As promised, here’s my last sermon. Better late than never?
Sermon preached at Our Savior Lutheran Church on January 30, 2011 for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany. Sermon Text: Matthew 5:1-12
When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he said that God has given all people rights that no one should ever take away. Among these rights, he said, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s that last one that I want us to think about today: the pursuit of happiness. Isn’t that an interesting phrase? He could have written, “life, liberty, and happiness.” But he didn’t. He said the pursuit of happiness. Running after happiness, chasing it. But can it ever really be found?
This idea of the pursuit of happiness makes me think of what they call a dangling carrot. It comes from a story of a boy riding on a donkey. This boy didn’t know how to ride the donkey; he couldn ‘t make him go. So he came up with an ingenious idea. He knew the donkey liked eating carrots, so he took a stick, tied some string to it, and put the carrot on the string. Then he sat on the donkey and held the stick in just such a way that the carrot was always right in front of the donkey’s face. The donkey would walk forward to reach it, but of course the carrot would move with him. He’d never really get that carrot. But he’d keep going after it.
Does that sound like an accurate way of describing happiness? Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone is trying to be happy. But it seems like very few people ever really get there. Few get to the point where they say, “Yes, now, I am truly happy. There is nothing else that could possibly be better than this!” And why don’t you hear people say this? Because for many people being happy means getting what you want.
So are you happy? Do you get everything you want? Of course not. But Jesus, in the part of Scripture known as “the Beatitudes,” gives us a new idea of what it means to be happy. He shows us how to be happy, how to be blessed, by actually not getting what we want. In fact, by having the opposite of what our sinful self might want in this life, we see that we will be happy through eternal life because Jesus has won that life for us. He alone makes us blessed. Through him alone can anyone really be happy. So let’s look at Jesus’ secret to happiness.
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. (Matt. 5:1-2) Here we see Jesus about to give one of the most famous sermons ever delivered: the sermon on the mount. It gets its name from these verses, as Jesus went up a little bit on a mountainside so he could see the crowd around him, and so everyone could hear what he had to say.
And what he had to say was pretty amazing. The sermon on the mount isn’t just famous because it’s the longest recorded sermon of Jesus we have in the Bible. It’s famous because of what it says. In so many places it’s surprising; it’s not necessarily what we’d expect to hear from the Savior of the world. We’re going to be taking several weeks to look at different parts of Jesus’ sermon more closely.
Today we have his introduction, which is more often known as the Beatitudes. Here Jesus calls different groups of people “blessed” and then goes on to tell us why. The word that’s translated “blessed” in our Bibles can actually mean “happy.” It has to do with people being happy because something good has been done for them. So we’re going to look at Jesus’ secret to happiness verse by verse so that we can understand and appreciate this section a little more.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:3) This start of Jesus’ sermon is a well-known verse. It’s easy for us who have heard it before to say, “Oh, yes, isn’t that nice! Isn’t that beautiful!” and then move on to the next verse. But do you hear what Jesus is actually saying? Because when we really listen to him it can hit us like a punch in the gut.
You are happy when you’re poor in spirit. “Poor in spirit” doesn’t sound good. I don’t want to be poor in anything, so how could being poor in spirit make me happy? In fact, “poor in spirit” sounds like the opposite of being happy. In our world today we want to hold our heads high! We want very good self-esteem. We want to think we’re worth something, that we are people of so much value. We want to think very highly of ourselves and the things we have to contribute. It seems like we’d want to be “rich in spirit.” But no; Jesus says the opposite.
That’s hard to hear! After all, we’ve got a lot to feel good about ourselves, right? We’re here in church! We belong to a church that preaches the truth! We know what the right answers are! We are here in the United States, where we all know that everyone is very important! How could we ever be poor in spirit? I mean, shouldn’t God be happy that we’re here today? Shouldn’t he be grateful to have such wonderful people as us as his people? Yeah, there’s nothing poor about us!
That is, until you look deeper. Until you see that for all our church attendance, for all our saying the right things, we fall so very far short of what God really wants. God demands perfection from us: perfect love to God and to our neighbor. And what do we do? We fail. We sin. We don’t deserve God’s thanks or a pat on the back. We deserve his punishment both now and for eternity.
When we recognize that, then we’re poor in spirit. And that’s when we can be happy! We can be happy because we know that the poor in spirit are happy because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus came to live and to die, not for perfect people. Not for the righteous. He came for poor, miserable sinners like us. And through his life, and through his death, our sins are washed away. He has won us forgiveness life and salvation. He has given us the kingdom of heaven. That’s why we can be happy.
Jesus continues, Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matt. 5:4)Again, why would I ever want to mourn? Mourning means you’re sad; it means you’ve lost something. I don’t want to do that. But in this world we’re constantly losing things. Turn on the news. People are dying. Tragedies strike people everywhere. The opportunities for our mourning never seem to end.
The question is, how can someone who mourns be happy? How can a mourner truly be comforted? If you had the opportunity to be here this past week at the funeral we held here at church, you know the answer. As a Christian who has seen life and death, I pray you know the answer. It’s only in Christ. He is our comfort! He is the one who tells us that death is not the end. He reminds us that he has won eternal life to all who believe. He comforts us when we are sad. He dries our tears when we weep. Only he can truly comfort those who mourn.
