Mistaken Identity – Sermon for June 7/8, 2015

Mistaken Identity
Luke 16:19-31
First Sunday After Trinity
June 7th/8th, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

            The television show Undercover Boss uses hidden identities to create comical, uncomfortable, or heartwarming moments.  If you not familiar with the show, the basic premise is this: a chief executive or owner of a major corporation leaves the corporate 23692407_BG1headquarters works for a week at an entry level position in his or her company. Disguised as an average Joe, the boss spends a work week interacting with entry-level employees and managers, dealing with costumers, and getting a taste of what it’s like working for the company instead of running it.  The goal for the executive is usually that he or she wants to be a better boss or cultivate a healthier working environment by experiencing life in the trenches. As the camera follows the undercover boss, the audience gets to see how he or she is treated by people who think he or she is just the newest hire. Sometimes the boss is treated kindly, other times the boss is harassed or hazed or insulted. At the end of the week the boss calls the other workers to the corporate headquarters and reveals his or her true identity. Often times there are promotions, bonuses, or other rewards for the workers who proved themselves good employees. For those who treated the boss or the job poorly, the result is usually extra training courses, not to mention the public shame and embarrassment of having a nationwide audience see you make a fool of yourself  to your boss.  In this case, the old cliché holds true: You can’t judge a book by its cover. You can’t always tell who someone truly is simply by looking at them. Sometimes that beggar in the marketplace is really the princess in disguise.

Yet we continue to focus on outward appearance, not so much tattoos or hair color or piercings, although those tend to have a far greater influence than your average teen or twenty-something is willing to admit. No, we look at the things of this world. We tend to evaluate our spiritual health and the spiritual health of others based on what we can see physically. But this can often lead to tragic cases of mistaken identity.

Take the words of Jesus we read together a short time ago. There was a rich man who had the best life had to offer. He lived in luxury, wearing the finest clothes, driving the finest cars, drinking the finest wine, eating the finest food. He lacked for nothing. All his desires were met at a moment’s notice. He had the best this life had to offer. And he went to hell. He had nothing in the life to come except the agonizing desire to have his torment relieved by a single drop of water. No, the one who was wealthy for the life to come was Lazarus, the same Lazarus who lived in the street outside the rich man’s estate. He didn’t luke_16_rich_man_and_lazarus1have a home of his own. He had to scavenge through the trash looking for scraps to make up his next meal. His body was cursed with illness, and he was so weakened by disease that he couldn’t even stop the dogs from licking his wounds or gather the strength to shoo them away. I’m sure he stunk to high heaven. He was the kind of person you didn’t want to be in line behind, the kind of person you didn’t want to sit next to on the bus, the kind of person you wanted to avoid at all costs. But he was the one who was truly wealthy, for he was the one who found himself at Abraham’s side in the end. He was the one who found himself in paradise. He was a child of God. Most people, and we have to include ourselves in this if we’re being honest, most people if they met these men on the street would consider the rich man favored by God and Lazarus cursed. But that would be a case of mistaken identity.

How often do we fall victim to mistaken identity, not only in the way that we estimate the value of others, but in the way our world evaluates us! The cultural winds have changed direction in our homeland. The Epistle for today from 1 John reminds us of the importance of love, that our God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God. That all sounds well and good, but at the risk of sounding like an old SNL classic, what is love? According to our world, love seems to demand that you live and let live. Just keep your mouth shut – that’s true love to our world. Christians, whose God is love, Christians,stock-footage-close-up-head-shot-of-a-guy-with-his-mouth-covered-with-duct-tape-and-the-words-don-t-speak-written who love because he first loved us, Christians whose whole existence is tied up in the receiving and living in the love of God are branded as unloving because we take a stand on the truth of God’s Word. Our world doesn’t care about truth. Our world flees from truth like roaches from the light. Our world takes its stand on feelings and experience. Now, it’s true that you can’t control another person’s experiences of joy: you can’t tell another person which color should be their favorite or which genre of movie or music should be their favorite.  But we live in a world that silences any attempt to speak against pretty much any experience at all. We live in a world that believes that just as you can’t say which colors or movies someone ought to like, so also you can’t say which gender a person should have intimate contact with or even which gender they ought to be. It considered unloving to speak as if you know the truth or to claim that someone else is wrong.

