6th Sunday after the Epiphany – 2/13/2022
The U.S. Declaration of Independence states that one of our inalienable rights guaranteed by our Creator is the "pursuit of happiness." We contemporary Americans take this right seriously and have made pursuing happiness the goal of all our work and play. We are so preoccupied with pursuing happiness that we tend to view any form of sadness as something to avoid at all costs. "Don't worry, be happy!" we sing. "Don't cry," we say to the sad person. "It can't be that bad!" If anyone exhibits any sadness, we urge them to rush to a "shrink" to cure their depression.
Are you happy with your life? If you are always smiling and laughing, something needs to be fixed. Does a frown on the face of a Christian mean they have no joy in the heart? What exactly is happiness? Does it consist of daily laughter?
Happiness might be more challenging to define than most people think. In our text, Jesus uses the term "happy" to describe the people in His kingdom. The ESV translation, from which we read earlier, renders the Greek word "blessed." But what Jesus has in mind is much closer to our English term "happy." He refers to the effect or feeling left within a person after experiencing some form of prosperity or blessing.
That said, we should distinguish our contemporary understanding of happiness from what Jesus has in mind. After all, happiness is a state, or condition, of the heart, not simply a state of continuous jocularity or "having a good ol' time." People can be laughing on the outside while crying on the inside.
True happiness is not skin-deep. It permeates the mind and the very fabric of one's soul. A sense of well-being and contentment characterizes it. The joy Jesus speaks of remains undaunted, even in pain and suffering.
How can that be? It all depends on where one looks for happiness or a sense of contentment, joy, and well-being. Jesus tells us there are two places you and I can look for happiness. We look to the kingdom of God in Christ for our joy or the kingdom of this world to make us happy with all of its physical pleasures. In other words, is God the source of our comfort, or is it Mammon, the God of this world?
Jesus contrasts four states of happiness with four woes or conditions of being "cursed." The first in each list sets the whole tone. "Happy are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God," he says. That is set against: "But woe to you who are rich, for you, have already received your consolation."
Jesus cuts right to the heart of our human existence: our wallet! We tend to think that happiness stems from how much money we have. Look at the people waiting to buy the latest series of lottery tickets. People on food stamps stand next to those dressed in Armani suits, fashion pants, and Goochi shoes. Poor or rich, they're all thinking, "If only I could win the lottery, I would be on the easy street." My troubles would be over. "I could finally be happy!"
What exactly does it mean to be wealthy? In essence, being rich has little to do with the amount of money one has. The young child sees his dad's paycheck and says, "Wow, Dad, you're rich!" Indeed, compared to the child's small allowance, his dad's check is a lot of money. Yet, Dad certainly doesn't feel rich when the paycheck doesn't entirely cover all the family bills.
We can think of being rich as having all you want. In the truest sense of the term, a poor person could consider himself rich if he is satisfied with what he has. A person with a Swiss bank account full of money could consider himself somewhat poor because he still can't afford everything he wants.
Therefore, happiness is not dependent on being rich or poor. Happiness is a by-product of being content. Therefore, the issue for you and me as disciples of Jesus is: what makes us satisfied? Is it wealth in material things or wealth in the spiritual goods of God's kingdom?
Jesus speaks of a different kind of poverty. One could be rich or poor in material goods but still be "poor in spirit" (Matt. 5:3). That is to say, one could see within himself that he lacks what is spiritually essential. All that the world could give him is not enough. He sees and confesses himself as a poor, miserable sinner. He longs for the riches of God's grace given to the world in the person of Jesus Christ, which make him eternally rich.
Here Jesus is warning those who strive after worldly wealth as the secret to their happiness. The fleeting comfort their money can buy will be all they will ever receive. Their drive to accumulate wealth will leave them with only that which thieves can steal, inflation can eat up, and their heirs can squander. Our worldly goods might make us happy for a while and even make us laugh, but what good will our bank accounts, Visa Cards, and technological toys do for us before the judgment seat of Christ? Will they be able to pay the debt we owe God because of our sins? Will all our worldly riches secure us a room in God's heavenly Hilton? Of course, they won't! That is only possible through God's grace and faith in Jesus Christ. The happy ones are those who are rich in God's grace.
These joyful ones, Jesus says, are also hungry. Their spirit is unsatisfied with the stale, cardboard bread of worldly wealth, security, or prestige. They have a deep-seated hunger for some "real food" that endures eternal life. They acknowledge their lack of righteousness before God and thirst for the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.
These happy ones, Jesus says, are also in mourning. They weep over the sad state of affairs in their lives and the world. They grieve over what sin has caused. They don't look at the world through some rose-colored glasses or eyes blinded by ignorance and denial. When they see disease, death, murder, immorality, and man's inhumanity to man, they weep over it, just as God wept over corrupt Sodom and Gomorrah. Similarly, Jesus wept over disobedient Jerusalem, or as we weep over all the evil and painful consequences our sins have brought us. We all mourn because we know that it does not have to be this way if only people would turn to the way out of such death, that is, to Jesus Christ.
