Sermon for the Fourth after the Epiphany

Text: Matthew 5:3-11 (NRSV)
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.



Church of the Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Gallilee

Church of the Beautitudes overlooking Sea of Gallilee

 True happiness

When you think of being happy, what image pops into your mind?
What are some of the happiest moments in your life?
I’m sure most of you can think of many truly happy moments. I can.

One of those moments was when we were camped on a hill overlooking the valley below. It was sunset. The sun was creating all kinds of reds, oranges and yellows on the cliffs on the other side of the valley. The town’s lights were starting to twinkle as they came on. The darkening sky started to reveal millions upon millions of stars above us and a giant moon was just peeking over the horizon. The air was refreshingly cool. Sitting beside my tent, sharing the moment with my best friend and life partner, I was totally relaxed with not a care in the world. This is what true happiness is all about.

For many of us, family occasions are amongst some of the happiest days of our lives -
our wedding day;
when our children were born;
the day they were married;
and spending fun times with grandchildren.

Let me ask you this question,
What are those ingredients that help you to be a happy person?
What are those things or qualities that enable you to be happy?
Good relationships?
A roof over your head?
Money in the bank?
Knowing that you are loved?
All of these? Some of these? What are the ingredients that create a recipe of happiness for you?

Our view of happiness depends so much on our circumstances and environment. For a young woman true happiness might be to find the right man, to marry and have a family, only later to find herself thinking that true happiness would come if she could divorce her abusive husband.
For teenagers, true happiness is getting their first car, but it’s not too long before they realise that they would be truly happy if petrol, rego and repairs were a whole lot cheaper.
For Miriam and me, the truly happy evening overlooking that town in Cappadocia was a once only because the next night a dirty great campervan parked right in front of us blocking our view. We were anything but happy. I assure you.

Happiness is a common desire. Yet, so few people seem to have true happiness that we put it in the same category as four-leaf clovers and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – the elusive, the unattainable, the impossible. Happiness is a goal that we all strive for, but when that goal is reached, we realise that it is temporary and quickly evaporates.

It is with this mood and theme of happiness that we approach the New Testament gospel lesson for today. The gospel lesson for today is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, "Blessed are the….".

Perhaps I should say something first of all about the word Jesus used here to introduce each of what we have come to know as the Beatitudes. Translators of the Bible have struggled with this word (in Greek makarios) to give modern equivalents to ‘blessed’ and so have used ‘happy’ or ‘you’re well off’. But ‘happy’ and ‘you’re well off’ don’t really cut it when it comes to what Jesus is saying. You see when I'm happy it is the circumstances that make me happy. I’m happy because it’s my birthday. I’m happy because everything is going well at work. I’m happy today because of the happy circumstances that have made me happy.

The biblical concept of joy fits much better. What Jesus is saying here in the Sermon on the Mount is something quite different. You can be joyful and unhappy at the same time. Joy has to do with the Spirit of God living inside of you. It has to do with that smile of God living in your heart. Joy is the assurance that God is with you and in you in all circumstances. It is knowing that in all circumstances of life, good and bad, that God is in control and will take care of you. It is knowing that God has a plan, a purpose and a prayer for you, even when the circumstances are unhappy. This all means that you can be joyful during unhappy circumstances.

And so we could read the Beatitudes like this, "Filled with divine joy", or Filled with God-given happiness" or simply "joyful are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven". This kind of happiness or blessedness comes only from the grace of God as he lifts us beyond our circumstances.

Let see how this works. In the second Beatitude, Jesus said, "Joyful are those who mourn."  Isn’t that a strange thing to say, "Joyful are those who mourn?" Doesn’t this sound like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms? 

It’s not at all, if we understand the gospel and God-given joy. Over the past 12 months we have said farewell to some of our very regular and faithful members at St Paul’s. Death fills us with grief and sadness and emptiness but in spite of this unhappiness and the tears that are shed there is joy because we know for sure that those who have left us are now with Christ. Knowing that Jesus has conquered the grave and reconciled us to our heavenly Father fills us with godly joy as we celebrate their entrance into eternal life where there is nothing of the sadness and sorrow that we experience in this life. It is true, "Those who mourn are filled with God-given joy because they are comforted by God's love that will stand by them in the deepest sadness; they have Jesus’ promise that death has been defeated and that all those who "live and believe in him will have eternal life".

