Monday, April 13, 2009
Rev. Robert D. Shofner, Jr.
St.John's UCC Boonville
We’re in a teaching series on how to live a better life … a look at when the “good” life isn’t good enough … that’s there’s something a whole lot better out there. And today we’re going to discuss “pleasure.” Pleasure.
I hope we’ve learned by now that it’s quite possible to fill our lives with pleasure, but still have a life that’s devoid of happiness. Now, when you think that I’m going to start bashing pleasure … I want to proclaim to you …. I’m all for pleasure. As a matter of fact, I like pleasure. Pleasure is one of God’s good gifts. He intends for us to enjoy pleasure when it’s in the proper place. But pleasure, like all of God’s good gifts, can be abused and misused and destructive.
As we go through life the things that bring pleasure to our lives change. Have we noticed that? What brings pleasure to a baby is different from what brings pleasure to an adult.
At the baby stage in life, we would expect to find pleasure in a clean diaper and a warm bottle.
At the child stage … maybe a new skate board, or new Superman costume. For me, it was a Roy Rogers gun belt with a pair of matching six-shooters.
As a teenager it might be having a pimple-free day, a date for the Prom, or a cool pair of black Converse high-tops.
As an old man it might be the pleasure of wearing dress black socks and wingtips with madras shorts and a green polyester leisure style sport coat.
There are a lot of simple pleasures in life … a cup of hot coffee or tea; being retired and not having to wake up to an alarm clock; bowling a perfect game on the Wii; falling asleep in front in the TV. “Whiskers on kittens and raindrops on roses; brown paper packages tied up with string. These are a few of my favorite things.” Simple things; good things. Pleasurable things.
We can experience pleasure all through life. The problem is when we live only for pleasure we find our lives ultimately unsatisfied. Unfortunately, the voices of those around us communicate the message that we are to pursue pleasure at any price. Pleasure at any cost. That’s the voice of the world. But what does the Bible have to say to us about pleasure? That’s what we want to look at this morning. We’ll find that there’s a stark contrast between pleasure and what the Bible calls “true happiness.”
First, we want to break the connection between temporary pleasure and lasting happiness. Between temporary pleasure and lasting happiness. We often think those two things are tied together; when we want happiness, we have to have pleasure. But the Bible tells us that thinking is faulty. Hebrews 11:24-25 tells us; “By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin …”
Let’s notice some key words. First, notice “by faith.” What does that mean? The Bible says we’re saved by faith. The Bible says we’re supposed to live by faith. The Bible says when we have faith, it pleases God. But what is faith? Simply put, faith is hanging our whole life and our whole future on Jesus Christ. Faith is believing so much that Jesus is the Son of God that we are willing to follow Him with our life, giving meaning and purpose to our existence. Faith is believing so much that Jesus is who He says He is, our Lord and Savior, that we are betting our eternity that He will deliver on His promise to give us a home in heaven. The Bible says that Moses lived by faith, giving his whole life trying to do whatever God asked him to do. And the Bible tells us that God was greatly pleased by that.
Now, let’s look at the word “enjoy.” We’ll hardly ever hear the word “joy” connected to the word “sin.” When we think about “sin” or “sinners” we usually think of people who are miserable all the time. The Bible teaches clearly that it’s possible to enjoy sinning. In fact, if sin wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t do it! But, know what? Pleasure ends. Pleasure will come to an end. Living for sheer pleasure, pleasure at any price, is like jumping off a tall building. The first 95% is sheer thrill … but that last 5% … that’s gonna get ya! Like the famous last words of a redneck. “Watch this, Bubba!”
How many here this morning can say, “You’re right. It became my dual aim in life to avoid pain and find pleasure at almost any cost. And just like you said, the ending was abrupt, and the pain was very real.” There are many examples of this in the Bible. The Prodigal Son comes to mind. Then there’s the guy who’s personal motto was “Eat, drink and be merry.” The very next day, that guy died. And God called him a fool, because he gave no thought to his eternal state.
