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Homeward Bound: The Dark Side Of The Good News

Luke 16:19-31

Herbert Stone would give anything to have the night of April the 14th to live over again. I am confident that there is absolutely nothing Herbert Stone would not do to have that evening and the events of that night one more time in his life. One thing is for sure, he would do it differently. What he did, he would not do again. You see, what he thought were signs of life in actuality were signs of death.

Herbert Stone was the second officer on an ocean liner called the “Californian.” The night of April 14th found the “Californian” somewhere in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, 1900 miles from its destination, Boston Harbor. At midnight, Second Officer Stone went to the bridge to relieve the sailor who was on duty. When he arrived on the bridge, he found the seaman staring off in the distance through a set of binoculars. He was looking at the lights of another ship, a vessel they did not know was in the same vicinity. The seaman turned to Herbert Stone and said: “I don’t understand why they are there, and I don’t understand why they just shot flares into the sky.” Herbert Stone immediately took the Morse Code lamp and began signaling the other ship. There was no response. Herbert Stone decided that the flares were just fireworks launched by celebrating passengers in the other vessel. Since there were no responses to his repeated messages, and since there were no other signals of distress, Herbert Stone kept the “Californian” sailing ahead and the lights of the other ship gradually disappeared.

It wasn’t until later on that Herbert Stone would learn that those disappearing lights were not a sign that the ship was sailing away, but that it was sinking. Herbert Stone was an eye-witness to the most tragic ocean disaster of all time—the sinking of the Titanic. You can bet that if Herbert Stone could live the night of April 14, 1912 over again, he would do things differently. If he had known the ship was going down, he would have acted. But he just did not know.

Today I want you to know that God does not want us to make the same mistake. He wants us to be aware that in our world there are those who are aboard a sinking “Titanic”. They’re headed for disaster. They are sailing toward hell. I know we don’t like to think about that. I can relate to the writings of C.S. Lewis who said: “There is no doctrine, which if it lay in my power, I wish I could remove from the Christian faith except the doctrine of hell. I would pay any price to say truthfully that all will be saved, regardless of the lives they lead, but we are not left with that option.” You see, to dismiss the concept of hell is to contradict the Bible, and it is to make a mockery of the justice of God. To say there is no hell is to say that the Adolph Hitlers and the Joseph Stalins and the Idi Amins of this world get off scot free. To say there is no hell is to say that the Ted Bundys and the Jeffrey Dahmers and the John Wayne Gacys of this world never get punished for their evil. My beloved, make no mistake, there are long-term consequences to the choices and the decisions we make in life. We need to be remembering that.

In fact, Jesus spoke with some frequency about the reality of hell. Today I want us to focus on what may be His most dramatic word on the subject. It is the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16. Understand please that I am not going to rain down upon you now fire and brimstone and guilt and terror. This story is not designed to scare you out of hell, but to win you out of it. The story does not reveal a God who wants to lower the boom on you, but a God who wants to love you all the way home to heaven.

In the story we are told that the rich man lived in splendor, in luxury, in great extravagance. Outside the front gate of his house lived a man named Lazarus; poor, sick, and miserable to the extreme. As time passed, the curtain of death fell upon both the rich man and Lazarus. Now notice that it doesn’t say that Lazarus died and was buried. Did you catch that? It says the rich man died and was buried. The rich man got a funeral. No doubt it was as extravagant as his life—wrapped in spices, placed in a rock-hewn tomb, name chiseled on the front, covered over with a bank of flowers. Nothing like that for Lazarus. In those days, beggars after their death, were taken to a valley outside the city walls and there they were dumped into a never-ending fire that burned the city’s garbage. Interestingly enough, it was called “Gehenna”, one of the words that Jesus used for “hell”. Catch the irony, please, in the story. The rich man, whose life was like heaven on earth, winds up in hell in eternity—the man who had everything here has nothing there. But Lazarus, whose life and death were hell on earth, winds up in honor in heaven.

Jesus is trying to get our attention. He is trying to warn us before it is too late. This last week, I was flying to Wichita, Kansas. I did something on the flight I don’t normally do. I actually listened as the flight attendant gave the warning. You know how the flight attendant stands up in front before the take-off and speaks about seatbelts and oxygen masks and exit rows, and what to do in case of accident. So I listened. I looked around. No one else on the whole plane was paying any attention. In fact, the guy next to me had dropped off to sleep! I started to say to the flight attendant: “I know how you feel! I talk and people don’t listen either—sometimes they even fall asleep!” Then it dawned on me that that flight attendant had a lot in common with Jesus. He issued warning after warning, and people didn’t listen. Today, through this story, He delivers the warning again.

You see, this story speaks of an unbearable misery.

Four times, in this passage, reference is made to the rich man’s suffering. In fact, it is so bleak that he pleads for missionaries to be sent to his brother so that they will not come to this place of pain. Hell, according to Jesus, is a place of unending physical pain. So the next time you hear someone say: “I’m in a hell of a fix” or “I’m hurting like hell”, you need to say to them: “You don’t have any idea what hell is really like.” There is nothing in our human experience to compare with the physical suffering and alienation that comes from being cut off from the love of God. For all we do not know about hell, what we do know is that it is a place where you never stop hurting.

