"And the Pursuit of Happiness"#85-49
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on August 5, 2018
By Rev. Dr. Dale A. Meyer, Guest Speaker
(Q&A Topic:And the Pursuit of Happiness)
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Exodus 16:2-15; John 6:22-35
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." How's "the pursuit of happiness" turning out for you? Those are the first words of the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776. If you're not an American, the words may not be familiar, but the idea certainly is. Who doesn't want to be happy? The Barna organization put this statement before people, "The highest goal of life is to enjoy it as much as possible." Eighty-four percent of Americans agreed. So, how is "the pursuit of happiness" turning out for you?
Let's start with prayer. O God, we do have our happy moments. Sometimes we get away from work and take a wonderful vacation. Sometimes we experience love in our relationships. Sometimes we have money to pay at least some of the bills. But there are other times, times that are not happy. God, don't You want us to be happy? Help us think about what "the pursuit of happiness" really means. Teach us to look outside of ourselves and to You. Show us how Your Son Jesus offers us a "peace that surpasses all understanding." Amen.
Let me share the story of some people who definitely were not happy. This story comes from the Bible, the book of Exodus, chapter 16. It's from long ago, thousands of years ago, but it's relevant today because it shows us where to turn for true happiness. Here's the background: the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt. They turned to God for deliverance and in time God sent Moses and Aaron to lead them out of Egypt. After plagues and other terrifying experiences, God brought the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt. The setting for our story is slavery behind them, the Promised Land ahead of them. But now we peek in on them in-between, now in the wilderness. They have life and liberty, but they're not feeling the happiness.
The whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, "Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."
I get that. I'm sure you do, too. Happiness is often fleeting: here today, gone tomorrow. Don't you also have days when "the pursuit of happiness" is not going well? Maybe an empty stomach, maybe an empty wallet, maybe an empty house, but too often an empty heart, an unhappy heart.
Let me put on my professor's hat. What's going on theologically? It's simple. The Israelites were turned in on themselves. They were anxious; they were in despair. Indeed, it definitely was not a good situation. Hopeless, not drawing any hope by turning to their history-look how God freed us! Hopeless, not finding hope by turning to their future-can you imagine what a wonderful place God is leading us to? No, it's all me and my feelings, all here and now, turned in on themselves. The God who freed them is now history. The God who says there will be a Promised Land seems irrelevant. I get that. Do you? Bible stories about God are good history. And in the future, the sweet by and by, most people think they'll go to heaven and be with the angels. It's all about us, all about me. Turned in on ourselves. Yes, I get that.
And the Lord said to Moses, "I have heard the grumbling of the people of Israel. Say to them, "At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God." In the evening quail came up and covered the camp, and in the morning dew lay around the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat" (Exodus 16:11-15).
When they turned out from themselves and turned to God, they were satisfied. Were they happy with the quail, happy with the manna? They must have been, but let's be realistic. Would they have any more unhappy times? We know from the Bible they would, in fact, many more unhappy times were still ahead of them. But whether you were an Israelite back then or a listener today, life is lived in the present, in each and every now. And what changes "now" from unhappy to happy is where you turn. This little story of the Israelites illustrates a great truth that the Bible teaches. Turn in on yourself and your happiness will be fleeting. Turn toward God, and He will give you a "peace that surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7).
"Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Like I said, the majority of Americans believe the highest goal in life is to enjoy it as much as possible. Interestingly, that is not what the founding fathers had in mind. That's a tease for you to keep listening. If we think that the goal of life is to enjoy it as much as possible, what is that pursuit of happiness getting us? Heather Choate Davis has written a book entitled, Man Turned in on Himself. She traces the history of this concept-man turned in on himself-and she shows how it explains so much of the unhappiness people are experiencing in the 21st century. The concept of man turned in on himself goes back to St. Augustine, who lived in the late fourth and early fifth century. When we turn away from our Creator, turn in on ourselves, we are turning away from the One who created and can sustain us in all our times, happy or unhappy. Actually, this concept is much older than St. Augustine. It goes back to the Bible, back to when God gave the Ten Commandments. "I am the Lord your God, He said to Israel, "who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." I have created you. I have redeemed you. I'm it! I'm jealous about your attention. Turn away from yourself and turn to Me.
