Sunday, September 17, 2017

Deliverance: Where Does Happiness Come From?

What is happiness and where does it come from? Television marketing experts have been trying to help us answer those questions for a long time. Did you know that the average American watches TV for nearly 30 hours per week? That's 65 days of nonstop TV watching every single year. By the time they graduate from high school, students will have viewed 360,000 commercials. The average 65-year-old will have watched two million. And each of these commercials has been created by smart people. They pack their ads with powerful images, catchy music and humor, and memorable slogans. Most of the commercials have a primary theme, this product will make you happy! Since we are studying the Sermon on the Mount, I found a “rewrite” of the Beatitudes, which introduce Jesus’ Sermon. This list of beatitudes takes into account the worldview advocated by TV commercials.

So, based upon our television commercials, who are the really happy or blessed people in our world?
  • Blessed are those who fly to luxury vacation spots on tropical islands, where they lie in chaise lounge chairs, the only two people on an enormous white beach; for they shall be satisfied.
  • Blessed are those who drink much beer, for they shall be surrounded by carefree, football-watching buddies and highly attractive, socially-gifted women in the first half of life; and they shall be satisfied.
  • Blessed are those who have the latest smartphone, for they shall gaze on a screen swirling with color and shall get all the information they need just when they need it; and they shall be satisfied.
  • Blessed are those who have outstanding kids. Verily I say to you, highly blessed are those who have a golden Labrador retriever bounding along on that slow-motion-videoed day of playing with the kids in the park, for they shall be the envy of real families everywhere; and they shall be satisfied.
We may think this is humorous or far-fetched, but I really do believe that, deep down, that is the way many of us feel. Real happiness comes from sheer, unadulterated pleasure. And if there is anything unpleasant about my circumstances or my environment, then happiness is impossible for me. In an interview in AARP Magazine, singer and poet Bob Dylan talked about his new music, life on the road, and true happiness. Towards the end of the interview Dylan was asked if he had touched and held happiness, Dylan replied:
We all do at certain points. But it's like water; it slips through your hands. As long as there's suffering, you can only be so happy. How can a person be happy if he has misfortune?
Do you hear what he is saying? Suffering and happiness cannot coexist. If people have misfortune in their lives, then they cannot be happy. Is that true?

What did Jesus say about happiness?

The first eleven verses of the Sermon on the Mount begin with some important words about happiness. In fact, the Common English Bible uses the word “happy” in its translation.

READ MATTHEW 5:1-11 CEB

These have traditionally been referred to as “The Beatitudes.” The first word of each verse, beginning in verse 3, is the same. In Latin, that word is “beatus.” It can be translated many different ways: “Blessed,” “Joyful,” “Hopeful,” Or “Happy.” This word occurs over 50 times in the New Testament. And interestingly, this word is almost always used to describe the same thing. The joy of participating in God’s action of deliverance. With these “Beatitudes,” Jesus begins describing the happiness of participating in God’s Kingdom.

But this list can actually create the opposite of happiness. In fact, because of how we’ve sometimes interpreted these words, the Beatitudes can bring a lot of guilt. We think to ourselves:
If only I could master these qualities, then good things would happen to me…
If only we could mourn more…
If only we could be more pure in heart…
If only we could be better peacemakers…

Then we would receive the rewards mentioned in these Beatitudes…
We would inherit the Kingdom…
We would inherit the earth…
We would be fed…
We would see God!
Do you know the main problem with these kinds of interpretations? They focus on our good works instead of God’s good grace. These “idealistic” interpretations turn the gospel into some kind of works-righteousness system. The more we do good, the more we are rewarded. Folks, that line of thinking is so counter to the gospel, I hardly know where to begin! Jesus came to offer deliverance, not bury us under miles and miles of guilt. Let me ask you this: What do you think was Jesus’ sermon text for His sermon? That sounds like a strange question, I know. But every sermon has a text! Every sermon I preach is based upon some text of Scripture. I am not offering you my words. My job is to offer you words from God, not matter how easy or difficult they may be for you to hear.

When Jesus preached, He also used Scripture as the basis for His words. And more often than not, Jesus’ sermon text was from Isaiah. Jesus quotes Isaiah more than any other Old Testament book. In fact, in Mark, the first gospel written, Jesus quotes Isaiah more than all of the other prophets combined! When the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the mid-20th century, it became apparent that Isaiah was the most popular book studied and read in Jesus’ day.

And there is a particular text within Isaiah that had a special place in Jesus’ ministry. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus was baptized. He was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. Then, He went home to Nazareth and walked to the temple. On the first Sabbath after He returned, He was in charge of the Scripture reading. And guess which text He read? The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19) This text set the agenda for Jesus’ ministry. And I think this was Jesus’ sermon text for the Sermon on the Mount, especially the Beatitudes. Let me show you why.

