Sermon 08-11-13: “Back to School, Part 1: Being Happy”

August 15, 2013
The mountain on which Jesus delivered his most famous sermon.

The mountain on which Jesus delivered his most famous sermon.

It’s hard for many of us to imagine that God wants us to be happy. We often think of God as giving us rules to prevent us from being happy. We even have a hard time imagining that Jesus was happy—what with his overturning the money-changers’ tables, sweating drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, and often saying, “Woe unto you.”

Obviously, these few episodes from Jesus’ life don’t tell most of the story. In fact, since the only true happiness that exists in the universe comes from God, we should as easily imagine that Jesus was the happiest person who ever lived!

Regardless, Jesus describes in today’s scripture the lives of people who are truly happy—although the Greek word usually gets translated as “blessed.” Biblically speaking, to be blessed is to possess a happiness that goes much deeper than the happiness for which we usually strive.

Do you want to be happy? The Sermon on the Mount tells us how.

Sermon Text: Luke 6:17-26

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Have you heard the latest about “Johnny Football”? Johnny Football is the nickname of Johnny Manziel, the quarterback at Texas A&M who won college football’s highest honor last year—the Heisman Trophy. Since Manziel won the Heisman, he has been in the news a lot—but not for doing this thing he’s so good at. Instead, he’s been in the news for his off-the-field behavior—mostly, for being an out-of-control party animal. And last week, things got worse: turns out, the NCAA is investigating allegations that he sold autographed merchandise—for a lot of money. And as both Georgia and Georgia Tech fans know, it doesn’t even take a lot of money to get into big trouble with the NCAA!   

manziel_heisman

Last week on sports-talk radio, I heard radio hosts asking listeners, “What will be Manziel’s legacy be now that all this has happened?” As if “all this”—the partying, the autograph-selling, the generally irresponsible behavior—has any bearing on the fact that for one year, at least, he was probably the best who played the game of college football. And that by virtue of winning the Heisman—Heisman winners are a very exclusive club—he’s among the best quarterbacks who ever played the game. Nothing he’s done since winning the Heisman changes what he accomplished on the field last fall.

So, should his off-the-field behavior tarnish his legacy?

Judging by the many indignant callers on the radio, the answer is, “Yes, it should!” His off-the-field behavior, we say, isn’t worthy of a Heisman winner. We believe he hasn’t lived up to the high standards of the Heisman.

It should go without saying that as Christians we should be held to much higher standards of behavior than even Heisman winners. And that the way we live our lives as disciples of Christ matters as much as becoming a Christian in the first place! The gift of salvation is not this thing, like a Heisman, which we receive at one time in our life and just sort of put it on the shelf, and then what we do after that doesn’t really matter. Because what we do after we receive the gift of salvation, after we become Christians… well, for most of us, that’s most of life, right? Being a Christian isn’t about simply trusting in Jesus for what happens after we die—like it’s fire insurance. Unlike being a Heisman winner, being a Christian is mostly about how we live after we become one.

If it’s not, then the gospel of Jesus Christ begins to seem like a fairy tale—like pie-in-the-sky by and by. It begins to seem unrealistic, impractical, and, frankly, unbelievable.

And if you’re someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus or who’s skeptical about the Christian faith, you already know this! Nothing I say is going to make you care much about what happens after we die. If Christianity is true, and if Jesus is who we say he is, then Christian faith ought to make a real difference in the lives of Christians—right now. You’re waiting to see that—if you’re a non-believer, or if you’re skeptical of Christianity. And I’m completely sympathetic with you.

Now suppose that Jesus has given us Christians detailed instructions on how to live our lives now—on how to be better people now—and he’s willing and able to teach us, through the Holy Spirit, right now. Shouldn’t we want to sit on the front row, and pay close attention, and take good notes, and ask a lot questions when we don’t understand, and work hard to do our very best? Don’t you think he has something important to teach us about living our life day-by-day, moment-by-moment? I do, and that’s why, for the next couple of months we’re going to go “back to school” with our Lord as he teaches the class for which he’s most famous—a class called the Sermon on the Mount—or, in Luke’s gospel, the Sermon on the Plain.

If we understand what Jesus is teaching us in this sermon, then the gospel of Jesus Christ, far from being something that only matters to us at the end of our lives, when we face death and eternity, is in fact the most practical, useful, and down-to-earth thing imaginable.

