How to Be Happy
February 24, 2013
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Today’s text is a familiar one. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ most well-known sermon. Some would argue that, in this sermon, the teachings of Jesus appear in distilled form. We also know the Sermon on the Mount as the “Beatitudes.” “Beatitude” means “blessing.” From the word “blessing,” we get the word “bliss,” or happiness. The Beatitudes are about how to be happy. Today, we love to attach numbers to teachings. We read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and Alcoholics Anonymous organizes around the Twelve-Step Program. In the Hebrew Scriptures, we have the Ten Commandments. If we took today’s text and created from it the title of a new book, we might call it Nine Steps to True Happiness. When Jesus delivers this sermon, he is leading a large crowd. These people are fascinated by this new teacher who says things that ring true for them. Wherever he goes, a crowd follows. On this day, Jesus looks out into the crowd and sees people searching for the truth, but they are filled with false teachings and a false understanding of their world and their life.
At that point, Jesus might have been thinking to himself, “This is why I’m here. This is why I came. I want to set the record straight. They seek truth, but their world is turned upside down. They think good is evil and evil is good. This is where I really begin my teaching ministry. What I’m going to say will be hard for them to understand, but I’m going to say it. And I know they really want to hear it and God will help each one of them change and grow spiritually. That’s why I’m here.”
So Jesus goes up to the mountain above the crowd. The symbolism is clear: in the Bible, according to our teachings, mountains symbolize a higher and closer connection with God. There’s also some wonderful Biblical symmetry occurring here: as Jesus ascends the mountain to teach, he invokes the image of Moses coming down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments.
In the Sermon on the Mount, humanity begins a new stage of spiritual development. In receiving the Ten Commandments, the followers of Moses were also being offered the way to happiness, but that message consisted, to a significant degree, of a list of things you shouldn’t do. If toddler Sean here were to wander around the parlor today after service and we saw him move to grab an electric outlet or a hot cup of coffee, we would very likely scream, “Stop!” We would run to him and grab him and pull him away from the danger. We wouldn’t start reasoning with him across the room, though we’ve all seen parents try it in less dire situations: “Sweetie, is that what you really want to do? Do you really think it is a good idea?” No. We’d say, “Thou shalt not touch cups!”
The Israelites in this passage, on one level of interpretation, represent those who are in the childhood of spirituality; therefore, many of their teachings are written in the negative. It’s almost as if God is saying, “I can’t explain all of this to you now, but trust me and don’t do these things. In time, I’ll explain.” For many of us, this time of rules-based spirituality, of trying to avoid the things we shouldn’t do, is the extent of our spiritual development. We remain in our spiritual childhood. Much of organized religion gets trapped at this level.
But Jesus is saying to the world that it is time to evolve toward spiritual adulthood. The rules of the Ten Commandments all still apply, but Jesus is moving us to a new level. Instead of saying, “Don’t do these things that will hurt you,” Jesus is saying, “Here is the true life of happiness. Here are examples of how you should be living your life.”
Today we move from the Ten Commandments, which are important rules of life, to nine spiritual teachings that lead to true happiness. The amazing thing is that, though we’ve read or heard these instructions a million times, they remain as radical today as they did 2,000 years ago.
Let’s break them down and put them into modern language to see if we can look at them with fresh relevance for our daily lives.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The first step toward true happiness is to recognize that we need to grow spiritually, because in fact we are all spiritually poor.
Only those who are humble can recognize their need to grow. Humility is the first step in any spiritual path. To begin the spiritual journey, we have to humble ourselves. All that we have is from God. We are not to confuse true, honest humility with false humility, in which we knock ourselves in an effort to gain praise for our self-abuse. True humility is not the false humility in which we belittle ourselves because we don’t love ourselves. True humility is simply being honest with ourselves. We need to do an honest self-appraisal to begin this journey. Arrogance and false humility will both get in the way.
This text is often misquoted to say that those who are financially poor are more spiritual. Neither wealth nor poverty assures us of spiritual growth. Both can get in the way of our honestly seeing our true selves. Some people may be so financially well off that they begin to believe they are the authors of their lives. This is arrogance. Some may use their poverty as an excuse for evil behavior and a scarcity view of the world. This attitude also reflects a lack of trust in God; it is excuse making that holds back spiritual growth.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The second step in spiritual development and true happiness is to feel true sadness for what we’ve done wrong.
