Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 29, 2023
Psalm 1 Commentary
With only a few weeks left in the Lectionary’s Year A cycle before Advent and Year B arrives, suddenly we arrive at Psalm 1. Along with Psalm 2, this poem is like the gateway into the Hebrew Psalter. As we have noted often in our sermon commentaries here on CEP, the Book of Psalms is no haphazard collection nor is the ordering of the book random. This was thoughtfully and intentionally designed and edited, starting with the placement of this as the collection’s opening poem.
Clear as day we see that in the worldview of the Psalms, life cleaves fairly cleanly into two halves: there are on the one side the righteous and on the other side the wicked. If you are looking for a nuanced perspective on life in this world, Psalm 1—and just possibly most of the 149 psalms to follow—is not for you. You are either in Camp A with the righteous or with Camp B with the wicked.
What’s more, the characterization of both groups is also crystal clear. The righteous consistently walk in the ways of God. They are planted firmly in the Word of God, on which they meditate day and night. God’s watchful eyes are always upon them. Not so the wicked! They are presented as anything but firmly rooted in anything. They fly about madly, pursuing one evil scheme after the next. And so the righteous must very simply never be found in their company nor chasing them down any of those wildly chaotic paths the wicked travel to pull off their crimes and such. Nor will the righteous be among them when God’s final judgment comes. The wicked very simply will not make God’s cut. Their course is a one-way ticket to destruction.
Again, these sentiments sound the keynote for so much of the worldview and the theology to come in the balance of Psalms. But how are we to understand this stark, black-and-white, almost cartoonish portrayal of life? Is this finally to be understood as some ultimate perspective of how it will all pan out in the end? Because honesty compels us to admit that when we look at life on this planet on the average day, the categories into which people seem to fit are not always so neat. Or at least we cannot perceive all things so neatly.
Yes and most certainly we have all encountered both great moral beauty as displayed by someone we would have no hesitation describing as “righteous” and also great moral ugliness with deeds perpetrated by people we would likewise have no difficulty called “wicked” or “evil.” There have been Holocausts and pogroms, genocides and the slaughter of children, sex trafficking rings and the complete degradation of human life all of which require no effort whatsoever to describe as wicked.
And yet . . . many of the people we personally know and rub shoulders with are not always so easy to classify. On the one hand we have all run across people who attend church every week but who also seem to have some shadow sides to their character. They no doubt have an actual and authentic Christian faith but they can be cutting and rude, proud and not a little arrogant in ways that bother our sensibilities. And let’s step in front of the mirror long enough to confess that each one of us is aware of our own brokenness and those places in our own lives of discipleship in constant need of repair and attention. If asked “Do you consider yourself righteous?” the only honest answer is “Only insofar as Christ has granted to me HIS righteousness because I gotta tell you that on my own . . .”
Candidates for righteousness are not always singularly radiant. Then again, candidates for wickedness are also a mixed bag. Many of us have known friends, neighbors, and coworkers who are not terribly religious and rarely if ever darken the door of any house of worship. But are they singularly wicked people who spend their days pursuing immoral and illicit schemes to lie, cheat, and steal from everyone around them? Hardly. They are decent people. We give them the keys to our house to keep our plants watered while we are on vacation and don’t worry for a second they will loot the house of its valuables on account of their not obviously qualifying as “the righteous” of life. We even form friendships with co-workers who are not believers and maybe even entrust them with the burdens of our hearts and are glad to accept good advice and counsel when they give it. Wicked? Living lives that will only yield destruction? Many of us might find that hard to say of these people.
So we return to the question: how do we take Psalm 1’s black-and-white sorting of all people into two neat categories, one of which holds out no apparent hope for salvation or anything good? Again, this could be a view of how things ultimately will shake out yet without denying that in the present moment, our spiritual vision is not always acute enough to be able to tell who is truly righteous and who is truly wicked. Indeed, there has been a long theological tradition in ecclesiology that admits that the “church visible” that we can see with our eyes is not necessarily identical to the “church invisible” that is the true church of those who are truly believers and who are truly saved. God may be able to distinguish the two at any moment. The rest of us, not so much.
When it comes to the world outside the church, the same may be true. We can recognize raw evil and wickedness when we see it. We can acknowledge and celebrate and give God praise for true righteousness and faith when we encounter it too. But for all that is in between the two extremes? Perhaps this is where the importance of meditating on God’s Law and Word day and night comes into play. Because one of the things such ongoing meditating should do for us is nurture humility. There is no doubt on which end of the Psalm 1 spectrum we want to find ourselves nor any doubt on which end of that same spectrum we want to encourage all of our family, neighbors, coworkers and friend to be on too. Psalm 1 is a rallying cry for us to witness to righteousness and to invite all to join us in pursuit of that so as to stay off the chaotic and destructive paths followed by too many in this world.
For the rest, we end where Psalm 1 concludes: God’s judgment. God will know what is right to do in the end. In that assurance we rest but in the hope that more rather than fewer will be on the right side of that same judgment, we call all people to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and to follow him down the path that leads to that firmly rooted place beside pleasant streams of water.
We may not usually look closely at logos, especially ones we see often, but a closer look at our logo for The Center for Excellence in Preaching reveals that Psalm 1 is the inspiration for our logo: a well-rooted tree beside streams of water. The stained-glass window from which this is taken, made by local artist Judy Apol, also graces the Student Center at Calvin Theological Seminary. It is a fitting image for an institution that exists in part to train future preachers. It is a fitting inspiration for all of us who are preachers to remind us of what is central to our task each week as we produce sermons.
Sinking down roots into God’s Word so that the fruit that grows is the fruit of righteousness pertaining to all the things of God and of his kingdom and of his Christ is our goal. Proclaiming the Gospel is our goal. Blessed are all who meditate on that Good News night and day!
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