The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 29, 2023
God has given us the freedom to determine our course in life. While we can’t always choose our circumstances, we can always choose our path.
A choice of path amounts to a choice of destination. But Psalm 1 asserts that there are only two destinations from which to pick: one that leads to life at its best, and the other to a dead end. There’s no question we have free choice in selecting our trajectory and thereby our end point. The only question is: Will we choose well?
While some choices are more foundational or crucial than others, every day we decide whether we will continue on the path we’ve been taking or alter our course. This liberty to determine our direction and destination can’t be taken from us – but we can give it up and just drift with the tides (as some people do).
Every day, however, brings us to forks in the road. And because no choice is ever completed at once and for all time, but must be followed up on with further choices to be fulfilled, every day we either settle deeper into the direction we’ve already chosen or start to modify it.
Psalm 1 serves as the introduction to all the psalms. It confronts us with our responsibility to choose our response to God’s invitation to join “the congregation of the righteous” – the righteous being those who root themselves in God’s “law” by heeding its guidance and drinking in His grace “like trees planted by streams of water” that drink in the liquid nourishment of the soil.
Psalm 1 begins with the phrase, “happy are those who…” a phrase that is repeated 26 times in other psalms and in the beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (though there the phrase is typically translated “blessed are those who…”, which in the original Hebrew or Greek means the same thing). Here then is instruction on how to achieve true and lasting happiness.
In putting before us the choice we must make, Psalm 1 contrasts the opposite ways of living, as they apply to our thinking, our behaving and our belonging. The way that leads to happiness and righteousness is not to trust the convictions of those who disregard God’s law (that is, not to “follow the advice of the wicked”); it’s not to imitate their conduct (that is, not to “take the path that sinners tread”), and it’s not to keep close company with those who scorn God’s word (that is, not to “sit in the seat of scoffers”).
The way of life is rather to “delight” in “the law of the Lord” and to “meditate” on it “day and night”, that it might shape who we are and what we do.
By this orientation of ourselves, we reap a great reward, says this psalm. These happy ones, these folks who flourish like trees growing in rich well-watered soil, add value to their own existence and to the world at large. They “yield their fruit in its season”. That is to say, they – by a slow, patient, persistent process of maturation – bring forth their unique blessing by which to enhance their arena of influence. And nothing can stop them from making their very positive difference for good. For “their leaves do not wither”, even when there is a drought, and “in all that they do, they prosper” – “prosper”, not in the sense of financial wealth or popular “success”, but in the sense of fulfilling the purposes assigned to them.
But please note that the “prosperity” they achieve is not primarily their own doing. These happy ones are simply those who have let something happen to them, who have allowed themselves to be “planted” like trees. Now, since no tree has ever planted itself, there must be a Gardener who does for them what they could never do for themselves. God then is ultimately the responsible One behind the happiness and righteousness of the happy, righteous ones.
On the other hand, the unhappy ones are those who instead rely first and foremost on themselves. They depend more on their own wisdom and strength than on God’s law and grace. To their misfortune, their choosing to turn down God’s offer of help makes them vulnerable to becoming undone by the hard knocks of life, which will cause them to become “like chaff that the wind drives away” – like the straw-like husks of winnowed grain tossed into the air so that wind gusts blow away the flimsy casings around the treasured kernels.
Wicked lives then are lost lives. By following the way that will “perish” in the end, the wicked end up becoming less than they might easily have become and thus they “will not stand in the judgment”. Because they decided to make their way powered by their own legs, they don’t have a leg to stand on in the judgment.
The happy, righteous ones are not happier or more righteous by virtue of being better people than anyone else. They are just folks who avail of help from beyond themselves, rely on the Lord to “watch over” their way, and thereby become better people than they used to be, while continuing down the way that makes them still better. They have true life because they choose to look to God for the wisdom to make the right choice at each fork in the road and for the strength to keep to the path by means of the thousand little follow-up choices that fulfill their big choice to heed God’s law.
We are as close to the Lord, and as empowered by the Lord, as we choose to be. Let us remember the choice that we must often make and that we alone can!