Real Christianity - Psalm 1
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
This week I came across some interesting excuses which people have put on their insurance claim forms after they have had an accident. Now apparently all of these are actual statements, though the mind boggles as to how some of these events actually happened. For example: ďLeaving home for work I drove out of my drive straight into a bus; the bus was five minutes early.Ē Or take another: ďAn invisible car came out of nowhere, struck my car and vanished.Ē Again: ďI was sure the old fellow would never make it to the other side of the road when I struck him.Ē Sometimes people blame animals! Like this one: ďA cow wandered into my car. I was afterwards informed that the cow was half-witted.Ē Or again: ďA bull was standing near-by and a fly must have tickled him because he gored my car.Ē And perhaps the most ridiculous: ďIn attempting to kill a fly I drove into a telephone pole.Ē But finally I think the prize for being my favourite has to be this one: ďI pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law and headed over the embankment.Ē
Now all of those insurances stories are good examples of people trying to change the truth into something else, more often than not so that they do not get the blame. There has been a subtle change in the way the story is presented to give a slightly different impression. And very often in life, it is the impression one gives that is all important, not so much the real truth behind that impression. The image you project is far more important than the reality of who you are. Of course itís nothing new. Mark Twain once said famously: ďThe secret of success is sincerity. If you can fake that, then youíve got it made.Ē And during the Second World War, Joseph Gobbels, Hitlerís propaganda minister, said: ďWe do not talk to say something but to obtain a certain effect.Ē Of course in modern politics itís known as something else- spin! Over the last few years especially the government has become embroiled in various crises which have been spun in different ways to achieve certain aims. But the problem is that ultimately it undermines peopleís trust of you. They donít know when you are telling the truth and when you are not. So when the truth is spun to project a certain image, then what happens to truth? It is lost. And itís no surprise to discover in a recent poll conducted in September that 60% of voters now think that Tony Blair is untrustworthy.
Now if itís true in the political realm that image is more important than reality, then sadly itís also true in the religious realm, and especially amongst professing Christians. I discovered this week that an astonishing 70% of people in this country claim to be Christians. And yet how many will be seen in a church at the weekend. Just 6.3% according to one report this year, and in Hull itís much smaller- just 0.7%. Clearly there is a big difference between the image people are portraying, perhaps thinking themselves Christians, and the reality in terms of outward actions. But itís not just them out there where image is more important than reality. The finger is also pointing at us. For we who would claim to know what it means to be a Christian, so often fall into the trap of image projection and spiritual spin. Weíd prefer to have a reputation for holiness, and project an image of godliness, instead of being holy. Weíre 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 and not to step out of line, than to be faithful to the Biblical gospel. Or at the very least thatís the temptation.
And that is why it is so refreshing to come to a psalm like Psalm 1. Because Psalm 1 puts before us in crystal clear language so we cannot miss it, the two ways to live. One is the Christian way and the other is the non Christian way. You see here we find no room for spin, no room for image projection, no room for talking a great game. The challenge is to walk the talk, to live the Christian life or not at all. And the alternative to the Christian life is so horrific that no-one in their right mind would ever want to choose it. And the question the psalmist asks us this evening is will we live the authentic real Christian life that the Bible talks about? A life lived with Jesus Christ at the very centre and his Word as the rule over our lives. And for those who are students, then this challenge is particularly apt for you. Because if you want to live for Christ on the campus then have got to be sure you are living the right way. If you want to make the next three years count for something spiritually, then you must listen very carefully to the psalmist this evening. Because he will tell you what real authentic Christianity is all. For there is so much misunderstanding and false living which passes for Christianity these days. And it is very easy to be led down the wrong path. So what is real authentic Christianity? Well it involves three things. It means being:
1) Devoted to Godís Ways (V 1)
2) Delighted by Godís Word (Vv 2-3)
3) Dependent on Godís Verdict (Vv 4-6)
1) Devoted to Godís Ways (V 1)
So first, then, it means being devoted to Godís ways. Now the interesting thing about our psalm is that the writer begins by telling us everything we should not do. Because being devoted to Godís ways means turning our backs on a way of life that is not Godís way. Verse 1: ďBlessed 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.Ē So what does the psalmist tell us to say no to? Three things:
a) Worldly Thinking- First we must reject worldly thinking. ďBlessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wickedĒ. What the psalmist means is that we must not align our thinking with the thinking of the world. Donít walk in the counsel or the advice of the wicked. By way of example, letís take two very common ways of thinking prevalent in the world today, and especially in the student world. They can be summed up by two phrases. Take the phrase ďEach to his OwnĒ first of all. Itís a very commonly held opinion which says that everyone is free to hold whatever opinion they want. There is no such thing as absolute truth, and as long as you donít harm anyone else, well, each to his own. Certainly on the campus itís the prevailing attitude. And in theory it sounds wonderful. Youíre not going to bother anyone else, as long as they donít bother you. Sounds wonderfully tolerant. The only trouble is it is fatally flawed. Because it assumes that you are in a position to judge that there is no truth, which in itself is an absolute truth statement. And what it does is it makes me the centre of my universe, instead of acknowledging that there is a God to whom we are accountable and that he has given us a moral framework which we are to stick to, not something we can make up according to what want.
