Sunday, September 16, 2018

What is the One Way Religion and the Way of Jesus Radically Differ?

Do you know who really bugs me?   
Religious people bug me.   
I could tell you why, 
but a guy named Jefferson Bethke 
said it pretty well.   And his words have 
over 33 million views on You Tube.......  

So, I’m going to 
                      let him 
                               tell you. 

Have you heard this idea that Bethke lays out, Jesus not religion?   You don’t have to go too far to prove it.   Just look at Jesus.   When it came to people who were really messing up, even traitors to his country, Jesus welcomed them.  But no one bugged him more than religious people, not bad religious people, but even really good ones.   What was Jesus’ problem?  In these words, Jesus points the way.  Let’s hear what Jesus has to say. 

You don’t have to go far in the stories of Jesus to find conflicts Jesus has with religious people.  They happened all the time.  They got so bad that religious people even worked with non-religious to kill him.   But what was the problem?  When you listen to words like we just heard, religious folks should have loved that stuff.   Some did.  But most didn’t.  You see. Jesus was bringing a revolution, but not a revolution that changed things on the outside.   Jesus brought a revolution that changed things on the inside, in how people think.   And that revolution, religious people did not get.   In fact, lots still don’t.

In Bethke’s performance, did you catch it?  This guy thought he got the whole Jesus thing.   He thought he was a Christian.  He hung out with Christians. He attended a Christian church.  He did the whole Christian deal.   But even then, he still didn’t get it.   What didn’t he get?

In the words you just heard, and actually in this whole thing, called the sermon on the mount, Jesus is making a contrast.   But Jesus isn’t making a contrast between people doing good things and people doing bad things.    Jesus is making a contrast between two types of people who are both doing good things.  They both pray.  They both do good deeds.  They both try to live by the Ten Commandments. They both connect to a religious community.  On the outside they look the same. But inside something radically different is going on.  

It’s why at the very end of the sermon, Jesus gives these three images of this contrast.   Jesus talks about two path, two trees, two houses.   He says one of these paths leads to life, and the other to death.  One of these trees will feed you, and the other will make you sick.   And one of these houses can withstand anything, but the other house will collapse when the storm hits.  But do you see what each image has in common?    On the outside all these things look much the same.   In fact, with the path, Jesus even tells you that the wrong path appears to be the most attractive, to be the best.
In this sermon, Jesus isn’t so much giving you direction on how to live a good life.   Jesus is painting a contrast between two ways of being good, one that will give you life, and one that will destroy you.   

If you look into the sermon, you’ll see.  Jesus never says something like.   This is what bad people do, and this is what good people do.   He doesn’t say.  Here’s the difference between people who pray and people who don’t.   No, Jesus says this instead.   Lots of people pray like this.  But I tell you to pray like that.   Or he’ll say. Lots of people give to the poor like this.  But I tell you to give to the poor like this.     Lots of people obey the ten commandments like this.  But I tell you to obey them like that.  Do you see what Jesus is telling you?  Jesus is saying.  Two ways exist in the world to live a good, upright life.   But one of those ways will poison you.    One will fall apart in tough times.   One will lead towards your destruction. 

Look at how Jesus puts it in the words we read.  Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven, and whoever performs and teaches it will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.   Sure you’d like to be in the great group.  But here’s the good news, whether least or great, you’re still in.  But hold on, then Jesus says this.  For I tell you that, unless your uprightness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, the most religious of Jesus’ day, you shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Did Jesus just contradict himself?   No, Jesus is saying.  What I’m bringing you surpasses, goes beyond religion.   My gospel, my good news goes deeper than the religious stuff that the Scribes and Pharisees teach.   Now, how does it go beyond?   How does it go deeper?

