Psalm 1

Sun, 14/09/2008 - 10:45 -- James Oakley

I could have gone to a shelf in the newsagents and brought with me pretty much any half-dozen magazines, and the chances are that on their cover or inside they would have their own version of “Ten ways to be happy”. Whether it be “21 ways to have a celebrity-type romantic relationship”. Or, I think it was Men’s Health on the cover, “30 guaranteed ways to burn fat”. Or whatever it might be. “10 ways to find true and lasting happiness.”

Psalm 1 is the Bible’s alternative to those magazines. Psalm 1 starts, “Happy…” or “Blessed… is the man (or the woman) who…”. Psalm 1 tells us where we will go to find true and lasting happiness. Psalm 1 is for men and women. It’s as much the Bible’s answer to FHM as it is to Cosmo; it is as much the Bible’s answer to Men’s Health as it is to Red. Psalm 1 is the Bible’s answer to those magazines: where we go to find true happiness.

And it seems that in this Psalm, the answer to where we go to find true happiness is all to do with who we associate with.

So, in that first verse, there are three groups of people that we would want to avoid. There are “the wicked”, that’s people who do things that don’t please God. There are “sinners”, that is people who make a habit of doing things that don’t please God. And then there are “scoffers”, people who are so entrenched in that habit that God’s way of doing things is a joke to them. They just laugh it off. They know they’ve got absolutely no time for God whatsoever.

Now of course it’s not the company of people like that that we avoid. It’s their influence. So we don’t walk in their counsel: We don’t do the kinds of things they do; we don’t live our lives by their kinds of plans and schemes. Neither do we stand in their way: We don’t stand where they stand, and say, “Yes, I am persuaded of that; that is how I want to live my life too.” And we certainly don’t sit in their sit: We don’t become one of them, live where they live, sit where they sit. Because once we become that entrenched we are unlikely to ever get out again.

There’s a progression through the verse isn’t there, a bit like when the phone rings. You’re at home, you’re making a cup of tea or whatever it is, and the phone goes. To start with, you carry on walking around the house, and doing the things that you were doing, while you’re chatting to the person on the end of the phone. After a while, it looks like become a long phone call, so you find yourself (without even realising it) stopping doing the other jobs, and you stand still, and you give your whole attention to the phone call. And after a while, you grab yourself a seat, and ninety minutes later, you get off the phone.

Or, you’re walking down Church Street, and you bump into someone you know, and they’re going the same way as you. So to start with, you’re talking as you’re walking along. Then you get to their front door, so you stop and you stand still outside for a bit and the conversation carries on. And eventually they say, “Look it’s a bit cold out here, why don’t you come in and have a cup of tea.” You go in, you make a cup of tea, you sit down: Three hours later your day carries on.

There’s that kind of progression. Not that everybody will do things in the order that is here. But there’s a progression of wicked,… to sinner,… to scoffer. More entrenched in complete disregard for God and his ways. There’s a progression from walking,… to standing,… to sitting. More and more influenced by, and identifying with, people like this.

So that true happiness is to be found in avoiding identifying with, learning the habits of, people who don’t have time for God and for his ways.

And do you notice it’s, “the man” (singular), or “the woman” (singular). Each one of us has the choice to live this way or not. In this Psalm, the wicked, the sinners, the scoffers, are a huge group out there. And this Psalm is about peer pressure. What will every single one of us do? Will we live in the way of that lot out there, or not?

And let’s face it, this is going to be tough. We live in a nation that, by and large, has got no respect any more for what God has to say on matters of morality of life at all. It feels increasingly like the denomination we are part of, the Church of England, thinks that what God has to say in the Bible is out of date, and we can come up with something that is more up to date in our own day and age. Many of us study, whether it’s at school, or at college, or university or some kind of evening course. And lots of those institutions and lots of those courses will think that God’s ways are antiquated, and are all about teaching the latest new thing. Many of us work in workplaces where God is laughed at, and many of us in our own workplaces are laughed at ourselves, because we stand with God, and we come to church and we stand with his people. Some of us, sadly, even live in households, where God’s ways are not regarded.

