Digging into the Text:
Psalm 1 didn’t just happen to be placed at the beginning of the book of Psalms. After all, Psalms is perhaps the most obviously and carefully edited of all the books of the Bible. It’s the forward to the book, the opening inscription, the epigram on the first page. Which means this is the best expression of truth they could find to sum up the meaning of life. It’s a Psalm worth some time and thought and one that your congregation needs to know and understand.
It has always seemed somewhat strange to me that it begins by saying that we achieve happiness, blessedness by not doing certain things, rather than by doing things. Right away it strikes a negative tone. If you want a happy and blessed life, make sure you don’t follow the advice of people you know are dishonest of crooked. Don’t walk the path and spend time in the places sinful folks frequent. Don’t hang around with cynics and scoffers who can’t take anything seriously.
Wouldn’t it have been better to start on a positive note, emphasizing the good life of the righteous rather than starting out with the no-no’s? I suspect that most of us would have chosen to “accentuate the positive” as the old song says.
But there’s an ageless wisdom to the approach of the Psalmist. We are social animals who are easily influenced by our environment. While our doctrine of original sin tends to emphasize the endemic quality of evil, the Bible is also clear about its social contagion. We aren’t just born sinful, we learn it.
So, the Psalm is telling us that if we want to enjoy the blessedness of a righteous life, it’s not a good idea to spend a lot of time in the places and with the people whose life is exactly the opposite. It’s like the old saying about computer programming, “garbage in, garbage out.” We can’t expect that when we flood our minds with evil and spend our time in the company of people who are devious, resentful, and just plain wicked, we are going to grow in goodness. It just doesn’t work that way.
The Psalm suggests that, perhaps the first step in living a blessed life is to watch out for what’s influencing or minds and hearts. What books are we reading, what movies do we watch? Where do we find our entertainment, or what kind of activity gives us the greatest joy? Who do we most like to spend time with, or what kind of people do we really admire?
Does that mean that we take the “hear no evil, see no evil” approach to life? That we ban books and movies, never spend time with unbelievers, and live an abstemious life of avoidance and fear? No, there is no way we can expunge all evil influences or wall our lives off from the evils of the world. Years ago, in the denomination I grew up in, we were warned away from the big three bad influences, movies, card-playing (of the face card sort), and dancing. It didn’t work very well. Sometimes pressure toward avoidance alone can lead to attraction, at least it did with me.
The Psalm is telling us to be vigilant about the influences in our lives. Take an honest look at what we find attractive, where we spend our time, what really excites us. Often, those places in our lives where we find ourselves falling into sin can be traced back to the where we are spending our time, and the people or activities that we come back to over and over.
But the Psalm quickly turns toward the positive. What are the places, the people, the activities that prod us toward goodness, righteousness, and love? The Psalmist summarizes this by advocating delight in and meditation on the law of God. The” law of God” is the Torah, which Israel understood as the books of Moses, the Pentateuch, which was the Jewish gospel. For Christians, meditating on the law of God includes the whole Scripture.
The more we are steeped in the Scriptures, the more likely we will be able to discern good from evil, and the more we will grasp how to live well, which is what righteousness looks like. Grounded in the sweep of the biblical story, from Genesis to Revelation, we will know what life in this world means, what we are here for, and where we are headed. The more we ground our lives in that story, the more we will be part of that story.
But Paul reminds us that it’s even wider than that. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8) Perhaps constantly reading pulp novels, watching TV, and stalking the Mall is not the best way to find the blessedness the Psalm promises.
The Psalm offers another wonderful image that pictures the blessed life of the righteous that is repeated elsewhere in the Psalms. They are grounded.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
There’s the old saying, “bloom where you are planted.” But it matters where we are planted. Perhaps we don’t bloom well planted in the arid desert of popular culture.
Notice that the Psalm does not say that we are like trees that plant themselves by streams of water. It’s not just what we do, it’s what has been done for us. One way of thinking about this is to consider how we raise our children to live a blessed life.