Jesus points to that in the words we just read.  Jesus talks about two types of folks who have a light.  They just do different things with it.  One puts it under a basket.  The other puts it up on a lampstand.   In other words, both are doing good deeds, but in one case the good deeds get obscured.  And in the other, it shines out for all to appreciate. And that’s the first way you see the difference in these two ways, how they relate to the world around them.  People who get Jesus’ message will be, as the preacher Tim Keller puts it, attracted to, and attractive to, people who don’t believe what they do or live how they live. In other words, they bring their light out into the world.   And people, even people who disagree with them, are glad they do.

But religious people get repelled by those same folks.  They separate themselves from them.    In other words, they keep their light under this basket.  And the folks these religious folks don’t like are happy they do.  They don’t want their light.   These religious folks repel them right back.
The salt image points to the same idea.  What does salt do?   It makes things more flavorful, more tasty.   But if I put salt on some fish, I don’t say.   Boy, that was good salt.  No, I say.  Gosh that fish tasted wonderful.   People who get Jesus’ message don’t necessarily call attention to themselves.   But when people encounter them, they typically feel better after the encounter than before.   On the other hand, when folks encounter religious people, they often feel worse.  They feel judged, evaluated, looked down upon.  What’s the difference? 

Jesus tells a little story warning about someone who notices a speck in their friend’s eye, while ignoring the plank in their own.  But those who get Jesus’ way do the opposite of hid example. They always evaluate the flaws in the lives of others as specks and see their own as planks.  Now, why do they do that?  They don’t do it because they’re feeling terrible about themselves or have a horrible self-image.   They are doing it because they understand at a deeper level what the real problem is.  It’s the problem that Jesus is getting to when he talks about that your uprightness going beyond that of Scribes and Pharisees.   When Jesus said that, he must have shocked everyone.   That’s why he takes most of the rest of the sermon on the mount to clarify what he means. 

Jesus basically goes through the ten commandments to explain the difference.  With each one, he points to the same issue.  He says.  Religious folks focus on outward compliance, not doing the bad thing.  But I want to focus on something deeper.  I want to focus on what’s going on in your heart.  When your heart is right, the outward stuff takes care of itself. 

Let’s take how Jesus talks about murder.   Religious people will tell you as long you’re not killing people, you’re good.   But Jesus says.   If you despise folks or disregard them or belittle them, then you’ve killed them, at least in your heart.  And he does this same thing with all sorts of issues, adultery and lust, telling the truth, vengeance and forgiveness.  In each one, he drills down past whatever you are doing on the outside, to what is really happening inside.  And in doing this, Jesus is simply saying this.  I don’t want you to change on the outside.   I want to see you changed on the inside.  I want to see your inner life transformed.    Jesus wants that to happen, because Jesus realizes the truth.

At the heart, when religion drives your life, it drives you with the same two things that drive people who are doing bad things.    It drives you with fear and with pride.  What do I mean?  Let’s say you have someone who lies.   Why do they lie?   Maybe they lie because they’re scared they’ll lose a deal or a relationship, something they value.   Or maybe they lie because they don’t want to look bad or because they enjoy pulling a fast one, showing they’re the smart one, in other words, pride. 
And why does a religious person not lie?   Well, they don’t lie because maybe they’re afraid God will get them or others will find out.   Or maybe you don’t lie, because you say to yourself.  I’m not like those folks who lie.  I’m better than that.  I tell the truth.  But in both cases, the same stuff drives both people – fear and pride.    

So, what changes your heart?  What breaks you free of this fear and pride.  Jesus points to it when he talks about letting your light shine.   What will people do when that happens?  They will give glory, Jesus says, to your father in heaven.   And in that simple word for God, Jesus is pointing to the truth that changes everything.   What changes your heart?  It’s when you know who you really are, when you know you really are God’s child.   It’s when you know how infinitely God values you, how deeply he loves you.  After all, why do religious people do what they do?   They do it to get value, to feel valued, worthy.  But those who get Jesus’ way, why do they do good?  They know.  They know how already valued, how worthy they are.  They get it.  God isn’t their boss.  God is their daddy, their mommy.  When you screw up with your boss, your boss might fire you.  But when you screw up with your parents, they won’t like it, but fire you?  No way.  If anything, their love for you grows more intense.

