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Happiness where you least expect it

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 3:1-17

I’d like us to begin with a survey. Time magazine recently explored the subject of happiness, and included in its report a tool devised in 1980 by a psychologist named Edward Diener. It rates your happiness compared with the rest of us. Answer these questions on a scale of one (not at all true) to seven (absolutely true):

In most ways my life is close to my ideal.

The conditions of my life are excellent.

I am satisfied with my life.

So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.

If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

What did you score? 31 to 35: you are extremely satisfied with your life; 26 to 30: very satisfied; 21 to 25: slightly satisfied; 20: neutral; 15 to 19: slightly dissatisfied; 10 to 14: dissatisfied; 5 to 9: extremely dissatisfied.

Now, how can you raise your “happiness” score? Here’s an answer which will surprise our culture. According to Time, “Studies show that the more a believer incorporates religion into daily living–attending services, reading Scripture, praying–the better off he or she appears to be on two measures of happiness: frequency of positive emotions and over all sense of satisfaction with life. Attending services has a particularly strong correlation to feeling happy, and religious certainty–the sense of unshakable faith in God and the truth of one’s beliefs–is most closely linked with life satisfaction” (p. A46).

As we will learn this morning, Christianity was meant to be a public relationship, not a private religion. The more we divorce faith from life, the further we step from joy. The more we make Jesus Lord of Monday as well as Sunday, the more he is able to bless both. So let’s consider the third Covenant of Grace value–worship publicly–and what’s in it for God and for us today.

How did John go public with his faith?

We’ll walk through our story, then learn its lessons. As it begins, “In those days John the Baptist came” (v. 1a).

Luke tells us that this was the fifteenth year of Tiberius’s reign (Luke 3:1), AD 26. John is around 30 years of age, as is our Lord (Luke 3:23).

John’s parents were elderly when he was conceived. It is likely that he has lived most of his life in this “Desert of Judea,” a region east of Jerusalem. He spent these years in seclusion, far from the crowds and culture of his day. But then he “came,” a word which means that he chose to appear in public. He could have stayed in seclusion, but chose a public ministry instead.

His message was public, and counter-cultural: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

“Repent” in the Bible means a change of heart which results in a change of life. It is not the Greek word for “feel sorry,” but the word for “turn” or “change.” The rabbis said, “The true penitent is he who has the opportunity to do the same sin again, in the same circumstances, and who does not do it.”

The “kingdom of heaven” is the place where God is King. To be in his Kingdom, turn from serving yourself to serving him.

He dressed exactly like Elijah the Old Testament prophet (2 Kings 1:8): “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist” (v. 4). These were the poorest clothes he could wear, like tattered blue jeans and a t-shirt to us.

His food was “locusts and wild honey,” still common food for poor people in Palestine today. He did not seek to impress the people with his message and appearance, but only the Lord. His priorities were on display for all to see.

His sermon and lifestyle led to public response: “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan” (vs. 5-6). Jerusalem, the city sophisticates; Judea, the country folk; the whole region turned out. They were “baptized,” something no Jew had ever done in all of Hebrew history. This act was reserved for Gentiles who became Jews. Now these people started their lives over, washing away their past, in a public act of confession and repentance. Nothing private, all before the world to see.

And his ministry led to public confrontation: “he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing” (v. 7).

These were the wealthiest and most powerful people in their society, the CEOs, big-church pastors and political authorities. But they too must “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (v. 8).

Racial ties to Abraham are not enough (v. 9)–their trees must bear spiritual fruit for all to see. Otherwise they will be “cut down and thrown into the fire” (v. 10).

This judgment will be public, when Jesus will “clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (v. 12).

Now comes the climax of the story: Jesus “came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John” (v. 13). Like John, he has been living in seclusion far from the beaten path of his culture. But no more. It is more than 60 miles from Nazareth to the place where the baptism probably occurred; can you imagine walking from Weatherford to Dallas to be baptized today?

John’s reaction demonstrated his understanding of Jesus’ divinity: “I need to be baptized by you” (v. 14).

But Jesus wanted to make public his own commitment to his Father, so John consented. And the Father blessed his public proclamation with his own: “this is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (v. 17).

Why should we?

