“I see paradise trees”.

I see paradise trees.  That’s what Micah said to me as we stepped out the doors of the Orlando, airport in Florida.

“Paradise trees?  What are those”? I asked him,   And he pointed to the big palm trees across the street.  “Oh  I see them now (I told him) Thanks for showing them to me.

It would make sense that he would see those palm trees and rename them, “paradise trees”.  After all, those trees don’t grow up here in the frigid semi arctic of Wisconsin.  And isn’t the typical picture of paradise white sandy beaches, crystal clear blue water and skies, maybe a puffy white cloud, and a palm tree–paradise tree–too. So for the rest of our vacation we saw paradise trees.  Of course we had seen them before, but then they were just leafy green palm trees.  It took a new vision to now notice and recognize them as paradise trees.

You know, I bet paradise trees are in the kingdom of God.  Now I’m not trying to describe heaven and add palm trees to images of the pearly gates, people floating decked out in white robes, wings, and golden harps.  Because that’s not the only thing Jesus is talking about in our story for this morning.  You see heaven and the Kingdom of God, well they not exactly the same thing.

Heaven, heading there, going there, that’s a done deal for those who believe.  As Jesus says, “those who believe are not condemned”.  That’s what Paul is telling us in his letter to the church in Rome, chapter 5.1:   Paul writes, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God”.

Faith in the love of God in Christ, means we don’t have to even worry about heaven, getting there or going there.  That’s a done deal, done for us through the simply and only, or as we Lutherans like to say, solely through God’s amazing love.  That belief makes us confident and bold, it gives us comfort when things are going rough, when life gets really tough, like it does.  We know that this all here, well it’s not the end, we have something even bigger and better to look forward to.  That’s the hope that can get us though each day.  Heaven is where we are headed. No need to worry; end of story. 

Except it’s not the end, because there’s this whole kingdom of God stuff. The thing is Jesus isn’t done with us and the promise of heaven.  He doesn’t come to this world just to focus on the next, on what happens after this life, but to change us in this life, to change life right now, to change this world right now–to give us eternal life, and that eternal life is something that starts right now, as Jesus says we have it.  right now.  You see God isn’t just the God of heaven, but of of heaven and earth. Don’t we pray every Sunday, if not every day, thy or your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.

As Jesus says in his talk with Nicodemus, the Pharisee, this leader of the Jews, it’s all about seeing.  Seeing this kingdom, this God power, this rule and reign of God in this world right now.  As Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” So, it takes  a whole new way to see, a new vision to recognize it, a whole new set of eyes that we get when we are reborn from above.

Here’s where we get the born again Christian, because the Greek word, anothen, can be translated as “again”, but in John it’s better translated as “from above”.  Almost the same thing, really. 

 The thing about this vision, though, is that it doesn’t come naturally.  It’s from above, from God.  It got it’s start in us when we are reborn in the waters of baptism,  but we need to practice seeing this way; we need to come again and again together so that others can point it out to us, we need our vision fixed again and again.  We baptize only once, but we come back repeatable,  to that new birth.  , practiced and formed and reformed, because it will be tested.  Evil wants us to close our eyes of faith, and just rely on the flesh as Jesus says.

 Here’s the thing, the eyes of faith look at the same world as the eyes of our flesh. And Let me tell you the flesh can have really good eyesight.  You can see real sharp with that 20/20 vision.  The flesh won’t miss a thing.  Seeing with the eyes of flesh will notice any imperfection, the flesh sees all the flaws, the flesh sees all the evil and wickedness of this world.  The eyes of the flesh see hypocrisy and violence.  Oh sure evil likes to hide; it likes to camouflage itself and pretend to be good, pretend to be harmless, but even the eyes of the flesh can see through that ruse.

 The difference between eyes of the flesh and eyes of kingdom/faith, is that where the flesh sees death, faith sees life, where flesh sees despair, faith sees hope.   With our new eyes, our new vision we see water turned into wine, we see healing from the touch of love, the kiss of forgiveness, we see Jesus calming the waves of water and waves of fear, the eyes of the kingdom see Jesus sitting with sinners around a table at a tax collectors home, and sitting with us sinners as we gather around this table today–young and old, rich and poor.  We see Jesus standing with us when we work and speak for justice and peace. 

