The Pursuit of Happiness

A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Matthew 5:1-12
January 29, 2017

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
With the Superbowl approaching, my mind has been wondering how football players got inspired. I know part of the coach’s job is to create the hunger and desire to do what is necessary to win. Who can forget Lombardi’s famous… “Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing”… Knute Rockne said, “Show me a good and gracious loser and I’ll show you a failure” … Amanda tells me that on her rugby team they often say, “Blood makes the grass grow: kill, kill, kill!” Now there is inspiration!

I don’t know what has inspired the Patriots and the Falcons to reach the pinnacle of their goals… I don’t know how coaches inspire any winning team… but I very much doubt, you will find on any locker room wall these sayings:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…
Blessed are the meek (now go get ’m)
Blessed are those who are merciful… blessed are the peacemakers”

Very few would think that would be a winning formula for a team. And for some, they sound like losing strategies for life.

But not to Jesus. He is teaching his disciples what a blessed life looks like. He says, “Blessed are the poor… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are… Blessed are…”

But what does he mean by that? What does the word “blessed mean”? One translation I read growing up, called the Good News Bible gets at it this way: “Happy are those…” Others use the same translation…

Happy are those… one of the deepest desires of Jesus for us is for us to be happy.

Which may be refreshing on this road to discipleship. Because the road can look so hard and challenging… On this road we will hear a lot about the cost of discipleship from Jesus… how hard it is to follow Jesus… … taking up crosses… how much you have to give up and sacrifice to follow Jesus… but here at the beginning he shares with his disciples that those who become a members of God’s kingdom will be happy.
That following his way will lead to a blessed, happy life.

And with that, Jesus connects with the hearts deepest desire… our desire to be happy. Something so universal it is written into Declaration of Independence… that among our rights is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…

Happiness is what most people are after in life. I’ve traveled this world and noticed this: No matter your race, religion, status, where you live in the world…and as we watch refugees looking for a help… all share this common desire: to be happy.

As one person wrote:“Many philosophers have held that happiness is the highest good in life. Most of us will not admit this is so, and yet there is no goal in life which we desire to reach unless it does bring contentment. Wisdom, business success, the accumulation of wealth, professional skill, patriotic duty, service in the Kingdom of God—all of these things we seek after because we think that in securing or in rendering them we shall find peace for our souls. The only real question becomes, “How may happiness be secured and how may it be retained?”

Good question: How may happiness be secured and retained?

I mean, If your team wins the big game, will you have happiness? Well, for a while… who doesn’t love a great victory… celebrating… but it won’t last of course…
If you have a successful career will you be happy? Well maybe. But what happens if you lose your job or if your career does not advance…or when you retire… what happens then?

Some people pursue it through sports and entertainment… we want to be entertained as the path to happiness. So we sign up our kids for every kind of sport and art… because we want them to be happy. For if the kids are happy, the parents are happy. (Which, by the way is the reversal of how I grew up. When I grew up we used to say that if Momma wasn’t happy, no one was happy… so that if Mom was happy, we’d be happy.)

We are all pursuing happiness, the question is, how will we achieve it?

I ran across this contemporary set of beatitudes which I confess represent the way I hear the world telling me to be happy:

“Blessed are the rich and famous, for they will be recognized as important people. (Explains the Kardashians)
Blessed are those who party, for they will enjoy life to the fullest.
Blessed are the aggressive, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who do their own thing, for they will find personal fulfillment.

Blessed are those who take care of number one, for they don’t worry about anyone else.
Blessed are the wheelers and dealers, for they are winners in this dog-eat dog world.
Blessed are those who don’t get involved in other people’s problems, for they will avoid getting caught in the middle.
Blessed are those who don’t rock the boat, for they will be liked by everyone”
I think that fairly well represents the beatitudes that the world teaches us… as the way to find happiness…

The only problem, based on my observation and years of pastoral counseling…and lots of self-reflection and life experience: is that those approaches don’t work in the end.

Jesus seems to say they won’t get you what you are looking for…

Of course, most of us won’t listen to Jesus at first… we have to learn the hard way.
First we follow one of those paths after another… when one comes up short… we move to the next one in the pursuit of happiness… we buy books on happiness or success… we seem pursue every path to happiness except the one taught by Jesus…
We seem to have to learn the hard way the wisdom Jesus seeks to teach us in our pursuit of happiness… Jesus does want us to be happy… but he wants us to know a happiness that lasts…

So, what does that look like?

Ernest Trice Thompson in commenting on the beatitudes said it as well as I have heard it said:“…in Jesus estimation, true abiding happiness (blessedness) depends on inward condition, rather than outward circumstance.”
Hear that again because this is so important if we are to understand how Jesus blesses the lives of those who follow: “true abiding happiness (blessedness) depends on inward condition, rather than outward circumstance.”

