Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 5: 1-16 How to be Happy

What is the recipe for happiness? What would it take for you to be happy? I don’t know how you would answer that question of how to be happy - perhaps a tropical sandy beach and waiter service? It might be going fishing every day and not catching a cold.

‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ may be the American Dream, but it seems that everyone is pursuing happiness in some shape or fashion. The lifestyle magazines in the newsagents are bursting with hints and tips on how to be happy - you really need this diet or that pair of jeans or these curtains - and the TV portrays the picture of happiness if you’re ten years younger or looking good naked or with your garden makeover or your DIY nightmares fixed.

For some, money is the answer. It has been said that ‘poverty is a great enemy to human happiness’ (Samuel Johnson), while a character in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park declares that ‘a large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of. It certainly may secure all the myrtle and turkey part of it.’ If you were to ask people how much money they need to be happy, the answer is likely to be, just a bit more... Yet despite wage increases and the recent boom years, happiness hasn’t increased.

Happiness always appears to be just around the corner - we’re not there yet, but it’s almost within our grasp - once we finish school; once we get a boyfriend or girlfriend; once we’re married; once we have kids; once the kids move out; once we retire... always grasping, but never really finding happiness.

Is it impossible to be truly happy? Despite the claims of our society, it seems that we’re as far away from happiness as ever. Perhaps we’re going about it the wrong way. When you get a new piece of equipment, what do you do first? Do you try to turn it on and get stuck in, or do you read the ‘start guide’ and the instructions? Most men, it seems, plough on ahead, but often we don’t get it right - things will work better if we follow the maker’s plan.

Perhaps we need to hear the Author of life, to see what true happiness will look like. In our reading tonight, we tune in to Jesus as he begins the sermon on the mount. In those opening verses, we quickly see the pattern - nine verses in a row all begin with the same word: blessed. Now that’s a word we hear and use in church, but what does it mean? Some translators use the word ‘happy’ here, which helps us see part of what it points to. You see, we think of happiness being fleeting - it comes and goes, depending on our mood and our circumstances. Being blessed is a deeper happiness, a contentedness, the underlying joy that comes from being approved by God.

Yet what Jesus says is the opposite of what the world imagines when it thinks of happiness. Just look at the first one: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ We think that heaven is for the bold and the brave, the great and the good, the healthy and wealthy. We’re likely to look down on people who are poor in spiritual terms, yet Jesus says (to our shock!) that theirs is the kingdom of heaven - they receive God’s blessing.

Or think of what we teach our kids - to succeed in the world you need to push yourself forward, make the most of your opportunities, get the advantage over your opponent. But Jesus says blessed are the meek; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the peacemakers.

So often you hear people say that they’re just sermon on the mount Christians - if everyone would just live by the sermon on the mount, we’d all be well. The thing is, though, that as Jesus declares the blessings, we realise all too quickly that we’re often not merciful, we’re not hungering for righteousness, we’re not pure in heart. And if we’re not those things, then there must be no blessing for us.

Should we just pick and choose? I remember when we were younger and it was a treat to go to Woolworths in Lisburn, because they had the big jars of pick and mix. All the sweet treats were displayed, and you could take just the ones you liked - no Brazil nut toffees, but extra dolly mixtures. Is this what Jesus presents here? A pick n mix spirituality, take your favourite beatitude and leave the rest?

These aren’t just separate, independent statements. The beatitudes are together for a reason. Earlier we noticed the pattern - ‘blessed are...’ Did you notice that the first one (v3) and the last one (v10) both end in the same way? ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven... blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Why is this? Is it that Jesus ran out of endings and double up, hoping no one would spot it? Why are the first and the last the same? Jesus is saying that everything in between is connected - there is a progression in the blessings:

You see, our starting point in the kingdom is recognising our spiritual poverty. Realising that we are poor in spirit, bankrupt before God. (We’re brought to this by the prompting and conviction of the Holy Spirit). It’s when we come to this realisation that we’re blessed - unlike the church in Laodicea in Rev 3:17 ‘For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.’

As we realise our poverty, we mourn for our sins, for our situation - and God promises comfort in our distress, the forgiveness of our sins. Having our sins forgiven, we’re not confident in ourselves, but rather meek, humble - and promised the blessing of inheriting the earth. As God begins to work in our lives to change us, we begin to desire those things that God desires; to hunger and thirst for righteousness as we seek to crucify our sinful desires and to live in a way that pleases the Lord - again, we’re promised the blessing of being filled.

When we marvel at the grace of God in our lives, we begin to be merciful to others, acting toward them the way that God has acted towards us - thus being sure of God’s blessing in our lives. As we turn from sin, our hearts are purified, made new, and we are blessed in the knowledge that we will see God, that we will be with him in eternity. We’ll display the family likeness, as we seek peace and make peace; and even when persecuted, that happiness, that joy, that blessedness cannot be removed - because we know that the kingdom of heaven is ours.

This isn’t just a wee bit of fancy poetry; this is the declaration of God’s blessing on those who follow in his way; who recognise Jesus as the king. As we begin this time of Lent, it’s a useful season to reflect on our spiritual walk. Perhaps these beatitudes are new to you; you’re still caught up in the pursuit of happiness according to the ways of the world - my prayer is that you will find true happiness in the way of the Lord as Jesus outlines here.

Yet if you’re here on a wet Wednesday night, I’m assuming that most of us have already started in the way of blessing. These Wednesday nights will be a good opportunity for us to reflect on the Lord’s mercy to us, but also to hear the Lord’s call to keep going, as we love and serve and obey him. To be reminded again of those blessings that are ours; to be encouraged to keep going when the way is hard; when others exploit you and take advantage of your meekness and mercy; when you’re tempted to throw in the towel and indulge in those temptations; or when you again are confronted with your poverty of spirit and you beat yourself up over your sinfulness.

Hear the blessings that you have received - hear the approval that is yours in Christ, and look for that joy that is surely yours, whatever your circumstances or struggles.

I don’t have to tell you - but the Christian life is not easy. Look at verse 11. Jesus moves from ‘blessed are those’ to ‘blessed are you’ - he’s addressing his disciples (2), those who will face reviling and persecution and evil words. Just as Jesus suffered, so he calls us to suffer - in the same way the true people of God have suffered in the past. The disciples follow in the path of the prophets; and we too are in their line, the people of God in the midst of a hostile world.

But one thing is sure - God’s blessing in our lives will be noticeable - the joy will be evident to all; Jesus describes his disciples as salt and light - both very obvious and hard to miss. My brother-in-law made a curry the other evening, and while we didn’t taste it, all who had eaten it said that there was too much salt - it made its presence felt.

In the same way, a city on a hill cannot be hidden - as those around us see our lives, they’ll spot that we’re somehow different. In the world’s lifelong pursuit of happiness, which never really satisfies; we have the answer - a joy that naturally overflows, a testimony to the blessings of Christ and the glory of God. So keep going, and if I may say it, keep glowing, as the light of Christ shines in us and through us. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Ash Wednesday 22nd February 2012.

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