BELIEVING IN GOD OR BELIEVING GOD?
Luke 16:19-31; Genesis 15:1-6 (5/29/16)
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Genesis 15:6 “And [Abraham] believed in Yahweh, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… I am always surprised when I hear the number of people in America who claim to believe in God. Almost everyone, it seems, believes in God. There are surprisingly few atheists out there. There are some, but they are not nearly as common as one might expect. Now I don’t usually put much stock in opinion polls, but when asked whether or not they believe in some sort of God or divine spirit behind the universe, Americans’ answers have been consistent since these kinds of polls were first taken, with more than 90% of Americans saying they do indeed believe in God. Even with agnostics (those who say there may be a God, but don’t know for sure) removed from the group, the figure is still quite high.
But for most of these people their belief in God and in Jesus has very little to do with their way of life or their confession of faith. Most of these folks acknowledge the existence of God and even the facts about Jesus as they are given in the Scriptures. But these things have little impact on anything in their lives. It’s simply information that is held to be true. Many people are like this – people who claim to be Christian, but whose Christianity has very little impact on their way of life. They don’t go to Church. They don’t read the Scriptures. They have very little concern over sin and spend almost no time wrestling with repentance. When something bad happens they may struggle with things a bit, but when the dust settles down again life returns to normal. And though they believe in God and in Christ, He really doesn’t have any place in their lives.
Believing in God, you see, is not the same thing as having faith in God. Lots of people believe in God – that He exists. But not many have real faith. Faith involves not just believing in God, but believing God.
Today’s Gospel is the story of the rich man and Lazarus, a familiar story to most of us. In this story we see examples of wealth and poverty, of need and callousness. We see also evidence of the existence of Heaven and Hell, and perhaps even a little bit of information about the way each will be. And while all of this is useful and important theologically, what the story is really about is the faith and unbelief that leads either to Heaven or to Hell.
Let’s take a look at the story. “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day…” That doesn’t tell us anything really about his faith, does it? The evidence for that comes later, when we see the rich man in Hell. There are several things we learn about him in terms of faith from what he says and from where he says it. Obviously, he’s sitting in Hell, so that would tell us that he was without faith. But notice that what he says indicates that he was one who had believed in God. First he calls Abraham “Father Abraham” indicating that he is a Jew.
We notice also that when the rich man pleads for his brothers, Abraham says to him: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them,” indicating that he too must have had the Scriptures, but didn’t heed them. And so he confesses that the Scriptures were not enough for him, and will not be enough for his brothers, saying, “No, father Abraham, but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” And Abraham replies: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” So the problem with the rich man is not that he doesn’t know about God or believe in the existence of God, but that He didn’t listen to God. He didn’t really believe what God said. He didn’t have faith.
Now look at Lazarus. “But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.” We are told nearly nothing about him really except that he was poor and suffering, died, and was carried to Abraham’s bosom, which is heaven. But what does that indicate? Heaven is called “Abraham’s bosom” here because Jesus is drawing our attention to the faith of Abraham. He uses Abraham’s faith as a picture of the faith of all those who gain heaven.
And so what of Abraham, the third main character in this story? The Scriptures speak volumes of him. He too was a rich man; in fact he had so much wealth that he was equal to or superior to the kings of his day. He had so many servants that they literally made and army. And his livestock were so many that the land struggled to support them. And yet he is not considered unrighteous because of his wealth. What makes Abraham different from the rich man in our story is that he has faith in God.
Indeed it was God who had made him so wealthy, prospering him everywhere he went. But though he was wealthy, he was impoverished in at least one way; he had no heirs; his wife had given him no children. A few chapters before our Old Testament reading today, Yahweh had promised Abram, when giving him the land of Canaan: “All the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.” And yet when we hear Abram speaking with God again he bemoans the fact that he and his wife have remained childless.
Yahweh comes to him and says: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” And Abram says in reply: “Yahweh God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus… Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!” Though promised offspring as numerous as the dust of the earth, he still feels his poverty. God has made him wealthy and powerful, but the one thing he really wanted was an heir. And even though God promised this to him, it is the one thing he has not yet received. Abram reminded God of his promise. And, after telling Abram that he would have an heir born from his own flesh, Yahweh says again: “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them… So shall your descendants be.”
Now Abraham did not see the fulfillment of this promise for at least another 14 years, and yet he believed what God had said. And when he was 100 years old, the promise was at last fulfilled in the birth of his son Isaac. But what is of interest to us here is not just that the promise was kept, but that Abraham didn’t just believe in God, which he obviously did, but he believed what God said. And so Moses says: “And he believed Yahweh, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” Abraham had faith in the Word of God, and that is what made him righteous before God’s eyes. That is why we find him portrayed by Jesus as being in heaven and as being the model for those who inherit heaven.
Now let us return again to the rich man in the story. Notice how he pleads for his brothers. He asks for one to be sent to them from the dead, and when told that they have the Word of God, which is God’s own testimony, the rich man protests and says that the Word is not enough. Even in Hell he does not believe God or trust His Word. The Word is not enough for them, he says, and Abraham says that even the resurrection of someone from the dead will not be enough for them to believe if they do not believe the Scriptures.
The Scriptures now speak to us of the resurrection of one who was dead, the dying and victorious rising of Christ our Lord. Here we learn of the love God has for us, a love which leads him to send his own son into our dying world to take death upon Himself and die in our place; a love that pays for our sins in that dying, and offers us the gift of forgiveness and life in His rising.
And it is through the Word of Christ that we both come to know and to believe. The Holy Spirit uses the Word itself to create faith in us, so that we believe what that Word says and trust in God. It is the Word itself which delivers the love of God to us by delivering Jesus to us. In the proclamation of the Word, we have not just information about God, but Jesus our Lord comes to us and speaks to us and delivers the benefits of His having suffering and death for our sins.
So it is not enough just to know and believe the facts. It is not enough to say I believe in God and I believe in Jesus. In fact, James says (2:19): “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble!” The demons, you see, like the rich man in today’s parable, know the facts, but they don’t believe what God says about those facts. Faith believes not just about Christ or in Christ, but believes what Christ says and has done and puts stock in it. Faith holds fast to and trusts in the Word of God.
And this faith saves. This trust in Christ and His Word is the kind of faith about which St. Paul says (Rom. 3:28): “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” In our parable today, it is not the rich man’s riches or cold-hearted cruelty that damn him; his callousness is only the fruit of his lack of faith. But it is the lack of faith itself that damns Him.
And faith too, will bear fruit, but fruit of an entirely different sort, as St. John says (I John 4:19), “We love Him because He first loved us.” We abide in the love of God, poured out on us through the Word of Jesus that is proclaimed to us, and poured out upon us in Holy Baptism, and fed to us in Holy Communion, and declared to us in Holy Absolution. And abiding in that love, trusting in that love, believing the love that God has declared toward us, we also begin, in faith, to love others as Christ has loved us.
Faith you see, takes hold of Christ. For He, as He said to Abraham, is “our shield and our exceedingly great reward.” And He loves to give. Abraham asked for an heir and He promised him so many heirs that he would never be able to number them, like the dust of the earth or the stars of heaven.
How greatly will He also give to us when we lay hold of His promises. And His promise to us is not mortal heirs, but heavenly grace, the gift of Himself and all He is and has. And this is why He gives us His Word and instills faith in us, because He, out of love, desires above all else to give us Himself. He is our shield and our great reward. He is the one whose presence defines heaven itself.
God has granted us faith that us might take our place in Abraham’s bosom with those who not only believe in God, but who believe God and are therefore counted as righteous.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.