Authentic Happiness

Authentic Happiness

Matthew 5:14-16

Dr. Jim Denison

What will make you happy? Here are some options in the news recently.

“Pocket Deities” are figurines of Francis of Assisi and the Virgin of Guadalupe. A press release says, “Tuck one of these … into your pocket or bag and take the protective spirit of these deities with you wherever you go.”

Perhaps something more mundane? The newspaper recently carried an article about your new desk chair, the Allsteel #19, starting at $1,350.

Perhaps something for the afterlife? Your body can be buried or cremated, or there’s a third option: a company called LifeGem will take your ashes, manufacture them into diamonds, and produce jewelry for your descendants. Prices start at $4,000 for a quarter-carat with a minimum order of two diamonds per body.

Maybe you just need more money. DebtSmart magazine recently ran a survey, asking Americans the question, “If you had more money, would you be happier?” 75% said yes. But would we really?

I learned that people in Japan have nearly nine times the purchasing power of their neighbors in China, yet score lower in surveys of life satisfaction.

Income in America, adjusted for inflation, has doubled since 1960. We’re now twice as likely to own cars, air conditioners and clothes dryers, twice as likely to eat out on any given night. But our divorce rate has doubled, teen suicide has tripled and depression has increased tenfold.

So, what will really make you happy? Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” So?

Reflect the light of Christ

I found this week a fascinating new book titled Authentic Happiness, by Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. In his book, Dr. Seligman tells us how to experience “authentic happiness” for ourselves.

He describes three kinds of “work orientation:” a job, a career, and a calling. A job earns you a paycheck and nothing more. A career entails a deeper personal investment in your work. But a calling is a passionate commitment to work for its own sake. According to Dr. Seligman, finding your “calling” is the key to authentic happiness.

Now consider Jesus’ words again: “You are the light of the world.” “You” is plural, including everyone who follows Jesus. “You are”—present tense, right now. Not you will be, but you are today.

You are “the light of the world.” This is a spectacular compliment. Not because of who we are, but whose we are. You see, Jesus is the true light of the world.

He said so: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). And later, “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5).

Now that he is no longer in the world, he has called us to reflect his light, as the moon reflects the sun.

The Bible says, “There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light” (John 1:6-8).

This is true of each of us: “You are all sons of the light” (1 Thessalonians 5:6). We exist to show our Father’s light. To be his mirror. To reflect his light to our dark world. To be the moon to his sun. This is Jesus’ high and holy calling for each of us.

Know that the world needs your light

But why is this calling so significant? Why is being the “light of the world” so important and crucial that it will give our lives deep and satisfying meaning? For this simple reason: you have the only answer to the greatest need in all of humanity.

Would your life be significant and satisfying if you cured cancer or AIDS? If you found the solution to all war, abuse, neglect? If you discovered a way to end all hunger and poverty? Would you then consider your life fulfilling? We could do all this and more, but the world would still suffer in spiritual darkness. And this darkness would be its greatest problem, its worst disease, its most horrific malady.

God says so.

The Bible says, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12, emphasis added).

God describes humanity this way: “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more” (Ephesians 4:18-19).

This darkness is Satanic: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

And he is keeping the lost of our community and world from finding the love of God in Christ Jesus. There are one million more lost people in the world today than last Sunday. 1.3 billion people have never even heard the name “Jesus Christ.” The percentage of Americans who rarely or never attend church has grown from 18% in 1972 to 30% in 1998. 85% of Americans call themselves Christians, but only a third say they have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The rest are deceived by the enemy, living in his spiritual darkness.

What is the answer to his deception and darkness? You are “the” light of the world. Not just “a” light—the only light.

The Bible is very clear on this subject. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).


Finishing Well

Finishing Well

Matthew 5:13

Dr. Jim Denison

John Bisagno was for many years pastor of the historic First Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. When he was 20 years old and about to finish college, he was having dinner at his fiancée’s home one night. His future father-in-law, Dr. Paul Beck, had been in ministry for many years. After supper, as the two were talking, Dr. Beck gave John his observation: only one in ten who begin in vocational ministry at the age of 21 are still active in ministry at age 65.

