The Wisdom of Heaven: Happiness

Posted in Coming Soon, Led and Transformed by the Spirit by St. Paul's Communications | November 6th, 2017

Matthew 5:1-12

Some of us were required to memorize this passage as children in Sunday School, and so these words of Jesus known as the Beatitudes are familiar to us. The more familiar translations of this passage use the word blessed instead of our Common English Bible translation of this morning which translates the word as happy.

This translation of the Greek word makarios simply intensifies the strangeness of the Beatitudes. After all, blessed is one of those religious words that can have odd meanings in an unfamiliar vocabulary, so it’s pretty much up for grabs for Jesus to use however he wants. But happy is an ordinary word. We know what happy means and it’s just wrong to say that those who grieve are happy, or those who are harassed are happy. That’s just bizarre.

Translating makarios as blessed obscures what this morning’s translation intensifies: Jesus is talking crazy. Or is he? Maybe we’re the crazy ones. Maybe this is actually wisdom. Wisdom of Heaven that we need to hear.

I’ve been saying throughout this worship series that the aim of wisdom is to help us to disengage from our expectations and surrender to reality. Jesus’ teachings help us to do that. So it is important when we read them or hear them that we hold our own expectations or pre-conceived notions lightly.

Jesus presents exaggeration, paradox, contradiction, and stark alternatives. Jesus’ teachings
are meant for us to marinate in them, stew in them over time. They are meant to dissolve the glue that attaches us to conventional thinking and ordinary prejudice. They are to open a space to see with new eyes.

The beatitudes are stark reminders that Jesus’ teachings put us at odds with the dominant way of life of the world. Following Jesus requires that we pay attention to how we live, and not simply “go with the flow.”

So, even before we go into any depth about these beatitudes, contrast their provocation with how we hear and respond to another familiar Bible passage. Think about the 10 Commandments. They make sense. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness. Honor your parents. Some of the ones like don’t take the name of God in vain may and keep the seventh day holy might seem dated and strict, but there is a sense to them. The 10 Commandments are all about establishing an orderly society.

As it turns out, the Beatitudes are supposed to remind us of the 10 Commandments in a certain way.

The Beatitudes are the very beginning of that portion of Matthew’s gospel that is known as the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount extends from Matthew 5 through Matthew 7. Much of the teaching in the sermon on the mount is to contrast Jesus’ teaching with the 10 Commandments and the rest of the Law of Moses. As Moses came down from the mountain with the 10 Commandments and the other laws God gave him, Jesus – on the mountain – proclaims a new understanding of the Wisdom of Heaven that goes beyond establishing an orderly society.

The Beatitudes take a realistic look at how we are to approach eternity and find happiness. They teach us to die so that we will not be vulnerable to death. They teach us the reality of heaven and invite us to live into it here and now.

This morning I want to briefly offer a sense of direction for each of these daunting wisdom sayings of Jesus.

Happy are those who are hopeless. The kingdom of heaven is theirs. A possibly more familiar translation is “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Poor here applies not to ordinary peasants, but to the lowest of the low. Those who are at the absolute bottom of the barrel. Jesus says that they are happy. How can that be? The edge of this wisdom teaching is that they have nothing left to lose. You hopeless are the freest of all, as author Richard Rohr puts it. You are removed from trying to climb the ladder or defend yourself. Yours is the kingdom of heaven. The truth here is that in heaven there is no ladder to climb and no need to defend yourself.

In our lives in the kingdom of this world, on the other hand, we are entrapped by our ego’s need to climb and our ego’s need to defend our position. Our anxieties in the face of these needs undermine our happiness on earth.

The beatitudes point us to the reality of heaven. Can we begin to live into heaven here and now?

Happy are the people who grieve, because they will be made glad. Those who can embrace their sadness, live through their grief, will recover. If we deny our grief, if do not mourn, if we do not feel our hurt and cry our tears, we will not be able to rejoice either. We will be emotionally stifled. This is particularly true of men, who are taught not to cry, not to grieve, because it is a sign of weakness. When we trust that all is ultimately held in the embrace of God, we can entrust ourselves to grief with confidence that it is not the final word.

