Blessed or Happy?
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
"Blessed or happy?" Which do you want to be?
In our Gospel reading Jesus said, "Blessed…are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" (Luke 11:28). Jesus declares that the person is blessed who listens carefully to God's Word, believes it, treasures it, and puts it into practice (cf. Luke 6:47; 8:21). This is similar to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). God's Word, His Kingdom, His righteousness must take priority over all other things, including earthly temporary happiness, and they promise blessedness now and in eternity. Consider this amazing statistic: in God's Word, the Bible (ESV translation), "happy" only appears 13 times, while "blessed" occurs 544. And given the curses on the world because of sin, which we learn about in Genesis 3, happiness is going to be hard to come by in this life. Yet in that same chapter we also learn about the Blessed Seed of the woman in whom all nations of the earth would be blessed, and in today's Gospel reading, we see this Blessed Seed Jesus defeating Satan and proclaiming the blessings of God's Kingdom.
But the world and our sinful flesh have different priorities. Happiness is a far greater concern than blessedness. This should be no surprise: we don't usually speak of a search for blessedness, but for the pursuit of happiness.
The phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is iconic in American history, and might be a sort of motto for many citizens. But this phrase from the Declaration of Independence is actually quite vague and subject to multiple interpretations when it is adopted as an isolated motto. No matter what Jefferson actually meant by "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," people are going to fill out the phrase with their own ideas. For many today, the word "life" means "living however I want," "liberty" means "the freedom to do whatever I want," and "happiness" comes from "doing whatever makes me feel good." But where is the blessedness in all that?
Life, liberty, and happiness even govern our moral and political discourse. For example, the rhetoric thrown around in the so called "gay marriage" debate goes like this: Who are we to get in the way of another person's happiness by prohibiting same-sex marriage? If that is how they want to spend their life, then shouldn't we give them the liberty to pursue happiness any way they choose? Similar arguments were successfully employed to legalize easy, no-fault divorce and abortion on demand.
Contemporary culture is obsessed with happiness. But I can't speak to an abstract culture. The Lord has called me here to speak to you. My concern is that even Christians can fall into the trap of making personal happiness the highest good. For example, consider what happens when Christians make happiness the main criterion for sexuality: If they're not happy leading a sexually pure and decent life, then they go ahead and engage in premarital sexual immorality, cohabitation, or adultery. But when Christians fall into these traps, they ignore what our Lord teaches in our Epistle reading: "For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God" (Ephesians 5:5). Those are hard words, but you may be sure of them, because they are God's Words.
But those are obvious sins, which lead to eternal unhappiness. Sometimes the obsession with worldly happiness among Christians is more subtle; it appears harmless on the surface. I overheard a Christian mother saying, "All I want for my kids is for them to be happy. Isn't that what all parents want for their children?" I suspect that's a pretty common sentiment among parents, but if you argue against it, you sound like a jerk: the opposite of happy is unhappy, and who wants that for their kids?
But happiness cannot be the measure of success in parenting: happiness is subjective, subject to an individual's tastes and preferences, unlike blessedness, which is objective: God defines what it is in His Word, as we hear in our Gospel reading today. But there is no objective recipe for happiness, since something that makes one person happy might make another person miserable. And what makes some people happy might be horrific and immoral. There are people who take pleasure in every manner of depraved behavior. Would that mother want her children to be happy if they found their happiness in murder, or cannibalism, or sexual deviancy? I would hope not! Besides all that, in His Word, God sets the terms for success in parenting when He says to parents, "Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). As a father, it would be cruel if I didn't want my children to be happy, but if I had to choose between them being temporarily happy and eternally tormented in hell, or temporarily unhappy and eternally blessed, I would go with faithfulness to God's Word and the blessings of heaven over temporary happiness.
