The New Testament passages we are looking at today introduces us to what is often referred to as the "Sermon on the Mount", or the "Sermon on the Plain." And, these specific verses are usually referred to as the "Beatitudes." As the story unfolds, we are told that a large crowd of people from many different places came looking for Jesus. Many of them wanted to be healed, others came to watch him perform miracles, some just wanted to touch him, but everyone seemed to be intrigued by what he had to say.
In recent days, a crowd like this one gathering around Jesus had become quite a common sight. On this occasion, Jesus had called the twelve apostles to join him up on a hillside in Galilee, probably one of the many that sloped gently down to the lake shoreline. As the number of people assembled around him grew, Jesus found a spot further down the hillside that could provide a flat, roomy place for them to comfortably gather. After ministering to their various needs, Jesus sat down and began to teach them.
The English word we often use when telling this story, "beatitudes", comes from the Latin word "beatus" which means, "to be happy." That's what Jesus was teaching the people about on the hillside that day…what it is like to be really and truly happy.
Everybody wants to be happy, and most people work hard in life trying to achieve some happiness for themselves and for their families, but very few people are truly happy. Happiness seems for many to be like a beautiful butterfly, too elusive to catch. And yet, we're constantly encouraging each other to keep trying. We say things like, "Don't worry, be happy!" Or "Have a good day!" "Have a great time!" We've even symbolized our aspirations to happiness with the bright and inspiring smiley face character. As Christians, when we see someone with a sad expression on their face, we often try to encourage them by saying, "Smile…God loves you!"
But, smiles are not always easy to come by. In fact, although we are told that it takes fewer muscles to form a smile on our face than it does a frown, most people choose by preference or habit to frown their way through life. Does a smile always mean that we are happy? No, but happy people can always find a smile…even if it is through their tears!
In Psalm 30:5, we read that "…weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning." The Apostle Paul exhorted the Christians in Philippi to "Rejoice [be completely filled with joy] always, and I say again to you, rejoice" (Philippians 4:4). Nehemiah tells us that "…the joy of the LORD is your strength" (Nehemiah 8:10). And, David reminds us in Psalm 23 that the LORD makes our cup of joy to overflow. Even though it may be through our tears, we are encouraged in Psalm 126 that those who sow [or serve others] with tears will reap a bountiful harvest of joy!
So, are we to assume that joy and happiness are the same? Well, not exactly. Joy can be described as a deep, artesian well of hope and trust (faith) that flows out from the center of our soul. Happiness is the peace of mind, contentment and satisfaction that our hope and trust are well placed. Again, the Apostle Paul shares with the Christians in Philippi that he has "…learned to be satisfied [happy] with what I have. I know what it is to be in need and what it is to have more than enough. I have learned this secret, so that anywhere, at any time, I am content [happy], whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little. I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me" (Philippians 4:11b-13). And, Paul adds this victorious note in his last letter to Timothy. "I am still full of confidence, because I know whom I have trusted, and I am sure that he is able to keep safe until the day that he returns all that he has entrusted to me, and I to him" (2 Timothy 1:12).
The natural human expression of contentment, satisfaction and peace of mind is a smile. A genuine smile is proof on the surface of life that there is a deep well of joy at the center of life. And, if that joy is to be unending, the love of God must be its eternal source. When Jesus is our joy, the Spirit of life that he gives to us, living in and through us, is our happiness. A real smiley face then is the true reflection of God's face, the face of Jesus, on our face.
So, let's find a place among the crowd to sit on the grass (or maybe on a nearby rock) as together we listen to Jesus tell us how we can become truly happy people. But, wait…Jesus is not just telling us how to be happy, he's showing us! Let's watch him then, this happy Christ. Let's see what he does, as well as what he says. Let's celebrate Jesus in the beatitudes.
Can you hear his voice all right? Are you able to see him well enough? Oh, oh…are there too many people and other distractions around you to see and hear him clearly? How will we know what he is doing, if we are unable to tell for sure if it really is Jesus or not? The people who gathered around him then could easily recognize his face and other physical characteristics. But, what about those of us who have come late to this gathering? How will we be able to get even a slight glimpse of him sitting this far away?
The Christians from Philippi had the same problem that we do, so the Apostle Paul shared with them the secret of always being able to recognize Jesus and what he is doing in our world:
"He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to remain equal with God. Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant. He became like a human being and appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death-- his death on the cross."
And…he's always serving a meal of some kind. Before his crucifixion, Jesus hosted a supper for his closest disciples. After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus fixed breakfast for many of those same disciples. When he personally returns to earth again, Jesus said that the first thing he would do is to take off his coat, wrap a towel around his waist, and serve a feast to all of his followers. So, keep your eyes open and look for God wearing a towel…and a smile. That's right…a smile! If Jesus is the one who gives us our smile, wouldn't you expect him to be smiling, too? His is the original smiley face, you know!
Let's settle back and enjoy the view, watching Jesus, then join the dance of joy as he shows us how to smile…again!
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