Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Secret of Happiness - or Blessedness (a sermon for Feb. 2nd on Psalm 84)

A couple of years ago I read Gretchen Ruben’s excellent book The Happiness Project, which spent two years on bestseller lists after its publication in 2009. Gretchen spent a year reading widely in world literature, from a wide variety of different authors, on the subject of personal happiness. She then designed a twelve-month process for herself, focusing each month on a different area of her life and on learning habits that would increase her happiness. She has since followed up with another book, Happy at Home, and her blog ‘The Happiness Project’ is extremely popular, all of which would seem to indicate that she’s struck a nerve.

Everyone wants to be happy, and Gretchen Ruben also argues that happy people make life better for others; generally speaking, we’d rather be around happy people than miserable people, and the positive energy that comes from happy people is often very effective in terms of getting things done and making the world a better place. Even in our psalm for today, Psalm 84, there is reference to happiness. Verse 4 says ‘Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise’, and verse 5 goes on ‘Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion’. And finally, in verse 12, we read, ‘O LORD of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you’.

We need to be careful, though, in assuming that the writer of the psalm is speaking about the same thing we are when he uses the word ‘happy’. To us, the word is usually a subjective one: when we say, “I’m happy”, we mean “I feel happy”. But the Hebrew word, ashre, is much more objective; it means something like ‘He’s in a good position’, or ‘things are going well for her, or even ‘God is blessing him’. That’s why older translations of the Bible often use the word ‘blessed’ here: ‘Blessed are those who live in your house’, or ‘blessed are those whose strength is in you’, or ‘blessed is everyone who trusts in you’.

Why is this important? Well, to be blunt, a person who is experiencing ashre might not always be feeling happy. For instance, a person who is repenting of their sins with tears of sorrow for the evil they have done is probably not feeling happy, but from the biblical point of view they are definitely ‘blessed’. So we need to remember that the word has much more to do with how God sees us than with how we happen to be feeling at any given time. But with that reservation, let’s look at the three occurrences of this word in Psalm 84 and see what they tell us about the sort of life that God considers happy, or blessed.

Let’s look first at verse 4 where we discover that the blessed, or happy, life is a life of joy in God’s presence. The verse reads ‘Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise’.

When I was a teenager I attended St. Leonard’s church in Southminster, in southeast Essex. That was the time in my life when my Christian faith really came alive, and I have a lot of fond memories of worship and Christian growth associated with that church. Even today, forty years later, when I visit St. Leonard’s I often get very emotional; I find myself choking up and getting teary-eyed with all the good memories. In a very real sense, this was holy ground for me. And I suspect that many of us have our own personal ‘holy places’ like that.

Psalm 84 is probably a pilgrimage psalm, written to be used on the journey from home to the Temple in Jerusalem on one of the three annual pilgrimages made there by all devout Israelites. To devout Jews in those days, the Temple was the place on earth where God’s presence had been promised to his people. At the centre of the Temple was a room called the Holy of Holies; it contained the ark of the covenant, which held the Ten Commandments. This was the place above all where God was said to live. Of course, when God’s presence was there, this was the fullest room in the universe, as Solomon prayed when he built the Temple: ‘Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!’ (1 Kings 8:27).

But in the New Testament, the idea of God living in holy places recedes into the background; instead, we read about God living in people. In 1 Corinthians 3:16 Paul says ‘Do you not know that you’ - the word ‘you’ here is plural – ‘you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ And in 6:19 he goes on to apply this to the individual as well: ‘Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God…?’ So the Christian idea is not that a building is the house of God, but that you are the house of God – you, as a community, and you, as individuals. The permanent presence of God has been promised to you and me.

So for us as Christians this is not mean to be about a building: we know this, because in the New Testament the early Christians had no church buildings. It’s about meeting God, whether as individuals or in community. So yes, we come here to church on Sunday morning to meet God, but he doesn’t live in this building, he lives among us, wherever we may be.

Speaking for myself, I will tell you that I experience this sense of God’s presence very strongly from seven until eight each Thursday morning at the Bogani Café, when I meet with a few other men from this church for an hour of Bible study. As we study the scriptures together and talk about our faith journey, I’m often blessed with new insights into the meaning of the passage we’re studying, and I have a very strong sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Another ‘blessed’ experience for me is the daily time of prayer that Marci and I share, first thing every morning. God bless her, she’s not a morning person, but this time seems to work well for us, so I make tea for us and then we pray an informal version of Morning Prayer together. Doing it together like that helps to keep me steady, and I feel supported in prayer as we offer our thanksgivings and petitions together.

