< back to Sermon archive

Sermon for Sunday 17 February 2019

First Reading                                 Jeremiah 17:5-8

5Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. 6He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. 7Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. 8He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

Psalm                                                              Psalm 1

1Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! 2Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law day and night. 3They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper. 4It is not so with the wicked; they are like chaff which the wind blows away. 5Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, nor the sinner in the council of the righteous. 6For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.

Second Reading              1 Corinthians 15:1-20

1Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you — unless you believed in vain. 3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. 12Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Gospel                                                        Luke 6:17-26

17{Jesus} came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, 18who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all. 20And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. 22Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! 23Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. 24But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 26Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”


Author Marc Reklau in his book Destination Happiness asks, “Who do you think is happier, people who [have] won the lottery or people who [have become] paralyzed after an accident?”  You may be surprised at the answer, I know I was.  According to Mr. Reklau, “Yes, the lottery winners were very happy, but not for very long, after six months they went back to their previous levels of happiness.”

On the other hand, “the accident victims were sad, but surprisingly after six months, they [also] went back to their previous levels of happiness.”  Think about that for a moment.  In just six months, both groups–those who had won the lottery and those who had an accident and were paralyzed–had returned to their previous state of happiness.  I don’t know what that says to you, but it says to me that happiness is an inside job.  Our circumstances don’t determine how satisfied we are with our lives.  Something else—something on the inside–makes the difference.

The same studies on happiness were conducted with a group of college professors.  They were asked how happy they would be if they got tenure.  Tenure means a professor is given a permanent post and they can be removed only under extraordinary circumstances.  These professors answered that, if they got tenure, they would be very happy . . . for the rest of their lives.  Another group of professors was asked how unhappy they’d be if they didn’t get tenure.  They answered, “Very unhappy for a very long time.”

Again, when researchers went back six months later, every one of these professors had gone back to their previous level of well-being whether they received tenure or not.  “If they were happy before, they were happy six months later . . . if they were unhappy before, they were unhappy six months later.”  Actually, this makes sense.  Upon reflection, the same was true while I was in the military.  I would study and prepare to test for promotion and then wait for the results.  Sure, I was happy when I got promoted, but after a few months I was simply getting paid more, and I had more responsibility, but my overall happiness hadn’t changed.  My actual level of happiness was dependent on so many other things; my happiness was based mainly on want was going on inside me.

You and I count as part of our heritage, the blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  But what is happiness?  Is happiness something that can be obtained by pursuing it?  Is it a product of circumstance or surroundings?  Is it to be equated with money in the bank, a diploma on the wall, a promotion at work, the respect of one’s friends and neighbors?  Or, does it depend on something else, something entirely different?   Think for a moment:  What would it take to make you happy–really happy? 

In our Old Testament and Psalm readings for this morning, the psalmist and prophet talk about blessings and curses.  In the case of blessing, the Hebrew word in both passages can also be translated as happy.  Psalm 1 begins with the phrase, “Happy is the man” and verse 7 of Jeremiah starts the very same way, “happy is the man.  Conversely, both passages give the same warning.  In verse 5 of Jeremiah 17 we read, “cursed is the man” and in Psalm 1 we read, “it is not so with the wicked” (v.4).  In both these passages we find a common denominator; blessing or happiness is tied to our faith and trust in God, while being cursed or not being happy is tied to faith in ourselves or others.

Think of this another way.  Happiness in this world is simply going from one temporary thing or situation to another.  Happiness that comes from our trust in God, means we learn to be content in all things.  In the Old Testament, blessing or happiness is closely related with Shalom, a word that infers God’s protection, provision, His peace and wholeness.  St. Paul reinforces this fact in his letter to the Philippians, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.  In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me (4:11-13).  Paul knew where true happiness lies, in trusting God.  Jesus also talked about happiness, but not in the same way you or I would talk about it.  In fact, He turned our understanding of happiness upside down.  

In the Sermon on the Mount from St. Matthew’s gospel, Jesus made some unique and unusual statements about happiness which we know as the Beatitudes.  Here in our reading from Luke, Luke gives us a condensed version of some of those stirring statements:  “Happy are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Happy are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.  Happy are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  Happy are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.  For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.”  At the very least, all these ideas are anti-prosperity, anti-American teaching and anti-self. 