People sometimes are afraid to let themselves feel their deep sadness because they fear that if they enter their grief they will never be able to escape it. Jesus offers us the wisdom that only by entering the room of grief will we be able to pass through to the gladness on the other side.

The beatitudes point us to the reality of heaven. Can we begin to live into heaven here and now?
We enter through grief and death and pass on to gladness. Can we begin to live into heaven here and now?

Happy are the humble. They will inherit the earth. Of course, in reality, the humble know that no one ultimately inherits the earth. As Richard Rohr writes:

Private property forces us behind fences, boundaries and walls. We actually think that we “own” the land because there’s a deed down at the courthouse. Isn’t that strange? It’s all cultural. People closer to the earth know that only God possesses the earth, that we’re all stewards, pilgrims and strangers on earth.

Possession is an illusion in the light of heaven. What do you possess? Wait a few years – we’ll see how much you possess when you’re six feet under! You don’t possess anything.

The humble know this. The proud imagine they can take it with them!

The beatitudes point us to the reality of heaven. Can we begin to live into heaven here and now?

Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be fed. It may be that this beatitude is the one most appropriate for our time and place. Our consumer society is built on the manipulation of our hunger and thirst for more more more and then some more. This hunger and thirst for more comfort, more stimulation, more status can never be satisfied. This hunger drives our unhappiness. Someone asked Rockefeller how much was enough. He answered, “A little bit more.”

A hunger and thirst for righteousness (and the word used here has a strong connotation of justice) will be satisfied as it puts us in touch with God in a way that does feed us. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. My cup runneth over.

The beatitudes point us to the reality of heaven. Can we begin to live into heaven here and now?

Happy are those who show mercy. They shall receive mercy. The merciful allow God’s forgiving spirit to flow through them. The merciful are more interested in restoring relationship and healing and lifting up those who have gotten into trouble rather than judging, blaming, or condemning. This spirit of mercy builds on itself. It softens a community of hard hearts into a community of trust. When mercy becomes the rule, it makes us not afraid to confess and to tell the truth. When fear has fled, love can grow freely. When love grows freely, fear flees. Mercy is the first step. We place ourselves in the shoes of another.

The beatitudes point us to the reality of heaven. Can we begin to live into heaven here and now?

Happy are those who have pure hearts. They shall see God. Our hearts are naturally in tune with God. They naturally beat to God’s rhythm. Our hearts are naturally open to God. This alignment with God becomes distorted as we say that we want to be in touch with God, but in reality are wanting other things more: comfort, security, status, pleasures, power. All these things become blinders that keep us from seeing God, from being open to God. Jesus tells us that those who are happy are those who lay those obstacles aside.

The beatitudes point us to the reality of heaven. Can we begin to live into heaven here and now?

Happy are those who make peace, because they are called God’s children. We read in St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians that the cosmos is headed toward a grand re-union in Christ. It is headed to a unity in Christ. That is the plan – the restoration of unity from all the apparent discords and conflicts of the ages. Because at the root of being is love and love strives for peace. As we set aside our grudges and our divisions, we become an active part of that trajectory.

The beatitudes point us to the reality of heaven. Can we begin to live into heaven here and now?

And this peacemaking leads to the next happiness: Happy are those whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Be full of joy.

To live in this way – to live toward righteousness and justice, to live with the wisdom of heaven is to be open to joy and gladness. Yes, because it goes against the flow of the world there will be friction. Yet this way of life tastes like heaven at every step. It is heaven’s way of life every step.

And when we walk this way together, encouraging one another, helping one another, building trust together, we discover that fear subsides and love grows. The friction does not slow us down; it just heats us up. We discover the reality of heaven as we live into it here and now.

The beatitudes confront us and provoke us. It is difficult to have our core understandings undermined. Wisdom is not easy.

I’ve offered some clues that might make this wisdom more plausible.

How do they challenge you to reset your priorities?

How do they challenge you to rethink what happiness might mean?

How does Jesus wisdom teaching give you the perspective that the border between heaven and earth does not need to be as wide as you think it is or fear it is?

The gulf between us and the saints we remember can become narrower than we expected after all.

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