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"The Answer to Unhappiness"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on April 29, 2018
By Rev. Michael Newman, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Acts 8:26-40

Let me start with a question today: What do you really want? What does your heart yearn for most? A blogger recently asked her readers the question: "If you could say in one word what you want more of in life, what would that be?" Can you guess the number one answer? It was happiness. People answered that they wanted to be happy.

Contrast that with the Harris Poll of American Happiness. This annual survey has consistently found that two-thirds of people in the United States do not describe themselves as "happy." That may not be a surprise to you. Even though we're a wealthy nation, despite the fact that we are technologically savvy, have medical advances that outpace most of the world, and enjoy a constant diet of sports and entertainment, most people are not happy.

Do you feel like you're looking for happiness, but you can't quite get there? You're not alone. People are searching and seeking. They're looking for that missing something. They're hunting for that absent sense of completeness, that puzzle piece that will bring wholeness and contentment.

You may have heard of renowned thinker and writer, C.S. Lewis. Lewis acknowledged that this search for happiness is part of the human experience. In some way, all of us, at some time or another, come to the conclusion that there has to be something more. Lewis described this sense as a perpetual feeling of nostalgia-as if we know there have to be better times out there somewhere. Lewis called this yearning an "old ache."

Do you have this old ache in your life?

You may be surrounded by people, but, emotionally, you feel isolated, disappointed or heartbroken. You may know the old ache. You may understand the yearning for happiness. You may be fully aware of how the world feels like a wilderness: barren, empty, short of what you really need.

But you may also be very conscious of someone reaching out to you, calling you to hope, inviting you to a supply of true happiness that isn't found in the wilderness of this world, but is supplied by God who loves you and pursues you with true joy that is complete and lasting.
What do I mean when I say God pursues you? Let me give you an example: many years ago, after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, an African man was traveling through the desert back to his home in Ethiopia. The African man was very devout. He was a very spiritual person.

That describes a lot of people these days. In the Harris Poll I mentioned earlier, 71 percent of people in the U.S. said that their spiritual beliefs were a positive guiding force in their lives. Spirituality has grown in our nation. More and more people are defining themselves as spiritual but not religious.

What does it mean to be spiritual? Well, a spiritual person is confident that something else is out there; there is more to this life. Spiritual people acknowledge the existence of meaning beyond the material world, but, frequently, the search takes them inside-within the self-to find an answer. You've heard the refrain before, "Look inside your heart. The answer lies within you." The problem is what lies within you is what got you into the mess of unhappiness in the first place. Looking to yourself for the answer to unhappiness is a search in the wilderness.

So, back to the African man: he was a spiritual man with that old ache, searching for wholeness and happiness. He was reading the ancient book of Isaiah from the Old Testament and was trying to figure out what it meant when it said, "Like a sheep He was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He opens not His mouth. In His humiliation justice was denied Him. Who can describe His generation? For His life is taken away from the earth." Isaiah was talking about somebody. The Ethiopian man wondered who.

That's when God broke into the wilderness. Acts chapter eight, verse 26, tells us, "Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, 'Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.' This is a desert place."

Now, you have to understand how radical this statement was. All the followers of Jesus were fleeing north. They were leaving Jerusalem because of persecution. But God knew about this Ethiopian man in the wilderness. And He wanted to send help. So God directed Philip, a dedicated servant of God and His people, to travel south-through the danger and into the desert. When Philip arrived, the Holy Spirit said to him, "Go over and join this chariot." Philip approached the man's chariot and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" The Ethiopian man replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" He then invited Philip to come up and sit with him in the chariot.

I hope you see what's happening here. A man was searching for true happiness, for meaning in life. He wasn't someone Philip would normally meet in his daily life. They were two very different people from two very different parts of the world. The Ethiopian man was in a literal wilderness as he traveled back to Africa and in a figurative wilderness as he searched for answers in life and tried to understand what he was reading from the Bible.

