Psalm 4, In Peace I Shall Sleep

September 11, 2011                In Peace I Shall Sleep
Exodus 14:19-31                     Psalm 4            Matthew 18:15-22
To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep, No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks                                                                                       That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;                                                                                                    
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,                                                                                When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,  Must give us pause . . .    Hamlet, Act III, Scene I
Sleep is truly a precious gift, we may not always think of it this way, but those who struggle to sleep each night know the truth of this.  There is nothing more peaceful than the sleep of a young child.  They sleep deeply, lost in slumber without all the concerns of the adult world.
To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub, sleep isn’t always filled with peaceful, pleasant images, not even for young children who are known to wake-up terrified and in need of crawling into their parent’s bed.  So many of our dreams are far from pleasant, confusing and strange if not outright nightmares.  Dreams at times are where we work out our worst fears.  C.S. Lewis in his book Voyage of the DawnTreader (part of the Chronicles of Narnia) visits an island where dreams come true.  At first the children on the Dawn Treader thought this would be the most wonderful place, until they remembered the nightmares that at times haunt their dreams.  The island was shrouded in mists.  They pulled back in terror before they could be assaulted by their worst nightmares, pulling a man onto their boat before leaving, a man a mere shell of the man he had been because of his experience on the island.  No, we can’t count on our sleeping dreams to be peaceful, when we are able to sleep.
Psalm for today is an evening meditation, speaks of sleeping in peace.  “Whoever wrote it was a good and great man holding high office—maybe high priest—who learned his lesson in a time of public trouble in which he himself and the cause for which he stood were in danger.  As Psalm 3 was the morning thanksgiving of a victorious warrior, so this is the evening meditation of a God-fearing statesman.  We could wish that all who aspire to public leadership would think in quiet thus before they sleep.  The structure is simple enough.  Verse 1 is an appeal to God, who, the writer is sure, approves of his policy as a national leader seeking to determine his course by a constant reference to the divine will.  Note the phrase God of my righteousness, i.e. ‘the God who has declared me justified in what I have tried to do.’  Whatever or whoever else is uneasy, his conscience is at peace.  Next comes an appeal to his opponents, who are bringing not only his policy but his office into shame (vs. 2).  He would have them spend time in meditation also.  If they do, they will see that God is on the side of the man who in the face of all the odds honestly seeks to serve him (vs. 3).  There is some confusion in the text of vs. 4.  The KJVC gives a good meaning, but so does the RSV, be angry, but sin not:  a notable word for any day.  In all political disputes men should see that their anger is not sinful.  Fury for propaganda purposes, bitterness engendered by personal jealousies or generated solely to create an opportunity for grasping at power—all this is plain sin.  On the other hand stand in awe and sin not is perhaps more in line with the rest of the thought.  If men tremble in awe at the Word of God they are not likely to go far wrong.”  Commentary – The Interpreter’s Bible, volume 4, p. 30-31
Good words, certainly applicable to our times.  Verse 2 asks “how long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?”  How long indeed, apparently for a very long time as it is still a problem centuries later, in our day and age, people, especially politicians, far too often speak vain words and outright lies.  With all of the religious posturing going on by politicians, you have to wonder, what ensures that this person is not another one who tries to use God to justify his own ends?  Much damage has been done challenge what the psalmist is saying to observe religious observances themselves, reminding us that if we are to challenge someone, we need to, in a sense, “take out the beam in our own eye first.”  Or as the commentator continues, “Many of the opponents of spiritual ideals in public or ecclesiastical life are those whose religious practice is but slightly honored in its observance.”  Meaning they criticize where they know not, having no faith themselves. 
The psalm continues on to remind us that joy isn’t dependent on everything going right in our lives or prosperity.  Verse 6 states that there are many who are quick to respond to life’s problems by saying “O that we might see some good.”  Common human reaction when things are not going our way, they call upon God to rescue them and doubt God when he doesn’t.  The Psalmist responds by saying, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their corn and wine abound.”  He has found the possibility of joy even in hard times, when not prospering, or as one saying goes, “Ah! I could have done without my joys, but I could never have done without my sorrows.”  Psalm lets us know that joy isn’t dependent on prosperity–it even at times flourishes during times of suffering and sorrow.  Result of this is the ability to sleep in peace.  “The psalm ends with the gentlest of lullabies as if the writer were singing to himself in quietness, I will both lay me down in peace and sleep.  He may have been a great statesman, but in the evening he was a child, trusting child of God, one of the beloved to whom God gave greatly in his sleep.” (p. 34)  A great psalm for today’s generation of politicians, public servants, reminding of the need for a clear conscience in order to sleep well. 
Reading from Exodus the great story of salvation, God brings the Hebrew nation safely through the Red sea then destroys the Egyptian army following them.  “The central point of the story is that the salvific power of God is reliable and that consequently the people of God can be secure in the belief that God will indeed protect them.”  (Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, After Pentecost)  The sea, considered a god in Canaanite religion, becomes a mere tool in God’s hands, where Israelite people are able to walk without even getting their feet wet and muddy.  This “event is a strong proclamation that God’s salvation is absolutely reliable even when opposed by evil divine powers.” (p. 33)  Reminder that God is worth our trust.
What keeps you up at night?  What keeps you from sleeping peacefully?  Is there a secret to a good night’s sleep?  Perhaps worries about money, about your health or the health of your loved ones, perhaps the death of a loved one, or perhaps concern over a dispute that needs to be reconciled, a hurt that has not been healed keeps you awake.  Gospel gives instruction for handling such disputes.  Even if you are unable to get your neighbor who wronged you to change or apologize, does not mean you can’t forgive and through forgiveness find peace, the peace of knowing you have done all that you can on your part.
Today we remember the tragedy of 9/11, the terrible acts of destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, as well as the attack on the Pentagon and the men and women in the airplanes that were destroyed.  Truly our worst nightmares realized; the cause of many sleepless nights for those who lost loved ones or were seeking loved ones during the days after the attack.  A reason for disrupted sleep as our sense of security had been attacked so we no longer sleep the innocent sleep of the young, confident that no harm may befall us.  Yet we can yet experience that sleep.  Our joy isn’t dependent on everything going right, as the Psalmist tells us.  In our darkest times, most difficult experiences, the human spirit prevails, in fact can be even stronger as we reach out to each other, help each other.  9/11 was a dark time for us as a country, yet we have prevailed, we have rebuilt and will continue to rebuild.
Peaceful sleep is a great gift.  If we life lives of righteousness, truly contemplating God’s word and our own actions to make sure they are in line with God’s word, if we forgive others when they have hurt or wronged us, when you are disturbed or angry, sin not, rather stand in awe of your God, then you too will find the rest you desire, peace in this life, as well as the next.

Robertson, copyright, November 2011

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