Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Becoming Paradise People

Preached on Sunday, April 19, 2015

Scripture readings: Revelation 21:1-7, 9-14 & 22:1-5; Luke 23:32-43

A couple Photos Around My Yard: March 2015
There was a young pastor who had just completed seminary and he found himself officiating at his first funeral. His congregation was in a small farming town with lots of orchards, and he wanted to relate his words to his new community. As he stood by the grave, this is what he said: “What we lay to rest in this place is only the shell of the one we knew so well. We have the shell, but the nut has gone.”
Jesus said this to the criminal being crucified beside him: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (NIV)
That criminal had to be surprised by what Jesus said, and even confused. He would have been surprised and confused and somehow comforted by the grace and the love that he found in Jesus’ words. He knew that he didn’t deserve anything that he heard and found in Jesus.
He could also have been surprised and confused by the words “today” and “paradise” going side by side.
The Jews commonly believed that, in the period between one’s death and the resurrection, the soul lived in a state of waiting: waiting for God to work, waiting for the resurrection to come, waiting for paradise.
The Jewish people have never come to a single idea about what happens to a person immediately after death. Christians have sometimes come to similar different conclusions: waiting or arriving, or a little bit of both.
What shocked and confused the sorry criminal was that Jesus seemed to say that they were not going to be resurrected into paradise someday in the future. There would be no waiting for the great things to begin. They were going to die their way into paradise today.
The sorry criminal who asked Jesus to remember him was surprised and confused when Jesus put the words “today” and “paradise” together, because Jesus was giving him more and better than he had asked for: more than he dared to hope for, more than he dared to believe.
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, and more than we ask. This is typical of the God revealed in the Bible.
The word paradise is not a common Bible word, but it is a common Bible thing. It belongs to a whole group of words that mean “garden”. Especially the word paradise meant the king’s garden. The paradise was the place where the king could simply be himself with his family and his friends. Paradises were places of peace, and friendship, and intimacy.
There was just such a garden at the beginning of the Bible. That paradise was called Eden. In the cool of the day, the Lord would walk in Eden with his children and friends, Adam and Eve.
There is also a paradise at the end of the Bible. It is called “the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ.” It is the garden of the marriage between God and his people. It’s the place of peace, friendship, and intimacy. It’s the place where God is simply himself and his people are simply themselves, with no pretensions, with no illusions, and with nothing in between. It’s the place to be at home with the King. Paradise is another word for home.
Church Yard: March 2015
In the ancient world, a paradise was one of the nicest of the king’s living spaces, but it wasn’t just nice to look at. It was a fruitful garden. It had trees, and fruit, and water. It had nourishment and beauty.
Eden was designed to be home, and also a place of nourishment and beauty. It was designed to be the ideal home place of the human race, where we would share our home with God. Or was it the other way around? Didn’t Eden belong to God?
The New Jerusalem also belongs to God. It is designed to be the ideal home place of the human race: the human race reborn in Jesus. In Jesus we find ourselves in the garden of nourishment and beauty. In Christ we belong to the home place of forgiveness and grace. We belong to the home place of healing and the wiping away of tears, the place where death stops and life is received.
Paul talks about our being at home in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, in the fifth chapter. It starts out this way: “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)
Photos Taken around White Bluffs, Columbia River
March 2015
Now home may be the place where we sleep but, much more than that, home is the place where we live; where we are truly and fully ourselves and alive. 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, and 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 means that, when we are not alive physically in this world, we are living with God. We are at home, and truly and fully ourselves.
To be at home in the body is a fruitful and beautiful place to be. To be at home with the Lord, away from the body, is also a fruitful and beautiful place to be. It is like paradise.
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. (Isaiah 54:5-7 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. Paradise it is a network of people who are enjoying the presence of God together, and enjoying each other as the children of God.
