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Jeremiah 17:5-10        Psalm 1            1 Corinthians 15:12-20        Luke 6:17-26

Happiness, happiness, 
the greatest gift that I possess
I thank the Lord that I've been blessed 
With more than my share of happiness. Ken Dodd

You may have noticed that more recent translations tend to use the word ‘happiness’ as a replacement for ‘blessed’. Yet the on-line thesaurus offered a long list of synonyms before reaching ‘beatitude’ and ‘blessedness’. Curious! These were: bliss, contentment, delight, elation, enjoyment, euphoria, exhilaration, glee, joy, jubilation, laughter, optimism, peace of mind, pleasure, prosperity, and well-being. So, if you don’t mind, I think I may just stick with well-being and blessedness today. Especially as you look at the reading from Jeremiah, with its image of the faithful as trees planted by the waterside, and the beginnings of a beatitude carrying this simple statement:

‘the Lord will test the mind and search the heart’

Yet this simple statement is critical to take on board, in a culture that promotes personal well-being and success (’because you’re worth it!). It comes as a bit of a shock to discover that real happiness, blessedness or well-being are God-focussed and about following God’s ways.

Through the Hebrew Bible, such teaching is referred to as ‘wisdom writing’: Wisdom of Solomon, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiasticus and some of the Psalms follow similar themes. Unlike the traditional material such as Promise, Exodus & Covenant, found in the Hebrew Scriptures; Wisdom writing represents a human search for knowledge that enriches life. They tend to read like instructions, gathered over many centuries and passed on; so they are gathered from three distinct settings or usage – for family life, for school and for courtly life.

Biblical wisdom literature arose under the impact of the cosmopolitan culture and variety of philosophies and mystery religions of the Hellenistic world, where the faith of many Jews was shaken.  Moreover, as a result of persecution, the perennial problem of the wicked prospering and the good suffering rose to a crisis level.  It would have been like the impact of the WW1 and of the Holocaust; and looks at questions of theodicy Why does God let the good suffer?

So now you may be wondering what is the link between Wisdom literature and Jesus? In the book Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza reminds us that Jesus may well have been Mary’s child, but he was also a prophet in the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures. No wonder there is some similarity between the words of Jesus and the prophets of old.

Most people know the passage referred to as the Sermon on the Mount, but Luke sets a very similar story on the Plain. I presume that at the most straightforward level, Jesus must have used the same material in different contexts. If everyone wrote down what they remembered from a sermon, I’ve no doubt that there would be many different accounts, generally retaining the part that spoke especially to you.

But why on the Plain?

Jesus ‘went up’ to pray, then to choose the twelve (6:12f) and ‘came  down’ from the mountain’ down to meet with the people. Exodus describes how Moses went up to meet with God and returned to communicate the will of God to the people. I like this quote from Fred Craddock:

For Luke, the mountain is a place of prayer, and there he chooses the Twelve. Now he moves to the plain below to be with the people, with whom Jesus identifies, as at his baptism.

Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation commentary. (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1990), 86

On this level ground stand: 12 Apostles, many disciples together with crowds from all over, including Tyre and Sidon. We frequently think of those early disciples as poor people and perhaps believe they had little to lose. Yet we discovered last week that Peter and his colleagues left thriving businesses to follow Jesus, and many of Jesus’ followers were fairly affluent: the women who supported him, Joseph of Arimathea, and Theophilus – for whom Luke wrote his account. Regardless of background or social standing, to follow Jesus Christ has always involved a cost:

What’s at stake for high-status Theophilus is revealed in Verse 22: ‘Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man’

Because for Theophilus that is exactly the fate that awaits if he joins the Jesus community.

Jesus warns of the status quo; here the words are from The Message:

But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get. 25 And its trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long. And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it. 26 “There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests – look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.  (The Message)

I think that gives a fairer idea of the ‘woes’ as a description of life outside of the kingdom of God, outside the realm of God’s gracious happiness.  

In contrast there are also The four blessings:

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: 

  • Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 6:20
  • Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. 6:21
  • Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
  • Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 6:22

Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 6:23

Once more these verses come with fresh interpretation from The Message:

“Then he spoke: You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all. God’s kingdom is there for the finding. 21 You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal. You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning. 22 “Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. 23 You can be glad when that happens – skip like a lamb, if you like! – for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this. Give Away Your Life “

So why are the poor ‘happy? There is very little to bring joy from having to choose heating or eating, so perhaps the definition of ‘poverty’ needs qualifying. In the Psalms, the ‘poor’ are those who look to God, to deliver them out of their troubles because they recognise their need of God. And from this springs blessedness/happiness:

This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
    and was saved from every trouble. (Psalm 34:6; 37:14; 40:17; 74:19, 21)

So the biblical definition of happiness differs from contemporary culture: it is one that is God-centred rather than self-centred. And the reward is also of a very different nature, the kingdom of heaven is yours! When the Lord looks over the way of the righteous, it does not mean divine supernatural protection; more that Christ’s followers are rooted and grounded in gospel hummus; grafted onto the true vine – in which we find our peace and security.  The world may throw all kinds of stuff at us – natural difficulties of human life, exclusion and persecution  for following Christ, but a well-rooted tree stands firm. And it is in union with Christ that such security flows.

The image of the tree planted by the water that was used in Jeremiah, also appears in Psalm 1, thriving through every season because it has everything it needs: it has been planted adjacent to the very source of life. Truly wise people live according to those things which bring them and their communities’ refreshment.  This is not just for those who follow Christ, but has implications for wider society.

From Jesus’ first sermon at the Nazareth synagogue (based on Isaiah 61), a time of Jubilee is announced – when the poor hear good news and the oppressed are released; a release from wrong-doing that drags people down, and from the social conditions of oppression. The well-being of the disciples, is more than beneficial to the individual. It is intended to bring blessings to the wider community.

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