Lectionary Passages for January 5, 2014. Jeremiah 31:7-14, Ps 84, Eph. 1:3-6, 15-19a, Matt. 2:13-15, 19-23, or Luke 2:41-52, or Matt. 2:1-12
The word "happy" jumps out from Psalm 84. It's a great word to stimulate thinking in the aftermath of the season of gift giving, the 'most wonderful time of the year.'
There is a lot of happiness Christmas Eve and morning as we watch children. The excitement, the toys, the engagement with friends and family. There is, however, the other side of all the frantic activity. The frayed nerves, the overtired, overstimulated, sugar loaded toddlers, the tired parents/grandparents who have hosted houses full of visitors, those who had to navigate crammed airports and icy roads, exhausted retail workers, relatives who don't get along but had to spend time together...
So what is happiness? Is it those moments where everything is fun and the difficult realities fade to the background? Is it a goal to strive toward? If we are not happy, what is wrong?
Psalm 84 mentions happiness 3 times. In verse 3 the ones who live in God's house are the happy ones. That sounds like a future thing, like heaven. (At least if we think of God's house as somewhere other than earth-as an ultimate destination.) That makes some sense, but feels a bit to far away for application here and now.
Verse 4 says those whose strength is in the Lord are the happy ones. This sounds more like a state of being, something achievable today. However, to get it we have to give up self-reliance. That is hard. The verse goes on to say that the happy have their hearts set on the pilgrim way. Here, being happy is relying on God for strength and walking roads that might be unknown, maybe not safe, and definitely will be a lot of work. (At least that's what the word pilgrim seems to suggest.) So maybe the happy people are the ones who live what God asks as best they can and allow themselves to be challenged. Somehow, these people live through the tough stuff and are still happy. Verse 5 continues the thought. In it, people going through the desolate valley (not anyone's definition of happy) find surprising places of renewal. They find these because their strength is not their own, but God's. It doesn't depend on limited human understanding or strength. So even though people are in hard places, they can still be happy. It seems incongruous, but I like the idea that travelling hard roads does not extinguish joy, but allows us to discover the true source of lasting happiness.
Finally, the Psalm ends with the key statement; "Happy are those who put their trust in You!" Happiness here is not a fleeting feeling, but a deep set attitude, a belief that God has all of life in hand. It is an understanding that can buoy us through the difficult times and help us to keep our eyes open so we will not miss those surprising bits of joy where it is not expected.
I feel some relief that the busy season (for pastors, but also for teachers, retailers, emergency workers...) is over, but also some of the "bleah" of cleaning up and resuming regular time and duties is certainly going to set in. Am I happy? Absolutely. When I remember to rely on God (and actually manage to internalize that), when I trust that God is there in the valleys, and when I look with hope to the future (instead of worrying or complaining) I truly do have the happiness of Psalm 84. It isn't a superficial thing, happiness is a gift from God to help us walk that Pilgrim journey. The times when I can recall true .unhappiness, there has been something wrong. Those are the times when I've relied more on myself than God, and isn't a good place to be when things go wrong.
Happy are those who put their trust in YOU!