Let’s read together the Beatitudes which I have expanded a little to help in our understanding. You are invited to join in the bold type.

Joyful are the poor in spirit, those who depend only on God,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Joyful are those who are saddened by what sin and death have done in their lives, or grieve for the starving, the homeless, the refugees and those suffering war,
for they will be comforted.
Joyful are the gentle and humble; those doing things for others without looking for any rewards,
for they will inherit the earth.
Joyful are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those passionate about justice for the underdog, the defenceless, the under-privileged,
for they will receive what they want in full.
Joyful are the merciful, those who see every person as a child of God and give comfort and support regardless of the race, religion or the kind of life that person leads,
for they will be shown mercy.
Joyful are the pure in heart, the sincere, committed, and loyal,
for they will see God.
Joyful are the peacemakers, those who step out of their comfort zone to bring about reconciliation and newness,
for they will be called sons of God.
Joyful are those who are persecuted because of their commitment to Jesus,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Can you see that Jesus’ definition of what it means to be blessed doesn’t depend on us and what is happening around us? The "joyful" sayings of Jesus – the Beatitudes – present us with a whole new idea of what it means to be happy. True happiness has to do with knowing God, belonging to God's Kingdom, being a part of God's family, relying on Jesus’ love for us and being certain that he will always stand by us and hold us up when the journey is tough going. It is all about the grace of God.

This is hardly a popular view, especially when worldly happiness depends so much on money, a house, the right car, and being free from sickness, death and anything that upsets our "happiness". But Jesus was one for making true statements. We find true happiness in God.

Or perhaps it is better said that we have true happiness when God finds us.
In the middle of all the difficulties we have living out our Christian faith in our daily lives;
when we are sad and upset;
when we are despondent and depressed;
when others reject us and ridicule us for our faith or for sticking up for what we believe is right;
when we are trying to show mercy and love or bring about peace and we are told to butt out;
God meets us, he strengthens us, he comforts us, he helps us endure, he gives us the courage to move on. This fills us with joy.

On October 2, 2006 five Amish schoolgirls were murdered and five were wounded at the Nickel Mines Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. The murderer took his own life. While the rest of the world was horrified and angry at this horrific massacre and even though the Amish parents of these children were terribly hurt and grief stricken, as you might imagine, they stunned the world by immediately forgiving the killer of their children, attending his funeral and even showing compassion and kindness to the killer’s widow and children.

This was written about this incident, "The Amish commitment to forgive is not a small patch tacked onto their fabric of faithfulness. Rather, their commitment to forgive is intricately woven into their lives and their communities". The Amish were surprised at the attention they received in the media for their act of forgiveness. One Amish man asked, "Why is everyone surprised? It’s just standard Christian forgiveness; it’s what everybody should be doing".

Without a doubt they were filled with sadness and grief but God-given joy enabled them to rise above their unhappiness and any thoughts of retribution and extended kindness and forgiveness. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said, "Joyful are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Joyful are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God".

The Beatitudes are about God’s grace. You don’t have to do something to earn this happiness. In truth, it cannot be earned, but just received as a gift from God.  A pure gift.  Grace.

That’s the secret of true happiness, the kind that rises above the circumstances and gives us peace!
You may be suffering a great deal from sickness;
you may be persecuted for doing what you consider the right thing;
you may be upset about your own sinfulness or the weakness of your faith;
you may even be disappointed in those who have failed to show love toward you;
whatever the case, you can still "joyful" in the knowledge that you are one of God’s precious children, that he sent his Son to die for you, and that he has given you his Holy Spirit to inspire, strengthen and encourage you when everything has been turned upside down. St Paul knew sadness, disappointment, and even poverty but he was able to say,
"I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me".

This is the kind of "blessedness" or "happiness" that no circumstance or person can take away from us.


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
30th January 2011

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