And where did God meet him? Right there in the wilderness. God pursued him right where he was.

Do you see what this means for you? Name your wilderness. Be honest about your reason for confusion, sadness, or frustration. Are you depressed? Are you angry? Are you brokenhearted? Do you feel forgotten, lost, or hopeless? What wilderness plagues you today? What stands in the way of happiness? Friend, God seeks you there. Yes, in your wilderness. He pursues you. He reaches out to you. Maybe that's why you're hearing this message today. Take heart, your wilderness is not where you are forgotten; it is where you are found by God who loves you and cares about you.

And let me tell you some good news: the wilderness is where God does His best work. Listen to what happened to that Ethiopian man. He asked Philip, "About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, 'See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?' And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing."

The answer to unhappiness for the Ethiopian man was the good news about Jesus. True happiness, the solution to the old ache, is not found in what you have, what you do, what people think of you, or what your physical condition is. It is found in Jesus' love for you. It is found in His restoration of your life. You are a new creation in Christ Jesus. The old is gone. Your restored and forgiven life is now one of eternal hope and enduring purpose. Think about it, this Ethiopian man was a slave, but because of His new faith in Jesus, he could rejoice.

That's why the Ethiopian craved baptism. It is one way God delivers the gift of new life earned through Jesus' death on the cross and resurrection from the grave. The Savior makes life complete. He brings true happiness. Even though this Ethiopian man was in the wilderness, all was well with his soul by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and by the renewing work of the Holy Spirit.

I'd like you to remember this: God does His best work in the wilderness. God does His best work when you face your worst times. Will you hear that good news today?

I once read a remarkable story of a woman who was on an adventure run in a remote desert. She was with her dog, had some water and an energy bar, but slipped and fell into a ravine. She was very seriously injured and unable to walk. She laid there for three days and two nights. Fatigue overwhelmed her. The twenty-degree temperatures at night and the scorching heat during the day made her think she would not survive.

But a neighbor noticed she didn't come home, so she called the police. Then a police detective felt like he needed to look in a remote place where runners liked to train. That's when he saw her truck. He summoned searchers to comb the trails, and that's when an ATV encountered her dog. And that dog led rescuers to the woman trapped in the wilderness. The rescue was a miracle. It was a miracle because the woman had absolutely no ability to save herself. Out there in the desert there were no resources that would allow her to survive. She needed help from the outside. A neighbor, a dog, and a persistent police detective were her advocates. And help finally came to rescue her.

If you're looking for rescue from unhappiness, from loneliness, from despair and heartbreak, then help has to come from the outside. You can't help yourself out of brokenness in the wilderness. But you have an Advocate. God the Father who loves you, Jesus Christ the Son of God who gave His life and rose from the dead for you, and the Holy Spirit who intercedes for you, advocate for your life. The true God cares deeply for you. What wilderness are you walking in today? Open your eyes and heart. God does His best work there.

It's what God has always done. Whenever people faced impossible wildernesses, God stepped in with miraculous rescue, provision, and encouragement. Think back in history. Do you remember how Moses led God's people out of slavery in Egypt? Off they went into the desert where they faced obstacle after obstacle. Who would ever flee into a desert? Only danger resides there. But God did the impossible. He provided manna and quail to eat. He brought fresh water from a rock to quench their thirst. Though the elements were brutal, their clothes and shoes didn't wear out. God did His best work there.

Or how about Elijah? Do you remember him? He fell into a funk of depression as he ran from angry Queen Jezebel. All hope was lost. He had no army, no resources, and no ideas. So, he lay down in the wilderness in despair. He was giving up. But what did God do? God found the forlorn prophet, drew close to him, gave him food and drink, and brought him to the safety of a mountain cave. There, God's still small voice whispered the promise of help and hope.