John couldn’t believe it. He went home and wrote on a blank page of his Bible the names of 24 young men who were his peers and contemporaries. He considered them to be the future great preachers of his generation. 23 years later, only three remained in the Lord’s service.

In the Christian faith, and in life in general, it’s not how you start that matters. It’s how you finish.

Think of famous preachers and evangelists in this generation who are now fallen from effectiveness. Think of pastors in our city who have suffered similar fates.

Think of CEOs of major corporations who are now in disgrace. World renowned athletes who have faded to obscurity. Celebrities once famous for their singing abilities, or acting careers, or literary achievements, but now are forgotten.

On the other hand, we have all known pastors and preachers who finished well. Executives who retired in financial and moral success. Athletes and celebrities who kept their character. Role models for us all.

We all want to finish well. To be remembered as women and men of God, people who could say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). At our funeral, we want the pastor to be able to quote these words about us. We want to live well, and finish well. How is this done?

Today Jesus continues his famous Sermon. Let’s listen in.

Know that it could happen to you

“If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” “If” in the Greek language assumes that this could easily happen. Jesus knew that what he is about to describe could occur in the lives of his followers, even his first disciples, the apostles. If to them, certainly to us.

“Loses its saltiness”—pure sodium chloride cannot decompose. However, the salt in use among Jesus’ people was impure, taken from the shores and marshes of the Dead Sea. When it decomposed, all that was left was white powder. It looked like salt, but it had none of its power or effect.

So it is with Christians who trusts appearance over reality. Those of us who think they are fulfilling God’s purpose by looking Christian, attending Christian events, acting in Christian ways around other Christians. The only test of salt is whether or not it works. Not how it looks, but what it does.

Note that Jesus’ words are in the present tense, literally “if the salt is tainted.”

It does not matter if it had been salt at one time, if it had originally fulfilled its purpose.

A shaker filled with salt may have been in perfect condition last week, but that doesn’t matter to the restaurant patron today. If it is wet, lumpy, or corrupted today, it’s no good. All that matters is that it does its job now.

No matter what I have done for Jesus in the past, or plan to do for him in the future, all that matters is my current usefulness to him. This is the only issue.

Any believer can fail God. If you think it can’t happen to you, it has likely already started.

The Bible is sometimes misquoted to say “Pride goes before a fall.” It actually says, “Pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18). Every time.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, world-renowned scholar of Scripture, made this his prayer every day: “Lord, keep me from pride.” When did you last make his prayer yours?

Find and fulfill your purpose

So what exactly does it mean for the salt to “lose its saltiness?” The Greek word means to lose its power, its effect, to fulfill its purpose no longer. What is our purpose? What is God looking for in our lives?

When I taught at Southwestern Seminary, my students always wanted to know what would be on the test, and especially the final exam. You need to know the questions you’ll be asked as well.

Here they are. First and foremost, do you know Jesus personally?

Jesus told Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). We must ask Jesus to forgive our mistakes and be Lord of our lives. Only then can we have a personal relationship with him.

Otherwise we will one day hear the most horrifying words in all of eternity: “I never knew you. Away from me!” (Matthew 7:23). You can only spend eternity in God’s paradise if you know his Son personally. Do you?

Here are the rest of the questions God will ask you when you stand before him:

Did you discover your gifts for ministry? God created you uniquely in his image. Now he has given you spiritual gifts to be used in serving him. What are yours?

Did you use these gifts to fulfill the service for which he intended your life? If so, in what ways? What is your ministry?

As a result, did God use you to bring others to Jesus? He will ask you one day, “Who did you bring me?”

As we saw last week, “You (plural) are the salt of the earth.” And the one definition of success for salt is simple: does it do its job? Not how beautiful its container might be, or how much of it there is. Did it do what it was created to do?

What happens if our salt does not fulfill this purpose?


Where Was God On 9-11?

Where Was God On 9-11?

Matthew 5:11-12

Dr. Jim Denison

A good friend in our church recently showed me a travel brochure she picked up years ago while visiting in New York City. It is from the World Trade Center, and describes the twin towers and the view from the topmost observation deck. The brochure’s cover pictures the towers beneath these words: “The closest some of us will ever get to heaven.”

