In 586 B.C., Babylonian warriors marched the surviving Hebrew people away from their Jerusalem. The captives gazed through tears as their cherished city was razed by marauding foreigners. They had thought such a thing impossible: "No one could successfully attack God, His people, or His city. And yet, the rising smoke confirmed the ruin inside the breached walls.
And the bitterest blow of all - inflicting a wound that would never quite heal--was the decimation of the Temple, that place where God Himself met with His people. What should they make of this? What does this say about God? All the lights went out for these people. Slaves once more, the loss of all they had known was now compounded by unknown fears of what the future would hold.
You can understand, then, the kind of joy that washed over Israel when 70 years later, after a series of remarkable providences wrought by God, they would arrive back at Jerusalem once more! Immediately, rebuilding began under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. It was a dangerous and difficult task, but the time finally came when long-cherished hopes became reality and the foundation to the new Temple was complete.
Considering the rubble and the rabble that fought against this milestone, Israel was ecstatic.
Ezra 3:10-11 describes the celebration.
What a worship service that must have been! What gladness they must have felt! But the celebration was haunted. Something was missing.
Listen to the next verses in Ezra 3: "But many of the older priests, Levites, and family leaders, who had seen the first temple, wept loudly when they saw the foundation of this house, but many [others] shouted joyfully. The people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shouting from that of the weeping, because the people were shouting so loudly. And the sound was heard far away." (v. 12-13)
Can you see this scene? Shouting in joy; weeping in sorrow, all at once. I would suggest to you that these twin reactions of laughter and weeping form a parable of our lives. For all of us, like Israel, there are milestone moments that fill us with incredible joy; times of such exquisite beauty as to leave us breathless - magical times when all seems right with the world and life passes in slow motion as it etches wonder onto the surface of our souls.
Have you ever felt what I am describing? A crowning achievement is attained after long years of hard work and determination, and you practically burst with joy. A symphony orchestra swells with such power and sweetness that you are carried to the heights. The dawn breaks over the Grand Canyon, painting colors on that canvas of rock that leave you speechless. Your newborn is laid in your arms, and the glimmer in those eyes that are seeing the light of day for the first time pierces you in a way you don't understand. Golden moments like these can come at any time and often enter unannounced, and the mundane is transfigured into the holy. All of us have had these glimpses of wonder that leave us laughing and celebrating and joyous.
And yet, haven't you found like I have that even in the sweetest of times, there are shadows. The splendor doesn't last. Like Moses' face, the glory fades. The thrill wasn't what we thought it would be. The achievement didn't deliver what we expected. The beauty doesn't stay. Oh how we would be Peter, James and John at times, begging the Lord that we might build a house on our personal Mount of Transfiguration so we could stay and bask in the glory. But we are not allowed to.
So our laughter is laced with longings that go unanswered. And our high times are tinged with an incomplete feeling.
What is the explanation for this strange partnership between joy and sorrow on this earthly plane? Why do gold medals leave world class athletes depressed? Why must our shimmering moments flee away, leaving only the ashes of memory? This morning, we're going to begin a journey that will answer these and many more of life's deepest questions. To help us see clearly, let's set down several propositions that will guide our steps.
I. The world is empty-handed
We don't believe this when we're 20. We think, "If I can just go to this school, drive that car, have sex now, hang with those people, wears those clothes, then I'll have what I need. But the passing of the years hammer the truth into us: it doesn't satisfy. The world and all it offers falls short and falls apart. And what we learn from Scripture is that God has designed it that way, that He has built obsolescence into this world. It is wired to fail.
First John 2:16-17 tells us that "everything that belongs to the world - the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one's lifestyle - is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God's will remains forever. If the world isn't going to last, then it has no capacity to give me a lasting answer to my longings.
Romans 8:20-23 explains this further:
"The creation was subjected to futility" (that is, it is empty-handed and transitory; it can't give you what you're seeking), "not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God's children. For we know the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. And not only that, but we ourselves, who have the Spirit as the firstfruits - we also, groan within ourselves, eagerly awaiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies."
Behind the gorgeous sunset and the budding flower, Creation groans. Beyond the most wondrous experiences of our lives, we sigh. It's hollow. You can hear it in our songs; they tell the story of our constant craving for what we can't find. Don't believe the celebrities, with their superficial lives and shallow answers. This world is not enough. To raise this angst even more,
II. Earth leaves us wanting more
Ecclesiastes 3:11 makes plain: "He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also put eternity in their hearts, but man cannot discover the work God has done from beginning to end." God has strewn exquisite beauty all around us, but only on a sample platter. Beauty, says Ecclesiastes, has a time-limit. Just a taste here, a glimpse there, a fleeting touch, and then it's over. God sprinkles just enough eternity over us to make earth feel incomplete. We sense it in our souls--earth's paradises are only appetizers, leaving us hungry for more.
