The Imposition of Paradise
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 1, 2013
The Lord’s first sermon was, Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, meaning, repent of the belief that the kingdom is not at hand. Jesus reveals the kingdom’s presence already in the world. He, his preaching and his signs make this abundantly clear. The kingdom is present in the suffering of the world and in its healing. All things, including our suffering, unfold in God. All things are moving towards God in God.
Today we hear the Lord’s second sermon which builds on the first. He begins with this quote from Isaiah,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor and to heal the broken hearted. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
I don’t think the congregation understood him because Luke reports that “everyone spoke well of him.” That is not a sign that his deeper message was heard. It is clear to us that Jesus believed that Isaiah spoke of him prophetically; that the Lord Jesus believed himself to be the fulfillment of that prophecy. Perhaps they were too caught up in watching a local boy make good to have really paid attention. This was debut time for him.
I wrote an article on Original Sin many years ago that still gets passed around and read quite a lot. Not everybody liked it, of course. One of the most interesting responses to it came to me secondhand from a rabbi in Israel who asked, “How could Jesus be the Messiah if the world is still imperfect and people suffer and die?” That is a good question. Why are the poor still with us and the broken hearted not healed. Why are people still held captive and why do the blind not see? And what about death? Good question, but…
I think the answer is simple. Everyone at every time in every era is invited to enter into the kingdom personally. “The acceptable year of the Lord” is always and at every moment, it is not just that moment in time when Jesus spoke those words.
Think about it. The world of a political messiah would be something like Disneyland with a cosmic tyrant; the “happiest place in the universe” with a whole bunch of Stepford husbands and wives scrubbing golden toilets. His kingdom, he says, is not of this world. Think about it. How could we ever want to live in such a place? An eternal Pleasantville! Have you seen that movie? No colors, no Brubek, no Picasso! After a while we’d be begging someone to save us from that! Heaven to be heaven, must actually be heavenly, colorful, interesting, creative and, yes, a little dangerous! Certainly not monotonous! The imposition of paradise would not be paradise! Paradise is paradise only if it is freely entered. Anything else would be an eternal nightmare.
Instead, the kingdom of heaven becomes a choice for each one of us, in every time and place. We are allowed the freedom of saying no or yes to the invitation. If yes, then, the omnipresent love of God becomes a paradise for us. If no, then that very same omnipresent love of God becomes hell for us. Whether it is heaven or hell is our choice. Whether to resist the Lord’s free gift of salvation or to reject it is our choice and the consequences are as well. But one thing remains forever constant, God loves and that is all he does. Not one person is cast by him into a “lake of fire.” Those who enter it do so at their own request. The truth is, however, that the fire in that lake is love because in God there can be nothing else. Jesus Christ is a personal Messiah, not a political one.
The Messiah does not wipe away all the ills of the world in one fell swoop. He heals them for each of us in each present moment in a process that enfolds and respects our weaknesses, our sins and failings. God offers freedom and healing to everyone in every era and we are free to participate or not. Because we suffer, even suffering has an honored place along with creativity and improvisation because they too are part of our humanity.
The rabbi, like so many believers, gets sidetracked by biblical literalism. The desire for absolute certainty takes them there, right into a dead end of their own making. But faith “calls us to renounce the security of certitude and easy answers for a demanding journey into the unknown.” (In the Spirit of Happiness, The Monks of New Skete) The encounter with God is ours to make, the consequences are ours to decide, not in a monarchial Disneyland ruled by a sadistic Mickey, but a paradise of absolute freedom where each one is respected and understood to be on a journey and whose absolute ruler is the All Compassionate One who joins hands with us and takes the eternal journey into the unknown together with us.