“Into the Realms of Paradise”
For Christ the King Sunday
November 20, 2022
Luke 23: 35–43
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!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘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.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
When I was a student at Luther Seminary, occasionally I was invited to lead a Saturday service at a nursing home. At first, I came with a written order of service, a sort of mini version of Sunday worship. Later I found a less formal approach worked better.
Vera, the pianist and I would join residents in the community. She would play underneath the chatter and sounds of shuffle while I greeted the residents as they parked their walkers and wheelchairs around the piano. Once everyone was settled, which normally took a while, we began. The residents would express matters for wish they wanted prayer. So, we would pray for family, often great grandchildren, for patience, comfort and consolation, for whatever needs were most pressing, from new hearing aid batteries to hope for world peace. Between prayer concerns I would read Scripture, sometimes offering a devotional comment or two, but most often just letting the Word speak for itself. Heads would nod and canes would tap in agreement. And then we’d sing, and let me tell you, none of the new stuff of that time. We stuck to the standards. On most any Saturday you could hear us belting out “Amazing Grace,” “Rock of Ages,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” and always, always — “In the Garden.” Every time eyes would mist and tears invariably roll. I can still hear those high, thin voices warbling through the fading bodies and minds.
I come to the garden alone,
While dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am his own.
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
Musically, it is not a standout among hymns and the theology is too individualistic for any official Lutheran hymnal, but to those people in that circumstance of life “In the Garden” was Gospel, sweet and pure. More than just nostalgia, the hymn represented what they looked forward to — a place of peace and beauty, to a time of joy and bliss, to a state of grace unknown and life without end. For that garden, for that fair meadow robed in flowers and spangled with the stars of God’s eternal presence they longed, and lived, and prayed.
A pharmacist by the name of C. Austin Miles[i] wrote this hymn in his New Jersey basement. First published in 1912 and popularized during the Billy Sunday evangelistic campaigns of the early twentieth century, “in the garden” is where people have for ages dreamed and hoped to be.
Gardens, historically speaking, were important in the ancient Near East. In fertile soils, Biblical traditions took shape, kings (who often assumed priestly duties) were believed to have the monopoly of communicating with the gods in the royal garden. This was seen as a microcosm of the divine garden.[ii] For this special kingly reserve the Persians had an equally special word that quickly passed into Hebrew and Greek and eventually
into the Bible itself. In English the word has come down to us as “paradise.”
Originally a secular word for any park or garden, the term paradise soon took on religious meaning, particularly in that time between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New. During this intertestamental period Jewish theology embraced belief in an afterlife where the children of God would enjoy eternal blessedness. This state of salvation was likened to life in a beautiful, royal garden, or to borrow the Persian word, a paradise pictured as a place of delight and rest. To the world weary people of Israel paradise meant, in short, freedom from sin, death, and every curse.
The belief in Paradise later passed into Christianity and other world religions. As a symbol of hope and promise, the garden of paradise continues even into our day, but with some significant differences. Where earlier generations may have looked for Paradise as a heavenly, divine reality, more and more today we look for Paradise here on earth. The gardens we dream of — we work at building ourselves. Heaven won’t wait for us. We’re more likely to look for paradise in the dream house, the vacation home in the country or on the lake where we hope neither the world nor want will intrude. We scrimp, save, and struggle to build that special garden where we hope we can be safe, protected and taken care of, where we can keep the world’s threats and miseries at bay, where we can have our own little, private Paradise on earth.
The irony of it all is that the more we strive for Paradise the farther we remove ourselves from the only one who can admit us to it. The more we pursue our own well-being the less sense we can make out of a person who sacrificed everything for us. The more we seek to save ourselves the more incomprehensible Jesus becomes to us.
Ponder for a moment how much of life is devoted to precisely that — saving ourselves. Isn’t that the advice we hear and in turn relay to others? Get those good grades so that you can get into that good university so that you land that good job so that you can make good money so that you can get that good life with all those good things so that you won’t ever have to worry, never have to want, never have to do without. Talk to people today about careers in education or public service or any field of endeavor where you have to spend yourself, and sooner or later someone will have the honesty to say, “Yeah, but you can’t make any money in that line!” That is to say, not the kind of money you might need to buy that little piece of Paradise.
The name for that attitude is materialism, and according to that philosophy Jesus Christ is the biggest fool who ever walked the face of this earth. If the object of life is to get and to keep, to build your own little Paradise on earth, whether that be a debt free home with a view or a paid for penthouse in the sky, then Jesus Christ blew it, big! To the materialistic view Jesus Christ is a sucker, a loser, an object of scorn and ridicule. And as long as we stay within this world’s frame of reference, we can only repeat the jeers of that crowd on Golgotha: “He has saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Messiah of God, his Chosen One!” (v. 35)
But there is another perspective. There is another way of seeing Jesus, and that is from the perspective of the Cross. When viewed from the stance of sacrificial love as interpreted through the prism of the crucifix, then and only then is Jesus truly seen as the conquering king, the royal savior, the priestly Messiah in whose hands are the keys to Paradise. What the world cannot understand, the Cross discloses — that the way into the garden is not via grasping and gaining, but through dying to self and rising to the Only One with the power and authority to admit a repentant thief to the realms of Paradise