Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1—7; Luke 24:36b—48

You have put gladness in my heart *
more than when grain, and wine, and oil increase.
[2]

We brothers pray the words of Psalm 4 nightly as we say the office of Compline. And almost nightly, since I first arrived in the community more than three and a half years ago, the strange abruptness of the transition between verses six and seven has never ceased to captivate me. And it is this strange abruptness that fittingly captures the difficulty I encountered as I set about preparing this sermon. Let’s hear those verse again,

Many are saying,
“Oh, that we might see better times!” *
Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O Lord.

You have put gladness in my heart, *
more than when grain and wine and oil increase. [3]

Do you notice it?

In the space of one breath, the whole tenor of the psalmist’s prayer changes. One moment, the psalmist lays before God the pains and wounds of the world; Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!” / Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O Lord. And the next moment, without any obvious referent or explanation, the psalmist describes a sense of inner gladness. A gladness free from a dependence on worldly success or material security, surpassing the gladness when grain and wine and oil increase.

There are many instances like this in the psalms—moments where the prayer of the psalmist presents God’s people with a sudden change of tone, as if the psalmist’s perspective has somehow shifted or expanded.

Moments like this one from Psalm 4 often give me pause, because it seems to me that so much of life is actually lived in this kind of strange transitory place—for the psalmist as for us. I doubt very much that the psalmist ever came to know an age where the world’s on-going refrain (“Oh, that we might see better times”) ever fell silent. It is a refrain that the ear of my heart has heard for as long as I can remember; in myself, and in the world around me.

It is a refrain that emerges from the real struggles of daily life; from the wounds and traumas we experience in our physical bodies; and from the deep scars, anxieties, and painful sites in our interior lives that weigh our spirits. In the experience of these pains and abrasions, we human beings are always easily tempted to pronounce a judgement (“good” or “bad”) concerning whatever hardship, smart, or loss may confront us.

And so it is easy to feel weighed down by the knowledge, memory, or lingering company of such terrible experiences—especially after a year such as the one we have all just shared; a season that has united us all in a heightened awareness of just how hard life can be. Even if the calendar reads Eastertide, is nonetheless easy to feel (as the Fred Pratt Green’s hymn after Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it) as if our cup “is filled to brimming with bitter suffering, hard to understand.”[4]

These places where real life actually happens, where real life bumps up against our hopes, dreams, plans, and security, these are spaces that so often test the veracity of our judgments about success or failure. Whether that’s a year spent within the confines and limitations of a pandemic; or weather a diagnosis we didn’t anticipate; or the loss of a loved one, or a home, or a dream. Our habitual human reaction to these kinds of sufferings is to judge. This judgement might look different for each of us. I know, in my own experience, these judgements often take the form of anger (toward God, my neighbor, or myself) and despair (is there a point to any of this? Does God care at all? Why doesn’t God just make it go away?).

Even if the calendar reads Eastertide, is nonetheless easy to feel as if our cup “is filled to brimming with bitter suffering, hard to understand.”

Of course, none of us likes to suffer. But I have come to observe more and more as I pray Christ into my past sufferings and losses, the issue is neither God nor my suffering. The issue is the quality of my spiritual vision—a vision so often clouded by judgements I have made about whatever situation happens to confront me, the world, or my loved ones. With a vision so obscured, the real mystery of the Easter event can pass right under our noses—both Christ’s appearances in the gospels as well as Christ’s ever-present work of redemption in each of us.

I imagine this is why the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (which comes just few verses before the passage we heard this morning) could not recognize Jesus.

While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’[5]

The two disciples are caught in the mire of their judgements about what has happened. They are suspended in that awkward breath between Lift up the light of your countenance upon us and you have put gladness in my heart. The eyes of their faith aren’t opened until Jesus both explains how they’ve misread scripture and experience and breaks bread with them. Which brings us to the scene we recalled this morning—Jesus’ resurrection appearance in the upper room, a scene that cuts to the very heart of the kind of struggle to see with the clear eye of faith.

For in each of the three gospels that record resurrection appearances, the authors make it clear that although the Lord is nonetheless risen and glorified, he is still mutilated, still maimed. And so those two verses from Psalm 4 meet in the flesh of Jesus in a radical way—a way that begs us to see beyond our limited conclusions. For these marks of death and loss are not elided or erased by God’s redeeming work. The signs of death appear right alongside the presence of promised resurrection life. Beauty and barbed wire.

This is the miraculous promise of Easter—if we let our eyes adjust to the new light of renewed creation. Real life, larger life, the life into which God invites us, the truth fulfillment for which our hearts truly thirst, this life requires a new set of eyes. For I have to wonder, how would I have reacted if I had been in the upper room and a mutilated body presented itself to me. I have to wonder, given how I view my own wounds, would I have missed the point? Would I have been scandalized? Would I have seen these marks of death and simply judged that God had failed?

I believe we are invited in every moment of our suffering to behold the Lord, risen and glorified, showing us his wounds in our wounds. For if we are only focused on the weight of our loss and suffering, and not on the life present in the midst of death, we will miss the point. We will miss the totality of the beauty that is before us, the full redemption in Christ of all things, because we will be caught up in what we have determined and prejudged to be gruesome or unbearable.

And so maybe this is the psalmist’s wisdom in this juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory phrases: a world yearns for better times, and a heart that rests and beholds the promises of God in gladness. A gladness that puts worldly anxieties to rest— a gladness fuller than the measure of our individual judgements.

Look again at those moments in your life where it seemed as if you had been laid in the grave. In the space between two contrasting verses of a psalm, in that space where the breath of our heart holds itself for fear of failure, loss, or death; there, there the Risen Lord shows us his glorified and transfigured wounds—transfigured, but not erased—inviting us to let our vision adjust, beholding more and more of our life without judgment.

You have put gladness in our hearts. More than when grain and wine and oil increase.

Alleluia.


[1] An allusion to the collect for the Third Sunday of Easter, The Book of Common Prayer, 224.

[2] Psalm 4:7, The Book of Common Prayer, 588

[3] Psalm 4:7—8, ibid.

[4][4] The Hymnal 1982 #695/6, by F. Pratt Green after Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

[5] Luke 24:15—18 New Revised Standard Version.

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