And when you look at God in Jesus, you see how intense God’s love for you is.  God loved you so much that when you got lost, God did everything to find you.  In Jesus, God even gave up everything, even God’s life to bring you home.    And when you know that, how deeply God loves you, how intensely, how infinitely, that changes your heart.   It changes you as nothing else can, including religion. It changes you inside and out.      

Sunday, September 9, 2018

How Fulfillment Only Comes When You Think in Upside Down Ways, When you Live the Opposite Life

I admit it.  I still get nostalgic.  I miss those days when Kramer crashed through the door.    
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, 
then you didn’t watch as much Seinfeld as I did.  If you’re a fan, 
you likely have your favorite episodes.  

One of mine is this one. 

Now that makes for a funny moment, but what if it’s true?  What if you and I are living in a world like that.  What if almost all the messages the world gives you about life are wrong.  What if instead you need to be doing the opposite?   What if only doing the opposite will bring you the life God created you to have? 

In the words, you are about to hear, Jesus points the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say. 

Do you find the words we just read familiar?   Almost certainly they are.  Jesus’ words here and in Matthew have become some of the most famous words in history.  But what do they mean?   Basically, Jesus is telling you this.  Much of what the world tells you will bring you happiness won’t.  Instead, only the opposite of that will bring you the happiness you seek.

And Jesus intends these words to be as shocking as they sound.  Jesus has come to completely overturn conventional wisdom.   Jesus has come to generate a revolution, but not one that overturns some power figure.  Jesus has come to do something more significant than that.  Jesus has come to overturn the way you think.  

You can tell that Jesus brings a revolution by where he delivers these messages. In both versions, Jesus deliver this message around mountains.  In Matthew, he’s on one.  In Luke, he’s coming off one. The fact that Jesus chooses those settings tells you everything about how radical he intends his message to be.

After all, where do revolutions begin?   Years ago, I worked in El Salvador with some Christians, who had been veterans of the Civil War there.  They had fought with the revolutionaries.  But they became disillusioned with the violence and turned towards other ways to help the poor.   One day, I was talking with one of those Christians with whom we worked, Misael, about the war.  He pointed in the distance to the mountain, Guazapa.  He said.  That’s where I used to fight.  It made sense.  That’s where revolutions start, in the mountains.  Why?  Those places are harder for the powers to get to and easier for the rebels to defend.  And what was true in El Salvador, was equally true where Jesus lived too.  So, when Jesus gives this message in the mountains, he is announcing the beginning of his own revolution, a revolution in the way you think.    

And he begins that revolution by telling you what will actually bring you bliss.  That’s the best way to translate that word, blessed.   Jesus is saying how blissful are the poor for yours is the kingdom of God.  But how can that even be possible?   But think about it.  The United States has become the wealthiest nation in history.   But are Americans all that blissful?

But still how does poverty bring you bliss?   Well, when Jesus talks about poverty here, he’s going deeper than material poverty.   He is talking about a poverty everyone has, rich and poor.   Every human being has the same problem, Jesus is saying.  Deep within, they are poor.  They have an emptiness that nothing can fill.  

Now, wealth does a better job of covering that emptiness up.   It anesthetizes you with all sorts of distractions.  That’s what Jesus means when he says.  Alas you who are rich, for you have your comfort.  If you have the comfort of wealth, it can hide from you what you desperately need.    But when you are poor or hungry or grieving, that inner emptiness is easier to find.  You have less to distract you from it.

Still both rich or poor can miss the boat on what Jesus is saying.  The martyred Salvadoran bishop, Oscar Romero put it well.   The person who feels the emptiness of hunger for God is the opposite of the self-sufficient person.  In this sense, rich means the proud, rich means even the poor who have no property, but who think they need nothing, not even God.  This is the wealth, Romero, says, that is abominable in God’s eyes.