Here’s the point: Christianity is a public faith. It is not a private commitment reserved for Sundays at church. It is not a personal, individual, subjective belief best kept to ourselves. Our faith has always been public in nature. Jesus’ baptism was public, not the private ceremony he could have arranged with John. His ministry was done in public, and his disciples followed him in public, not in private closed-door meetings. He died in public, even though a private execution would have paid for our sins. He appeared in public for 40 days after his resurrection, and ascended to heaven in public.

He still calls his disciples to follow him publicly. We are to “take up our cross,” a public display of personal commitment. The early disciples served in public, at great personal risk. Their writings were made public to as many as possible. They gave their lives to win as much of the public to Christ as possible.

By contrast, religion is now supposed to be a private experience in America. Keep it to yourself. Don’t offend or judge others. Don’t discuss religion in public. On a television show I saw last week, one character said to another: “I know your secret: you go to church.”

Four factors have privatized faith for our culture, each of them a mistake.

One: centuries before Christ, Western thinkers separated the spiritual from the physical. Plato believed this world to be a “shadow” of the real world of ideas. Sunday and Monday are separate realities. However, God created this world, and pronounced it “good.” Jesus wore flesh, proving that the “secular” is not unspiritual. God created Monday before he created Sunday, and is equally interested in both.

Two: in the medieval world, “spirituality’ was defined in monastic terms, as withdrawal from the “real” world. The more you live in the church and not in the world, the more spiritual you are. However, our Lord told us to go and make disciples, not retreat into Baptist monasteries. Salt is no good in the saltshaker, or light under a basket. We must touch the world to transform it.

Three: our founding fathers separated church and state. Religion is not supposed to affect our public lives, we’re told today. However, the founders intended that church and state not control each other, but they never meant that faith and life are separate. Many of them were outstanding, public Christians. They would want us to be the same.

Four: “truth” is personal and subjective today, and religious truth most personal of all. “Intolerance” is the great sin of our day. Don’t force your beliefs on others. Keep your religion to yourself. However, “truth” is still true, whether we believe it or not. To deny absolute truth is to make an absolute truth claim. As Martin Luther King, Jr. Day reminded us this week, racism is wrong no matter what anyone thinks personally.

It was counter-cultural for John to go public with his faith, for the crowds to join him, for Jesus to leave Galilee to stand publicly for his Father. But the results were lives filled with significance on earth, and reward in heaven.

Conclusion

Would you like to join them? Would you like your faith to be more meaningful than it is, your life to be more joyful, exciting, and purposeful? Would you like your “happiness score” to be higher? Your Father to be glorified by your life?

First, make public your faith. Join the crowds who did what Jesus did. Tell the world about your commitment to Jesus. While most of you have, some have not. Some of you have trusted Christ as Savior, but never told anyone; never followed him in believer’s baptism as a Christian; never told family or friends about your commitment. Like the character in the television show, your faith is your secret. But you can change all that today.

Then make public your story.

We live in a post-Christian culture in desperate need of the story we know. I learned this week that seven out of ten American adults have no clue what “John 3:16” means. Nine out of ten cannot identify correctly the “Great Commission.” Barely one-third know the meaning of the expression “the gospel.” This despite 320,000 churches, 800,000 ordained ministers, $200 million spent on religious television broadcasting, $100 million religious radio, and 5,000 evangelistic parachurch organizations.

What will reach them? A survey recently asked 14,000 Christians how they came to the faith. Five to six percent credited a pastor; four to five percent the Sunday school; five-tenths percent an evangelistic crusade or television show; and 75-90 percent a friend or relative. Who do you know who needs the story of God’s love to be made public?

Is this “intolerance,” forcing your faith on others? No more so than a doctor who operates a free health clinic, offering medicines to those who are sick. Is this being “holier than thou?” No more than a beggar who tells another beggar where he found bread.

Last, make public your worship. Baptism is done in worship, as an act of worship. Be that public with your worship of God today. Prepare before you come, asking God to bless the service, my message, your experience. Join in our praise, share our prayers, study with us, commit your life to Christ each week.

George Gallup: “While representing only 13 percent of the populace, highly spiritually committed persons are a ‘breed apart’ from the rest of society. We find that these people, who have what might be described as a ‘transforming faith,’ are more tolerant of others, more inclined to perform charitable acts, more concerned about the betterment of society, and far happier. (These findings, in my view, are among the most exciting and significant that we have recorded in more than a half-century of polling).”

Missionary martyr Jim Elliot said it this way, in my favorite one-sentence faith statement: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

Do you agree?