Sunday, July 03, 2011

Sermon: How to be happy Psalm 119:1-8

Are you happy? The boys and girls might be happy because they’ve got off school; you might be happy because you’re looking forward to a holiday. But are you really happy this morning?

It’s a question that many today are trying to answer, in all sorts of different ways. You might be dissatisfied with life as it is, frustrated with circumstances, overpowered by problems. It’s why you work hard and play hard; why you throw yourself into your family or friends; why you keep the house just so; dash from one party to the next, updating Facebook and Twitter every five minutes; invest so much in your clothes and hair and beauty. Happiness is just out of your reach - so near and yet so far.

Being happy seems to be something that’s here now, and quickly disappears - when the credit card bill lands on the doorstep; or when the hangover kicks in. How can we be happy? Where do we find it? How do we keep it? As we’ll see, we might just find happiness in a most surprising place - a place that many refuse to look; the last place you might think of looking.

This morning we’re beginning a mini series in Psalm 119. It’s a mini series because, well, have you seen the length of it?! 176 verses, it’s the longest Psalm, and the longest chapter in the Bible. Had ... not stopped at verse 8, they would still be going to read right through it. But don’t be put off by its length - as you might notice, it’s divided into sections of eight verses each - more manageable chunks.

Each of those eight verse sections begin with the same letter (in Hebrew, of course, not English!) - as you can see at the head of each bit. Aleph, then Beth, and so on. It’s like an A-Z psalm, a carefully worked piece of poetry, and it’s all about God’s word, the Bible. If you look over it quickly, you’ll find the same words repeated throughout - law, testimonies, precepts, statutes, commandments, rules, word and promises.

But you might be asking yourself - what has that got to do with being happy? Have a look at the very first word of the Psalm - what is that word? ‘Blessed’. Blessed is a churchy word, isn’t it? It’s one of those words we talk about and use, but what does it really mean? It’s all about being happy, receiving from the Lord. True happiness comes from receiving from the Lord, from being blessed. And who is the one who is blessed? What does it say about the blessed? ‘Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD.’

How do you hear that? How do you read that? Is it saying that you’ll be happy if you manage to keep all God’s laws and never do anything wrong? If so, then none of us will ever be happy, we should just stop reading right now, close our Bibles and go home. We could never do it, if it depends on us. If blessing depends on us first being perfect, then none of us will be blessed.

Remember, blessing is something God does, something God gives. Do you remember Psalm 32? It begins with the same word: ‘Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.’ Psalm 119 is saying the same thing - the one who is blessed is the one who is blameless because of what God has done. Yes, we have sinned, but if we have come to trust in the Lord, then our way is blameless, because our sins are gone.

Psalm 119 is not about us trying our hardest to get ourselves into God’s good book. It’s about God accepting us by grace, and giving us his good book to live it out. It’s grace, not effort; grace, not good works; grace, not achievement - but we cannot just be saved and stuck. Do you see how that verse continues? ‘Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD.’ So those who are blameless are the people who will walk in God’s law (his teaching Torah - the word describes the first five books of the Bible, not just laws). When you’re saved, God calls you on a journey, to walk his way the rest of your life.

Do you see how this continues through the rest of 2 and 3? Keeping God’s testimonies is to seek him with your whole heart; doing no wrong is to walk in his ways. The one who is blessed, the one who is happy, is the one who is blameless, going God’s way.

It’s a statement of fact - it’s a declaration of God’s mind on how to be happy, how to be blessed. It’s the same kind of declaration as we find right at the start of the book of Psalms: ‘Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD.’ (Ps 1:1-2)

How can we be sure that there is happiness in the law of the Lord? Think for a moment of those other things people chase after to find happiness - and how temporary they really are. A fancy car? It’ll get dinged or crashed or rust. Drink? It’ll damage your liver. House? A burglar could break in. Beauty? You can’t stop the march of time. Parties and friends? Some day you could be lonely - maybe even in a crowd. Money? You can’t take it with you.

In contrast, the law of the LORD is perfect, his word is a lamp to our feet, no matter what we’re going through. As we read elsewhere, All flesh is like grass - the flower fades, the grass withers, but the word of our God stands forever. His word endures because God endures. The God who blesses endures, so his blessing endures.

God says in his word how to be blessed - by being blameless, having our sins washed away through trusting in his word. Our response must be the same as the writer of the Psalm - to take God at his word, and seek to walk in his ways. Do you see how verses 1-3 are speaking about God (it’s all he and him). From verse 4 on, the writer speaks directly to God himself as he responds to the offering of blessing, of happiness. His response goes from verse 4 right through to verse 176, as he speaks to God about his word.

In St Elizabeth’s we are rightly concerned with reading and understanding the Bible. The staff team and volunteers put a lot of time and effort into studying the text to see what it says. That’s right and proper. But if we only go that far, then it’s a waste of time. You see, it’s not just an English Comprehension class we’re running on Sundays and midweek. We devote ourselves to the word in order to get to know the Lord who spoke it, and so that we actually do what it says.

This is what we find in Psalm 119. ‘Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!’ The writer desires to do what God commands, to please the Lord, so he asks God to help him do that. Do we have the same passion for holiness, the same desire to obey the Lord, to get to know the Lord better?

As we will see - when we seek to live for the Lord, everything is not suddenly sweetness and light. It’s harder to live for the Lord than to live for yourself. That’s why we need the Lord and his word, to help us live in a hostile world - it reminds us of God’s standards and values when we’re so immersed in the values of the world.

I want to challenge you over the next few weeks to take some time and read Psalm 119 right through. See how the writer is delighted with God and his word - and ask yourself, can I say these words myself? Can I echo what the Psalm is saying?

How to be happy - being blessed by the Lord is the path to true happiness, and walking in his way. He makes us blameless, he turns us around from going our own way to walking in his way. It’s no wonder that as Jesus begins to teach his disciples, he also begins with similar declarations of blessedness - ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

Are you happy this morning?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 3rd July 2011.

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