Ash Wednesday Meditation, Psalm 1

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Feb 262012
 

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ February 22, 2012 ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3 They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

 

4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1, NRSV)

 

Psalm 1 is typical.  It’s typical of the sort of thing we read in God’s Word.  Constantly, the Bible is putting before us two alternative ways to live.  You can live this way, God tells us, or you can live this way.  We can live life with God, or, if we choose, we can live life apart from God.

Psalm 1 captured these alternative ways of living in two very vivid symbols.  Your life can look like a mighty tree, or you life can look like chaff.

I want to talk for a few moments about what each of these symbols tell us about our options.  Let’s begin with chaff.

Do you know what chaff is?  In the ancient Holy Land, when a person harvested grain, the valuable kernel of grain needed to be separated from its protective covering, called chaff.  To do this, a person would throw the grain into the air at a time when there was a brisk wind and then the wind would carry away the lighter chaff and allow the grain to fall back to the ground where it could be collected and put into storage.  The valuable grain was kept while the worthless chaff was, literally, cast away into the wind.

The Psalmist says that there are people in this world who will choose a path in life that will, in the end, make their lives look like chaff.  Specifically, these are people who pay heed to the messages of the world and, in doing so, begin a journey that is a slow progression towards death.

The journey begins, we’re told here, by walking in the counsels of the wicked.  This is the person who explores the world’s messages that lead us away from God.  Then the journey leads to standing in the ways of sinners.  In other words, eventually the person who explores life apart from God begins to habitually identify himself, or herself, with such a life.  Finally, the journey culminates as that person chooses to sit in the seat of mockers.  This is when the journey is complete, when a person openly ridicules God, and God’s truth, and God’s people.  A life at this point has become utterly useless, devoid of anything that is right and good and true and enduring.  As we just read, the way of the wicked will perish.

Now, why does the Psalmist paint this dismal picture?  He does this to remind us that this is a very real possibility for each of us in life.  Ash Wednesday itself is, in fact, meant to remind us of the very same thing.  As we’ve already talked about this evening, because of the sin and evil and self-centeredness we have embraced in life, our lives, each of them, are on a progression towards dust, ashes, chaff.

We cannot ignore this reality.  Nearly everybody who was alive 100 years ago is no longer with us.  Their bodies have become dust, blown away with the wind.  100 years from now, every one of us here this evening will have met the same fate.  The progression is hardwired into our bones and, unless something interrupts this progression, nothing can be done about it.  Ashes to ashes is our reality.  Dust to dust is our destiny.  It’s a pretty dismal picture.

Fortunately, the Psalmist paints another picture.  It’s true, some lives are becoming like worthless chaff.  But other lives are becoming like mighty trees.  Your life can become like a mighty tree.  It’s a beautiful picture really, one I hope you’ll think some about.

What living thing in all the natural world is a better picture of enduring strength and life than trees?  Trees are the largest living things in the world.  Trees are the longest living things in the world.  In fact, there are trees not far from here, inSequoiaNational Park, which are more than 3,000 years old.  They were around 1000 years before Christ was born.  And there they are, to this day, still growing vigorously and producing an abundant harvest every year.

Of course, the trees that best flourish are ones planted near water.  Think of some of the giant oak trees along the riverbanks not far from here that have grown to massive size because their roots are constantly tapped into a water source.

The Psalmist could not have chosen more contrasting pictures of life.  Chaff blown away by the wind and a mighty oak planted on a riverbank.  And this second image is meant to give us a picture of what life can be, was meant to be, for each of us.  This is an option before us.  Life does not have to be like chaff.  Life does not have to be ashes to ashes, period.  Life can ultimately be enduring, and flourishing, and productive and prosperous.

So what makes the difference?  What distinguishes the life that becomes chaff from the life that becomes a mighty tree?  According to the Psalmist, it’s simply this.  One life rejects the message of God and, instead, immerses itself in the message of the world.  That life is ultimately blown away.  The other life, however, immerses itself in the Message of God.  And that life not only endures, it flourishes.

“Blessed is the one…who delights in the law of the Lord, and on his law he mediates day and night.  That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.  Whatever he does, whatever she does, prospers.”

The person whose life is immersed in God’s Word, the one who delights in God’s Word constantly, that person chooses for herself, chooses for himself, a life of blessing, a life that endures, a life that flourishes for all time.

And lest you think this is only the crackpot advice of one isolated Psalmist stuck back in the Old Testament, listen to the words of Jesus himself, who summarized the heart of his teaching one day with these two contrasting images of life: (Readingfrom Matthew 7)

24‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’[1]

Two lives.  One endures and flourishes, even in hardship, because it is immersed in the Message of God.  The other ends in destruction because it has rejected the Message of God.