Jesus keeps going. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Matt. 5:5) I don’t think “meekness” is a very highly praised attribute. When someone’s meek they’re not tough! They don’t speak up for themselves! They don’t take action! They get walked all over. You’d never go to a sporting event and hear people cheering their team by saying, “Come on team, be more meek out there!” No. Being meek is the opposite of what this world thinks is good for being happy. But Jesus tells us we are happy when we are meek, because we will inherit the earth.
Again, you’d think a meek person would be the last one to inherit the earth. To good ahead in this world you’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to be better than others, you need to strike your enemies to move up.
But as Christians, we don’t do that. We pass on the opportunities to sin to get ahead. When we are struck, we don’t fight back; we turn the other cheek. We don’t demand our way in this world, but we follow the Savior’s way despite what this world tries to demand of us. And you know what? We will inherit the earth. We get the whole world because Jesus is in control of the whole world, and he makes everything work out for our good. We get the new heaven and new earth that he won for us forever in heaven. That’s true happiness.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matt. 5:6) Wanting righteousness sounds like a good thing. But when you look around at our world, you see pretty quickly that there doesn’t seem to be much righteousness to go around. This world is filled with problems, with hurts, with sin.
And no where is this more true than within ourselves. We hunger and thirst for righteousness, but then we can’t even be righteous! We try to do what’s right, what God wants, and we fail. We still sin. So hungering and thirsting for righteousness sounds like the most unhappy way to be that there it. So how could it make us happy?
Because when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, in Christ, we will be filled. We can never fill ourselves with the goodness and righteousness of this world or of ourselves. No, we’d always be disappointed with that. But Jesus came to give us his righteousness. He was perfect! He never sinned! And by faith, his perfection is ours. He takes our sins away. This power is not in us; it is in him alone. He fills us with his righteousness, and that’s what makes us blessed.
But that’s not all that makes us blessed, or happy. Jesus said, Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matt. 5:7) Now, showing mercy has to do with not giving someone the punishment they deserve. This is tough in our world. We don’t want to be walked over! If someone hurts us, we want to hurt them right back! If someone has done something, we want everyone to know about it, we want them to get what’s coming to them. But to be merciful to them…that just sounds weak. That seems like we’re letting people get away with things. No, people need to get what they deserve! Right?
Well, one of the reasons we can be happy is that we don’t get what we deserve. We deserve eternal death. We deserve hell itself for even one of our sins, let alone all of them. But God had mercy on us. He sent his Son. He took away our sins forever. He won us eternal life. That’s why we want to forgive others and have mercy on them, too.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matt. 5:8) To be pure in heart seems like an impossible goal in this world. This world is anything but pure, and the evils of this world seem to take away the purity and innocence of people pretty quickly. And when we look at our actions, and our thoughts, and our words, they don’t seem pure, either.
But we can be happy! David prayed in the psalms, Create in me a pure heart, O God. And by faith God does just that. He purifies us in Christ. Through our baptism, through his Word, through the promise of his sure forgiveness, our hearts are pure. And we can be happy because we will see God. We will see him face-to-face in heaven through the purity that Jesus won for us.
Jesus keeps going. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. (Matt. 5:9) Again, this seems like the opposite of the truth. Even as Christians, this doesn’t seem right. I mean, does religion in this world really bring peace? Ha! If you look around, it seems like every horrible war in this world is caused by religion. How could we ever be a peacemaker and be called a child of God?
The answer is, “only in Christ.” He does not bring earthly peace. He brings heavenly peace. He brings peace between a holy God and his sinful creatures. Jesus brought us eternal peace. And when we tell others about Jesus’ peace, we, too, are peacemakers! We, too, are spreading Jesus’ peace to those who need it. We’re being the children of God that Christ has made us. That makes us blessed and happy.
Finally, Jesus brings up the thing that sounds the least happy of all. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matt. 5:10-11)
Seriously, what could be worse, what could be more unhappy than to be attacked, insulted, and persecuted. And it’s all because you’re a Christian! Sure, maybe it’s not a danger for us in our country to be attacked and killed for our faith, but that doesn’t mean that might not happen some day. And there are plenty of places in this world where it happens still.
But even though we don’t face those dangers, we still face persecution. We’re insulted, we lose friends, we face rejection in our lives because of our faith. So why would we want to continue in that faith? Why would we continue to follow Christ when it is guaranteed to bring us unhappiness of some sort in this life? Because we are looking for more than this life.
Jesus said, Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven! (Matt. 5:12) Jesus really sums up the entire introduction to his sermon here. This is what the beatitudes are about. True happiness, happiness that lasts, only comes from him. He alone gives us eternal life in heaven. He alone gives us the place where every tear is wiped away and every problem is gone for good. He alone gives us true forgiveness, life, and salvation forever.
Don’t look for happiness where this world looks. Don’t expect the happiness that this world offers and finds its value in. Instead, look for true, lasting happiness forever in Christ. Find him in his Word and Sacrament. Rejoice in the gifts he has given you. Remember that he promises to be with you during the unhappiness that we sometimes face in this sinful world. And look forward to the full happiness of all his gifts forever.