Is Happiness a Prerequisite to Joy?

We have entered into the holiday season. It’s a time of the year where both happiness and sadness become very apparent. As I recall my years in the pastoral ministry, I remember that we saw more happiness and sadness between Thanksgiving and Christmas than at any other time of the year. We would hear families say, “Our family will all be together, and we are looking forward to a wonderful Christmas.” But then there were others who said, “It will be the first Christmas without dad. He will be missed.”

And yet it is the time of the year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus and sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” This mixture of emotions often causes me to ask if happiness is a prerequisite to joy.

The Scriptures give us the answer. The Psalmist writes, “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound” (Psalm 4:7). Happiness comes with an abundance of blessings, but true joy is a gift God has placed in our hearts. This is the central thought of this Advent season.

Did this thought apply in the life of St. Paul?

We meet Paul (earlier known as Saul) as a part of the persecution that had one goal: to destroy the Christian faith. The Bible tells us, “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ÔLook,’ he said. ÔI see the heavens open and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.’

“While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ÔLord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ÔLord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was there, giving approval to his death” (Acts 7:55-56, 59-60).

Saul’s heart was happy, for another Christian had been killed.

Not long after, Saul was traveling to Damascus. He met Christ on his way to bring Christians back to Jerusalem for persecution. (You can read this great conversion story in Acts 9.) However, God had other plans for Saul, for he was to be God’s chosen instrument to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles.

And after about three years, Saul had not only received a new name (Paul), he was a new person. Now he faced days that, while they would be filled with hardship and unhappiness, God had placed a joy in his soul that could never be taken away.

This is demonstrated in Acts 16. Paul and his friend, Silas, were in jail. They had been accused of throwing the city into an uproar by advocating customs that were unlawful for Romans to accept or practice.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the other prisoners listened to them. Suddenly a violent earthquake shook the foundations of the prison. All at once the doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer called for lights and rushed in. He fell trembling before Paul and Silas and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved Ð you and your household.”

At that hour of the night, the jailer took them and washed their wounds. Then he and his entire family were immediately baptized.

Contrast that day to the day when Paul witnessed Stephen’s stoning. Paul had been happy to see another Christian killed. However, on this day in Acts 16, as Paul and Silas sat in jail, they were not happy campers, for they had been beaten severely. Yet there was joy in their hearts that could not be taken from them.

When we have met the Lord and live in a personal relationship with him, we experience an inner joy. We might have sadness, for someone has been taken away from us that through the years has brought much happiness. I think of a husband and little boy who buried their wife and mother this year. The Christmas tree will be lit, but sadness will abound in their hearts, because mom is not there. Yet there can be joy.

I think of a man who will be spending his first year in prison. It will not be a happy experience. But listen to what he wrote: “Pastor Larsen, I’m in prison, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more fulfilled in my life. Isn’t that wonderful! Praise God!”

“May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace as you trust him” (Romans 15:13).

He came to bring joy.

Living in God’s Presence

Have you ever lived for a few days in the presence of a person you admire and who has made an impact on your life? When I was serving in the pastorate, I tried to attend a good preaching conference each year and learn from the masters. Living in the presence of those great preachers inspired me and I returned home anxious to do a better job in the pulpit. They gave me a fresh understanding of the importance of preaching and the need to give it my best.

In this message, I would like to move our thinking to another level and talk about living in God’s presence. I get this thought from the word of King David, who wrote, “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the presence of the Lord and seek him in his temple” Psalm 27:4.

David worshiped God in the Temple. However, it was more than formal worship. He wanted to be in daily contact with the Lord through various means. Through the words of his pastor, Nathan, David heard God’s sharp rebuke of his sin against murdering Uriah and committing adultery with his wife, Bathsheba. David was led to see his sin and confess, “I have sinned against God.” He saw what a wretched man he was, but then the king also heard the gospel when Nathan said, “the Lord has taken away your sin.”

David’s sin and God’s grace were two great messages that he received over and over again as he lived in the presence of God. God became his security, and David wrote, “The Lord is my light and my salvation Ð whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident.”

You learn of his close relationship with God when he writes, “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.”

Is it possible that David’s experience can be our experience with God? Yes, it is. We hear his voice spoken clearly in the Word at a worship service, in our private time as we meditate on the Scriptures, and in our Bible studies with fellow Christians.

