The Source of Happiness – February 11, 2007
Jeremiah 17:5-10, Luke 7:12-26
February 11, 2007
I hope you recognize this reading as Luke’s version of “The Sermon on the Mount.” Over the years, some have called this “The Sermon on the Plain,” suggesting it was a different event. But I think that’s wrong. Jesus was up on the mountaintop with his disciples, as Luke tells us. Then he “came down to a level place.” But he was still on the mountain! He just didn’t come all the way down.
There are also a few differences in the way Luke tells of this event. His version is shorter. And in some ways it’s more to the point. Now, you might think, “If this is the same event, why the differences?” Did Luke remember it differently? And(!) does this make a discrepancy in the Biblical account? You know there are people would love for the Bible to be inconsistent or contradictory. But I don’t think so.
Think of it this way. You might go home today and say, “The minister said in his sermon, ‘Some have called this “The Sermon on the Plain,” but I think that’s wrong.’” That would be an accurate statement, wouldn’t it? I did say that! But that doesn’t mean that’s all I said here today. Does that make sense? Luke can tell a shorter, more concise version of this, but he’s not implying that these are all the words that Jesus said. That’s the kind of think we have to consider when we look at the Biblical record.
I’d like us to look at a couple of those differences here. Because I think some of the things Luke said in his account are important in understanding the nature of God’s kingdom. And more importantly, they help us to understanding our part in that kingdom as we life our lives in this world.
One of the first things we notice here is that Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor.” In Matthew’s account it says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Matthew was relating Jesus’ concern for matters of the spirit and the heart. Luke simply tells how that relates to a person’s actual “material state.” But they’re both talking about the same thing. They’re talking about people who don’t have what other people have – either physically or spiritually.
So, what Jesus is saying here is this. “Blessed are those who don’t have what the world thinks they ought to have in order to be considered ‘blessed.’” That either means having the “physical means” that someone has when they are seen as “blessed,” or having the “inner blessedness of spirit” that’s achieved when those “means” are obtained. I believe Luke is right with Matthew on this. Jesus is telling us that what the world thinks about “Blessedness” and what God thinks about “Blessedness” are two different, and sometimes opposite things! I hope you see that here. That’s what this passage is about.
I think it helps to understand this passage better when we note that other versions of the Bible use the word “Happy” instead of the word “Blessed.” “Happy are the poor.” “Happy are those who hunger.” “Happy are those who weep.” That’s a little easier to understand. And it’s easier to relate, because we know that the world is searching for Happiness. The world is desperate for happiness! In our Declaration of Independence, the writers told us that we are endowed by God with certain “unalienable rights.” And among them were “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And notice, by the way, it doesn’t say that happiness itself is an unalienable right. It says the “pursuit of Happiness.”
By the way, I hope you saw the recent movie by that name – “The Pursuit of Happyness.” It’s a wonderful story – a true story – about a man who lost his home, his wife, and almost his son. He and his son slept in homeless shelters and even subway bathrooms, while competing during the day with many other people for one job. It’s a “feel good” movie! But that kind of rags to riches story doesn’t usually happen to people. That’s why we love to see them.
In contrast to that, one of the things we need to understand from what Jesus said, is that happiness, which we all want to pursue, is different from God’s perspective. Those who are poor are blessed, they truly have the ability to be happy. That’s not easy to relate to in our world, I know. But more importantly – and this was even more radical to the people who heard it – happiness and blessedness are not contingent on the strength of a person’s faith or on God’s pleasure or displeasure with a person! God blesses his people, but not necessarily with blessings visible to the world – or even considered by the world to be blessings! And we need to know that in the Church!
If you know Tony Campolo, you know he’s very big on this one. He points out that the Church has too often bought into this idea that the well being of our lives is indicative of the well being of our faith. And he tells us that’s confusing to the world and even to ourselves when we think and talk that way. We need to rethink the old notion that material well being is a sign that God is pleased with us, and material “hard times” are a sign that God is displeased with us.
That’s not easy! And let me tell you, it’s an old mistake. “Who sinned,” they asked Jesus, “this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-2) God had to be displeased with somebody! Somebody must have done wrong for this bad thing to happen. That’s the old mistake of faith!
A few years ago, we were having a “mission luncheon” at my Church in Kansas. It was led by a couple from the Church who had been in Central America on a mission trip. And they told us two things. First of all, they told us – as I’m sure you know – that there are people in this world who have practically nothing. They live on less than the bare necessities of life. We are fabulously rich in comparison! And the message the couple gave us is that we should appreciate what we do have, and we should give thought to those who “don’t have.” And you know there are many people who don’t do either of those things!
The second thing the mission couple told us about those people was amazing. It was almost more amazing than their poverty was shocking. Yes, these people had next to nothing, and yet they were joyous. They were happy! And we might say, “That doesn’t make sense! How can they be happy?” They have none of the things that would make them happy!! Do you even see the nature of the question?
We add to that confusion when we make those kinds of assumptions about faith and blessedness. And that’s tough to sort out, I know. There is still this feeling that if life is going well, God must be pleased with us, and is blessing us, and if life is going badly, God must be displeased with us.
Remember old Job. When his life had gone “down the tubes,” so to speak, all his “comforters” (one of whom was Bildad the Shuhite!) kept telling him the same thing. “You must have done something wrong! You’d better make things right with God.” And the anguish in Job’s words was evident as he kept saying, “But I haven’t done anything wrong!”
There was that same anguish in the words of the Psalmist as he said over and over again, “O Lord, why am I oppressed while the wicked prosper?” Perhaps you’ve felt like that. Why is your life tough at times? Have you done wrong? Are you being punished somehow? Why aren’t you blessed when there people who don’t seem to care about faith who are! None of that makes sense when we’ve over-simplified the formula of blessedness.
We should know that’s not the way it is with God! Again, Tony Campolo talks about this when he talks about his work among the desperately poor people in some of the Latin American countries. Time and time again, he talks about the faith of those people. They are living in desperate poverty, and yet they have a faith that puts ours to shame! And our thinking that we are “blessed by God” because of the good things we have gets “blown away” in the light of their great faith! The formula doesn’t work.
You see, when you look at it that way, who is really the richer? Is it we in our relative wealth, or them in their poverty. And when you ask that question, is Jesus’ statement here really all that strange? “Blessed are the poor. For theirs is the kingdom of God.” In a way, that is literally true. Because the poor don’t have to look past so many other things in order to see the kingdom of God!
It’s a message we don’t like to hear very often, but God seems to have an affinity for the poor and the oppressed. Remember the words Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim [that] the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)
I’m not saying we need to be poor somehow to be people of faith. But we do need to try to scratch the surface of the infinite love of God and see how he has such love even for the “unlovable.” And it we are going to be his people, we too must cultivate such a love – for all of God’s people! And we need to resist the age old notion that we have what we have because God likes us more, and pity those poor people – who don’t have God’s favor somehow.
Even to us, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when you are poor. Blessed are you when you hunger. Blessed are you when you weep. Blessed are you when you are treated poorly for my sake.” “For yours is the kingdom of God.” And it is the kingdom of God that is the source of our happiness!
Eternal God, help us to see your hand in our lives. Help us to know that you love us and you care for us each day, no matter what our physical or material state. We thank you that you care for us at all times of our lives. Help us to love and care for others at all times in their lives. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.