Sermon 02-13-2022: “Jesus and the Pursuit of Happiness”

Scripture: Luke 6:17-26

By now, many of you have heard about and are playing the online game Wordle. The game has exploded in popularity. All five members of my family play it every day… and we eagerly post our results in the family group chat. 

In a nutshell, you have six chances to guess a five-letter word that has been randomly selected by the Wordle app. With each guess, the game gives you feedback about which letters, if any, are in the in the word… and which letters aren’t. As one article on the Wordle phenomenon puts it, if you solve it, it makes you feel clever, but not too clever. And it doesn’t take much time. There’s only one Wordle a day, so it’s impossible to go down a Wordle rabbit hole.

The bottom line is, it’s a perfectly harmless diversion for a few minutes each day. It’s nothing to get worked up about. It’s nothing to take too seriously. It’s nothing to be too competitive about… according to one commentator.

Well, this person doesn’t know me… doesn’t know my heart. The moment I first heard about Wordle—my daughter sent me a link to the game in a message and encouraged me to play, along with the rest of my family—but the moment I heard about it, I knew this game spelled trouble for me. Because I confess that I am sinfully proud about my vocabulary… about my love of words… about my facility with the English language. Words are kind of my thing. I’m not good with power tools, for instance, or doing anything handy around the house,which would be far more practical skill. But I am like the Bob Vila of words—is Bob Vila still around? I am like Tool Time with Tim Taylor when it comes to words! Or at least that’s how I think of myself!

Bottom line, I talk really good!

So I knew the moment I heard about this silly, harmless, allegedly fun game, that it had the potential not forbringing me the fleeting moment of happiness that its creator intended; rather, it had the potential for making me feel bad about myself… because… what if I fail to guess the word in six tries? Or what if I finish behind people I play against? What if I’m not good at it? What if I’m not good enough?

So Wordle, which is supposed to make me happy, has the potential of making me feel bad about myself!

And here’s why I mention it: for most of my life as a Christian, the Beatitudes of Jesus have done the same thing: they have made me feel bad about myself… because I don’t measure up!

But first some background: A beatitude is a “blessing,” and the Beatitudes of Jesus are found in two places in the gospels—in verses 20 to 22 of today’s scripture and, more famously, in Matthew 5:2-11, at the beginning of the Sermon of the Mount. In today’s scripture, and next week’s, Jesus is preaching a different sermon from the Sermon on the Mount; it’s often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. It’s a similar sermon but a little different. I imagine he preached a variation on this sermon on many occasions—like stump speech. But both sermons include Beatitudes, in which Jesus pronounces blessings or lasting happiness to certain kinds of people: The Beatitudes say, “These are the kinds of people who are happy and blessed by God.” The Greek word translated as “blessed” in the ESV and most translations could literally be translated “happy.” That’s how the Good News Bible puts it: “Happy are you poor… Happy are you who are hungry… Happy are you who weep…” The Amplified Bible includes the word joyful, but same difference. It’s not “happiness” the way we usually think of it. It’s a deep and lasting kind of happiness. It’s joy.

But at the very least, it includes happiness. At the very least, Jesus—who is God in the flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity, who literally created us—is telling us something about what nearly every human being in the world wants more than anything else… Something that the Founding Fathers say we have a God-given right to in our Declaration of Independence: the pursuit of happiness… And if anyone should be offering advice on how to be happy, it’s Jesus. He knows better than anyone; he made us. So we should want to listen to him.

Which reminds me, by the way, of something I haven’t thought of in years… Remember that series of TV commercials from the ’70s and ’80s: one guy is sharing stock market tips with his friend. They’re in a crowded place. And the friend says, “Well, my broker is E.F. Hutton, and E.F. Hutton says…” And then everyone in the crowd stops doing whatever it is they’re doing… and turns to listen to what this man has to say… Because, according to the commercial, if anyone has good advice to give on trading stocks, it’s E.F. Hutton. 

They must not have been too good at it, however, because E.F. Hutton went out of business a long time ago!

But Jesus, to say the least, knows what he’s talking about when he talks about lasting happiness. So that’s what this sermon is about: Why should being a disciple of Jesus Christ make us happy? And this sermon focuses on three reasons for being happy: The first reason to be happy is that we are eligible right now for admission into God’s kingdom. Our sins cannot exclude us! And that’s based on what Christ has done for us in the past. The second reason: because we hold fast to what Christ will do for us in the future—in eternity. And third, unlike the fleeting happiness that the world offers, our happiness doesn’t depend on our present circumstances… because Jesus is doing something for us in the present.