So, what is this empty self-sufficiency that Jesus is pointing to?   It’s a self-sufficiency that denies your lack, that denies how self-obsessed you are; how it captures you, fills you with insecurities and fear.    And if you don’t think you have that problem, let me ask you one question. 

When you find yourself in a group picture, where do you first look?   You look at yourself, right? And why do you do that?   You’re pondering questions like these.  How do I look?   Do I look better or worse than the other folks?  Do I have a goofy smile?   And behind all those questions, lies what? - anxiety about your acceptability, about your attractiveness, anxiety about you.  And we’re just talking a group picture.   Even that, points you to the problem. 

Jesus is saying until you acknowledge your need, your emptiness, your hunger for love and acceptance, you will never have the bliss God intended you to have.   But when you do, it opens to you the entire Kingdom of God.  It opens to you a bounty of abundance that goes beyond anything you could imagine. 

And as you begin to taste the abundance, you’ll want more.  You’ll hunger for it. And as you hunger, God will fill you up.   God will fill you up with a sense of security, with peace, with well-being that as it grows, nothing, not even death will be able to shake.

Now on the other hand, you can fill yourself up with all sorts of other junk, stuff that will distract you from your real need.   Yet, at some point, you’ll come to a painful realization.  All that stuff isn’t really filling you.   It’s only covering up the emptiness, the emptiness that has always been there, but that you have always denied.   That’s why Jesus says.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  
Still when that bounty of God’s love and acceptance comes, grief comes along too.  What brings the grief?   It comes with facing up to that emptiness.  As God fills you, it becomes more and more clear, how far you still need to go, how often you still get caught up in anxiety or self-justification or self-righteousness.  It’s why saints never think they’re saints.  They know. The deeper they go with God, the more they see how much God still needs to change them.  And it does bring them grief.  Yet that very grief opens the way to joy.  That very grief opens the way to the very transformation you and I need.  Another word for this grief is the word repentance.  That is the sort of grieving Jesus is talking about.  And what does repentance mean?  It means a change of mind, in the way you think.   Your realization of your poverty leads you to a grief.  And this grief opens you to a transformation of your mind, of your very thinking, that brings you a joy that cannot be shaken by anything.

Now as this thinking revolutionizes your life, it will freak people out.   To quote the writer Flannery O’Connor.   She said. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.   After all, you’ll be running against the current of the times, even the current of how many religious people think.  Jesus got killed for preaching this revolution.  And the religious and the non-religious even teamed up to do the job.     

Now, in our culture, Christianity still has some cachet.  And our nation has enshrined religious freedom as no other.  So you won’t encounter the resistance that hits many Christians around the world.   But as you live more and more in this way, you will encounter people who will find it hard to get you, who won’t understand.   And if you’ve got this, really got this, then this resistance won’t freak you out nor will it make you feel superior.  After all, it’s not like you’re any better or worse than anyone else.   You’re simply a beggar that has found the bread.   And you have no need to feel superior to anyone anyway.  You already know other people’s opinions don’t determine your value.  God does that. 

But if you haven’t gotten that, then people’s opinions will matter.  They will lead you to even be false to yourself to win their approval, just as Jesus warns about those false prophets.   

Now how can you know that this upside-down way of Jesus works?   You can know because Jesus didn’t simply speak the words, he lived them.  He came as someone literally poor.  And as he died, he emptied himself even to death.   He cried out in hunger.  He experienced utter grief and abandonment even by his closest friends.   Even his own religious leaders, excluded, reviled and defamed him.   Yet, in that revolutionary act, Jesus overturned the old order forever.  And since his death, the world has never been the same.   In fact, his death, even overturned death.  That’s how powerful this way is.  It frees you from everything, even from death itself. 

And as you follow in his way, as you acknowledge your poverty and hunger, as you face up to your grief and regret, Jesus will open the way for you.   He will open the way to his kingdom, to his bliss.   Jesus will fill you.  He will fill you with laughter and with joy.   And as Jesus does, by his love, he will enable you to become everything God has created you to be, both now and forever. 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

What Is the One Truth That Leads to Deep Abundance and Fulfillment, that Frees You From All the Lies?

