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Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:

Reign of Christ Sunday:  Jeremiah 23:1-6 AND Luke 1:69-70 OR Jeremiah 23:1-6 AND Psalm 46:1-11, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43

If observed as Thanksgiving Sunday (readings for Thanksgiving Day):  Deuteronomy 26:1-11 AND Psalm 100:1-5, Philippians 4:4-9, John 6:25-35

The focus on images of what it will be like when God’s ideal is realized continues in this week’s lectionary readings.  The lectionary year ends with the promise of such realization.  I found myself focusing upon the word “paradise.”  To talk about paradise is one way to talk about the ideal of life where Christ reigns.  I’ve also included the reading for Thanksgiving Day for those who want to think of the coming Sunday as Thanksgiving Sunday.  We might ask what are the hints of paradise that come our way in this life and elicit our thanksgiving?

The word “paradise” appears infrequently in the Bible and is attributed to Jesus only once---in the reading from Luke 23.  In the Old Testament it is a word of Persian origin which means a royal park or garden, sometimes thought of as an orchard or a forest.  It came to be applied to the Garden of Eden.  Luke 23 tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion between two criminals.  (vs. 23)  People are taunting Jesus whose cross bears the inscription, “This is the King of the Jews.”  (vs. 37)  If he is the Messiah (the specially anointed king sent to save the world), why doesn’t he saved himself?  (vss. 35-37)  One of the criminals joins in (vs. 39) but the other says, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  (vss. 40-14)  Then he says to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into you kingdom,” and Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  (vss. 42-43)

We often take this conversation to be about heaven.  The criminal, though, probably had in mind that, by some miracle, Jesus was still going to establish a kingdom of peace and justice on earth.  That was the prevailing expectation of believers during Jesus’ day.  Nor was paradise, in Jesus’ day, thought of in terms of heaven.  It was an earthly place (a utopia, if you wish) where there was no rain or snow or intense heat, a place refreshed by a gentle wind perpetually blowing from the ocean.  If we take Jesus’ use of paradise here to be similar to his teaching about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, both definitions may miss the mark.  He talked about the kingdom as a place in the here and now, in our midst, in our hearts, in our relationships.  More than once he talks about it as something being realized “today.”  Now he does it again.  You will realize paradise today.

This exchange between Jesus and the criminal set me to thinking about the ideal that I might consider “paradise.”  During our recent trip to Hawaii, I heard someone say, “Welcome to paradise!”  I enjoyed the beauty of Hawaii, but I did not experience it as “paradise.”  I invite you to think about what it is that you might experience as paradise.  My main takeaway for Luke’s story is that paradise is a place where we are together with and surrounded by the fullness of love.

The reading from Colossians gives us an expansive poem about that all-encompassing love embodied in Jesus.  “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers---all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.”  (Colossians 1:15-18)  And then this mind-blowing statement:  “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”  (vss. 19-10)

This poem reminds us that the reality of God’s love pervades and gives life to and reconciles all things.  Now that’s peace, part of a vision of paradise for many of us.  It will certainly take a lot of reconciliation for that kind of peace to be realized.
 
Jeremiah dreams of a world in which the leaders (“shepherds”) are working to build such a world. (Jeremiah 23:4)  The present leaders, he says, are not doing that, almost as if he were looking into our time and speaking about our leaders.  (vss. 1-2)  Then, in verses which came to be applied to the expected Messiah and eventually to Jesus, the Lord says, through Jeremiah, “The days are surely coming . . . when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as kind and deal widely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  (vs. 5)

The alternative reading from Luke foresees the coming of that same leader.  The Lord God “has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David” whom we might serve “without fear, in holiness and righteousness.”  (Luke 1:68-69 & 74-75)  The words are spoken by Zechariah at the circumcision of his son (and Jesus’ cousin), John the Baptist.  He goes on to say to his son, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.  By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break among us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  (vss. 27-29)

The vision of paradise we see here includes holiness and righteousness, forgiveness, and light to guide us in the way of peace.  John is called to prepare the way for such a paradise.  Would that we might all take up the mission of preparing the way for such a paradise.

Like Colossians, Psalm 46 describes a place (“the city of God”) where God is ever present, making wars to cease.  (Psalm 46:4-5 & 9)

The readings for Thanksgiving Day begin with instruction for those who have reached a “Promised Land.”  There are all kinds of problems, in my mind, with the notion that God would sanction a group to go in and take over a land already occupied by others.  The consequences of the belief in entitlement to such land continue to haunt us to this day.  Although it doesn’t mitigate those problems, it is important to note that, in the original promise to Abraham, God said, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  (Genesis 12:2)  The attitude of entitlement is misguided.  The focus of the promise is outward, about reaching out so that God’s blessing flows to all people.

No matter what interpretations I bring to the promise and possession of a “Promised Land,” I am not at ease with it.  Deuteronomy, however, does calls us to humility and thanksgiving for whatever we have, however it has come to us.  We cannot undo all the land issues that have arisen from thousands of years of history.  We can decry arrogance and abuse, acting as if our “possessions” allowed us to lord it over others and oppress them.

This week’s reading from Deuteronomy calls the people to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving to God, “the first of all the fruit of the ground.”  (Deuteronomy 26:2)  In Deuteronomy, chapter 8, they are warned, When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself . . . Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’”  (Deuteronomy 8:12-14 & 17)

Often much of our thanksgiving focusses upon material possessions.  The Gospel lesson for Thanksgiving Day comments on such a focus.  The Gospel According to John reports that Jesus fed 5000 people who had followed him to a mountainside.  (John 6:1-14)  Then Jesus withdrew to be by himself.  (vs. 15)  The lectionary reading picks up the story with the people finding him “on the other side of the sea.”  (vs. 25)  Jesus chides them, telling them that they are only interested in him, “because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  (vs. 26)  He suggests that there is something more important than “food that perishes,” speaking of “food that endures for eternal life.”  (vs. 27)  He points them toward “bread from heaven.”  (vss. 32-35) 

Without further interpretation, it is enough to note, in our thanksgiving, that there are things much greater than possessions for which we can give thanks.  Perhaps paradise, in fact, is defined by such things.  The reading from Philippians, after calling us to rejoice (Philippians 4:4), calls us to “think about these things”---“whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable”---things of “excellence” and “worthy of praise.”  (vs. 8)

In the framework of today’s theme, I suggest that wherever such values prevail, we are experiencing a bit of paradise---reason to give thanks.  And Philippians tells us to “keep on doing” such things.

That leaves only Psalm 100 which, perhaps, catches the essence of paradise when  its call us to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” and “enter his gates with thanksgiving.”  (Psalm 100:1 & 4)  What is the Psalmist so ecstatic about?  “We are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”  (vs. 3)  There we come back to the imagery of good shepherding of which Jeremiah spoke.  “His steadfast love endures forever; and his faithfulness to all generations.”  (vs. 5)  When we live fully into such truths perhaps we will find paradise.  Maybe it can even begin today!

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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