Even in this world, the most blessed life is in being faithful to God's Word. Jesus focuses us on the first and third commandments when He says, "Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it." The first commandment: You shall have no other gods besides the LORD. What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. So we should fear God and His judgment more than we fear the loss of earthly possessions and happiness. We should love God's Word more than we love the happiness we get from creature comforts. We should trust in God for blessedness and eternal happiness more than we trust in getting happiness from earthly things.
And the third commandment: Thou shalt sanctify the holy day. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. In other words, out of fear of God and love for God, we should be happiest when we are hearing His Word and holding it sacred by learning and doing it.
As always, taking a hard look at the First Table of the Law exposes our utter wretchedness as sinners. But thanks be to God, Jesus heard and learned all of God's Word down to the letter, and put it into practice, for all of us, to fulfill all righteousness. He always was happy to obey God's Word of Law, the Ten Commandments. He found great delight in studying God's prophetic Words in the Old Testament, the Words that He had come to fulfill. And He gladly heard and kept His Father's Word when He said, "My Son, go up to Calvary and suffer for the sins of all people."
And at the cross, we can see a remarkable contrast between earthly happiness and eternal blessedness. When Mary and Joseph had taken Jesus to the Temple at 40 days old, Simeon had blessed the holy family and said to Mary, "Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed." Through Simeon the Lord prophesied that Mary's heart would be pierced because of what her Son would have to go through eventually in His suffering and death.
Mary, like any mother, wanted happiness, good health, and peace for her Son. And surely at the cross she was unhappy, grieved to see her beloved Child in agony. But while she may have been terribly unhappy, it was through Christ's Passion that Mary and all the nations of the earth would be blessed. For in His life Jesus had actively fulfilled God's Law in the place of all sinners, and in His death He was satisfying the curse that God had decreed as punishment for sin: death, condemnation, and eternal unhappiness in hell.
For you, Jesus did and suffered all these things in order to keep God's Word perfectly, in order to earn for you eternal blessing and salvation in the forgiveness of all your sins and the bestowal of His perfect righteousness. So now you are blessed when you hear these Words of God and keep them through faith: in your Baptism, the Word of God combined with the water has blessed you with adoption as God's beloved child, and has put you in the happy situation of living under His grace, mercy, and peace. In Holy Absolution, these Words of God apply to you: "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin" (Romans 4:7-8). And in Holy Communion, of which St. Paul says, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 10:16), the Words of Christ are fulfilled, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matthew 5:6).
In Ephesians 1, our Lord says: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will" (Ephesians 1:3-5). In Christ Jesus, no matter whether you are subjectively happy or sad, delighted or depressed, you are blessed objectively with every spiritual blessing in heaven. By Baptism into Him you have been adopted as God's sons, and so your eternal blessedness is God's will for your life.
And because you know of God's great love for you, and all that He has done to save you, you also have been set free from the enslaving pursuit of temporary happiness. Instead, you have been set free to hear the Word of God and keep it, and to live as our Epistle reading says: "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 5:1-2). Christ Jesus loved you so much that He gave up His own life and temporal happiness; He took upon Himself your death and your accursed sins and destroyed them on the cross; and now He gladly gives you everlasting life and eternal happiness as a free gift of His grace, which He earned for you.
So be imitators of Him, as beloved children of God. Walk in love by giving up your selfish desires for temporary earthly happiness so that you can be a blessing to your neighbor. Take up your crosses from the Lord daily and like Jesus, sacrifice yourself for your spouse, your children, your parents, your neighbor, your church. Even in our weaknesses we are blessed, as Jesus says in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those hungering and thirsting for righteousness." Even in our sufferings as a Christian we are blessed, for Jesus says, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:10-12).
In Christ Jesus you have every spiritual blessing in heaven now, and on the Last Day He will say to you that final beatitude: "Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matthew 25:34). Today we give thanks to the Lord for the happy times that He gives us to enjoy on earth, but as cross-bearing disciples of Christ our life here also will involve many sorrows, which the Lord will give us strength to endure. Yet in heaven, there will never be a choice between "happy or blessed"—rather, you will be both happy and blessed forever. "Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it." In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.