Or take another element of worldly thinking, again in the psyche of many people today. Take the phrase ďItís my lifeĒ. Again you hear it said a lot. ďIíll do what I want with my life. My aim in life is to have as much pleasure and fun as possible. After all itís my life.Ē And again it sounds great. Whatís wrong with having fun and enjoying things. Well of course all good things come from God. But pleasure is not the goal of life. It is knowing God himself, which in fact is the ultimate delight and pleasure. Itís what we were made for. And if we pursue earthly pleasure above all things, then we will be horribly disappointed as so many have found. And again the fundamental problem is that it puts me at the centre of my life. My decision making, the way I spend my money, the way I spend my time, all revolves around me and what I can squeeze out of life.
Now with both those attitudes, ďeach to his ownĒ and ďitís my lifeĒ they are ways of thinking that are embedded in the world in which we live, but both are alien to Godís thinking. And if you and I are to be one of Godís people, if you are to live Godís way and be a man or woman of God, you must get rid of all such thinking in your mind. Because for a Christian the battle begins in the mind. Now such worldly thinking is very easy to slip into isnít it. So we say ďwe mustnít upset people with this offensive gospelĒ. We donít really want to say to our Moslem friends there is only one way to God through Jesus. We donít want to be seen to be a spoilsport to our friends who seemed so content. Or we find ourselves wanting everything else our non Christian friends and family have got. If theyíve got it, why shouldnít I, we say! But God calls us live differently, his way. Yes, itís unpopular, yes itís going against the tide, but that is what God calls us to, because his way is the true way. And in fact in his way alone there is lasting blessing. Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.
b) Worldly Lifestyle- But itís not just worldly thinking weíre to say no to. Itís worldly lifestyle too. ďBlessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners..Ē Now when we hear the expression ďstand in the way ofĒ 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. If you remember the scene in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, itís actually filmed in Aysgarth Falls where we have the student weekend away in January. So this January, Iíve vowed to re-enact the famous scene and anyone is willing to take me on. But actually Robin Hood has got nothing to do with Psalm1. Because in fact in Hebrew thought, to stand in someoneís 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, if we are Christians, that we should not act like the ungodly. We should put away all ungodly actions. We should be devoted to living the way God wants. And that involves a disciplined, long term battle with sin and ungodly attitudes.
Now 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 1950ís a book was published by a man called Howard Guinness entitled ďSacrificeĒ. The book is about how to live a life wholeheartedly for Jesusí 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 ďDiscipline.Ē 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. And he spoke of some students who used to sleep on the floor to prepare themselves for the mission field! 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 worldís ways and thoughts of pampering 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. Weíre 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: ďEnjoy yourself, pamper yourself.Ē But actually true blessedness, true happiness is found only in God. Itís only when we are willing to give up our lives, that we will find life. No Christian has ever drifted into holiness. It is a battle that must be engaged every day in mind and action. Devotion to Godís ways means saying no to worldly lifestyle.
c) Worldly Cynicism- And finally in this section devotion to Godís ways means rejecting worldly cynicism. ďBlessed 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.Ē 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 worldís way, then youíll talk the worldís talk. If you talk the worldís talk, then youíll walk the worldís walk, and if you do that then youíll end up sitting in the seat of mockers. Youíll find yourself cynically mocking the truth of the gospel. And at that point, as one writer puts it, ďWeíve received our masters in worthlessness, and our doctorate in damnation.Ē Worldly thinking leads to worldly actions which leads to worldly cynicism, sitting with the mockers despising Godís truth. Yes it may begin in the mind but itíll end up with you turning away from God. And if you want to know what happens to those who mock Godís truth, then look later at Psalm 2, and youíll find out itís God who has the last laugh.
So can you see now what devotion to Godís ways will mean? It will mean a commitment to saying no to worldly thinking, worldly lifestyle and worldly cynicism. And that is the first mark of true authentic Christianity. Authentic Christianity is marked by a devotion to Godís ways.
