This sermon is part of the sermon series "Global Preaching Voices ". See series.
Friends, the text before us is in Luke's Gospel. You have it in your books. Nowadays in Nigeria, young men and women have it in their phones, so I get in trouble when I say the text and I see the phones. But that's what's happened to this generation.
Paul had encouraged Timothy, who by now is a leader of the churches in Ephesus, to urge everyone to use their gifts—particularly those who are financially buoyant—for the future. "For the future," underline that in the epistle. Because the future here is looked upon not in this life, but you're storing up for yourself where Jesus is.
Over the years I have heard people talk about the rich man in this text in Luke, and they immediately conclude that it is about wealth. So the wealthy people are going to perish but the poor people are going to go to heaven. And I don't think that's a correct reading; that's not the mind of Christ. Because in my encounters in life as a local pastor in northern Nigeria, I have met poor people who are very rich in wickedness. They have nothing, but their heart is full of evil. They are very rich in it, they can't release it; they enjoy seeing people suffer. And you should note here that when Jesus was teaching his disciples, he was giving them what they should learn. And he was giving them his heart and how they should follow him.
Do understand here, too, that the word "disciple" is critically important. He was not talking to the crowd; he was talking to those who have decided to follow him. And he's going to go away very soon—going to be crucified. He's warning them, giving them caution of how to follow him, how not to allow other distractions to come in or other things to cloud into the mission which he is going to deposit into their hearts.
So in this text we have three things. We know of the rich man, we don't know his name so he could be anybody. We don't know much about him but we do know that he was somebody who is rich. Rich in evil, rich in money, rich in carelessness, rich in negligence, as I will soon explain. But the second character in this story is Lazarus. Lazarus is someone who cannot help himself, someone whose neighbors are dogs, the neighborhood dogs that came to lick his wounds. He can't even go around begging. He is helpless. He is so sick, and he depends on anybody who sees him to offer him help. So we know Lazarus by name. The other thing Jesus gives us also by name is the presence of eternity with Abraham or where there is torment.
And you've got to get it very clear: This is Jesus speaking. He is assuring his disciples that at the end of life you're going to be in one of two places. You're going to be there by choice, by what you do or do not do. And many times when I say this, I blame you in the West because the books are written by you, right? We have not written books in Africa like this, at least I haven't, but I have studied theology. The people who have written books that say that when you die you just disappear or that when you die everyone goes straight to heaven are from the West, not from Africa. Friends, I've not always been a Christian. At one time I was a cynic. I rejected the gospel. My mother was in shock up to the time she died over how I came to be a believer in Jesus Christ. One of my passions as a young person was understanding what happens to my great grandparents who never heard the gospel, who are pagans. What happens to those who have never had the opportunity to hear the gospel and then die? That is a good question, a question that I believe God and the Bible can answer.
But this morning like it was in the days of the apostles, what Jesus is saying is you need to consider where you're going to end your life. You need to make up your mind. It's about you. It's not about my grandfather. It's not about those people who've never heard the gospel. It's about you. You've got to make a choice. Where do you want to finish your life?
Life is short
First, Jesus points out clearly that this life is short. It's shorter than my height. Life at best is very brief. Like a flower in the garden, it withers and dies.
You'd better believe it—because I have not always looked like this, I have not always been bald-headed. Some years ago my son looked at my photograph and he said, "Daddy, you were cool." I said, "Yes, I was." I used to be afro-matic. I used to not be the way that I am now. I used to be an athlete, and the Lord blessed me with athleticism. I played soccer very well. I even played for club teams in Nigeria. I played basketball too. My height was not a problem. The coaches used to put me in for five minutes to dislodge the other people because I shot the ball well. But now I can't even make a layup. When I dribble and I see some of these young kids coming I just throw it quickly. Sometimes I make the mistake of trying a layup and they block me, and they are very excited—"Yea, we blocked the bishop!" What they don't know is that thirteen, fourteen years ago they couldn't do that.
Life is very short. The rich man here forgot that life was short. Two things were the concern of the rich man, says Jesus. The rich man was concerned about what to wear to impress people. He was concerned that everybody should see the kind of food he ate. Give him credit, he worked hard. He was a hard-working, intelligent, very clever man who has achieved. You don't blame men and women who have achieved good things. They have worked for it. Jesus does not condemn them for hard work, for achieving, or for accomplishing goals in this life. That is not the issue. The concern was that rather than now looking up to God who gave you the life, who gave you the intellect, who gave you the grace, who allowed you to be born in a particular circumstance, which helped you to accomplish and to achieve; you have ignored God and begun to yourself. You begin to look at yourself, or I begin to look at myself.
The rich man is a self-worshipper. He's so concerned about himself that he's become completely unconcerned about God, and therefore he's unconcerned about everybody else, even the needy. He is saying, "The poor could go to hell as long as I please me. Those who don't have, it's their fault. I'm fine as long as I eat my food because I worked for it." Self-centered, selfish, self-serving, rich. He had no sympathy for the weak, helpless, widows, or orphans.
