Reading: Luke 23:32-43
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Phil’s back from holidays and is keen to share some of the things he has been reflecting on over the past four weeks! Calling on some great teaching from Bible Project Cofounder Tim Mackie, Phil is pondering the question of where (or when) can we find paradise? When Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise”, was Jesus referring to heaven, or to something more? Is paradise something we can find now? This might just be an excuse for Phil to show off some amazing photos of places he visited on holidays … but it will also be an interactive time where we all will be challenged to reach into the spiritual dimension and meet with Jesus.
Today I want to share with you a little of some of the thinking and reflecting that I did while I was away. Time off helps my brain slows down and I find that there is more space and time to ponder. And one of the things that I was thinking about was my own spiritual journey. For me, a combination of the intensity of the past few years and the feeling of burnout led to my passion and faith feeling a little flat. I would not be surprised if others were feeling this too.
When it comes to spiritual growth for me, there are three things that help me – but I think that this is fairly universal…
Learning / Reading the Bible / Exploring the Questions
- Intellectually stimulating.
- It is in the questions that I find the revelation of God.
Doing Faith / Following the example of Jesus / showing love.
- My faith grows when it is being lived out.
- At the core of who I am and the core of my faith is a desire to make a difference in people’s lives and in the world I live.
Personal Relationship with Jesus / Spiritual experiences
- This includes worship and prayer
- It is tapping into the spiritual dimension, being in the presence of God.
There are probably more things that help us to grow, but if we just take these three – I will ask the question … which helps you to spiritual grow? Which are you currently investing time and energy into? Is there any of these three that you might have neglected a little over the past 12 months?
For me, my role as a minister often means that I focus on the first two but I confess that over the past few years … other than my infrequent rushed prayers, and my weekly time of worship – that third section has not been great. Which is probably why a particular tweet I read while I was away jumped out at me. It said,
One of the most startling expositions on prayer I’ve ever heard from @timmackie of the @bibleproject. People weeping, the Spirit tangibly moving as this self-confessed ‘Bible Nerd’ quietly geeked out on the infinite possibilities of communion with God. #grateful @247PrayerUSA
Something stirred within me, so I went searching. The talk by Tim Mackie was at the 2022 USA 24/7 Prayer Conference about a month ago but unfortunately it was not publicly available. However, I found that even though the conference had finished, I could still register was able to watch the recording of the talk. So I wish to acknowledge that a large chunk of this sermon is from Tim’s talk … and I give him all the credit if you think it is good.
As mentioned, Tim is the cofounder of the Bible Project and has such spends most of his time immersed in the Bible, so when he was asked to speak on the topic of prayer, he was very hesitant. As he started to reflect on the idea of prayer, he said he went through a series of emotions (see if you can relate to these emotions).
First, he felt guilty – that prayer should be more a part of his life but wasn’t. Then he felt fear – that everyone else is having this experience of connecting with God personally in prayer that that he was missing out. And then he felt resignation – because he didn’t know how to start and he thought that maybe this is just the way it was going to be.
I know that for some of you, spending time in prayer is something that comes very easily and natural and I want to affirm you. It is not only a blessing to you, but a blessing to the church that we have prayers like you here.
But if you are a person like Tim where prayer is not a natural part of your spirituality … the question becomes, if we believe that there is something in prayer then how do we find a way to make it work? How do we be open to prayer shaping what we do? How can we tap into prayer in a way that leads to a season of spiritual renewal.
I was finding that what Tim was saying was resonating with me as well. Tim said that he was feeling sad about the perception of missing the presence of God in his life and wanted to experience that more. And wondered if prayer could be a path to help him to find that again. And as he left that point hanging … he told a story.
Tim was feeling a little run down in his ministry and decided to do a hike up Mount Hood, a national park near where he lived. He found that hiking allowed his mind to slow down and give him to ponder.
(Ok can you see why this talk resonated with me. This is almost identical to my experience on holidays. Marion and I did a number of walks down in Tasmania –to Marion’s lookout at Cradle Mountain, St Columba Fass, down the 1000 steps to Wineglass bay, over the rocks in the bay of fires etc).