Let’s take a few examples of what we hear living in God’s presence.

At a Sunday morning worship service, the pastor is preaching on that beautiful text in John 8:1-11, which tells about a woman caught in the act of adultery. The Pharisees brought her to Jesus and said, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”

Jesus answered, “If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he stooped down and wrote on the ground. The accusers went away, and Jesus straightened up and asked the woman, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she replied.

“Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”

What is Jesus teaching us? He will forgive our sins, but then we are to let him change our lives so we become new people in him. We need not live in guilt. This message will bring peace to our lives and make us forgiving people so that we do not condemn others, but instead forgive them as he has forgiven us. This is the lifestyle for those who live in his presence.

Perhaps in your quiet time, you read the passages recorded in Matthew 9:35-36. It says, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, for they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Isn’t that also a picture of most of the crowds of people we read about in our newspapers? We become angry when we learn how they live. In no way does our Lord condone what the crowds are doing, but he has pity on them and asks, What shall we do to help them? It is to these people that He sends his Church Ð to tell them that, when Jesus is Lord and is allowed to direct their lifestyle, there is a better way of life. He is the Good Shepherd.

On another occasion, we are reminded that our Lord can be very disappointed with us. As He stands on the mountain looking out over the city of Jerusalem where the chosen people of God live, he says, “O Jerusalem, you who killed the prophets and stoned those sent to you, how I would loved to have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matthew 13:37).

We do not literally stone the prophets, but all too often we do turn from what He would have us do. Yet, he still stands waiting for us to let him draw close to us, warm our cold hearts, and enliven our dead spirits so we may reach out and minster to this sinful old world.

Still, we go from one week to the next and say nothing to anyone about the Lord Jesus. We have children in our homes for eighteen years before they leave home, never having heard their parents utter a word of prayer for them. And he says, How I would loved for you to become such a part of my kingdom that you bring a strong verbal witness for me so at least some would be converted.

This is the way that our Lord walks with us on a daily basis until his teachings become a way of life for us. If people can inspire us, how much more Jesus can be our inspiration. Is it any wonder that David prayed, “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.”

May it be not only David’s prayer, but also our prayer. May we understand that our Lord is anxious to live in our hearts, too.

Children of the Resurrection

Jesus had been teaching the people for three years. Nicodemus described Jesus as “a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2). Naturally his listeners had many questions to ask him. On the day described in our text, Jesus is teaching in the Temple. In the crowd was a group of Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection, and so they couldn’t wait to have Jesus explain the resurrection.

“Teacher,” the Sadducees asked, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

It was a made-up question Ð possible, but highly improbable. We might say it was an entrapping question meant to catch Jesus. They were not sincere in their questioning, but instead wanted to expose or ridicule the Lord.

However, Jesus had an answer. “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry, nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children since they are children of the resurrection.”

In this age we marry and die. In the age of the resurrection, we do not marry, and neither do we die. We are children of the resurrection.

What Jesus is teaching can be quite emotional for some believers, but here it is: In heaven there is no continuity with this age when it comes to marriage.

Imagine two people marrying and raising a lovely family. They have celebrated a golden anniversary. The children see the devotion of their father and mother for each other. Then dad gets sick and mother is there to care for him, but at eighty years of age he dies. One day after the funeral, a daughter asks her widowed mother, “Mom, you and dad had such a wonderful life. You have so many good memories. What are you planning for your life together in heaven?”

Mother replies, “Don’t you know that Jesus taught that in heaven there is no marrying or giving in marriages.”

But the daughter is upset. “I can’t imagine you not being married to dad for all eternity!”

That is a beautiful thought, but it is just something that we thought of in this life, and it has become a dogma for us. If it helps us in our time of mourning, I believe Jesus will allow that treat, as long as we remember it is just an emotional thought, not a biblical teaching.

What do we know for sure about our heavenly home? We know there will be no sorrow, no suffering, and no death. All barriers that separate us on this earth will be broken down, and we will experience a oneness with all who trust in the Savior. We know how to get to heaven Ð it is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We do not earn nor deserve a place in this heavenly home. It is a gift purchased for us through Jesus Christ Ð who bore our sins when he died on the cross for us Ð and we received him as our Savior. We still have many questions that will not be answered in this age.

