Tuesday, 7 April 2015

The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
A Sermon for Good Friday 
3/4/15 10.30am

Luke 23.32-49
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.  33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.  34 Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing.  35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!"  36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,  37 and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!"  38 There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews." 
39  One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!"  40 But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong."  42 Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  43 He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." 
44  It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon,  45 while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.  46 Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Having said this, he breathed his last.  47 When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, "Certainly this man was innocent."  48 And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.  49 But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

Revelation 22.1-6  
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb  2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him;  4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. 
6 And he said to me, "These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place."

“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations…”

Facebook seems to have developed a new feature,
            where it occasionally shows me a photo or status update
            from ‘This time last year’

And this morning, as I walked through our local park
            on the way to the tube station
I glanced at my phone,
            and I saw a photo, taken by me on this day last year,
            of a beautiful tree, covered in spring blossom.
I was walking past that same tree as I saw the photo,
            and this year it is still skeletal, still lifeless, still in the death of winter…
It looks as dead as the Christmas Tree that we have used
            to make the cross behind me on the stage.

What is death? What is life?
            What, if anything, is the purpose of life?
            What, if anything, is the meaning of death?

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,[1]
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Macbeth Act 5, scene 5

So says Shakespeare’s Macbeth
            after hearing the news that his wife has died.
And in his despair he strikes right at the heart
            of the fundamental question of life:
What does it count for?
            What is it good for?
                        What, if anything, is its value?
Is it all just destined for destruction?

Such thoughts were certainly on the mind
            of the criminal who found himself being tortured and executed
                        next to Jesus of Nazareth.

We don’t know his crime,
            but Rome had deemed that he should die before his time.
In contrast to those standing around the cross watching on,
            and in contrast to the occupant of the third cross,
this criminal still sought meaning to his life even as it ended:
            ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Luke 23.42).

The hope expressed here was that one day,
            at some future point
                        when wrongs are righted and balances balanced,
            there might be a place for this man
                        in Jesus’ messianic kingdom.

In his reply, Jesus gave the criminal on the cross
            far more than he was expecting:
‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23.43).

The criminal’s hope for participation in a future kingdom
            became the promise of a present paradise.

This word paradise derives from the Persian word for a walled garden,
            and Jesus’ use of it here brings to mind the garden of God,
            an image familiar to us from the story of the garden of Eden (Gen. 2.8).

But the divine garden is more than a place now lost,
            it is a way of life, and a state of soul.

The paradise into which Jesus invites the criminal
            is the eternal garden
which is open to all those who seek it,
            as the curse of Eden (Gen. 3.23-24) is reversed
                        and the unrighteous find life everlasting within God’s garden
                        (Rev. 2.7, 21.25-22.2).

“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations…”

This criminal’s life was not, it seems, wasted.

He received forgiveness
            and his life was found to have eternal value.
He entered into eternal life
            through his encounter with the crucified messiah.

This idea that life may have some eternal quality to it,
            that it may be more than ‘a walking shadow’ that leaves no trace,
is a key theme within the biblical witness.

But the concept of an ‘afterlife’
            only develops fairly late within this tradition.

In the Old Testament, divine reward and punishment
            are predominantly depicted as taking place within this world,
                        with faithfulness to God bringing blessing,
                        and disobedience misfortune.

However, there are occasional glimpses
            of an emerging belief that,
                        whilst at death the body returns to dust,
            the spirit of life returns to the God who gave it (Ecc. 12.7).

So Enoch and Elijah are said to find a place in the heavenly realms
            after their earthly lives have finished (Gen. 5.24; 2 Kgs 2.1-18).

And the Psalms provide an even clearer basis
            for a Jewish hope in an afterlife
                        (Pss. 1.3; 16.10-11; 49.15; 73.24; 139.24),
while Job states clearly his belief
            that in his flesh he shall see God
            even after the destruction of his skin (Job 19.25-27).

However, it is within the apocalyptic tradition
            that a view starts to emerge of the afterlife
                        as a place of reward and judgment,
            as those who have been faithful in this life,
                        but have experienced nothing but trials and persecutions,
            start to look to eternity
                        as the place where justice and vindication might be found
                        (Dan. 12.2-3).

In the New Testament,
            eternal life as articulated by Jesus
                        is less about a hope for the future,
            and more about present lived reality for those who are in Christ.

Life eternal is life lived in all its fullness,
            freed from slavish devotion to those powers and principalities
            that distort and demean God’s image in each created being.

Jesus promises ‘eternal life’ to anyone who ‘believes’ (Jn. 6.47),
            and in the Lazarus story he declares himself
                        ‘the resurrection and the life’ (Jn. 11.23-24). 

Paul emphasises the immediate implications
            of having been united with Christ
                        in his death and resurrection (Rom. 6.5),
            and believes that once he ‘departs’
                        he will be ‘with Christ’ (Phil. 1.21-24).

The dawning eternal kingdom of God
            into which Christian believers are invited,
            and for which they are asked to pray (Matt. 6.10),
becomes manifest in the lives of those who live it.

But it is again the apocalyptic tradition
            that gives us the most compelling images
            of the afterlife in the New Testament,
with the book of Revelation portraying the ultimate destiny of creation
            as a return to the garden of God
            in the midst of the eternal city (Rev. 22.1-6).

Part of this recovery of that which was lost at Eden
            is the stripping away from creation
                        of all that has no eternal value,
            with God’s ultimate judgment on evil and all its works
                        emerging as a key theme.

The concept of ‘hell’ in the New Testament
            is most often expressed in terms of the valley of gehenna,
a burning rubbish dump outside the walls of Jerusalem,
            where the worthless refuse of the city was consigned to the flames
            (Matt. 5.22-30; 10.28; 18.9; 23.15, 33; Mar. 9.43-47; Lk. 12.5; Jam. 3.6).

All human activities which displace God from the centre of creation
            are shown to be futile
as God’s eternity comes into being
            in the midst of those communities that name Jesus as Lord.

Ultimately even death itself
            is consigned to the flames of destruction (Rev. 20.14).

So the witness of the New Testament
            is that for those who are ‘in Christ’,
                        life eternal begins here-and-now.

The goodness, mercy and forgiveness offered and received today
            are eternity in the present moment,
as the world is re-created
            through the faithful witness of those
                        who have been united with Christ
            in his death and resurrection.

Salvation is not about where the soul goes after death,
            neither is resurrection about what happens to the body
                        after it stops breathing.

According to Paul in Romans 8,
            salvation and resurrection in Christ
                        are about the renewal of all creation
                        through the gift of new life by the Spirit:
He says, ‘If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin,
            the Spirit is life because of righteousness’ (Rom. 8:10).

By this understanding, the question ‘where do we go when we die?’
            becomes redundant,
because death has no power or meaning
            for those who are ‘in Christ’.

As Paul puts it: ‘There is therefore now no condemnation
            for those who are in Christ Jesus’
because nothing, ‘neither death, nor life,
            nor angels, nor rulers,
                        nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
            nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us
            from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom 8.1, 38-39).

[1] This sermon is a slightly expanded version of an article I originally wrote for BMS World Mission. http://www.bmsworldmission.org/engagecatalyst/mission-catalyst-what-happens-when-we-die/with-me-paradise-hope-after-death

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