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Happy New Year!

Happiness comes from knowing that God works through every moment of life.


Have you ever wondered how many seconds in this year you'll be unhappy? Have you ever thought how much can happen in a second? When you say, "Happy New Year!" you're saying a remarkable thing. It only takes a second for your life to be totally changed or totally ended. In a year full of seconds, anything can happen. If we're going to talk about having a happy new year, there are a few things we need to bear in mind.

We're not always sure what happiness is.

For a lot of people, happiness depends on their happenings. If their happenings don't happen the way they want them to happen, they're unhappy! Some people spend their time organizing their happenings to make sure everything happens the way they want it to happen. The assumption is this: if they can make everything happen the way they want, they'll be happy. There are two problems with that: you can't do it; even if you could, you'd probably be bored.

Alexander the Great got everything his way. He conquered everything and then sat down to cry, because he was so young and there was nothing left to conquer. For people who get everything they want, life is good. They have everything, and they don't know what to do with it.

The Greeks had a word for happiness: makarios. This word described what they perceived as being the experience of the gods. The Greeks had lots of gods, and the gods were sort of magnified human beings; they had all the failings of human beings and all the strengths. For Greeks, the idea of the gods was that they had everything made. The word makarios found its way into the New Testament, and it is translated "blessed" or "happy."

Jesus picked up on this word, and said some stuff that will absolutely blow your mind. Listen to what he said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.

Jesus is saying that happiness, or makarios—having everything just wonderful—comes not from having everything; it can come through being poor, through mourning, through hungering, through thirsting. It can come through being persecuted for righteousness' sake. That's exactly the opposite of what we think is the road to happiness.

So Happy New Year! But remember two things. Define happiness correctly. Happiness is not just getting all your happenings to happen the way you want them to happen. Secondly, make certain you're thinking through all the possibilities of this year. You've got to reckon that you may not always be able to control them.

There's a time for everything.

With that in mind, let's turn to a passage from Ecclesiastes. "There's a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven:"

a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace."

In Hebrew, this is poetry. Translators picked up on the repetition of the word "time." There's a rhythm to it that's not accidental. It gives the reader a feeling of time going on relentlessly. The poet says there is a year full of seconds stretching ahead of us. When we begin to think of being happy in this new year, we've got to reckon that this year will be full of inevitable and irresistible events.

One of the great myths about humanity is that we are in charge. It is a most pernicious myth, because nothing could be further from the truth. I can prove it to you very simply. The second verse of this passage says, "There's a time to be born and a time to die." Those are the two biggest events of our experience, and both of them are totally outside our control. We are not masters of our own destiny. You were initiated by birth, and you had nothing to do with it. You'll be terminated by death, and probably you'll have nothing to do with it. Between initiation and termination is perpetuation, and there's very little you can do about that.

There's a wonderful segment in Scripture describing God. It says, "God, in whose hand your breath is." It gives me the shivers. I have all kinds of pictures of God, but now I have a picture of God gently massaging windpipes. My breath is in his hands. All he needs to do is say, "Okay, Briscoe, time's up." He gently applies pressure, and I'm through. That keeps me in perspective. Every single moment, I am perpetuated because God graciously withholds pressure on the windpipe, and he continues to graciously give me life. All life's experiences are inevitable and irresistible, coming one second at a time. You are caught in the middle.

Scripture says there's a time to be born and a time to die. Verse 3 mentions a time to kill and a time to heal. There is a monotonous regularity in life, as well as these anomalies. Birth and death couldn't be further apart, yet they're part and parcel of life; killing and healing couldn't be further apart, yet they're part and parcel of life.

The Old Testament had rules about capital punishment, but it also had a lot to say about healing. Life, as far as the Old Testament was concerned, meant that in some instances people were executed because of what they'd done. At other times people were healed. That's life. It is full of extremes.

There's also a time to tear down and a time to build up. Sometimes you get into a relationship and discover something fundamentally wrong. There comes a time when you have to tear it down for the good of everyone. At other times relationships need hard work to build them up. Some relationships look identical on the surface, but further experience reveals that they require totally opposite responses.

There's a time to weep and a time to laugh. Scripture tells us that God has given us all things richly to enjoy. He wants us to be a celebrating people. "Rejoice in the Lord always," we're told. People who have the idea that God is a spoilsport have done a disservice to God. There are things so wrong about us that the honorable and noble thing to do is to weep. We need to know when to celebrate and when to weep. Sometimes the things that make us laugh or cry are outside of us. They will come relentlessly, and you'll never know from which extreme they'll come. Happy New Year!

There's a time to mourn and a time to dance. There's a time to scatter stones and a time to gather. That's an interesting one. That's probably the most difficult part of this particular passage. Theologians have come up with various theories, but let me suggest the simplest one.

In Old Testament days, when soldiers came in and conquered a city, they totally destroyed the city walls. They took the rubble from the destroyed walls and purposely scattered it over the arable lands so that the inhabitants couldn't start growing crops there again. Other times it was necessary to go into an area and gather the scattered stones to build secure defenses.

Some things come along, and it is imperative to challenge them in the name of God and destroy them. At other times, there is so much demolition going on in lives that we must patiently and carefully build. We find ourselves in tension. What should I be doing at this moment? Should I be scattering? Or should I be gathering?

That's life, folks. Happy New Year!