Years ago, a fellow-pastor friend of mine named Art Werner and I took advantage of the never-setting-sun in Anchorage to make a midnight hike up Flat Top Mountain. And when we arrived, winded and happy, we worshipped. Overhead, the clouds formed a ring, like a halo. In the distant bay, whales were playing. It was for me a moment of such glory that I will never forget it. And yet, even there, I knew it wouldn't last. I couldn't hold on to it, bottle it, stay there.
Back in the 15th Century, French mathematician, physicist, and theologian Blaise Pascal captured this in his famous Pensees: "All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end . . . The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man . . . " [Quoted by John Piper, Desiring God, p. 19.] This quest for happiness drives us, but where is it meant to take us?
I mean, if the answer to our longings is not found here, then why did God do this? Is it some kind of cosmic joke, like chasing a rainbow's end for the pot of gold that's not there? John Lennon's song "Nowhere Man" captured this cynicism:
"He's a real nowhere man/ Sitting in his nowhere land/ Making all his nowhere plans/ For nobody. Doesn't have a point of view/ Knows not where he's going to/ Isn't he a bit like me and you?"
Is life just a tragic comedy that means nothing? So the best you can do is follow Solomon's philosophy to eat, drink, and be merry because tomorrow you die. Or could it be that God has brushed the commonplace with the scent of Another Place to lead us to the one place where we can find what we're looking for? Maybe all our unfulfilled longings are meant to drive us to God Himself.
Listen again to Pascal:
"There once was in man a true happiness of which now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself." [Ibid., p. 21] All this leads to one conclusion:
3. God alone is the soul's true home
Everything in the world and in the Word points here. Romans 1:20 makes this connection as well: "From the creation of the world His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse. Ps. 19 tells us that "the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of His hands. Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge. (v. 1-2)
God wants us to find our happiness in Him, the only One who can fill the hollow places of our soul. In fact, God threatens terrible things if we don't find our happiness in Him where our longings will be met. Listen to Deut. 28: "Because you didn't serve the Lord your God with joy and a cheerful heart . . . you will serve your enemies the Lord will send against you, in famine, thirst, nakedness, and a lack of everything. He will place an iron yoke on your neck until He has destroyed you.": (Deut. 28:47-48).
Or hear from David, who called God his "greatest joy" (Ps. 43:4) and said, "Serve the Lord with gladness" (Ps. 100:2) and "Take delight in the Lord" (Ps. 37:4) and who prayed, "Satisfy us in the morning with Your faithful love so that we may shout with joy and be glad all our days" (Ps. 90:14) and promised that complete and lasting happiness is found in God alone: "You reveal the path of life to me; in Your presence is abundant joy; in Your right hand are eternal pleasures. (Ps. 16:11)
Or listen to Jesus who said, "I have spoken these things to you so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. (John 15:11) and promised that in the end, faithful servants would hear the words, "Share your master's joy!" (Matt. 25:21).
Or hear from Paul who commanded all believers to "rejoice in the Lord always" (Phil. 4:4).
Or hear from Augustine, who in 386 A.D. found his freedom from lust by bringing his desires to the Lord. "How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose! . . . You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure. (Quoted by John Piper, The Dangerous Duty of Delight, p. 3.)
Or listen to 1000 missionaries who have left everything for Christ and in the end have said, with David Livingstone, "I never made a sacrifice." ( Ibid., p. 4)
Now, friends, if God is final destination of all who would find true satisfaction and happiness, then . . .
IV. Life's most important pursuit: Seeing God for who He is
Ladies and gentlemen, nothing is more important than this. Jeremiah 9:23-24 says, "This is what the Lord says: The wise must not boast in his wisdom; the mighty must not boast in his might; the rich must not boast in his riches. But the one who boasts should boast in this, that he understands and knows Me - that I am the Lord, showing faithful love, justice, and righteousness on the earth, for I delight in these things. [This is] the Lord's declaration."
For the next several weeks, I want to make this our pursuit: to see God for who He is. We will set out to explore His steadfast love, His justice, His holiness and righteousness and faithfulness in the earth. And I promise you that as we study each successive week, you will hear a "yes" echoing in your soul. "This is it! He's the One I need, the satisfaction for my longings, the answer to my questions, the meaning I've been missing."
But this pursuit is not for the faint-hearted:
"My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, listening closely to wisdom and directing your heart to understanding; furthermore, if you call out to insight and lift your voice to understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it like hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:1-5) Casual Christians will not find this treasure. Any who would venture into the deep with Him must ready themselves to persevere!
In closing, I am mindful of Jeremiah's harrowing observation, true in his day and in ours: "Be horrified at this, heavens; be shocked and utterly appalled. [This is] the Lord's declaration. For My people have committed a double evil: They have abandoned Me, the fountain of living water, and dug cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that cannot hold water. (Jeremiah 2:12-13)