How much of our happiness depends on outward circumstances in this world… how things turn out in your family, your company, your sports team (how depressed do you get after a loss)… your political party’s success… your personal success (however you define that)

When I take a hard and honest look at my life, it seems to me that outward circumstances more often than I care to admit, influence the state of my soul. When things go well I am happy… when things go bad, my world is shaken and begins to fall apart.

I would call that circumstantial happiness which is fine as long as it lasts, but it seldom lasts…
Jesus suggests that we have it backwards… that inward condition leads to the happiness we seek.

It is the condition I think Paul was talking about when he said,
“ for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Paul’s happiness did not rely on outward circumstance but came from an inward faith.

Perhaps Paul had learned this from listening to Christ describe the happiness of those who follow him.

Again, I’d like to share some of insights from Ernest Trice Thompson as examples:
He said,
“We are apt to think that happiness depends on possession of material goods but Jesus says, blessed are the poor…We think if we had a new car, a better home, a larger income or the means to indulge in all of our desires we will be happy.
No doubt these things would bring us joy—at least for a while. And they ought to bring us joy. Jesus was no ascetic. He came eating and drinking. His enemies called him a drunk and a glutton…God wants us to enjoy the goodness of his creation… but these things do not guarantee happiness… Walk through the streets of the wealthy suburbs…(like MacGregor Downs or Prestonwood) -we see light streaming from those homes and we wonder if there is happiness there… We know wealth is there, we know success is there, and standing is there… and often there is happiness there…
But such places are also the places of great strife and sometimes even divorce. We all know very successful people who are miserable. It never seems enough.

Now look at another home…[ I see this one in a village in Guatemala…it is a home with a dirt floor… with smoke coming from their stoves… where they are simply trying to make it day by day… and I look inside and see the people… and often , I see great happiness there…

Perhaps Jesus is smarter than we think as he says happiness does not depend on material goods or success…

Time does not permit us to go through every beatitude… But let’s quickly try another one for size: Blessed are those who are poor in spirit…” He is not saying, “poor spirited” but those who understand their spiritual need…
Such people are like those in AA whose path to recovery begins when they discover they are powerless and must depend on a higher power. Spiritually hungry people learn to depend on God to fill the hunger of their souls.

ET Thompson says,
“Perhaps the reason we are not any happier than we are is that we have been so busy with the good things of life that we have neglected the best things of life; so concerned with material things that we have neglected the nurture of our souls.
We do not feel our spiritual needs and therefore we do not use as we should the means of grace which have been put at our disposal and which enable us to grow in fellowship with God…”
I wish we had more time to go through all of the beatitudes, but we don’t.

But note this: (as ET Thompson noted) The first six beatitudes all emphasize one essential fact- true, abiding happiness depends on inward condition rather than on outward circumstances. The last two beatitudes emphasize another important truth which must be put alongside the first- that true, abiding happiness depends on participation in some unselfish activity. ”blessed are peacemakers… blessed are those trying to do right even at personal cost”

You likely have met people who have done their best to live into the beatitudes. I meet them here at the Kirk all the time…They embrace the beatitudes and they are some of the happiest people I know.

No one does it perfectly, only Jesus could pull it off… but for those who follow Jesus, they have a desire to live into them in their pursuit for happiness. They learn from them contentment and joy unknown by most in the world.

Jane Purtel must have been such a person. A few people here at the Kirk know her. She was very active and successful in the real estate community and had many, many friends. A great family. She visited the Kirk a few times last year… when she was in the fight of her life with cancer… I visited her before Christmas as she lay in her bed, knowing her days were numbered… She died after living with cancer for almost 5 years.

When I met with Jonay her daughter to prepare for Jane’s service, I asked her to share what was important for people to know. She could have shared all of her accomplishments in her career which were significant… but this is what she wanted me to know:

“Despite harsh treatments and unfavorable odds, Jane remained hopeful until the end of her life. Her faith in God did not waver. (Her faith grounded on the love of Christ…) who said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” She carried a heavy burden of a terrible disease for 5 years, but she found solace (peace, blessedness) in Jesus Christ”

Jane did not let outward circumstances control her inward peace. Oh, I’m sure she had her days, she was human like all of us… but in the end, her default was her faith… and what gave her peace was her trust in the love and wisdom of the one who said,
“Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”
And she was.

May we all know that kind of happiness…a happiness worthy of our best pursuits indeed. Amen.

[i] Ernest Trice Thompson, The Sermon on the Mount p 28ff

   Other ET Thompson quotes in this sermon come from the same book. Some have been adapted.

[ii] Philippians 4:11-13