Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Paradise People

Preached on Sunday, April 7, 2013 (a revision of a sermon preached on April 15, 2007)

Scripture readings: Revelation 21:1-10, 21:21-27, & 22:1-5; Luke 23:32-43

Jesus said this to the criminal who was being crucified beside him. He said: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43; R.S.V.)

Photos Taken: Walking Near the Palouse and Snake Rivers
And Driving Home to Washtucna WA
“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (N.I.V.)

That criminal had to be surprised by what Jesus said, and even confused. He would have been surprised and confused and somehow set at rest by the love that could be felt in Jesus’ words.

He would have been surprised and simply confused by the words “today” and “paradise” going side by side. He would have recognized that paradise meant heaven for God and the angels. He would have recognized paradise as meaning some kind of heaven for him, if only he deserved it, at some future time when the kingdom of God arrived. He would not have recognized that heaven could apply to his life “today”.

Many of the Jews of that day believed that paradise for humans meant the thing that God would someday in the future create on earth; when the judgment and the kingdom of God came to our world. That would not happen until the resurrection of the dead.

Many of the Jews believed that, in the period between one’s death and the resurrection, the soul lived a kind of shadowy, semi-conscious existence. They did not all think this way. They had conflicting ideas about this.

What shocked and confused the sorry criminal was that Jesus seemed to say that they were not going to be resurrected into paradise someday, but that they were going to die their way into paradise today.

There are Christian people who love Jesus, and belong to him with all their heart, who believe that heaven does not immediately follow our death. They believe that the soul sleeps until the resurrection of the body, at the coming of the kingdom of God, and then the resurrected person enters an earthly paradise.

They believe it is a mistake of grammar to put “today” and “paradise” together. They believe that Jesus used the words, “I tell you the truth today.” And then they believe he said, “You will be with me in paradise.”

In other words they believe that Jesus said something like, “Today I tell you the truth, you will be with me in paradise at the resurrection.”  Those who interpret these words from the gospel in this way see the love and grace of God in this promise, as they interpret it. And there is love and grace in it.

The problem with that is that there is no other place where I can find Jesus using the phrase, “I tell you the truth today,” or even, “I tell you today.” Whereas Jesus does to say: “Today I will do this,” or “Today this will happen.” (Mark 14:30; Luke 19:5)

The sorry criminal who asked Jesus to remember him was surprised and confused when Jesus put the words “today” and “paradise” in a way that made them work together, because Jesus was giving him more and better than he had asked for Jesus was giving him more than he dared to hope for, and more than he even believed possible.

I believe that this is how God works. I trust that, in Christ, God gives us more and better than we dare, more than we hope, more than we believe. This is typical of the God revealed in the Bible.

This is like the plan of God, when he responded to the request for a king, so they would be like other nations. They asked to be like the rest of the world because of the weakness of their belief. God gave them kings, as they requested, but he used their request for a king as part of his plan to give them and us a king named Jesus. The very center of God’s plan for the world consisted of giving his people something much better than they believed in.

The word paradise is not a common Bible word, but it is a common Bible thing. It belongs to a group of words that mean “garden”. There is a garden, called Eden, at the beginning of the Bible. There is a garden at the end of the Bible called “the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, and the Bride of Christ.”

A paradise was a garden like a park. It was a garden for great people. A paradise was a garden for royalty where a king or a queen could go out and pick a ripe peach.

It was not just a fancy ornamental garden. It was a functional, fruitful garden. It was useful as well as beautiful. A paradise would have trees, and fruit, and water, and beauty.

More than that, a paradise was meant to be lived in, and shared with others. It was a place for fellowship. It was a place to be at home. In ancient times a home was never a place to be alone.

Eden was designed to be the home place of the human race, where we would share our home with God. The New Jerusalem was designed to be the future home place of the new human race, of which Christ makes us a part.

Paul talks about our being at home in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, in the fifth chapter. It starts out: “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” (5:1)

And then he says, beginning in verse six: “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” (5:6-9)

Now home is the place where we sleep but, even more than that, home is a place where we live, where we are truly and fully ourselves. Paul uses the idea of being at home in the body to describe being physically alive in this world. When our bodies are healthy and well, we are at home in them, we are truly and fully ourselves in our bodies.

And then Paul says that we can be away from our bodies and at home with the Lord. This would mean that, when we are not alive physically in this world, we are living with God.

When God’s people are away from the body and at home with the Lord, we are truly at home. We are truly and fully ourselves. To be at home in the body is a fruitful and beautiful place to be. To be at home away from the body, with the Lord, is also a fruitful and beautiful place to be. It is like a paradise.

And then the Book of Revelation shows paradise coming from heaven to earth, at a future time when the judgment of God has come, and the living and the dead are brought together in the resurrection, and heaven and earth are made new. Paradise is described as a city, and it is described as a garden, and it is described as the Bride of Christ; the Bride of the Lamb.