The subtitle of Heather Choate Davis' book is, "Understanding sin in 21st-century America." Oh my, she used the s word, "sin"! That's what it is when you and I turn away from God and focus on ourselves, sin. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37). We don't. In making happiness the goal of our life, we are turning away from our Creator who, as our Creator, knows what we need for true happiness. That is the cause of so many problems rampant in 21st-century America. Heather Choate Davis lists some of them. She says, "Promiscuity, consumerism, obesity, narcissism, apathy, greed-these are just a few of the obvious displays of 'man turned in on himself' in 21st- century America. These behaviors-or the consequences of them-are visible and often public." She goes on to say that each one of us acting as if we're God leads to chaos and distrust. Quote, "Chaos 'bounces back' to the modern man in the form of increasing anxiety and depression." "Our self-centeredness turns our fellow man into our competition." Isn't that the sad truth!
Now that I'm older, I've picked up a new hobby. I'm collecting doctors. I was talking with one of them about weight, and he said, "Hunger is your friend." He went on to explain that when you're hungry, your body is burning up stored calories. If you satisfy every hungry feeling, then you're adding more calories than you're going to burn, but when you feel hungry, something good is actually happening; you're burning stored calories. By the way, I am not speaking about the millions of malnourished people around the world. Their plight should trouble us all, and God help and bless the people ministering to them in their dire situations. Here I am talking about those of us who think that indulging every feeling, hunger, pleasure, whatever, is going to bring us happiness. My doctor's advice that "hunger is your friend" points us to the truth that there's something more important than our feelings now.
Jesus used the story of the Israelites as the background to teach us precisely where to turn for lasting satisfaction. Again, as we should always do in reading the Bible, let's get the background. In John chapter four Jesus had talked with a woman at a well. She was getting water for her household. Here's what Jesus told her:
"Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water."
In John 6, we're back to bread. Jesus miraculously feeds 5,000 people. Do you see the connection to our Old Testament story? In Exodus, the Israelites turned to the unseen God and were fed with quail and manna. In the New Testament, Jesus, seen and heard, feeds 5,000 hungry people in a desolate place. Get the connection? When we talk about turning to God, to whom do we turn? Jesus! He fulfills the Old Testament. That's the background. Now I read from John chapter 6.
Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on Him God the Father has set His seal.
Then they said to Him, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" Jesus answered them "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent." So they said to Him, "Then what sign do You do, that we may see and believe You? What work do You perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.' Jesus then said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." (Jesus is referring to Himself. He is the true bread come down from heaven who gives life to the world). They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always." Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst."
Does Jesus mean you'll never feel hungry or thirsty? No. Jesus is telling you that there is something more than your feelings-be they unhappy hungry feelings or satisfied, happy moments. Jesus is inviting you to turn from yourself and turn to His words. He is telling you that your pursuit of happiness will only be satisfied when you look beyond your feelings to His Word. Remember the connection: the feeding of the Israelites foreshadows Jesus, the true bread come down from heaven. In a similar fulfillment of prophecy, listen to this beautiful passage from Isaiah chapter 55, and in these words hear Jesus inviting you to turn to Him.
"Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live. ... Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon."
Because of Jesus, God forgives you and me for all the times we have turned in upon ourselves. Jesus was hungry and thirsty upon the cross, but His unhappy time wasn't about His feelings. "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"? Jesus comes that you may have real life. "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). And His life is better than anything we can find on our own. Jesus says, "I am come that they may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). And liberty? "If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32). And the "pursuit of happiness"?
Let me draw to a close by revisiting the Declaration of Independence. Thus far in today's message I have been using the word "happiness" as people understand it today, but that's not the way the word was understood in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson used it in the Declaration of Independence. Listen to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy describe what "happiness" meant when America was founded.
Happiness? In this era, happiness comes with the connotation of self-pleasure; there is a hedonistic component to the definition now. However, that's not what the Framers meant. If you read (George) Washington, he uses the term happiness all the time, as did the other members of the generation at the time of the founding. For them, happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and its civic life. And that's the concept of happiness that we have to tell our young people is still within their grasp.
So, the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence is not about turning in for your own pleasure but turning out of yourself to help others. For followers of Jesus that means turning to Jesus as the One who frees us from our sin and gives us hope for today and hope for every tomorrow, until we arrive at our heavenly Promised Land. And turned to Jesus, we turn to help others. Turned to Jesus is truly "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Amen.