Back to Tim’s story … as he tells it, he had been hiking for a couple of hours and thinking about different things when he heard a rustle in the bushes next to him. Worrying it was some wildlife about to attack he jumped to one side to see emerging from the bushes, another hiker stuffing her mouth with huckleberries. She noticed his stunned look so she replied, “There are huckleberries everywhere”.
Sure enough, Tim looked around and noticed that as far as he could see were ripe, over ladened huckleberry bushes. He looked back down the path he had just walked and yes, there had been huckleberry bushes on either side for the last km or more. He had been surrounded by this amazing bounty and he hadn’t even noticed.
But you can do that when you are hiking can’t you – you are so focused on the path and not twisting your ankle on rock that you forget to look up and might miss the amazing paradise that is around you. Like this photo from our walk to Marion’s lookout, or this picture from the path at Wineglass bay.
For Tim, this experience of looking down and not seeing the huckleberries around him was an epiphany as he realised that maybe he was focused on one thing (a set of spiritual habits that he finds helpful) that he had not been seeing the other spiritual riches around him.
Or for me, in terms of the three sources we had before, had I been so focused on spiritual growth through learning and living out my faith that I had missed the overwhelming bounty of spiritual growth that could come through focusing on the presence of God or my relationship with Jesus?
We will come back to this point because it is important, but Tim being a Bible nerd, wanted to check in with what the Bible said about this idea and started with the reading we had today – part of the Good Friday story with Jesus’ conversation with the thief on the cross. I don’t have time to go into all the complexity of this reading, but I will zoom in on verses 42 and 43. The thief asks Jesus to remember him and Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today will be with me in paradise.”
What did Jesus mean by this – be with me in Paradise. We sometimes replace paradise with heaven … but Jesus didn’t use the Greek word for heaven, rather he used the Greek word paradeisos from which we get the English word Paradise. But in Greek, it means Garden.
What Jesus is saying to the criminal is … I will see you in the Garden later today… What Garden?
From an Old Testament viewpoint, and remember that Jesus was an OT nerd, there is really only one garden that Jesus could be meaning … the Garden of Eden (from Genesis 2). Where God in the midst of creation created this beautiful garden – paradise – where there was the tree of life. Was Jesus implying that the Garden of Eden is some place where he and the thief can meet up again later today when we are both dead.
This lead Tim to ask the question – WHEN is Paradise?
Is it in the past or the immediate future (as in Jesus and the thief) OR … if we turn the very end of the bible, the book of Revelation, the garden appears again. In Revelation chapters 21 and 22 – John sees a vision of a new heaven and earth, and this place also has a garden – paradise – and it also has the tree of life in it. Is Paradise in the future, future?
OR in Paul’s letter 2 Corinthians 12, Paul is talking about an experience in prayer where he had a vision and was caught up to the third heaven – whether he was in the body or out of the body – he doesn’t know but he was (v4) “was caught up to paradise”. But for Paul, paradise was not in the past or in the future, but paradise now.
Let me ask the question again, When is Paradise in the Bible … the past or immediate future or is it future future or right now?
When Tim asked this question in his sermon he suggested the answer to this question is … Yes. It all the above, as Jesus said Rev 1:8, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Then Tim also asked the question, well, Where is Paradise?
When the Apostle John when he was in prison on the island of Patmos (Rev 1), he was taken up in the spirit and had a vision of paradise … and while there Jesus gives him some letters to share with seven real first century churches. In and in one of those letters (to the church in Ephesus) Jesus says if they do these things, “they will eat with me from the tree of life in Paradise?”
Or maybe Paradise can be found in the desert, because that is where Jacob was in Genesis 28, when in a dream he saw a stairway to heaven – to paradise – and discovered that God with him. Or Ezekiel chapter 8 when in exile, Ezekiel and his friends were sitting in our house and their consciousness was altered in such a way that they were lifted up between earth and heaven – paradise.
