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February 15, 2004
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the first Psalm and follow along as I read. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
4 The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
5 Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
6 For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
When you hear the words “Moon and Stars,” you probably think about the night sky, or astronomy, or space exploration. You probably do not think about watermelons. Yet, “Moon and Stars” is the name of a particularly valuable, dark-green, spotted variety of watermelon. It is an odd and beautiful melon with yellow specks called stars and larger yellow spots called moons.
At one point, this “Moon and Stars” variety of watermelon was feared lost forever, but then some gardeners found a man who was still growing it. They obtained seed from him and began to grow it and to pass the seed around. Now the “Moon and Stars” melon has been brought back from the brink of extinction to the full bloom of commercial success.
The return of “Moon and Stars” was a major melon moment to gardeners who are part of the seed saver movement, which is a movement that is intent upon saving heirloom seeds. An heirloom seed is a type of seed that has been passed down through a number of generations, usually transmitted by seed savers who want to keep a distinctive variety alive.
Heirloom seeds are planted by people who want to enjoy fruits and vegetables that are “a taste of the past.” These seed savers know that many varieties of crops, although cherished and maintained for generations, have been lost in recent years because fewer and fewer people save seed from year to year. Such gardeners believe that their heirlooms have better taste and tenderness than the modern hybrids that have been selected for qualities such as ease of shipping, uniform appearance or ability to grow well across the country.
Now on my little garden plot, I have participated somewhat in the seed saver movement. I have grown moon and stars watermelons. I have also grown Rosa Bianca eggplant, lemon cucumbers, and cow horn okra. These are old varieties, but they have one advantage over our modern hybrids. You can save the seed and plant it year after year, which you cannot do modern hybrids.
Also, scientists tell us that that heirloom seeds may have priceless genetic traits. They say that we should maintain as wide a gene pool as possible for all crops, because that makes those crops more resistant to pests and disease. A new disease might suddenly appear that would kill the modern hybrids but not bother an old variety.
The greatest historical example of what happens when you have only one variety of a crop is the Irish Potato Famine. In the 1840’s most of the population of Ireland depended upon one variety of potato for its food supply. When blight struck that potato, and destroyed several years of harvests, Ireland starved. The population of Ireland in that period dropped from 8 million to 5 million--one million people died, and another two million immigrated. But we know now that there is a South American potato that is resistant to that particular blight, and had the Irish grown more than one kind of potato the famine would not have been so disastrous. So there is a good reason to save old varieties of seeds, heirloom seeds, and it is also an interesting hobby.
The church is a like a bag of heirloom seeds. The church, of course, is not about melons, it is about mission. We notice, however, that our text today does mention trees that fruit and have leaves that do not wither. In other words, the psalmist describes what we could call an heirloom tree producing heirloom seeds.
Now as we turn to this Psalm, I would like to recommend to you a somewhat different way of reading scripture. It is sometimes called reading prayer.
Reading prayer is an ancient art. In Latin, the technique is known as lectio divina. It is a slow, contemplative praying of the Scriptures that enables the Bible, the Word of God, to penetrate us, and to become a means of union with God. Time set aside for lectio divina enables us to discover in our daily life an underlying spiritual rhythm. Lectio divina, or reading prayer, gives us an increasing ability to offer more of ourselves to the Father, and to accept the embrace that God extends to us in Jesus Christ.
The art of lectio divina begins with cultivating the ability to pay attention to what we are reading. When we read the Scriptures we should try to imitate the prophet Elijah. We listen for the still, small voice of God (I Kings 19:12); the "faint murmuring sound" which is God's word for us. This gentle listening is an "atunement" to the presence of God in that special part of God's creation, which is the Bible. The cry of the prophets to ancient Israel was the joy-filled command to "Listen!" "Sh'ma Israel, Hear, O Israel!" that is what the prophets said. In reading prayer, we, too, heed that command and turn to the Scriptures, knowing that we must "hear" the voice of God, which often speaks softly. In order to hear someone speaking softly, we must learn to be silent. We silence our own voice and all other voices and focus only on what we are reading.
