Matt 5:1-12; Psalm 51:
3rd Sunday of Epiphany
St Barbara’s 15.01.2023
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Happiness. What makes you happy? It is the one thing that every human desires – to be happy. I can cope with being poor, I can cope with physical pain, as long as I am happy. Those things may hinder me from being happy but if I can find something that transcends that – a state of mind, a relationship, a philosophy of life – then I can cope with most things. That question – what makes us happy? – has been a question that people have wrestled with since the beginning of the human race.
But it may also feel somewhat self-centred to ask “What makes us happy?” After all, isn’t a worthy life, or a good Christian life, about putting on a hair shirt, gritting our teeth, and suffering for the sake of others? About ignoring ourselves and putting others first?
So it may come as a surprise that when Jesus sat down with his disciples to give them his rules for living (and by sitting down on a mountainside he seemed to be quite deliberately copying Moses who received the ten commandments up on a hillside), he starts with eight things that will make them happy. “Blessed” he says – quite literally – “happy are you who…”
In previous centuries the church placed these eight statements – known as the beatitudes after the Latin word for blessings – at the heart of Christian living and teaching. These eight statements were to be learnt by heart by every Christian alongside the words of the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. We probably all still know the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we can probably give a good stab at getting most of the ten commandments, but these eight happiness statements? So over the next few weeks we are going to look at these statements, and I make no apologies that our Gospel reading will be the same each week. I hope by the end of this series each of us will have learnt these eight statements by heart.
Its worth saying before we dive in to looking at our first happiness statement, that these statements are not pick and mix. Inevitably some may appeal to us more than others, but just as it would make no sense to say we would obey some of the ten commandments but not others, or pray some words of the Lord’s prayer but not others, so these eight statements come as one package. As a whole, they show us what leads to happiness.
The other thing to say is that these happiness statements are best understood by looking at Jesus. Jesus lived out each of these statements to the full. If we are unsure what they mean, we are to look at his actions and words in the gospels.
So let’s start with our first happiness statement: “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, puts it this way: “Blessed are those who know their need of God, who recognise their need for resources outside themselves, who receive and live life as a gift, who don’t take themselves too seriously.”
Before Christmas I went to a talk given to all Coventry clergy about space and astronomy. I have to confess I wondered of all the things we could have been learning about, whether space was the most important. But I came away from the talk with my mind blown. This is basic stuff that I am sure most of you know already but to be made to think about the implications that our earth is just one planet orbiting the sun, which is just one star out of hundreds of billions in our galaxy, which in turn is just one galaxy out of billions in the universe, a universe which is ever-expanding, made me realise just how small our earth and how small I as one individual on this earth are. The universe is phenomenally vast, and yet the very nature of God is that He is the source and sustainer of all of that.
It may be that sometimes, perhaps inevitably, we have too small a view of God, that we think of him as being just that little bit bigger than ourselves. But the God who shapes the universe is so much more than that. Being poor in spirit is in part about recognising how much greater God is than us, about recognising that all the things that we may hold to and see as important – our strengths, our abilities, our possessions, our status, our influence – are pretty tiny in comparison. Before the greatness, the awesomeness of God, who am I?
But it is in coming to that position of poverty of spirit, of humility, that we discover something remarkable. The God who is greater than the whole universe wants to come and dwell in us; he wants to show us his love, the love that has created everything that is good in the world around us. When we recognise that we have not got everything sorted, that we need God’s help, it is then that we discover that he is there waiting to be invited into our lives. And it is then that we begin to see the kingdom of heaven all around, the work of God’s Spirit miraculously at work in his world.
When we are so confident in our own abilities and resources, it is difficult to see that or to hear God’s gracious longing to make himself known. Ironically, trusting in our own abilities and resources just leads to anxiety – they are temporary things – and often the more we have, the more anxious to hold on to them we become. That is not the road to happiness. Trusting in God, whose resources and love are inexhaustible, is. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.”
Jesus’ second statement on happiness is also an upside-down one: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” How can that be? Mourning is about sadness and grief, the very opposite of happiness.
There is much in life that causes grief and rightly so. Jesus wept over the fate of Jerusalem and he wept over the death of his friend Lazarus. We would describe people as callous or hardened – not good qualities – who are unable to express sadness and grief over the suffering of others, whether it is those friends and family close to us or those more distant suffering from the impact of war, poverty and disease.
But in living a Christ-focussed life, mourning can take us places where we experience a deeper sense of hope, joy and comfort.
In times of deepest grief we struggle to find consolation other than in God. I am often struck when meeting with bereaved families at their openness to finding hope in God, even when they may not necessarily have believed before. Faith is one of the few things that can make sense of grief, that can bring comfort and hope, in times of loss.
When we look at the injustices and suffering of the world – a theme we will pick up more fully next week – crying out to God in sorrow is the loving response, and in doing so, in coming before God, we discover there is hope, that God’s kingdom, his justice, his will, will come, it will not be postponed for ever.
For Jesus, the way of happiness was not through avoiding hurt and sadness and grief. We cannot live lives of love and not experience those things. But he showed us that a deeper happiness, a sustainable happiness that copes with these sadnesses and disappointments and frustrations is found in trusting in him and believing that injustice or death is not the end – that ultimately he does overcome.
There is another meaning also to this beatitude, a meaning that picks up our reading from Psalm 51: to mourn our failings and sinfulness. The words of the Book of Common Prayer bring this out well: “we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness”. We are sorrowful, remorseful, for the way we have hurt others, for the times we have let God down. This does not mean we are to wallow in our inadequacies and failings, but nor are we to simply shrug them off as if they didn’t matter. The place of blessing is when our sorrow, our contrition, for what we have done, leads us to the realisation that despite all of this, God loves us and forgives us. We cannot appreciate the fulness of that if we gloss over our sins.
What is the way to happiness? Well, our journey begins by acknowledging God’s greatness and holiness and our smallness and sinfulness – that we totally need him, for in doing so, we discover that He is there for us. And it continues by mourning the sadnesses and suffering of this world, for in doing so, we discover the comfort of God’s hope. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.”