When I first read this, I could hardly believe it.   But it’s true.  Do you know what the average house size was in 1950?   People lived in houses that were a thousand square feet.  That’s not a lot.   It’s almost IKEA size!    That’s why these people are sitting outside.  They have no room inside!  

And today, do you know what the average size is?   It’s grown to 2500 square feet.  That’s a 150% just.   Wow!   That must mean that people are 150% happier, are 150% more content.   People must be living almost in bliss with that much room.  

And when I was growing up, do you know what we had in our home?  We had a TV that looked kinda like this.   You actually had to get up and turn that dial to go to a new channel.   And for several years, we only had five channels.  When cable came along, we had 12.  We couldn’t go any higher.  Do you know why? That’s all the room that poor little dial had.

Phones had cords on them.  You could only take it as far as the cord could reach.   Usually that meant you had to sit right there at the phone to talk to somebody.  We even had telephone tables (like this one) that you bought for that purpose, to sit and talk on the phone.

But now we have TV with hundreds of channels, mega-huge screens. We don’t have to go anywhere to change anything.  Heck, in a lot of homes all you have to do is say something to Alexa or whoever and she does it for you.   It gets better than that.  We can carry our TVs right in our pockets, and the thing is a phone too!   With all that and big houses, we must be the happiest people ever! 
Is that the case?   Now I could give you research that tells you it’s not.  But do you really need that?   Think about yourself.   Does all that stuff, if you have it, really bring you that much joy or happiness.  Sure, it’s nice.  The phone, the entertainment options, the smart houses, it’s amazing.  But do they bring happiness?   Do they bring you happiness?   So, if none of that stuff brings you happiness, joy, fulfillment, what does?   In these words, God tells you.  Let’s listen and here what God has to say. 

We live in a time when we carry televisions in our pockets. We live in luxury that folks even fifty years ago would be stunned by.  Yet, with all those things, are people happier, more fulfilled.   Heck, with all those things, do people even feel rich?   So, if that doesn’t do it, what does?  In these words, God tells you.   True wealth come when you know who you truly are.   That knowledge money can’t buy.  In fact, nothing in this world can give that knowledge to you.  What is that knowledge?   You can maybe hazard a guess.   And you could be right.  But before we can focus on that knowledge, we need to focus first on the lies that get in the way. 

These lies largely drive the world around you, and likely they drive the world within you.  And if you let them continue to drive you, they will drive you away from the fulfillment and joy you yearn to have.   You see. Those lies promise that they can tell you who you really are; where your true value lies.    And what do they tell you?

They tell you, these are what give you your value; how well you do, how much you do, how much you possess, and what others say about you.   Now you might think.  Those things don’t drive me.  But is that really true?   Let’s put these lies another way.   “If I do more, I am more.  If I have more, I am more.   If more people like and recognize me more, I’m more valuable.”   Now you may not say those messages drive you, but is that true? 

Heck, I’m a preacher, and I’d like to say these lies don’t drive me.  But if I don’t meet my productivity targets at work, I can feel lesser about myself.   And I may not need a million-dollar home, but if others provide things for their kids I can’t, exciting vacations, top schools, I can feel like a failure.   And let me tell you, if people dislike me, it can shake me to the core.  It leads me to doubt myself, to doubt who I really am.           

Yet if I let these lies drive me, if you let them drive you, they will wreck your life.   And in many ways, these lies are wrecking the life of our nation already. 

Here is how life today is for a lot of folks today.  Families are smaller, but their houses have gotten bigger.  And how do they pay for them?  They work more hours.  So, folks get bigger houses, but they don’t spend much time in them.  Why? They are working so hard to pay for them.   And even then, they still don’t have enough room for all the stuff.   That’s why we have 30,000 self- storage places where 40 years ago we almost had none.   Our households contain and consume more stuff than every other household in history combined.  In fact, we spend more on our garbage bags, than 90 nations in our world spend on everything.  And parents spend an average of six hours shopping each week.  That doesn’t even count on-line shopping. 