And in a world like that, the path of true happiness is living in a society where there are many people who are wicked, sinning and scoffing, and yet not starting to see life that way for ourselves. It’s a challenge for each of us; it’s a challenge for us as a church. Will we as a church resist that pressure to become like the mocking world around us. And regardless of how well or not we do at that as a church, the Psalm invites each one of us to be the man, or the woman, who does not walk or stand or sit in these kinds of ways.

And it is going to be hard. Because, let’s face it, we are influenced in all kinds of ways, aren’t we? So where do we learn about healthcare, or contraception? All kinds of places, including the leaflet we pick up at the GP. Education: Where do we get our education from? Well, from school, and most of our schools have no choice but to follow the National Curriculum set by the government. Where do we learn about money from? I don’t know, but probably people like Alvin Hall and Martin Lewis on TV feature, amongst others. I hate to say it, but Jeremy Clarkson teaches us a bit about how to drive and what attitude to have to cars. Trinny and Susanna teach us what to wear, and Laurence Llewelyn Bowen teach us what we can do with our houses.

Now, I’m not saying that all these people, everything they say is wrong. I’m not saying that we’ve got nothing to learn from them. Some of these people could even be Christians. But I’m saying that, in a world where we’re bombarded by that many influences, it’s going to tough to not find ourselves walking, or standing or sitting in the way of wicked, sinners or scoffers.

What’s the alternative? Verse 2: “But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” That’s the alternative to being influenced by the wicked: The law of the LORD.

“Law” is a really unhelpful translation at this point. It makes us think of rules, restrictions, “thou shalt not…”. Of clambering up a ladder to God by keeping all the laws and rules and regulations. Better would be a word like “instruction”. Think of the father giving advice to his daughter before she goes off to university. Think of a really good driving instructor, passing on all that he’s learnt from years of driving on the road. Think of the mentor, training up his or her apprentice in that craft, so that they can take on that craft and trade for themselves. It’s the instruction, teaching, training of God our Heavenly Father.

This word “instruction” is also the title given to the first five books of our Bible, Genesis- Deuteronomy. They contain both the story of how God created a people for himself, but also the rules by which they are to live. So it’s not just God’s rules. It’s everything that he has to tell us, including when he tells us of his kindness, of his love, of his promises,… as well as of his rules.

And of course, for the Christian, God’s instruction, his word to us, is the teaching of Jesus. That is where we go to hear what God our Father has to say to us. And when we do that, we find that Jesus himself endorsed the whole Old Testament, and he made provision for the entire New Testament, so that the whole Bible becomes where Jesus wants us to go, to hear him speak to us words of instruction from our heavenly Father.

“The law of the LORD” – not just rules and regulations. It’s a rich and a wonderful thing. And the truly happy person, according to Psalm 1, delights in it. It’s the language of the prize possession. The farmer’s prize bull. Or the bride, delighting in her new groom. Or the artist, delighting in her finished painting that’s just been completed. Or the new parents, once they’ve had a bit of sleep, holding their baby and delighting in this new baby that they’ve got.

The trouble is that our society doesn’t prize things like “law” and “instruction” and “teaching”. Those aren’t words that we associate with something to delight in. But that’s obvious isn’t it? Because our society is influenced by the wicked, the sinner, the scoffer. So what this Psalm is asking us to do is to delight in God’s law, even though the society around us is telling us that that would be a foolish thing to be excited and thrilled about.

The other trouble we’ve got, of course, is that God sometimes says things to us that we don’t like, or that we don’t agree with. And the temptation then is to respond with resentment. Or to obey God and to do it very begrudgingly. And yet, what we want to do, if we’re following this Psalm, is to respond at that very point with delight. To say, “I don’t like this; I wish it wasn’t in the Bible. But I’m thrilled that we have a living God, who actually talks to us. I wouldn’t swap that for anything.”

The flipside of delighting in God’s law is “meditating on it”. Now that’s a concept that we’re probably unfamiliar with. If it means anything to us, we’re probably thinking of Buddhist monks, chanting away into the night. Or perhaps we think of someone sat in a quiet corner, sat in some bizarre position that we could never get into ourselves, doing something that they call “yoga”. Those are what we call “transcendental meditation”, which is all about trying to empty your mind of content.

