This morning, we’re going to hear from the very first Psalm, which serves as an introduction to the whole book. This is the lens through which the Biblical writers want us to view the whole of the Psalter. So as we listen, there are two questions I want us to pay particular attention to:
- What, in this psalm, is God doing? Which actions are attributed explicitly to God?
- What sort of decision is this psalm asking us to make?
Scripture: Psalm 1
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;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
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.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgement,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
You know what I realized this week, about 11 am on Monday? I was sitting in my office, surrounded by post-it notes and books and drafts of Presbytery policies, and I realized that preaching on a psalm is hard.
Psalms are difficult because they come with no context whatsoever. There is no story, no instructions, no conversation–and we have very little idea how these songs and poems would’ve been used in ancient Israelite worship. Preaching on a psalm is like finding a scrap of paper on the ground with this gorgeous poem on it, but having no idea who wrote it or why.
Luckily for us, there are some really smart people who have encountered this particular scrap of paper before me. Walter Brueggemann, in one of his commentaries, points out that this psalm really is the beginning of a grand story that we find weaving through the whole book of the Psalms. Here, we get an overview of the main characters—the righteous, the wicked, and God—and we have the main plot: that careful discernment is crucial to fruitful, faithful living.
Brueggemann says it this way: “Psalm 1 urges a life that finds its source in the Creator. The psalm speaks of life as a path, or way, and of divine instruction as nourishment for the way. Much of the Psalter’s instruction…will portray prayer as the honest dialogue of faith carried on in the community that worships God.”
This brings us back to that first question I asked us to pay attention to: what is God actually doing in this text?
The answer, surprisingly, is not a whole lot. God does not actively bless or curse. In verse 6, “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,” but otherwise, this whole psalm is not so much a prayer, a hope, or even a blessing—it’s a simple statement of fact.
‘Happy are those who do not walk, run, or sit on the path of wickedness, because that path will not last.’
I like to think that at this point in the liturgy of ancient Israel, all God’s people said “thank you, Captain Obvious.”
That brings me to my second question: what sort of decision is God asking us to make? The psalm phrases it as a choice between righteousness and wickedness—good and evil. But when it’s framed that way, when we’re presented with a choice, the right decision should be absolutely obvious, right? If good and not good were that easy to figure out, we wouldn’t need this psalm in the first place.
Just like the story we heard about Nasreddine, the choice we’re offered in Psalm 1 isn’t between righteousness and wickedness. At least, it won’t present itself that way in our day-to-day lives. I mean, wouldn’t it be great if we were just presented with two options for every decision, and one was very obviously the ‘right’ choice, and one was very obviously the ‘wrong’ choice?
The choice we are offered in Psalm 1 is between a rooted, purposeful life and being blown about by every breeze, washed away in every storm, dried up with every drought. Like Nasreddine, we have a choice between living on autopilot, accepting uncritically the advice we’re given, and learning to discern for ourselves what is right and good and faithful.
This is a psalm ready-made for teenagers and young adults—because it’s about the process we all have to go through when we have to start making our own decisions, and differentiate ourselves from our parents and grandparents a little bit. It’s not easy to sort out your own values and make choices accordingly, but it’s necessary.
You might value knowledge, while your family values connection. You might love working outdoors, while the rest of your family prefers a tidy, air-conditioned office. You might value different experiences and traveling to learn new things and encounter different cultures, while your family values staying rooted in one place, learning to bloom where you’re planted.
None of those values are wrong—they’re just different. You can learn to follow Jesus in the quiet with some good books, and alongside a bazillion friends. You can love God working outdoors, getting your hands dirty, and you can love God at your desk. You can love your neighbors whether you’re in Nepal or Malawi or Turkey or Hanover.
But to do that well, you need to figure out who God has made you to be and what God is calling you to do—and run with it.
The major difference between the righteous and the wicked here is that the righteous have anchored themselves to what the writer calls ‘the Law of the Lord.’ The word in Hebrew is ‘torah.’ And even though it’s often translated as ‘law,’ and sometimes it refers only to the Levitical Law, it’s more often used to refer to the whole of God’s instruction in Scripture. This includes everything from poetry to prose to proclamation and prophecy.
The righteous are the people who have immersed themselves in God’s story, planted themselves in the rich soil of God’s love, and decided to grow there. And those are the people who bear fruit in each season. Those are the people who offer shade and rest to the weary. Those are the people who do not wither or fade, because they have been planted by the waters of life.
But let’s pause there for a minute, because I want to be clear about one thing: following the “rules” is absolutely not an end in and of itself—and it’s definitely not a magic formula for getting God to do what we want.
When I was a teenager, I quite often got the gospel backwards. I heard the message more than once that once you had your stuff together—when you were good, when you were perfect—then God could love you without condition. And for a lot of years, I carried around a lot of shame because I believed that God could never possibly love someone so, so very flawed.
Here’s the thing: God’s love was never conditional on us getting ourselves together. God loves you. Period. End of sentence. No ‘but’, no ‘as long as.’
That’s why this psalm doesn’t condemn people—but once you’ve encountered that love, it does offer you a choice between two ways of living, and invites you to choose the life that is fruitful and full of growth. Even that choice, though, is something we have to learn how to do—something we have to learn to see.
Glennon Doyle Melton, in her book ‘Carry On, Warrior’, writes a letter to her son on his first day of third grade. In that letter, she says:
“We don’t send you to school to become the best at anything at all. We already love you as much as we possibly could. You do not have to earn our love or pride and you can’t lose it. That’s done.
We send you to school to practice being brave and kind. Kind people are brave people. Brave is not something you should wait to feel. Brave is a decision. It is a decision that compassion is more important than fear, than fitting in, than following the crowd. Trust me, it is.”
Third grade, as it turns out, isn’t much different from the rest of life—and the best of the love parents offer their children is the same love God has already given us. The love we are not required to deserve is already ours.
It’s grace that roots us so firmly in this love, so that we are empowered and freed to grow into the fruitful people whom God calls us to be.
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, writes:
“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
I don’t know what awaits you this week. Maybe you’re nervous about a test at school or a project at work or a conflict in your family. Maybe you need to have some hard conversations or make some hard decisions. Perhaps there must be forgiveness, for you or for someone else. More relentless pursuit of justice for your families, for your children, for your neighbors. More loving the people who desperately need it. Routine and chaos. Showing up, listening well.
Whatever it is, wherever you find yourself, may you find yourself so rooted in Christ’s love and God’s big story of grace that you can make the choice that Glennon offers to her son at the end of her letter:
Be brave, because you are a child of God.
Be kind, because so is everybody else.
Friends, let us be rooted in mercy, grounded in grace, and planted as close as we can get to the waters of life—so that we may always be growing in love for God and neighbor.