Tuesday, May 10, 2011

" We Shall Not Be Moved" and the Art Of Tree Planting (a Sermon on Psalm 1)

I can’t read the metaphor at the heart of Psalm 1, of the person who finds joy in obeying the Law of the Lord being like a tree that is planted by the river, without it turning on that home entertainment centre that we all seem to carry round in our heads. It’s not string music and a picture of idyllic countryside with willows by a slow flowing river. Rather there is a song that starts. The old protest song “we shall not be moved”: Just like a tree planted by the water we shall not be moved.
Along with that song comes a series of vivid pictures. Civil rights marchers in the 1960’s arms linked together facing police battens and water cannons as they protested for equality. Each knowing that their cause was just and right and so full of truth that they were prepared to face opposition, harassment violence and even death to seek justice. AS I think about it other pictures come to mind, the Maori land occupation at Bastion Point, the police moving in, evicting old and young men and women. It was a new awakening for our nation to the justice of Maori land claims. Because of their just causes they have found themselves a source of water that will sustain them and allow them to make a stand. And as we read and look at Psalm 1 we can see that there is a measure of exactly that in what the psalmist is trying to tell us. He has found something that was a solid base for life and is the source of true happiness. He expresses that in a metaphor of something precious for a desert people, a tree planted by a river. A tree planted in the best of conditions in the rich alluvial soil with a constant water supply. For the Psalmist that was what I am calling God-ward living.
Psalm 1 strangely enough is at the beginning of the book of psalms. I know that sounds so ridiculous to say but we can overlook the fact that it is designed to be an introduction for the whole book. That it tells us something that is essential for the rest of the songs in the collection. It is again one of the Psalms we don’t have an author for, it’s anonymous, Placed here by the compiler of the collection Some see that its emphasis on the Law of the Lord could link it to the author of Psalm 119.

Like most Jewish poetry it is full of parallels; in fact this is the hallmark and characteristic of Jewish poetry: It’s not the rhyming of words or lines and the rhythm of structure as much as the rhyming and rhythm of ideas. Here we have three parallels that are designed to contrast the difference between the righteous and the wicked.

Firstly we have a parallel between what it is that makes a person happy. Verse 1 answers that question by saying that it is someone who does not sit or walk or take advise of those who do not live in a God ward’s manner, that do not have the time of day for God. This is paralleled with those whose joy comes from meditating on the word of God, in this case the torah, and putting them into action in their lives.

Then we have two parallel metaphors to illustrate the difference between those who read and obey God’s word and those who don’t. The person who keeps the word of the Lord is like a tree planted by the waterside. It bears fruit in the right season and you get the picture that it is an ever green tree despite the adverse weather conditions it has a constant source of water and will keep going and growing. Those who do not follow God’s way, says the psalmist, are like the chaff that comes off wheat when it is threshed. They have no roots, the wind blows and they are gone. You can catch a glimpse of Jesus parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount about the two builders and the foundations they have the one who hears Jesus words and does not do them is like someone who built his house upon sand, while the person who hears Jesus word and puts them into practise is like the one who builds his house on a solid rock foundation. Of course in Jesus parable the river is not a source of comfort when the rains come down and the floods of life come up, it is the second builder whose house will stand. Similarly for the psalmist the one who does not have God at the centre of their lives will be blown away like the chaff.

Finally there is a third parallel, again a contrast between the God ward and those who do not look to God. God guides the righteous while the Godless simply follow a path to their own destruction. Again one of Jesus parables comes to mind, the narrow gate and the road that leads to destruction.

The best way to enter into this psalm is to put it into its historical context. Which is hard of course because we don’t know the exact time and place it was written. But we do now which period it comes from and that helps us in our understanding. It comes from the period of the exile, that 70 year period after the Babylonians under king Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed Jerusalem and the people had been taken into to captivity to that city on the Euphrates River. Babylon was a centre of much eastern philosophy and thinking, in the ancient near east much of it written to look at the source of true happiness in life. In this environment the Psalmist adds his opinion.

But perhaps the setting for this psalm is best seen by looking at another Psalm, a Psalm that has made the top of the hit parade in the last thirty years not just three thousand years ago, and is still a favourite on many dance floors today. I’m refereeing to Psalm 137 which starts ‘By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down’ recoded by the reggae band ‘Boney M’. The psalm talks of the exiles coming to Babylon and gathering on the bank of the Euphrates to remember their God and finding it difficult as they remember Zion, trying to keep their faith alive. From the book of Daniel, we know that there was much pressure on these people to conform to the faith and practices of the Babylonian empire. The policy of deporting people from their national homeland was that once they were removed from their nationalistic roots they would be assimilated into the dominant culture.