The word here means something like “murmur” or “mutter”. The idea is: either aloud or in your head, turning the Bible over and over. Thinking through what it says. Trying to memorise what it means. Pondering – what are the implications of this? If I was to put this into practice, what would that look like? What difference would it make. Which involves, not only doing it on our own, but talking about it with other people as well. So Deuteronomy chapter 6 talks about when you get up in the morning, or you walk on the road, or you sit down again at home in the evening, talking about God’s instruction and his ways with those we happen to be with. As opposed to, of course, walking, standing and sitting with those who scoff at God’s ways.

And we all know, don’t we, that we talk about things that we enjoy and delight in. It’s why, give me half a chance, I’ll talk to you about coffee. So meditating on God’s word will just flow out of delighting in it. If we delight in it, we will end up talking about it – with others and in our own heads.

And we do it “day and night” so that what God has to say to us is never far from us. What do you do if you wake up in the middle of the night and you can’t sleep? For me (the doctors can tell me why this is, there must be a reason!), the fatal time is 3am. If I wake up about 3, almost more likely than not, I will be wide awake for no reason, and about an hour and a half later I’ll finally go off again. I don’t why – it’s only at 3 – I don’t know why that happens. What do you do?

One option would be to carry on thinking how to put last Sunday’s sermon into practice. Or, if you’ve memorised Psalm 1 the week before, you could turn that over in your mind a few times and think what difference it makes. Or Psalm 2, if you think you’ve exhausted Psalm 1!

So the truly happy person is the person who does not allow the fact they live amongst scoffers to turn them into someone who lives by their standards. But instead prizes what God has to say, in the Bible, above everything else. And turns it over in their mind and in their conversation whenever they get the chance.

That is the really happy person. The person who soaks up God’s word, rather than absorbing the plans of those who dismiss God.

Really? Is that really right? Are all the happiest people in Newcastle Borough to be found in the churches right now? Well let’s look at the descriptions given here of the happiness, and of the alternative of the happiness, and try to be a little more precise.

“He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and whose leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”

Now we’ll misunderstand this if we think of a chestnut tree quietly dropping conkers onto the bench beneath it, next to the goalposts at the end of the field. This was written in a semi-arid climate, with two long dry seasons. The trees had to be planted near to streams of water if they were to produce any fruit at all, and they weren’t just going to drop all their leaves the minute the rain stopped. So forget green England with its wet summers that you wish you would go away. Forget the green British Isles, and picture instead a Mediterranean landscape: brown, dusty, no rain for three months. Everything is either yellow or brown. And as you’re driving a long, you see in the distance a belt of green. What’s going to be over there? A river, or a lake or a spring. It will be a source of water that’s keeping the trees alive and thriving.

And that is the picture that this psalm paints of the really happy person, the person who drinks up the water of God’s instruction. The droughts will still come; life has its ups and its downs for all of us. But this particular tree does not shrivel up and die when the droughts come. That is the difference – it can weather the droughts. And at the right time of year, the soaked up word of God will turn into lovely ripe fruit.

It’s a bit like the vine that we talked about last week and a couple of weeks before that. As we remain in Jesus, and his words remain in us, he gives us living water to drink such that we will never thirst again. And Jesus promises that if we do that, we will bear much fruit. We will become like him, we will help others to become his followers as well, and we will be fruitful.

And as this Psalm summarises what it’s trying to say with its picture of the tree: “In all that he does he prospers.” This doesn’t mean that there will be no drought – this picture presupposes that there will be times of drought. And the rest of the Psalms grapple with “Why is it that things don’t happen the way they should? Why is it that Psalm 1 verse 3 is so often not what we see around us?” But the promise is here that those who drink up God’s word will survive the droughts and will bear fruit.

Unlike the wicked, who are “like chaff”. Now at this point, I do think coffee! That’s because when you roast a coffee bean, there is a very thin shell around it that comes off in the roasting process. And what you get is a lovely rich, brown coffee bean that you can grind up and brew. And this very light chaff that just blows everywhere and is annoying because it’s so light. If you’re doing it commercially you have to make sure it catches fire because there’s quite a lot of it.

