A true word - Psalm 1

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 7th September 2003.

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In his autobiography, Leading with My Chin, American comedian Jay Leno recounts numerous stories of his rise as a young Boston comedian to become one of the biggest names on American talk show TV. In one story he tells of his appearance as a young man on the Dinah Shore show where he learned the importance of what is known in showbiz as the 'outcue'. The director asked him when he got to the studio: 'OK, Jay, what's your last joke going to be so the band knows when to play you off?' Well Jay wasn't too keen on this, but eventually he said to the Director: 'OK, how about I say 'Thank you, thank you very much!' And that can be the cue for the band?' So it was agreed. Unfortunately, when it came to the moment when Jay Leno was welcomed onto the stage by the host Dinah Shore, her welcome was so warm and gushing that the audience went wild, and Leno was completely taken aback. As the applause died down, Leno, flustered, not knowing what to do, muttered without thinking: 'Thank you, thank you very much.' At which point the band leader, taken completely by surprise, spat out his freshly lit cigarette, brought the band crashing in, and Jay Leno was ushered off, as quickly as he had come in. Leno comments ruefully: 'It was the most ridiculous slot of my career.' It's an amusing story, and somewhat embarrassing, but the story has one problem. It didn't happen, or at least it didn't happen to Jay Leno. The incident actually happened to a fellow comedian and friend of Leno's; but Leno was so delighted at the story, he paid his friend $1000 to have the rights to the story and to use it in his autobiography.

Well that story illustrates the thought that is so prevalent in the world in which we live today, the thought that the image you project is far more important than the reality of who you are. Of course it's nothing new. Mark Twain once said famously: 'The secret of success is sincerity. If you can fake that, then you've got it made.' And during the Second World War, Joseph Gobbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, said: 'We do not talk to say something but to obtain a certain effect.' If he was around today, then Gobbels would no doubt be known by another name, the King of Spin, and of course that brings us bang up to date. If the Hutton Inquiry has shown the British public anything, then it is that they do not know who they can trust. And of course that is precisely the problem with spin. When you say you are telling the truth, whose to know you aren't spinning lies? How can we tell the difference between the image and the reality? In a Mori Poll taken on 3rd August, of 1000 adults interviewed, 49% said they could not trust Tony Blair and 60% said they could not trust Alistair Campbell. Well Campbell has now gone, but no-one is quite sure whether he's spinning the story about wanting to spend more time with his family in order to save the Prime Minister's face. When spinning is your game, the danger is you get caught in your own web. The fact is we live in a world of lies, hype and spin, where truth is what you make it and image is more important than reality.

And the danger for the Christian church is that we fall into the same trap. We'd prefer to have a reputation for holiness, and project an image of godliness, instead of being holy. We're happy to spin our way out of trouble instead of being honest and having Christ-like integrity. And we are more concerned to have a good image with the watching world than to be faithful to the Biblical gospel. And it's into this world of image and spin that Psalm 1 speaks so relevantly to us today. For here the Psalmist says that being an authentic Christian is what matters and your lifestyle must be radically different from the world around you. For true Christianity is shaped not by the world but by the Word of God. God is interested in spiritual reality not spiritual froth; in God's kingdom there is no room for spin; he sees right through image, and he hates hypocrisy.

Now this Psalm puts before us two ways to live. First, there is the way of the righteous person, the person who knows that God alone can save them and who has accepted God's offer of forgiveness in Jesus Christ and therefore is right before God. And second there is the way of what the psalmist calls the wicked, those who reject God's way and his rescue through Jesus. So as we begin a new term, Psalm 1 presents us with a clear challenge. The psalmist says to us: Which way will you go this term? Whose side are you on? Who's shaping the way you act and think? Is it the Word or the world? Are you gunning for spiritual reality or faithless froth? For if you go God's way then there is great blessing to be had. But if you go your way, then all that remains for you is everlasting destruction. So let's turn to this Psalm and we'll see three challenges for the Christian. And even if you would say you are not a Christian here tonight, then I hope it will become clear that with God there is no Third Way. You also must decide whose way you will follow and accept the consequences.

