We all want to be happy. And I’m not talking about fleeting or trivial happiness, momentary pleasures that come and go. I’m talking about that deep abiding happiness or joy that come when we know that nothing, in life or in death, can separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. I’m talking about the happiness of seeing life from an eternal perspective, knowing that we are a part of something so much bigger than ourselves and what we see before us. We all want this happiness. We were created for this happiness, whether we are completely aware of it or not.
Today, using the scriptures and insights from John Wesley, I’m going to be bold enough to tell you how to get it. The key to happiness is to believe in one God. Belief in one God yields true happiness. And when I say “belief,” I’m not talking about some kind of intellectual affirmation here (head); I’m talking about giving our lives in devotion to one God.
But here’s the problem. We are so tempted by so many other gods, and by “gods” I mean forces or things that we put our trust in to give meaning to our lives – money, power, beauty, nation, family, party, church, another person, or our own desires – all can become a “god” to us. But it just doesn’t work. We find ourselves “tossed to and fro,” as the Apostle Paul says, blown about by every new wind. When we are scattered in this way, happiness is just not possible. Our lives are only filled with more stress.
Last week we heard Jesus say that we “cannot serve God and money.” Notice that he doesn’t say that we “should not” serve God and money. He says we “cannot.” It is just not possible. We will turn to one or the other. To serve money -- or any other so-called god – will force us to turn against the one true God. Jesus also says to seek first the kingdom of God and then everything else falls into place. Jesus wants us to put our priorities in proper order, so that we just might be happy. The ancient saying is so true: “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God.” Happiness will not come from any other.
I think of the story of Moses asking for God’s name on Mount Sinai. Moses, as he was receiving the 10 commandments centered in the worship of one God, wanted to know the name of this God, and God answered. The name given is “The Lord.” “I am the Lord your God.” In the original language it is “Yahweh.” And then Yahweh defines this name. Yahweh says, “The Lord your God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, faithfulness, and forgiveness.” (Exodus 34:5-6).
This definition is found in Exodus 34 and is repeated often in the scriptures. It is a master text for us, giving us a summary of what faith is all about. John Wesley called this the essence of true religion. God’s mercy, grace, faithfulness, forgiveness, in a word, “love,” comes to us on its way to others. (Demonstrate the movement from God to us outward to the world). In this master text we learn who God is and that we are called to reflect this same holiness into the world. That is the essence of what we might call “true religion.”
But, in the midst of so many gods calling for our attention, this is not easy. This mission gets so clouded in the world where we are pulled in so many other directions. Today, I see so many Christians who seem to be angry. That’s the way faith is expressed. And here we learn that the very name of God means, “slow to anger.” Today, I see so many Christians focused on judgment of others and protecting ourselves and our rights. And here we learn that the very name of God means, “mercy and grace.” Today, I see so many Christians hell bent – yes hell bent – on supporting theological and political positions that divide and bring harm to others, promoting a kind of self-righteousness. And the very name of God means “abounding in steadfast love, faithfulness and forgiveness.” True religion, true holiness, is not found in any “god,” in any party or position, that does not live up to this name.
In the scripture passage we heard this morning, Moses is speaking to the Israelites right before they were to enter the Promised Land. They had been in the wilderness for 40 years, journeying from Egypt, and now they had arrived. They were at the door of the Promised Land, waiting to enter, eager to settle down in the land flowing with milk and honey. But before they could enter, they had to do one last thing. Do you know what it was? They had to listen to a sermon. Moses had something to say. And what he tells them is this: Don’t forget. Remember what God has done for you.
He says, "In the land where you are going you shall eat food without scarcity, your herds will multiply, your silver and gold will multiply. You will live in a good land. But be aware, lest you forget, that it is God who gives you these blessings. Don't let your hearts become proud. Don't say it is my power that made me this wealth. Remember the Lord your God.”
This warning is so strong. It seems that in times of abundance, these are the times when we are least thankful and least aware of God. We take things for granted. We start to think that we deserve it all. We become focused on our own protection. We lose our way in a maze of false gods, included turning ourselves and our desires into our god. And happiness fades. Stress increases. And Jesus weeps.
There is a poem from the 17th century that expresses it well. The poem is by George Herbert and it is titled “Gratefulness.” Just to set it up, the poet builds upon the fact that we have so much. The poet invites us to actually ask for one more thing. The poet says:
“Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, - a grateful heart…
Not thankful when it pleaseth me...
But such a heart whose pulse may be
That is the “one more thing” that I invite you to ask for this week. “One thing more, a grateful heart” -- a grateful heart that leads to goodwill in the world, a grateful heart that leads to a life that reflects the character of the one true God, a life that illuminates God’s mercy and grace, slowness to anger, and abundance of love. In the midst of so much abundance this week, as we celebrate thanksgiving, ask for one more thing. Amen.