Some parents resist the idea that they should raise their children by giving them a religious grounding, plant them in the church. They argue that we need to let our children choose their own way, find their own beliefs. Of course, people eventually do, but they will have a harder time finding a blessed life if they have not been grounded in one.
When we plant our children in the community of God’s people and immerse them in the Christian faith, we are not robbing them of choice, but giving them a grounding in good soil, next to a refreshing and life-giving stream of God’s grace and truth.
“The wicked are not so….” Now the Psalm turns its attention to the alternative lifestyle. Who are the “wicked?” They are not necessarily those whose lives are bent on evil, hatred, and violence. In the world of the Psalm, the wicked are those who refuse to live by God’s law, whose lives have no grounding in the Creator God, who wander through life with no real goal or purpose beyond their immediate needs or happiness.
The Psalm doesn’t bother to give us a graphic picture of wickedness, but focuses on its end. They are “like chaff that the wind drives away,” and who “will not stand in the judgment.” Life apart from God, life in the desert of a godless world, is weightless, like the chaff that blows away. It has no grounding, no lasting source of nourishment. The opposite of blessedness is nothingness, meaninglessness.
The bottom line of all this is that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” Living the blessed life means that we do not have a God who is constantly pointing the finger of judgement at us, condemning our behavior. We have a God who loves us, watches over us, and guides us.
As Christians, we know that this blessed life is not something we achieve, it is a gift of grace in Jesus Christ. He is the one true and good human being, the one righteous man. It is in his righteousness, not our own, that we find the blessedness we want. He is our savior from sin by his death and resurrection, and he is the power by which we can live a blessed life by the gift of his Spirit.
Preaching the Text:
1). James K. A. Smith has written a series of books on what he calls “cultural liturgies.” Much of his thought is accessibly summed up in “You Are What You Love.” It may seem strange to talk about cultural influences on our lives as “liturgies,” but Smith shows how many attractions in our culture act on us like liturgies, shaping our lives. He colorfully describes the liturgy of the Mall and the liturgy of the sports stadium. He shows how these liturgies act as stories that form us in often unconscious ways.
But Smith also describes how the worship of the church acts as a kind of counter-liturgy to the liturgies of the world. The church’s liturgy, its worship, draws us into the story of God, and calls us into living in that story. He also urges the church to pay attention to its worship so that it doesn’t just mimic the liturgies of the world.
The Preacher will find many good examples here of the ways in which we unknowingly follow the advice of the wicked, walk the path of sinners and sit in the seat of scoffers. But you will also find ways to urge your people to see the church’s worship as a crucial antidote to the domination of various cultural liturgies in our lives.
2). Speaking of liturgies, I recently decided to take a look at John McCain’s funeral at Washington Cathedral, not really intending to watch the whole thing. But I was captivated and watched the whole service. In a culture increasingly marked by tribalism, division, and enmity, the McCain funeral was a strong counter-liturgy. It urged a return to bi-partisanship, cooperation, and unity of purpose. It told a different story about America than the story of fear, division, and and animosity so prevalent today.
Amazingly, the funeral was shown on almost all the networks simultaneously. There was a shared feeling that this was something we needed to reshape ourselves and our nation. And surprisingly to me, this was not merely a cultural liturgy, it was set in the context of the Christian liturgy, the hymns, prayers, and Scriptures of which told a different story, called us to live in a different drama.
3). I would not recommend watching TV series as an activity akin to being planted like a tree by the water. It’s interesting, however, that a series like Mad Men, or The Sopranos that focus the on the life of wicked people, have a deeper message. After watching these programs week after week, the effect was not that I would like to emulate Tony Soprano or Don Draper or their cohorts, but just the opposite. It revealed how empty, meaningless, and ultimately destructive such a life really is. Evil, when seen in all its sordid reality is seldom attractive.
4). It is fascinating to trace the image of trees in the Bible. From the trees planted in the garden of Eden, to the fruit tree-lined boulevard in Revelation 22, trees are often used as a symbol for vitality and growth.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor. (Isaiah 61:3)
But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. (Psalm 52:8)
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 23, 2018
Psalm 1 Commentary