Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sermon: Psalm 1 ~ Stand as Saints

Will we choose to stand firmly as a saint or slip away like a scoffer? There’s a quote which has recently become very dear to me. It comes from the Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, a Russian Orthodox priest and theologian who is a great source of inspiration in my walk with the Lord. If you’re not familiar with his Journals they’re wonderful reading and I highly recommended them to you. The quote is this…

Then how should one live? Gather life for eternity, which means to live life as
being eternal.
That is the picture the Psalmist is painting for us in Psalm 1. He is answering the question “How should one live?” Answer? Gather life for eternity. And eternity, this sense of permanence or stability is at the heart of this Psalm. We have two contrasting images. Eternity, permanence or stability on the one hand versus slipping away, a downward spiral or being blown away like chaff on the other.
Another image in Psalm 1 is that of a path. And the Psalmist seems to lay it before us as a choice. He gives these competing images as if to say, “Here are the two ultimate options for your life. Choose.” Interestingly he begins by presenting the negative imagery. “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful!” So he begins by saying what ought to be avoided in order to be happy, or blessed as other translations render it. And you’ll note an interesting pattern here. Those “who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful.” Walked. Lingered. Sat. It’s an incredibly insightful picture of how we can be seduced away from the Lord isn’t it? It’s not as though one day we are completely solid in our walk and the next we’re firmly planted in wickedness. No, it’s a process. And it begins when we’re willing to listen to the “counsel of the wicked”, to be influenced by those whose chief priority is not the Lord. Whether it’s friends, family, the things we listen to on the radio, watch on TV or movies, magazines we read. It’s sitting idly by and allowing those things which are not of the Lord to seep into our soul. This is entertaining the “counsel of the wicked” and we must avoid it. At this point, says the Psalmist, we’re still in motion, we’re walking. But then it degenerates into “lingering in the way of sinners”. We’re not just tolerating ungodly things, we’re spending time there. We’re hanging out there. And then finally we stop and make our home there. We “sit in the seat of the scornful.” Unlike “walking” or “lingering” which imply a passive toleration “to sit in the seat of the scornful” means to actively participate in the mockery of the sacred. We become a mocker, a scoffer. And this is why we have to be so careful to guard where we walk. To guard our path. And I think this is especially pertinent for the young adults among us. To be especially thoughtful about how you spend you’re time, who you spend it with, what you spend it doing.
I’d like to illustrate this with a story about two friends. When they were young men they met shortly after giving their lives to the Lord. They shared their joy in their newfound faith together, partnered in ministry together, shared their new families' lives together and for a number of years seemed to be on the same path. Both of them came from similar backgrounds, had similar struggles and (initially) similar levels of discipleship. Same kind of guys. Same path. You’d think they’d wind up at the same destination wouldn’t you? Sadly, this isn’t the case. Fast forward a decade and these two men, who had started at the same point on the same path, arrived at two very different destinations. One of them became an ordained minister in the Church. The other went through a bitter, painful divorce after succumbing to adultery; declaring bankruptcy and finally found himself hospitalized after alcohol, drug and gambling addictions nearly killed him. How did these two men arrive at such vastly different destinations? One of the key differences was the choice whether to guard their path or not. Again, same kind of guys, similar backgrounds, similar struggles, similar levels of discipleship, same starting point but two different destinations. One clearly identifiable difference was the choice “not to walk in the counsel of the wicked”. Not to allow oneself to receive influence from those things which are not of God. While it may seem like a small choice now not to associate with a certain individual, or avoid certain TV shows or movies, or music, or magazines, or places, or activities I can attest that a small choice not to avoid “the counsel of the wicked” now can lead to a trail of pain and brokenness years ahead. We must guard our path diligently. And I say this especially to you young people. Think carefully about how you spend you time and who you spend it with. It can change the entire course of your life. Because these choices will lead to one of two things. Standing among the saints, or slipping away with the scoffers.