So our happiness is based on what Christ did for us in the past, what Christ will do for us in the future, and what Christ is doing for us right now, in the present.

But as I’ve said, if we don’t interpret Jesus properly, his words have the potential to make us unhappy

Here’s why: We can easily turn these blessings that Jesus offers into something we have to do…something we have to earn… or deserve… or achieve through our good behavior, or at least through our good attitudes. We might say, “I don’t think I’m willing or able to be poor myself, so I should at least possess the same humble attitude of many poor people.” A prominent preacher and televangelist of a previous generation once wrote a bestseller called The Be-Happy Attitudes, and I assume in his book he argues that we need to change our attitudes—change ourselves, do something—in order to imitate the Beatitudes and become truly happy, as Jesus describes. 

So we turn words of Jesus that are intended to be words of incredible grace—words of good news, words of gospel… into words of Law… “Thou shalt be poor—in spirit if not in actual fact—or else!

And it’s not just wealth! Look at verse 25: “Woe to you who are full now…” He’s going after our comfort too! I mean, every Sunday I look forward to going with my family after church to the Mexican place for lunch, and trust me: I will be full. I will push away from the table feeling satisfied. Or what about “Woe to you who laugh now.” I laugh a lot! I spend time watching stand-up comedy on Netflix! And I certainly try to avoid weeping, which the “blessed” people of verse 21 do! 

So is there something wrong with laughing… trying to enjoy life… being comfortable rather than feeling sad and miserable?

Or what about verse 26: “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you.” But this happens to me every Sunday in the greeting line after church! You guys are so nice, you’re always speaking well of me. Even if you don’t mean it. No one has ever told me, in seventeen years of pastoral ministry, “You’re sermon today really stunk, Pastor Brent.” Again, you may think it, but you don’t say it… at least not to me!

I enjoy having a good reputation, I enjoy people having a high opinion of me, I enjoy when people compliment me, or people speak well of me, rather than gossiping or speaking ill of me.

So again, am I doing something wrong? Are we?

So to help us interpret Jesus correctly, let’s pay attention to the setting. Verses 17 to 19 are very important: Luke describes Jesus ministering to a large crowd… “And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all.” It was a crowd filled not with what we might call today the “one percent”—not with the “winners,” not with the rulers and the business executives and the politicians and TV pundits and the Hollywood celebrities, not with the elites, not with the people on top… No! Not even with the good religious people… Not even with righteous people… We know this in part because of the reference to some in this crowd coming from “Tyre and Sidon,” from the territory, biblically speaking, that belongs to Israel’s ancient enemies, the Philistines… Gentiles, in other words. Pagans. People who up to this point have never even worshiped the one true God! To say the least, the religious elites of Jesus’ day were unlikely to “mix” with a crowd like this!

Yet Jesus doesn’t discriminate… “for power came out from him and healed them all”—not just to a chosen few who happened to possess certain characteristics, or certain “attitudes,” or who behaved in the right way. These people had just had first-hand experience with the kind of happiness and blessedness that Jesus talks about at the beginning of this sermon!

So when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor… Blessed are you who are hungry now… Blessed are you who weep now… Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil…” nearly everyone in that crowd—most of whom had just been been touched by Jesus or had just touched Jesus themselves… people who had been healed… people who had loved ones who had been healed… nearly everyone in the crowd would have have known one thing for sure…as they listened to Jesus speak these Beatitudes to them. Here’s how they would have interpreted Jesus’ words:

The gates of God’s kingdom are open wide even for me! I never thought that was possible. I never thought someone like me would be eligible for eternal life! I never thought God could truly love someone like me… with all my sin. I never thought I would be favored by God. In fact, I thought for years that the reason that I suffered from this chronic disease that Jesus just healed was because of my sin… I thought the reason that my child has suffered was because of my sin… I thought the reason that I was desperately poor… destitute… hungry… unable to make ends meet… I thought these were indications that God was mad at me, or disappointed in me… that God had rejected me… because of my sin. And Jesus the Messiah is saying no… My sins are forgiven through faith in God’s Son. I am favored by God through faith in God’s Son. I am part of God’s family through faith in God’s Son. And to prove it, look at this miracle Jesus has just performed for me. 

