth that the Bible speaks loud and clear: God is in control. He knows what he’s doing. He knows what’s best for us. So we can trust him. [singing]:“You can’t always get what you want—you often won’t… But trust God… If you don’t get what you want, it’s only because God’s got something much better for you.”

And that’s Point Number Two… the difference between Lazarus and the Rich Man was their faith. One trusted in God; the other didn’t.

Finally, Point Number Three… the depth of God’s love for us. 5

As I said earlier, I completely understand that the doctrine of hell poses a challenge to modern people. But without it, we can’t comprehend just how much God loves us.

Why do I say that? Because of what happened on the cross. Remember when Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was quoting Psalm 22:1—which was itself a prophecy of what Christ would experience on the cross. The One who “knew no sin became sin for us,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21. He took all of our sins upon himself and suffered the penalty for our sins—which is death and hell. 

That’s what the Apostles’ Creed means, by the way, when it says that Christ “descended into hell.” That clause was removed from our Methodist hymnals about 80 years ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true! Jesus Christ, for all eternity, was in a perfectly loving and intimate relationship with his Father up to that point. But on the cross he experienced abandonment by his Father—and not just for one person’s sin—which is what we would have to experience—but for everyone’s sins for all time!

Why did God—because remember that Jesus is God…. Why did God choose to do this?

For one reason only… Love. Hell is nothing less than the price that God paid in order to love us!

In Ephesians 3, Paul tells the church how he prays for them. He says in verse 18, “And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.”

If we reject the doctrine of hell, how can we begin to appreciate the width, the length, the height, and the depth of God’s love?

Even if you’re tempted to think how awful—or even how unfair it is—that someone like the Rich Man in the parable has to go to hell, think about Jesus—who endured hell in order to save us!

Think about how, when Jesus told this parable, when he describes the Rich Man’s torment, he knew full well that he himself would soon have to experience the same thing!

Finally… what does this amazing act of love accomplish? What’s it all for? Let me give you one small example…

Last January I attended a Christian conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma. One of the speakers at the conference, whom I met, was a Christian author and theologian named Chad Bird, a Lutheran. He is a very insightful Bible scholar and teacher. Just two months ago, Chad’s 21-year-old son, Luke, a cadet—or midshipman—at the Naval Academy, was killed in a hiking accident in South America. 

Last month Chad described the funeral, in Annapolis:

The road from the chapel to the cemetery was lined on both sides by midshipmen, shoulder to shoulder, backs erect, arms upraised in salute, tears streaming from many of their faces. A marching band led the hearse and we, his family and friends, walked behind it, with solemn resignation, to Luke’s final resting place.

There were the Marines who bore his coffin.

There was the 21-gun salute.

There was the chilling sound of Taps.

And there, in a coffin emblazoned with the saving cross of Jesus, was Luke’s body. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Life to death in a span of only twenty-one years, eight months, twenty-six days.

The morning after his funeral, my wife and I retraced our steps from the day before. We walked through the beautiful campus. By the chapel. To the cemetery. The coffin was now beneath the ground. Earth now swaddled Luke’s remains. And squares of green grass lay where tears had fallen not twenty-four hours before.

There I knelt. I stared up at the sky for a few moments. And despite the emptiness that filled my heart, I managed a few words. I looked into my wife’s face and said, “We will see him again. We will see Luke again.”

For we shall. As certain as spring follows winter, as certain as grass sprouts from the soil, as certain as the Savior Jesus stepped triumphantly alive again from his grave, even so certain is the resurrection of the body and life of the world to come.

We did not say “Goodbye” to our son on the day of his burial.

We said, “Luke, we’ll see you soon.”

Our Lord experienced hell to make that happen. And he did it for you, too…

  1.  Nabih Bulos, “Burial Fit for a Queen, Yes, but What of Monarchy’s True Cost?”, 22 September 2022. Accessed 22 September 2022.
  2.  C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 130.
  3. Matthew 5:45 ESV
  4. Psalm 121:1-2 ESV
  5.  Tim Keller makes this point nicely in his sermon, “The Parable of the Beggar; On Hell,” 17 July 1994, Accessed 21 September 2022.

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