Think about it like this. Sin is fun on credit. Ever charge your whole vacation on your credit card? It was great, wasn’t it? No pain. Just shove over that little plastic card and off we go! Doesn’t feel like it cost anything. Then, 30 days later, the bill comes. But we say, “Well, it still was the best vacation ever!” And we pay a little bit on the bill, and think, “It was still worth it.” But 30 days later, it comes again. So we pay a little bit more, and still convince ourselves it was worth it. But 30 days later, it comes again. And 30 days later, it comes again! And finally we realize, “Hey, that vacation was fun, but the pleasure was only temporary, and the cost goes on forever!”
That’s why we want to pay attention to that phrase in our passage: “the passing pleasure of sin.” Here’s the truth: even positive pleasure is temporary. Think about this. What’s the best meal we ever had? How long was it before we were hungry again? What’s the best night’s sleep we ever had? How long was it before we were tired again? How long will the pleasure of that next purchase last, that next gadget, that next suit of clothes, that next plunge into debt, that next pull from the bottle, that next high from the needle, that next moment of pleasure? Pleasure does not last. That’s why making pleasure the focus of our lives is stupid. It leaves us empty. We’re always wanting more and more. And we all know this. 1 Timothy 5:6 says; “[The one] who lives for pleasure is dead even while [he] lives.”
Number 2 – break the connection between what you do and who you are. Between what we do and who we are. Pleasure is found in what we do. Happiness is found in who we are.
Solomon, King David’s son, and the wisest king of all time in his own right; wrote a book called Ecclesiastes. It was our scripture reading for this morning. In that passage he listed all the things he did in search of pleasure. He built and he planted. He made, he bought, he amassed. His pleasure came from “doing.” And we get caught up in the same trap. We think if we can just do more, we’ll have more pleasure. And we will find pleasure … but we will not find deep happiness and satisfaction. Why can’t we experience what the old timers called “the simple pleasures of life”? Why can’t we just relax, and enjoy an afternoon of respite? Because we’re always doing. We’re always building and planting and buying and making and amassing. Just like Solomon. But we’ll find, just like Solomon, that while we’re doing all this “stuff” on our outside world, we’re doing very little work on our internal world. And look at th Ecclesiastes 2:11 ; “Then I took a good look at everything I’d done, looked at all the sweat and hard work. But when I looked, I saw nothing but smoke; smoke and spitting into the wind. e result. (And you thought “Spittin’ in the Wind” was a Jimmy Buffet song!) There was nothing to any of it. Nothing.”
Three – break the connection between your circumstances and your character. Between our circumstances and our character. Pleasure can be sustained as long as the circumstances are right. Happiness is sustained when our character is right.
Ever play the “if only” game? If only if this set of circumstances occurred, I’d be happy. If only I won the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes, I’d be happy. By the way, and this is confidential just between me and you; I got a little notice in the mail that in the next 60 days I’m going to win 3 ½ million dollars in the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes. I’m only supposed to tell my closest friends, so I’m telling you. And I’m going to be unhappy if I don’t win it for two reasons. One, Ed McMahon has lied to me in the past. And two, I’d be unhappy, because that’s just the kind of people we are. We really do believe that happiness can come to us in the mail. We really do believe that happiness will come from a changed set of circumstances. We really do believe we can find happiness in people or places or things. We are so externally focused on what matters … it’s all about what’s on the outside. Favorable circumstances … looking good … feeling good … enjoying the world’s pleasures. We take far little time ensuring that we have the right substance … the right stuff on the inside.
There was a woman who faced a life or death surgery. She was forgivably worried she’d even survive, but during the surgery, she heard a voice say to her, “You still have 42 more years to live.” When she woke up, she called in the surgeon and told him, “I’m going to live for many more years, so, while I’m here, I want a little extra work.” So she had a liposuction, a tummy tuck, a face lift, some implants … a friend came by and colored her hair. A few days later, she was discharged from the hospital, and as she was walking down the sidewalk, she’s hit by a taxi cab, and killed. She finds herself standing before God, and she says, “I thought you said I’d live another 42 years! How come you let that cab hit me?” And God said, “I didn’t recognize you.”