So Jesus’ message—which so many in the crowd would have received loud and clear—is that even desperate sinners like us can now become part of God’s kingdom through faith in Christ! Every other religious authority in Jesus’ day would have said, “No, you’re excluded from God’s kingdom for the following reasons.” Jesus, by contrast, says, “The gates are wide open! Come on in!”

That’s incredibly good news, isn’t it?

A few years ago, some internet atheist was trying to troll us Christians—to make fun of us for actually believing that Christianity is true. This atheist posted the following meme on social media. It included a photo of David Berkowitz, that infamous serial killer from the ’70s known as the “Son of Sam.” The meme includes a present-day photo of Berkowitz in prison, smiling and holding a Bible. The caption on the photo reads, “My name is David Berkowitz. I was the most feared man in New York City in the ’70s. Known as ‘The Son of Sam,’ I was the serial killer that murdered six people and wounded ten others. Now in prison for life, I found the love of Jesus.

Then in large print, it reads, with heavy sarcasm, “Guess Who’s Getting Into Heaven?” 

And you know what I say to that? I say, “I hope so! Praise God, I hope so!”

This atheist obviously was offended—that the gospel of Jesus Christ has the nerve to say that even a former serial killer like Berkowitz—who, I’m sure we all agree, is about the worst sinner that anyone could name—that even someone like him could become part of God’s kingdom, that even someone like him could have all his awful, evil, ugly sins forgiven, and be born again, that even someone like him could be given eternal life—all on the condition that he sincerely repent and believe in the gospel!

Provided he has done that, then I say Amen! I say, “If Jesus can save David Berkowitz, then there’s hope for me! And there’s hope for you!” If even even someone like him isn’t excluded because of his sins, then I won’t be excluded because of mine. And you won’t be excluded because of yours!

If even someone like him…” That means even someone like me… Most people in this crowd received Jesus’ Beatitudes as good news because they heard for the first time, perhaps, that “even someone like me” can become part of God’s kingdom forever. Amen!

This is all possible because of what Christ did for us through his atoning death on the cross. For the crowds listening to Jesus’ sermon, it was an event happening in the near future. But for the rest of us, it’s a past event. Weare happy because of what Christ did in the past through his atoning death on the cross.

So that’s point number onePoint number two: “We are happy because of what Christ will do for us in the future.” Let’s notice verse 21: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. ¶ Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh…” 

Notice the future tense of those verbs. Jesus teaches that our ultimate Christian hope is in the future—on the other side of death and resurrection, on the other side of the Second Coming, after Christ comes in the fullness of his glory, when we are resurrected with new bodies into a new world that’s been transformed, when heaven and earth become one… and things like sin, evil, sickness, suffering, and death have become a thing of the past. That’s in our future, and that’s better than what we can imagine now. 

And consequently we no longer have to be afraid of what our world considers the worst thing that can happen to us—which is that we die, and especially that we die untimely deaths—because, as Paul says, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”1

In the very early days of the pandemic, in March of 2020 when everyone was in lockdown and we didn’t know what to make of this virus, the Israeli actress Gal Gadot, who played Wonder Woman in the recent movies, put together a viral video of herself—and many other celebrities—taking turns singing lines from John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” which has become some kind of godless, secular hymn for any momentous occasion. “The opening ceremonies for the Olympics are going on.” “I know… Let’s play ‘Imagine.’” Gross. The song is anti-Christian. “Imagine there’s no heaven/ It’s easy if you try/ No hell below us/ Above us only sky.”

Nothing against Gal Gadot, but I’m happy to say that lots of people reacted with scorn and mockery to this video of celebrities singing “Imagine.” Because in that moment, in the early days of Covid-19 when so many people were getting sick and dying, the last thing people wanted to do was to “imagine there’s no heaven.” Heaven means that God will make right all the wrongs; without it, justice will not be done, our lives have no ultimate meaning, and we have no hope!

But of course we do have hope for the future, and that should make us happy—just as it made the apostle Paul happy when he was facing his own execution. He said in Philippians 1:23 that he was hard pressed between continuing to live, or going on to be with the Lord… but he said going on to be with the Lord in heaven was far better. It made him happy to know, even in the midst of his present suffering, what Christ was going to do for him in his near future. So that’s point number two.

