May 15, 2011
The Sermon On the Mount
The Beatitudes – The Pursuit of Happiness
One year on spring break our family decided to visit various places around the state. We thought it would be a good idea to take Nick and Tyler to some historical spots around the state – that really won them over. One of the locations we visited is one of my favorite places – Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, outside Harrodsburg. Have you visited Shaker Village? It is a beautiful, fascinating, peaceful place. Many of the remaining structures at Shaker Village date to the early 1800’s and they still have the original paint and remain as solid and level as when they were built. The Shakers were amazing architects and very impressive builders. When we left Shaker Village we drove into Harrodsburg and visited Fort Harrod. The difference between those two settlements is amazing. Separated by about six miles and built within a few years of each other, there is no comparison in the buildings in those two places. Fort Harrod was rugged and, I imagine, a difficult place to live. You will not find beautiful buildings still standing from that time period at Fort Harrod. But Shaker Village is made up of architectural marvels, almost perfect in symmetry and impressive in their design.
I wondered how those two places could be so different. And then, at Fort Harrod, I found a statement on one of the signs that I believe explained the difference. Speaking of the efforts of George Rogers Clark, who made his plans at Fort Harrod, an historian wrote this – his vision was beyond the understanding of his fellow-forters.
Vision – such a powerful concept.
This morning we begin a series of messages on the Sermon On the Mount, and in the Sermon On the Mount we find the vision of Jesus. It is a vision of how to live as people who follow Jesus and a vision of the ethics for those who belong to the kingdom of God. It is a challenging vision and often beyond our grasp of how anyone could possibly live up to such a vision. Love our enemies? Pray for those who persecute us? It seems impossible, and yet it is a vision Jesus gives for what the kind of place the world could be and the kind of people we can be.
We begin with the beatitudes, that beautiful passage that begins the Sermon. The Beatitudes define for us the essence of happiness. I read this passage not too long ago for the Call to Worship and I substituted Happy for Blessed. The word that is translated into blessed carries the meaning of happy.
Our culture is on a massive search for happiness. Do you want to hear an amazing statistic? In the year 2000 there were 50 books published on the topic of happiness. Do you know how many were published in 2008 on the topic of happiness? Take a guess. Four thousand.
Isn’t that an amazing statistic? Four thousand books published in one year on the topic of happiness. Perhaps the only people those books made happy were the publishers, if the books sold well.
But what is happiness? If I were to ask you this morning if you are happy, would you give a quick yes or no or an I’m not really sure? If we hesitate, or aren’t sure, perhaps it’s because of the difficulty of defining happiness. Is happiness just a euphoric feeling, an emotional high that makes us feel we are on top of the world? Is it the kind of experience that makes us want to go around with a big grin on our face all the time because we feel so good that we may suddenly break into a song? Or is happiness something else entirely?
What about a biblical definition of happiness? I did a search to find how many times the Bible uses the word happy or happiness. It varies according to the translation but neither word is used very often. Some translations don’t use the word happiness at all, while others use it only a few times. The word happy appears anywhere from a dozen to two dozen times in the Bible, depending on your translation. That’s not very many times in such a long book, is it?
But the idea of happiness permeates most every page of Scripture, only it comes more in the form of meaning and purpose, so this morning, let’s allow the Beatitudes to teach us about happiness.
Happiness is not circumstantial and happiness doesn’t depend on what you have or don’t have.
In the early 80’s, when I was attending seminary, I shared an apartment with two other students. It was, to put it simply, a very humble abode. We didn’t have curtains on the few windows; we had sheets or towels or whatever we could find to cover the windows. We did have some bookshelves – they were made of concrete blocks and a few boards we had scavenged from somewhere. Our dining room table was one of the those big wooden spools used for cable and the chairs were the folding clothe chairs that you would put in your trunk and take on a picnic. And there were no bed frames, just mattresses on the floor. We did have one decent piece in that apartment, as seems fitting for several guys in their early 20’s. We had a big, killer-sounding stereo system in the corner. We couldn’t afford curtains but we could really crank up the Lynyrd Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin on that stereo.
We had next to nothing, but I remember that stage of life very fondly. My memories are of a time when I had very little free time and didn’t get much sleep, but it was a happy time. The humble circumstances didn’t seem to dampen our spirits at all. I’m certainly not minimizing the fact that many people live in very difficult circumstances, but the point is that happiness comes from a much deeper source than our life circumstances.
As we read the Scriptures there are great examples of how circumstances do not affect people’s happiness. Paul, in a Roman prison writes in Philippians 4:11-12, I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. Luke tells us in Acts 16:25 that Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned and while in prison they were singing hymns to God.
I’m certainly not minimizing the struggle of anyone living in humble or difficult circumstances. What I am saying is that genuine happiness is not circumstantial. It is not based on what we have or don’t have; it comes from somewhere deeper.
In our culture people often define themselves by what they have, but Paul’s identity was not found in what belonged to him but in who he belonged to.
Happiness is not living a life free of difficulty.
I think I have told you before that I teach a class one morning a week in Louisville. I have a group of 9th graders that I teach for one class period, and I have them write papers each term from a list of topics I give them, and at the end of the year I have them read one of their papers to the class. The most popular topic is that of suffering. One of my students, as he read his paper last week, spoke very movingly of losing his father several years before and what he had learned and how the experience made him stronger. He wrote with a wisdom that was beyond his years but it was a wisdom born of experience – a very tough experience.
The Bible presents an unflinching view of reality and part of that reality is the very real presence of suffering and difficulty.
I have stopped trying to answer the question of why? I just don’t get anywhere with that question, and I don’t worry much any more about having an answer. But I do think a lot about what can come out of the difficulties we face. What can we learn? Will we let struggle teach us or break us?
The reality is that we need to embrace the full range of emotions and experiences of life if we are going to be happy. Anyone who pushes a definition of happiness that does not embrace the difficulties of life as a normal part of life is pushing a false happiness and it is a happiness that will evaporate in a flash when difficulty comes. Struggle and difficulty are realities of life, and it is the struggle and difficulty that actually affirm some important realities to us. Could we, for instance, really appreciate joy if we never experience sadness?
This means, then, that –
Happiness is a byproduct of how we live.
What Jesus is saying in the Sermon On the Mount is that happiness is not some external force that we have to search out and find, but happiness is a byproduct of how we live. Happiness does not exist out there somewhere. The search for happiness begins and ends right here – in the heart, the mind, and the soul.
A lot of people are pursuing the wrong type of happiness. Many people pursue this very short-lived type of happiness; it’s here for a moment and then gone. And when it’s gone they go looking for something else – out there – they hope will bring a momentary flush of happiness.
This is why we sometimes hear people say something along the line of I started this or, I stopped that, because it wasn’t making me happy.
The Beatitudes are not what you would find in many prescriptions for happiness, but listen to them now, with the word happy, replacing blessed.
Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying:
Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Happy are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Happy are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Happy are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
– Matthew 5:1-12