(Sermon preached at Cromer on 15/1/17)
The book of Psalms was the Jewish hymn book. Jesus would have sung psalms. They are songs expressing our relationship with God, put together for use in worship. They express every human emotion, from love and praise to anger and hatred; they cover a wide variety of subjects, some general, some personal. All have something to teach about God or human beings or the world about us. Some are lovely; some are shocking. And this one is first.
Why was this put first? Unknown author, unknown time of writing – belongs to every age. Jesus told us that worship needs to be in spirit and in truth, and this psalm reminds us that we need to be in a right relationship with God if we and our worship are to be acceptable. And it does so by teaching us the difference between the way of a righteous person and the way of a wicked person.
The psalm is not p.c. We live in a multicultural society, where, despite brexit, diversity and inclusion are valued. There is a popular feeling that you can do what you like provided you don’t harm anybody; what you believe doesn’t matter, all roads lead to the same place. This psalm is starkly black and white. There are two roads only, one taken by the righteous, the other by the wicked; one leads to prosperity, the other to destruction; and if you are not on the one, you are on the other. The message is obvious: choose the right way, the way that has the blessing of God.
It begins with the word ‘Blessed’. Jesus began his teaching in the sermon on the mount in the same way, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn.’ The word ‘blessed’ means ‘happy’ – not necessarily a happy feeling, but a happy situation. Those who mourn about evil are blessed because they will be comforted. The person in the psalm is described as blessed because they have made the right choices in life – they are righteous, verse 6, right with God. Is that you? Let’s use this psalm to give ourselves a spiritual health check.
We begin with verse 1:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers.
The psalmist uses three words for evil-doers, each worse than the one before. The word translated ‘wicked’ simply means those who have done wrong, who have disobeyed God. ‘Sinners’ are those who choose to live without taking any notice of God, and ‘Mockers’ are those who are actively anti-God and anti-godliness. We also see a progression in one’s possible involvement with evil – walking, standing, sitting.
Imagine walking along a road in the Middle East, where it is only natural to fall into step with another traveller going in the same direction. The conversation gets round to a problem you share – and your fellow traveller has found an interesting but ungodly way of dealing with it. Blessed is the one who doesn’t keep in step with them, says the psalmist. Reject their counsel, advocate a different solution, or just walk at a different pace.
Walking in step with the wicked might lead on to standing in the way that sinners take. Imagine that a group of the ungodly traveller’s friends are standing by the road. These are sinners, people who reject God’s ways and do what they like. Their talk sounds sensible, liberating, and it would be all too easy to stand with them and adopt their attitudes. The next step would be to sit and enjoy the company of mockers, who don’t just ignore God’s laws but despise them, laughing at them and at those who take them seriously. Blessed is the one who doesn’t do any of that, says the psalmist.
Are we in that picture? Some of us may know the whole sorry journey only too well. The devil tempts us off the road to life one step at a time. A man online may see an ad featuring an attractive lady, and it is so easy just to click on it – after all, such attraction is only natural. And having done it once, it is easy to do it again, and then to follow up more links, and before he knows it pornography has become part of his life, and he is sitting in the company of those who mock morality.
Others of us may have a different problem. We are thinking, ‘I’m one of the righteous. I believe in Jesus. He forgives me all my sins. Even if I do walk for a time in the way of the wicked, it won’t matter – Jesus will forgive me. I’m blessed even if I do go off the road to life for a time.’
I think the real issue is a matter of the heart. What is our attitude towards sin? Do we hate it? Remember, sin is anything that is against the good and loving will of God. If we love God, we hate sin. We love God because he loves us – we love his love! But we don’t stop there – we love his goodness, we love his ways, we love his will, we love his holiness. And so we hate anything that goes against his will, or spoils his world in any way. We hate sin, first in our own lives, but also where we see it spoiling the lives of others. We’re not standing in judgement over anybody – we’re dealing with the plank in our own eye before we take out the speck in anyone else’s eye. So let’s examine ourselves. God is good, God is love – does that make it OK to choose the less than good, to do something unloving? Do we have any idea how much God hates sin, all sin? Can we ever decide to do something we know is wrong, and say it’s only a little sin, God won’t mind? Sin is so terrible that the only way it can be removed from our lives is by God the Son becoming one of us and taking onto himself the burden of all our sins. Not most of our sins, all of them – we cannot stand in the presence of God if we are still holding on to just one sin. But listen to these verses of Scripture: ‘He who had no sin became sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ (2 Cor 5:21) ’He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.’ (1 Peter 2:24). ‘Blessed is the one who loves God so much that he or she does not walk in step with the wicked, or stand in the way that sinners take, or sit in the company of mockers.’
Verse 2 goes on:
Blessed is the one… whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
The word ‘law’ could refer simply to the first five books of the Bible, but often includes God’s instructions found throughout the Scriptures, and can refer to all the Scriptures. We can only take delight in them when we see how Scriptures reveal what God is like. We cannot know God or his will just by using our own intelligence, we need God to reveal it to us. When that revelation is written down so that future generations can see it, that is Scripture. It is what Scripture tells us about God that makes it so delightful. But it needs us to work at it – ‘Meditating day and night’ as the psalmist puts it. That doesn’t mean spending every moment of life thinking about Scripture – that would be impossible. But it does mean thinking about what God is saying often, on a daily basis. If we want God to bless us, we must take his revelation seriously and let it change our attitudes and behaviour. It is the word of God that renews our minds, transforming our characters and equipping us to serve God. It is the word of God that helps us deal with temptation, as Jesus showed when he too was tempted. God’s word is powerful!