Because get this: following Jesus is all about what everyone wants more than anything else in life. It’s all about being happy. Do you believe it? I confess that we have a hard time believing Jesus wants us to be happy because we usually picture Jesus either being angry all the time—walking around with a frown on his face, overturning money changers’ tables, and saying things like “Woe unto you.” And since he never sinned, it’s not like he was able to have any fun! Right? Or we picture Jesus sad all the time—weeping over Jerusalem before his Triumphal Entry, weeping at his friend Lazarus’s funeral, sweating drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and saying, “Let this cup pass from me.” And since we’re supposed to be like Jesus, maybe we should frown and be angry and be sad, too.

This picture of a laughing Jesus may seem shocking to us who think Jesus was serious all the time!

This picture of a laughing Jesus may seem shocking to us who think Jesus was serious all the time!

Please! We see Jesus in the gospels playing with children, enjoying the company of good friends, having a sense of humor, going to parties. He was clearly someone that other people enjoyed being around. And what does Jesus say to his disciples during the Last Supper in John’s gospel: “I have said these things to you so that”—what? My unhappiness may be in you? My sadness may be in you? My anger may be in you. My righteous indignation may be in you. No! He said, “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Jesus wants us to be filled to the brim with joy—just like he was! He says so in today’s text! “Blessed” is a nice churchy word, but the Greek word underneath the English word “blessed” means “happy”—“Happy are you who are poor… Happy are you who hunger now… Happy are you who weep now.” Not “happy” as in that shallow emotion that waxes and wanes depending on our external circumstances, but deeply happy. Joyful. Content in all circumstances. Deeply satisfied with life—no matter what life throws our way. The happiness that comes from God, which is to say, the only true happiness that there is in the universe!

Don’t we all want to be happy? Then let’s not accept any cheap substitutes!

As you probably know, I was at Disney World last week. We rode—if “rode” is the right word—the “Carousel of Progress,” which I’ve enjoyed since I was probably three years old. It seems really corny now, but I still love it. In case you don’t know, the Carousel of Progress is a theater built, literally, on a carousel that revolves around four different stage sets. Each set features the same “animatronic” family living in different time periods beginning around the turn of the 20th century. In each time period, the father of the family talks about all the inventions and gadgets and innovations that people in his era are currently enjoying. In the first set, he’s excited, for example, to have an ice box that keeps milk fresh for a couple of days; in the second set he’s excited to have indoor plumbing; in the third set he’s excited to have a dishwasher that automatically dries dishes. And in each era, he says something like, “Can you believe all this great stuff that we have? Yep, things just can’t get any better than this!”

"There's a great big beautiful tomorrow..."

“There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow…”

And throughout the ride, I was thinking, “Who’s he kidding? The guy doesn’t even have a smartphone! Why is he so darn happy? I have so much more than this guy has, but I tend to be dissatisfied with what I have. If this guy can be happy with so little, why can’t we be happy with so much?”

I read in the New York Times recently that Apple Computer has copyrighted the word “iWatch.” I don’t know what an “iWatch” is. I don’t know why I would ever need one. I already have a watch. And I can’t imagine what an iWatch could do for me that the three or four other i-devices that I currently own don’t do for me. But chances are if Apple makes it, it’ll be sleek, and beautiful, and cool, and I’ll want one!

But will it make me happy? Maybe… for a few days… a few hours… a few minutes?

When will we ever learn?

debt_free

And it’s not just money or possessions… A recent survey by a personal finance company called Credit Karma asked the following question: “Would you rather gain 25 pounds and be completely debt-free or keep your current debt-load?” A whopping 72 percent of Americans said they would rather keep their current level of debt than gain 25 pounds and be completely debt free. Isn’t that hilarious? So being skinny—or at least the pursuit of skinniness—is possibly a bigger idol to us than money. And if you look at all the ads for diet programs, weight-loss centers, gym memberships, home gyms, dietary supplements, low-calorie snacks, low-fat snacks, fat-free snacks, diet soft drinks, and other things that promise to help us lose weight, well… it might not be so far-fetched. But we know, don’t we, that even being skinny won’t make us truly happy, right?

But even as I say this, some of you are thinking, “But I’d sure like to be skinny and find out for myself!”

Listen: not having the latest i-device and not being skinny… Aren’t these the very definition of what we now often call “first-world problems.” How many people living in poverty and destitution around the world would love to swap their problems for our problems… would love to have the problem of having too much food? Would love to have the problem of not having the very latest iPhone? Perhaps you’ve seen these funny memes on the web? My favorite is this one: “I dropped my Macbook… on my other Macbook!” That’s a first-world problem.

macbook

We all know in our hearts that many of our first-world problems are trivial and we know that they shouldn’t be problems at all—if only we were less materialistic, less greedy, less selfish. If only, as Thoreau said, we weren’t “possessed by our possessions.” If only we were better people. If only… If only… If only.