Happy are the poor?  Happy are the hungry?  Happy are those who weep?  Most of us are more comfortable with the word “blessed” than the word “happy” in these circumstances.  But the Greek word which most translators of the Bible translate as “blessed,” can also be translated as “happy.”  Yet we still find this translation disturbing.  For the majority of Christians, we can accept that Mother Teresa, who worked with dying people in the wretched slums of Calcutta, could be blessed–but happy?  And yet people who knew her most intimately, claimed that she radiated happiness.  In fact, many authors who have studied the pursuit of happiness have observed that the happiest people on earth are not those who pursue happiness, but those who seek God and serve others.

Most of you remember Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and his Power of Positive Thinking.  Late in his life, Dr. Peale wrote something else that I believe deserves a wider audience.  He writes, “I have discovered that the most optimistic people are the most Christian people [in their attitudes].  Now, I’ve got to qualify that a little bit.  I’ve seen lay [people], preachers, bishops, archbishops, and so on, up and down the hierarchy who weren’t optimistic, who thought everything was going bad.  You see, there are different ways of being a Christian.

“A minister in London told me about a man who never would go inside a church.  But he would hang around in the vestibule.  And when the ushers went away, he would open the door just a crack so he could listen.  But he would never venture further than the vestibule.  Well,” Dr. Peale continues, “there are many who physically have got past the vestibule, but, mentally, they’re still listening through a crack.  They’re only getting a tiny bit, a faint suggestion of the Gospel.  “But Jesus said, ‘Drink ye all of it’ (Matt. 26:27).

“If you take the whole of Christianity,” Dr. Peale continued, “and really give yourself to it and really accept it, you are going to become so happy, so enthusiastic, so optimistic, that life will be altogether different for you.  Then you will walk in the newness of life–when you have absorbed the quality, the essence, the depth and the height, the glory and the power of Christianity.  “So let go of that gloom, let go of that depression, let go of that discouragement, let go of that weakness, let go of that sense of failure.  Get yourself with Jesus–really, personally.  Go to Him, pray to Him, tell Him you want to live with Him, tell Him you want to be guided in your life by Him.  “And I will guarantee, on the basis of everything I have seen happen in my ministry, that you will become optimistic; you will become victorious; you will have peace in your heart; you will love people; you will feel good physically and emotionally.  You will have a wonderful life.”  Agree or disagree, but I believe Dr. Peale was on to something—something that the world just doesn’t get.

Consider this, happiness isn’t something that happens to you on the outside, but something that happens on the inside.  In the first chapter of I Corinthians, St. Paul says that the wisdom of God shows the world’s wisdom to be foolishness.  No clearer statement of this principle is found in the Scriptures than in Jesus’ statements about happiness; they turn the world’s value systems upside down.  Happiness or blessedness isn’t found in wealth or power or pleasure or a full belly.  Some of the happiest people on earth are some of the poorest people on earth.  And some of the richest people on earth in terms of material goods are some of the most miserable people on earth.  This is probably why Jesus said, woe to you who are rich:  Money may buy things, but it can’t buy happiness.

You may be familiar with the story of a king who was suffering from a certain malady.  He was advised by his astrologist that he would be cured if the shirt of a contented man were brought for him to wear.  People went out to all parts of the kingdom after such a person, and after a long search they found a man who was really happy . . . but he didn’t possess a shirt.  There are people today, living in the most desperate of circumstances and can still be happy, according to Jesus.  Happiness comes from another source:  it comes from placing our faith and trust in God. 

It’s a curious spiritual principle that the more we have, the more we demand out of life.  So often it’s the person who appears to be blessed, with all the external trappings of the good life, who is so easily miffed at God, while the person who has very little feels a much greater sense of gratitude for life’s little joys and pleasures.  This isn’t to say that in order to find happiness, we need to give away everything we possess.  That might help or it might be the worst thing we could possibly do.  It might fill us with so much resentment, or even worse, with so much self-righteous pride that we would be intolerable.  

It is to say, however, that some of us have our values all out of whack.  That’s why so many people are so miserable.  There are only two sources of happiness in this entire world.  One is a right relationship with God.  The other is a right relationship with our fellow human beings.  Everything else is extraneous.  Poverty or wealth, handicap or health, surrounded by loved ones or weeping beside a lonely grave–we can still have a well-spring of joy within, if we understand the source of happiness.