It only takes a second for irresistible, inevitable circumstances to occur. If we're trying to organize these irresistible, inevitable circumstances—if our happiness depends on things happening the way we want them to happen—we have our work cut out for us. How on earth are we going to make sure we never mourn and always dance? How can we make sure we always laugh but never weep? Unfortunately, we can't do it.

Burdens direct us to God.

In Ecclesiastes 3:9–10, we read, "What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men." Now the writer has a very keen eye for what's going on, and he has a very deep faith. He's a fascinating fellow, because he marries a jaundiced, skeptical view of life to a deep faith in God. That's a healthy combination. As he does this, he says: I have looked at the way people are living, and I've looked at the way I've lived my life. There are a lot of inevitable, irresistible things happening there, and this is really burdensome to men.

What's the nature of the burden? There are things we cannot regulate, and things from which we cannot escape. Why would God put that burden upon us? Because God allows the circumstances of life to help us recognize there is something greater and grander and richer about life. That burden is upon us in order to make us aware of the transcendent. In verse 14 the writer explains, "I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him."

When people recognize the frailty of their humanity and the limitations of their own ingenuity, when men and women recognize they cannot regulate or escape the irresistible, inevitable factors of life, God is waiting. He says: Hey, look this way a minute. How about me? How about recognizing that if there's any sense, if there's any rhyme, if there's any reason to life, it's because there is a transcendent God who is working in these circumstances so that the greater good might be resolved.

If nothing transcends the circumstances of life, if this life is all we've got and we can only find happiness by manipulating and escaping irresistible, inevitable events, we'll wear ourselves out. That's the tragedy of our society today. We are becoming blatant secularists in outlook. We have forgotten that we can turn to God and learn to revere him. We can't handle ourselves in the immensity and the awesomeness of life. We cannot escape or regulate this burden. And that's just the point. The reason for the burden is that we might learn to revere God.

God has done two other things. Verse 11 says, "He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end." There are two reasons, then, why we would turn to him: God's Word tells us there is a beauty in all the things that happen in time, and God has set eternity in people's hearts.

When I begin to recognize that God can work in and through and despite all the irresistible, inevitable things of life, I realize the possibility of a deeply rooted sense of well-being far greater than the superficial happiness that comes from having things happen the way you want them to happen. If I can learn to revere God and begin to recognize that he can bring a certain beauty into all the circumstances of life, there's hope for a happy new year.

We're told that God has set eternity in people's hearts. This is a remarkable statement. C. S. Lewis wrote that humankind, in every part of the world, has a sense of the numinous. The numinous is that indefinable something that gives people a sense of awe. In every tribal group people have a sense of something bigger and greater than themselves. Some people may live 50 or 60 years and never sense it. But sooner or later something happens, and in a second they're awestruck.

The second thing Lewis points out is that every human being has within him or her a built-in sense of morality. Every human being can differentiate between what is and what ought to be. When you talk about the difference of what is and what ought to be, you're talking about a sense of morality. Little kids have it. You see two little kids playing, and suddenly one of them is howling tearfully, "It's not fair! It's not fair!" He's talking about morality: what is ought not to be. You don't teach a sense of morality. It is intrinsic.

Lewis says that when you find in a human being a sense of the numinous and at the same time a sense of morality, you find a peculiar thing: that man eventually will identify that which strikes awe in him and that which gives him a sense of morality as one and the same thing. When you recognize there is an Other, an awe-inspiring something from which a sense of morality originates, you're very close to understanding why people in every area of the globe are incorrigibly religious. It doesn't mean they're Christians or Buddhists or Muslims. It just means that they have to believe there's something bigger and grander than themselves. There's something outside themselves.

That is not an accident. God has put eternity into people's hearts. Not only has he put eternity in people's hearts, but he has also locked them into a burden of life. If we begin to see through God's eyes, we recognize the possibility of something beautiful being in all that he allows to come. When you begin to put that together, it's as if you are mixing the ingredients of a cake. You've got them all there, and when you mix them with faith, you begin to bake something very sweet. When I wish you a happy new year, this is what I mean.


I trust the New Year will give you the opportunity to recognize that whatever the irresistible, inevitable realities of life may bring, the Transcendent One who has given you a sense of awe and morality is near. God has given you a sense of something bigger and grander and greater than yourself. He is allowing all these things to come into your life. He won't allow you to escape or to regulate them. You can begin to recognize your own finitude compared with his infinity. You will recognize your own limitations and see him as illimitable. As you learn to revere him, so you take what comes. It only takes a second. As you take it from him, you bow humbly in worship and discover joy.

If this sounds a little cold and callous, let me remind you of one thing: God laid aside his glory, stepped down from his throne, and assumed our humanity. He lived with our pain and circumstances and learned to laugh and mourn, weep and dance. God shared our life. God is not remote and untouched. He is a God who loves us so much he comes right alongside and says: I understand; I care; I know. Trust me. Revere me and discover in me real joy.

Those are the ingredients of a happy New Year, as I understand them from Scripture. Happy New Year!

For the outline of this sermon, go to "Happy New Year!"

Stuart Briscoe is minister-at-large of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and author of several books, including What Works When Life Doesn't (Howard Books).

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Sermon Outline:


I. We're not always sure what happiness is

II. There's a time for everything

III. Burdens direct us to God