Below is the text of the sermon I preached on the only source of true happiness in this life, the hope offered through faith in Jesus Christ.
I am so fortunate that God and my students blessed me with the opportunity to preach this farewell sermon. Thank you all!
The Class of 2012 will forever hold a special place in my heart. Though I only taught some of you, each of you have touched me in some way or another. Together we faced good times and bad times, fair weather and foul. We faced many challenges and changes here over the past three years--changes in schedules, faculty, and even administration, challenges from the tornadoes last year to the unexpected loss of loved ones. We faced these difficult times together, praying for, comforting, and supporting one another. Through the ups and the downs, the good times and bad, we became more than teacher and students. We became friends.
Six years ago I came to Vilonia, to teach school for the first time. Before that, 20 years of adventures molded me, taught me and changed me, but it took these past six to learn what I hope to leave you with tonight.
As you embark on this next leg of your journey through life, I want you to know what I didn’t know at your age. I want you to know the true source of happiness in life. I want you to know what it’s going to take for you to climb life’s hills and ford life’s rivers. I want you to know what makes the difference between those who fall and never rise and those who continue to climb to their feet and push on in the most dire of circumstances.
Most of you have a plan for your life once you leave Vilonia High School. Some of you plan to go to college, some to work, but most of you have an idea where you want to be in one year, five years, ten years or more. Some of you will follow that plan to the end. Others will encounter unforeseen obstacles and have to adjust, but still reach your planned destination. Still others will find themselves on a course completely different than that which you planned.
One thing you can be sure of though, whether you wind up in the first category, the last, or those in between, you will hit bumps along the road. No one, rich or poor, Christian or atheist, man or woman, will make it through this life without hard times. For some, the going will be tougher than for others, but all of us get bruised along the way. In John 16:33 Jesus says, "In this world, you will have trouble." He doesn’t say, "You will have trouble if…" He says you WILL have trouble.
You will face hard times in life. Making straight A’s won’t keep you from it. Doing good deeds won’t keep you from it. Going to college won’t keep you from it. Being a Christian won’t keep you from it. NOTHING will keep you from hitting the potholes of life’s roads. In this world you WILL face hard times.
My own years are marked by good times and bad, ups and downs, hills and valleys. Good health and death loved ones, money in the bank and not so much as two dimes to rub together, full cupboards and bare. Even in our time together I’ve experienced the lowest of lows and the highest of highs. You stood by me last year through my life’s most violent storm. Tonight I stand before you, with my youngest daughter among you, on one of my brightest days.
I am a blessed and happy man.
After all we’ve been through, many don’t understand. People tell me, "I couldn’t," or "I wouldn’t do what you do, or be where you are." They would understand if I completely collapsed, if I fell apart, if I crashed and burned. They tell me I’m strong…
They couldn’t be more wrong.
What you see, what you call strength, is not of me. Sixteen months ago I was in a tailspin, falling fast, void of any sign of strength, powerless, weak, despondent. I didn’t know what was right, wrong, best or worst. The toughest trial, the strongest storm of my life had descended upon me and I didn’t know if I would make it. I didn’t know if I could keep living, let alone keep teaching.
That’s when I realized I am not strong at all. I had spent my entire life trying to be strong, trying to appear strong. Most thought I was. I thought I was. I never asked for help, not from man, not even from God. I bulled my way through life’s highs and lows for more than 40 years. I had almost everyone fooled, even myself. Then came the hill I couldn’t climb. Instead I was falling, reaching, grasping for anything that might stop my descent.
God reached out and grabbed me. Jesus Christ reached down, grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me from my despair. He gave me hope, hope that all I’d lost I will have again, not in this life, not on this Earth, but after, in Heaven, what is now lost to me down here will be with me for eternity.
You see, it’s easy to be happy when times are good, when your pockets are full, when you and your family are healthy, when the sun is shining. But if that’s all you have, it’s not enough. It won’t carry you up life’s steepest hills. It won’t quench your thirst in a drought, or make you full in a famine. Without hope, there is no peace and any happiness is only temporary, fleeting, waiting to vanish with the next strong wind.
