Listening to Jesus on... Happiness - Matthew 5:1-12
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me read you something:
‘Happiness has proved elusive in the contemporary world. By any conceivable measure of the good life, we are better off than any previous generation since the birth of time. We are more affluent. We have more choices. We can travel further and more easily. We have more access to education and information. Our health is better. We live longer. We keep ourselves fit. We have leisure. We are freer. There are fewer constraints on our lifestyles. We are living, compared to any previous generation, as close to paradise as people have ever lived. Yet by the indexes of self-reported life satisfaction, we are no happier than people were two generations ago. In some respects our lack of happiness is palpable. We take more anti-depressants. People suffer from more stress-related syndromes. They are less optimistic than they used to be. They no longer think their children will have better lives than they did. There has been a palpable breakdown of trust.’ So writes the chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. And as a simple observation he is, of course, quite right. The quest for happiness is very much at the top of everyone’s agenda and yet it is at the bottom of their list of achievements. And so it is not surprising that by and large we consider someone who is happy as being rather fortunate.
How, then, are we to rate someone like Robert Reed? You see, Robert’s hands are twisted and his feet are useless. He can’t bath himself. He can’t feed himself. He can’t brush his teeth or comb his hair or put on his underwear. He can just about manage his shirts because they are held together by strips of Velcro; and his speech drags like a worn out audio cassette. Most of us would reckon that he falls into the category of the ‘unfortunate ones’. And yet he says, ‘I have everything I need for joy!’ Well, that seems pretty fortunate to me, doesn’t it to you? How strange: the same person who, from one point of view is unfortunate is from another point of view (his own) very fortunate- happy. It is something of a puzzle isn’t it? Well, we will come back to Robert a little later on.
But, you know, the same paradox and oddity of the unfortunates who are really the fortunate confronts us when we come to the beginning of the most famous sermon of all time, ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ in Matthew chapter 5.
Of course most of our English translations don’t use the word ‘fortunate’ they say, ‘Blessed’ or ‘Happy’. But ‘fortunate’ isn’t a bad word to use. You see there are two Greek words, which behind them stand two Hebrew words, which can be translated ‘Blessed’. There is the word ‘eulogeo’ from which we get our word, ‘Eulogy’ which is delivered as a funeral address when all sorts of nice things are said about the deceased. That is we ‘bless’ them with our words. The other word, the one used here, is ‘makarios’, which means ‘being in a fortunate position’. So, Scott is in a fortunate position at the moment in that he can see and hear me clearly- bully for him. And you have two Hebrew words which do exactly the same thing. There is one which describes what you wish upon someone. So, in some churches at the end of a service a minister might make the sign of a cross and ‘give a blessing’. I once remember the late Australian evangelist, John Chapman, ‘Chappo’ going up to a Christian friend at a conference and made the sign of the cross, and said, ‘Tell me brother if that does you any good I will do it in the mirror tomorrow morning’! Obviously he didn’t think it did. But it is really like a prayer, asking for a blessing. But here Jesus is using the other Hebrew word describing people who are already blessed, or fortunate or as we might say ‘in an enviable position’.
What is it that makes them enviable because at first sight they don’t look like people we are to envy at all, pity, maybe, but not envy, for we are told they are ‘poor’, they are ‘mourning’, they are ‘meek’, they are ‘hungry and thirsty’ people . Not much to envy there I would have thought! But Jesus mentions a key phrase which acts as the ‘book ends’ to his description of the enviable ones. Did you notice what it is? It is the phrase, ‘the kingdom of heaven’-v3 and v 10. These people are to be envied like crazy because they have something even the angels don’t have. They have something every Jew had been longing for and praying for, and in some cases- fighting and dying for- God’s special reign of happiness-the kingdom of heaven. And notice this is not something future- yours will be the kingdom of heaven, it is something they already have - yours is the kingdom of heaven. They don’t have to work for it, they don’t have to earn it, in one sense they don’t even have to wait for it- it is theirs already and Jesus is pointing it out to them. And for these people to be told that would be like telling someone today they had the winning lottery ticket.