So the first step in reading prayer is just to read. How simple that sounds, yet, this reading is different from the speed reading which modern Christians apply to newspapers, books, and even to the Bible. It is reading combined with reverential listening. We are listening for the still, small voice of God that will speak to us not loudly, but intimately. We read slowly, attentively, gently listening to hear a word or phrase that is God's word for me this day.
Once we have found a word or a passage in the Scriptures which speaks to us in a personal way, we must ponder it. We find a scriptural invitation to reading prayer in the example of the Virgin Mary in Luke 2:19 when she "pondered in her heart" what she saw and heard of Christ. This is the way we come to scripture in reading prayer. We repeat it, and allow it to interact with our thoughts, and our feelings and our hopes. This is the second step in reading prayer. We meditate on the word. Through this meditation, we allow God's word to become His word for me. A verse becomes a word that touches me and affects meus at the deepest level.
The third step in reading prayer is prayer. This is prayer as a loving conversation with the One who has invited us into His embrace. This is also our prayer of consecration to God. In this consecration prayer, we allow God’s word to touch those parts of ourselves that we have previously refused to give to God; we even allow the word to touch those parts of ourselves that we thought God did not want. We allow our real selves to be changed by the word.
Finally, if we get deep enough into the scripture, into the word, we are able simply rest in the presence of the One who has used His word as a means of inviting us to accept His transforming embrace. We come to the point where speaking words to God is no longer the most important part of our prayer. It is enough, and more than enough, just to be in God’s presence.
So in general, that is what reading prayer is. Let us apply that method then, so far as we are able in a sermon, to the psalm we have before us today. We begin by reading through the whole psalm, which is only six verses. Then go back to the first verse and read it again carefully and slowly, examining it from every possible direction.
“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.”
The Hebrew term ‘ashrei, which begins the verse, can mean “fortunate,” “rich,” “blessed” or “prosperous,” or “happy.” All of these adjectives could be used to describe the person who has discovered what it means to live in harmony with God. But notice that v1 describes what a blessed person is not. The heirloom quality of a blessed person is described by three negatives: They “do not follow the advice of the wicked,” and they also do not stand with, associate with, sinners, and finally, they do not “sit in the seat of scoffers.” The word of God for us here is that these three things refer to the way we deal with the worldly culture, the society, that surrounds us. We live in a powerful secular culture. How are we to interact with it? The psalmist says that this world is not where we have our roots. We do not look at our culture for guidance.
V2 tells us where to look: “But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.”
This is the second heirloom quality of the righteous person. Righteous people delight to meditate on God’s law. Reading prayer is a joy for God’s people. And not just reading prayer, but any study of scripture is important to God’s people. As the body of Christ, one of the things that we are supposed to enjoy doing is opening the Bible and studying the word.
But if we define Bible study as the mark of an heirloom person, a righteous person, we have to say that the church is facing a desperate shortage of righteous people, because when it comes to a knowledge of Scripture, most Christians today are not very proficient. Simon Cowell on American Idol, might say in his hard way that when it comes to the Bible, most Christians are dumber than a sack of hammers. We may have the air of serious students of the Bible, but, as they say in Texas about “pretend cowboys”: “Big hat, no cattle.”
On one of his shows, Jay Leno moved into his audience to ask them some questions about the Bible. “Name one of the Ten Commandments,” he said. For awhile no one in the entire audience said anything. Then one brave soul ventured, “God helps those who help themselves.”
“Name one of the apostles,” Leno told them. No one could.
Finally, he asked them to name the Beatles. The answer came ringing from throughout the crowd: George, Paul, John, and Ringo.