This is repentance, and until we are sad about the evil we’ve inflicted on others and ourselves, we cannot move ahead.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The third step to true happiness is to be less arrogant and more humble in our dealings with others.
Meekness should not be confused with weakness. It is just the opposite. To be meek is to be strong. When we are meek, we can afford to lose face and lose arguments. When we are meek, we can listen to others without having them hear us first. To be meek means not being quick to judge or criticize others, because we’ve looked at our own faults and recognize that we have no right to tell others what to do until we get our own houses in order.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. The fourth step toward true happiness is to ask God’s guidance for our life’s mission.
This must happen after we’ve made an honest assessment of ourselves, after we’ve recognized our need to grow, and after we’ve begun to change in our treatment of others. Then we are ready to grow spiritually and be truly happy. True happiness is seeking the right thing to do with our lives. True happiness is seeking to bring justice into the world. True happiness is a constant hunger to do right.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” The fifth step toward true happiness is sharing love and kindness with others; it will then come back to you.
After the first four steps of self-reflection and change of attitude, and after recognizing our purpose, we move from self-reflection to action. In this step, we make our faith real by applying it in our daily lives. We love those we meet each day.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” The sixth step toward true happiness is to practice doing good to others until it comes naturally.
At this point in our spiritual development, our heart and motivations have truly changed. We move from selfish motives to unselfish motives. We do things simply because they are right, and that gives us joy. We are generous without gaining any credit for it.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” The seventh step toward true happiness is to bring peace to the lives of families, friends, nations, and enemies.
This level of spiritual development takes us outside of ourselves and the circle of people we love—and who love us. We move toward building bridges between warring camps by gaining trust and respect from both sides and helping them to gain love and respect for each other.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The eighth step toward true happiness is to reject popularity in our attempts to bring justice and peace to the world.
When we’ve risen beyond ourselves and those we love while really trying to bring peace to the world, the forces of evil in the world will fight back. This can be very painful. We will be demonized and lied about, and there will be name calling. Jesus assures us that this will happen in our spiritual evolution. We must truly give up wanting to be popular and loved by the world.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The ninth and final step of true happiness occurs when you recognize that the forces of evil will fight back against you physically.
If you continue to grow spiritually, the forces of evil will move beyond name calling. If you evolve spiritually, you will be happy, but the forces of evil in this world will rise up against you. They will move beyond name calling to physical persecution.
The Sermon on the Mount makes the direction of our spiritual evolution clear: what begins as internal spiritual development ends with requiring that we fight for justice in the world. As we fight for justice, we are warned that we will be unpopular and ultimately physically harmed for our work. This is Jesus’ radical view of happiness, a view that is as radical today as it was in Jesus’ time.
Let me recap the nine steps to true happiness as taught to us by Jesus.
- Recognize that we need to grow spiritually, because in fact we are all spiritually poor.
- Recognize true sadness for what we’ve done wrong.
- Act less arrogantly and more humbly in our dealings with others.
- Ask God’s guidance for our life’s mission.
- Share love and kindness with others; it will come back.
- Practice doing good to others until it comes naturally.
- Bring peace to the lives of families, friends, nations, and enemies
- Reject popularity in our attempts to bring justice and peace to the world.
- Recognize that the forces of evil will fight back against us physically.
The first four steps are internal—looking within and changing within. These are the most crucial steps; if we truly seek this change, God will empower our angels to make these changes in our lives.
The next five steps come when our inward changes are reflected by our outward treatment of those in our circle of friends and family and the world.
So here’s the question: where are you in your spiritual development?
Are you in the early stages of self-reflection?
Are you at the stage where your internal changes are reflected in your outward actions?
Or are you at the point where your love has extended beyond your own circle to the world?
With this new perspective on the Sermon on the Mount, we can see that Jesus is telling the crowd about his own life as well. He has spent the first thirty years of his life reflecting on himself. Now his mission and ministry have brought him to love the crowds who follow him, and they love him in return. He also shows that he knows what is next for his life: he will become unpopular, and then be ridiculed and ultimately executed. In a world that tells us that money, power, beauty, sex, and celebrity will lead us to happiness, Jesus says just the opposite. If I told you I was marketing a book entitled Nine Steps to True Happiness that called for forgetting yourself and loving others and that the ninth step was being physically attacked, you would think I was nuts. That’s the radical message of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. That’s the ultimate ending of a life of true happiness. It is as radical and challenging now as it was then. Amen.
Rev. Rich Tafel