“THE JOYFUL HEART”
Second Sunday in Lent
March 17, 2019
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 4:7, 8 (ESV)
Lent is not usually a time of the church year when we put a whole lot of emphasis on joy. In fact, Lent is a penitential season--a time when our public worship is somewhat subdued--a time when many of us at least attempt to be a bit more disciplined than usual in our personal lives. The obvious reason for all of this is, of course, that Lent is a time when we center our thoughts on our sin and unworthiness before God and on the suffering and death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, through which He made atonement for us and has made us acceptable to God in spite of our sin and unworthiness. Most people think of these things as being diametrically opposed to joy. Joy, humanly speaking, is not usually about quiet reflection but is instead about things like smiles and laughter and singing and dancing.
And yet in the psalm appointed for this day of the church year King David speaks very clearly about joy. It is not the loud and boisterous revelry that most frequently characterizes what we have come to know as joy. It is instead what we might call a quiet joy. The sadness that we feel as we contemplate the cross of Jesus and our sin (which earned that kind of punishment) does not arbitrarily rule out any and all joy. There is also joy to be found in the cross of Jesus because it is there--on the cross--that atonement and reconciliation were accomplished between the holy God and sinners like us. It is there--on the cross--that our salvation was accomplished, making it possible for us to live and die in hope rather than in despair. So that we might better understand this and therefore rejoice in what Jesus did for us on the cross, we will meditate this morning on what the psalmist’s words have to say about what makes the human heart joyful and what can give us even greater joy.
What exactly are the things that make the human heart joyful? One of the things alluded to in the passage before us is “grain.” And just what is meant by that? In all probability this is a reference to the essentials of life. I suppose it goes without saying that people are not going to be joyful unless the things that they need for their survival are readily available to them. When you look around at all of the sorrow and misery that exists in the world, it soon becomes pretty obvious that a good part of it comes from the fact that a lot of people simply do not have the basic necessities of life. And I’m not talking here strictly about material things, but also the intangible human necessities: things like love and companionship and comfort and hope. These are things that people need to have in their lives if they are even going to survive, to say nothing about being happy and joyful. Without these things life is simply not worth living, according to many.
But there is more being cited here than just the essentials of life. The psalmist also makes mention of “wine” as one of the things that makes the human heart joyful. I trust that we would all concede that wine is not a necessity of life but rather a luxury. In Scripture the mere use of wine is in itself a manifestation of joy, since wine is always used in the Scriptures in connection with celebration. And, in all probability, the wine mentioned in the text before us is not just any wine, but “new wine.” To really appreciate this expression you have to take into account that in ancient times there was no way to stop the process of fermentation. For this reason the best wine was always the “new wine,” which ideally was to be used up before it turned into sour wine or vinegar, which was then (among the Romans, at least) commonly given to soldiers as a part of their rations. The mention of the abundance of “wine” here brings to mind for us the fact that in order to be truly happy and joyful, many people in our world “need” (or think they need) not only the necessities of life but also the luxuries--and the very best of luxuries at that.
But no matter how joyful people think they are as a result of having all the essentials and the fine luxuries of life, in this psalm David makes mention of “more joy” that is “in [his] heart”--a joy that only God can provide. David speaks of the manifestation of this joy, first of all, by saying: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep.” He isn’t speaking here only about the sleep that we all look forward to at the end of each day. To be sure, it is a good feeling to know when you retire at the end of the day that the Lord, for the sake of Christ, forgives you all of your sins. But the “more joy” that we have “in [our] heart[s]” is the joy that we have when we are able to look at our own approaching death with the same sense of peace with which we go to sleep--the peace that comes from sins forgiven. It’s been said that the great reformer Martin Luther desired to have these words of the eighth verse of Psalm 4 sung to him at his deathbed. We have no way of knowing whether or not his wish was in fact carried out, but there can be no doubt that any Christian facing death can have the same confidence--the same peace--the same joy that the psalmist expresses here.
We also hear the psalmist pray in this text: “You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” The world that we live in is a very dangerous one, both physically and spiritually. It is a world in which Satan himself is very active, seeking to cause all kinds of doubts and fears to arise in the hearts of God’s people. The enemy would love nothing more than to see us despair of God’s grace in Christ and deny our Savior, thus forfeiting the hope that is ours in Him. But no matter how hard he tries, this simply cannot happen without our free and willing consent. Nobody ever loses his faith against his will, but a lot of people throw their faith away by doubting Christ and by placing their confidence elsewhere: in themselves, in other people, or in various different things, thinking that these are the places where true joy is to be found. The slain and risen Christ has given us His Holy Spirit--the Spirit who comes to us and abides with us in His chosen means of grace--so that we might have the strength that we need to engage the enemy at every turn and to emerge victorious.
There are a lot of places where people in this world go to look for joy. Guided by the Holy Spirit, we seek it and find it in the most unlikely of all places--the only place, in fact, where true joy is to be found. We find joy in the cross of Jesus because this is where we find the peace with God that makes it possible for us “in peace” to “ both lie down and sleep,” knowing that our sin has been atoned for by the innocent blood of our Savior. The cross of Jesus is also where we “dwell in safety” with full confidence that, live or die, we rest in the mercy and grace of the God who became Man for us and bore our sin in His own body so that we might have fellowship with our heavenly Father and receive Christ’s perfect righteousness as we stand before the judgment throne of God.
May the One who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, making us kings and priests before His God and Father, lead you to a life of repentance and trust. May He also be glorified in the lives of you, His people. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.