Now I admit that Leno’s audience is not your typical church-going folks, but we must admit that most churches do not do much better. One study reported recently that fewer than 16 percent of Christians read the Bible every day. This doesn’t cut it. No wonder we have churches today going off in nonbiblical directions. They do not know anything about the Bible. Truth is in America, we live in a mission field. Missions are not overseas, we are it. We live in a pagan society that has little or no knowledge of the gospel and it is partly our fault.
We need to retrieve some heirloom seeds, to recover the righteous person, that person who is willing to agitate against the culture, and who is grounded in the word of God. And we do not need to spend much time talking about how other Christians do not know the Bible. We may be appalled that so few Christians read the Bible. We may be appalled at what some denominations are doing. But if anything is going to change, it must begin with me. I am the one who needs to delve deeper into scripture and to apply the word to my life, and I need to do this every day.
When speaking of athletes, we say that they must work out every day, they must have the discipline to do what is required to succeed in their particular sport. We are supposed to work out every day. We must have the discipline to do what is required to succeed in our life in Christ.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought of discipline as virtue. Aristotle defined virtue as a state of character gained by repeatedly performing good actions. Thomas Hibbs is a contemporary philosopher who teaches at Boston College. Hibbs calls virtue “an acquired excellence of character that renders a person capable over the long haul of behaving in certain reliable ways.” As Christians, we want to have more and more of Christ with us every day and to behave more and more like Christ, but the only way this is going to happen is through discipline, through an ongoing life of prayer that delves into the scripture and lets the word have its way in our lives.
Let us go on then to verse 3, “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.”
The fruit of the tree is its seed. We sometimes forget that. We think that the fruit of a tree, as for example, apples or oranges or plums, is something we eat, which is true, but that is not the reason a tree produces apples. A tree produces apples to produce other apple trees.
One concern that we all have today is producing Christians in the next generation, communicating our values to the next generation. Be assured of this the only values you can communicate to the next generation are values that you live. Telling the younger generation that they ought to do this or they ought to do that is Ok, and has its place in the scheme of things, but it is not very effective. An active and visible lifestyle is the most effective means of communicating values to the next generation. Young people are always looking for role models, and they will naturally imitate adults who show admirable patterns of behavior. Whether we demonstrate fidelity in marriage, an appreciation for education, a commitment to the church or a pattern of compassion toward other people, children will watch us and imitate us and receive the characteristics of whatever seed we transfer to them. If they see that prayer and scripture are important to us, they also will learn to delight in the law of the lord.
Now I have only covered the first three verses of Psalm 1. I leave the last three for you to meditate on in your own devotions. But we should note one final thing about the heirloom seeds of God that we are to become. In v3, the righteous are like trees whose leaves do not wither. That is to say, the heirloom trees we are to become are disease resistant. The disease in this case is spiritual. Worldly culture is spiritually diseased. What is sometimes called New Age religion is a spiritual disease. Satan has many spiritual diseases with which he wishes to infect us. But we have an ingrained resistance that prevents these spiritual diseases from taking root. This resistance is based on what we are. We believe in Jesus Christ, we delight in the word of God, we lift up our lives to God in prayer. Believing like that and living like that, we have a tremendous defense against all Satan’s attempts to destroy us. For which we say praise God and thank God.
Using the method of reading prayer on these three verses of Psalm 1, we see that God has promised to plant me like a tree by a running stream, and to nourish me in what is true, that I might be rooted in the goodness of all he offers me. How could I possible refuse God’s offer.
Let us turn back to the Bible then. Turn back to prayer. Turn back to God. Amen.
Breckenridge, Mary Beth. “Heirloom crops, flowers are often timeless treasures.” The Charlotte Observer, October 18, 2001.
McMahon, Barbara. “American style: The kind you don’t find in the catalog,” The Associated Press, October 4, 1979.
Smith, Shay. “Heirloom seeds: A taste of history.” Gainesville Times, November 29, 2002, Gainesvilletimes.com.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 03/23/04