I know that’s bad theology, but it is a good joke. And there’s a spiritual point to the story. Here’s the point. God is more interested in how we look in our hearts and in our attitudes and in our inner person than how we look on the outside.
The Bible is full of men and women who were able to rejoice even though the circumstances of their lives were hard. They had internal joy in spite of external circumstances. Jesus said in Luke 6:22; “Happy are you when men hate you and when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man …” Peter wrote in his first book, “Even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed” (1st Peter 3:14). “Blessed” is the same Greek word for “internal happiness.” When circumstances are bad, we can still be happy. Know why? Because happiness is an inside job. Happiness is an inside job.
Over and over the Bible tells us we can be happy regardless of what’s going on around us. We can be happy because of what’s going on within us. Got it? It doesn’t matter if we have a little or we have a lot. What we need to be truly happy is found in Jesus Christ and having Him in our lives. One of the great lies of our culture is that we can have it all. We can’t. We may think we can, but we can’t. What’s even more stupid, we think we deserve to have it all. We don’t. It’s only by God’s gracious gift … nothing we deserve at all … His gracious gift of His Son, Jesus Christ, that we can have all that really, truly matters.
So, how do we find this lasting, internal joy?
One – we must receive God’s forgiveness. We have to get things right between us and God. We know we can never have internal peace and love and joy, in spite of outward circumstances, when we are separated from the God who made and loves us. How could it be otherwise? In the place we want happiness, we have shame, guilt and fear.
The liar is always worried about remembering his lies so he doesn’t get tripped up. The thief is always worrying about getting arrested at midnight or being caught with the goods. Corrupt politicians are always afraid that their ethics violations will be uncovered. Unfaithful marriage partners are always fearful that their adultery will be exposed. Why do people continue down those roads and have all these negative feelings and emotions when God wants to replace those with internal peace of mind and happiness? Because even in the midst of guilt and fear, there are still enough temporary moments of pleasure to keep those people like drugged out junkies … to keep them moving in those destructive patterns.
The liar gets by with it because he lie wasn’t detected, so he wears a smug smile on his face. The thief enjoys a small financial windfall because he successfully snagged some stuff. The politician enjoys the adulation of her constituents as she’s cruising upward through the power circles. The adulterer thrills from those stolen moments of illicit sexual pleasure. But it’s all temporary. And it’s all circumstantial. And between the small tastes of pleasure, there’s always the bitter aftertaste of guilt and shame and fear.
When we’re paying attention at all to the signals in our soul we know intuitively that one day we’re going to stand before God and talk about the life we’ve lived. And the thought of that drains those feelings of pleasure from our souls as it drains the color from our face. It doesn’t have to be that way. God has provided a way through His son, Jesus Christ. David sings of God’s grace in Psalm 32 – this is a paraphrase.
“Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be – you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean. Count yourself lucky – God holds nothing against you and you’re holding back nothing from Him. When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder, my words became day long groans. The pressure never let up; all the juices of my life dried up. Then I let it all out; I said, ‘I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to God.’ Suddenly the pressure was gone – my guilt dissolved, my sin disappeared.”
That’s true happiness. Receive God’s forgiveness.
Number two – submit to God’s discipline, His way of life. Submit to God’s discipline, His way of life.
Here’s a truth that most parents know but most kids doubt. Disciple is an expression of love. We know that … when we discipline a child we do it in love … helping them become more mature and responsible. Discipline is an expression of correction and direction. It’s discipline that says, “Don’t touch that hot stove. Don’t run out into the street without looking both ways.” It’s discipline that corrects that potty mouth or sharp tongue. It’s discipline that teaches that all behavior will have consequences. It’s discipline that tells us, “Why don’t you take a momentary pass on pleasure so that you can have lasting happiness later?”