And, of course, remember how Jesus met the devil head-on in the wilderness. Satan threw everything at Jesus. He tested Him to the limit. But Jesus didn't relent. For you and for me, Jesus sent the devil packing and took another step closer to the ultimate wilderness: being crucified outside the city of Jerusalem in a place no one ever wanted to go. Skull Hill, Golgotha, wasn't fit for man or beast. But that's where God did His best work. "It is finished," Jesus said. Sins were paid for. Forgiveness and grace became the standard for our lives. Death was turned inside-out to reveal hope fueled by God's grace through His Son.

God does His best work in the wilderness. He is the help you need from the outside. He brings His resources to the places where you have nothing left. And, as you heard so vividly in Acts chapter eight, His miraculous peace and hope lead to rejoicing, true happiness that lasts forever through Jesus Christ, the living Savior.

So, what's your next step with this answer to unhappiness? Today, I would like to encourage you to look closely at Philip and the Ethiopian man. Notice that both Philip and the Ethiopian man listened to God. Will you? Will you be attentive to God's voice-His Word that leads you to joy that is complete? At The Lutheran Hour, we'll be glad to send you some resources, so you can dig deeply into God's Word and hear His life-giving voice.

Both Philip and the Ethiopian also trusted God and followed Him. Will you? Will you trust God and follow Him today-even if it means changing your attitude and sacrificing your own plans and desires? Sometimes God leads you in directions you would rather not go for your good and the good of others.

Finally, will you share the joy God gives you? Notice what Philip did: he joined the Ethiopian in his chariot. He entered into relationship and was present with this person in need. Will you do the same for the people in your life? Will you enter into relationship with the people in your life? Will you be present for them? And will you share God's good news? Like Philip, just trace it all back to Jesus, your Savior and your friend.

You see, along with great joy because of His grace, God also provides meaningful purpose. That Ethiopian eunuch had no resources, could never have a family, and could not determine his future. Yet-yet he changed his nation. The Ethiopian Christian church is thriving, and the Ethiopian Lutheran Church is the largest Lutheran church in the world. Their vibrant faith can be traced back to this one man.

Will you share the happiness God gives you? Even in your wilderness, God gives you Good News to share with the people around you. Perhaps just one. Perhaps your whole family. Maybe your neighborhood. Or maybe a whole nation. Never underestimate what God might do for you and through you.

Dear friend, you have an answer to an old ache today. The answer to unhappiness is Jesus and the life He gives. Remember this one thing: God meets you in your wilderness. It's where your Savior does His best work. Watch, rejoice, and share! Amen.

Reflections for DATE

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. We just heard Pastor Michael Newman. Pastor Newman, Hurricane Harvey was a tremendous disaster for your state back in late August. Could you tell us a little bit about what the people in Texas endured, and let's talk a little bit about what's going on down there today?

Michael Newman: We sure can, Mark. It was quite an unexpected disaster, and they're calling it the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

Mark Eischer: Wow!

Michael Newman: So widespread. Just to give you a little picture, you know, Texas is a big state.

Mark Eischer: Right.

Michael Newman: Everything's big in Texas, and the hurricane was big as well. So, 250 miles of coastline of Texas was impacted by Hurricane Harvey. There were more than 200,000 homes damaged. And the whole area affected included nearly 200 LCMS churches. Our district has just about 400, a little over 400 churches; half were impacted by Hurricane Harvey in some way, so it was really widespread. The actual flooding damage in the Houston area, the wind damage, primarily south of that in what's called the Coastal Bend, impacted nearly 50 church workers directly, 700 Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod members. A bunch of them lost everything, including all their possessions, homes, automobiles. It was really something.

Mark Eischer: There were some remarkable news reports that showed the response
in the immediate aftermath of the storm. What sort of things were people
doing to help?

I tell you, I was really impressed, and this made me think of the priesthood of all believers, as people stepped up. There were church members, way deep south in Texas in the Rio Grande Valley who have boats, and they packed up their boats, put them on trailers, attached them to their trucks, and they raced up to the Houston area, saying "We're gonna help save people," and the police just waved them in.

