Happiness Is ...
March 31, 2023 Pastor: Rev. Lloyd Gross
Palm Sunday HAPPINESS IS … Psalm 73:21-24
In a popular Peanuts cartoon, Lucy is standing outside as a shower of rain starts to fall. She says, "Happiness is feeling the wind and rain on your head." In the next picture, the rain comes down a lot harder. Now Lucy adds, "sort of…." There's a lesson for us there. Everything we think will make us happy brings a certain amount of grief. That was also true on the first Palm Sunday. The crowd watching by the gate probably thought, "Happiness is having a Messiah of your own." So far they hadn't had too much of a good thing. But let's look around the city. What was happiness to Herod? It was having a good time. To Pilate it was being a friend of Caesar. To the Zealots it was getting rid of the Romans. To the Pharisees it was having their self-righteousness affirmed. Back to the gate now, and zero in on the Twelve Disciples. To James and John it was sitting next to the Messiah. To Judas Iscariot it was silver.
We live under such conditions that happiness will always be mixed. We are strangers on this earth. It's a wonderful earth, filled with beauty and bounty. God wants us to enjoy it. He gave us powers that He loves to see us use, especially when we push them to the limits. But our dignity here, our esteem here, is not in ourselves. Our rightful place is to be God's bailiff, His representative over the creation. But often the boundaries seem unnecessarily narrow, constantly closing in on us. We tend to stray off to one side or the other. God made us lower than the angels, and higher than the beasts. Angels are purely spiritual, they do not have flesh and blood as we have. We can never compete with them. They do not have our weaknesses. The Incarnate Son of God is stronger than the strongest angel, stronger than death or the devil, or all the hosts of evil. We stand because He overcame the strong evil powers and spoiled their treasury of human souls. As for the beasts, they are not spiritual at all. They have no means of communicating, no enjoyment of their own thoughts, no rational capacity, and only a very limited idea of being a "self." So happiness to a hippopotamus is nothing more than having its appetites satisfied. Where do we fit in? In man spirit is thoroughly mixed with the animal. Neither the corpse nor the ghost is a man, but only the united body and soul. We have appetites that we want satisfied, but that alone can never make us happy. We need freedom, a sense of beauty, the joy of giving and sharing, the experience of love both given and received. In Eden man had that, but we don't live there any longer. Under the fallen conditions of the present, spirit comes into conflict with the animal.
Our society around us glorifies the beast. We live in the age of the beast. Even our arts, our literature, the cinema, all emphasize what we have in common with the lower animals. The social concerns that gain most attention are those that have to do with our animal nature, things like health, food, protection, housing, security, things every beast needs. Where are the voices crying for more freedom? Where are the poems that call for building character? Would a book on beauty ever be a best-seller? Today the Church must emphasize the spiritual side of man, not because there is anything superior about it, but because nobody else is doing it. The medieval church emphasized the spiritual side of man because it thought the body was evil. It erred in doing that. The body is not evil at all. But as Jesus said in Gethsemane, The flesh is weak. It can be abused by the spiritual side of man which is not virtuous without God's Word. Our Lord tells us that all evil comes from the heart. It is the seat of personality, and thus the fountain of sin. Both body and soul are in the image of God. We do not emphasize the spiritual to pit one against the other, but to call attention to what our society neglects.
The Psalmist claims that he was once like a beast. He looked around and it seemed to him as though the ungodly were much happier than the faithful. He reacted to this with an embittered soul. That's bad. Most of us have been there on occasion, so we understand that with an embittered soul you can't even have hippo happiness. We envy the ungodly, and try to walk in their ways. We aren't very good at it, so we make ourselves look very foolish. That is a blessing in disguise. Be glad you hit bottom so soon. Don't just sit and pine. All the longing in the world will never bring back Eden. Nor does it need to, because there is mercy. The good news is God has mercy for sinners. Mercy pulls you out of the mud, lifts you up, washes you off, then --- what's this? God withdraws his hand to let you stand by yourself? That can be alarming. Or maybe He imposes it when you want to try your legs. He thinks you still need training wheels. Either way, God's mercy has its own fountain, and that is the cross.
God reached down in Christ. He was lifted up, so He lifts us up as well, out of the clinging mud of our sins, washing us in His sacrificial blood, then opening for us the real gate of righteousness, the open grave of Easter. By Word and Sacrament the successors of St. Peter feed the sheep of Christ, giving direction and nourishment for the journey. This is way beyond hippo happiness. This is a journey of hope, on our way to God's presence where our true dignity lies, our true value emerges. The Strong One partook of our weakness that we might partake of his strength. One who was far higher than the angels was humiliated, emptied, a Suffering Servant, that we might be exalted with Him to enter into His joy.
The Psalm concludes with the words, Afterward he will receive me into glory. Note two things here. First, the Psalmist is talking about happiness, genuine happiness, far beyond appetites, in the midst of perfection of every kind we will bear the fruit we were made for. We read of festival garments and crowns, probably these are metaphors, but the point is we will be glad. The other thing to note is that glory comes "afterward." There is no shortcut to it. There are two possibilities. One is that we will witness universal apocalyptic events which will be truly terrifying. The other is that we will die, our own private death. Either way we have to go through a door that we can't see through. It can be very threatening. The good news is Jesus went that way. For us it means the disciple follows his Lord. We are not looking to be higher than the angels, but to being perfect in our own place, the mixture of spirit and animal that God designed so perfectly. For now we must draw near to the cross. The closer we are to the cross, the happier we will be. AMEN.