Think for a moment about why God gave us our imagination. From little on up, we use our imaginations. Kids pretend to be movie characters, and dream of what they want to be when they grow up – for me it was being an astronaut or a mailman. But God inspired my pastor to picture me as your pastor, delivering Heavenly letters of God’s love to you, the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name.
The classic stories of civilization, ancient legends and modern day movies use our imaginations to teach the great and noble virtues of courage, honor, honesty, overcoming obstacles and the dangers of pride. While the Devil has used legends to promote the lies of false gods, at the same time these stories encourage us to identify evil as evil, and to stand up against it as we fight for all that is good.
Philippians 4:8 guides us to think about the things that are true, honorable, pure, lovely, excellent and worthy of praise. Partly with the result that, as mature Christians, our imaginations can help us through the rough spots in life. When our bodies are sick and broken, we imagine what it will be like to go to the doctor and get better. And we dream that the broken relationship can get better. By divine forgiveness, and a lot of hard work, they do. One secret is to picture that person the way God sees them – perfectly forgiven in Christ. But on the other hand, when relationships are broken sin can take control of our minds, so that we dream some evil deed will solve our problems. The temptation is to pretend there is nothing good about your enemy so that they deserve for you to treat them badly.
But God never gave you your mind to pretend that lies were true. Your imagination is His gift so that you can imagine what is. So that even in the midst of this fallen world where nothing and nobody is perfect, you can picture what it would be like if you could go back to Eden, and what it will be like in Heavenly perfection. He wants you to let your mind wander when you hear His Word – but not to get distracted by worldly thoughts and wander away from Him, but to follow where our Shepherd leads our minds, going down the path of God’s thoughts.
Today Jesus grabs hold of our imaginations with His story of the rich man and Lazarus. When Jesus rescues us from our filthy fantasies, He does not simply forgive us. The Lord renews our minds to be holy places. Jesus gives us holy ways to use our brains as He sanctifies them by His Holy Word (not to mention how He cleanses our minds by Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, but that’s another sermon.) God sets our minds on things above as He tells us the heavenly story of Lazarus.
Jesus gets us to think about a lot of bad stuff – poverty, wounds, neglect, self-centered greed, and Hell – because that is the way things really are. He first told this parable to some Pharisees who loved money. They falsely imagined that riches were God’s sign that He was pleased with your life and you would enjoy the blessed afterlife for sure. They were absolutely shocked when Christ said the rich man died and entered torment. Meanwhile, they had thought Lazarus was under God’s curse – but he ends up in Heaven.
Before we go much further, we must not go the other way and think that rich people automatically end up in Hell and all the poor go to Heaven. Abraham was extremely rich, and he is in Heaven. And plenty of poor people will go to Hell. Abraham points out that repentance and faith in God’s Word is the key to eternal life for every last person. The wealth of the rich man did not damn him – but his lack of faith in the Lord’s mercies and his love for earthly things at the expense of his neighbor. Which is why he pretended on earth not to see or know a thing about Lazarus. He finally notices Lazarus when the rich man has no rest and no comfort. He begs for a drop of water when he refused to give the beggar a crumb. Yet in Hades, his heart is still hardened against God’s Word. He falsely imagines that the Scriptures cannot change his brothers’ hearts on earth. But they will not “be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them,” says Abraham (Luke 16:29, 31).
The Holy Spirit has used Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament, and the Apostles and evangelists in the New to convince you that Jesus did rise from the dead – so that now all believers who die are blessed to rest from their labors (Revelation 14:13). The holy angels carry Lazarus to be comforted in Heaven. No one much wanted to know Lazarus on earth, but in Heaven the great superstar of the faith, Abraham himself, knows him. I think we will be amazed by whom we know and who knows us when we get there.
Other Bible passages tell us more about Heaven. Grief will be gone as we will not only get to see our loved ones again who have already died in the Lord (cf 2 Samuel 12:23), we will get to see the Lord too as Christ gathers us around His throne.
And you will also be freed from Satan’s torments. Here on earth the devil keeps accusing you of your past failures, and especially the evil thoughts you have had. But Revelation 12:7-8 says that a great “war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon [who is called the devil and Satan (v9)]. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.” No matter what you are guilty of doing or saying or thinking, no matter how often the devil brings up your guilt, the Christ who died for your sins makes you certain that Satan has been thrown out of Heaven. The old evil foe will not be there to torture you with an evil conscience.
And these are only the blessings before the Last Day. At the return of Christ you will enjoy all these blessings and more in your body raised to be like Christ’s glorious Easter body. Truly the sufferings we experience – even the sufferings Lazarus went through – are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).
Jesus tells this parable first to unbelieving Pharisees. But I do not think of you as unbelievers. And when St. Luke wrote this Gospel down, he was writing to Theophilus, another believer who already wanted to avoid Hell and go to Heaven. So why do we need to hear this? Perhaps it is so that the Lord could confirm our hearts all the more in our hopes for Heaven. Perhaps it is so that His Word would guide our thoughts all the more to Holy places, and Holy things, and Holy people. Perhaps it is to get us to see what modern day “Lazaruses” will look like in Heaven and treat them that way – loving them in word and deed rather than looking the other way.
God has given us our imaginations to imagine what is, despite what our eyes see. What would it look like if you lived each day absolutely certain that your heavenly hopes will come true? What would happen if we used our imaginations for the good of our congregation? What if we treated our neighbors with mercy more often – both inside and outside the walls of our church?
I know what Jesus wants for us. And because you are here today, you know what He wants as well – for the blessings of Heaven to be yours eternally. For you to be comforted and to give comfort. For this to be His place, where Jesus preaches Heaven’s peace to you and to others near and far. That you and I would have the mind of Christ, and the eyes of Christ, and the heart of Christ – seeing one another, and treating one another, and loving one another as fellow citizens of Heaven, as dear Children of God. And that we would tell this Heavenly story of Christ to those outside these walls that they may be brought to the eternal comforts.
And where we fail, for we will fail as the sin of our hearts gets the better of us, God grant that His Word will have its way with us as it causes you and I all the more to “repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). Be confident that Jesus is no figment of your imagination, but is the very real God in our flesh who died to pay for all your sins so that when you die, God’s angels will carry you to that blessed place Jesus has prepared for you (John 14:2). (Paragraph and other sections based on Good News magazine, Issue 17).