And what has this pattern gotten us?   American couples talk to each other less than ever.  And then because a lot of those talks are conflicts, often over money, they work longer hours to avoid the drama.    And so, the divorce rate has tripled.   And then that often means less time with the kids too.  So, teen suicide has tripled.  And then, tens of millions take pills for anxiety or depression.   And with all these gadgets to save time, folks have less time.   They even sleep less, 20% less than people did a hundred years ago.   And even though people are working harder to make more money, more Americans declare bankruptcy every year than graduate from college.    All of that doesn’t sound too great does it?

So, what is the answer?  How do you stand against these lies that drive you to work harder, to stress out more, and make you more anxious about how you’re doing on the whole “do they like me.” question?    In the words, we read a few minutes ago, God points the way.  God does it by pointing you to the ridiculous actions of these people in Philippi. 

It seems that this community of Christians has sent a generous gift to the writer of this letter, a missionary named Paul, who sits in death row in Rome.   And what makes it ridiculous is that they really couldn’t afford to do this.   Yet they did it, and not only that, Paul tells you that they’ve done it before.
Yet even as they share it, while Paul appreciates the gift, he makes a more stunning point, one we looked at last week.  He tells the Philippians that even without these gifts, even sitting in a jail cell in Rome, he is perfectly content.   And then at the end, he makes this bold assertion.  He tells them.  God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Jesus Christ. 

Now you could think that Paul is just throwing out some nice religious words to make them feel better about their gift.   It could be like a joke I heard once. These two waiters are serving some bishops.   When one waiter goes to clear the table, his co-worker, when he comes back, asks him.  “Hey, what about my half of the tip.”   And the other waiter just does a halfway sign of the cross. 

But Paul isn’t spouting a nice religious slogan.  Paul is pointing them to where their true value lies.   Paul is pointing them to the only source of wealth that will free them, that will give them fulfillment.   Paul is giving them the truth that stands against the lies.  And in doing that, Paul is doing the same for you.   All these lies of how much you do or have or how much people like you, drive you to think, your value is conditional.   You can lose it if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain.   But the truth to which Paul points you is that the opposite is true.  Your value is unconditional.   And your value cannot ever be lost.

Does anyone know when a Jewish day begins?   That’s right it begins at sundown.   Have you ever thought about why that is?   It’s a way of reminding you of your unconditional value.  Think about it.  The day begins, and what do you do?  You go to sleep.   You don’t do squat.  But while you sleep, God works.  Then the sun rises, and the day moves on, and you get to enjoy it and join in the work God has already been doing.  But here’s the point.  You wake into a day you didn’t make, but one that God has given to you.    And God prepared that day not because of anything you did (you were sleeping), but simply because of who you are, God’s beloved.  

Yet, even with that, human beings didn’t get it.  They made this relationship with God another lie called religion, another way to secure value by doing things, by getting God to like us.  But, in Jesus, God blew the lie apart.  For in Jesus, God came to earth, and what did human beings do?  They killed God.  Both the religious and the non-religious even teamed up to do the job.   Yet this awful act, God uses to blow apart the lies forever.   As Paul puts it in another letter of his.  While we were yet enemies, while we were yet those who had completely missed the mark, Christ died for us, for us.    In that cross, God is showing you the truth.  Even on your worst day, God loves you and values you infinitely, so much so, that God gave up everything to bring you home.   And you don’t need to do anything to have this value and this worth.  All you need to do is believe it.  And when you do, this love frees you as nothing else can.  It lives within you.  And grows in you a security that will not be shaken no matter how rich or poor you find yourself to be.   And on those days, when the lies come up, when they try to pull you down, you can look at the cross on which God died, and see the love that has determined your value.   You can look at that extravagant, ultimate gift and know who you are, someone for whom God gave everything, not because of anything you did, but because of who God is, and who you are in God’s eyes, his beloved.   

