Nobody Lives in Paradise Anymore
Ezekiel 13:10-16, Romans 5:12-18, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, July 6, 2014
One of the first comments I saw posted on Facebook dealing with the Rhode Island Monthly article about substance abuse on Block Island read, “I live on an island that is a paradise.” My comment to her was “There is no paradise that has people in it.” I remember the Sunday I gave my first sermon here and was voted in as your pastor; one of the summer members greeted me with “Welcome to paradise!”
We like to think that we live in paradise, especially if we have spent a lot of money to live here, or put up with a lot of inconvenience and even poverty to be able to stay here. In its wild state, perhaps the island is a paradise, but once you populate it with families of stubborn runaway Baptists, or with the cast of Gilligan’s Island or Lost, or only with Robinson Crusoe or Tom Hanks, it is no longer a paradise.
The opening chapters of the Bible make that clear enough. The Biblical vision is not that this earth is a paradise, but rather that it was before we got hold of it, and that God will make it so again. In the mean time, we have a mess. The name of that mess is sin. In the first chapter of Genesis, God created an earth that was good, good, good. Then God created humans, male and female, in God’s own image, and it was very good. But in the second chapter there is an earthier story about Adam and Eve, made from mud, placed in paradise to care for it and to enjoy its fruit with very few limits. Whether you take the story of Adam and Eve as historical or as a story to explain why things are the way they are, the clear lesson is that the very first humans chose rebellion against God; having paradise, they wanted something more; being provided for, they wanted independence. The first humans were kicked out of paradise and there has been no going back.
The way Paul talks about that story in Romans is to say that through the first man Adam sin entered the world. Paul does not say that “sins” entered the world, as if Adam’s were the first of many naughty deeds. He says that sin—a fundamental orientation toward the self and away from God—came into the world and corrupted human history from that point on. In Romans 7, Paul describes how the power of sin has worked in his own life, making him incapable of doing the things he wants to do, and causing him to do the things he is determined not to do. Wherever that sin comes from—the serpent, God, Adam or Eve—the message of Genesis is that there is something broken in every one of us, something that makes us push God away and prefer to run our own lives.
The situation Paul is talking about is not that God is still mad at all of us because of what one person did long ago, but that the meaning of the story is that ever since the time of Adam we have all exercised our free will to get our own way and to get away from God’s control. That choice and that basic orientation of the self keep us alienated from God and unable to live in his presence in this life or the next. The God who created us for relationship with himself, the God who walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, has become for us the Sheriff and the Judge, the controlling parent we move far away from on purpose. It’s not God who has chosen not to have a relationship. We have chosen it for ourselves—and yet, we have not chosen what we really want, what would be best for us, because there is something bent in us. Our chooser is broken. That is the meaning of sin. And that is the problem Jesus came to address. Death came into the world through Adam, but through the second Adam, Jesus, mercy and new life broke into the world. The disobedience of one man, Paul says, brought in the reign of death under which we live; but now the obedience of one man was brought in the kingdom of life and the free gift of being in a loving relationship with God as God always intended. In 1 Corinthians 15 (49) Paul says, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.” The Western side of Christianity has emphasized that God has forgiven the penalty for our sins, but the Eastern side has emphasized that God has restored the image of God in us that was defaced by sin, so that we have been freed to be fully human like Jesus.
That is of course what this table is about. Whatever images you use, we are proclaiming in this meal that we have been forgiven and made new, that we who were once alienated from God have now been accepted and become his friends and even his children. The problem of sin—that inability to orient ourselves toward God, that thing that is bent in the internal gyroscope—has been taken care of by God showing his love for us on the cross and paying a price to reclaim us as his own.
This is not a meal that you can eat in paradise. If you live in paradise, you have no need for mercy or God’s rescue; you only need to understand things more clearly. Genesis is clear in describing our human condition. We live with the consequences of human choices; we live with a sin nature inside us which makes every thing more difficult than it has to be. God drove the humans out of the garden, out of that paradise for which they had been created, and God placed heavenly creatures with swords of flame to guard the entrance. We can never go back. We can never get back to the garden.
Sometimes we tell ourselves we live in paradise to keep our spirits up. Becca and I lived in Manhattan in the mid-80’s, when conditions were about as bad as they’d been since the Depression. On Sunday mornings we’d try to forget the gunfire in our Washington Heights neighborhood, we’d take the subway to the urine-soaked hallways under Times Square and sometimes literally step over the bodies of passed out homeless people in the Port Authority Bus Terminal on our way to our church on 40th Street. The pastor was very keen on keeping morale up, and he would start the service with something like “Isn’t it great to live in the center of the universe? What a privilege to live in a city like this!”
