Bible Text: Luke 6:20-31, Ephesians 1:11-23 | Preacher: Rev.M. | Series: N/A | In 1937 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in the film Shall We Dance. At one point in the film while they are roller skating, Astaire and Rogers sing a duet called “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”, that many of you may be familiar with. One of the most well-known parts of the song is the line “You like po-tay-toes, and I like po-tah-toes, you like to-may-toes and I like to-mah-toes” and so on. It’s a cute little number with a catchy tune and fun verses.
The song focuses on the different annunciations of words and that their worlds are just so different, asking if they should just give up on their relationship. And when I stop to think about this song my first reaction is “REALLY?” You are going to let something as simple as how a word is said split you up?
Now I know that there is much more to their story in the film, but there is some unfortunate truth to this reality. How often do we let something as simple as the annunciation of a word cause an argument? And how often is the issue really much deeper than that? I would guess much more often than we would care to admit.
In addition to annunciations, there are other stumbling blocks to our language that have been problematic at various times in our history. Semantics for instance have been responsible for all kinds of trouble, and not just in English but throughout the history of the world. Semantics is the part of logic and linguistics that is concerned with meaning. And it’s really important. How else could we communicate if we could not understand what someone was really saying or getting at? That’s semantics.
But the real trouble with semantics is that both parties have to share the same understanding and meaning of words. And this is often where we run into problems. We assume that everyone shares the same base of understanding and meaning of words and that is not often the case. One of the most common examples is about a glass of water. Some see the glass as half empty and others see it as half full. Or how about this one, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure?”
So, what does all this discussion of semantics have to do with our primary Scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke for this morning? Well…we have an issue of semantics… You see in many translations of the Bible this passage begins and reads as “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But that is not the only translation for this passage. In other translations of the Bible it instead reads as “Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor; the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!” Blessed. Happy. Interesting.
Now I am one that does not normally like to get caught up in semantics unless I am concerned that someone is misunderstanding my intention, and then I may attempt to clarify what I am trying to say. I personally find it frustrating when people argue over some of the smaller details in the Bible and end up missing the big picture message that God is trying to tell us. That is not to say we shouldn’t discuss the differences or challenges; I just don’t want people while in that process to miss the big picture meaning of the stories and recounted histories in the Bible.
But even as I try not to get caught up in semantics and worry about some of the small differences…Well I just could not help myself this week when I started looking at this reading from the fifth chapter of Matthew. Blessed? Or happy? Which is it? Does one make more sense? And what happened here that we ended up with two fairly different words? Was the Greek that hard to read when they were translating? Did someone spill their mead or wine on the originals?
I mean think about it. Blessed. Webster’s Dictionary says it means “having a sacred nature”, “being connected with God”, or “very welcome, pleasant, or appreciated.” Sounds about right. What about happy? Well for happy, Webster’s says it means “feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life, situation, etc.” Again, sounds good right? And if you go far enough into the entries of these words you may begin to find some loose overlap.
But from these common definitions it sounds more to me like you might be HAPPY because you feel BLESSED. And I am not sure you can very easily reverse those around to say you are BLESSED because you feel HAPPY. I mean I guess you could, but that raises all kinds of questions about theology and beliefs that we don’t have time to get into this morning.
But so, what happened? How could we end up with such different translations? And does it change what the passage is telling us? Well the translation from the Greek to the word “Happy” is considered by many scholars to be a proper or accepted translation. But did you know that the word “happy” did not exist until over a thousand years after the Gospels had been written?
From what I can find, the problem arose with some Latin dictionaries that offer two or more words for happy, one of which is derived from the same root or beginning as the word for bless or blessing. So, while it might be correct in a technical sense to use happy in place of blessing, it also can change our understanding of what is being said. For instance, when you think about what it means to be happy, what kinds of things to do you think of?
Maybe you are happy because you are having a good day. Maybe you are happy because you enjoyed a favorite meal. Maybe you are happy because your team is in first place or having a good season. Happiness is a funny thing. Some people try to buy happiness with money. Some people even try to force happiness on others. How many products or services that we see advertised on TV are focused on making us happy?
