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Opening the Gates of Paradise

The bible tells us that God planted a garden in the east, in the land of Eden, a perfect little ecosystem complete with mountains and rivers and fruit trees everything Adam and Eve would need to get started. They were to cultivate the plants and care for the animals. They were to expand the garden little by little until they had brought order and beauty to the entire earth. 

That garden was God’s kingdom, and it came to be associated with Paradise, an ancient Persian word that means “walled garden”. Within those protective walls Adam and Eve ruled as God’s king and queen, ruling not for their own sake but for the sake of the earth, and for the glory of the God who made them. 

But we know what happened. The serpent was more crafty than all of the other wild animals. He persuaded Adam to reject God’s rule and “go independent.” Instead of continuing to serve God by serving the earth, Adam decided to serve himself. As a result God was forced to exile Adam and Eve from his kingdom; had they remained, they would have taken what was already orderly and beautiful and twisted it to suit themselves. So God drove the man and the woman out of his walled garden, and closed the gates behind them. 

And we have never forgotten it. We have never forgotten that once we lived in paradise with God, in perfect happiness and safety; we have never forgotten that God originally created us to rule and expand the garden until it filled the planet; and so we have never stopped trying to fulfill that original calling: to create a paradise on earth. 

We have also never forgotten how those walls looked from the outside, the angel with the flaming sword there to guard the gates against us. We have never forgotten the centuries that followed, the desperate struggle to scratch a living out of the earth, the need to kill just to survive. As a species we were deeply traumatised by that experience, so that now, even though — really! — most of us have gathered more than enough to survive…somehow enough is never enough. We are still willing to consume, and destroy, and even kill to get ahead. We never want to experience that kind of desperation again. 

And so we have this idea built into our oldest ancestral memories: to be inside the walls is good; outside is bad. Inside means the blessings of God; outside means God’s curse. Those inside the walls experience health and wealth and power because they have pleased God; those outside the walls experience sickness and poverty and helplessness…because they have displeased God. 

This is why we are always building walls of our own: we are always trying to re-create paradise in our own image. We always want to be able to say, “me, and my friends who are like me, we are on the ‘inside’ because we are ‘good’, and because we are ‘good’ we are blessed by God, and because we are blessed by God we are on the ‘inside’. And if you become ‘good’ like us, then you can be on the ‘inside’ too. Even atheists think like this. They don’t talk about God’s blessings of course, but they do believe things like, “fortune favors the bold” or “survival of the fittest,” which is just another way of saying, “if you’re ‘good’ enough, you can be on the ‘inside’ too.” 

We build physical walls. We also build political walls, economic walls, ethnic walls…and religious walls. 

And that is what Jesus is going to talk to us about today. 

… 

See, by this point in history, the Pharisees had spent at least two hundred years building very high political, economic, ethnic and religious walls around the Jewish nation. Their desire was to protect God’s kingdom and keep it holy until the Messiah finally arrived to take the throne. 

Now, there was a wall already in place: God’s Law, given to Moses. But when the Pharisees came along, they began to make it stronger. For instance, God’s Law says, “don’t work on the Sabbath Day. Anyone who works on the Sabbath must be put under God’s death curse.” Essentially, in the Old Testament, breaking the Sabbath was an unforgivable sin. So the Pharisees thought, “wow, that’s an important one! We don’t want anyone getting death cursed by mistake. So we’d better take this ‘don’t work on the Sabbath’ command and make it very very detailed and clear so everyone will know exactly what not to do!” But as we saw last week, their details had become so strict that even picking grain was against the Law. By the Pharisees’ version of the law, Jesus’ disciples ought to be under God’s death curse: permanently excommunicated from the Jewish faith. The Pharisees have symbolically thrown the disciples — and almost everyone else! — out of God’s kingdom and closed the gates behind them. 

So the Pharisees, in their zeal to keep God’s kingdom perfectly holy, have ended up making the law so strict that there is almost no one left inside, and no way for a person to get back inside once they’ve been thrown out. The Pharisees have forgotten that a garden wall has two purposes. It is supposed to keep some people out so they won’t spoil the garden — but it is also supposed to let some people in so they can enjoy the garden. God’s Law does have the function of keeping sinful people out of paradise. But just like the walls of paradise, God’s Law has gates in it: gates that allow sinful people to be forgiven so they can enter into paradise. But by making the unforgivable Sabbath laws so strict, the Pharisees have basically bricked up all the gates. They have made forgiveness almost impossible. 