Sunday, August 26, 2018

What is the One Secret That Leads to Contentment No Matter the Circumstance?

Have you noticed it?  It’s becoming an epidemic.   Everybody seems so discontented these days.   Some folks point to one thing or another that bothers them.    But it goes so much beyond that.   No, it feels like the discontent sits in the air everywhere, stirring everybody up, usually not in a good way. 
Now, this could be South Florida in August.  That tropical heat and humidity makes everyone a bit crankier this time of year.   And discontent doesn’t need to be a bad thing.   Discontent motivates you to change, to make yourself, to make the world better.

But what about when discontent goes deeper than that?  What about when discontent feels like this description the writer Joshua Charles gave.  Charles wrote.  “We are a people of full bellies and empty hearts.”   What happens, when you feel a bit like that?  When you look at your life, and you think, I should be more content, but I’m not.  That deeper discontent, it’s tough.  It’s what you feel, when no matter what you do or don’t do, something significant always feels missing.   So yes, you have a great day, a day when everything seems to fit, when life feels full, incredibly full even.    But then you wake up the next morning, and the fullness has faded away.    And you are left wondering.  Does this fullness I seek, does it even exist? 

But what if it does exist?  What if you can feel a deep sense of fullness, even on your worst days. What if you could feel contentment, deep contentment, that did not waver no matter how good things or hard your life became?   Is such a thing possible?   In these words from St. Paul, God tells you.  Yes it is.  In these words, God points the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How can you find contentment for your life, no matter how good or bad your life is?  How can you live with a deep sense of well-being, even when things aren’t going well at all?   Can that happen?  In Paul’s words, God tells you it can.   It happens when you realize where the true source of contentment, of satisfaction lies.  And when you discover that source, you’ll realize that this source never wavers, no matter how good or bad the conditions of your life become.   That’s how Paul can say these stunning words, written from a death row prison cell, no less.   Paul can say.   I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  What is Paul’s secret?

Before we can go there, you first have to see, why it’s a secret to begin with.   Why do people have such difficulty discovering what Paul has?   People have difficulty because they are looking for contentment in all the wrong places.   They are looking at what they see and thinking.  That must be where contentment lies.

What do I mean?   Well, they look at success or a happy marriage or family, or some form of pleasure or even serving others, and they think.   If I get that, then I’ll be happy.  I’ll be content. And of course, they think that, because all of those things do give you contentment, for a bit.   But the contentment never really lasts.  Whatever the thing is that you shoot for, that you aspire towards for contentment, in the end disappoints.   It doesn’t disappoint because it’s bad.  It disappoints because whatever that thing is, it was never designed to give you the contentment you seek. 

The poet Wallace Stevens put it well when he said.  Even in contentment, I feel the need of some imperishable bliss.   Do you get what Stevens was saying?  Even when you’re happy, you still sense you are missing something.   It may be simply the fact that you know that this happiness you feel won’t last, that it will fade away.  So even as you enjoy it, you’re already anticipating the pain of the loss.   Or it may be as good as that moment is, you sense, it’s just not good enough. 

But if all these things that you see, as good as they are, can never give you what you seek, why do you look to them for that?   You look to them because they arouse that desire.  They just can’t fulfill it.   They arouse it because each of them gives a little glimpse of what truly brings contentment.   But the contentment you seek always lies beyond, behind these things, so to speak.    So, what happens when what your aspire to for contentment fails you?  You’ll typically react in one of four ways.  

First, when the disappointment happens, you could blame the things.    You think.  I just need more success or more wealth.   I simply need a better plan or a better job.  My spouse needs to get better or maybe, I need a completely different one.   If those things change, then the contentment I seek will come.   So, you keep looking, chasing a dream that always seems just a bit further away.   You’re like that poor schmuck in the desert always running to the next mirage, thinking that the oasis lies there.  Then when you get there and see it’s nothing but sand, you don’t stop.  You just look for the next mirage.   And in your search, you usually leave a lot of wreckage behind in your life and the lives of others.