Perhaps some of you might be wondering why I chose this text for my sermon today. The answer is simple. This is the appointed text for this Sunday when we use the Revised Common Lectionary. Throughout the world, in many denominations, sermons will be based on this text. Our Church fathers chose wisely when they prepared the lectionary, for it forces us to preach the whole counsel of God. Life in heaven is the Christian’s destination, and God in his Word does not want these children of the resurrection to forget this truth. Remember, here we are but strangers on our way to the homeland.

All is now ready. Are you ready?

Contentment – The Love of Money

One day Martin Luther was asked what was his greatest sin. He replied, “Idolatry. God’s first commandment is, ÔThou shall have no other gods before me.’ When I look at my life and see how many people and things I place before the Almighty God, I see that I have sinned more often in this part of my life than any other.”

As we sit quietly in our home, we want to believe that God comes first in our lives. You have all heard the order Ð God first, family second, work third. It sounds good, but an honest confession would say it just doesn’t always work out that way.

In our text for this sermon, I Timothy 6:6-10, St. Paul talks about the love of money as one of these idols. Note that money is a blessing. It is when we love money that it becomes an idol. William Barclay writes, “It is not that Christianity pleads for poverty, nor that there is any virtue in being poor, or having to struggle to make ends meet.”

One evening we received a call from our grandson, who was attending a wedding at the Pinehurst Country Club in North Carolina. In his conversation, he told us that he thought the wedding cost one-half million dollars. Whether or not his figures were anywhere near correct, it was clear that he was impressed with the power of money. It can put a mighty hold on us, and we are impressed, if not frightened, with what money can do.

Therefore, the Apostle Paul writes, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil and points out what the love of money can do. He writes, “Some people eager for money have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” Instead of singing with conviction, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” we sing, Praise God for my wealth, which will buy me a life of peace and contentment. This is not true and has been proven so many times.

Paul also warns, “Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” If one believes that money can bring them just about everything, they conclude it can also bring them salvation. Just be liberal with your giving, and top it off by leaving a generous gift in your will to a good cause, then see if Peter doesn’t slap you on the back when you come to the pearly gates and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Our salvation is a gift from God to all who will receive Christ as Savior and Lord. Grace is free. It is grace that brings us into a personal relationship with God. So we can sing, “I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.” Now there is peace and contentment.

All of this is lost when the love of money replaces Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

The love of money has also broken relationships within families. If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Here Paul refers to the basics of life. Again, I believe we can say that a few extras like a comfortable home, a car, an education for our children, a vacation to enjoy one another, etc. are necessary in today’s society, but let me tell you a sad story. I know a man who had all of these things, but then learned he could make a lot of money by selling drugs. He was caught, found guilty, and sent to prison to serve many years. During his incarceration he learned the truth of these words: “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.”

“Well,” you ask, “if the love of money is that dangerous, what helps free me of this love?” To quote words of wisdom from the philosopher, Epicurus: “To whom little is not enough, nothing is enough. Add not to man’s possessions, but take away from his desires.”

How do you do that adding and subtracting? Epicurus does not have that answer, however, the Bible does.

Hear this real good: Contentment comes through relationships. First, it is a relationship with God, and second, it is a relationship with people. As we have already said in this sermon: Money will not buy lasting relationships. Only God’s grace can bring relationship between God and the sinner. Grace is not for sale. It is a gift.

By yourself, you are not in a personal relationship with God. Note the word, personal. Sin separates you from your heavenly Father. How horrible to have a heavenly Father and not to know him. The message of the cross is this: Confess your sins and trust Christ. Your sins are taken away, and you are brought into fellowship with God. In that relationship with God, he will teach and empower you to get rid of your idol Ð the love of money. Money is nice, and certainly a blessing, as long as you control it and it does not capture you.

The answer again is Christ.

We have a friend named Barb. She suffers from cancer. The other day she wrote this note to some of her friends, “We cherish you! We have received many blessings over the past year from all of you. Thank you for visiting the Web page, phone calls, e-mails, cards, and letters. Thanks for meals, errands, flowers, and visits, songs, music, books, and gifts. Your prayers have held us up, and we feel so blessed. There is no repayment for how you have given to us Ð you are priceless. ÔThe steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; this mercy never comes to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness’ (Lamentations 5:22-23).”

Barb and Vern know what contentment is in the midst of anxieties. It isn’t money, but Christ, and family and friends who know Christ personally and share him with each other daily.