Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer. How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him. When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord. There are many who say, “O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!” You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound. I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.
He was resting in the bed when I entered the room. Like many people suffering from a terminal illness, the living room had been reimagined as a bedroom with medical equipment spread throughout the space. The older man’s son stood next to me, trying not to cry while he watched his dad sleeping in the bed. The son gently nudged his father to wake up and introduced me as the young seminary intern. He then left us alone.
After his son left the room, the older man sat up from his bed with a smile that left me feeling disoriented. I could see his physical discomfort, but there was a sense of joy and peace that emanated from his whole person to anyone around. Unsure how to begin our conversation, I just sat there trying to come up with something, when he interrupted my thoughts by saying, “Taylor, this cancer has been the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Rev. Willie Mac Tribble was dying of a brain tumor. He had spent the majority of his life serving as a United Methodist Pastor in the North Georgia Conference. He had pastored 10 different churches during his 40-year career, but now he was stuck in his living room talking to a young seminarian about his life and ministry. Though simple movements sent lightning bolts of pain throughout his body, and he was nearing the end of his life, he claimed that his suffering had been a blessing.
Psalm 4 is often overlooked in the life of faithfulness, but it conveys the depth of what it means to rely on the Lord and have the right perspective. Upon first inspection we might label it as an evening psalm, something to be prayed before our heads hit the pillows: I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety. It sounds like a prayer that we hope the leaders of our community would utter up to God recognizing they have endured shame for the betterment of the people. It is selfless, hopeful, and faithful.
Yet, this psalm is not just for a particular set of people with a specific set of problems, but it is a psalm for all of us, worthy to be prayed throughout our lives.
Psalm 4 begins by addressing the Lord:
God, when I start praying, please listen and answer me. I know that you are the Lord of my life, and you are with me in all things, but I need you presence now.
In the past you provided for me when I was in need. You placed words on my tongue when I was speaking, you sent the right people into my life when I was lonely, and you provided food from the earth when I was hungry. So Lord, be gracious yet again and listen to me as I pray.
The psalmist then moves to address the people who no longer trust God:
How long will all you people fall short of you potential? Why do you continue to love words that puff up, that make you sound better than you are, that inflate your ego and self-perception? How long will you believe all the lies that surround you? Why are you so transfixed by the rumors and drama? Remember this: the Lord has set us apart to be a holy people who pursue holiness. The Lord listens when we call to him.
When life is full of disappointment and regret, when you feel like nothing is going your way and the floor is crumbling underneath, when you experience loneliness and fear, do not sin. Instead of venting and taking out your frustrations on other people, ponder your circumstances and be silent. Give up the things that are tearing you down, and put your trust in the Lord.
Too many people only believe and keep faith when everything is going right in their lives. They only praise the Lord when they are successful, and the minute something becomes derailed they blame the Lord first before looking at themselves. Too many prayers are based upon: “Lord, if you do this for me, I will turn my life around, or I’ll start going to church.”
We are at the peak of our faithfulness when we recognize the gladness the Lord has placed in our hearts more than when all the material things of life abounded. We do well to recognize the Lord’s blessing in all things and trust that God is with us. Because it is only with a deep trust and confidence in the Lord that we can sleep in peace, for the Lord is the one who brings us comfort in our rest.
Why are all of us here this morning? I count it as nothing short of a miracle that God continues to gather people together every week for worship. But the fact that people choose to spend their time doing something like this will always surprise me. With all the competing narratives in our world, we decided to come here to participate in an ancient practice of letting the Lord reorient our lives.
Why are we here? Perhaps the best answer to that question is this: we want to hear something true. All of us are constantly bombarded by the facts of the life, and the subsequent denial of those facts. We wake up feeling sore and then we watch a commercial about a cream that can make all of our pain go away. We struggle through relationship after relationship and then we get invited to an online dating service that promises to find us a companion for life. We wrestle with children who neglect to pay attention at home and school, and a friend tells us about the magic pill that will calm our children, and make them into who they are supposed to be.
And then we come to church and we hear the truth. We learn about our sinfulness and how we need to be better. But through the church there are no cheap fixes, there’s no pill or simple prayer that can turn everything around. Discovering our sinfulness and seeking holiness requires a lifetime of work.
Yet, here we are. I have to believe that even though the life of discipleship is remarkably difficult, we are here because we believe it is worth it. We are here because we hear the words of Psalm 4 and we know that it is speaking something new and truthful into our very lives on this very day.
Church, at its best, is the arena of reality checks. Whether we want to admit it or not, this is the time when we face the truth: The unrighteous often flourish, and the faithful are usually ridiculed and ignored. In fact, godliness tends to make suffering inevitable. Psalm 4 speaks to the deep truth of what it means to follow Christ: if we really act like the Christians we claim to be, we will be persecuted for our discipleship.
So here is the deep reality check of Psalm 4: True happiness and faithfulness is often found in the least likely of places. We imagine that the wealthy and powerful are joyful but what they have cannot make them happy and sleep in peace. It never ceases to amaze me, but I regularly discover happiness in places I would never imagine: hospitals and funerals. The people who are in the midst of pain and suffering are somehow renewing their own lives. They are the ones who are proving that they can face life’s harshness and still stand fast. There is an inner glow in the heart of a disciple who can show such faith in the midst of something so tragic.
“Taylor” he said, “this cancer has been the best thing that ever happened to me. For the first time in years people have been anxious to come visit with me. For decades I served as a pastor and was surrounded by people, but since I retired I have never been so lonely in my life. Yet now, my sons and daughter, who used to just call once in awhile, have been driving to see me on a regular basis. I’ve had old confirmands and church members from past seek me out since my diagnosis. Friends from long ago have reached out through letters, phone calls, and even visits. I am ashamed that, for the first time in my life, I am thankful for living at all.”
Mac’s faith was not grounded in simple and straightforward theological claims, but was instead rekindled by the recognition of how blessed his life really was. It is so sad that it often takes a profound loss or an unwavering diagnosis to make us appreciate what we have, but for Mac it made all the difference. He recognized the true gladness in his heart, even in the midst of suffering, because God’s love was being poured down upon him during the final days of his life. He could only claim his cancer as the best thing to happen, because he understood that death is not the end, and that God will take care of us when we die.
This room is full of sinners and maybe that’s exactly why we are here. While the world tells us to forget our mistakes and press forward, the church calls us to look upon our short-comings and repent. While we seek to find fulfillment in relationships and passions, the church challenges us to remember that only the Lord can provide wholeness. While we strive to ignore that annoying co-worker, and push off our children’s problems onto someone else, the church tells us to love one another and take responsibility.
This is one of the only places left that actually challenges us with the truth.
I stand at the front door every Sunday and I see all the sinners gather for worship. I see the broken relationships, the arguments between friends, the bad blood that continues to boil over, the resentments and frustrations, the prejudices and failures. And we stand and sit, we praise and pray, and then the chief sinner of us all gets to stand at the front and talk about what God is still doing in our lives.
My friends, we can’t wait for something bad to happen before we begin to appreciate what we have. If we base our happiness around material success, then we will never feel truly fulfilled. If Psalm 4 is speaking something to us today, it’s to start giving thanks for what we have, and seeking out those whom God has placed in our lives.
But if we’re not at that point, then we can at least begin with prayer. Maybe like the psalmist we can commune with the Lord before we go to sleep, or perhaps we can go to God the moment we awake in the morning. It does not matter how we pray, but that we pray in the first place because prayer leads to trust, a trust in the Lord that even when we die, it will not be the end. Amen.