But think about the inconsistency here. We get so upset, almost militant, about the dangers of secondhand smoke or other known carcinogens. The truth as discovered by medical studies is trumpeted from the rooftops. Smoking is outlawed in public places, in front of buildings, and any place where if may have adverse effects on bystanders. All this is done out of concern for the bystanders; you might say it’s done out of love. But when Christians try to do the same with moral choices, to speak out about the murder of the unborn, the sexual corruption of our time, the institutionalized greed and self-centeredness of our time, we are branded as the unloving ones. When we speak of the dangers these behaviors pose to the fabric of society or to the souls of its people, when we speak of the dangers of moral actions in the same way we speak of medical dangers, we are villianized. Granted, our words aren’t always as kind and gentle as they could be, and in such cases we must own our mistakes, repent, and change our rhetoric. But even when we do explain everything in the kindest possible way, the message is still rejected. We will continue to be rejected, and with even more fervor in the years to come. We don’t fit the world’s standard of success and tolerance. The rich man in Jesus’s example was decked out in the finest clothes and luxuries of this life while Lazarus remained an outcast. The currency of today is tolerance, is having a mind so open that your brain falls out. The so called love of today demands that each of us sit in our little bubble, keeping entirely to ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you have never done anything hateful or hurtful to someone you disagree with. The very act of disagreeing gets you put outside in the gutter, left scrounging for scraps to survive.  When it comes to the currency of our world, we are indeed beggars, a 21st Century Lazarus.

But take heart, Lazarus.  It is nothing more than a case of mistaken identity.  We may be poor like Lazarus, but like Lazarus, we have something more than the acceptance of this world waiting for us. Something better. Something eternal. Something that far exceeds the fleeting comforts available this side of the grave. Like Lazarus was an outcast in the world of his day, we will increasingly be outcasts in ours. We will be more aggressively marginalized. We will be told more emphatically that our faith ought to be entirely private, that it has no place outside the walls of this building, that our beliefs must be kept to ourselves at all times.  Just look at the way our government now speaks about freedom of worship instead of freedom of religion, as if they were the same thing. But take heart, for our true identity is not found in what this world considers us to be. It is found in Christ and what he has done for us. Our true identity is found in our baptism, in the new creation given to us through water and  the Word. Our true identity is found in the promises of God. The things of this world will pass away. The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of God stands forever. Our true identity comes from that Word, the strong Word that speaks us righteous.  Like Abraham, trust in the promise of God is credited to us as our righteousness. It may not change our appearance or status in the eyes of an unbelieving world, but it changes our identity before God.

To the world we will still look like Lazarus. Our lives will often look no different than the lives of the world around us. We will still struggle with illness and addiction. We will still struggle with financial hardships and unemployment. We will still struggle with pride and the temptation to self-justification. We will still lose our temper, act on our lust, indulge our greed, and stroke our egos. Apart from the gift of repentance, we are no different from the Dives and Lazarusrich man in today’s reading. Apart from the gift of repentance, we will be the ones begging for a drop of water to relieve our eternal torment. But if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come![1] This new creation is not readily visible to the eyes of the world. In the eyes of the world, we are Lazarus. But so also are we Lazarus in the eyes of the Lord. In the eyes of our Lord our true worth is seen.  Even though we are already God’s children now, what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when Jesus appears again on the last day we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.[2]

The struggle and joy of the Christian life is that it is cruciform, meaning our lives follow the shape of the cross. As we just heard a moment ago from 1 John, as Jesus was so also are we in this world.[3]  Our lives follow the pattern of Jesus.  Jesus encourages us in today’s reading to listen to Moses and the Prophets, to listen to the Word of God, for the Word of God is enough to show us who we truly are and to reveal reality to us. And the word of God is clear: in our lives we will share in the sufferings of Jesus, for in baptism we are united to him.  He is the image of God into which we are being reshaped. When we look at the details of Jesus’ life, we see clearly that things aren’t always what they appear to the human eye.   When the word became flesh, the world did not know him. He came into his own, and his own received him not. He was treated as an outcast. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows. They considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted. He suffered mockery at the hands of sinful men. He was constantly questioned and tested as if the message he brought was not from God. He was stripped and beaten and executed.  But in the resurrection his glory was revealed. That is the same glory that we participate in as we kneel to receive his body and blood, the body and blood of the risen Savior given to us so that we might be joined to that body here in this life and into the life to come.

The world did not see Jesus for who he truly was. They could not, for that takes the eyes of faith. The world cannot see us for who we are in Christ, for that takes the eyes of faith. We have the eyes of faith, so let’s use them. Let us not be mistaken about who we are in Christ or who we are in this world. We are children of paradise. We are the redeemed ones of God. We still live in this world and struggle against sin, death and the devil. But the victory has been won. See that. Believe that. Trust that. For in that promise is our hope. That is the true identity of God’s children. That is who we are in Christ.

[1] 2 Corinthians 5:17

[2] 1 John 3:2

[3] 1 John 4:17

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