In all of these he had forgotten that fashion changes. Those of you who were in the 60s and early 70s, you will remember Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. That was a fashion then. The trousers were floppy and brown and you were walking on platforms. But now there's an "improvement" in fashion. Fashion changed.
The rich man forgot too that food could kill you. Left to me, I would kill myself. The doctors have told me to stop eating meat—I don't believe them. I have difficulties resisting Texan beef, and yet I know it's going to kill me. Sugar—Oh, God. I resisted ice cream the other day but then a friend took me out, and I said "Yes, sir!" But the rich man forgot. Lazarus finally died of poverty, ill health, and poor feeding. The rich man also died—but of overfeeding, overindulgence, recklessness, and carelessness. Friends, left to ourselves we'll kill ourselves.
Life is very short. I didn't know that growing up, because when I gave my life to Jesus, honestly I believed that by now the world would have been saved. I was so excited, I witnessed in the streets of Lagos and in Jos. Everywhere I went, people were coming. I mean theological school has ruined me, honestly, because as a layperson I couldn't care. I just shared tracts—The Four Spiritual Laws, you name it, all those Navigator things. I was all over and people believed. Then I went to seminary and I tried to do all of that and my teachers would knock me down. They said, "No, that's not how to do it, you've got to structure a sermon, you've got to do this." I said, "No." But my professors wouldn't believe me. So when the four years were over I said, "Thank you, Lord. This is over now; now I am going to face the world."
Then I fell in love. This black-sleeved, sleek, straight-walking, gentle, harmless, soft-speaking, beautiful African girl named Gloria came into my life. I was so stupid to believe everything because whatever I said, she said, "It's okay" or "It's alright." And I thought I had married an angel. Anything I said was, "Yes." She would even curtsy. I went back to my bedroom, I said, "Yes, Lord, I thank you, now my life is going to be great."
You know, men, it's a pity that books have been written against African men, that say African men bust their wives and all of that. It's not true; it's all men, regardless of race. You like to be in charge, you want to pick the boxes, you want to do this. So when you get a girl who says "Yes," you say, "Okay, sweetheart, can we go?" She says, "It's okay." Are you ready to do this? "Yes, it's alright."
After the first baby came my house began to change. My books moved from where I kept them, and I couldn't leave my socks lying wherever I wanted them to go. And I dared to talk back. The same girl a few years ago who would say "Yes," now she said, "What do you mean?" And as I raised my voice, her voice came out too. I found out that she had a larger vocabulary than I can ever think or imagine, and we began to quarrel. Meanwhile, she has this baby, and I'm struggling to understand her. Then she started saying things like, "Could you bring the diapers?"—in those days it was not the Pampers, it was napkins with pins in them. "Bring me the water," she said. Then came two children, then three children, then four children. School runs were in one car, you can imagine: "What took you so long?" She is no longer talking politely. I lay down in my bed at 40, and said "Lord, what have I done to myself"?
Before you know it, I'm 50. I'm no longer worrying about the woman now. I'm worrying about the teenagers, because they seem bent on killing me, but I've made up my mind, I'll kill them before they kill me. I didn't want boys because I didn't want to commit murder. I prayed for girls and God tricked me: he answered my prayer with the birth of our first child. But then God gave us four boys and later on a girl and then a boy, and the boys are all taller than me. It's a riot every day. Everything goes wrong every day and I've wondered where did they get the genes from—I was a very peaceful kid. (Laughter) When I was born I read the Bible from birth. (Laughter) I didn't make trouble for anybody. My mother didn't have any troubles, my father loved me dearly. You better believe it. Otherwise how else could I have been a bishop, archbishop for that matter? I have to be very godly from birth. (Laughter)
When you hit 60, whoever you are, you're beginning to think of retirement. When you hit 70, whether you like it or not, you've got to make friends with a family physician. If you're fortunate you get to 80, you've got it all, and you've seen it all. You're living from that point on with doses of medications. If you get to 90, Lord, I'm coming home. Now, if you calculate at best you get to 100. Out of 100 years of your living and working, how many of those years did you really honestly truly enjoy so much so that you are prepared to mortgage eternal life with God for just 100 years on earth? Much of it is toil, labor, quarreling with your boss, quarreling with your wife, quarreling with your children, fighting for your rights, fighting for everything, struggling.
The rich man forgot. Time is short. As we are seated here, each one of us—not all of us will get to 100 years—have our expiration dates on our foreheads—"Best before … " The rich man forgot that he who created us in the first place has numbered our days. Some will die young, some will die old, some will die very old. We have a terminus at core, each one of us. Some will die in an air crash, some will die through motorcycle, car crash, whatever. But death is come unto all.