But how can we take God’s revelation seriously if we don’t know what it is? How many of us have read the whole Bible through more than once? If we have, we will know that it is different kinds of revelation – and that it does not always make easy reading. Yet God’s revelation it is, so let us treat it as such. Don’t we want to get to know God better? Don’t we want to know his will? Blessed are those who love God so much that they want to know more of his revelation!
Verse 3 tells us more about the blessing God has for those who love him.
3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
whatever they do prospers.
Notice that the trees haven’t just grown there by accident – they’ve been planted beside the water deliberately, so that they will stay green and bear fruit at the right time, even when there’s a drought. ‘Whatever they do prospers’, says the psalmist. He was not trying to pull the wool over our eyes by saying that those who live godly lives will have no problems whatever. He knew the Scriptures, and the stories of all the difficulties godly people had to cope with, especially in the first five books of the Bible. What he is saying is that as long as people remain faithful to God, God will provide for them and they will stay spiritually alive and fruitful even when times are most difficult. We may not know what exactly God is doing in our lives; we do not see how he works everything together for good, or what exactly is the fruit we’re producing. But God knows; and our task is simply to stay wherever God puts us and stay faithful to him. Trees with a good water supply live a long time – much longer than humans! So I believe that this verse implies that the reward for faithfulness is a permanent life and fruitfulness, in the age to come as well as in this life. This blessing is something really to rejoice in!
Contrast the wicked, those who live without reference to God, verse 4.
4 Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
In those days when wheat or barley was harvested it would be beaten, or a threshing sledge be pulled over it, to separate the grain from the husks on the threshing floor. This would be in a windy position, and they would then use a winnowing fork to throw the husks and grain into the air. The heavy grain would fall to the ground, but the chaff, the empty husks and bits of stalk, would be blown away by the wind. The wicked are like the chaff, says the psalmist. There’s no seed in them, nothing of use to the harvester; they’re light and just get blown away, not to be seen again. What a contrast to the tree planted by the water!
Verse 5 goes on:
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
There will be a judgement day, when Christ our Saviour will come in all his glory and put everything to rights. Jesus tells us it will be a time of sorting out the wheat from the weeds, the sheep from the goats; only the righteous will be accepted in the age to come, as this psalm also makes clear.
Let’s take this to heart. Most of us, I hope, are like the trees, not the chaff; yet in this day and age the majority don’t believe there will be a judgement – that either when you die that’s the end, or that if there is an afterlife it will be a better place and everyone or at least most people will get there. The teaching of this psalm – and of Jesus, and indeed the whole Bible – is that there is no place in the age to come for those who reject God and his offer of salvation; there is no place for those who are like the chaff, empty husks. They may be nice, kind people; they may be ever so religious; but if they have no real relationship with the one who gave them life and all its blessings then, however valuable their lives are in this world, there is no seed of eternal life in them, no harvest for the world to come. Is that you? Is that your neighbour?
Why do I ask about your neighbour? Because God does not want anyone to perish. He loved the world so much that he sent his only Son so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. Jesus came into this world to call sinners to repentance. Chaff can become trees planted by the water – they can be born again! But only if they really want to: God will not force anyone to accept him as their God against their will, much as he loves them and longs for them to come to him. Those who persist in unbelief or in going their own way are allowed to do so, like the rich young ruler. But those who respond to God’s grace find themselves on the road to life, counted by God as righteous, and cared for by God as his own, as verse 6 says:
6 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, (what amazing blessing)
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
How can those on the road to destruction get off it? If it is up to them to choose, how can they be persuaded to change course? We know from experience and from the Scriptures that we can’t persuade them – it needs to be an act of God. But I’ve just said that God won’t force them to change! So what’s going on? How does Jesus save?
That well known verse, Revelation 3:20, helps us. ‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.’ Jesus has done all that is necessary to reconcile us to God. He takes the initiative in bringing people into the kingdom – he comes to the door, and knocks. He will not force his way in; we need to open the door. And often the process of salvation is incremental – we open the door a chink, he speaks to us, we open a bit more, he speaks a bit more, and so on until we invite him in. It’s his initiative. But at any time we can shut the door, or drive him out.
The important thing for us is this: Jesus’ knocking at our neighbour’s door is done through the activity of his body on earth – his church, us. Sometimes it is through our lives – our neighbour watches, and wants what we’ve got. It may be through our words – something we say strikes home in some way. Or through an invitation to an event at church. But most especially through our prayers – in answer to prayer God can speak directly to a person’s heart. In answer to prayer God can bring revival! It’s not easy, and our part does not come easily. We really need to want God to act, and to want it so much that we keep on praying and living for God until he does. How much do we want our unbelieving family, friends and neighbours to become like trees planted by the water? Are we happy for them to be like chaff, which the wind blows away? May the Spirit of Jesus rule our hearts and guide our lives!
Let’s pray, while the band comes up.