Reflections for August 5, 2018
Title: And the Pursuit of Happiness
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. That was Dr. Dale Meyer. Pastor Ken Klaus joins us from his home in Texas. Hello, Pastor Klaus!
Ken Klaus: Hello to you, Mark. Glad to be with you today.
Mark Eischer: So, what did you think of Dr. Meyer's message today?
Ken Klaus: Well, frankly, he's got me a bit concerned. I mean, why do you think he preached a Fourth of July sermon in August? Didn't anyone tell him he's a month and a day late?
Mark Eischer: I don't think it was meant as a sermon for Independence Day. He was speaking to the notion that being happy is the most important thing for which many people are striving.
Ken Klaus: Well, happiness is better than sadness. That's for sure. Of course, it all depends on what we mean by happiness, doesn't it?
Mark Eischer: And that's what Dr. Meyer was saying. He's saying that for many people happiness is found by turning inward. I also didn't realize how the meaning of happiness has changed. We understand it today to be something quite different from what the founders imagined.
Ken Klaus: Nowadays, happiness is when our desires, our wishes, hopes, and dreams have all been satisfied. It's like when you go on Amazon to look at your "wish list" and find that there's nothing there because we already have everything we could possibly want.
Mark Eischer: I think that's true.
Ken Klaus: But Dr. Meyer says there is another dimension to real happiness-one that looks outward to serving others.
Mark Eischer: It's another dimension, beyond selfishness.
Ken Klaus: But in a culture so preoccupied with keeping up with the Joneses and getting everything there is to get, I imagine a lot of folks aren't going to really buy into this idea of happiness.
Mark Eischer: And why do you suppose that is?
Ken Klaus: I think of a story that comes from the time shortly after the Civil War. A military patrol was out making the rounds of the area which had been assigned to them. They came to a plantation where everything pretty much looked like it must have looked before the war. The Emancipation Proclamation had already freed all the slaves-but here they were, still in the fields picking tobacco, and their former masters were still supervising them from horseback. The officer-in-charge of the patrol called the former slaves together and explained to them that they were free. They could go wherever they wanted to go, do whatever they wanted to do. The workers all nodded in agreement with everything the officer had said. That's when, in some frustration, he asked, "So, why are you still here?"
They looked at each other for a moment and then one of them said, "But, sir, we don't know anywhere else, other than right here."
Mark Eischer: You're suggesting a lot of people turn inward to seek happiness because that's all they know?
Ken Klaus: Exactly! Mark, I remember back to the time when there was a big, thick, full-color catalogue that came in the mail before Christmas: page after page, packed with toys and gifts for everybody.
Mark Eischer: It was called the Christmas wish book.
Ken Klaus: It was called that because anything you could possibly wish for was in that book. I remember how I used that catalogue. I'd break the spine of the thing, so it would fall open naturally to the page that had the things I wanted. I circled items. I turned in the corners. I knew happiness was found between those two covers.
Mark Eischer: Now, of course, we don't have that nowadays.
Ken Klaus: Oh, but we do. One of the big online stores is supposed to be publishing their own wish book this season.
Mark Eischer: Okay, so, the pursuit of happiness is back for the next generation.
Ken Klaus: Truly, Mark, it never stopped. There is an old story, I don't know if it is a true story, about a disgruntled citizen who approached Benjamin Franklin sometime after the new nation had been formed. He wanted to know, "Where is all this happiness the Declaration of Independence promises?" And Franklin is supposed to have replied, "Sir, the Declaration only promises you the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it on your own." The problem is, as Dr. Meyer rightly points out, most people pursue happiness in the wrong place.
Mark Eischer: And the right place to look for true, lasting happiness is ... the Lord.
Ken Klaus: Exactly, because of the Savior's successful sacrifice, God offers peace beyond understanding; He extends companionship to the lonely, forgiveness to those who feel guilty, and salvation to those once destined for damnation.
Mark Eischer: And so, we can say, happiness attained, or better yet, happiness given.
Ken Klaus: That's right.
Mark Eischer: Well, Pastor, what will your message next week be about?
Ken Klaus: Next week, Mark, we are going to talk about the Jesus who refuses to be put into a pigeonhole.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)