 Just like I needed Micah to help me see the paradise trees, we need Jesus, we need God’s Word, we need one another to see paradise trees blanketed in snow, see paradise places where people are together, paradise people praising God, see us being paradise people being Jesus in our lives and in this God’s world.  With these eyes of faith we see a whole new world, God’s kingdom, paradise on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Sermon for Advent 1

The signs are all around us. Take this one for example. I

a. danger crack in road
b. danger high voltage
c. danger lightning ahead

ran across this sign at the ripe old age of 16. I was taking the written portion of the Pennsylvania driver’s test. I saw this sign and the possible multiple choice answers much like you see this morning. Well, I wasn’t exactly certain what this sign was trying to tell me, so using a test taking strategy I chose “C”. Lightning ahead, and well I was wrong, and I failed my drivers exam.
Of course, a sign is only as good as our ability to read and interpret it. So I immediately went home and started studying. I wanted to know that sign, and all the others not just for the sake of the sign itself, although that is a good thing, but I wanted to be able to get behind the wheel and drive. I wanted all that comes with that, the power, the freedom. I wanted to enter the world of adulthood.
Now in our Gospel reading from Luke this morning, Jesus is not talking about traffic signs and signals. The signs we are called to watch, to pay attention to are different. And doing so will change our lives more than just getting a driver’s license. The thing is wars, natural disasters, fiscal cliffs, don’t come with a handy poster or a study guide.
How many times, how often have we heard someone or done it ourselves, list off the most current catastrophes and proceed to point blame or think about the end of the world, or “C” do both? The problem with this kind of thinking is that it tends to make us afraid, stressed, paralyzed feeling powerless, which all too often leads to well dissipation—doing unhealthy stuff because, well the worlds going to somewhere in a handbasket, so I might as well go along—you know that kind of thinking.
That is one way of reacting to all that’s going on and going wrong in the world. And it makes sense if life for you is basically working out—you got a job, a roof over your head, health care, health, an intact family, money to pay the bills. Well the thought of all of that going away—that’s downright scary.
But try to imagine if all or most of that is isn’t your reality—no job, not one that you can support a family anyway, no real home of your own, living day in and day out afraid of violence, disease, suffering and death. The promise that all this will end, well that actually can begin to sound like good news.
Reading the signs, and how you do that matters. For Jesus, watching the signs isn’t meant to throw us into some panic, to frighten us, but to move us to a certain way of living with, around, and through the signs.
One example of this is Ellie, and her life became an example. Ellie was an elderly lady, a widow, who eventually wasn’t able drive to her part time job, then she wasn’t able to stay in her own home. So she moved into an assisted living facility, where she was excited to meet new people. Her children had moved away and lived one on the east coast and one on the west, Ellie was thrilled to learn to use skype to see and talk to her grandchildren. Fickle her Jack Russell terrier died, she found the perfect volunteer job walking dogs and cleaning the cages at the animal shelter. Life went on like that for about five years. Then the kicker came she lost the use of her legs, she couldn’t walk. Lots of folks would just give up, this obviously is a sign to pack it in. But Ellie didn’t think that way, when asked to sit in a part of the kennel with the most fearful, timid, shy, wounded dogs, she answered the call. And so she sat in these little rooms talking to these wounded animals, and slowly a dog may approach her and allow her to touch him, to pet him, to scratch behind the ears. Six days a week she would do what she could. She read the signs in her life and she decided to live
Stay alert for when the worst happens—don’t panic—pray.
Stay alert for when the worst happens—don’t give up – stand up.
Stay alert for when the worst happens—don’t hide –lift up your head.
When the worst happens in our world, in our life don’t panic, live God’s kingdom way, because when you live it like it’s near, that means it’s here. Amen.

Illustration of Ellie provided by Maren C. Tirabassi, from Stillspeaking Daily Devotional – UCC