And now the Messiah has finally arrived to take the throne! — but the Pharisees don’t recognize him because he is opening all the gates. They assumed the Messiah would want to keep God’s kingdom closed up, preserved for the Pharisees and the few others who are holy enough to qualify for paradise. 

But this guy Jesus wants the opposite. He has shown up preaching the good news of the kingdom of God: “Friends, your sins are forgiven! I am opening all the gates! Come on in!” 

And as Luke told us last week, the Pharisees are absolutely furious about this, and have begun to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus. 

… 

So all this, friends, was just a very long introduction to Jesus’ sermon today. The Pharisees have been building a very high wall to keep people out of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ sermon is going to tear down that wall and replace it with something else. We are not going to go through Jesus’ sermon line by line, but rather section by section. My desire is to give you an overview of what Jesus is saying so later you can read the details for yourself and understand them. 

So let’s get started: 

[17] He went down with them — his twelve special disciples, which we have already discussed with the kids —  and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, [18] who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, [19] and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all. 

— and we have already discussed why Jesus was so incredibly popular with the common people: he was not simply healing their bodies, he was offering them freedom from the fear of hell. He was offering everyone a place in God’s paradise. 

It is interesting to note that, for the first time, the news has spread outside Judea; people from Tyre and Sidon — from Syria — have heard about Jesus and have travelled a long way to come and hear him — 

[20] Looking at his disciples, Jesus said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. [21] Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. [22] Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. 

[23] "Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets. 

"But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. [25] Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. [26] Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets. 

— now this is the first of three sections. In this first section, Jesus is contradicting one important aspect of the Pharisees’ belief, a belief that is common to all of us. 

Remember, we all have this idea built into our oldest ancestral memories: to be inside is good; to be outside is bad. Inside: blessed by God; outside: cursed by God. And that part is true! 

However, what are the signs of blessing? What are the signs of God’s curse? The Pharisees taught that if you obeyed God’s Law, God would make you rich, well-fed, morally superior. So people inside God’s kingdom will be rich, well-fed, and morally superior. 

But if you fall into poverty, if you are starving, if you are at the bottom of society, these are signs that you have failed to obey God’s Law. And God kicks out disobedient people, right? So if you are poor, starving, and suffering, that means you are outside God’s kingdom. 

But Jesus says, “no. In fact, the opposite is true: if you are poor, starving, suffering, those are signs that God’s kingdom is for you! But if you are rich, well fed, morally superior, then you are actually under God’s curse.” 

That…is…astonishing, isn’t it? That contradicts even the way we think! I mean, why would we want to enter into God’s kingdom if it means we only get to be poor, starving, and suffering? What kind of paradise is that? 

Well, to clarify: Jesus is not yet talking about the rewards of paradise. He is talking about who gets to pass through the gates of forgiveness. He is basically saying this: “if you think you are already on the inside because you are rich, well fed, and morally superior, then in fact you can’t even see the gateway, much less go through it! 

“But if you are poor, starving, suffering at the bottom of society, if you are demon possessed, if you are a fisherman’s mother-in-law, if you are a fisherman, a leper, a paralyzed man, a tax collector, a Gentile (non-Jewish) soldier, a poor widow, a prostitute — then you know you are on the outside. You know you don’t deserve to be on the inside! If you are looking at that gate into the garden, and you are longing for it to open, then guess what? The gate is open to you. Not to those arrogant religious jerks who think they are good enough already! To you, my helpless brothers and sisters. 

“And in fact,” Jesus says, “those arrogant religious jerks are going to try to make you poor, and starving, and helpless. Because they hate me and my message of free forgiveness they are going to hate you too. So when those guys persecute you and try to make you miserable, that is actually confirmation that you are blessed by God.” 

So to summarize: in this first section, Jesus has told his disciples what kind of people get to enter God’s kingdom: only those who know they don’t deserve it. 