They were part of an incredible lay-led rescue; so, people were responding with just heroic self-sacrifice. There were church members who, some lost everything, but they immediately went around to help others in neighborhoods. Churches were used as centers for people to come and seek shelter. A nursing home was evacuated into one of our local churches, so all the people were blessed and taken care of. It was just remarkable to see the response.

Mark Eischer: People also stepped up with donations, as well.

Michael Newman: Very much! It was overwhelming, not only from within Texas, but around the country, and around the world, we received donations.

Mark Eischer: What's happening today, though? It's several months since that, and the need continues, I believe.

Michael Newman: Definitely. So, this is gonna be a long-haul proposition. On one hand, with all the donations, we're still helping people financially, so I think every person who has requested some sort of assistance has received some. Now, all the needs haven't been met, by any means, but with really, I think over $1 million, close to $2 million received by the Texas District alone from generous donors in the Missouri Synod, as I said, around the nation, within the state.

There are still, there were at least $3 million in requests out there. We're still trying to sift through requests, meet needs for congregations, for church workers and schools. There's a lot of help going on in neighborhoods as some people just went right out to muck out homes, get them prepped. Those homes have to dry out, so now rebuilding efforts are in place.

Some remarkable things are happening. There are really like, three zones for the disaster response. One is the Coastal Bend, the area south of Houston along the coast, where the wind damage did just tremendous, tremendous devastating kind of impact. There's rebuilding efforts there. Some people are still out of their homes, and they need some places to live.

Material needs are being met pretty well, but that is just a place where there's so much debris and so much happening. In the Houston area, the floods really devastated everyone, and so we have some churches who have really stepped up, and they're serving as centers for assistance to the Houston area. We also have someone who has been brought on staff for the Texas District temporarily who is helping the Golden Triangle area, that's the area from in places like Beaumont and Port Arthur and they're coordinating volunteer teams who are coming to help with all the needs, so there are a lot of homes that need a lot of work. People need to be encouraged. Communities need to be blessed.

Even though the news cycle has died down a little bit, we have a tremendous need for folks to come and give assistance to rebuild and to bless people.

Mark Eischer: And how can people volunteer their time, if they're so inclined?

Michael Newman: Well, let me give you a couple of ways. First of all, if they go to the Texas District website, which is, that's like Texas Lutheran Church Missouri Synod,, there's a link that appears right away at the top of the page, and it'll take people to a volunteer page and you're able to specify where you'd like to go, and it stretches from Rockport and Port Aransas and the Coastal Bend all the way up to Port Arthur that borders Louisiana.

There's another link that can take folks to a Houston-area help place. They can find many ways to help out. And I want to mention one other organization, it's a recognized service organization of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, it's called Upbring, it was formerly Lutheran Social Services of the South, but Upbring is also helping communities, so people can go to, and check it out and there's even a greater reach.

We work with as partners with Upbring, and as partners we reach both the church, the churches, and the communities.

Mark Eischer: Very good. And what stands out to you most about this disaster and the response?

Michael Newman: I'll tell you Mark, what really stands out is how a devastating event can help people see what is best and most important. Even if you look in the media, it's recognized how followers of Jesus-the Christian church-has stepped up with an amazing amount of care and remarkable love. And people saw it unfold. Racial barriers were falling. Neighbors were stepping up to help neighbors. Churches were opening doors to the community. And more than that, they were going into the community, to give people shelter and food and clothing and a big dose of hope. So, there's no question that this disaster, while absolutely terrible in bringing grief and pain to too many, is also helping the church to remember what it's about and helping people to see the church at its best.

The church is the body of Christ, and it's made alive by Jesus' self-sacrifice on the cross, His resurrection from the grave and His presence among us through Word and Sacrament, and those gifts of God, that hope and life and renewal and encouragement, peace and love and blessing-those flow through the church to the world, and isn't it wonderful to see it, by God's grace that's happening in a place ravaged by such a historic storm?

Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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