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The Pursuit of Happiness

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{Read Matthew 5:1-12}

On the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee there sits a Catholic Franciscan chapel called the Church of the Beatitudes. It is located on the traditional site where Jesus delivered his famous Sermon on the Mount. Ironically, the chapel was built in 1938 with the help of an Italian fascist dictator named Benito Mussolini. Pope John Paul II celebrated mass there in 2000. Even President George W. Bush visited the church in the last year of his presidency.

The church’s unique architecture reflects the opening remarks in Jesus’s sermon. Its octagonal shape represents the eight simple but sublime beatitudes he delivered on this mountaintop overlooking the beautiful sea. Rays of sunshine spill through eight stained glass windows located high on the walls of the church, illuminating Jesus’s elegant words etched into the colorful glass.

It’s a strange place to find the secret to happiness, don’t you think? But it was there that Jesus “blessed” his audience and reversed the usual notions of happiness.

Today I’m beginning a new series of messages called Highway to Happiness: A Surprising Trip through the Beatitudes of Jesus. Matthew 5:1-12 will be our home for nine weeks. Yes, we’ll take 9 weeks to travel through 12 verses and 8 beatitudes. What a journey it will be! Some of you might be wondering, “Pastor, how can you get an entire sermon out of a single sentence.” Good question. Actually, I’m wondering how I can plumb the depths and riches of a single beatitude in only 30 minutes each week.

You won’t find empty clichés or safe, sentimental platitudes in the beatitudes. They are as refreshing as they are counter-cultural. If you’re looking for feel-good sermons or simple behavior modification tips, you won’t find them here either. Jesus gave us be-attitudes not do-attitudes, although the word “beatitude” never appears in the text of Scripture.

The dictionary defines “beatitude” as “supreme blessedness” and “exalted happiness.” The beatitudes have been called be-happy attitudes, beautiful attitudes, a road to recovery, the secret to happiness, the applause of heaven, and a staircase ascending toward God. Some see these eight teachings as evidences of the character of Christ. In his best-selling book The Secret to Happiness, Billy Graham noted, “The character which we find in the Beatitudes is, beyond all question, nothing less than our Lord’s own character, put into words.”

Selling Happiness

Happiness is a popular pursuit. Authors, movie producers, songwriters and universities have all figured out how to market happiness. For example,

  • In 2006, The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith was a Hollywood blockbuster film based on the life of Chris Gardner who achieved happiness as a successful Wall Street stock broker after being homeless.
  • Sheryl Crow wrote a popular song titled “If It Makes You Happy.”
  • In 1988, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” became the first a cappella song to reach number one on the Billboard Top 100 chart and held that position for two weeks.
  • Four thousand books were published in 2008 on ‘happiness’ compared to 50 books on the topic in 2000.
  • The most popular class at Harvard University is on positive psychology. At least 100 other universities offer similar courses.
  • Our founding fathers acknowledged “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence as one of three unalienable rights endowed by our Creator.

Even Coca-Cola is selling happiness. The soft drink giant recently launched their new advertising campaign to a worldwide audience on Super Bowl Sunday called “Open Happiness.”[i]

{Run “Coke-Heist” commercial video}

Nobody is more creative in their advertisements than Coke. Their commercials are great entertainment. But is it really possible to find happiness in a bottle full of brown, sugary water?

Searching for Happiness

It’s easy to sell happiness because most everybody is searching for it. But few of us ever really find true happiness. Have you ever wondered why happiness is so elusive?

Pop music icon Madonna was asked, “Are you a happy person?” She replied, “I’m a tormented person. I have a lot of demons I’m wrestling with. But I want to be happy. I have moments of happiness. I’m working toward knowing myself, and I’m assuming that will bring me happiness.”

Chris Evert was a commanding figure in women’s tennis in 1986. By age thirty-one she was internationally famous, earned three million dollars a year (a lot of money for an athlete of that time), and had homes in England, California and Florida. During an interview with a writer from Life magazine, she admitted, “I’ve had enormous success, but you have to find your own happiness and peace. You can’t find it in other things and people. I’m still searching.”

 “I’m still searching!” she says. These are haunting words for someone who has reached the pinnacle of success in her career. What about you? Are you still searching for happiness?

