The pursuit of happiness
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
These words should be familiar to us. They come from the Declaration of Independence; a declaration that was made almost 250 years ago on July 4, 1776.
There is a curious phrase found in our Declaration of Independence. Did you notice it? The pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness is what brought many of our ancestors to America. But happiness is an elusive thing. It’s a hard thing to hold on to.
How do we pursue happiness in the midst of a pandemic? How do we pursue happiness following the death of George Floyd and all that has taken place in its wake?
These days our foundations have crumbled. The world as we know it is very different than it was on March 15. This was the last time that we met here for public worship. And while we resume our public worship this morning, as you look around you can see that things are still very far from normal.
We find ourselves in a time of nation-wide soul-searching. Or, at least it should be. We must wrestle with some very important and difficult questions: What is our duty to our neighbor during this pandemic? What is our duty to our neighbors of color following the death of George Floyd?
Maybe at this stage we’re just tired of it all. Maybe we’ve reached the point where we can’t stand to listen to the news any longer. And yet, it’s almost unavoidable, isn’t it?
Try as we might, sometimes events overtake us. We are reminded that we aren’t in control. This can be an uncomfortable, even disturbing, feeling to have. We are confronted by a reality that we can do little, or nothing, to change.
Today we stop to listen to an old preacher. We’ve met from him before. As a matter of fact, we heard from him just four weeks ago. Ecclesiastes has much to say to us in our day and age.
The old preacher takes a good, hard, unflinching look at life. And he is troubled—deeply troubled—by what he sees. He can’t seem to make sense of life, here and now.
I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on mankind: God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.
A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man— even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place?
Everyone’s toil is for their mouth,
yet their appetite is never satisfied.
What advantage have the wise over fools?
What do the poor gain
by knowing how to conduct themselves before others?
Better what the eye sees
than the roving of the appetite.
This too is meaningless,
a chasing after the wind.
Whatever exists has already been named,
and what humanity is has been known;
no one can contend
with someone who is stronger.
The more the words,
the less the meaning,
and how does that profit anyone?
For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?
The old preacher, Ecclesiastes, is clearly disturbed. He is one in a long, long list of troubled souls. History, you see, is full with examples of those who struggled with life as they found it.
“Everything has been figured out, except how to live.” So contended Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Life has to be given a meaning because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning.” So believed Henry Miller.
“The meaning of life is that it stops.” Such was the blunt assessment of Franz Kafka.
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people just exist.” What do you make of this claim by Oscar Wilde?
Down through the ages, people have taken a hard look at the world. They’ve taken a good, hard look at life and death. They’ve taken a good, hard look at the way things work in reality. And they’ve struggled with a long-standing dilemma: Does life have meaning—or not?
For the most part, we don’t bother ourselves with this question. We’re too busy just trying to make a living or raising a family. Or perhaps we’ve worked hard for decades and now we just want to enjoy our retirement. We are content to take life one day at a time.
But then something happens. A pandemic erupts that has no end in sight. A death takes place at the hands of a police officer; the act caught on camera. Our world turns upside down, overnight.
These crises trouble us, and for good reason. Whether we want to or not, these problems confront us. These problems change the way we must look at the world and ourselves. We are reminded of the randomness of events in this world. Why do some live and some die? Is it just a matter of chance or fate? Is it simply good luck or misfortune?
It certainly seems that way. It has long, long seemed this way. This is the way that life goes in our Genesis 3 world. Left to our own, there is no avoiding it. Life can seem meaningless, if we are willing to take a long, hard, honest look at things.
Centuries after Ecclesiastes took his last breath, another preacher appeared on the scene. This preacher was even more disturbing than the old one had been. His first sermon was short and to the point. He didn’t mince words: The time has come, he said. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.
This was just the beginning. Come, follow me, he said to some fisherman and to a tax collector.
When questioned about this, he was ready with this reply: I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
This strange man talked like no one before or since:
I AM the light of the world.
Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
I have come that you may have life, and have it in abundance.
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry. And whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Many rejected him at this point. They turned and walked away. But twelve kept following. They had nowhere else to go.
The new preacher was clear about what was at stake. He called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.
This preacher practiced what he preached. When the time came, he picked up his cross. He forfeited his life for the sake of the world. He forfeited his soul for the likes of you and me. It was for our sakes and for our salvation.
The meaning of life to be found is found in One who left heaven. The meaning of life is found in the One foretold by the prophets. The meaning of life is found in the One proclaimed by his apostles. It’s found in the One who continues to ask: Who do you say that I am?