Bible Passage: Matthew 16:21-26 Pastor: Pastor Schlicht Sermon Date: September 3, 2017
Aristotle famously said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” And today, 1,600 years later, most people in America still agree. Surveys show that 84 percent of Americans believe “enjoying yourself is the highest goal of life.” (According to research by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman) This makes a lot of sense because our nation was founded on the belief that everyone deserved the right to be happy. They called it the pursuit of happiness and ever since this pursuit has remained the foundation of the American Dream. Thousands of books have been written, thousands of blogs posts have been shared, and a thousand well-meaning friends have told each other that we should do what makes us happy. Many churches even teach this as well. They present Christianity as a way to find happiness. Christian bookstores are filled with bestsellers like Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project or Pastor Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now.
But what if there were more to life than just being happy? What if Jesus disagreed with Aristotle and Osteen? What if he told you that happiness isn’t the aim and end of human existence or that your best life isn’t right now? What if Jesus asked you to stop pursuing happiness and to follow him on a different path? Which road would you choose? That’s the question we wrestle with today in chapter 16 of Matthew’s gospel, where the footsteps of Jesus begin to diverge from the pursuit of happiness.
It must have been an astonishing moment for the disciples. Here standing before them was the Christ. Peter confessed it and Jesus confirmed it. Their teacher was the promised Messiah whom Israel had been awaiting for thousands of years! Here was Israel’s promised king and they were blessed to be his closest followers! But then Jesus started saying some dark things. He talked about going to Jerusalem and suffering, being killed, and something about rising from the dead. They heard him clearly, but it was all really confusing. Yet Peter knew one thing for certain: humiliation and death could not be the path for Jesus. The Messiah was supposed to be victorious. So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “May you receive mercy, Lord! This will never happen to you.” But Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” What? Peter’s head must have been reeling: one moment confessing Jesus as Christ and being commended, the next being called “Satan.” What did he do to deserve that title?
Well, Peter had tried to get Jesus to abandon his mission as the Christ. “Lord this will never be! You are the Messianic king, not a criminal who dies on a cross!” Peter was unknowingly trying to ruin God’s plan for salvation! This was a satanic temptation and Jesus identified it as such: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a snare to me because you are not thinking the things of God, but the things of men.” Peter was thinking like any human in the pursuit of happiness. Death and suffering sound pretty terrible, so none of this should be happen! Peter didn’t want that for the Messiah!
That was the prevailing opinion of all the Jews in that time. They were hoping the Messiah would conquer the Romans and restore the kingdom to Israel. They thought that any follower of the Messiah was pursing happiness! Jesus, well aware of these notions, rebuked Peter and then gathered his disciples together and to explain what being his follower was really about. He said, “If anyone wants to follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Can you see their bewildered faces? Did he say carry a cross?! They knew what that meant. It was the cruelest form of Roman execution, a sadistic suffocating, torture instrument. This was an offensive word and a hated symbol among those in Israel. Carrying a Roman cross didn’t sound like the conquering; it sounded like losing; it sounded like suffering; it sounded like death!
Whatever it sounded like to them, Jesus’ words certainly don’t sound like the pursuit of happiness. He didn’t say “Do what makes you happy.” He said, “Deny yourself.” He didn’t say “Pursue happiness!” he said, “Pick up your cross.”It’s hard to hear these words, isn’t it? I don’t want to deny myself, it goes against every fiber of my body, every logical thought in my brain! Doesn’t God want me to be happy? Why can’t I pursue happiness and follow Jesus at the same time?” Yet while that is a nice sounding thought and it seems logical at first, it is really an insidious idea, that Satan wants us to buy into. And it’s really easy to agree with because the idea that God’s plan follows the same route as our personal happiness fits really well into our consumer-centered, individualistic, you-deserve-it world we live in. It has been engrained into our heads and I wonder if Jesus’ words can even get past our ears! My friends, listen to him! “If anyone wants to follow me must deny himself and take up his cross!” There is a fork in the road. That’s what Jesus is saying! If you want to pursue happiness and me, just so you know, we aren’t going in the same direction. It’s not going to work! I’m going to the cross! And the pursuit of happiness leads somewhere, anywhere, else. This notion, that God promises us happiness if we follow him, does not come from God or his Word. It is a dangerous lie from Satan.
My friends, watch out for this temptation because the fact is that, thanks to sin, there are times in life when we will be unhappy, to put it lightly. And if we think that God is supposed to make us happy all the time we will be led to one of two unfortunate conclusions. Conclusion A: God said that if I followed him I would be happy, but I’m not happy right now, so God must be lying; or Conclusion B: God said that if I followed him I would be happy, but I’m not happy right now, so I must not be following God.
An example of how Conclusion A is reached is demonstrated quite clearly right now in Houston TX. Pastor Joel Osteen preaches a prosperity gospel, that God wants us to be successful, that the pursuit of happiness lines up directly with the footsteps of Jesus. His church just so happens to be located in Houston, TX. I wonder if he’s handing out any copies of his book, Your Best Life Now, to those people whose lives have been washed away by Hurricane Harvey. Personally, I wouldn’t feel like reading that if I were them. People who believe the lie that God only wants them to be happy, will begin to reject God when life gets hard because they perceive that he is lying. An example of Conclusion B is a Christian who has depression. Satan’s lie leads them to think that since they aren’t happy, they must have a lack of faith. That they aren’t praying hard enough or trusting him enough! This adds guilt on top of depression! The truth is that many faithful Christians struggle with depression, and somehow Satan and other mistaken people have managed to turn this into an unnecessary source of shame! I’ve heard of Christians who are afraid to take mental health medication because someone told them somewhere along the line, that following Jesus should always make them happy! My friends, both of these conclusions are spiritually destructive are both are built on the same lie. So how can we avoid them? By knowing the truth.
