Is this Heaven?

If the weather holds… haul out the hula skirts, prepare your palate for Polynesian Pork. Put on the Don Ho music. Corral-up the kids and send 'em through the Kane/Wahini Wash! It's Paradise Sunday here at Nichols-Bethel! And we're gonna have some fun. Singin' and sippin', rejoicin' and relaxin', it's a fine summer Sunday for this little portion of the people of God. It's Paradise Sunday! Yes, but like the mystical ball player in Kevin Costner's now classic movie, Field of Dreams, we still need to ask, and still want to know. "Is this heaven?!" I mean, is this what we're lookin' for? Is this how you picture Paradise? Ahh, wonderful, blessed Paradise. … What comes to your mind, what lies on your heart when you think of it? Anybody bold enough to volunteer?… What word-pictures would you use to describe it? How will you know when you find it? 'How will you know you're headed there? What would you say?

'Know what the Bible says of Paradise? 'How it's described? You might be surprised. There are no less than four marvelous images in Scripture. First there's that glorious garden: Eden. The word, by the way, literally means orchard, or park (even fenced park). God shares Eden with Adam, and later Eve. It's the place of absolute and entire intimacy with God. The original sanctuary, sacred space. It's kind of the Central Park of creation, even before there's a city to put it in. Here are the first nature trails, and God is the guide to them who glories in the sharing. Surprisingly, this is the word the Bible uses to describe where the dead will go, waiting for the general resurrection when God raises those who have "fallen asleep", i.e. died. Better than Sheol, the murky afterlife of the earliest Hebrew thought, way better than Gehenna… i.e. hell, but it's not yet heaven. That's two. Image three? The new earth. It comes when Christ comes in final victory. "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away." And of course, it is heaven. Some would say, its highest expression. At long last the City of God and the Garden are one, the River of Life runs through it, the leaves on the trees are for healing, even the nations, and at long last, even the tree of Life is on the menu! (According to Rev. 2: 7) 'Beats even our altar!

Mercy. It's too hot and muggy today to think on all of this. We just wanna know two things. What's the Paradise we're being offered, and how on earth (or at heaven's gate) do we get there?

Don't be confused. That we have different images of Paradise, that Scripture does, just means it's bigger than our ability to describe. Meghan's got a phrase, "All that and a bag o'chips." That's it. Paradise is all we conceive and more. But here are some things to count on and strive for.

Paradise is the place of complete intimacy with God. Surely it's ahead of us. But we can yearn for it, prepare for it, welcome it in our own hearts right now. What better word would describe those rare moments when it feels nothing stands between us and God? Adam and Eve at sundown, strollin' in the Garden with God. Jacob's famous ladder, angels comin' and goin' in open commerce between heaven and earth. Elijah the prophet, personally taken up in glory. Christ in glory, seated at God's right hand. That glorious day when just one sinner repents (it could be… you!), and according to Jesus, the angels party! There's a Paradise parade on Main Street (that would put Disney World to shame). The old song can be our song, "Rocka my soul in the bosom of Abraham, O Lord, well rocka my soul!"

We're talking the place where love for God lives as the defining passion of every moment. Orchids are nice. Green's grand. Island breezes soothe the soul. But paradise? Nope. Only a defining, consuming love for God in Jesus Christ saves the soul! Can't wait commitment drives us heavenward, nothing else, or less. Only once in all scripture is Christ depicted, standing, not seated at God's right hand? ('Know it?…) The stoning of Stephen! His passion for God in Christ was so great that at the sight of his sacrifice, heaven couldn't sit still for it! Is your faith your consuming passion? If so, you got a little Paradise in your pocket! Our Work Campers will get a portion of that passion, just days from now. So can you. There's a song for this, too. "All you need is love!"

Paradise is where the city and the garden are joined. What God's created and the saints have built with him are one! Listen to these visions from the Revelation, "And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. And he who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, (Rev 21: 10-16). And again, "THEN HE showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever. (Rev. 22. 1-5) God the creator and architect. Saints like us the builders. Marvelous. What are you ready to build, at least to work on, for God this week?

Paradise? Why, it's where forgiveness rules, as our kids would say.
Leave it to the scholars to quarrel, and they do, over just where Jesus promised the thief-on-the-cross they'd meet again. You and I know better. They will meet where forgives rules the day and the night. 'Where no shadow of sin is deep or dense enough to keep out the light of Christ. We think that fellow not like us, too vile, too violent. Yet every one of us has stolen something… from God. His rightful place at the center of our lives and hearts. Who here hasn't slain somebody else's joy in the Lord with a word or deed? Who here hasn't rebelled at the thought we're not in charge? Theft, murder, rebellion. They get that fellow Dismus a cross like Jesus'. Admitting he deserves it in the company of Christ gets him forgiveness and the promise of paradise. Are you willing to speak to Jesus just like Dismus? Do… and in your life… forgiveness reigns, and glory begins.

Wouldn't you like to be on your way to Paradise TODAY? And not just a picnic, but a permanent place in the presence of God? Wanna know how to get there? This is what you need to know. 1) Surrender! Give it up. Give it over. Get beyond your insistence on your own way, your own will, your own house. Christ's way, God's will, God's house, that's the thing. It took Dismus to the last day. 'You gonna wait that long? I know. Some folks think the deathbed confession's the easy way out. Ornery forever, good for an instant. Forgiveness for eternity. But Jesus agonizes from the cross for the joy that was lost in the life that was wasted. And Jesus sighs at the relief that's found. With Jesus, it's urgent we don't lose 'til tomorrow the paradise he offers us today. Surrender's #1!

#2 is the walk! Don't miss this. We were made to walk with God in the Garden, from Grandpa Adam and Grandma Eve on! The Bible starts there… and ends there. The only gleam brighter than golden streets, the gorgeous garden, heaven's central park, where walking with God, you and I claim the promise, "To [those] who conquer [who walk with God] I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God." Rev. 2: 7 No more hiding what we've done, or who we are, as Adam and Eve once did and we still do. No more fear to seen in the buff and in the ruff. God already has, and has decided in our favor. God desires our company. And sent the Christ to take us by the hand and lead us to the Garden path. Paradise? Why, you can begin the walk today in Jesus' way.

#3 Build. No doubt God could throw up the New Jerusalem all by God's self. After all, God's got the landscaping already done! But do you think it an accident the names of the tribes of Israel are scribed on heaven's gates? Ever seen the cement-pour or the brick work or the dry wall worker scribe their name in the work? And on the foundations of the Kingdom City, the names of the 12 apostles… could it be that John has revealed to him that bringing others to Christ is the very bedrock work of building God's kingdom? Wanna take a gander at the Garden of Eden, Paradise restored? Then this week, get to buildin'. In some way large or small, build a bond between somebody you meet… and Jesus!

Wanna be on your way to Paradise? #4 Change. Change your heart if you have need. Change you ways. Not every one, maybe, but at least one. One important one. Whatever the beach or mountain you might visit this summer, let it change you… it could be heaven. Whatever rest you take, let it make you new, because God is in the midst of it. Surrender, walk, build, change. All a ball field from a cornfield can do is get you to Iowa. But set your heart and eyes and feet on Paradise, and Heaven can happen to you in Jesus Christ!

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