In the Old Testament, God’s people, in the form of Israel, were described as the Lord’s bride. (Isaiah54:5-7 and Hosea 2:19) In the New Testament, God’s people, in the form of the church, are described as the Lord’s bride. (Matthew 22:2-14 and Ephesians 5:32) So in some way paradise is not a place, but it is a network of people, a network of souls, who are enjoying the presence of God together, and enjoying each other.

We are talking about things beyond our understanding; but if God is beyond our understanding, and if he loves us, and wants to share himself with us, then God will have to take us to a place, or an experience, beyond our understanding.

I mean who can understand “streets of gold as clear as crystal”? And how could we ever really want such a thing?

Our understanding of the joys of heaven is like the understanding that a four-year-old would have of a honeymoon. A four-year-old went to his cousin’s wedding and at the reception he heard all the talk and jokes about the honeymoon. He was confused by this, and he wondered what it was all about. So he asked his Dad.

His Dad carefully did his best. He said, “Son, when you grow up, if you get married, your honeymoon will be one of the happiest times of your life.” “Will I be able to take my toy dinosaurs along?” “Uh…no…you probably won’t take your dinosaurs on your honeymoon. But you’ll still have a great time.” “Then can my friend Jeffery come with me on my honeymoon?” “No, Jeffery won’t come.” “Then I don’t know if I want to go on a honeymoon, Daddy. It doesn’t sound like much fun to me.” (“1001 More Humorous Illustrations”, Michael Hodgin, #566)

To say that paradise in heaven, and in the resurrection, is the best of all homes is comforting because it enables us to imagine heaven being full of comfortable things; but gold, and jewels, and blazing light, and thrones, and crowns are not comfortable things at all. They are just the opposite!

Paradise is full of glory. Most of us are not looking for glory. We are embarrassed at the thought of glory, or we would be embarrassed if we thought other people knew that (deep in our hearts) we were out for glory. We sure don’t like other people hogging the glory.

Remember that paradise is us; paradise is a network of people. It is the gathering of all God’s people who have ever lived or will ever live. John tells us that we will shine with the glory of God.

Imagine glory being the clothing of God. Think of what it would be like for a little girl to dress in her mother’s dress, or for a boy to wear his dad’s boots and hat: dressed in their parent’s glory. Or think of a small child singing in a Christmas program, or riding a two-wheeler for the first time, with their mom and dad watching.

They are in their glory, but there is nothing egotistic or proud about that glory. They are full of glory because their parents are full of pleasure in them.

The Bible gives us pictures of glory because it is as hard to put into words as the feeling of a child basking in the glory of his or her parents’ pleasure. You can only understand it if you already know it. If you don’t know it no one can explain it to you.

A lot of our life, in the present, is about the process of learning. We learn what our limits are, and what we can’t do, or (as we get older) what we can’t do anymore. Life is a lot about learning what doesn’t give other people pleasure, but paradise is different. A toddler walks because someone who loves them is holding out arms of love and strength to them, and beaming with pride and joy. Glory, for us, will be a life of what we can do because we can see God’s pleasure in what we do, because we see him there reaching out to us.

There are walls around the paradise at the end of the Bible. I really don’t like walls except as places to put bookshelves or to keep the weather out. Walls are not comfortable except as shelter.

Sometimes I have thought that the walls around paradise, in the Book of Revelation were about shelter and safety, but the gates of the city are always open, so safety and shelter are not the issue.

The enemies outside are not to be feared. The enemies at the end of the Book of Revelation are not trying to get into paradise at all. They don’t want to come in. But for us the walls are about coming in.

For us, a lot of life is about going out, letting go, leaving something or someone behind. But paradise is about coming in. It’s about people and pleasures coming together instead of pulling apart. Paradise is about hellos and not goodbyes. Paradise is that kind of good home.

The sorry criminal on the right side of Jesus looked his own life in the face. He saw himself from the point of view of his own cross. He firmly believed that he deserved to die there. He was getting what he deserved. That is what he said. It was right and fitting: a horrible thought.

Then he said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He doesn’t mean just, “Think of me.” In the Bible, “remember me” means, “Act upon me and deal with me. Take up my case.”

The criminal knew that his own cross was his proper fate. His life had been the kind of life that deserved that kind of death. He saw himself as he was. There was nothing he could do about it. He had nothing to fit to give to make things different.

Then he looked at Jesus dying on the cross next to him. Even there Jesus seemed like a king. Maybe Jesus would look at him and see that something else was right for him.

Jesus did just that. Jesus looked at him and saw that paradise, today, was right place for that sorry soul. There, beside him, was a man who would thrive on grace. There was a human being who would love to come in, and come home, at last, for ever, and hear a father graciously say, “Well done!”

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