I don’t know if any of you enjoy television as much as I do but, for those of you who do, you have probably heard that this is the final season of the popular ABC drama, Lost.
The plot and the themes of the television show, about a group of people who survive a plane crash in the south Pacific on a mysterious island, draws heavily on the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton for its plot and themes.
In both stories, a character representing Adam, the first human, finds himself trapped in a living hell and is forced to try and understand the meaning of his actions.
The idea of paradise is the subject of our worship tonight. The congregations in our cluster – Lutherans United in North Chicago – have chosen to spend this season of Lent reflecting on the seven last words of Jesus.
We began last week here at St. Luke’s, on Ash Wednesday, with Jesus’ intercessory prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” This week we concentrate on the words of Jesus to the thief beside whom he hung on the cross, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
When we listen to the words read from Genesis, we are reminded that – theologically speaking – paradise is not unknown to humankind. The story Christians and Jews tell about the origins of the world begin with the idea that God created the world and looked at it and called it good. Humanity’s story begins in right relationship to the plants and animals with whom we share this planet.
Then, a mysterious commandment from God, one that has confused us ever since this myth was first told. God creates us and places us in a garden of peace and plenty, and then points out the thing that will shatter this Eden: knowledge of good and evil. We are told that on the day we eat the fruit from that tree, we will die.
So, of course, that is exactly what we do, and the story of Genesis from that point on is one of divided families and warring nations and unending violence and suffering. All of which we are supposed to blame on our inability to respect the limits of our God created nature.
Something in us just hates a limit. Anyone who has ever raised a child or worked in a classroom knows, children hate to hear the word “no.” We would like to think that we are capable of anything and everything, even that we are capable of deciding what is right and what is wrong – not only for ourselves, but for others as well.
This is the beginning of violence. Early on, in this history of humanity, and in the story of our own lives, we decided that we knew better than others how their lives, and their homes and their cities and their nations should be run. We ate early and often from that tree, the one with the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Then we began to judge each other and to back our judgments up with sanctions – insults, injuries, and threats of greater harm.
We judged one another, and we were judged by one another, and then the world around us stopped feeling like Eden and started feeling like hell. We were like the people on that plane in the TV show Lost, fallen from some state of grace and struggling to survive in a harsh environment that seemed hostile and destructive.
But, just as we have never forgotten that original state of grace, the God who created us in love and placed us in the garden has never lost track of us either. When we had fallen, God sent Jesus, the one God called beloved in his baptism at the river Jordan, through whom God announced that we are all beloved children of God, so that Jesus can say even to a convicted thief on a cross, “truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Fans of Lost who’ve been watching the series for the last six years have been promised that in this final season the time for questions is over, and the time for answers has finally come. As the series races to its end, one of the things that has become clear is that the mysterious God-like character, named Jacob, has been searching for someone to help him take care of the island, that the place the survivors had considered a hell to be escaped is, in reality, a garden in need of tending.
During this season of Lent, we are called to investigate the world around us, to take seriously the reality of suffering and death, and even to confess our own participation in the suffering that we and those around us experience. But we are not called to languish in that misery. Lent is not, finally, about cultivating a mood of self-hatred or an attitude of pious penitence. Lent is about hearing the voice of our Lord, who is calling us to turn around, and is commissioning us to help take care of the garden.
Return to the Lord your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.