1) Reject the Ways of the World (V 1)

2) Resolve to Delight in God's Word (Vv 2-3)

3) Remember the Fate of the Wicked (Vv 4-6)

1) Reject the Ways of the World (V 1)

So our first challenge from this psalm is to reject the ways of the world. Verse 1: 'Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.' Now it may strike you as strange that the psalmist begins by outlining what the believer must not do. He begins negatively. But that is often the way in the way in the Bible. We need to be clear what we must not be like before we can see what we should be like. The ten commandments start in the same way. God says that he is the one who brought the Israelites out of Egypt and then he says 'you should have no other gods but me.' Don't opt for pluralism. Follow me, says the Lord. The negative, what we're not to do, makes clear what we are positively to do, in this case worship only the Lord. Jesus uses the same tactic in the Sermon on the Mount. Don't worry like the pagans he says. Instead, trust your heavenly Father. You see, being a Christian involves saying no to the popular worldview and saying yes to God's way. So what does the psalmist tell us to say no to? Three things:

a) Worldly Thinking- First we must reject worldly thinking. 'Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked'. What the psalmist means is that we must not align our thinking with the thinking of the world. Don't walk in the counsel in the wicked. By way of example, let's take two very common ways of thinking prevalent in the world today. Take relativism for instance, the idea that all truth is relative and that everyone's truth is just as valid as anyone else's. It's not just in the universities that these ideas are prevalent. They are in the very psyche of many of our young people today. They may not know what it's called, but they think it! Try talking about sex and morality with a bunch of teenagers and you'll soon discover that ethical relativism is alive and well. 'You can do what you want in your own home, can't you? Whatever sexual orientation you have is fine isn't it? Anyway, who are you to judge?' Heard that one before? It springs from the idea that truth is relative. Or take another element of worldly thinking, again in the psyche of many young people today, and not just the young. Take materialism, the idea that this world is all there is. It leads to hedonism, that we are here for our own pleasure and enjoyment, and woe betide you if you try and prevent me from enjoying myself! I was chatting with one member of my family recently who said that her aim in life was to earn as much money as she could and live how she wanted. Relativism and materialism. Both ways of thinking embedded in the world in which we live, but both are alien to God's thinking. And if you are to be one of God's people, if you are to live God's way and be a man or woman of God, you must get rid of all such thinking in your mind. Yes, it's unpopular, yes it's going against the tide, but that is what God calls us to, because his way is the true way. Not one of a number of options, but the only way. Will you have the courage of your convictions to say no to worldly ways of thinking and think God's thoughts?

b) Worldly Lifestyle- The psalmist tells us secondly though to reject the worldly lifestyle. 'Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners..' Now when we hear the expression 'stand in the way of' we think that it means to oppose someone, or we might think of Little John opposing Robin Hood as he tried to cross the stream in Sherwood Forest. One of them ends up in the water. But in fact in Hebrew thought, to stand in someone's way meant to live their way, to walk their walk, or what the North American Indians would say, to walk in their moccasins. It means to behave their way. So the psalmist is telling us that we should not act like the ungodly. We should put away all ungodly actions. You see, to stand in the way of sinners means to worship yourself. If you are not worshipping God as your creator, then the only other option is to worship the created beings. So we become our own bosses. We do what we want. We run our lives our way. And God says that is not the mark of a Christian. 'You are mine, he says. I bought you at a price, with the blood of my Son. You live my way now.' Are you in the habit of saying no to ungodliness, or are you more adept at cherishing your own pet sins, cuddling them as if they were your nearest and dearest. God says we're to hate sin, to cut it out of our lives. Don't stand in the way of sinners, he says.

But sadly, rejecting this worldly way of life and battling with sin seems a very old fashioned way to live, even in Christian circles. In the 1950's a book was published by a man called Howard Guinness entitled 'Sacrifice'. The book is about how to live a life wholeheartedly for Jesus' sake, and as the title suggests, it involves sacrifice. Many of the chapters and the illustrations would sound so quaint to our ears now. For instance, one chapter is entitled 'Discipline.' He writes of the need to be disciplined in the use of our money so we can give to mission work. He talks of one student who cycled from his home in the south all the way to Keswick in the Lake District for a Christian conference so he could save the train fare. He speaks of others who would occasionally forfeit meals to give to mission work, or a rugby international who gave up playing rugby so he could help in a kids club where football was played and not rugby. Of course, there is the danger of legalism, even fanaticism, and yes we live in a different generation, but the fact is we are scared to even ask the question of where God might want us to be sacrificial. We are so locked into the world's ways and thoughts of pandering ourselves, that such words like discipline and sacrifice are almost swear words, even among Christians. We love our own cosy lifestyles too much to think about getting rid of our sins or of being disciplined and sacrificial. We're too concerned with our own happiness. And every piece of advertising of the thousands we see or hear each week tells us the same message: 'Enjoy yourself, pamper yourself.' But actually true blessedness, true happiness is found only in God. There is where blessing is to be found. Not necessarily an easy life, far from it. But a life lived as it was meant to be lived, in relationship with God. It's only when we are willing to give up our lives, that we will find life. What did Jesus say? 'Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it!' And our writer challenges us- will we reject the world's way of living? Will we refuse to stand in the way of sinners? No Christian has ever drifted into holiness. It is a battle that must be engaged every day in mind and action. So resolve today not to stand in the way of sinners. Will you take up the challenge?