Verses 21-22, Lazarus dies and the rich man also dies. Let me put it in perspective. Some years back I was invited to lead a Bible study in Palm Springs, California. I didn't know where it was. I couldn't believe it when I finally got there. When I got there, I heard that Palm Springs was called "The Playground of Presidents," and they took me through the house of Bob Hope, Bush, Reagan, all these places. I saw it, I said, "Wow, in this world." I then led a Bible study and afterwards they were raising funds for the Jesus film in Zimbabwe. One man just sat there and said, I pledge a million dollars. And another one said, 500 dollars or 1,000 dollars. Another one, 3.8 million dollars. They were just giving out money. And these men loved the Lord. I sat there, the only black man and an African for that matter, and I was hearing millions of dollars for the work of God. When I went back to my room, I said, "Jesus, these are people who love you, people whom you have blessed. They are true disciples and they are not allowing the world to deceive them. They are giving for the work of God and they are participating in loving Jesus and sharing Jesus. Because of their faith in you, they will go to heaven, friends. Yet there are poor people also, materially poor, who are very rich in evil that will not see Jesus if they don't repent."
But Lazarus dies, the rich man dies. We're going to die. Death is a reminder that human beings are created by God. Death reminds us that each person from the day of birth until death has an expiration date. Knowing that we will eventually die should make us wise in planning. Planning our lives should make us very wise in strategically putting our resources before the Lord, and careful in managing our investments in the hands of Almighty God for him to use. Death is a single reminder that we need to finish and end well, to finally graduate into the hands of Jesus. What the rich man ignored is time was short.
From verses 22-31, Jesus takes time to teach us how to finish well. Jesus is teaching the disciples about the ultimate end of human transition. The rich man finally ended up in a place of torment. Lazarus ended up with Abraham. The rich man was definitely a religious person because when he died, he saw Abraham and he recognized him. So he was religious, but something was missing. He also recognized Lazarus. And after death, his cry for help is useless.
Jesus teaches about eternal separation between those who believe and those who do not believe, but here is the difference. Between Abraham and eternal separation is a chasm. Friends, Jesus stands in between that and creates a bridge with his hands wide open, and in this life you can walk on Jesus from the place of eternal separation to the place of eternal bliss. Jesus opened opens his arms wide. Jesus does not want anybody to end up in the place of eternal separation. That's why God sent him in the world to die on the cross so that nobody on earth should go there.
In case you are still confused about what happened to those who have never heard the gospel, about what happened to those great-grandparents who never heard the gospel, according to Romans chapters 1 and 2, God is able to save them. He is. Because even before the coming of Jesus, God has put righteousness and judgments in the heart of men. They know how to do good. God is going to judge everybody according to the revelation that he has given. But for us, now is the time of salvation. In time past we walked in ignorance, but no more. Now we know Jesus is between the chasm and he has placed his arms wide open. You can walk from death to life, from separation to eternity with God, from hell to heaven. Now is the time. Anyone who walks through Jesus Christ will learn to use his or her time that's very short wisely. We learn to prepare for death. We learn to understand that in this life we don't have a permanent abode except with God.
Missionaries came to my home area of Nigeria in 1907. One of them was a man named Reverend Fox. Reverend Fox was a professor at Cambridge University, and when he got to Panya, his walk with Christ was so deep that he led many people to Christ. He founded a church and moved about 10 kilometers away to Amper, my own hometown, and founded the church there. The people turned to Jesus Christ through his preaching. How a first-class person from the University of Cambridge was communicating to illiterates, I don't know, but God suddenly gave him favor and people were turning to Jesus Christ. So many people came to Christ, he wrote to his younger brother, who was a physician also in Cambridge, and asked him to come and help him because medical practice was needed. His younger brother began the journey from England. When he started the journey, Reverend Fox fell ill and was taken to Kano, where he died. As his younger brother stepped forward and came into Panya, hoping to meet his older brother, he fell ill and also died. Two men died.
The Church Mission Society wrote to their father, who was also a pastor. But he was a man of providence—God had blessed him with land and property. When they told him he had lost two sons, he and his wife cried, but then they did something astounding: They sold off their portion of land and took the proceeds to Church Mission Society and said, "As much as we grieve the death of our two sons, we will only be consoled if the purpose for which they died continues." They gave that money and walked away.
Recently I looked through the profile of those two missionaries who came to my hometown. They both had first-rate, first-class educations and degrees from the best schools. They died as young men—the oldest was only 32. They gave up everything to serve Jesus and bring the gospel to my country. Were they crazy? No, they had heard what Jesus had said, they believed it, and they were willing to stake their whole lives on the truth of Jesus' words. These men wanted to finish and end their lives well.
They had learned to invest their time, invest their knowledge, and invest their money. They had learned to strategically place themselves where God wanted them. They were willing to take God assessment for what is valuable, and that no matter how long or short their life was, it wasn't going to be wasted, but it would count in eternity. What about you? How are you living your life? Are you living for what matters? Are you living for Christ and eternity? Will your life count when it matters?
The Most Rev. Dr. Benjamin Argak Kwashi is Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Jos and Archbishop of the Ecclesiastical Province of Jos in the Church of Nigeria.