I’ve had the same feeling sitting in some meetings about drug abuse and the lack of mental health care on the island in which someone feels an obligation to give the oft-repeated speech about how Block Island is a wonderful community—meaning: don’t let anything you hear today make you doubt that you live in paradise. The Bible says that the Garden of Eden had four rivers, but the fake paradise has only one: Denial—not called the longest river in the world for nothing.
For some this is a religious conviction. Many people say that the secret to inner peace is to accept the world the way it is. Everything happens for a reason, they say. In the words of the 18th century Deists, they might say, “This is the best of all possible worlds.” Somehow friends of mine have come to think these ideas are Buddhist, when the first premise of Buddhism is that life is full of suffering and the only way to get through it is to stop desiring anything and accept suffering. That’s a long way from pasting a smiley face on the universe.
The Christian view—the view taken by the long story of the Bible and the particular experience of Jesus on the cross—is that this world is really messed up and not acceptable the way it is. This is a world that has been warped by human sin. Sin needs to be repented of and justice needs to be restored.
In the major prophets of the Old Testament there are running battles between the genuine prophets who speak for Yahweh and the false prophets who work for the king and keep saying that the nation is doing just fine. The court prophets—the celebrators of the status quo, who have no problem if 90% are poor or if the Temple is only 90% pure—keep telling the king and the wealthy that there is Shalom. They proclaim “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. Who can blame them? Isaiah 30 says the people instruct the prophets, “Speak to us smooth things! Prophesy illusions.”
The denouncement of the false prophets in Ezekiel 13 is less familiar than the references in Jeremiah and Isaiah, but it’s particularly appropriate because of one image. Listen again to verse 10: “The prophets mislead my people by saying that all is well. All is certainly not well! My people have put up a wall of loose stones, and then the prophets have come and covered it with whitewash.” Could you have an image more suited to Block Island? We put up walls of loose stones, quaint and decorative, as if they would really protect us from an enemy or a storm. The false prophets do not point out the need for better walls. These prophets just put a coat of whitewash on the old walls. Yahweh says to them, “I’m going to send a rain like Block Island had on Friday. I’m going to send hail and a strong wind. I’ll huff and puff and blow your wall down. That wall is going to collapse and kill all of you. Everyone will ask what good the whitewash did.”
What good is there to saying that our community if fine the way it is, if there are real problems either in the foundations or in the rocks we have recently piled on top? Of course it makes us more comfortable to say we live in paradise. Of course it makes us more comfortable to say that we live in the greatest nation on earth. But to deny the reality of sin does not make it go away.
About six weeks ago the farmer-poet-novelist Wendell Berry held a question and answer session at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville. At one point he was talking about his preference for the Amish as the best examples of Christian living and about the Buddhist idea of “right livelihood.” Berry pulled out a copy of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer to read “For Every Man in His Work:”
Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men; for the sake of him who came among us as one that serveth, thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Berry said the sentiments of this prayer were “utterly alien” to our own economy. “We have an economy founded foursquare on the Seven Deadly Sins. Just go down the list.” Here’s the list, by the way: lust, gluttony, greed, despair, rage, envy, and pride.
This fundamental anti-God orientation that we call sin is a characteristic of societies and economies as well as individuals. When we admit, as Isaiah said, “I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips,” we are saying that we admit we are not people suited to paradise and we do not in fact live in paradise. We ourselves are sinners and we find ourselves in a society shaped by sin. We are, as Paul says in Romans, under the dominion of death. Left to our own devices, we will follow the path of death and that will be our end. How can we choose life, when our natures have been so corrupted?
The good news is that we no longer live in the realm of death, because Christ has transferred us to the realm of life. In Romans 5:15, Paul says that however many people came under the sentence of death because of Adam, that same number have received God’s grace and God’s free gift of life through the one man Jesus Christ. The free gift is a new and right life lived in a loving relationship with God because our sins have been forgiven and we whose very nature was twisted by the sense that God was our enemy have now been reconciled to God forever.
The only way to receive that gift is to acknowledge that you need it. If you pretend to live in paradise still, if you imagine yourself to be a basically good creature in whom the image of God has never been spoiled, there is no hope for you. You need a shot of reality. The reality is that we are broken and need to be fixed—and not just us, but all of society. That is what Jesus came for. That is why Jesus died for us. That is what we celebrate at this table. It is Jesus who has set us free. It is Jesus who creates again the possibility of being fully human. It is he who announces God’s reign on earth and the ultimate renewal of all things. If you want to celebrate paradise, let it be the paradise that is to come when there is a new earth, when Christ has made all things new.
- Harbor ChurchBox D2Phone: 401-466-5940
Block Island, RI 02807