Now, to be clear, we are not saved by reading the Bible.  And God won’t love you more if you read the Bible more, or less if you read the Bible less.  We are saved, however, when we place our faith in the Message God communicates to us through the sacred words of scripture.  As Paul put it in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel (of the Message of God) because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”

The Gospel is powerfully transformative.  And in our time, the primary way that God delivers the Gospel to us is through the Bible.  There is just something about constantly being nourished by God’s Word which transforms our lives, which leads us to life.  As Jesus himself said, “We do not live by bread alone, but we live by the very Word that comes from the mouth of God.”[2]

With all this in mind, I want to extend to you an invitation.  Lent, as you know, is often a time when people give up something.  I know people who have given up chocolate, shopping, coffee, television, texting, all sorts of things.  I knew a guy one time who, for Lent, gave up giving up things for Lent.  I never heard if he followed through or not.

I want to invite you these next 40 or so days of Lent this year to give up 1% of your day – that’s about 15 minutes –1% of your day to be set aside for the purpose of sinking the roots of your life into God’s Word.  15 minutes a day to reading, and reflecting upon, and praying through scripture.

If this is a spiritual practice already established in your life, I simply encourage you to continue it, perhaps even devote a bit more time to it during this season.  If it’s not an established practice for you, however, this season would be a wonderful time to begin exploring this practice.

It doesn’t have to be complicated.  Sometimes we think reading the Bible is so complicated, or that you can’t do it until you have all sorts of knowledge first.  That’s just not true.  In fact, we’ve tried to make it very straightforward.  We’ve provided this guide you can use to lead you through the entire Gospel of Luke, the story of Jesus birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection.  It has a reading for each day and some guidance on how to use your 15 minutes.

If you miss a day, no worries.  Just pick up it the next day.  This is not an exercise in guilt.  It’s an exercise in grace.  And even if you’ve never tried something like this, I think you might find this something you can do and enjoy.

I recently read the results of a massive study that was done with 1000 churches all across the country, churches of all different sizes and from all different traditions.  The goal of the study was to discover what sorts of factors most contributed to the spiritual growth and maturity of Christians.

Any guesses on what they found?  Any guesses on what most people said was the single most important influence when it came to their own growth in Christian maturity?  The researches concluded, “Truly, if a church could do only one thing to help people grow in their relationship with Christ, it would be to get them immersed in, and in love with, God’s Word.”[3]

At one point, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was martyred for his faith in World War II, came to the same conclusion and wrote this:

Because I am a Christian, therefore, every day in which I do not penetrate more deeply into the knowledge of God’s Word in Holy Scripture is a lost day for me.  I can only move forward with certainty upon the firm ground of the Word of God.  And, as a Christian, I learn to know the Holy Scriptures in no other way than by hearing the Word preached and by prayerful meditation.[4]

I can’t plead with you over this.  I know that.  I can only invite you.  As I do, I pray that you will be willing to accept my invitation this Lent, to give some time each day to immersing yourself in God’s Word.

If you do, a word of caution.  In my experience, as I’ve set aside time each day to read, and study, and pray through, and reflect upon God’s Word, it has not typically been what I would call a “lightning bolt” experience.  There have been few, if any, burning bushes in my devotional life.

Instead, my time in scripture each day has been a bit more like eating.  Each day I sit down at the table of God’s Word and I feed my soul.  Some days the meal is quite extraordinary.  Each word is deliciously satisfying.  And the fellowship I experience with Christ is intimate and rich and almost tangible.  There are other days, however, when my time at the table of God’s Word feels a bit like going through the motions.   On those days it feels like I’m eating just for the sake of eating.  The food doesn’t taste all that good.  It doesn’t go down all that easy.  And the company at the table is silent.  Sometimes, in fact, it feels like I’m eating alone.

Nonetheless, I eat.  On those days I still eat because I need to eat.  My soul will starve if I don’t eat.  And over time, even on days when the meal is less than memorable, as I keep feeding my soul, my soul, my life, grows in ways that I cannot explain.  It grows in love and grace.  It grows in peace.  It grows in depth.  It grows in intimacy with Christ and with others.  It grows into life.

It is my desire that these words could one day be used to describe the life of each p erson in this community of Faith.  Do these words describe your life?  They can.

“Blessed is the one…who delights in the law of the Lord, and on his law he mediates day and night.  That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.  Whatever he does, whatever she does, prospers.”

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Matthew 7:24-27, NRSV.

[2] Matthew 4:4, my paraphrase.

[3] Greg L. Hawkins & Cally Parkinson, Move, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), p. 223.

[4] Cited by Ben Patterson, God’s Prayer Book, (Carol Stream,IL:Salt River, 2008), p. 26.