The truth is that there is something more important than happiness to pursue. When Jesus turned away from the pursuit of happiness and headed toward Jerusalem, he wasn’t just going there to suffer and die. Yes, those were the necessary things he had to do, and he did deny himself and carry his cross, literally, for us. But he didn’t just go to die. He told his disciples that after the third day he would be raised from the dead. That’s why he told them what would happen in the first place! They needed to know that his death would not just be some disaster or mistake. God would raise him from the dead! You see the disciples wouldn’t realize it until much later, but the Jesus did come to conquer. Their awaited Messiah came, not just to overthrow some petty human government, but to crush the serpent’s head, to destroy the real enemy, Satan, and all his lies. The writer to the Hebrews said, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.” (Hebrews 2:14) When Jesus rose from the dead he broke Satan’s power over humanity. He won for us eternal life. Because he lives we will live! What is more important to pursue than happiness? Eternal happiness, the salvation of your soul. And this is what we receive through following Jesus.
Jesus explained this as well. “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. After all, what will it benefit a person if he gains the whole world, but forfeits his soul? Or what can a person give in exchange for his soul?” The wager is pretty simple: Lose yourself or lose your soul. Like he said, even if someone could gain the whole world–an impossible premise in and of itself–that would not be enough to purchase their soul back from sin. The pursuit of happiness is an easy highway, but it leads to spiritual death. But if you follow Jesus, as hard as that path may be, he leads to salvation. You get to keep your soul. That’s the line of argument here. Jesus reminds us what we really are.
You may not often think about it, and it’s often hard to realize in this ordinary light, but you are an immortal soul. Because of sin, everything in this world comes to an end, but even after we die our souls will live on. Do you ever think about that? Do you ever think about that when you look at other people? At your family? Do you ever marvel that we will exist far longer than the earth itself? Your soul is immortal, it is priceless. What could you give in exchange for it? Right now Satan is trying to buy it with all the happiness and pleasure that this world can offer. Many will sell their souls for far less than that, but even if you could gain the whole world, would it be worth an eternity in hell? Would it be worth your soul?
Sometimes we get so busy and wrapped up in our everyday life, that we forget how high the stakes are. Listen to Jesus’ words. You have a soul, don’t give it away to pursue some fleeting happiness. Give it to Christ and he will hold it in perfect safety no matter what you go through on this earth. If you want to pursue happiness, don’t fall for Satan’s lie, “Deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Jesus,” because that is pursuit of eternal happiness.
And the craziest part about all this, is that although we forsake the pursuit of earthly happiness in order to follow Jesus, somehow joy still finds us here. Just think about those moments when you are most profoundly happy. They don’t come from indulging some selfish desire. The moments we are happiest come when we deny ourselves to help someone, when we love people more than ourselves, when we strive to achieve for a greater good rather than our own self-interest. The pursuit of happiness, as defined by this world, is the pursuit of the self. What would make me happy? What do I need, what do I want, why can I accomplish to be happy? And any happiness we do get from serving ourselves is mostly short-lived, steeped in sin, and followed by regret. But there is purer, uniquely Christian happiness that we get to experience right now. When we deny ourselves and pick up our crosses, joy still finds us because we love as Christ does, and we know that eternal happiness waits for us in heaven.
I’m not saying that we aren’t ever unhappy; there will still be plenty of tears. Jesus himself was “a man of sorrows, well-acquainted with grief.” But in Christ, we have a deep and abiding joy that exists even in the midst of unhappiness. The apostle Paul explains it well in 2 Corinthians, “We are treated…as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.” (2 Cor 6:8-10) This is what it means to be a follower of Christ. We have something to rejoice about even in suffering. We have life even in death.
The Lord has allowed some heavy crosses to weigh on the shoulders of some individuals in our congregation. Just in the past few weeks alone. And each one of us bears a cross for Christ to a greater or lesser extent. Know that the cross you carry was not given to you because God doesn’t love you or because you aren’t trusting him enough, Luther often about crosses and he would again and again reiterate that crosses come to us, not when we mess up, or when we go out seeking them, but just when we try to settle down with our families and stay true to God. My friends, if you follow Jesus, Satan and this sinful world will see to it that a cross comes your way and that it hurts. God, on his part, will see to it that you stand up under your cross. God knows what you are going through. I pray that your cross will challenge and ultimately strengthen your faith and the faith of all those who watch you bear it. I pray that it will force all of us to maintain an eternal perspective.
Brothers and Sisters, there are two roads. One is a wide road, a broad highway that seduces with pleasure and happiness but leads to a self-centered death in sin forever. The other is a narrow road that only a few find. It is difficult to walk but leads to eternal happiness. Robert Frost said it well, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.”Amen.