c) Worldly Cynicism- And finally in this section as we reject the world's ways, we're to reject worldly cynicism. Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.' Do you notice how there is a slow downward progression here? Walking becomes standing which becomes sitting. And the psalmist is warning us against an ever deepening commitment to this world in which we live. If you think the world's way, then you'll talk the world's talk. If you talk the world's talk, then you'll walk the world's walk, and if you do that then you'll end up sitting in the seat of mockers. You'll find yourself cynically mocking the truth of the gospel. And at that point, as one writer puts it, 'We've received our masters in worthlessness, and our doctorate in damnation.' Worldly thinking leads to worldly actions which leads to worldly cynicism, sitting with the mockers despising God's truth. Yes it may begin in the mind but it'll end up with you turning away from God. And if you want to know what happens to those who mock God's truth, then come back next week as we look at Psalm 2, and we'll find out it's God who has the last laugh. So can you see now why it is so important to reject the world's ways. We've got to reject the world's thinking, the world's lifestyle and the world's cynicism, otherwise, unless we take a stand, we'll end up on the slippery slope which leads to mocking cynicism and a rejection of God. And that is a fate worse than death. So as God's people, let's take the first step that the psalmist tells us to, and reject the world's ways.

2) Resolve to Delight in God's Word (V 2-3)

But the next challenge the writer gives us is to resolve to delight in God's word. And having told us what we are not to do, then writer now tells us what we are to do. And we might have expected him to say something like this: 'Blessed rather is the man who walks in the counsel of the righteous, who stands in the way of the obedient and who sits in the seat of the grateful,' or something like that. In other words, as often happens in Hebrew poetry, we could have expected some sort of parallel to verse 1. But that's not what happens. Instead the writer says in verse 2: 'But his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.' What he wants us to understand is just that one thing is enough. The Christian must be a person of the word of God. The Word of God is to shape their thinking. And the reason is simple. Because what you feed your mind will affect your actions. That was true for the ungodly wasn't it? If you walk in the counsel of the wicked then you will stand in the way of sinners and so you'll end up sitting in the seat of mockers. The way you think affects the way you act. So the question is this: What are you feeding your mind? How much is the Bible part of your diet each day, each week. You see, if all you take in each week is no end of TV programmes, magazines, books and internet sites, and if none of those teach you the Word of God, then why are surprised if you are making no headway in your relationship with God? Why are surprised you are not becoming more godly? If you feed on ungodliness, then you will be ungodly. Of course it's not that we shouldn't watch or read anything else. But the question is who are listening to? If God's word has no place in your life during the week, then you will not grow as a Christian, because it is the Word of God applied by the Spirit of God to our lives which changes us.

Now there are two words that the writer uses which might take us by surprise. First he tells us to delight in the word. It's worth remembering that this psalmist probably only the first five books of the Bible at his disposal. You might think that it's pretty hard to delight in Leviticus after a hard day's work. But the writer delights in the Word of God because it is precisely that. It's God's word. It teaches us about God and how to live for him. The Word should be our joy and delight. Read through Psalm 119 and you'll see how the writer has sheer joy at reading and pondering God's word. It shows that reading the Bible is not meant for simply study purposes to expand our minds, like you might study biology or the like. In fact Jesus has some strong words to say to the religious leaders of his day who knew their Bible inside out. The problem was they never did anything about it! God's word is not a textbook to be study, but a map to follow, a love letter to delight in. We don't need to have gone to university, nor do we need to be bookish. No, to delight in God's word means to read it and apply it's teaching joyfully to our lives.

But another word that might take us by surprise is meditate. To meditate on the Bible is never used of someone being crossed legged with a candle in their hand. Rather to mediate on the word is to think on it and chew it over. Christians are to be like cows. They are to chew it over, pondering on it, turning it over in their minds as they go to work or college, working out how to apply to daily life. And what will such a person be like? Verse 3 tells us: 'He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.' The person that delights and meditates on God's word, whose thinking and actions are shaped by the word of God are like solid trees. They are fruitful, full of life and vitality, with strong roots for the tough times. This person serves God faithfully, they are godly, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, and they are a joy to serve with in the life of the church, all because their lives are rooted in the Word of God.

