This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
(Lent Sermon Series on the Words of the Cross.)
Scripture: Luke 23:39-43
(Everything in bold in the manuscript is meant to appear on the screen, unannounced, as the sermon is presented.)
“I Tell You The Truth, Today You Will Be with Me In Paradise.”
Text: Luke 23:43
As we come to the second “words of the cross,” we find ourselves listening to a deathbed conversation between three dying men. It begins with one of the criminals mocking Jesus, it continues with the other criminal defending Jesus and recognizing His rule, and it concludes with Jesus pardoning the repentant man and giving him eternal life. Let’s lean in and listen to what was said:
Read Luke 23:39-43
Our goal today is to take to understand and take to heart what Jesus promised the man who was crucified with him. We will do that by working from the end of his statement to the beginning.
Ready? Let’s begin!
Have you wondered what heaven is like? I certainly have. I wonder where it is, I wonder what we will do there, I wonder if it will be fun and I worry that it might be boring. I wonder what we will wear, what we will eat, what we will do, where we will live. I wonder whether or not we will recognize people in their new bodies and I wonder what those new bodies will actually look like. What will the climate be like? Will the landscape be rural or urban? How will we get around? How high will we be able to jump and how fast will we be able to run? Will those of us who are married still be partners in some celestial way that surpasses marriage as we know it? Will we hang out with angels and eat with Jesus? Will there be animals and, in particular, will beloved family pets who have died put their wet noses in the palms of our hands and beg us to take them for a daily walk. And if they do, where will that walk take us? Will there be seniors and babies and middle-aged people or will we all be the same age? Will we see God face to face and what will he look like? Will all our questions finally be answered?
Paradise, the word Jesus used on the cross to describe heaven, is very rare in the Bible. It is actually a Persian word meaning “enclosure” or “park” or “garden” and our text offers the first time this word appears in scripture.
The second occurrence is in II Corinthians where Paul, talking about an out of the body experience that transported him up to a place he called the third heaven, wrote: “And I know that this man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows – was caught up to Paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.” (II Corinthians 12:3,4)
The third and final occurrence of the word “paradise” is in the book of Revelation where John’s vision is described in awe-inspiring detail. Again, it is Jesus who used this word when he promised: “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)
The reference to “the tree of life in the paradise of God” provides an important clue. Paradise is not just any kind of garden or enclosure. It is the sinless, weedless and painless Garden of Eden that is described in the first pages of the Bible: “Now the Lord had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.” (Genesis 2:8)
So this is what Jesus promised the criminal after his death! So this is how we may picture heaven and eternal life. We are not destined for some misty, disembodied experience in some far away galaxy. Instead we are destined to live and work and play and find community with our Creator and our fellow creatures in a place of great beauty filled with colour and sound and life and meaningful activity. What will heaven be like? It will be like the garden of Eden before the fall into sin, a place, to quote Milton’s Paradise Lost, of “flowers of all hue, and without thorn, the rose” (PL 4.246-68).
I have heard it said that the most popular recreational activity in North America is … gardening! I wonder what that says about us? Does it reveal our basic longing to return not just to nature but to our first home, the garden God created for Adam and Eve between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers?
No-one has captured what heaven will be like as well as C.S. Lewis. Taking his cue from Jesus’ reference to Paradise and Isaiah 11’s depiction of predators and prey living together in perfect harmony, Lewis imagined a magical place he called Narnia. Heaven, Lewis suggested, is a gloriously beautiful and exciting place of unlimited adventure and unlimited security where you can swim up waterfalls and play with wild animals without ever being afraid. Heaven is a place of re-union with the people you love to see and get to know, a place where good things never end and each adventure is better than the one before. Heaven is a place where every creature is in the prime of life, in the best possible physical shape, and free from the constraints of time and the bondage of sin (Dummies.com. Peeking Into C.S. Lewis’ Version of Heaven).
A place called paradise is what Jesus promised the criminal on the cross. An experience somewhat like but even greater than what C.S. Lewis joyfully imagined is what awaits you when you die in Christ, or when Christ returns, whichever comes first.
“You Will Be With Me”
One of the most excruciating experiences in life is to be left out, to be unwanted. I suspect that the thief on the cross knew the pain of rejection. I base that on the fact that he is called both a criminal and a “robber” (Mark) in the gospels. We also have his own admission that he deserved execution. So I don’t think we would be far off to imagine him as a misfit, a person abandoned and unloved, a person whose life of crime reflected a loveless, unloved life. My guess is that there was no one on Golgotha to mourn his death, to support him on his cruel deathbed. My guess is that he lived his life believing that no-one would want anything to do with him, especially someone who, unlike him, “had done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41).
Imagine then his shocked reaction when Jesus looked him in the eye and said, “you will be with me.”
You and me? How could that possibly be? Like a kid always picked last, inexplicably chosen first for once, he must have looked at Jesus in disbelief. You and me? A king and a con man? A ruler and a robber? A saviour and a sinner? Together forever? You and me?
Jesus must have received that reaction time and again during his life, as despised tax collectors and prostitutes and lepers felt his love and acceptance. How many others before and how many others since have been shocked to hear that Jesus wanted to be with them? How many of us have not thought: You and me? In paradise?