We know God loves us because He disciplines us. He has established boundaries and then has said to us, “Don’t step out of bounds!” Did God do that to limit us? No, He did that to correct and direct us because He loves us. Job 5:17 says; “Happy is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” So much unhappiness in our lives could be avoided if we just lived within God’s boundaries. But this post-modern world says, “There’s no absolute right or wrong! There are no boundaries that everyone should observe. You can just do what you want!” So there is moral confusion. How can we know we’re going in the right direction if there is no compass, no magnetic north by which we can make our settings? How do we know if we’re doing right or wrong? By watching Oprah? Jesus pointed out the spiritual and moral magnetic north. He said; “Happy are those who hear the Word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28 ). Proverbs 8:34 says, “Happy is the person who listens to God.” David prays in Psalm 119:35; “[God] Make me walk along the path of your commands, for that is where my happiness is found.”
The Bible is full of stories about pleasure gone bad, and how Jesus can give a new life and a fresh start with God for all those who will turn to Him. Stories like the rich young ruler (Luke 18). Zaccheus (Luke 19). The woman who had five husbands, and was now living with a man to whom she was not married (John 4). Then, one of the most familiar of all the stories; we find it in John, chapter 8.
Jesus is confronted by an angry mob of men who throw this woman down at His feet. She’d been caught in the act of adultery. The law clearly stated she should be condemned and pummeled with rocks until she died. But Jesus said to that angry crowd; “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). One by one the men dropped their rocks and walked away. This is a story of pleasure gone bad, and how this woman discovered true happiness.
Just image what this woman’s life might have been like. Maybe at one point she had been a young bride, with sweet dreams of married life with a loving, devoted husband. But somehow, things didn’t quite work out that way. She was disappointed in her marriage. Eventually, she met another man; and he noticed her; and that was pleasurable. Maybe it had been a long time since she felt noticed. That’s a powerful thing for an aching heart. At first, it was all quite innocent, but then one day she crossed a line. It was so pleasurable. But, maybe at the beginning, she would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, afraid she would be caught; but those feelings would always pass. Then comes this night. There must have been men outside the house, watching and waiting. They come in and seize her. Maybe she begged for mercy. She would anything to go back to where she crossed that first line of pleasure, but she can’t go back. They wrap her in bed sheets and drag her through town in front of everybody; and throw her at the feet of Jesus. Suddenly she realizes, with terrible clarity, why she is here. She chose to be here. She cast her vote for pleasure at any price. And here she is.
Does this sound familiar – pursuing pleasure at any cost? Greed and materialism fall into this category. Addictions. Substance abuse. Compulsions. Laziness. They all fit into this category of pleasure gone bad. How far is it going to go? Jesus looks at this woman, and she looks at Him. She heard what the mob had demanded. She heard Jesus say something about casting stones. She sensed the mob walk away. She’s not sure what will happen next. Then she hears Jesus say, “Woman, I don’t condemn you either.” It may be more than she can handle. Maybe her reaction starts as a groan then gives way to sobbing. The fear of being stoned to death falls off her back like a load of rocks. She pulls the bed sheets around her shoulders and stands to leave. And welling in her heart is a feeling she had long forgotten, or maybe never even experienced before. Happiness. Like a seed giving life, pushing up through the dirt. Happiness in being forgiven, and getting a fresh start in life. A fresh start with God. True happiness flooded her spirit. She felt reborn. And Jesus said to her, “Go and sin no more.”
Jesus was not advocating a perfect life. He knows we can’t live a perfect life. But He was advocating for this woman, and all women, and all men, to live the life we’ve been created to live. First, to receive forgiveness from Christ, to hear Him say, “You are not condemned by Me.” And then, to go from this place, living life His way, not consumed by pleasure, but inwardly at peace with God.
Peace with God. Friends. That is true, lasting and ultimately fulfilling happiness. That’s the life that Jesus Christ offers.
Rev. Robert D. Shofner, Jr. attended California State University at Northridge followed by Yale Divinity School. Pastor Bob has served churches in New York, Washington, California, and Nebraska. He has been serving St. John's UCC Boonville since December 2001.He preaches a message that is contemporary in style, but grounded in the unchanging authority of God's Word.