The Good News is you can have that hope, and the peace it brings with it. That hope can be yours. It’s there for each and every one of you. Some already have it. Some of you don’t, but you know how to get it. Others may be wondering, "What in the world are you talking about?"
When I mentioned John 16:33 a minute ago, I didn’t quote the entire verse. I didn’t let you hear it all. What I left off, was the promise, the promise Jesus made that gets us down the roughest roads, the promise of hope, the promise that no matter how bad things get, they will get better. Maybe here, maybe not, but they will be better. The promise was this, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."
Take heart! Have hope! And in that hope, you will find the peace that surpasses all understanding. The peace that lets you smile when times are tough because you know there’s a rainbow coming after the storm, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, there are better times ahead.
That hope, that peace doesn’t come from money, it doesn’t come from family and friends, and it doesn’t come from anything on this earth.
Throughout my life I’ve seen too many wealthy, powerful people fall too hard to believe there is enough money to buy happiness. I’ve seen family and friends destroy each other and wondered if they would even pick the flesh from their very bones. I’ve watched powerful people crash to the ground.
Sports stars, movie stars, popular musicians and powerful politicians so often seem to have it all—fame and fortune, everything most people think would make them happy. Still, one can’t turn on the news without seeing one or another of these embroiled in some scandal. They turn to drugs, affairs, or any of a dozen destructive behaviors that wreck their lives, bring them down. They go from riches to rags in the blink of an eye, from being adored to being despised.
Why? Why wasn’t all they had enough to satisfy? Better yet, after watching so many with so much, fall so fast and hard, why do so many still see fame and fortune as the key to happiness? Why do so many place their faith, hang their hope, on that which Jesus said “moths and vermin destroy.”
Follow their lead and you’ll follow their demise.
True happiness, the joy that makes us smile not only when the sun shines, but sustains us through the storms of this life, is available to each and every one of you. In Philippians 4:12, the apostle Paul said, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want."
That’s what I want for each and every one of you, to learn that secret of being content, to have the joy in your heart that keeps you going when others quit, that keeps you swimming when others drown, that keeps you climbing when others fall, that keeps you running when others faint.
Two thousand years ago, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ to Earth—to live, to teach, and to die. He became sin who knew no sin. He came to Earth, God in the form of man. He walked among man for more than 30 years, teaching, healing, and performing miracles so others would believe. Then He paid the ultimate price, a violent and painful death on the Cross, paying the price for all our sin so that we can have the promise of eternal life in Heaven, where "He shall wipe the tears from their eyes," where "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” Jesus said, “Everyone who believes may have eternal life."
It’s okay to pursue your dreams. It’s okay to make money. Just be careful that you don’t hang all your hopes on things of this Earth, things that rust and decay, things that can be stolen or die. If you want to achieve real peace, real happiness, the joy that can sustain you through whatever life throws at you, seek Jesus Christ, and invite Him to reign in your life, study His word, and develop a relationship with Him.
I close tonight with verses 7—9 of Psalm 16, "7 I will praise the LORD, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. 8 I keep my eyes always on the LORD. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. 9 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure,"
Seek Jesus. Praise Him. Make Him Lord of your life. He will lead you, straighten your paths. Even as you sleep, He will guide you. Place your hope in Him and you will not be led astray, even when times are tough. That’s when you find true happiness, joy that isn’t there without that hope. That’s when you will shine with joy and have the peace that surpasses understanding.
My friends, as you leave from here, go with God. I wish you all the very best, and I pray you will seek Him who brings true happiness and the peace and joy to carry you through the good times and bad.
If you don't know Jesus as your personal savior, if you're missing the faith, hope, and love written about here, if you want the peace that we as Christians have in our lives, please visit our Got Jesus? page for step-by-step instructions on how to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.