Isaiah 61
Matthew 5
61:1  The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord, has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. ["To preach good news" is closely bound to the Kingdom of God]
5:3  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
61:2  To comfort all who mourn.
5:4  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
61:1, 7  To preach good news to the humble; they will inherit the earth.
5:5  Blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth.
61:3, 8, 11  [All speak of “righteousness”]
5:6  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
61:1  To heal the brokenhearted.
5:8  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
61:3, 8, 11  [All speak of righteousness]
5:10  Blessed are those who have been persecuted for…righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
61:10–11  Let my soul be glad in the Lord.
5:11–12  Blessed are you when people revile you … Rejoice and be joyful, for your reward is great in heaven; for so persecuted people the prophets.
(Glen H. Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount, page 42)

Notice how virtually every single line of Jesus’ Sermon coincides with Isaiah 61. I think it is obvious that Jesus had this text in mind when He spoke the crowds that day. And why is that important? Because it tells us the heart of Jesus’ message. You see, Isaiah 61 is all about deliverance. A day will come when God would intervene in the world and set things right. God would bring justice, finally! As Jesus began His ministry after His baptism and temptation, He said, THIS TEXT is now being fulfilled. In other words, God is here! In other words, the deliverance talked about in Isaiah has finally arrived with Me! And in Jesus’ most extensive sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, He describes how that deliverance will occur.

We must understand this: Jesus wasn’t guilting the crowds into better behavior. Jesus was rejoicing with them that God had finally broken into the world to bring deliverance! The Beatitudes are about God’s gracious deliverance and our joyous participation in that deliverance! The Beatitudes say what Isaiah 35:3–4 says:
Strengthen the tired hands and revive the stumbling knees. Say to the despairing hearts: Be of good cheer. Do not be afraid. See, your God is coming! (Isaiah 35:3–4)
So, how does this change our interpretation of the Beatitudes? Jesus was not speaking to people who needed to be more: Hopeless, mournful, humble. These crowds already were all of those things! Jesus came with this good news. All of you hopeless and mournful and humble people take heart! God’s Kingdom has arrived. And now, everything has changed. Now, the Kingdom of heaven is yours. Now, you will inherit the earth. Now, the hungry will be fed. Now, the people who need help will be shown mercy! God has come to bring deliverance! God is speaking to a group of people who, in their mourning, and in their surrender, in their hunger and thirst for justice, they are already participating with Jesus in bringing God’s Kingdom to earth! Do you know what happens when we engage a mission like that? Happiness! Joy! Not temporal, whimsical, based upon your specific, changing life circumstances happiness. But real, genuine, satisfying happiness that comes from knowing that we are participating in bringing wholeness and deliverance to a world that desperately needs it! That is what real happiness looks like!

I think these words of Jesus are so very important for us to meditate upon. Because, I believe our society has made a false kind of happiness the idol of our times. Happiness is not always about fun times or laughter. There is a kind of happiness and joy that comes from knowing that your life is in step with the universal mission of God. The kind of happiness that comes from knowing you are partnering with God in His deliverance of this world. Church, please hear this: Don’t let other people dictate when you will or will not be happy. Don’t let life’s circumstances tell you when you should feel joy. Your happiness should not be contingent upon the temporal circumstances of this life. Rather, your happiness should come from knowing that God has initiated His Kingdom in this broken world and you are participating with God in making that Kingdom more and more visible every single day. And sometimes that kind of life can bring really difficult times. And conflict. And heartache. But the kind of joy and fulfillment and happiness that comes on the other side of that conflict, that is a kind of happiness that our world hardly ever catches a glimpse of. But Jesus came announcing: The Kingdom is here!

In his book What Good Is God?, author Philip Yancey wrote about the 2004 Ukraine election. The reformer Victor Yushchenko challenged the entrenched party and nearly died for it. On election day the exit polls showed Yushchenko with a comfortable lead. But through outright fraud, the government reversed those results. Yancey writes:
That evening the state-run television reported, "Ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger Victor Yushchenko has been decisively defeated." However, government authorities had not taken into account one feature of Ukrainian television, the translation it provides for the hearing impaired. On the small screen insert in the lower right-hand corner of the television screen a brave woman raised by deaf-mute parents gave a different message in sign language. "I am addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine. Don't believe what they say. They are lying, and I am ashamed to translate these lies. Yushchenko is our President!" No one in the studio understood her radical sign-language message.
Inspired by that courageous translator, deaf people led what became known as the Orange Revolution. They text-messaged their friends on mobile phones about the fraudulent elections. Soon other journalists took courage and likewise refused to broadcast the party line. Over the next few weeks as many as a million people wearing orange flooded the capital city of Kiev to demand new elections. The government finally buckled under the pressure. They consented to new elections and this time Yushchenko emerged as the undisputed winner. Yancey makes the following point:
Our society is hardly unique. Like the sign language translator in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, along comes a person named Jesus who says in effect, "Don't believe the big screen. They're lying. It's the poor who are blessed, not the rich. Mourners are blessed too, as well as those who hunger and thirst, and the persecuted. Those who go through life thinking they're on top will end up on the bottom. And those who go through life feeling they're at the very bottom will end up on top. After all, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his soul?
I pray God would bring you and us happiness. Real happiness. The kind that comes from standing with Jesus in a fallen-down world, basking in the deliverance we have received and offering that deliverance to those around us.

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