And yet, that is precisely the heart of the good news: that there is a God who wants to be with us. That good news is clearly heard in the promise of the coming Messiah quoted in the Christmas story: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel – which means ‘God with us’.” (Matthew 1:23)
Like the criminal, we are shocked at the news that God is more than willing to stoop down to us. But we should never forget that in the original paradise, God created humans not just to tend the garden, but to enjoy fellowship with him. You get a strong sense of that in Genesis 3:8,9 where we read: “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’” (Genesis 3:8,9)
So here’s the thing: God created us for fellowship with him. God’s goal is to be “with us” again. And God’s agent of reconciliation is Jesus. The phrase “you will be with me” is what the Bible is all about, the reason Jesus came to live and die.
Looking at it from our point of view, like the criminal we should be totally shocked. Why would Jesus want to spend time with me! Looking at it from the Lord’s point of view, however, we should not be shocked at all. He wants nothing more than to walk with us in the garden in the cool of the day as he sought to do that fateful day when Adam and Eve hid in fear.
I will put it as simply as I possibly can: Jesus loved the criminal on the cross and wanted to be with him. And Jesus loves you and wants to be with you.
Thankfully, the criminal experienced this love just before he died. Regrettably, he did not experience this love until then. How different his life would have been had he only lived it with Jesus walking by his side!
It doesn’t have to be that way for you. You don’t have to wait till the last minute of your life to be with the Lord. You can turn to him now, if you have not done so already, and ask him to remember you, to walk with you, to be there with you wherever life takes you. The grace that was there for a hardened criminal is there for you, too. All you have to do is ask and he will say, “You will be with me.”
When the criminal died, he immediately joined Jesus in His Kingdom. That day. But how does this work, exactly?
Once again, C.S. Lewis has been a tremendous help, using his creative imagination to distinguish our concept of time and God’s concept of time.
The question is this: When a person dies, where does he go and when does he get there? Does he enter a state called “soul sleep” until Jesus returns? Does he go to a place called purgatory, an intermediate place until he is ready to move on? Does he go instantly to heaven? And how can that be since Jesus has not come back yet and the new earth and paradise has not yet been restored?
It helps to remember that Jesus’ concept of “today” is very different from ours. When Peter wrote about the Day of the Lord and tried to reassure Christians who were impatient to see Jesus come back, he said: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (II Peter 3:8) In other words, time is a human construct, a linear experience of seconds, minutes, hours, day, weeks, months and years. Eternity, on the other hand, is a divine experience, a constant living in the now that holds past, present and future in the same moment.
When a Christian dies, he enters eternity and immediately arrives at that moment where Jesus is coming and paradise is restored. Like pushing through the fur coats in the wardrobe and tumbling into Narnia, the believer who dies in the Lord instantly arrives there. In the meantime, those who are left behind continue to measure their experience with clocks and calendars, constrained by the schedules and routines that we are forced to keep.
Is this just a fantasy, a human attempt to express the inexpressible and understand a divine reality that we can never grasp? Perhaps. But there is also the Bible which says, “According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” (II Thessalonians 4:15) In other words, like people who sleep and are oblivious to the passing of time, waking up in what seems like a second later while others put in a full shift at work, those who die in the Lord wake up instantly at the moment of Christ’s second coming to join those who happen to be still alive when he returns. In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis captures this beautifully at the end of the story when the four children who grew into adults in Narnia tumble back out of the wardrobe only to find themselves back at the precise moment in time when their adventure first began!
It really is true that to God a thousand years is like a day. The comfort we have is that our loved ones are with the Lord today in eternity even though we are still waiting for that Day to arrive in human time. Isn’t it incredible that we may picture them in paradise right now!
“I Tell You the Truth”
Do you believe this? The criminal did. And I do, too. I’ll tell you why.
This world is full of liars, and the robber knew some and was one. This world is also full of speculators, and I certainly recognize myself as a person who loves to speculate about the future and even what life after death will be like. On the other hand, there is one voice of truth that can be fully trusted. He is the one who began so many of his teachings with these words, “Verily, verily, I say unto you,” and “I tell you the truth.”
Here’s the thing: Everyone, including you, needs a place to stand, a starting place for developing a world and life view. Like a compass or a level, that place to stand must be trustworthy and true. And that true place to stand is Jesus who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). In fact, there was and is nothing false or dishonest in him, nothing unreliable or untrustworthy about him. People heard him preach, saw him do miracles, watched him carry the cross and were amazed at his authority. He has never lied to us or let us down or steered us wrong. That’s why we can base our view of life and death on every word He ever uttered, including these words spoken on the cross to the criminal crucified with him.
You can follow someone else, but I would not recommend it. Instead, I urge you to do what Jesus advised his followers: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31,32).
After a lifetime of lying and being lied to, the man crucified with Jesus shook himself free from the opinions of the other criminal and separated himself from the mob hostility that was aimed at Jesus and decided to take a step of faith. He turned to Jesus and put his trust in Him. When he did, Jesus looked at him with a heart full of compassion and eyes full of promise and said: “I tell you the truth.” And after a lifetime of rejection, deception and violence, the criminal died in peace and entered paradise with Jesus at His side.
Isn’t that the way you want to live? Isn’t that the way you want to die? Isn’t that the way you want to live again?