The ‘if’ of unbelief

Pentecost 19 – St. Luke 16:19-31

Several years ago, I was talking to someone about attending our high school, and they replied that ‘if only there was a volleyball team’, they would come.

Seems reasonable, the absence of a beloved sport at one school, but the presence of it at another, would be a compelling reason to attend school B as opposed to school A.

But of course, as you can probably tell, I was a little naïve in the matter.  For in nearly every situation, it is never just one thing, it is normally one thing, followed by six more things.

For if a volleyball team had been formed that very afternoon, there would likely soon be another issue, and another, and another as to why they could not attend.  If only the school were closer, if only the tuition were less, if only the lunches were served better, if, if, if; all forming a never ending litany of excuses.

One could say that they were all valid issues, that they all warranted some investigation; that schools should be cognizant of such matters that might prevent students from attending.

Except where is the burden being placed?  On the individual or on the institution?  Would anything really make a difference in the end?

Would you really eat at the café more frequently if the hours were longer?  Would you really shop in town for more necessities if there were another store?  Would you really have passed the test if it were multiple choice as opposed to essay?  Would you really work harder if the pay were better?

Of course, you reply.  And perhaps there is indeed some element of truth to your claim.

But then there is the rich man in our text.

He is in hell; suffering for his stubborn and persistent unbelief.  It is quite thoughtful of him to think of his brothers’ still living on earth, who are destined to suffer for eternity with him due to their own unbelief.  Now knowing the reality of what his own unbelief has wrought, he hopes to spare them the agony they will surely face.

But what will convince them?  Certainly not the word of God, nor the prophets and preachers who proclaim it; after all, if it did not work on him, why would it work on them?  They need something much bigger; perhaps if a man were to rise from the dead.  Then and only then, will they surely believe.

But will they?

Of course, you reply in unison with the rich man; surely seeing a man who was dead now alive would convince anyone.

But why should it?  After all, a man has indeed risen from the dead; and He appeared to more than 500 witnesses afterward.  And yet, why do so many people still not believe today?

Because how does a man rising from the dead meet any of the demands people have before they say will believe?

How does a man rising from the dead respond to those who say they will return to church ‘if they stop singing those old hymns and using that boring liturgy’?

How does a man rising from the dead respond to those who say they will return to church ‘if they just get a new pastor in there’?

How does a man rising from the dead respond to those who say they will return to church ‘if they bring back the old hymnals’?

How does a man rising from the dead respond to those who say they will return to church ‘if they would just come and ask me first’?

How does a man rising from the dead respond to those who say they will return to church ‘if they would just change their communion policy’?

How does a man rising from the dead respond to any of these?

How does a man rising from the dead respond to those who say they will attend Bible study ‘if they just studied something interesting’?

How does a man rising from the dead respond to those who say they will give more ‘if only the money went to something worthwhile’?

Should the church be aware of these things?  Indeed the church should be; the church should listen to the words of those outside the faith, all in an effort to call people to faith.  But these are not the stumbling blocks St. Paul seeks to remove in an effort to draw people into the church, rather these are attempts to blame God for your own refusal to believe.

Indeed, St. Paul lived like a Greek to win Greeks, and he lived like a Jew to win Jews; people actually came to faith in each of these instances by hearing the Word.  Others, who refused to listen to the Word, who refused to believe that a man rose from the dead, could have cared less as to whether St. Paul ate bacon or not, of whether or not he worked on the Sabbath.

And so, how does a man rising from the dead respond to those who live in the ‘if’ of unbelief?

He responds by saying repent.

Yes, that is correct.  You need to repent of these things.

Repent that you are blaming others, blaming the church, blaming God, for your unbelief.

Repent that you are demanding that certain criteria be met before you will allow the Lord of heaven and earth to place His mark upon you.  Repent that you are running from your heavenly Father so that you can somehow be saved by your own works.

Repent that even a man, Jesus Christ Himself, rising from the dead is not enough to satisfy your burden of proof.

Repent that the inspired and inerrant Word of the Lord is not enough to satisfy your demands of granting the creator of heaven and earth more than a passing nod in your daily life.

Repent that the prophets and preachers, apostles and martyrs are not enough to call you to daily prayer and devotion and meditation on the grace and mercy and peace that comes from God alone.

Repent that like the rich man, you cannot be bothered by the likes of those who live in the faith, even when they stand right before you on a daily basis.

For the Lord of heaven and earth did not say ‘if only you behaved a little better in class’ nor does He say ‘if only you spent a little more time in worship and little less time working’ nor does He even say ‘if only you had come and asked me to send a Savior’.

No, the Lord of heaven and earth does not set up such nonsensical barriers before His people; nor does He demand that you drop some of your demands before He will grant to you the forgiveness of sins.

No the God of all grace and mercy acted in that grace and mercy and sent His one and only Son into the world to suffer and die, so that your sins of rejecting Him and of making demands of Him and of blaming Him for your unbelief, might be forgiven.

And now the truth is that one has indeed risen from the dead, and He makes Himself known to you in His word and in His gifts, so that you might know that your faith is sure and certain, and that you will stand in the presence of Abraham on the Last Day in glory everlasting.

A man, Christ Jesus Himself, has indeed risen from the dead.  He has indeed come to you in His Word and sacrament; and He has indeed granted to you the way that leads to eternal life.  There are no ifs about it; they are granted to you out of His free grace and mercy, so that you, who by faith know this to be true, might rejoice in the presence of Abraham for all time.

About revschmidt

An LCMS Pastor in North-Central Kansas
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