Happiness isn’t dependent upon circumstances but on an inner certainty–that we are loved, accepted; that we belong to God.  How sad it is to see so many people go through life without discovering this essential principle that happiness comes only from a right relationship with God and with others.  J.T. Fisher states: “If you were to take the sum total of all authoritative articles ever written by the most qualified of psychologists and psychiatrists on the subject of mental hygiene . . . you would have an awkward and incomplete summation of the Sermon on the Mount . . .  For nearly two thousand years the Christian world has been holding in its hands the complete answer to its restless and fruitless yearnings.  Here . . . rests the blueprint for successful human life with optimism, mental health, and contentment.”  This is why so many people today are unhappy.  It may also account for why suicides are growing among both young people and older people alike.  We’ve bought into the notion that happiness comes by being surrounded with pretty things.

Economics Professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics and Political Science has spent a good part of his life studying what is sometimes called the Science of Happiness.  He notes that there have always been people who believe that things are going downhill, that society is going to “hell in a hand basket.”  But, if you study society, as a whole, over the last fifty years, they’re wrong.  By every measurable standard, life is better than it’s ever been before.  In the United States, for example, living standards have more than doubled.  Among some populations there have been massive increases in real income . . . and yet, according to extensive studies by the Gallup organization, people are not one bit happier than 50 years ago.

The adage that money cannot buy happiness has been affirmed time after time.  According to scientific studies, once our basic needs are met (shelter, food, and basic education) income makes little difference in our levels of happiness, except in extreme situations.  Even celebrities are beginning to recognize that.  

Late-night talk show host, David Letterman, was quoted in the New York Times.  Letterman said: “I’m a person who spends a great deal of his time wondering why he’s not happier.  I have found that the only thing that does bring you happiness is doing something good for somebody who is incapable of doing it for themselves.”  That was David Letterman, but it sounds a lot like Jesus.

Psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Martin Seligman spent decades studying the subject of happiness.  In his experience, the recipe for happiness contains three “ingredients”:  pleasure (that is, the sensations of what we normally think of as happiness), engagement (that is, how enthusiastically involved you are with your relationships, your work, your hobbies, etc.), and meaning (how you contribute to the greater good).  He says that the pleasure component of happiness is the least significant, and the least enduring of the three.  Those things that engage us and give us meaning are much more important in our search for happiness.  That’s the reason people of faith are happier people.  They generally have more stable relationships, and they have a greater sense of purpose for their lives.

Author James W. Moore says that a friend of his once shared with him an experience that she had in an art museum in New York.  She went into one special exhibit room where all the paintings were paintings of roads. There were paintings of busy modern interstate highways, big city crowded thoroughfares, attractive landscaped parkways, happy neighborhood streets, remote mountain trails, and quiet country roads.  At one end of the big room was a very large painting of a road.  It had an ethereal, spiritual look, with soft pastel colors, and the caption beneath it read: “The Road to Happiness.”  

As his friend stood there and looked at this magnificent painting of “The Road to Happiness,” two fashionably dressed, middle-aged women walked up beside her.  One of them was visibly moved by the painting.  “Isn’t that beautiful?” she said.  But the other responded sadly, “Of course it’s beautiful.  The only problem is, there’s no such road!”  Well I’m happy to report, that lady is wrong!  The road to happiness is found in following Jesus.

In 1989, columnist Nick Clooney decided that he, like a modern-day Huck Finn, wanted someone else to do his work for a little while.  So, he invited a variety of local celebrities from the Kentucky-Ohio area to send in their ideas on a column about epitaphs.  What would these famous men and women want to have written on their tombstones?  He was surprised by the wit and sincerity of the various responses.

Ira Joe Fisher, a weather man, wrote a humorous couple of lines that went like this, “He wanted the mind of Plato, the heart and soul of Socrates.  But his life was more of a tribute to Ol’ Mediocrities.”  Paul Knue, the editor of the Cincinnati Post, couldn’t make up his mind about what to write until after he and his family went away for a weekend trip.  When he returned, Paul knew that he wanted an epitaph that reflected the importance of his family in his life.  He chose as his epitaph two simple words: “He cared.”  But the most pleasantly whimsical message was from Charlie Mechem, former head of Taft Broadcasting.  His epitaph read like this: “Dear God, Thanks for letting me visit.  I had a wonderful time.”

Is that what you would like to say when you come to the end of your life?  “Dear God, Thanks for letting me visit.  I had a wonderful time.”  You can; all you have to do is give up the definition of happiness that the world forwards and look to what Jesus taught us in the Bible.  When you do, you’ll find a secret to life very few people ever find.  You will have found the road to happiness.  You’ll be able to say with Charlie Mecham: “Dear God, Thanks for letting me visit. I had a wonderful time.” 


Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.

< back to Sermon archive