The Babylonians came and demanded that the Jews sing their songs not as worship or praise to God or for hope but for entertainment. It would seem in this environment that following God’s law and keeping his ways and praising him was futile. Some exiles would have let go their faith and been assimilated. But maybe as the psalmist stood in those sorrowful pressurised gathers on the banks of the Euphrates he would have seen a tree planted by that great river and God used that to give him inspiration and hope. That to keep God’s word was like being that tree and that despite all the evidence to the contrary it was that relationship with God that was the source of true happiness. It wasn’t the physical setting of the river but God’s life giving water.

The hustle and bustle the throngs of people round him who would have mocked the band of deportees the psalmist would have realised was like the chaff that was being blown out over the river from the market places. While the city had wide paved roads that looked victorious and prosperous; those roads did not lead to happiness but rather would end in destruction.

In this setting Psalm 1 becomes a redemption Psalm, a Psalm of hope rather than seeming to be one gloating in the victory of the righteous Jew. It becomes prophetic saying to people that they can only find true happiness and a solid base for life in following and knowing God. It that context then it invites the reader of the psalms to look God-ward not to be planted into the dominant culture but be transplanted to the source of living water in God. The God we know who sent his living water into this world in the form of Jesus Christ.

As an introduction to the psalms in invites the reader the worshipper to carry on and proclaim God as creator and God as the saviour of his people in the face of ‘ well evidence to the contrary’. Not to be persuaded by those who do not have time for God but to realise that in God there is the source of true happiness.

Well what new life is there for us from this old song.

Well Jesus starts his manifesto in the Sermon on the Mount like the book of Psalms by exploring what true happiness is. In a way that turns the world priorities upside down he says its not the rich, or the comfortable that are blessed rather it is the poor and those who know they need God, it is those who mourn for what they have done wrong and seek righteousness, even those who suffer for the sake of knowing Jesus they are blessed. There is a challenge for us to look at what we are told by society will make us happy and weigh that against what it means to know and follow our Lord Jesus Christ.

One of the real pressures on the Church in the western world has been to be assimilated into the dominant culture. We find our selves being invited to conform to materialism and consumerism and find our happiness in the comfort of our flash new lounge suit, lost in the wonder of our flat screen plasma to be filled with the richness of the food that we have ready access to, to find pleasure in the things we have rather than in who God is and calls us to be. Have you noticed the way in which many adds are couched these days, they tell us we have a problem that makes us unhappy but do not despair this product will solve your problem and make you happy again. And in this world where bad hair days or lingering odours round the house have so much invented in their solutions We are told not to rock the boat when we choose to face real injustice in the world. Maybe the environmental issues that rise up like a dark cloud on horizon are signposts that the psalmist is right and this road leads to destruction. In the midst of that the psalmist would invite us to be transplanted to a real source of water for life: Knowing and seeking God, hearing what he has to say to us through his word and putting that into practise in our lives.

Even the church has fallen into the metrics of the society we live in to judge its success. We view it in terms of the ABC’s Attendance, Buildings and Cash… but that does not sound like it lines up with the blessings that Jesus talked about… Leonard Sweet suggests a better way at looking at how we are going are the genuine stories of lives changed told in authentic voices. It can be judged not by the bums on seats but the butts in carparks… cigarette butts that tells us people out there like the tax collectors and prostitutes and outlaws of Jesus day want to round us because they sense the hope of Christ and Christ’s love in and through us.

We’ve been obsessed with growing great leaders and just maybe we’ve forgotten that it is about being humble followers.

The psalmist says the key to true happiness not just passing pleasure is in God-ward living. Supplanting standard of living, self-actualisation, maintaining strong family ties as the focus of our lives with God as the goal we are moving towards. Know I’m not saying these other things are not an important, its harder than its ever been to make end meet maintaining our unrealistic western standard of living is like a wheel in a rat’s cage we seem to need to run faster and faster without getting anywhere you are just going faster to stay in the same place. The call is to transplant ourselves to focus on the divine. Jesus said put first the kingdom of god and his righteousness and all these other things shall, be added unto you. It’s a challenge to our priorities, our use of time, what we invest our resources and ourselves into.

Like the protest song ‘we shall not be moved’ this source of living water gives us the strength to go against the flow, to make a stand, to put our God-ward living into practise by caring for the poor seeking justice.

You know if I’m honest, and I like to think I am, I find where I am at the moment isn’t a place of true happiness. It’s easy to say that we are planted by the riverside but some how we just don’t take the time needed to put our roots deep enough to drink long enough to quench our souls. It’s true that if the devil can’t make us evil he’ll make us busy. I find myself consumed with the work of simply keeping going, simply doing the stuff that makes church tick over, yet I know that God-ward living invites us to live in tune more and more with what is at the heart of what God wants. It’s a call to radically different living, it’s a call to align ones self to Gods deep desire that the lost come to know his son Jesus Christ who does not want anyone to perish and a call to care for the least around us. Which I have to say actually involves going against the flow of where mainline Christianity is at, at the moment. That’s why we need to be planted by that living water to make the stand.

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