How can such poverty, hunger, and sadness now be compatible with happiness? The answer Jesus gives lies in the fact that the one who, by faith, seeks his joy in Christ Jesus might be poor in the eyes of the world, yet he is rich with the whole kingdom of God. He might be hungry for righteousness now, but he is comforted that Jesus has, through His atoning death, declared himself righteous in His wounds. He might be in sorrow now over the effects of sin in his life, but he laughs in spirit because all those effects of corruption have been declared null and void in Jesus' resurrection.
Jesus takes on one more false notion concerning happiness. For many, that elusive ingredient to happiness is "fame" or "notoriety." The thought is that if I am famous, life will be wonderful. I'll be delighted!
Such thinking is just as prevalent among adults vying for the top positions in their companies as it is among the youth doing everything they can to be accepted by their peers, even if it means doing something illegal, like drugs.
However, the hard reality is that such a pursuit—to be popular, famous, or someone everyone praises—is also vanity (meaningless). Being Super Bowl Sunday, we are reminded once more of how successful sports figures are held up as the pinnacle of people who can enjoy the riches of worldly life due to their success. They are not alone, of course. Look at how we idolize Olympian athletes, successful entertainers, and Hollywood actors. Their lives seem charmed to many of the rest of us. And yet, almost daily, we hear or see in the news media reports of another famous football player, Olympian, or starlet whose life is suddenly ended by tragedy or is rocked by a debilitating injury. Their glory and happiness evaporated like yesterday's headlines.
"Don't kid yourselves!" Jesus says. "It's no feather in your cap if everyone thinks you are such a wonderful person or wants to emulate you." Sometimes it can be deadly. As an example, Jesus points to all the false prophets in Israel. The people loved them. These prophets made themselves famous by teaching people what they wanted to hear. It was not, however, the truth God wanted them to preach. Consequently, these prophets brought God's curse upon themselves and their adherents (2 Pet. 2:1). Their fame has turned into shame and pain in hell.
If we seek happiness in praise of others, we will never know true happiness, either now or later in eternity. To please men often means betraying God. And anytime we do that, life will not go well for us!
But the good news is that Jesus has enabled you to be happy no matter what your lot is in this present life. He has made the whole storehouse of God's riches available to all who believe in Him by purchasing them for sinners with His precious blood. As the atoning sacrifice for your sins, Jesus fills the empty places of your soul with God's gracious forgiveness and love. As the One who rose victoriously from the dead, Jesus also turns your tears over death into tears of delight and joy in the resurrection.
Likewise, such happiness sought in the wounds and victory of Christ even transcends present suffering, bigotry, slanderous insults, and outright persecution in this anti-Christian world. Our crosses are always born in the light of Jesus' cross. Jesus was not ashamed or saddened to take His cross for us. He rejoiced in it to save us. Trouble, suffering, or shame we might be called upon to bear for Jesus' sake, therefore, can also be returned with joy.
On one occasion, Peter and the other apostles were arrested, thrown into prison, and flogged by the Jews for preaching in the name of Jesus. We are told in the Book of Acts that when they were finally released, they "went their way... rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name." Paul and Silas also saw such happiness in the face of persecution. When they sat in their prison cell in Ephesus, instead of feeling sorry for themselves, they were "singing hymns of praise to God" (Acts 16:25).
Were these men demented? No, they were eternally delirious! They were able, by faith, to view their crosses through Christ's cross and open tomb. They saw victory, not defeat! Jesus' victory gave them contentment, peace, and, in short, happiness!
You are in good company if you experience such hardships simply because you seek to follow Christ. God's prophets, apostles, and disciples experienced it before you. But such suffering can in no way diminish the happiness you have in Christ. As Jesus Himself promises to those who suffer for His sake, "Your reward is great in heaven." The apostle Peter exhorts all Christian cross-bearers: "But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation."
So, we return to this question: "Are you happy in your life?" If you are not, if you are perpetually dissatisfied and depressed, sour in your outlook, and devastated in your lot in life, then dear friend, you are experiencing the curse that comes from seeking happiness in worldly things that will always let you down now and leave you empty-handed when Jesus Christ returns.
If, on the other hand, you are seeking your happiness in Christ alone, you will be happy even in poverty, hunger, sadness, and even rejection by others. You will be that proverbial tree spoken of by Jeremiah that is firmly planted by the water and sends its roots deep. It does not fear when the heat comes. Its leaves are always green. Even in a year of drought, it continues to bear fruit. Amen.