The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
November 4, 2018
Every important pursuit is begun with an initial choice…and sustained by a thousand follow-up choices.
If we want to become healthier, we have to choose both to pursue good health and to persevere in the pursuit. Our big choice is fulfilled by a lot of little choices over the long haul. Day in and day out, we choose to get to bed at a reasonable hour, keep our taste for sugar in check, fulfill our promise to exercise regularly, and so on.
Or if we want to become a better friend, we have to choose both to pursue the ideal for friendship and to persevere in that pursuit. Our big choice is realized in many smaller choices over the rest of our life. We choose to answer the phone when a friend calls in the middle of our favorite TV show, sacrifice some of our free time to take them to an appointment when they need the favor, put ourselves out to celebrate their milestones of success, and so on.
Likewise, if we want to experience more completely the good life which God, out of His love for us, aches for us to enjoy, we have to choose both to pursue it and to persevere in that pursuit as long as we live.
In this, the first of the 150 Psalms, God puts before us two distinct and incompatible ways of life. One leads nowhere that we want to go. We can end up on that path either by deliberately choosing it, or simply by never getting around to making any decisive choice at all. We can just drift on to that path.
The other path, however, is not one we can just drift on to. It takes an initial decision and many later decisions to renew the first one. For the stream of our culture flows in a contrary direction, and most people around us enjoy treading the path of sin. In fact they try to get others to join them on it. They often scoff at godliness and disdain it as self-deceiving foolishness.
Thus, if we want the life God commends to us, we have to choose it, and to sustain that one choice by a thousand others.
To keep us resolute and steadfast in that long-term commitment, God encourages us to have hope for a great payoff for our perseverance. Psalm 1 begins with the promise that those who follow this way will be “happy”. The Hebrew word there is baruk. Though often translated “blessed”, the word basically means having that sense of well-being that makes a person joyful and sometimes even giddy with delight.
God blesses those who follow His way with happiness as He, through the cause and effect world He’s created, allows them to reap what they sow and experience the good consequences of their good choices. Because they plant their lives in God’s “law” – the Hebrew word there is torah meaning “instruction” or “guidance” – they become like trees planted by streams of water, whose branches bear their fruit in due course, whose leaves do not wither even during drought, and whose lives prosper in that for which they were designed.
Conversely, those who follow the opposite way of life take a route that makes them rootless, and so become, not so much like trees, as like “chaff” – chaff being the feather-like husks of grain farmers allow the wind to drive away as waste material not worth bothering about.
Those who fail to follow God’s way reap what they sow, and experience the bad consequences of their bad choices. They miss out on life at its best and perish like chaff scattered and lost to the four winds.
No one, however, has to miss out. Any of us may pursue and experience the good life that makes for happiness. All we have to do is seize responsibility and choose our direction with determined and persistent follow-through. By such steadfast and sober choosing we grow joyful and even giddy at times.
So what exactly constitutes that life of choosing? Psalm 1 identifies its most crucial component.
It is being rightly planted and rooted: planted in God’s word and rooted in obedience to it.
From the negative side, that involves defying the world’s wisdom, refusing to go along with the crowd, and marching to the beat of a different drummer. From the positive side, it involves becoming immersed in the Bible. Of those following God’s way, Psalm 1 says, “Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.” In other words, they linger over God’s word. They linger over it to relish and cherish it as the source of wisdom, and they reflect on it until they see how to live it out in specific, concrete action.
Doing that requires some exertion. We have to exert self-discipline to spend daily time alone with God in one-on-one conversation and weekly time with the rest of God’s people in worship. Yet, while we have to exert ourselves, we have hopeful expectation, not because of our exertion, but because of our resultant exposure to something outside of us. By our personal devotions and corporate worship, we expose ourselves to God’s word; and God’s word has a power from beyond us to change for the better both our character and our conduct.
Of course, only rarely can someone see much progress at first. We therefore have to have some faith and persist faithfully in the disciplines, until they have given God’s word enough opportunity to get through to us and work its magic on us.
Rabbi Akiva once noticed a tiny stream trickling down a hillside, dripping over this ledge and that as it flowed to a river below. At one point, a massive boulder stood in its course. Surprisingly, the rock bore a deep impression. One drip after another, over centuries, the stream had hollowed away for itself a channel through the stone. Akiva thought that if mere water could do this to hard rock, how much more could God’s word carve a channel of grace in him. Akiva also realized that if all that water had fallen upon the rock all at once, the rock would have remained unchanged. It was the slow but steady impact of countless little droplets, over and over again, that made the difference.
God’s word rarely makes a big splash. Its effect usually is cumulative, accomplished slowly by one little drop of truth after another. Day after day, week after week, year after year, it reshapes the lives of those who continue to delight in it and to meditate on it.
So let us keep making the sober, steady choices of faithful perseverance in our daily and weekly appointments with God, that we might grow in the way of happiness until we become giddy with joy. Let us pray.