For students taking notes, the title of the sermon for tonight is “Paradise,” and the text is from Luke 23:43. This is the second word of Jesus from the cross, when Jesus said to the thief also hanging on another cross, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
Paradise. We as human beings are all looking and finding paradise. Where is paradise for you? Where is the place of perfection?
You students do not need to take notes on the following thoughts.
For me, paradise is Paradise National Park on the southwest slopes of Mount Rainier. You go up there in the summer time or winter time. How do you get there? You go south on #167 and take a left through Puyallup and then to Eatonville and then through the Nisqually entrance, past Camp Longmeyer, on up to Paradise Park itself. The old inn of a hotel is there at Paradise and a large parking lot. From that parking lot, you can hike up to Panorama Point and the view is glorious. Or you can hike to Mazama Ridge in August and experience the mountain wild flowers like you have never seen before. The flowers were so gorgeous this past summer, we invited some friends to go up with us to experience the wild mountain flowers in their pristine beauty. The flowers were all over and up to your knees. You almost feel like it is a high mountain garden, that the sun, water and soil are in perfect balance to create one of the most beautiful paradises for humankind. Or, in the winter after a freshly fallen winter snow, you can cross country ski down to the most beautiful mountain valley you have ever seen, as we did two days ago. On Monday, my days off, my wife and I skied the snow drifted valley and there were no tracks. The Tatoosh Mountain Range was out in all of its perfection, as was Mount Rainier in all of its glory. It would have not been any fun by myself; I wanted someone to share the mountain valley with me and that someone was my wife. The place is paradise. It is rightly named. You can see and feel the Presence of God right there in front of you and around you. Paradise. I know where to find it. Two hours from our front door up on Mount Rainier. Summer or winter. Paradise National Park.
We get glimpses of paradise elsewhere. At the ocean beach. On Puget Sound. On a lake. In our gardens. When a child is born. We receive glimpses of paradise all the time throughout our lives.
I have been thinking about paradise a lot lately and I think there are at least five qualities that make for paradise. That is, if there was a recipe for paradise, I think there would be at least five ingredients. For you students, please take the following notes:
- Paradise is a place of enormous beauty. Please write that down. Paradise is a place of enormous beauty and you have to use the word, enormous or some similar word. When you are at a place you call paradise, wherever it may be, there is incredible beauty all around you. Like up at Paradise Park, the beauty is all around you, all 360 degrees of beauty. In the Bible, God says that no eye can see nor can a mind imagine the good things that God has planned for us. The beauty of paradise is overwhelming.
- In paradise, you see and feel the Presence of God. Please write that phrase down. In paradise, you see and feel the Presence of God. You sense that God has left his footprints in paradise; you can see the creativity of God. You can see God, the artist, having been at work and this place is part of God’s artistic painting. God used wild opulent colors when God painted the mountain flowers of summer. This past wintery Monday, God the painter used snow crystals and you could see a billion snow crystals glowing in the sun.
- You want to share paradise with another person you love. Please write that down. You want to share paradise with another person you love. Yes, there are many other animals in paradise such as deer and elk and bear and hawks and wrens and so many other living creatures. But none of these creatures share your language, share your intelligence, and share your sense of beauty and God. You want another human being to be with you in paradise, someone you love and can share paradise with.
- In paradise, there is an absence of conflict, pain, and evil. Write that down please. In paradise, there is no pain, conflict, or evil. You know, it wouldn’t be paradise if there was a war going on or people were starving or people were hurting each other.
- In paradise, your heart is filled with thanksgiving and praise to God. Students, please write that down. In paradise, your heart is filled with thanksgiving and prayer to God. When I stood in that whitened meadow of snow this past Monday, and looked up at the Tatoosh Mountain Range and then back at Mount Rainier in all of its glory, you couldn’t help being full of God’s beauty and my heart was both thankful to God and was praising God for all the beauty. You add up numbers one to five and you get paradise.
Because paradise is all around us, we can understand the Bible when it talks about paradise.
Paradise is found in the beginning of the Bible, at the end of the Bible and in the middle of the Bible. Students, please write that down. Paradise is found in the beginning, ending, and middle of the Bible.
Point A: The Bible begins with stories about paradise. In the Old Testament, paradise is the Garden of Eden. Students, please write that down. In the Old Testament, paradise is the Garden of Eden. The Greek word for paradise sounds like our English word for paradise. The Greek word for paradise sounds like “paradaysos” from which we get our English word paradise. The Greek word, paradise, simply means a garden, and in the second and third chapters of Genesis, we hear often about God’s paradise, God’s garden of Eden. In these Genesis stories, we hear that God planted the garden, and put a man in that garden. God then planted trees for beauty and food. God also planted two exotic species of trees in that garden paradise, the tree of life and if you ate of that tree, you would live forever. The second exotic tree in the middle of the garden was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. These were two exotic trees and you need to remember them for later. Also, there was water in that paradise; there were four rivers bringing fresh water. But God thought that that man should not be alone in that garden paradise and so God created all the living creatures of the world. But man was still lonesome, even with all those animals and birds, and so God created a woman for the man, so both the man and the woman could really enjoy that garden paradise together. But…there was also… a…snake in paradise, the sneaky, slithering power of evil, and that sneaky slithering power of evil tempted Adam and Eve. There was the potential for evil lurking in that garden. There was the tree of good and evil and the snake.