… 

Now, in the second section of Jesus’ sermon, he will tell his disciples how those who have entered God’s kingdom are supposed to treat those who are still outside the walls: 

[27] "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, [28] bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. [29] If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. [30] Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. [31] Do to others as you would have them do to you. 

[32] "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. [33] And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. [34] And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. [35] But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. [36] Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. 

[37] "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. [38] Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." 

— and here again, Jesus is teaching the exact opposite of what the Pharisees believe. See, the Pharisees have been saying that if you are holy enough to be inside God’s kingdom, it is your job to help keep the unholy out. Hate your enemies! — because after all, if they are your enemies, then they must be God’s enemies too! Curse those who curse you — because after all, if they curse you, then they must also be cursing God! If someone attacks you and tries to take your stuff, fight them off! — because after all, your stuff is God’s stuff! 

But Jesus says, “no. In fact, the opposite is true. If you find yourself passing through the gates of free forgiveness, then bring everyone with you that you can! You used to be an enemy of God, right? You hated the walls that kept you out of the garden. And now suddenly here you are, forgiven! — not because you were ‘good enough’, but because you were so bad you couldn’t help yourself, and God had mercy on you. 

“So show the same mercy to others that you received. You are forgiven. So forgive those who try to hurt you, and use you, and take your stuff. Do for them what you would have wanted them to do for you when you were poor and starving and powerless. And after you’ve done something good for them, don’t come to them later and say, ‘okay, now you owe me!’ My kingdom is not about debts and obligations, its about love and forgiveness. 

“So, to conclude this section,” Jesus says in verse 37, “do not judge, and you will not be judged. Don’t be like these Pharisees: don’t build high walls around paradise, and then stand on them and judge everybody on the outside. If you do that, God will judge you! Judgement is not your job. Your job is to keep the gates open, preach forgiveness whenever you can, and trust me to protect my own kingdom. So be generous with my forgiveness! The more you preach my forgiveness to others, the more you will experience my forgiveness for yourself.” 

In summary, then: in the first section Jesus told his disciples that only the humble pass through the gates of forgiveness. In this second section, he told his disciples how the humble will act toward those still outside. Those who have been truly forgiven and have entered God’s kingdom never forget what it was like to be unforgiven, locked out; and so they will take every opportunity to show kindness and mercy even to the enemies of God. 

… 

Now, until this point Jesus has been speaking to his disciples. But for this third and last section of his sermon, Jesus changes his focus: now he speaks to the crowd, to those who have come to hear him, but have not yet decided what they think. 

This is the evangelistic portion of Jesus’ sermon: 

[39] He also told them this parable: "Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? [40] A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher. 

[41] "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? [42] How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,' when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. 

[43] "No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. [44] Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. [45] The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks. 

[46] "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say? [47] I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. [48] He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. [49] But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete."

— this is Jesus’ message for the crowds, and for anyone here who is not yet sure what to make of him: he is saying, “be careful, friends! If you follow blind leaders (like these Pharisees), they will lead you to disaster; if you learn from closed-minded, judgemental teachers (like these Pharisees), they will teach you to be closed-minded and judgemental! 

“For instance, do you really want to be that annoying guy who is always pointing out your brother’s sins when it is obvious to everyone else that you yourself have some major issues you need to deal with first? You hypocrite! First, recognize that you have some major issues that only God can forgive! Then, once God has forgiven you, you’ll be far better equipped to deal gently with your brother’s sins. 

“Look,” Jesus goes on in verse 43, “it should be obvious that I am preaching good news from God, while the Pharisees are preaching bad news. It’s as obvious as fruit trees. You don’t pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briars. In the same way, you’re not going to hear good news from closed-minded, judgemental men. 

“But you are hearing good news from me: ‘Friends, your sins are forgiven!’ So accept my message! — and reject the Pharisees’ message. You cannot have both. You cannot say ‘Lord, Lord, thank you for forgiving me. Now let’s build a wall and keep everyone else out!’ It doesn’t work that way. You cannot be forgiven by God, and be a judgemental wall-building Pharisee at the same time. If you accept my forgiveness, then you must also accept my whole system of life: you must live a life of forgiveness.” 