Elizabeth Fry was someone like that. She was a woman who lived in the 19th century and who served God in ways which demanded great courage for a woman in her position. In 1813 she visited Newgate Prison to see for herself the appalling condition that the women prisoners were in. 300 women were herded together in three small rooms. They were of all ages, children, mothers, old hags, middle aged women. They were from all sectors of society- the respectable, the disreputable, prostitutes, households maids, petty thieves. All were unfed, ill-clothed, even naked and with nothing to do except fight, drink and gamble. None of the gaolers dared to go alone into the cells. But Elizabeth Fry decided that she would do something about it. And she did. She went alone day after day, week after week, and promised to start a school for the children. She won the women round by her kindness and generosity, and within a month the school was founded. By the end of 1817 the prison was transformed and all the women in the prison followed her rules and morals. By the end of her life, Elizabeth Fry had battled hard for the reform of prisons especially among women and she was buried in Westminster Abbey with crowds of thousands following behind. What was it that kept Elizabeth on the road of fruitfulness and usefulness in the kingdom of God. What made her a godly and gracious Christian woman, wiling to sacrifice all for Christ. Quite simply she built her life on the Word of God. One of her friends put it like this: 'That sacred book was the fountain whence she derived all that strength and grace to do her work of faith and labour of love.' She was tree planted by streams of water which bears fruit in season. She resolved to delight in the word of God. Will that be your resolution this term, this coming year? There's plenty of help. Why not get some study notes to help, or get stuck into a Homegroup or a student Bible study group. It's not always easy, so we need help to do it. But however you do it, resolve to delight in God's word, because then you'll be a strong tree which bears much fruit.

3) Remember the Fate of the Wicked (Vv 4-6)

And then finally and briefly, our writer says to us: Remember the fate of the wicked. Verse 4: 'Not so the wicked. They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgement nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous but the way of the wicked will perish.' One of the problems that is frequently raised in the psalms is the question of the prosperity of the ungodly. Why is it that non Christians get on perfectly well without God in their life? Many people in our city have pretty good incomes, they have nice families, they enjoy life, and all goes well. Why is it that life without God seems to be perfectly OK. By contrast some Christians might find their lives hard work. Because they give to the church there's less income. Because their time is spent doing gospel things, they have less time for their hobbies. I guess its a question we might be tempted to ask from time to time. Well our psalmist shows us that whilst outwardly a person without God in their life might have it better, yet spiritually there is a world of difference between the Christian and the non Christian. In fact it's the difference between a mighty fruit bearing oak tree, and a handful of worthless chaff. Chaff is the husks that surround grains of wheat. My granddad taught me that in order to get the chaff from the wheat you grab a fistful of corn, rub it hard in your hands, and then blow away the chaff and what was left were the grains of corn. And God says that is what a person is like who does not know God, who has turned away from him and not accepted the forgiveness and fresh start available in Christ. They are like chaff that the wind blows away, and they will not stand at judgement day. They will be found to be guilty.

Yes they might seem to be successful and happy, but the spiritual reality is terrible. They are heading for judgement at the hands of the just and all seeing God of the universe. Whereas the Christian who trusts in Christ and delights in God's word is fruitful, strong and faithful, yet the non Christian is rootless, fruitless, lifeless and ultimately condemned. Now why on earth could you possibly want to go down that second road? The road that looks so attractive in the short term, but in the long term leads to destruction and eternity without God. And that's why he warns us of the fate of the ungodly. Like a loving father warning a child of imminent danger in running across the road, so our Heavenly Father warns us what life without God holds for us. We'll be like chaff which won't stand on judgement day. And he urges us to remember the fate of the wicked so that we will take action.

You see this psalm teaches us that there are only two ways to live. The way of the godly and the way of the ungodly. They are like two trees. The one is by a stream of water and they bear fruit and have deep roots and their leaves do not wither. The other is in a dry desert, with no fruit, with branches that are withered and dead and is fit only for the fire. Which do you want to be? You must choose. You can only be one or the other. So if you are a Christian here tonight then make it your aim this term to be someone who roots themselves in the word of God and is fruitful for God. Don't be Christian spinmeister, don't be someone of spiritual froth this term, but of spiritual reality. Don't project an image of godliness. You might deceive others with your image, but not God. Strive for spiritual reality and be godly.

But if you are not yet a Christian, then there is still hope. There is a way to move from being like chaff to being like a strong tree. And that is to trust in the one who is the very word of God made flesh. For centuries after this psalm was penned God took on human flesh. Jesus Christ was the word of God incarnate, the one who could show us par excellence how to live, what the truly godly way to live is. And he was willing to give up his life for you and me so that we could be forgiven and have that just judgement paid for us. And today is another chance to come to that living Word, Jesus Christ and receive the forgiveness and new life that he offers. And then you too can become someone who will bear fruit, who will stand in the assembly of the righteous on judgement day. And you will find that there is no better joy to be had than knowing the one who made you and loves you. So will you come to him, even tonight? For remember: The Lord watches over the way of the righteous but the way of the wicked will perish.

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