On (Holy) Happiness

Matthew 3:13-17 – The Baptism of the Lord, First Sunday after Epiphany – for Sunday, January 8, 2017

“This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him…” (Matthew 3:17)

One word caused the shift, my ah-ha reaction. One phrase sealed the deal.

Depending on which Bible translation is read, my ah-ha may not matter to you. In the “good book” that I grew up with in Sunday school—the Revised Standard Version (RSV)—the phrase and word from Matthew 3:12 were:

This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.

John the Baptist was reluctantly baptizing Jesus. They stood side-by-side in the Jordan. Dove like, the spirit descended. Heaven, so Matthew calmly reported, “was opened.” And yet there was more.

In the twelfth verse, God made an announcement.

Centuries before the RSV, the King James Version (KJV)—which transformed the language and Christian faith in the English-speaking world—first used the phrase that defined the divine response to Jesus’ baptism:

This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.

Later in my adult (and professional) life, I purchased the newer and boringly named New Revised Standard Version for use in my preaching and teaching. The NRSV, just like its RSV predecessor, echoed the KJV’s original phrase.

Now, influenced by my resources for lectionary study, I’ve shifted to the very current Common English Bible (CEB) translation. And for this Sunday, there was a shift within the shift:

This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.

With water from the Jordan dripping from his body, with the spirit spreading its literal or metaphoric wings overhead, with those gathered—including John the Baptizer—hearing (or too stunned or distracted to hear), a Holy blessing was spoken.

I find happiness in him.

Ah-ha!

Happiness?

+     +     +

In seminary I spent time with a new friend who I hiked with, studied with, and did various projects with. Harry (not his real name) was a great guy. His wife, also a student at the seminary, was a joy to be around. Nearly every time I heard someone ask Harry if he might assist with an activity, he gave a standard reply: I’d be happy to help.

He said it with enthusiasm. With honesty. With immediacy.

I’m happy to help. I’m happy to join with you. I’m happy to try that.

Though our friendship eventually drifted as we left for different area codes and responsibilities, Harry’s simple rejoinder became part of the vocabulary of my life and faith.

I’m happy to help.

I’m happy to try my best.

I’m happy to spend time with you.

And then, in the last week or so, after years (indeed, after virtual centuries if you count the King James version) of reading about Jesus’ baptism, and God’s response, I heard something different.

And something familiar: I find happiness in him.

For me, that is radically different than God being “well pleased.” It was like being baptized by a word.

And yet, it’s only a turn of a phrase, an English version of a Greek sentence attempting something that is nigh on impossible. The writer of Matthew’s beloved Gospel is no different than you or me. However we view or explain or describe or share or define God, we will fail. The ancient Jews had it right from the start by referring to God with the tetragrammaton YHWH. God was too overwhelming and mysterious to confine with a name. And the God of Moses and Jesus and, yes, the God who guides and provides for you and me, is beyond definition. Everything we try to say about God will fall short. Beware the person or church claiming to claim what God wants or how God goes about doing whatever it is that God does.

At our best (and worst), we make guesses about God.

I find happiness in him.

With this scripture, we recall Jesus’ baptism. The wet and wild moment in the Jordan was the beginning of his brief ministry. Soon, according to Matthew (and the other Gospels), there would be healings and miracles, sermons and parables, encounters with the poor and the rich. Soon, there would be cruelty and the cross. All would matter. All would mark Jesus as one who defied the oppression of the empire (then and now) and celebrated each and every honest relationship. So much was serious. And yet there was also that happiness.

This is my guess about God . . . the Holy longs for human happiness. God, unnamable and indescribable, longs for all humans to be in beloved relationships. God longs for humans to openly and joyfully and non-judgmentally help others. Not just to love the neighbor, but also to happily and hopefully serve, learn from, and support the neighbor.

I remember my friend Harry, and what he taught me by his words that anticipated and framed his actions. He was always happy to help. Did Harry give me a glimpse of God’s longings? I happily believe so . . .

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