The Declaration of Independence guarantees our right to pursue happiness, but it says nothing about actually obtaining happiness. There’s a good reason for that.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were three unalienable rights endowed by our Creator, he believed we could pursue happiness but not obtain it. He got the idea from John Locke who believed happiness, though elusive, was the foundation of liberty. According to Locke, and thus Jefferson, there were so many contingencies involved with obtaining happiness that no person could realistically claim a right to obtain it; he could only claim a right to pursue it.

George Mason, another one of the founding fathers, wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a document with which Jefferson was no doubt familiar in 1776. Mason mentioned “pursuing and obtaining happiness” among the “inherent natural rights” of the individual. His belief in the right to “obtain happiness” clashed with Lock’s notion of the elusive nature of happiness.

Maybe happiness is elusive because we have the wrong idea about it. Perhaps our definition is skewed. “Happy” comes from the French and Middle English and describes something accidental or happening by chance. This kind of happiness is circumstantial and understood by many of us as the absence of adverse circumstances. Is this what the Founders had in mind when guaranteeing our right to pursue happiness?

In a lecture at Hillside College on John Adams, historian David McCullough noted that when Adams and the other Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all men possess the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” that what was meant by “happiness” was not “longer vacations or more material goods,” but rather “the enlargement of the human experience through the life of the mind and the life of the spirit.”

McCullough is on the right track, don’t you think? Today, happiness has been reduced to instant gratification through happy meals, happy hours, and happy pills. However, Jesus had something else in mind.

The “Blessed” Life

Let’s take a closer look at the beatitudes. Jesus used the word “blessed” nine times in twelve verses. It is key to understanding what our Lord means by the pursuit of happiness.

“Blessed” is from the Greek word markarios which generally means “happy” or “blissful.” However, the way we use the word “happy” today trivializes the word “blessed.” “Happy” is like a 90-pound weakling trying to bench press a 300 pound “blessed.” We must deconstruct our understanding of happiness if we are going to grasp what Jesus is saying.

The Greek word translated “blessed” was used in extra-biblical literature in two ways. First it described the rich who used their wealth to insulate themselves from the cares and worries of normal folks. It was also used to describe the Greek gods who had the power to create a celestial existence for themselves full of deep satisfaction, fulfillment and supreme happiness.

Of course, Jesus aimed his teaching at people who were neither wealthy nor gods. On the contrary, they were poor and persecuted. By using the same word that applied to the gods of the ancient world and to the super rich, Jesus was reassuring his loyal followers that peace, contentment, joy and fulfillment were theirs to claim. Yes, they could live the “blessed” life.

Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Jesus believed we could actually obtain happiness with his help. The backsides of the beatitudes contain assurances that the “blessed” life is actually within reach for the pilgrim who pursues Jesus. Read his words again, this time slowly and carefully,

“for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”

“for they shall be comforted”

“for they will inherit the earth”

“for they will be filled”

“for they will be shown mercy”

“for they will see God”

“for they will be called sons of God”

“for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”

So, who are the “blessed?” Who are the people in this life who pursue and actually obtain happiness? This is where the surprise comes in. If Gomer Pyle read the beatitudes, no doubt he would grin from ear to ear and shout, “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!” Allow me to list the surprise players in the pursuit of happiness,

the poor in spirit

            those who mourn

                        the meek

                                    the hungry and thirsty

                                                the merciful

                                                            the pure

                                                                        the peacemakers

                                                                                    the persecuted

Who would have ever thought that these are among the happiest people on the earth? One wonders whether Jesus is thinking clearly. He seems to have everything backwards. How can the poor and persecuted live the “blessed” life? Can a person be happy and sad at the same time? When was the last time you were inspired by Mr. Meek and Mild? Jesus’s first-century audience must have been scratching their heads and wondering, what in the world is he talking about?

Throughout the centuries, many writers have contributed to our understanding of these pithy sayings, including Billy Graham, Max Lucado and Robert Schuller. Some not-so-famous authors like Jim Forest have too.

Forest wrote a book called The Ladder of the Beatitudes. In it he pictured a staircase with each step displaying one of the beatitudes. Each step led to the other and each was dependant on the previous step. Forest believed it would be wrong for us to isolate these eight sayings, or to think we can embrace, for instance, four of the eight and leave the others for another day when by spiritual whim we decide to embrace them. No, Forest believed these spiritual qualities build upon themselves.