Now if you don’t blame the things, you may become one of those folks that blame yourself.  You think, the reason you don’t find contentment is simply that something must be wrong with you.    And yes, you are right.  Something is wrong with you, because guess what, something is wrong with everybody.   That’s not the problem, though. 

Have you even seen a preview for a movie and thought that film looks awesome! Then you went and saw it and realized that you had already seen the best parts, in the preview.   That’s the life of everyone you know.   Everyone you see is always showing you their highlight reel.   You are never seeing the behind the scenes.    And today, you don’t even need to see the person to see that highlight reel.   All you have to do is go to Facebook or more accurately, Fakebook to see it.  

Haven’t you done it?  Let’s say. You go to the beach with your family.  On the way, the kids are fighting in the back seat.   And you’re bickering with your spouse about how long they took to get ready or because they forgot to bring something.  Then you get there.  You scramble to find a place.  One of the kids gets sunburned. The other throws a fit over what you brought for lunch.  But then at the end of the day, everybody poses with big smiles, and you take a shot and post it on Facebook.  Awesome day with the family at the beach!

So, if you believe others’ highlight reel or fakebook page, then you can go through life, thinking it must be me.  Maybe you go to therapy to figure that out.  And sure, therapy could help you address some of the problems in your life.  But you know what therapy can’t do.   It can’t bring you contentment.   It won’t give you that imperishable bless, that the poet Stevens wrote about.   

Now if folks stop blaming the things or themselves, they then often blame the universe.  Their thinking goes like this.  None of what I’ve looked to for contentment brings it.   Therefore, this contentment must not exist.  This is as good as it’s going to get.   And they simply let the desire die.   Now, some take this so far, they lose even the desire to live.   But most still live their life.  They just do so with a sense of resignation.   They enjoy life as much as they can, sure, but inside something has died or at least almost died.   It’s still there, that desire. It’s just been pressed down, denied even.  But if they’re honest, deep inside, they still feel a quiet despair, a grief that their life will never hold the meaning or joy they yearned for it to have.  But they are wrong.   Just because you cannot find something, doesn’t mean it’s not there.   All it means is that you’re looking in all the wrong places.      
As C.S. Lewis put it.   Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exist.   A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food.  A duckling wants to swim; there is such a thing as water.  People feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex.  If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.  (From Mere Christianity)   

What does Lewis mean?  Lewis is saying contentment exists, and you can even get hints at it in what you see.  But what you are looking for ultimately lies behind those things.   It lies in a relationship beyond this world, beyond what you can see.   That is the secret that Paul has learned.   And note how Paul says it.   He didn’t discover it.  He learned it.  In his case, religion had been the desire that never brought contentment.  But only when he encountered Jesus, someone even beyond religion, did Paul get a clue.

And as he more and more encountered Jesus, he learned not only could this ultimate contentment be found but far more.  He learned that this relationship with Jesus could bring contentment no matter what circumstances he faced.   Because Jesus’ presence didn’t depend on those circumstances.   It transcended them.  It went beyond them.  And the more he made that relationship his ultimate focus, the deeper and more unwavering his contentment grew. 

Now what does Jesus bring you that creates such contentment.  I can only touch upon that here today.  But basically, it comes down to this.  When you know how much you are ultimately loved and valued, how far in Jesus God went to bring you to your true home, that love fills you up.   It fills you up as nothing else can.  

Have you been looking for contentment in all sorts of places, and yet something always seems to be missing?   You are right.  Something is.  Here is the secret.   When you look for contentment in something beyond Jesus, the problem is not that you want too much.  The problem is you want too little.    But when you open yourself to this love, His love that loves you no matter what, then you have opened the door that leads you into the very contentment you seek.   If you doubt that is true, then simply test it.   Ask Jesus to show you his love, and then see what happens.   The door to contentment is open before you.   All you have to do is go through.  Let us pray.