But see the thing is, happiness is not a constant thing. I like to think I am a pretty positive person, but I am not happy all of the time. Sometimes I am sad, sometimes I get angry, and sometimes I’m a little gloomy. And that’s true for all of us. We all have good days and bad days. We all have losses and gains in our lives that carry a greater impact on our attitudes and feelings.
But there’s another thing to consider with happiness. Happiness can often be very “me” focused. It can often be about, “Am I happy?”, or “Am I enjoying myself?” Now that is not to say that happiness cannot come from our interactions with others. Happiness can very much be the result of other things that we might refer to as blessings. For instance, for all of you parents and grandparents out there today, I’d be willing to guess that you have at some point referred to your children or grandchildren as blessings in your life. But if asked, I’d also guess that you would say that they make you happy, at least most of the time, right?
See this is where being blessed and being happy are two different things. You can actively do something to make yourself happy. But you cannot bless yourself. Blessings come from other people and from God. To be blessed is not an active event, but a passive one. You can accept or reject a blessing it is true, but you can’t really cause a blessing to be bestowed upon yourself. Blessings are something we receive, not something we can earn.
And blessing does not mean the same thing as happiness in other ways. While happiness is an emotion that comes and goes, blessings may be short or last a lifetime. Blessings don’t really change from day-to-day like happiness can. Blessings are usually things that we cherish in the depths of our very beings, in our souls and in our hearts.
And you can be sad or depressed, but still acknowledge the blessings in your life. If you have ever lost a loved one, whether a parent or a child or a friend or other relative, chances are at some point you felt sad and were mourning them. But if asked, and some of you may have even thought about this during that time on your own, but if asked, I would guess that you would still be able to name and think about some of the blessings in your life.
That’s one of the biggest, if not biggest, differences between being blessed and being happy. We can go through some of the worst and darkest experiences of our lives, and still know that we have been blessed. Early in the time Sarah and I began dating, between the two of us we experienced the loss of about fourteen family members or very close friends over the course of around twelve months. During that time, it included the loss of my paternal grandmother just a few weeks before our wedding, and then the loss of my maternal grandfather just a few days after our wedding celebration.
And it was tough. These were people that we were close to and had in some way or another had a major impact on our lives. I can look back at that time in my life and say with no question that it was sad, depressing, even gut wrenching at times. But I can also look back and see that smack dab in the middle of it all was a wonderful blessing, our wedding. And yes, the wedding day was a happy day.
But I do not look at that day or even the years that have followed as just happy times. Just like any married couple Sarah and I have argued or hurt each other’s feelings at some point in our marriage. But I have never for even a single second thought of sharing our lives together as anything other than one of the greatest blessings in my life.
So, is “blessed” the more correct or better translation than the word “happy”? Maybe, maybe not. I think for my own understand of this passage “blessed” not only makes more sense to me but forces me to think about it in a different way. I read this passage and I think to myself whether I am poor in spirit, or mourning, or one of the meek, or hungry and thirsty for righteousness, or merciful, or pure in heart, or a peacemakers, or someone who is persecuted for righteousness’ sake, I would rather be blessed than happy.
Because as I pointed out before, happiness is not always a constant thing. But blessings we receive as gifts and can hold with us for a very, very long time. If I tired, I could probably not tell you about every single time I felt happy this past week. I’d probably remember a few of the bigger or more significant moments, but not anywhere near every single one. But if you asked me about the blessings in my life…well most of those are easy. I’m sure I have forgotten about some over time or think about others less than I used to as my life has changed.
But I can easily list many blessings that I have received in my life, whether from God or from someone else. Family, friends, health, love, salvation, the list goes on and on. And each item on the list could be broken down into another list all its own. Blessings outlast happiness by leaps and bounds in our lives.
So, as you leave here today, I ask that you think about the blessings in your lives. Remember as many as you can, whether from God or from someone else in your life. And remember that you can find happiness in the blessings in your life, but that the blessings are what we much hold onto in the depths of our souls and our hearts, our very beings. For it is in the blessings of our lives that we will experience the love of God and the love of others. Amen.