How to find Paradise

Sermon Holy Trinity Hurstpierpoint 20 November 2022: Christ the King
Psalm 46 & Luke 23.33–43

‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’. When I hear the opening line of today’s Psalm, Psalm 46, I always have to think of Martin Luther. It was one of the Reformer’s favourite Psalms, and it is recorded that in his darkest moments, Luther would say to his friends: “Come, let us sing the 46th Psalm and let them do their worst”.

Luther himself wrote and composed a hymn paraphrasing this Psalm: the famous Reformation hymn ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’. Many of us will have sung it at some in its English translation ‘A mighty fortress is our God’. Luther’s theology and therefore a lot of Reformation theology is very much inspired by Paul’s theology, but it is less known that Luther’s personal transformation began when he lectured in Wittenberg on the Psalms. Given Luther’s life,  in which he himself needed to seek refuge a number of times, it is no surprise that this Psalm became one of the most influential in his life.

Read more: How to find Paradise

Whether it was in the time this Psalm was written, whether it was during the years of the Reformation, or whether it is now, Psalm 46 says it as it is: the world is in chaos. In verses two and three, this is described in vivid language: mountains, normally an icon of stability, are moved into the sea and the waters roar and foam – I don’t think many of us made it out to the coast in the storms of this past week. 

Amidst this chaos, this noise, there is a river: calm and quiet – God is in the midst of her. This image is repeated in different words in the next few verses. Again, there is the description of chaos and violence: the nations rage, the kingdoms totter – but yet, the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress. 

Whereas the first part of the Psalm, one could say, is very much about the present: God is with us in our chaos, the last few verses can be read as a prophecy: this is the final battle between good and evil, in which evil is destroyed. Instead of reading these verses as history, ‘look what this Old-Testament God has done’, they are better read as a similar genre to the book of Daniel, or the book of Revelation: a vivid description of the end times, in which God’s kingdom will come to earth.

The problem with descriptions of the ‘end time’ is that none of us really know what this will look like, and any human description will fall short of the reality of God’s kingdom. Yet, each week, each day, we pray: ‘thy kingdom come’. It made me wonder: what do we imagine the kingdom of God to be like? And maybe even more so: how long would it take for us to recognise it, and would it live up to our expectations?

That brings me to the second half of this sermon. Apologies, it is a little bit a sermon of two-halves today. Our Gospel reading this morning speaks about God’s kingdom as well: Jesus is mocked to be the king of the Jews. And as he is crucified he promises one of the criminals who is crucified with him says, prays, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus promises him: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’. 

So what could this kingdom, this paradise look like? I think that I had a glimpse of this paradise a couple of weeks ago, during half-term. I was fortunate enough to go diving in the Caribbean. When I was imagining the corals, the sea life, the beaches and the sunshine, I was pretty sure that this would be pretty close to paradise.

And indeed, the sea life was beautiful: swimming amidst thousands of damsel fish, turtles and corals of every colour is beautiful. It really made me thankful for the beauty of God’s creation. But was it paradise? No, not really. Because despite the beauty of the underwater world, everywhere on the island itself were new buildings being built to make even more money, ruining the countryside. And amidst all the lovely food and luxury that I was enjoying, there was also a lot of poverty: neglected roads, and clearly a lot of people who had no access to the wealth of some.

What maybe struck me most was the antagonism, maybe even hatred between people. Those who had been on the island since generations, and the ever growing influx of people who settled there in early retirement to enjoy the sunshine and the sea. In so many ways, this was not anything like the kingdom of God.

But yet, I had a glimpse of what paradise looked like during half-term. Not in the Caribbean, but in Wales. Just before my holiday, I went with the choir on a trip to Pembrokeshire. We sung Evensong in St David’s Cathedral, and then a couple of concerts in local churches. The last day, the choir gave a charity concert in a tiny church in Mwnt: no running water, no electricity and with about 60 people in the congregation, the church was packed.

The money we raised was going to a local charity that supports people undergoing cancer treatment. Working in deprived, rural Wales, they make sure that taxi fares to the hospital are paid for, and that people have pyjamas to wear when they have to stay in hospital after their surgery or treatment.

At the end of the concert, it is fair to say that about three-quarters of the people in the church were in tears: there was something incredibly special about this moment. Someone came up at the end to thank the choir, and she said: ‘They say that Mwnt is a place in which heaven touches earth. I think that today we crossed that boundary’. That was enough to make sure that no one left the building with dry eyes.

That, to me, is what the kingdom of God might look like. That moment when we are able to still ourselves for a moment, and we know God’s presence in the midst of our chaotic world, and our often chaotic lives. That moment when we know when we are able to hear God’s voice ‘Be still, and know that I am God’.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, the end of the Church year. Next week, as the season of Advent begins, we start to turn to our celebrations of the birth of Christ, the king of the kingdom of God. 

Maybe therefore the best way to know what this kingdom might look like it to look at its king: not born in a palace full of silver and gold, but born in a stable. Not a crown with pearls and diamonds, but a crown of thorns. Not being served by a great household, but the servant of others. Wealth in relationships, rather than wealth in material terms.

That is also what we are about to celebrate in our Eucharist: the simple elements of bread and wine become tokens of God’s kingdom as we pray and eat together, giving thanks and remembering the life and freedom that we have been given in Christ.

So as we seek the kingdom of God, we might realise that we have found it before we know it. After all, the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold. Amen.

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