February 17, 2019

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Psalm 1
Jeremiah 17:5-10
Luke 6:17-26


Happiness has become such a hot topic in our world today. And many people believe that this recent interest in happiness was instigated by the small nation of Bhutan. In 1972, Bhutan refused Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a way to measure the country’s wellbeing. Instead, they measure their country’s well-being by using a method they call, Gross National Happiness.

Other countries have followed suit. India’s government now has a Department of Happiness. In Venezuela, there is a Ministry of Happiness and in United Arab Emirates, there are ‘happiness officers’. 

So, are people in these nations happier than other places on earth. I’m afraid not, at least according to the United Nations’ World Happiness Report. This report is based on polls that are held in more than 150 countries. It is released annually, usually around March 20, which is the International Day of Happiness. 

According to these report, the happiest place on earth is Finland. Scandinavian and European nations dominate the top ten lists of the happiest place on earth.

What about Australia? Not too bad actually. We are still in the top ten last year, although at the bottom of it (ten), below New Zealand (eight). And, as you all would agree, something is terribly wrong when the Kiwis are ahead of us.

Now, according to this report, all of the ten happiest countries, are developed economies. And, we may be tempted to link the level of happiness in these countries with material wealth. But, all studies are consistent: happiness doesn’t depend on our material wealth.

Of course, Australians have never been as wealthy as we are today. And, not only us: the world itself has never seen as much wealth like today. 

I like to see display homes not to buy or build a new house, but to look for inspiration for my house. Those display homes, I think, reflect the typical middle class Australian homes (or, at least, the typical dream that middle class Australians have about a house they would like to own). 

If we use those display houses as the model, the typical middle class Australian home is large and comfortable. It has everything that we need not only to do our daily chores, but also to be entertained. There is no need for anyone living in that kind of house to go out. Yet, despite our big and comfortable houses, people now are the loneliest they have ever been. 

So, how come there is a disparity between what we have and how happy we are? I think it is because, despite our understanding, we still like to link our happiness with what we have. We may not want to admit this, especially we who go to church regularly. But, deep down, we still like to think that happiness is all about US. Being happy is about meeting all OUR needs and desires and wants. 

But, the Bible offers a different way. When it talks about happiness, it doesn’t talk about us. Indeed, the Bible proclaims that happiness is found not when we focus on ourselves, but when we focus on God.

 Let’s go to the book of Psalms. The book begins with the word happy.

“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked ...”
(Psalm 1:1 NRSV)

One commentator even says that book of Psalms is basically a commentary on the word happy.[1]

 Happiness, Psalm 1 says, is not about doing what we want, but what God wants.[2] Indeed, Psalm 1 declares that Happiness is found when we meditate on God’s will.

“Happy are those (whose) delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.”
(Psalm 1:1, 2 NRSV)

 Happiness is found in learning and looking for God’s will in every situation in our life.[3]

Now, we may not always understand what God really wants with our life. Our understanding of God’s will can be also distorted. Indeed, we have to be careful with those who say that they know exactly what God’s will is. They may lead us to fanaticism that, in turn, may lead us to extremism, even violence. 

No, we will never know God’s will in our life completely. That’s why we are to always reflect and learn to understand God’s will more and more in our life. In our learning, we may be corrected, even rebuked. But, if we do this, the Psalm proclaims that we will prosper.

“In all that they do, they prosper.”
(Psalm 1:3 NRSV)

 But, prosperity in this Psalm does not relate to material prosperity. A better translation for “to prosper” in the Psalm is “to thrive”.[4] Seen in this way, happiness is linked to thriving. When we follow God’s guidance in our life, we will be happy, which means that we will thrive. In other words, we will find the strength, stability, and confidence that we need to face life’s challenges. 

And, this kind of happiness does not depend on the external situation. People whose life depends on God’s guidance will be like Jeremiah’s vision of a tree planted by water; a tree whose leaves stay green in heat and that still bears fruit in drought.

 Indeed, Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was on a “level place” when he delivered his famous sermon ...

“He came down with them and stood on a level place ...”
(Luke 6:17 NRSV) 

If we follow Luke’s account, Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” should be called “sermon on the level place”.

But, “level place” means other things in the Bible than just geographical description. In other parts of the Bible, “level place” is a place of disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, mourning.[5] By preaching on a level place, it means that Jesus preached about ways of being happy in a broken place. His message is not for people who live in a perfect world, but in a world full of suffering. For him, happiness is supposed to be found in a broken world.

Perhaps, this is the answer to the problem in our society, plagued by loneliness and depression. Perhaps, we will find healing when we listen to Jesus words. Perhaps, we will find wholeness when we take the focus away from ourselves and back to God.

In Jesus’ beatitudes, those who are happy are those who direct their life to God’s Kingdom. Those who are cursed, on the other hand, are those whose focus is directed to themselves.

“... woe to you who are RICH ...”
“Woe to you who are FULL now ...”
“Woe to you who are LAUGHING now ...”
“Woe to you when all SPEAK WELL of you ...”
(Luke 6:24-26 NRSV)

In other words, Jesus warns those who are obsessed with themselves; those who only concern about their own well-being; those who ignore other people’s condition or plight.

But, happy are those whose focus is on God’s Kingdom.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you,
revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.”
(Luke 6:22 – NRSV) 

Indeed, Jesus’ teaching today is followed by some of his most famous teachings.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
(Luke 6:27-31 NRSV)

So, for Jesus, happiness is linked with what we do to others, even to our enemies. In other words, happiness is found when we no longer focus on ourselves, but on God’s Kingdom and its values. When we still do good to others, even when others do evil to us, we do what God want us to do in our life. And when we do what God wants us to do with our life, we will find true happiness.

Friends, people like to call the teaching of Jesus’ today as “the beatitudes”. It comes from the Latin word “beatus”, which means “blessed” or “truly happy” or “deeply fulfilled”.[6] 

Indeed, Jesus’ teaching today is his recipe for a “truly happy” or “deeply fulfilled” life. But, his ‘recipe’ for happiness is different from the world’s ‘recipe’ for happiness. For him, happiness is found not when we make ourselves the priority; for him, happiness is found when the priority of God’s Kingdom becomes our priority. As such, his recipe will produce a longer and deeper happiness in our life and other people’s life. 

Toby Keva

[1] J. Clinton McCann, Commentary on Psalm 1, on www.workingpreacher.org (February 17, 2019).

[2] J. Clinton McCann, Commentary on Psalm 1, on www.workingpreacher.org (February 17, 2019).

[3] J. Clinton McCann, Commentary on Psalm 1, on www.workingpreacher.org (February 17, 2019).

[4] J. Clinton McCann, Commentary on Psalm 1, on www.workingpreacher.org (February 17, 2019).

[5] Ronald J. Allen, Commentary on Luke 6:17-26, on www.workingpreacher.org (February 17, 2019).

[6] From a sermon on www.asermonforeverysunday.com (C 12 The Sixth Sunday after The Epiphany Year C [2019]).