So how do we stand among the saints? How do we gather life for eternity? As I said, first, we need to guard our path. This is our spiritual discipline of abstinence. But what is a discipline of engagement? The Psalmist sums it up with one phrase. “Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law day and night.” This leads to the question, “What does it mean to delight in the law of the Lord?” Innately we all have some sense of what it means, but let’s unpack it a little.
Often when we think of “the Law of the Lord” what do we immediately think of? Rules. The Ten Commandents. The Law of Moses. The 613 mitzvot that pious Jews keep. That certainly is one definition. And we can broaden the scope to the Word of God, the Bible, the Old and New Testaments. To delight ourselves in the reading, studying, “marking and inwardly digesting” of God’s Word. This is very close to what the Psalmist is driving at here but it still comes up a bit short. What the Psalmist is driving at, that thing we ought to delight in, is the entirety of God’s divine will. One commentator summarizes it this way, “It is not merely study and intellectual awareness that bring divine favor. Study of the law is suggestive of the correct attitudes and behavior that should result from an awareness of and commitment to God's moral will.” Not merely study and intellectual but the correct attitude and behaviors that result from a commitment to God's moral will. One translation of this verse puts it this way “he finds pleasure in obeying the LORD's commands.” To delight in the Law of the Lord is to find pleasure in obedience to God’s will. Our greatest delight ought to be in the things of Him.
We ought to do some personal inventory and ask ourselves, “What is it that I delight in?” What are the ways that I find pleasure in obeying God’s will? What are some areas of life that I can work on this? And what are some things that need to go to make room for this?
The other half of this verse rounds it out for us. To “meditate on his law day and night.” So what does this mean? The original language carries the connotation of muttering to oneself, pondering, or speaking to oneself. So this means to speak to yourself God’s will day and night. I’m reminded of Paul’s exhortation in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing”. In the Eastern Orthodox Church one application of Paul’s exhortation here has been manifested in what’s called the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The book the Way of the Pilgrim describes a man who, after hearing the Epistle to the Thessalonians read in Church, wants to learn to pray without ceasing and so is instructed by his spiritual director to pray this prayer daily: first 1,000 times a day; then 3,000; 6,000 and so on. It sounds incredible. [It may beg the question: Is this what Jesus was speaking against in Matthew 6:7 when he says, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words”? No! The key adjective is empty and to pray in the Name of the Lord in faith is never empty.] And as this pilgrim prayed this prayer it trained his mind and his heart to be in a state of constant awareness of, responsiveness to and communion with the Lord. He was meditating on God’s will day and night. So our prayers are one way we meditate on the Law of the Lord.
Another practical way to do this is to memorize the Scriptures and speak them to yourselves throughout the day. Memorize a Psalm. Memorize this Psalm! Μemorize the Beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, a short Epistle. [I suggest Jude!] Fill your mind and your heart with the Holy Scriptures and speak back them to yourselves, pray them to the Lord. Meditate upon Him. Day and night. One of the commentators I read has a great line, “An individual is formed by what one loves and reflects on continually. What delights us invades us.” To be invaded by our delight in the law of the Lord, invaded by our pleasure in obeying His will. What do we know about being invaded? Invaders take over. Isn’t it a wonderful thought to be completely taken over by pleasure in obeying the Lord?
So as we see, one of the hallmarks of the righteous person in this Psalm is consistency. Stability. To stand as a saint requires our consistency. And the Psalmist makes two very clear pictures for us of this. A fruitful tree and chaff blowing away. Why the image of a fruitful tree? Because a tree that is bearing fruit is fulfilling the purpose for which it was created. When we delight in the law of the Lord and meditate upon it day and night, we are fulfilling the purpose for which we were created. We are gathering life for eternity. We are standing firmly as a saint. May we cultivate the discipline of meditating on the law of the Lord, of finding pleasuring in obeying His will, of asking ourselves what we delight in, in guarding our path that we can be found like a tree planted by a stream of water, fulfilling the purpose for which we were created. Amen.
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