Point number three: We can be happy right now because the kind of lasting happiness and joy that Christ offers doesn’t depend on our present circumstances… because of what our Lord is doing with these circumstances right now, in the present.

Let’s notice the first Beatitude: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Our happiness in Christ is also based not only on something happening in eternity, but on something that’s happening right now. We possess God’s kingdom right now. We are under the reign of almighty God right now. Our King Jesus is actively working in our lives right now. We are presently enjoying benefits of being a part of God’s kingdom right now.

I quoted Philippians 1:21 a moment ago—“to live is Christ and to die is gain”—but let’s not neglect that first part: “to live is Christ.” To live right now is Christ, and from Paul’s perspective there’s nothing better; there’s no better way to live. Elsewhere Paul says that all the earthly treasures that he knew and possessed before he knew Christ, all of which he had lost, those earthly treasures were garbage in comparison to what? Knowing Christ… right nowin the present.

Listen, what I’m about to share with you, I have permission to share, from Lisa, my wife. Most of you don’t know that Lisa had a biopsy recently. My family and I have been praying hard that God would physically heal whatever underlying illness or condition caused her doctor to want to take the biopsy in the first place. And then we waited for the results of the biopsy for a week. This experience of waiting and wondering lasted about two months, and it was hard. There were tears. And these tears were not from a lack of faith. Remember verse 21: “Blessed are you who weep now.” Weeping is going to be part of living a faithful Christian life.

But I can say this in complete honesty, with complete candor, with complete sincerity: However much the devil may have wanted to use this season of uncertainty to harm us, to cause us to doubt, to rob us of our confidence in Christ, to rob us of our hope in Christ, the devil failed. He failed! Isn’t that awesome? Our family did not fall apart. Instead we enjoyed a very happy Advent and Christmas season—the best ever—and we kept on praying, we kept on reading and believing and listening to Christ speak to us through his holy Word—and as always in our family, we laughed a lot. We enjoyed one another. Even in the midst of this uncertainty.

The good news is, the devil did not have the power to rob us of this kind of deep happiness that, frankly, I have not always possessed. The devil couldn’t rob us of an underlying joy… an underlying peace… an underlying contentment.

“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content,” Paul says, “with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:10.

Where does this strength come from? Only from Christ! Not from me! God knows, I have failed many, many tests of faith in my past. I am only bragging now on Christ here, I promise!

But part of this strength comes from knowing that nothing that was happening to Lisa and my family during those two months was beyond God’s control. “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save, or his ear dull that it cannot hear.” Isaiah 59:1. The Lord’s mighty hand never stopped working, and his ear heard all of our prayers, and he always gave us exactly what we needed! There was nothing happening that God had not known for all eternity was happen. There was nothing happening that was outside of God’s plan for our lives. Because, as Jesus promises, we are part of God’s kingdom now, we know and believe that God is reigning over all of our life’s circumstances, and he is using them for our good. God’s Word says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

To put your mind at ease, the biopsy was negative. So praise God! 

But don’t misunderstand… The kind of “blessedness” that Jesus is talking about—the kind of deep, abiding, lasting happiness that Christ promises—does not depend on the “biopsy being negative.” Let me repeat that: This kind of happiness we have in Christ does not—and should not—depend on getting a negative biopsy. It doesn’t! 

Because guess what? There will be another scary health crisis in the future for me, for Lisa, for all of us… And unless Christ returns before it happens, some future health crisis will end up taking our lives. We will all die. 

How do we face that prospect?

By God’s grace, I hope we face it the same way pastor Tim Keller is facing his own terminal cancer diagnosis, and I’ll close with this. He has pancreatic cancer. While he’s responded well to chemo so far, he knows that this cancer will kill him. And in a tweet a couple of years ago he wrote the following: “Our situation,” referring to him and his wife Kathy, “our situation has driven us to seek God’s face as we never have before. He is giving us more of his sensed presence, more freedom from our besetting sins, more dependence on his Word—things that we had sought for years, but only under these circumstances are we finding them.”

Isn’t it amazing that even terminal cancer, far from robbing Tim and Kathy Keller of joy, is playing a role, in God’s powerful, providential hands, of increasing their joy, of perfecting their joy, of making their joy complete!

That’s the kind of “blessedness,” the kind of “happiness,” I want. How about you?

  1. Philippians 1:21

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