Then (in verse 47) Jesus closes with a last little illustration: “if you accept my forgiveness and then put my forgiveness into practice in your life, you’ll be like a man who built his house on rock. When storms hit your life, when sickness and poverty and suffering come, you won’t lose hope. You will remain secure in your faith, knowing that you are forgiven! and no matter what may happen you will know that you are safe within the walls of my kingdom. 

“But if you don’t accept my forgiveness, or if you try to accept my forgiveness but refuse to live a life of forgiveness and trust, then you’ll be like a man who built his house without a foundation. When the storms of misfortune hit your life, you’ll think that God must be out to get you. You’ll think you need to work harder, to be holier, you’ll try to win God’s favor back by building religious walls around your life. You’ll go back to being a Pharisee; you’ll go back to everything you hate. And you’ll find yourself on the outside again, looking at the walls of paradise, unable to even see the gate that is standing open right before you.” 

… 

And that is a pretty abrupt ending to a sermon. 

Of course, we realize that Luke didn’t write down Jesus’ sermon word for word; most likely Jesus spoke for hours. This is just a summary of his most essential ideas. 

But still, it is a rather abrupt finale, a finale with a rather stern warning, which is no doubt why Luke made it so abrupt: to highlight the danger of not hearing what Jesus has come to say: there is really only one gateway into God’s kingdom, and he is the gatekeeper. Jesus is the one who forgives, and Jesus is the one who sets the rules for his kingdom, which turns out to be a kingdom of forgiveness. If we refuse to accept what he says about how to enter, and how to live once we are within…then we are not actually part of his kingdom. 

So, to summarize Jesus’ sermon: 

1. Only those who see their need for forgiveness can even see the open gate, much less pass through it. 

2. Those who are truly forgiven, who have truly passed within, will do their utmost to keep that gate open, even if it means loving their enemies. 

3. Those who do not accept Jesus’ forgiveness, and refuse to live a life of forgiveness, will be come more and more like the Pharisees: judgemental and harsh and closed off. Ultimately they will fall under judgement and be destroyed — and all because they refused to recognize the Messiah, God’s anointed king. 

And now, as we do every week, when we ask the question, “so what? What does this two thousand year old sermon have to do with me?” well, this week I think it is pretty obvious and pretty relevant. Our world is full of people who think they are pretty good; or at least they want everyone to think they are pretty good. All you have to do is read the comments after any article or video and you’re going to see people posing, and virtue signalling, and putting other people down. Why? They are building walls, trying desperately to preserve something for themselves. And the harder they work, the higher they build their walls, the more harsh and judgemental they become. 

We live in a world of people longing for paradise. We all have this instinctive memory of the garden we lost, and we are desperate to recreate it. We will do anything to recreate it, even if it means we end up living all alone in a prison of our own making. 

And Jesus’ answer to that is as counter-intuitive today as it was two thousand years ago. He is telling us that the way to regain paradise is to give up trying to build it for ourselves. There is a garden planted by the God who created us. It is a holy and restful place. There is a mountain, and a river that flows down to the sea, and where it empties into the sea the water there becomes fresh. Fruit trees of all kinds grow on both banks of the river. Their fruit serves for food and their leaves for healing. The garden has a great, high wall with twelve gates, with an angel at each gate, but get this: the gates are never shut. They don’t need to be. The only way to enter is to give up, and be forgiven. The only way to live in peace and safety in that garden is to give up any thought of closing the gates; we have to trust that Jesus knows what he is doing, even when it seems like — especially when it seems like! — we have fallen into poverty and hunger and weeping. 

And of course, some of you are wondering, “but how can there be poverty and hunger and weeping for those who are inside the garden?” How can it be that we can receive this tremendous gift of forgiveness, and pass through the gates of God’s kingdom, and yet still suffer? How does that make sense? Some of you are thinking, “I know my sins have been forgiven. But I sure don’t feel like I’m living in a garden yet. Where is the disconnect?” 

That is the right question to ask. And that is the question that people in Luke’s book are going to begin to ask…in the next chapter. John the Baptist is the first one to ask Jesus that question. 

So if you are interested in an answer, come back next week. 

But in the meantime, friends: you are forgiven. So forgive. Break down every wall you can find. Love your enemies, do good to them, lend to them without expecting to get anything back. May a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, be poured into your lap. 

Amen. 

Are You Still With Me (Part II)

The Two Thousand Year Old Punchline