So I would suggest to you that ‘Happy are those who live in your house’ might be more appropriately worded for Christians as ‘happy are those who live in your presence’. We know that God is always with us, but we need to learn to pay attention to his presence. Prayer and Bible reading are often good ways to experience this: whether we join with others, or simply make time by ourselves to pay attention to God’s presence. It doesn’t need to be long; I once heard of a businessman who set the clock on his computer at work to chime every couple of hours; he then took just five minutes to be quiet and centre himself again on God’s presence in his heart.

So this is the first factor in the blessed, or happy, life – finding joy in the presence of God. The second factor the writer brings to our attention is the experience of finding strength in the midst of suffering. He says in verse 5: ‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you’.

Some of you may know the story of Joni Eareckson, who broke her neck in a diving accident at the age of 17, and has been a quadriplegic ever since. In her first book, Joni, she told the story of her struggles after her injury; her anger with God, her despair and flirtation with suicide, her questioning as to why God didn’t heal her. Gradually she discovered the strength from God to be able to cope with her disability, and for the last forty-five years or more she has had a powerful ministry helping others in similar situations.

Some Christian theologies have no room for people like Joni; they promise healing or rescue to everyone, and give the impression that if you are not healed there is something wrong with your faith. But this is not true either to scripture or to honest Christian experience. Rather, what often happens is that God’s strength transforms our suffering and makes it fruitful in terms of our Christian growth and service.

This is expressed in Psalm 84 in a beautiful poetic passage. Look at verses 5-6:
Happy are those whose strength is in you,in whose heart are the highways to Zion.As they go through the Valley of Bacathey make it a place of springs;the early rain also covers it with pools.They go from strength to strength…

It seems that on their way to Jerusalem the pilgrims go through a dry and dark place, the Valley of Baca, but they have so much joy in God’s presence that the psalmist sees it poetically as causing even this dark and dry place to become fruitful. And that can happen for you and me too. Perhaps you’re in your own personal ‘Valley of Baca’ right now. Maybe it’s a physical illness of some kind. Maybe it’s a failed relationship, or the loss of job and steady income, or a recurring depression that you just can’t shake..

With God’s strength, that dark valley can become ‘a place of springs’ (v.6). That’s what Joni Eareckson did with her suffering; it bore tremendous fruit, and thousands of people have been blessed through her over the years. This is not because Joni has the strength in herself, rather, the psalm says, ‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you’ (v.5).

There is a natural progression here from our first point, isn’t there? The blessed person has discovered the joy of God’s presence in their life. They have learned to spend time paying attention to God. And in this living relationship with God, they now find the daily strength to go through their suffering fruitfully. As the worship song says: ‘You are my rock in times of trouble… All through the storm your love is the anchor; my hope is in you alone’.

I want to be quite clear: this is not easy. Suffering is never easy. The writers of the psalms suffered terribly; you can read about their troubles in the prayers they wrote! But note what they did with their suffering: they prayed about it, told God about it honestly, even railed at God in their anger and sense of abandonment. In other words, they brought their suffering into the context of their relationship with God. That’s how we find the strength to carry on.

So we’ve seen that the blessed, or happy, life includes both joy in the presence of God, and also the strength to go through our suffering and make it fruitful. The third thing we see is that it’s a life of trusting in God. In verse 12 we read ‘Blessed is everyone who trusts in you’. And this trust is a choice we make, trusting in the one true God rather than the alternatives that are on offer.

In verse 10 we read ‘For a day on your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness’. Of course, sometimes the tents of wickedness look pretty good, don’t they? I’ve seen some pretty nice mansions in my time! Most of us fall from time to time into the trap of thinking that more money will make us happier; we need to remember the words of this song by American folk singer Todd Snider:
’80 percent of the population thinks that money is the road to success,
even though 90 percent of the richest 10 percent drinks to an alarming excess!’

The biblical name for this seeking after wealth to make us happy is ‘worshipping a false god’. When we look to something other than the one true God to give us security, fulfilment and peace, we are worshipping a false god as surely as if we were bowing down to a carved idol. The psalmist has chosen to reject this path. ‘I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God’, he says, ‘than live in the tents of wickedness’. He has chosen the lasting treasure; he is trusting in the one true God, who alone can give him what he’s looking for.

So let me close by encouraging you to make this choice too. Often we’re tempted to choose short-term happiness, rather than long term blessedness; the ‘tents of wickedness’ rather than the presence of God. Psalm 84 is calling us to find our joy where the psalmist found it: ‘My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God’. Let’s make the daily decision to find our joy in God’s presence, to discover his strength in our dark days, and to choose him as our greatest treasure. This is what the blessed life is all about, and I think that, in the end, this is where we’ll find lasting happiness too.

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