The sequence of thought goes something like this. After we admit our spiritual poverty and begin to mourn genuinely over our sin and helplessness, meekness and humility arise in our being. This creates in us a deep hunger and thirst for doing the right thing. Are you with me so far?

After traveling up the first fours steps of the ladder, we now have the inner qualities to manifest mercy, purity and peacemaking – three more steps. As we live this way, we will irritate people around us who choose to live opposite the way of Jesus. The poor in spirit who mourn over their sin and walk humbly before God will become, like the prophets, the object of persecution and insults. False accusations will come against those who are agents of mercy, purity and peace. “Oh, happy day?” you ask. Oh yes, happy day! As strange as it may seem, this is the blessed life. This is the pursuit of happiness.

Jesus knew what he was talking about. He spoke with authority. Fast forwad to the end of the Sermon on the Mount and you’ll find a summary of the people’s response to the entire sermon. “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at this teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matt. 7:28-29).

Ouch! Those last eight words sting like sand in the eyes of the Pharisees. Jesus’s words rang with authority because he spoke the truth. Better yet, he said, “I am the truth” and “the truth will set you free” (John 14:6, 8:35-36). From the moment he began speaking to the crowds on the hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee, he had them leaning forward and listening intently. Matthew even adds the small but insightful detail that he “sat down” when teaching (Matt. 5:1).

Sitting was the common posture Rabbis would assume when teaching. It communicated authority. On another occasion Jesus borrowed Peter’s fishing boat and the Bible says he sat down in it to teach as the crowds gathered along the shore. That’s my kind of pulpit! This is why the Pope in the Catholic Church always speaks from a seated position or ex cathedra meaning “from his chair.” Jesus not only assumed the position of authority, but when he spoke the people actually received his words as authoritative. 

Sadly, today the authoritative words of Jesus get lost in the mushiness of pluralism where truth is reduced to the whims and whistles of individual tastes and preferences. The relativism of our day makes Jesus’s words no less authoritative. But if we allow political correctness and inclusiveness to shape our theology and worldview, it will negatively affect the ways we hear and respond to Jesus’s words. In the end, we might pursue but never obtain happiness.

What you can expect from a study of the beatitudes . . .

What can you expect from a study of Jesus’s beatitudes? I leave you with three thoughts. First, expect positive results in your life. I love the word “blessed” found repeatedly in this text. “Blessed” is a supremely positive word. Too often, sermons are more negative than they are positive. Someone once said, “A pinch of positive blessing does more for our souls than a pound of negative bruising.”

Years ago I met a lady who lived in the zone of God’s blessing. She was part of the first church I served as senior pastor. Every time I bumped into her and asked how she was doing, she would reply, “Oh pastor, I am blessed.” Honestly, at first I wanted to tell the lady to get real. Her sweet, overly-spiritual and sentimental outlook on life wasn’t helping the rest of us for whom life was hard. After a while I began to understand the depth of her relationship with Jesus. “Blessed” was the most appropriate response she could give.

I can promise you one thing if you stick with me throughout this study – you will be blessed!

Second, expect to rearrange your value system. This will be hard for some of you, especially if you dislike rearranging anything in your life, including the furniture. Jesus’s beatitudes reverse everything you and I typically think about the pursuit of happiness.

Somebody once described the Christian life as the “exchanged life.” In other words, by trusting Jesus Christ as your Savior, you exchange your life for his, your dreams for the future for his and your definition of happiness for his. For most, this is an odd way to live. But we were made for this.

An old preacher named A.W. Tozer said it this way,

“The Christian is an odd number anyway. He feels supreme love for One whom he has never seen, talks in a familiar way to Someone he cannot see, expects to go to heaven on the virtue of Another, empties himself in order to be full, admits when he is wrong so he can be declared right, goes down in order to get up, is strongest when he is weakest, richest when he is poorest and happiest when he feels the worst. He dies so he can live, forsakes in order to have, gives away so he can keep, sees the invisible, hears the inaudible, and knows that which passes knowledge.”

Finally, expect to meet Jesus. The beatitudes have nothing to offer the person who rejects Jesus. Remember, these are be-attitudes not do-attitudes. The supreme blessedness and exalted happiness Jesus articulated 2000 years ago is the result of being rightly related to him. Have you trusted him as your Savior? Have you bowed to his rule in your life/ Are you living life on the Highway to Happiness?


[i] “Coke-Heist” commercial

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