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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 3/14

          There’s more to life than being happy I suppose, but the desire for happiness is pretty basic; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is one of the most famous lines in the Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness thus included among what are called unalienable rights.  We want happiness for ourselves, we want it for those we care about, parents I think especially want happiness for their children.  It may not be all there is, but happiness is pretty important.

          Then the question becomes, how do you define happiness?  Obviously it’s not exactly the same for everyone which is a good thing.  If everyone defined happiness exactly the same way, there’d probably be even more conflict than there is now as we fought about whatever it is that we thought would make us happy.  So differing definitions of happiness is OK.  But then there are also different kinds of happiness.  There’s that which is pretty short lived, the momentary highs like when the team you’re rooting for wins or when you have a run of exceptionally nice days in the middle of March when you don’t expect it. 

Things like that make you happy and it’s real, it’s good, but it’s not the same as happiness that is a lasting, deep seated contentment and satisfaction, happiness that represents inner peace.  We enjoy and we need those short lived experiences of happiness; they do help to keep us going; but when we talk about pursuit of happiness, what we’re really talking about is that deep seated contentment as opposed to the momentary high.  We’re talking about the kind of happiness that sustains us through the challenges and downtimes that do become part of things when the short lived happiness runs its course.

But how do we find that long term, deep seated contentment?  It can be elusive.  You can spend a lifetime and never figure it out.  Most of us do spend a lot of time looking for it in the wrong places or maybe it’s not so much looking in the wrong places as it is mistaking momentary happiness for happiness that lasts, living life only as if it were a quest to find that next happy mountaintop.  There’s a lot of people, I think that’s all they ever do, trying to leap from peak to peak and sometimes getting there, but they never figure out what lasting happiness is all about. 

The story of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the classic Bible story about looking in the wrong place for happiness.  The younger son thought he could buy it which makes it easy to place him in our 21st century context because we’re still trying to do that.  He said to his father, “Give me my share of the inheritance,” and he was out of there.  He went away, he went away and bought himself some happiness and for awhile I’m sure he was experiencing it, it was working out for him, it was real…until the money ran out.

You know what happens; he decides his best option is to go home and take his chances with his father and lo and behold Father not only welcomes him home but kills the fatted calf and throws him a party, much more than the younger son could have hoped for, certainly much more than he deserved.  What isn’t clear though, is whether or not he had a different understanding of happiness at the end of the story?  Did he figure it out?  Was he at least on the path to understanding what real happiness was, or was he just enjoying the party, unexpectedly experiencing that next happy mountaintop?  We don’t know.  That’s the beauty of a parable.  We’re always left with things to think about, possible scenarios to play out and consider.

According to the definition of happiness found in today’s psalm, Psalm 32, the young man would only have been happy in that lasting sense if he understood himself to be forgiven.  “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!  Happy are they in whom the Lord imputes no guilt and in whose spirit there is no guile!”  In some ways it’s a very hopeful proclamation, but it’s that last phrase, “in whose spirit there is no guile,” that troubles me concerning the younger son. 

Most translations render it, “in whose spirit there is no deceit,” which is a better translation of the Hebrew.  A part of me sees the younger son smugly feeling like he’s pulled a fast one on the old man, that maybe he doesn’t appreciate the forgiveness that’s been extended, because it’s not clear that he really felt bad about what he’d done.  You can read his decision to go home as him just working the angles, figuring out what he has to do to survive and get some food in his stomach, but not necessarily figuring out that what he did was wrong so that he needs forgiveness.

According to this psalm though, being forgiven is the key to real happiness, the kind that is lasting, happiness that has to do with the gift of living in a right relationship with God.   It is a good psalm as we move past the halfway point of Lent because while it reminds us of sin, reminder of which is part of the honesty of Lent and the confession of Ash Wednesday, it also moves us toward forgiveness, reminding us of how it is in God’s nature to be forgiving. 

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven; note that it doesn’t say, “Happy are those who are without transgression or without sin,” which of course would exclude all of us.  Sin is a given in this psalm, part of what it is to be human.  But what this psalmist has figured out is that forgiveness is available.  So while this psalm is identified as one of the seven penitential psalms, it’s not one about the need for confession; it’s a view of confession and repentance from the far side of forgiveness.  It looks back to forgiveness already received, rather than looking ahead in anticipation of it.

But the forgiveness in the psalm is triggered by honesty which brings us back to our Lenten theme.  For this psalmist it is the honesty of acknowledging his sin that brings about forgiveness.  “While I held my tongue, while I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long…then I acknowledged my sin to you and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”  Silence in this case is pretending, pretending that nothing is wrong or pretending that even if something is wrong, you can take care of it.  Acknowledging sin and guilt is honesty, leaving it with God, which results in the experience of forgiveness and happiness.

I confessed/you forgave; that’s the experience of the psalmist and note that there is nothing in between.  No conditions, no additional penance due; just I confessed/you forgave which enables new life, new relationship, happiness that isn’t just another mountaintop, but happiness about a relationship that will endure.

All of which raises another question though, concerning whether or not the honesty of repentance must precede forgiveness.  Do we have to be properly penitent, properly remorseful before we can be forgiven?  My take on it would be that God’s forgiveness depends on nothing but God’s willingness to forgive, willingness to forgive that is part of God’s nature, part of God’s steadfast love.  But I would also say that repentance is necessary for us to experience forgiveness, to experience that happiness of being forgiven that the psalmist announces. 

Going back to the Prodigal Son; like I said it’s not clear that the younger son repented; the possibility exists that he was still just scheming; but his father’s forgiveness has nothing to do with that.  Even if you conclude that the son’s plea for mercy is sincere, his Father welcomes him back before the words the son rehearsed are out of his mouth.  He’s forgiven, but he can only know the happiness of being forgiven if he has honestly acknowledged his need for forgiveness.  You could say that repentance is mostly for the sinner.  God doesn’t need our repentance, but we do.

I talk a fair amount about how God is portrayed in a lot of different ways in the Bible.  There are many dimensions to God and you can’t discount the possibility of God’s anger, the possibility of God’s unwillingness to forgive.  But we believe in Jesus as the revelation of God, God made flesh.  In his actions and in his teachings, he reveals the essence of a God who is defined primarily by grace and mercy, a God who is always ready to forgive, always ready to provide another chance.  What Jesus reveals to us is the Father of the Prodigal Son.  With his forgiveness, what he gives to us, is the possibility of happiness, happiness that lasts.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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