Now to see the kinds of people Jesus was speaking to who qualified for his kingdom, you need to flip back to the previous chapter 4 v25 ‘Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.’. Where the crowds come from is very impressive, for when you look at a map you see that the people have been travelling some considerable distance. From Jerusalem up to Galilee was about 95 miles as the crow flies. Given that in those days you did not have ‘A’ roads and motorways, but small dirt tracks which had to go around mountains, that meant that you could add on a further 60 miles before you get there. And that is if you go straight through Samaria which most of the Jews didn’t like doing because that was like the early American pioneers going through Indian country, so they tended to avoid that and take the longer route across the Jordan river, which meant dropping down a couple of thousand feet and then up another couple of thousand feet when they crossed. So you have a situation in which people are travelling over 300 miles there and back. And given that they had to travel on foot, or at best on a donkey, how long are you going to be travelling 150 odd miles in order to see this man? Well, several weeks. But it is in fact worse than that. For you have to ask, why have the crowds come? Look back at 4v23-24 and we a re told why, ‘News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them’. They were not travelling on foot quickly, they were travelling carrying sick people, and sick people do not travel very fast. So people must be pretty desperate to travel through the hot Palestinian countryside for around two weeks in the hope of seeing Jesus. So, these ‘desperate ones’, (and they include Jesus disciples in verse 1) are really the fortunate ones, because they are now with Jesus and have already experienced something of his special touch, a power and authority, a goodness and cleanness, which is nothing less than the touch of God himself- his kingdom. That is why they are fortunate. They have come to the right man at the right time. And looking at those swarms of people jostling each and straining to catch what Jesus is saying, don’t you think these words would have been like music to their ears, ‘the poor’, ‘the mourning’, ‘the meek’ and ‘hungry’- ‘Why,’ they would think, ‘he is talking about us! In fact he is talking to us!’ For most of their lives these folk would have been down trodden. The Romans would have been giving them a rough time as occupying powers tend to, the religious authorities would have dismissed many of them as being beyond the pale, especially the sick- as we see elsewhere in the Gospels, for such folk were often seen as being under God’s special judgement-so they must be sinners; and of course the unscrupulous would have been trying to rip them off financially as they would have been seen as vulnerable prey. And yet here is Jesus saying, that it is these people who are fortunate because they have God’s loving and saving reign in their lives- they are the recipients of Old Testament prophecies and promises! Boy, they must have thought they had hit the jackpot that day.
But this was not something which came totally ‘out of the blue’ for them because behind everything Jesus says here in what are called ‘the beatitudes’, are Old Testament scriptures, especially Isaiah 61 which is all about someone called ‘The LORD’s Servant’ who one day was to come . So we have these parallels: (Put up on the screen one at a time)
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.’ (Matthew 5:3).
‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’ (Is 61:1)
‘Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.’ (Matthew 5:4)
‘He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted….to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion.’ (Is 61:2-3)
‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth (land)’ (Matthew 5:5)
‘Instead of their shame my people will receive a double portion and instead of disgrace they will rejoice in their inheritance; and so they will inherit a double portion in their land...’ (Is 61:7)
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they will be filled.’(Matthew 5:6)
‘They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord.’ (Is 61:3).
Do you see why these people would have been beside themselves with excitement? Isaiah 61 is being fulfilled right in front of their eyes and they are the ones who are getting the first taste of it!
So let’s look at the two phrases which form the two layers of the ‘sandwich’ which characterise the most fortunate people in the world as far as God is concerned, those who are members of his kingdom.
Jesus describes as enviable those who are ‘poor in the realm of the spirit’ v3. This is not a description of people lacking spiritual things as such- having a spiritual deficiency of some kind- feeling lacking in the prayer department or some such. Rather, it is a description of someone’s lower standing in relation to someone else. The word used (ptochos) is a depressive word; it is a description of someone who is wholly dependent upon the kindness of someone else, locked into a dependent relationship. The classic example of this in the Bible is the poor man Lazarus mentioned in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16: 20. Here was this man who sat outside the gates of an incredibly wealthy person and the only way he was going to eat was if the man threw a few scraps of food in his direction. His legs were so ulcerated through neglect that he sought relief from the man’s dogs which would come and lick his sores, their saliva acting as a kind of balm. Lazarus was ‘poor’ in the Matthew 5:3 sense- he looked up to someone else to meet his need. Sadly, the rich man did not meet his need and paid for it later in hell.
Now in the Book of Isaiah, Israel as a whole saw herself as the ‘poor’ in this sense, as the nation found itself estranged in Babylon, unable to free themselves and so they looked up to God in order to supply their need, to sustain them and eventually free them. That is what God is promising in the first instance in Isaiah 61 through his Servant, whom, we are told will ‘preach good news to the poor… and proclaim freedom to the captives’ that is those Jews captive in Babylon.
