Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 12, 2024

Psalm 1 Commentary

As the Year B Lectionary brings Eastertide in for a landing, it returns us to the very head of the Hebrew Psalter.  As we conclude our celebration of the resurrection and anticipate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Psalm 1 reminds us of what the righteousness we have in Christ looks like in our daily living.

Psalm 1 begins with a beatitude but a beatitude with a little bit of a twist to it.  Typically a beatitude blessing describes what the blessed one is or what they possess or what they do.  But the opening blessing of Psalm 1 actually blesses people for what they do not do.  In this case, you are blessed if you do not keep pace with the wicked and if you do not stand in their wicked gatherings.  So here is a blessing for what a person avoids: bad company and the bad behavior that can often come from hanging out with them.  This is what a lot of our parents used to warn us about: running with the wrong crowd.

And speaking of running, that is the primary contrast in Psalm 1 between the righteous and the wicked: the wicked are always on the move, always scurrying around making trouble.  And in the end, as befits their restless status just generally, the wicked will blow away like chaff on the wind.  There is finally no substance to them.  (In past sermon commentaries on Psalm 1 I have recalled the demise of the evil Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter film series: after the last vestiges of his soul had been destroyed, Voldemort literally disintegrates and the camera then follows what looks like ashes blowing away in the wind.  Voldemort was in the end so much dust in the wind.)

But how are the righteous described?  As being well-rooted.  They are planted firmly in fertile soil besides streams that will ensure a steady supply of moisture that will make for continued growth and flourishing.

The righteous are not running around but are a meditative lot.  They are still, have a kind of repose, and have a focus on the things of God.  The psalm singles out most particularly the law of God.  But to a lot of us, incessant meditating on laws may sound like anything but an exciting life!  Today if we consider the whole breadth of Holy Scripture, how many of us when asked to name our favorite parts of the Bible would say, “Leviticus!  I just love meditating on all those laws about food and garments and bodily secretions!”   No, we’re more apt to go to the psalms or to our favorite Bible stories or to the parables of Jesus.  Those are the kinds of things we might be able to conceive of meditating upon day and night.  But the law(s) of God?  Not so much.

In truth the Hebrew word in Psalm 1:2 is the word we translate as Torah and it is actually a word with a variety of meanings and connotations.  Yes, narrowly speaking Torah does mean “law” as it is rendered in most translations of, for instance, Psalm 1.  But the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) are also often called the Torah and at other times Torah can be a catch-all word to describe the entire Hebrew Scripture or what we call the Old Testament.

So what Psalm 1 calls for could be—and surely at least includes—a strict pondering of the Law of God in terms of God’s revealed instructions, regulations, stipulations, law, rules, and statutes.  But it can also include all those other parts of the Bible that we might be more apt to choose as the focus of our meditations: the psalms themselves, the stories, the prophecies and moving into now also the New Testament the parables of Jesus and the stories told about Jesus in the four gospels.

It’s the whole Word of God, in other words, and this is the proper focus of our meditating because taken together, Scripture is the source of our life.  God by the Holy Spirit went to enormous lengths in history to get this Word inspired.  It is God’s love letter to a wayward creation.  It is God’s personal revealing of the rules that can keep us out of harm’s way and the rules that when observed correctly actually result in great blessing and the very kinds of leafy flourishing beside the waters of life depicted in Psalm 1.

Many of us have perhaps been struck when hearing these words spoken before the reading of Scripture in public worship services: the pastor or liturgist may say something along the lines of “And now let us hear these words from the Book we love.”  That has it right.  It is the Book we love because it is the Book that grounds us, roots us, makes us stable and steady and firm in a world that all around us runs around madly seeking the very answers that they could find in Scripture if only they could slow down long enough to read it and meditate upon it.

As Eastertide concludes this May 12, 2024, and as Pentecost is a week off, we are reminded that this is the proper posture for disciples: to join Mary in doing the one thing needful and sit at the feet of Jesus to meditate on his every word, on the Word made flesh that just is Jesus, on the bigger Word that has been gifted to the Church through the inspiration and work of the Holy Spirit.

Illustration Idea

Author and theologian Neal Plantinga has often recounted a story from the time he visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and one particular inmate Neal talked with on death row.  He said this man looked more like a professor than a prisoner awaiting his execution, replete with a pair of eyeglasses and a rather studious demeanor.  At one point Neal asked him what sustained him, what gave him hope in that bleak place.  The man then picked up a copy of The Holy Bible and noted that this was the most special book in all the world.  The message of God himself is contained between its covers and he was simply amazed but finally also deeply, deeply grateful over the wonder of the fact that he got to have a copy of this most special book in his very own cell.

What a shining example of the beatitude of Psalm 1: Blessed is the man who meditates on God’s Word day and night.  Even on death row, the blessing of the Book we love shines brightly.


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