Point B: But the Bible also ends with paradise. At the end of the Bible, we also encounter paradise. We discover the eternal city of God, the eternal paradise of God. Paradise is described as being a heavenly city with streets paved with gold and with pearly gates. All the animals and all the kings and all the people will be praising God. We also discover that there is no snake in paradise and there is no tree of the knowledge of good and evil in paradise. In paradise in the last book of the Bible, evil has been destroyed and there will be no more pain and no more crying and no more death. And paradise will last forever and ever and ever and ever. You have only one tree in paradise: the tree of life, the tree of everlasting life.
So paradise is found at both ends of the Bible, in Genesis and in Revelation.
Point C: In the middle of the Bible, between Genesis and Revelation, we hear Jesus’ words about paradise today from the cross. Students, please write that down. In between Genesis and Revelation, we hear Jesus’ words about paradise from the cross.
Let me tell you the story of these words about paradise from the cross. Two thieves were hanging from their crosses just as Jesus was hanging from his cross in the middle. All three men were in enormous, awful pain. The first criminal kept hurling insults at Jesus, “If you are God, save yourself and us.” I will label him the bad criminal, the bad thief.
But let us focus on the second or good thief and there are five positive characteristics of this thief, and I want you students to write them down. These same characteristics are found in Christians today.
- The good criminal did not scoff at Jesus or make fun of God. Please write that down. The first criminal did and so did the religious leaders beneath the cross. They all poked fun at Jesus. Nowadays, many people do not fear God or worship Jesus but instead ridicule people who believe in God and in Christ. The good thief did not mock God or make fun of Jesus Christ. So it is with Christians. Many of our friends may mock God and make fun of Christ, but we as Christians do not join in their taunts.
- The good thief feared God. Please write that down. He said to the bad criminal, “Don’t you fear God? For we have received the due rewards of our deeds.” In other words, the good thief stood in awe of God, in reverence for God. He worshipped God as powerful Lord of the universe. Christians fear God or stand in awe of God. Now, I, or your parents, can’t force you to stand in awe of God. We cannot make you do that, as much as we would like. Through a miracle of God’s Spirit, you may come to stand in awe of God, believe in God, and fall down on your knees before God. All Christians do. And so did this thief on the cross.
- The good thief knew that he was guilty and deserved punishment. Please write that down. He said, “We are receiving the just rewards for our deeds.” Christians feel that way about ourselves. We know that we are guilty of sin and we deserve punishment. We are guilty of all the sins we have done and all the good things we didn’t do for people. We Christians are keenly aware that we have sinned against God and others and we deserve punishment. None of us deserve eternal paradise with God. Christians feel this way about ourselves.
- The good thief knew Jesus. This is the only time in the Bible that the name, Jesus, is used with no other title. Normally, the New Testament refers to him as the Lord Jesus Christ or Jesus Christ. There is always a title associated with his name, but here on this moment from the cross, the good thief simply calls to him as Jesus. The name Jesus means “savior from our sins.” He called him Jesus; that is, he had a personal relationship with Jesus. And we as Christians are to do the same. We are called to have a personal relationship with Jesus and call him by his personal name.
- The good thief believed in Jesus. That is, he said, “Remember me when you come into your kingly power.” This thief believed in Jesus and that Jesus was going to come into kingly power. You can’t be a Christian without believing in Jesus.
And so when you all it all up, when you all up all the things the good thief said, you realize that he becomes a model for us of the Christian life. In other words, in this short moment, the thief had become a Christian.
And then comes the words from the cross, those glorious words that echo across the centuries and into our sanctuary, into our homes, into our hearts. Words from 2000 years today when Jesus said to the thief, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
Briefly, let us focus on four words or phrases of these powerful words of Jesus.
Today. Write down the word, today. Immediately. Instantaneously. Now. Not tomorrow. Not in a hundred years. A in a thousand years. A in a million years. But today. Immediately. We don’t understand it. We cannot prove it. We can’t tell you where paradise is. But Jesus said, Today you will be with me in paradise. In Romans 8, which some people say is the greatest passage in the whole Bible, we hear that “nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not principalities or powers. Not the devil and his angels. Not disease. Not death. Nothing. Nothing can separate us from the Lord of God which is found in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You. Write down the word, you. That means you and me. We too will be in paradise with God when we die. At Christmas time, we often say, your name needs to be on the present for you to receive the gift. Christ’s promise is not only towards the thief on the cross but Christ’s promise is directed towards you and me as well. To be a Christian, you need to realize that God’s gift is for you personally.
With me. Write down the words, with me. In paradise, the emphasis in the Bible is not on being reunited with our loved ones from earth. We then go to paradise to be reunited with our long lost mother, father, brother, sister, spouse who have died before us. That is not the emphasis in the Bible. But what the Bible emphasizes is better, is much better. We will be with Christ, and when we are with Christ in paradise, we are with pure grace, with God’s Presence with is pure love, who forgives us all our sins. When we face the final judgment, we know that we are with Christ, that Christ has his protective arms around us.
In paradise. There is that word again, that word found in the very beginning of the Bible and at the very end of the Bible. Paradise. We will see the incredible beauty all around us. We will seen the face and glory of God. We will be with loved ones. There will no war nor starvation nor evil for these things will have been all destroyed. And our hearts, knowing all of this, will be filled with praise and thanksgiving.
Tonight, Jesus speaks to you through the centuries: Today, you will be with me in paradise. What a grand promise of God. Amen.
Biblical Responsive Reading
Litany (read responsively)
Leader: Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground -- trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Genesis 2:8-9, 15
Congregation: And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. Genesis 3:22-24
L: You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus be cursed," and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit. There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. I Corinthians 12:2-4
C: He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. Revelation 2:7
L: In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. John 14:2-3
C: One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."