So where is Paradise? Is it in the spirit, or on an island or in a church or in a field or in a house? Tim wanted to suggest the answer to this question is … exactly.
You see, the Biblical writers and the people in the first century had a different way of seeing reality what we do. They were much more open to an understanding of not only a physical dimension, but another dimension or reality that is beyond us – a spiritual dimension. A reality which is not perceptible by our 5 senses or our four dimensions of height, depth, width and time, and yet they would argue that this other dimension, this spiritual dimension is real. Tim pondered that maybe in a symbolic way, these early church saints in trying to describe this spiritual reality or dimension used the idea of Paradise.
Therefore … Tim added … maybe paradise is not a place or a time … but a person. Paradise is not a when or a where but a who.
Jesus said to thief, today you will be WITH ME in paradise.
Maybe the emphasis should be more on the WITH ME than the paradise?
If this is right, then it doesn’t matter if you are in the past, or the present or the future or the future future, or whether you are in an Greek island or in a desert place in the middle or nowhere or just sitting at home, you are only a moment away from seeing the huckleberries. If Paradise is being WITH Jesus, then you are only a moment away from being in paradise.
That was a great paragraph, but what does this mean for us. What does it mean for you to BE WITH JESUS.
As I said at the beginning, we as a church seem to be very good with engaging people intellectually with issues of faith, or encouraging people to live out their faith in their actions – but are we as good in helping people to be open to and tapping into the spiritual dimension, to experience God or Jesus in a real and personal way, to be caught up into Paradise.
And what is the role of prayer in this? How can prayer be more than just intercession, but a conduit to be able to connect with, to experience, and to even hear from God.
Take Luke 9:28-36 as an example – the transfiguration. You know the story, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up onto a mountain to pray. But it isn’t about the words, or learning – they have an experience. They get caught up into a different dimension where Jesus is transformed, where they see and interact with Moses and Elijah and where God speaks to them.
Or Pentecost when they are praying in the room, they experience a supernatural wind and fire and an experience of the Holy Spirit.
It is the same with all the other stories I have mentioned today – John, Paul, Ezekiel, Jacob, Peter, James, etc … whether it is through a dream, a vision, or happening before their eyes, they have an experience of a different dimension, a spiritual reality. But even more than that, they experience a person … they encounter Jesus/God/Holy Spirit in a real and personal way.
Would you like to experience this too?
Is worship for you just about hearing from the Bible, learning through a sermon, or being challenged to go and live out your faith, or is it also a place where we are taken into this spiritual dimension, and we meet and feel and connect with and experience God? Where we find ourselves immersed in the very presence of God?
I feel like I am at the beginning of a journey to explore and experience this more … and I am wondering whether you would like to come on the journey with me.
I am not sure what this looks like – there are not a lot of Sunday’s between now and Christmas which haven’t been already organised, so I am not sure I can go on this journey within a sermon series … so instead I am offering to meet with anyone who wishes to explore this with me. Maybe one on one, maybe in some small groups – whatever works – but I would love to meet with some people two or three times between now and Christmas to share our thoughts, to engage with some prayer but mostly to open ourselves up to experiencing more of the presence of God or tapping into the spiritual dimension as we gather. To look up and notice the huckleberries and to enjoy the spiritual blessings.
If you are already experiencing God in your life and prayers, then again I affirm you and celebrate this with you, but gently suggest that you don’t need to come on this journey. Continue to do what you are doing … and maybe I can humbly ask for you to pray for the rest of us.
But if you are in a place like me, and God is stirring a desire to feel and connect with God/Jesus more in an experiential way, in a personal way … and you are willing to prioritise this over the next month or so, then I want to you consider joining me.
If you are serious about it – then here is my mobile number and email. Send me a message. We will meet up and see where it leads. I am not expecting lots of people to respond – but I feel that God is stirring some people here to be part of this. If that is you, then send me a message or talk to me.
Where you are on this journey, I want you to hear today Jesus invitation to walk in the garden with him – that we can find paradise through being with Jesus.