And what’s worse is that you know it. You are aware of it. Hell would be tolerable if the Lord just performed a lobotomy on us and left us there unaware. But the rich man, according to Jesus, was aware of what he was feeling—so much so that it dominated his conversation, so much so that he could see not only where he is, but where he could have been. He saw Abraham in heaven with Lazarus at his side. He called out: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue, for I am in agony here.” It would be tolerable, you see, if you weren’t aware of the pain, but in hell, you are not oblivious to the misery.

And what’s worse still is that you know the pain is permanent. It would be tolerable if it were temporary. You could stand it if you knew that someday it was going to stop. At another place, Matthew 25:46, Jesus says: “There people will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”. You see, as eternal as is the peace of the saved, so is the pain of the lost. As Jesus unfolds the story, it is clear that so severe is the pain of the rich man that he now becomes a beggar. He pleads with Lazarus to come and bring him some comfort. He begs for the messengers to be sent to his brothers to warn them. But Abraham says in reply: “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can pass from there to us.” The message is that once you go in you don’t come out. No holiday excursions from hell to heaven. No missionary trips from heaven to hell. The misery is unbearable. The pain is permanent.

Then the story speaks of an unnecessary emissary.

There’s a strange twist to this tale. This rich man who lived in great luxury and ignored the needs of people around him suddenly becomes terribly concerned about others. He wants to be sure that other people get the word. Let me tell you something, folks, a step in hell will do a lot for your priorities. That’s the reason I’m preaching this sermon today. I want to address your priorities in life. There are people in our world, in our neighborhood, sometimes even under our roof who are on a sinking “Titanic.” They’re hell-bent on the evils of this world, and they are hell-bound in the world to come. So Jesus introduces us to one who is in hell, and that voice is saying loudly and clearly, volume turned up, in graphic detail—that voice is saying: “All you can do to stay out, do! And all you can do to keep your friends out, do!”

Now listen to what Abraham says…”They have the law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets; they should listen to them.” The rich man says: “No, Father Abraham, if someone goes to them from the dead, they will believe and change the way they live.” And Abraham replies: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not listen to someone who rises from the dead.” In other words, Jesus is saying that it is not going to change the world if we empty every cemetery. Do you know why? Because it’s already happened. Jesus came back from the grave. He emptied the tomb. And even some people who saw Him didn’t believe.
Jesus says that the way to reach the world is not through tricks, not through snake charmers, not through hollow miracles. The way to reach people is to sit down with them and open the Bible and let them hear what God has to say and see how much God loves them. Do you see what that means? It means that you have in your hands what it takes to keep someone from going to hell. You have on your shelf the very book which could keep someone from being lost forever. You have at your disposal the Bible—the book which can change the world.

I have a friend who tells how she came to faith in Jesus Christ. It was because of her next-door neighbor. The neighbor would come over to visit, and every time she came, she was carrying a big book in her hand. She never did anything with it, just held it while she visited. One day my friend said to her: “Why do you keep bringing that book over here, but then you never open it?” The woman replied: “Well, it’s my Bible, and I keep hoping that sometime you are going to ask me to read from it. But even if you don’t, I still like to have it with me.” The friend said: “Well, let’s read from it.” You see, the neighbor didn’t know how to put her faith into words, so she just put the Word in the house. She just kept bringing it over, and ultimately it worked to bring my friend to the Lord. The point is clear. If you’ve got somebody in your life who seems to be hell-bound, get a Bible to them. Get the Word to them. Live the Word around them and God will make it work. The Bible is the only emissary we need.

And the story speaks of an unmistakable message.

The story delivers the message of Christ’s love for us. The story speaks of the cross. You see, on Calvary, Jesus Christ went to hell for us, so that we don’t have to go. The tragedy of the cross is that Christ took all of our sin upon Himself. The pain of the cross was not the nails in the hand or the spear in the side—it was “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was feeling what the rich man felt because Jesus was where the rich man was—the difference being that the rich man is still there. As horrible as it is, the misery of hell is not nearly as great as the love of the cross. On Calvary Jesus went to hell so that we don’t have to!

So what are you going to do with the sermon on hell? Some of you are thinking: “Boy, the preacher’s in a foul humor today, zinging us with all this heavy stuff!” Some of you are thinking: “Well, we get one of these heavy-duty sermons about every three years—good to have it out of the way!” Some of you are thinking: “I wonder if there really is a hell, a place where we are cut off forever from the love of God. I wonder if there is a place where I will wake up surrounded by pain but not surrounded by God.” Jesus said that there is a hell. It came from His lips. And I want to tell you that there is nothing that you will regret giving up in this life so that you don’t have to endure hell in the life to come. Nothing. You see, I love you. So I’m only going to say it once. I’m not going to bring it up again and again. I’m not going to beat you over the head with it or plunge you into the deep water of guilt. But I want you to know that I love you enough to do anything it takes to get you home to heaven. Come to Jesus Christ in faith today. Come home to the Lord in your life.

Herbert Stone would love to have that one night to live over, because he would do things differently now. Something tells me the rich man would like to have his life to live over, because he would change the way he lived. It’s too late for them.

But it’s not yet too late for us.

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