Well, these people could identify with that readily enough. As we have seen some of them would have been totally dependent upon others to carry them all the 150 miles to Jesus in order to be healed. They didn’t need any convincing they were ‘poor’. But perhaps you do. Perhaps you are still full of self-confidence about your abilities, your goodness, you standing. If so, then these words of Jesus are not going to mean all that much to you. For that to change, your perception of yourself needs to change.
But it is not primarily those who are physically poor that Jesus is talking to, after all Peter and John are sitting at Jesus’ feet listening and they had a fishing business and could hardly qualify for state benefits had they existed in those days. No, Jesus is talking about those who are ‘poor in the realm of the spirit.’ That is those who see themselves as being totally, utterly, completely and absolutely dependent upon the kindness of God. If they are going to have any comfort at all, it is God who has to give it to them. If they are going to have any hope of satisfaction in being put right with God, being made ‘righteous’, then it is God who has to do it for them. What is more, they are meek enough to know that if they are to get any chance of an inheritance of the ‘land’ in fulfilment with God’s promise to Abraham, it was God who had to give it to them. And as a result these are the truly ‘happy ones’, because in coming to Jesus, the King, they were coming into God’s kingdom, that realm in which there are proper relationships: an open and forgiven relationship with God, and open and forgiving relationships with each other as family members of his kingdom.
And when you think about it, the key to true happiness, being really fortunate, lies in good relationships. Again, Jonathan Sacks is spot on: ‘Happiness’ he says, ‘is a state of being, not having, and still today, as it always did, it depends on strong and stable personal relationships and a sense of meaning and purpose in life.’
Now do you see what Jesus is offering here in his kingdom- the very relationships, meaning and purpose that Sacks is talking about. Happiness is a state of being- being a member of the divine family. That is why Robert Reed despite his cerebral palsy can say that he has everything he needs for joy. So let me tell you a little bit more about him. His disease keeps him from driving a car or riding a bike, but it didn’t keep him from attending a Christian university in the United States and graduating with a degree in Latin. Neither did it keep him from going on five mission trips abroad. More amazing still, perhaps, is that it didn’t keep him from becoming a missionary in Portugal.
And so he moved to Lisbon all by himself in 1972. There he rented a hotel room and begun studying Portuguese. He found a restaurant owner who would feed him after the rush hour and a tutor who would instruct him in the language. Very enterprising you see.
Then, each day he stationed himself in the local park, where he distributed booklets about Christianity and Christ. Within six years he led seventy people into a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, one of whom, Rosa, later became his wife. Isn’t that something- a man who cannot walk and can hardly speak whose clothes are held together by Velcro but whose life is held together by Christ’s love. Of course this poor man is fortunate because his is in the kingdom and lives for the kingdom and by the manifesto of the Kingdom-the Sermon on the Mount!
of the other end of the sandwich, the final ‘beatitude attitude’
which is extended further in vv11-12? ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted
because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’
This is so important that Jesus underscores it twice- these people are doubly fortunate- doubly happy- that’s what the text says. Verse 10 speaks of ‘those’ who are persecuted and so blessed because of righteousness. But verse 11 amplifies this to let us know who this righteousness turns on. Right in the centre of it all is Jesus- because of …‘me’ he says you will be persecuted. Not maybe or perhaps, it is pretty definite. When you become rightly related to God through Jesus Christ- receiving his righteousness, then you become different and the world is not too keen on difference. That is largely what the tyranny of Political Correctness is all about; it creates a climate of fear-the fear of being different. Say something mildly questioning about a woman’s role, you are sexist. Say something critical against homosexual practice, you are homophobic. But say something derogatory against Christians, you are exercising freedom of speech. It does seem that is always open season on Christians-but that is what Jesus said would happen and so we are to expect it and not be fazed by it. The world does not like difference, because it makes other people feel different and uncomfortable. On the other hand, people cannot ignore the good such difference brings. There is often a grudging admiration of Christians. In Hindu or Islamic countries- the faith of Christians may not be well received, but they do like their hospitals and schools and the tremendous care and love they show. And sometimes they will even say, ‘God is in this’. And so we are the fortunate ones, the happy ones says Jesus and we are not to forget it.
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