The college faculty gathered for their weekly meeting. A professor of archeology brought with him a lamp recently unearthed in the Middle East. It was reported to contain a genie, who, when the lamp was rubbed would appear and grant one wish.
A professor of philosophy was particularly intrigued. He grabbed the lamp and rubbed it vigorously. Suddenly a genie appeared and made him an offer. He could choose one of three rewards: wealth, wisdom, or beauty. Without hesitating, the philosophy professor selected wisdom. “Done!” said the genie and disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
All the other faculty members turned toward the professor, who sat surrounded by a halo of light. At length, one of his colleagues whispered, “Say something. What wise insight do you now have?”
The professor, much wiser now, sighs and says, “I should have taken the money.”
Making right life choices is something that we must do practically every day of our lives. Sometimes with the perspective of hindsight we realize that we made wrong choices. Sometimes we look back and see that the choice was a great choice. The question as we look into this coming year is how will we make better choices? What can we do to choose better and have fewer regrets? In today’s gospel reading we see John the Baptizer with Jesus. Actually in all four gospels the baptism of Jesus by John is referenced. But it is only in Matthew’s gospel that we see John’s reluctance to baptize Jesus. Jesus seems to know exactly what he is doing—John the Baptist was confused; he said to Jesus, “Wait, I should be baptized by you!” But Jesus really does know what he is doing and the Father puts his stamp of approval on the action by what he says and by sending the Holy Spirit in the form of dove to the event. It is this event in fact that kicks off the ministry of Jesus. At this point, Jesus prepares himself to go into the public ministry that defines his life. Jesus goes from point A to point B to point C and so on with apparently no hesitation. How does he do it?
I think part of the answer is found in what we want out of our lives; what goals do we hope to have accomplished by the time we die. Some years ago now I read an article by two researchers, Jennifer Aaker and Emily Smith. The article was about the different life goals that people pursue. In our society and perhaps in the West altogether the pursuit of happiness is a major goal in life. What is interesting is that what these two researchers found was that people who pursued happiness ended up being disappointed. If you think about it, in order to pursue happiness a person needs to focus upon self. In the pursuit of happiness people need to become concerned about their own personal pleasures. What make ME feel good? What do I like to do best? What these researchers found was that if people did not pursue happiness but instead pursued meaning that these people ended up being in fact happier. What is the difference? Well, in order to understand the difference one has to figure out what life activities have more meaning, more importance. Meaningful activities tend to be activities that are beyond one’s self, that is, activities that are not just about me or for me. The researchers reviewed hundreds of empirical papers from the growing body of research on meaningfulness — as well as the writings of great philosophical thinkers— and found that a meaningful life is one that connects and contributes to something beyond the self. This might be one’s family, work, nature, or God. But because meaning involves investing in something bigger, investing in the lives of others, the meaningful life is often characterized by effort, struggle, and sometimes stress.
In two studies tracking over 400 Americans and published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers studied the type of people who fell into two groups — high on happiness but low on meaningfulness, and high on meaning but low on happiness —and found important differences in how they led their lives. Those in the ‘I’m focusing on being happy’ group tended to avoid difficult or tiring entanglements; these people described themselves as self-oriented, and spent more time thinking about how they felt in the moment. In contrast, those people who were focusing on meaning in life spent more time helping others, being with friends or taking care of children. These people spent time thinking about the past, present and future. Meaningful lives tend to share three features; these three features first: Purpose —the knowing what you need or want to do. Second is comprehension — comprehension is the knowing why your goals and activities are important. And the third is mattering. Mattering is the understanding of why your input, why what you do is important. When people say their lives are meaningful it’s because they feel their lives have purpose, coherence, and worth.
And it is this that brings us back to our Gospel text and then to ourselves. You see Jesus above all else, lived a meaningful life. He certainly was not focused on a happy life; He was not focused on himself. He approached his life investing in something bigger. He said on numerous occasions that he came to serve, not to be served. He came to be a light to those around him. He came to give his life as a ransom for many. He came to make a difference. And he did. One might think because of all this that Jesus would have had a rather depressing life. After all when one is coming to serve and coming to be a sacrifice and all that it might seem as though one would have a sad life. Yet it says in Scriptures that God anointed Jesus with the oil of gladness above everyone else. Jesus was a joyful man; He was a man who had and has more joy than anyone else. We are also told that for the joy that was set before him, he endured even the cross! So not only did Jesus have joy on earth but he has joy in heaven.
If you read the Bible from cover to cover you will see that God never tells us to pursue happiness. But what we do see is that throughout the Scriptures He calls us to serve God and serve others. Jesus calls us to ‘pick our cross and follow Him. You and I have been called us to pursue a life that is way beyond ourselves. And through these calls God wants us to find meaning for our lives! God has not called us to pursue happiness, but interestingly the life to which he has called us; the life of service, brings joy. And there is a profound difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is dependent upon whether or not I am physically well and satisfied; joy on the other hand comes with the knowledge of a job done well, it comes with the satisfaction of seeing progress; it comes with the knowing that God is pleased with one’s efforts.
We all make choices every day. It is important is to make right choices so that we do not regret what we have chosen like the professor did. What are you and I pursuing? Are we pursuing happiness or are we pursuing something more meaningful? God calls us to pursue a life of service and meaning. At St. Andrew’s we have a variety of options for service. I encourage you to find your place to serve and find meaning and joy this year. Amen