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 ability to understand the joys of heaven is like the ability of a four-year-old child to understand the joy and glory of a honeymoon. A four-year-old went to a cousin’s wedding and, at the reception, he heard all the talk and the jokes about the honeymoon, and he was confused by what he heard. 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 as being full of comfortable things; but gold, and jewels, and blazing light, and thrones, and crowns are not comfortable things at all. It’s just the opposite!
It doesn’t mean that heaven is full of metal, and gems, and uncomfortable chairs and hats. It means that paradise is full of glory. We can use the most priceless things in the world to describe glory, but that doesn’t mean that those priceless things are the glory.
Remember that paradise is us in the presence of God. Paradise is a relationship. Paradise is a network of people and God. It is the gathering of all God’s people who have ever lived or ever will live. In Revelation, John tells us that we will shine with the glory of God.
Imagine glory being the clothing of God. Think of what it’s like for a little girl to dress in her mother’s dress, or for a boy to wear his dad’s boots: to be dressed in their parent’s glory. They shine with their parents’ 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 shining. They are all in their glory, but there is nothing egotistical, or proud, or unnatural about that glory. They are full of glory because their parents are full of pleasure in them. It is priceless. It is all gold, and jewels, and thrones, and crowns, and so much more.
That is glory. That is what the gold, and the jewels, and the thrones, and the crowns are about.
A lot of our life, in the present, is about the process of learning. We learn what our limits are. We learn what we can do and cannot do. Or (as we get older) we learn what we can’t do anymore. Life is a lot about learning to avoid 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 see the pleasure that God takes in us and in what we do, because we see him there reaching out to us. That is glory.
There are walls around the paradise at the end of the Bible. I really don’t like walls except as places to put bookshelves. Otherwise, walls are not comfortable except as shelter. In paradise we won’t need shelter.
Then there is privacy. Walls are comfortable because they give us privacy but, in so many ways, we need privacy because we need to shut other people out. Walls keep others from seeing and knowing too much. We have reasons for wanting to do this. Maybe in paradise we will be so changed that there will be no reason for us to shut other people out.
Sometimes I have thought that the walls around paradise, in the Book of Revelation were about safety, but the gates of the city are always open, so safety is not the issue. We will be completely safe, beyond our comprehension. The glory of paradise is that there will be no more fear. There will be nothing to fear.
The enemies outside the walls are not to be feared any more. The enemies at the end of the Book of Revelation will not come in the open gates, no matter how wide open they are, no matter how long they are open. And so the enemies must not 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 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 place.
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 didn’t mean, “Think about me once in a while.” The word “remember,” in the Bible means to take action about something. To remember the Sabbath meant to make the Sabbath happen. For us it means to make a day of rest and worship happen. The thief was saying, “Act upon me. Deal with me. Take up my case.”
The criminal knew that his own cross was his proper fate. His life had been the sort of life that deserved that sort of death. He saw himself as he was. There was nothing he could do about it.
Then he looked at Jesus, and Jesus seemed like a king to him, even dying there on the cross. He saw glory.
Maybe Jesus would look at him and see that something else was right for him; and Jesus could do something about it. After all, didn’t he just hear Jesus say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing?”
Where evil, and sin, and suffering, and punishment, and death seemed the strongest, the sorry soul heard the message of forgiveness. He put his trust in Jesus because of that forgiveness. He also put his trust in Jesus because something told him that Jesus had the power to do something about his life and deal with it, even while he died on the cross.
Sunset, Desert Aire-Mattawa, WA: March 2015
Forgiveness begins for us at the cross. Heaven also begins for us at the cross. In that way, we can say that forgiveness and heaven have begun, for us, today. They have begun for us now, on the cross.
Jesus said as much. Jesus looked at the thief and Jesus saw that paradise, today, was the right place for that sorry soul. Here, beside him, was a person who would thrive on grace. Here was someone who would love to come in and come home, at last and forever, and hear Jesus say, “Well done! I am pleased with you.”

That is glory. That is paradise. That is what we find in Jesus.

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