We all know this. And since we all know this, we all know that Jesus speaks the truth when he says in today’s text, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” The consolation that comes from material things isn’t enough to satisfy us: those three days, or three hours, or three minutes of fleeting happiness that the latest i-device buys us, for instance, just isn’t worth it. It doesn’t satisfy. We know this, but we keep chasing after the latest thing. We all know that Jesus is telling the truth when he says, “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” We know that even when we get exactly what we want, we’re always left wanting more. Never satisfied. Never content. Never filled up for very long. Yet we keep wanting more!

And why do we do this? Because we are broken, defective, sinful human beings who, left to our own devices, are unable to have any kind of lasting happiness or satisfaction or contentment in life. So at the very beginning of this great sermon, Jesus has correctly diagnosed the problem of our human condition. I don’t know about you, but I want to hear what else he has to say. I want to hear what we need to do to fix the problem. Don’t you? That means you better come next week for Part 2, Amen?

But we can say that the first step toward being truly happy also happens to be the first step of AA and other 12-step programs: We admit we have a problem. We admit we are powerless to solve this problem—this addiction, this idolatry—by ourselves. That’s one advantage to being poor, hungry, grieving, or persecuted—you already know that you need help. You know that you can’t solve your problems on your own. I think that’s one reason why Jesus is calling these people “blessed.”

But let’s please be careful: we can read these Beatitudes and mistakenly think that Jesus is giving us instructions about what we have to do or how we have to be in order to gain admission into God’s kingdom, in order to be saved. But that’s a serious mistake. He’s not telling us that God will love us more, or be more willing to forgive us, if we take a vow of poverty or grieve or starve ourselves or suffer persecution. After all, Jesus ministered among poor, hungry, sorrowful, and persecuted people all the time, and he didn’t say to them, “Hey, you’re O.K. just the way you are. Don’t change a thing. Welcome to God’s kingdom!” Instead, he said things like, “Your faith has made you well” and “Go and sin no more.”

Another reason Jesus singles out the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and the persecuted in verses  20 to 22 is that these were the kinds of people he was ministering to. Many of these people were believed to be hopeless sinners, and losers, and lost causes who didn’t deserve God’s love or favor or mercy. And Jesus is saying that. even these people can gain admission by grace through faith into God’s kingdom. The exact same way everybody else gains admission into God’s kingdom.

The good news is, if Jesus is inviting hopeless sinners, and losers, and lost causes to join him in God’s kingdom, well guess what? That means there’s a place in God’s kingdom for you and me, as well. That means he’s also inviting you and me to join him in God’s kingdom. That means there’s nothing standing between you and me and a saving relationship with God. It’s a free gift available to everyone. Amen?

One Response to “Sermon 08-11-13: “Back to School, Part 1: Being Happy””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, this is a good sermon (most are!). I do have a few observations (as also usual). One is–are the “Sermon on the Mount” and the “Sermon on the Plain” the same sermon? I tend to think not. Jesus certainly made points similar to other points on more than one occasion, and I think this is likely the case here. The only reason I raise this inquiry is because Jesus may have been focusing on different things in each: Blessed are the poor in spirit is a little bit of difference in perspective to blessed are the poor, even if there is some overlap.

    Second, I appreciate your insight that Jesus was happy. I frankly have focused more on the “serious” side of Jesus and never properly took note of things indicating he had a “fun side.” Thanks for that.

    Third, though, I am not so sure I totally agree that what Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the Mount is not pertinent to salvation or how God “loves” us. I think that virtually the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount focuses on what it means to be a Christian; or, perhaps more correctly, what it means to be a “good” Christian. Our lives certainly have to be “different” if we are truly Christians. And I may be focusing overly on just some of your language. But I think it is a mistake to think that “it doesn’t matter” as far as either salvation to begin with; or, certainly our relationship with God in the second place, whether we have the “character” referenced in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says in John’s gospel that he who loves God keeps his commandments, and that those who do so are loved by both Christ and the Father. I know it is popular theology nowadays to say God loves all “equally,” but I am not so sure that this sentiment is really biblical. And even if the “difference” is not one of “love” (though, “God is love”), certainly it is one of a “good” versus a “strained” relationship (just as with a marriage). So, to that extent I would have to differ from your sermon (though I may be misunderstanding you, as sometimes happens).


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