by The Rev. Christopher Esget
Did he get depressed, lying in the dirt? As people passed him by on the road, hurrying to meetings, walking or running for exercise, heading for the store to purchase a present, carrying a bag or basket to market to pick up food for the evening meal, did he get depressed? Perhaps a few people tossed a small coin to Lazarus, but doubtless more passed by with nothing. With guilt some would look away from him; but children drew a little closer to their mother’s skirts when they saw his hideous body, covered with sores, and the more callous adults would stare with revulsion and condescension. Did this make Lazarus sad?
Did he snarl with anger at the passers-by, so cold to his need? Was his heart filled with contempt for the Rich Man, whose table was loaded with a Thanksgiving Feast every day? Did he struggle with hatred towards the man who had so much yet gave him nothing? Or was he mostly just beaten down by despair, as year after year passed and his life grew more pathetic?
If Lazarus did despair, if he was depressed by his condition, is that wrong? Lazarus could not alter his condition. Today’s pop-sermons would tell Lazarus, “Have your best life now! Become a better you!” But I imagine those Christless sermons would only make him more despondent.
Lazarus is an extreme-but-accurate picture of man before God: a sick, dying, despised beggar. He owns nothing, he is going nowhere, he is in pain, and no one cares.
No one, that is, except the only One that matters. For God still cares. We could go further: God still loves. Even when a man is in the dirt. Especially when he is in the dark dungeon of despair, when he is suffering, hurting, sad, lonely, angry, confused, disconsolate. God loves that man. That man is us – collectively, as the human race, but also individually. You may be hurt by the sins you have committed, or the sins committed against you. Sometimes those two go together - we sin against those who have sinned against us, and the cycle continues, making enemies. Or you may be hurt by the burdens others place on you, the losses you have known leading to guilt, loneliness, and emptiness. Nameless fears trouble you, a dark road lies before you, and there seems no end in sight. In all of that, God is still love. God is love, meaning that will not change through good times and bad, through seasons of elation and depression, sickness and health; when your faith is strong, and when you are clinging to the last, nearly-broken thread, still God is love, still He loves you.
A seventeenth-century Christian named Georg Neumark was robbed of everything he had by highway bandits, making it impossible for him to enroll in the university to which he was traveling. He wandered from town to town, jobless, life becoming bleaker at each rejection. Later he wrote these words to people suffering:
God knows full well when times of gladness
Shall be the needful thing for thee.
When He has tried thy soul with sadness
And from all guile has found thee free,
He comes to thee all unaware
And makes thee own His loving care. (LSB 750)
God gives times of gladness when it is good for you; and the times of sadness are for your benefit, too. Why? How? Because in those times especially, the LORD is purifying you from everything that does not cling to Him alone. But He never stops loving you. His love in this life is not chiefly shown in giving you a table full of rich foods, a body free from disease, a mind free from troubles. His love is demonstrated in that while we were yet sinners, He gave His Son Jesus for us; His love for you is shown in giving His Son a body made weak like yours. Do you have enemies, people turned against you? So did our Lord - it was His own familiar friend who betrayed Him. Do you have fears and anxieties? Our Lord sweat drops of blood before His arrest. Have your hopes grown dim, and do you feel all alone? Our Lord was left alone, crying out to the Father, “Why have You forsaken Me?” Nothing has come upon you that He has not known; nothing has burdened you that He has not likewise borne.
Was Lazarus depressed? Probably. Was he angry, resentful, bitter, driven to sin in his condition? Doubtless any man in such a situation would struggle in these ways, as any one of us would, as we all do amidst our various burdens and crosses. But the name Lazarus means “God is my help,” and He is your help too. He helps you with the deep help you truly need: Beginning with your baptism, you have received what Olsen received today: the Holy Spirit, the candle that shines in the darkness, the one light that shines on this life’s dark road.
And in Baptism, God the Father becomes your Father, a true Rich Man quite different from the rich man in today’s Gospel reading: He gives us beggars bread of heaven and wine of gladness from His table, in the living body and cleansing blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the help we need, joy for the despairing, healing for the sick, communion for the lonely, love for those sinned against, forgiveness for sinners.
Now then: has God made you rich in this world’s things? Then do not withhold them from those in need. For “this commandment we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” Has God given you money? Give it to the poor. Has God given you time? Give it to those who need comfort, or a friend. Has God given you talents and skills? Give to those who need help. “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” None of this is done to be saved, for indeed, by no deeds of ours can we gain salvation. But by our deeds we can begin to show to others the love that God has for us all.
Weep today, and repent, you rich men: and make yourselves beggars before God. Listen to Moses and the Prophets, and look to Jesus alone as your treasure.
Rejoice today, and be glad, you Lazaruses: For God is your help, Jesus has gone into the gutter with you. With your hunger He was made hungry, because of your sorrow He wept, with your sins He was made to be sin - and now to you, poor man, blind woman, hungry man, hurting woman, sinful child, He has given you forgiveness, clothing, sight, a resurrected body, a clean conscience, love, a sun that never sets. God is love, in Jesus He has loved you completely; His love never fails, and He will not leave you in the gutter but will bring you to Himself for endless comfort.
The Rev. Christopher Esget is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church & School in Alexandria, Virginia. Formerly a student sacristan at Kramer Chapel (Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne), he served as chaplain for HT’s FOR YOU conference (2007) in North Carolina. He also regularly blogs at http://esgetology.com/, where this sermon originally appeared.
Created: May 28th, 2008