Actually the picture here is nothing to do with coffee. I haven’t yet found a reference to coffee in the Bible. This is a reference to winnowing grain, where you rub the grains of wheat together, to separate the husk that’s on the outside from the grain. You put it in a big basket; you throw it up into the air. The heavy grains of wheat fall back into the basket and you catch them, but the light husks get blown off by the wind. After doing for a while, all you’ve got left are the nice grains of wheat that, again, you can roast, mill and turn into nice tasty bread.

It’s a curious contrast isn’t it? Because he talks about the fruitful tree, and you’d have thought the contrast of that was a dry shrub, a tree that’s not doing anything at all. But instead he compares the tree to the chaff. The contrst is even greater. You can’t have a bigger contrast between the well-watered tree and the chaff that really is as dry as dry can be. You can’t get a bigger contrast between planted, rooted and … gone. You can’t get a bigger contrast between leafy and dry; or between fruitful that people will sell at market, and buy, and eat, and enjoy, and something that nobody has any purpose for except to discard. That is how stark the contrast is.

Of course, it’s not saying that the wicked will feel like chaff; they may not – they may feel fine. It’s not saying they will appear like chaff to other people. This Psalm is saying what the wicked are like: know it or not, feel it or not, look like it or not – they are chaff.

This is where verse 5 comes in. There will be a day of judgement. God has given proof to us of that by raising Jesus from the dead as the person who will judge us all; we will all one day give account of ourselves before Jesus himself. And before the judge, the wicked “will not stand”. The wicked, the scoffer, the sinner (as we would say) won’t have a leg to stand on.

And after the judgement day, when God’s people are enjoying the very best life imaginable. Like a party that doesn’t end. Or a holiday that doesn’t end. We can talk about this another day – without any pain or frustration or boredom of any kind. Verse 5 tells us that that group of people just won’t be there. They won’t be enjoying it with the rest of us.

On that day, there will only be two groups of people. There will be the wicked, who won’t have a leg to stand on. So what fools we’d be to stand in the way of life of those who, one day, won’t even be able to stand up! And those who are God’s people, who will be gathered together, enjoying life.

This is not a contrast between those who do good things and those who do bad things – that’s not the picture. It’s a contrast between those who dismiss God’s ways and those who drink them up. And as we drink up God’s ways, we find that it’s all about God’s kindness to those who have done nothing to deserve it. Kindness only made possible by the death of Jesus on the cross, where we can be freely forgiven. And those who drink up that way find life.

So how do we feel this morning? How do you feel this morning? The really happy person is the one who soaks up God’s word, rather than absorbing the plans of those who dismiss God. … Really?

Well we may feel happy; we may not. But irrespective of how we feel those who mock God’s ways are like chaff. And that will be visible on, and after, the day of judgement. And irrespective of how we feel, those who drink up God’s instruction are like fruitful green-leaved, prosperous trees.

So we mustn’t hide behind false comfort – this Psalm warns us of that. But at the same time we can take real comfort here. If we are those who drink up God’s take on life, we are like those fruitful trees – whether life seems that way or not. There is real comfort here for us.

And the reason why the world works this wya, the reason why real happiness is to be found in this way, is God. Did you notice that God didn’t really get a mention until verse 6 (until a mention in passing in verse 2). Then verse 6 draws the curtain back, and shows what is going on behind the scenes.

And we see that there is a God, who knows his people, but who leaves those who don’t want to know him to perish. He watches over, he cares about, he cherishes, hugs – even, his own people. But the path that the wicked are on goes over a cliff, and God doesn’t stop them following their path.

So if you want the secret of true and lasting happiness, don’t read Cosmo, or FHM, or any of those other magazines. Don’t read them because they won’t tell you where to find true happiness – Psalm 1 tells us that. Don’t read them because they are the advice of those who have no time for God, and that advice is fatal.

Instead, get into the Bible. Learn to love it. Dwell on it. Dwell in it. Because it’s the Bible that introduces us to Jesus, and he is the man the Psalm is talking about. He is the stream of water that makes the tree fruitful. He is the tree into which we are grafted. He is the judge who will sift every human being.

The whole world revolves around Jesus. So learn to love his instruction, and be like the tree, not the chaff.

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