“I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
How often do we think about happiness in connection with our faith? How often do we think about happiness in connection with the life of the church? We talk – I talk – a good deal about sin and repentance and forgiveness – but how often do we talk, how often do I talk, about happiness, about joy? But that is the point of connection, or one of the points of connection, between the gospel and the psalm today. The psalmist gives His prescription for true happiness, and Jesus prays in this climactic moment of His earthly life that His joy may be complete in His disciples.
Today’s gospel is from a passage at the end of St John’s account of the Last Supper which is often known as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. Jesus has finished instructing the disciples, and He raises His eyes to heaven and prays to the Father.
The prayer seems to have a close relationship with the Day of Atonement ceremony in the Temple, in which High Priest would offer sacrifices for himself and for the whole people. Here, Jesus is both priest and victim, but whilst the Gethsemane stories that we find in the other gospels emphasise Jesus’ suffering, Jesus’ victimhood, in this prayer from John’s gospel it is the priestly dimension that comes to the fore. In the passage we have heard this morning there is no sense of agony or suffering; the references to the hatred of the world are really the only hints of the pain that is to come for Jesus. Rather, the prayer concerns sanctification: as the High Priest on the Day of Atonement offers sacrifices for Himself, so Jesus sanctifies Himself, and prays that through His sacrifice His followers may be sanctified in truth, and that His joy may be made complete in them. Joy might perhaps strike us as a strange thing for Jesus to be talking about on the eve of His crucifixion.
Whilst today’s gospel has points of connection with the priestly tradition of the Old Testament and the sacrificial rite of the Temple, today’s psalm stems from a quite different strand of Old Testament tradition. Psalm 1, very likely deliberately written as a sort of preamble to the whole book of Psalms, does not mention the sacrificial ritual of the Temple, but is rather focussed on God’s teaching, or law, as the source of happiness. “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.” The opening formula “Happy are those”, sometimes translated “Blessed are those”, cannot but remind Jesus’ own teaching in the sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”.
How we understand happiness is an interesting and complex question. In our current culture we are bombarded with images of happiness perhaps primarily through advertising, and it is easy enough for us to fall into thinking of happiness in terms of purchasing power, in terms of goods and experiences to enjoy.
But we shouldn’t be too casual about dismissing material aspects of happiness: it is difficult to be happy when we suffer insecurity of housing, or uncertainty about where our next meal is coming from. There are few things more distasteful than the clergy, secure in the comforts of incumbency, enjoying the benefits of a well-appointed rectory, lecturing people often much worse off than themselves about the dangers of materialism.
Jesus is actually pretty attentive to people’s material needs – we just have to think of the feeding miracles. As Jesus says, when it comes to clothing and food and housing, God knows perfectly well that we need these things. These things are necessary for life, and they are good things in their proper places; it is only when these things become the sole focus of our desire and activity, it is only when these things break out of their proper places to become our sources of meaning and motivation, it is only then that material goods become a problem.
Of course it has long been a problem that material prosperity is often associated with greed, with corruption, with dishonesty. But this does not seem to trouble the writer of Psalm 1, although the problem is addressed in one or two of the other psalms. True happiness is to be found in taking delight in the teaching of the Lord, and meditating on His teaching day and night.
In a beautiful image, and a poignant image in the light of today’s gospel as Jesus faces the Cross, the one who takes delight in the teaching of the Lord is like a tree well-planted by the water, giving its fruit in due season, its leaves never withering. Whatever the apparent prosperity of the corrupt and greedy, a life rooted in God’s teaching finds true happiness and true fruitfulness within God Himself. The alternative path leads only to misery and waste, like the chaff which the wind blows away.
It is important to note that the psalmist’s vision of wickedness has nothing to do with the self-righteousness of Jesus’ opponents in the gospels. The point is not to crush and condemn those who are fragile, weak or lost. The psalmist has in his sights rather those in hardened hostility to goodness, those set on cruelty and greed and corruption; there is a sense of conniving and calculation in the language he uses: “the counsel of the wicked”, “the circle of the scoffers”. We are called to reject the influences to greed and corruption and selfishness that are all around us, and to take delight rather in prayer and in God’s Word.
And when we speak of God’s Word, we think not only of the words of Holy Scripture, but more profoundly of the One revealed in John’s gospel as the Word made flesh. And we realise that when the Psalmist speaks of meditating on God’s teaching, we can understand this in terms of meditating not only on the teaching of the bible, but also on Jesus who is Himself the living embodiment of that teaching. Jesus is the One who has refused all compromise with evil, and has taken delight in the paths of God even to the Cross, the tree which brings forth the leaves and the fruits of the healing and salvation of the world.
And so under the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus and in the power of His Holy Spirit, the Church is called to gather together broken humanity to find happiness and delight and joy in Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise, honour and glory, now and unto ages of ages.