This Wednesday our nation and world will remember the day more than 3,000 souls met their deaths in the worst act of terrorism ever committed against America. We’ll mourn with the surviving families. We’ll think of the 63 babies born after 9-11 to mothers without husbands. And we’ll ask “why?”

It is appropriate today for Christians to ask and be asked three questions. First, where was God on 9-11? Second, how are we to handle the crises of our own lives when they come? Third, how are we to feel about the enemies of our nation today? We’ll seek answers this morning from the most famous Sermon ever preached.

Where was God on 9-11?

First, where was God on “the day everything changed”? While the towers burned and collapsed, the Pengaton was attacked, and Flight 93 crashed into the Pennsylvania soil?

If God is all-powerful, he could have prevented the atrocities of that day. If he were all-loving, he would want to. If you or I were God, 9-11 would not be the most notorious numbers in American history, but just another day. Why did he allow it?

Jesus’ Sermon points to this explanation for 9-11: mankind is free to choose evil.

Matthew 5:11: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

Jesus tells us, “Do not resist an evil person” (5:39). He instructs us to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44). Jesus expects us to meet with evil people and enemies in life. Why must they exist?

God created us to worship him. But worship requires freedom of choice. And we can choose to misuse this freedom for atrocity. Cain did. David did. Saul of Tarsus did. So did Hitler, and Osama bin Laden. Tragically, though in ways far less destructive, so have I. So have you.

Could God have intervened on 9-11? Could he have prevented the planes’ attacks by miraculous means? Of course. But only if he would likewise prevent the results of every sinful choice on the part of every sinful human. Only if he were to remove consequences from our choices. In the final analysis, only if he were to strip us of our freedom. And this he will not do.

So where was God on 9-11? Mourning with us, and more deeply than any of us. Grieving as only a Father made to watch his child die could grieve. Hurting with every hurting spouse, every lonely child, every aching parent’s heart.

In the same way he mourns with us every time our freedom leads to failure, our choices to crime, our sins to suffering. He is “God with us.”

Elie Wiesel’s books told the world of the Holocaust atrocities he survived. No passage is more horrifying than his account in Night of the small boy hanged by the Nazis: “For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.

“Behind me, I heard [a] man asking:

“‘Where is God now?’

“And I heard a voice within me answer him:

“‘Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows….'”

His suffering soul was more right than he knew.

How are we to handle hard times?

Now let’s make 9-11 even more personal. How does the Christian faith prepare us for the crises which come to our own lives? You may have known not a single person affected directly by 9-11, but you’ve had your own problems and you’ll have more. Jesus was a realist: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). It’s not “if” but “when” 9-11 comes for us personally.

What can we do to be prepared? The entire Sermon will help us this fall. Today we’ll explore briefly three simple principles.

Don’t live for today (6:19-21).

It’s a fact: moth and rust do destroy all the treasures of earth, and thieves “break in and steal.” Today is uncertain. Its possessions are not secure, its promises often unmet.

No one but the terrorists knew that September 11 would be a day different from any other. People went about their normal morning until the terror began. None of us expects this day to bring catastrophe. Or tomorrow. Neither did they.

And so Jesus advises us, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (v. 20).

Live every day for eternity. Be ready today to meet God. Make sure your sins are confessed, your soul right with your Lord. Make your money and resources, your time and talents a means to the end of doing the eternal, of building God’s Kingdom on earth. Don’t live for today, because one day “today” will be gone.

Don’t worry about tomorrow (6:34).

Then you can obey this word from our Lord: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (6:34).

Jesus says of our daily needs, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them” (v. 32). His word promises: “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).

“Tomorrow” doesn’t exist. It’s just a word, not a reality. So plan and prepare for it, but don’t worry about it. Put your needs for tomorrow in the hands of God, today.


Your Utmost For His Highest

Your Utmost for His Highest

Matthew 5:13

Dr. Jim Denison

A few days ago, the PBS program Frontline presented a special edition entitled “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.” The show described ways people have responded to the question, “Where was God on 9-11?” Most of the news was not good.