2) Delighted by Godís Word (Vv 2-3)
And yet so far itís all been very negative. Itís all about what not to do. Are there things positively that we should be doing? Well that brings us to our second mark of true Christianity. It is delighted by Godís Word. This is the antidote to walking, standing and sting in the worldís ways and thinking. Verse 2: ďBut 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.Ē What the author 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, or the law of God as the writer calls it, 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 wasnít it? If you walk in the counsel of the wicked then you will stand in the way of sinners and so youíll 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? Why should you be surprised if as a student you slip away from God this coming year if you do not make reading and obeying the Word of God a priority. If you make no effort to put yourself under the word of God, whether be through a good church, or good Christians books, the Christian Union, then donít be surprised if you slowly drift from God. Sadly every year I see it. Students who seem so keen at the start, but by the end are nowhere spiritually speaking because they have not put themselves under good Bible teaching and reading. And if you feed on ungodliness, then you will be ungodly. Of course itís not that we shouldnít watch or read anything else. But the question is who are listening to? If Godís 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. You see that is authentic Christianity. Christianity without the Bible is a contradiction in terms. A Christian who is not delighted by and devoted to the word of God is a contradiction in terms. A church which is not committed to systematically and carefully teaching the Word of God each week is a contradiction in terms. No, real living vibrant Christianity has always been saturated in the Word of God. And itís not about simply nodding assent to the Bible, perhaps having it read aloud, and then ignored. No itís about a wholehearted commitment to Godís word which will by His Sprit change lives. And especially if you are a student, this is so important. Because the next three or fours years could be wonderful years of change and transformation in your life. But they will only be so if you are a man or woman who puts the Word of God, the Bible, right at the heart of all you do and say and are. Because without it, quote simply, you will not grow.
Now there are two words that the writer uses which might take us by surprise. First he tells us to delight in the word. Itís worth remembering that this psalmist probably only the first five books of the Bible at his disposal. You might think that itís pretty hard to delight in Leviticus after a hard dayís work. But the writer delights in the Word of God because it is precisely that. Itís Godís 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 youíll see how the writer has sheer joy at reading and pondering Godís 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. Godís word is not a textbook to be studied, but a map to follow, a love letter to delight in. We donít need to have gone to university, nor do we need to be bookish. No, to delight in Godís word means to read it and apply itís teaching joyfully to our lives. Because in it we meet God himself! We can hear his voice through his living Word.
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 and saying ďumĒ. Rather to mediate on the word is to think on it and chew it over. Now of course I donít mean literally. One unfortunate person has taken this literally with sad consequences. I heard a story once about King Menalip II of Abyssinia who died in 1907. And evidently he wasnít a very intelligent man because he went to America and was very impressed with the electric chair. So he brought one over to Abyssinia even though they didnít have electricity and used it as a throne. But he believed that the Bible had medicinal powers. And so when he was ill heíd eat a bit. And one time he was very ill, so he ate the Sermon on the Mount. He only got worse so he ate 1 and 2 Kings at which point he tragically died.
But weíre not to eat on the word like that. Rather 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: ďHe 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.Ē The person that delights and meditates on Godís 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. So very simply let me ask: Is this the sort of person you long to be? Do you long to be a person with deep spiritual roots, whose branches are strong to deal with the ups and downs of life, who bears fruit in season and who never withers? Surely there is not one person here who loves the Lord who would not long for such a thing. But there are no short cuts to Christian growth. Itís by delighting in and obeying the word of God that such growth comes. And thatís the second mark of the authentic Christian.
3) Dependent on Godís Verdict (Vv 4-6)
But thereís one final mark of the authentic, true Christian in Psalm 1 and that is someone who is dependant on Godís verdict. Because the psalmist knows that that the real test of a person is what happens to them at the end of time when they stand before God. And so often in this world it looks as if the wicked get their way. Often we cry for justice and little seems to happen. But one day all the wrongs will be righted and then the books of judgement will be opened. And look what will happen: Verse 4: ďNot 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.Ē 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 itís 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.
And authentic Christianity always has this end time perspective. True Christianity recognises that the stakes are high. This is not a game that we are playing. Itís a matter of our eternal destiny. And for Christians that should be a tremendous spur to us to make the most of every opportunity and the time God has given us to live for him. Ultimately we look for his approval. We are dependant on his verdict on our lives, not what everyone else thinks. Because itís his verdict that truly matters. Everything else is chaff in comparison.
So I want to ask you very simply: Who are you living for? Is it the living God, or is it someone or something else? True authentic Christianity is devoted to Godís ways, is delighted by Godís Word and is dependant on Godís verdict. And if you are a Christian here tonight then I urge you not to waste your life, but to give yourself wholeheartedly to the only one who can give you what you really need. And if you are not yet a Christian, then please see what you are like in the Bibleís eyes. You are heading for a showdown with God which will end tragically for you and for all eternity. The only thing to do is fling yourself on his mercy, and to trust in the only one who has done everything necessary to forgive you- Jesus Christ.
Well one person who came to discover this truth for himself was Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash was the ultimate rock star with the lifestyle to go with it. He had everything this world could offer. But towards the end of his life he realised that it was all empty. And instead he became a Christian seeing that only in Jesus is there true meaning and life to be found. And before he died in 2003, he recorded one final video called ďHurtĒ in which he says that everything he has worked for is dirt. If he could have his time again, he would live totally differently. And the only thing to do is to place your hands in the life of Jesus.
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