Marian Fontana, writer: “I couldn’t believe that this God that I’d talked to in my own way for 35 years turned this loving man into bones, and now I can’t bring myself to speak to him anymore because I feel so abandoned.”

Tim Lynston, security guard: “I look at [God] now as a barbarian, and I probably will. And it’s a sad situation. I think I’m a good Christian, but I have a different view and image of him now, and I can’t replace it with the old image.”

Josh Simon, rabbinical student: “There was a God on September 11th who didn’t even mind that God’s own name could be used as the final prayer of a suicide hijacker as he plowed into a building. We needed, and I know I needed, to have another God to turn to at that moment, or there was going to be no God.”

Voices at the program’s beginning: “Religion drove those planes into those buildings.” “If people can kill for God in this way, this is the best reason never to believe in God!”

Why should a hurting world trust God in such times as these? Why should your friends? Why should you? Take a moment. Look around. You’re looking at the answer.

Who is spiritual salt?

“You are the salt of the earth,” says Jesus of Nazareth. Following his Beatitudes, these words begin the most famous sermon in human history. Every single word deserves our attention this morning.

“You:” Jesus’ word is plural, not singular. Whatever it means to be the “salt of the earth,” it means it for every one of Jesus’ followers.

No matter how mature spiritually you may think you are or are not, no matter what you know about your faith, if you are Jesus’ follower you are the “salt of the earth.” You may not know much, but then neither did they at this beginning of Jesus’ ministry with them. If you follow Jesus, you are addressed here. You are included.

No matter what your past has been. These disciples were of no account in the world’s eyes. Simple fishermen. Tax collectors would join their number, and farmers, and prostitutes and slaves. And murderers. God always uses surprising things to do his work. Dust to make Adam, a rib to make Eve. A desert bush to call Moses. A slingshot to defeat Goliath. A baby in Bethlehem to save the world.

No matter what your future may be. Every disciple addressed initially by these words would die a criminal’s death except one, and he was a convicted felon.

We all have something in our life which we think exempts us from being used fully by Jesus. Failures, shame, insecurities, inabilities. But the Bible says, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

Jesus knew we’d need help believing it. And so his Greek is emphatic, literally translated “You, yes, you.”

“Are:” This is a present-tense statement. It’s true right now, of every one of us.

This is not a status you are to work to attain. You are the salt of the earth, at this very moment. If Jesus is your Lord, you’re in his spiritual saltshaker. This is who you are.

And it’s your nature, not just your location at church or your work during the week. Salt is always salt, no matter where it’s found. Whatever it happens to be doing. Whether it’s sitting in the saltshaker as we are this morning, or part of the ocean, or flavoring a potato. It is always and everywhere sodium chloride, salt.

You are Jesus’ hands and feet: “You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Right now.

“The:” The Greek uses the definite article, so that it can be translated, “You and you alone are the salt of the earth.”

Jesus’ description is true only of us. There are no others. These words are addressed only to his followers. This function cannot be fulfilled by political leaders, or military generals, or economists or business leaders, or doctors, lawyers, teachers, athletes, or musicians.

And not only by preachers, deacons, or staff members. Not only by seminary graduates. There is no clergy/laity distinction in the Bible. Every member has a ministry. Every person is saved to serve. “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus says to us all.

Being “the salt of the earth” is a calling we each fulfill. And we alone.

What does spiritual salt do?

Salt of the earth: So what is it that we each uniquely are? The “salt of the earth.” In first-century eyes, this would be the highest compliment Jesus could possibly pay his followers. Salt was so valuable in the ancient world that it was considered to be worth a man’s weight in gold. The ancients would choose salt over gold. Why?

Salt was the only means of preserving food in the first century.

There was no refrigeration, of course. No way to keep food. During the routine crop failures and economic depressions which plagued them, salted meat and food were all they had with which to survive.

And so we exist to preserve the world spiritually. As the Howard Center Bible study this weekend makes clear, God created the world to be good. In fact, when his creation was done he called it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). But human abuse of our spiritual freedom led to the “fall” which changed everything. Now “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).