TEXT: Psalm 1
My favorite image for spiritual growth is the tree, which is a symbol very literally from the beginning of the Bible through the end. There is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that got Adam and Eve into so much trouble and the tree of life that stands in the middle of the garden of Eden and in the center of the new Jerusalem described in Revelation. There is the broom tree that props up the prophet Elijah when he is depressed, the willows where the exiles hung up their stringed instruments, and the image here in Psalm 1 of our lives with God compared to trees planted by streams of water.
This morning, the main thing I want to do is to challenge you to act like a tree and grow. That is the tree’s main job...to grow. Because a tree grows it provides all sorts of gifts to other parts of creation. It cleanses the air, it provides shelter for birds and animals, shade for us all, insane beauty in the fall, fruit for food, and many times wood for a huge number of purposes. But the tree doesn’t set its sights on any of those gifts in particular. The tree simply focuses on growing, allowing God to direct how that growth will be used to benefit others.
So, if you get nothing else out of this morning, I want to plant a seed in your brain that will not let go of the word “grow.” When you’re driving home today and some idiot cuts you off...before you stick your hand out the window to communicate your thoughts, think “grow.” When a family member says something callous and hurtful, before you lash out, think “grow.” When life hands you a raw deal, before you curse it, think “grow.” When life hands you a great gift, before you simply use it up or store it away, think “grow.” Grow, grow, grow, grow, grow. That’s the point.
If a tree is not growing, it is dying, and it is the same in our spiritual lives. If you are not growing spiritually, then you are dying spiritually, and if your spirit dies, there is not anything that your physical body can do or accomplish that will bring you the slightest bit of joy or satisfaction. If your spirit lives and grows, however, there will come a day when no adverse circumstance will be able to uproot you and throw you down. As the psalm says, “You will be 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.”
I do want to talk about that verse in Psalm 1 for a minute, because it was a verse that bugged me for a long time. I kept stumbling on verse 3...”In all that they do, they prosper.” I stumbled on it, because it just didn’t seem to be true. Obviously the Psalmist was not living in MY world, I thought. The Psalm seems to imply that things go well for the righteous and badly for the wicked, when at least my life’s experience often seemed to be exactly the opposite.
I really liked the tree by the water bit, but I didn’t know how to stand up and say that righteousness had anything even remotely to do with prosperity...or even happiness, for that matter...and there have been times when I have felt that righteous living was the one sure-fire way to be sure that nothing good would happen in my life ever again. “In all that they do they prosper.” Humph, I thought.
Then I went to preach on the text and had to sit down and really study it. I was a language major in college, so I really enjoy going back to the original languages to see if there might be something lost in the translation. Well, I’m here to tell you that in that verse of Psalm 1, there is a lot lost in the translation. The word for prosper in Hebrew, tsalach, implies movement and means to make progress, to advance. In our consumer, materialist society, we interpret that to mean getting more and better stuff. When we hear the English word prosperity, nobody first thinks of the poor.
But in the world of the Bible, to advance, to make progress is to grow in the knowledge and love of God. It means spiritual growth. To make sense to 21st century capitalist ears, the verse should be translated, “In all that they do, they grow.” There is a similar block up in verse one. It reads, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked.” The word for “happy” esher, means “To go straight, to walk, to advance, to make progress.”
Just with those little changes, the first three verses of the Psalm would read, “Those who make progress 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 grow.”
Grow, grow, grow. To grow in the knowledge and love of God. That is happiness, blessedness, delight, and prosperity. That is the true treasure. That is wisdom. Now that is something I can relate to. That is true for me. The better I know God, the more I grow, the better I am able to withstand the junk that life throws at me. I stand taller, I lose fewer branches, I am not uprooted or deeply damaged.
Not so with the wicked, says the Psalm. And that is true, too. The wicked are not like trees securely planted. They are the chaff. The image is of a thresing floor where the grain is tossed up in the air. Full heads of grain are heavy enough that they fall back down to the floor. But the grain that can’t be used–the empty shells and husks–they blow away in the wind because they have no weight, no substance. The wind that blows away the chaff and leaves the mature grain is the breath of God. It doesn’t single out the wicked for fiery breath. It doesn’t breathe especially easily on the righteous. The same wind of the Holy Spirit blows powerfully across wicked and righteous alike. But the wicked have not grown and ripened. They have no substance. They are merely shells and the wind blows them away.
The message of the Psalm is, “Grow.” Don’t just let life act upon you and eat away the head of grain. Don’t just let yourself become a shell, an empty husk. Plant yourself by the water, stick your roots down deep, grow and stand tall, produce fruit, and the breath of God will prove your substance and beauty rather than become your undoing.
Okay, so how exactly do we do that? How do we grow spiritually? Well, I’m glad you asked. We grow physically from physical disciplines. We eat right, exercise, and have a balance between work and rest. It’s not rocket science. Neither is spiritual growth. We grow spiritually from adhering to spiritual disciplines. We read and study the Bible, we pray, we give ourselves a balance between service to others and care for ourselves.
And there is one other spiritual discipline that is critical to our growth. We give. Time, talent, money. Christians on a path of discipleship and spiritual growth give according to God’s direction. When it comes to money, the ideal for a Christian should not be giving money to meet a budget or to give according to how well they like the pastor or the programs in a church. Many of us give for those reasons, but that is not spiritual giving.
The growing person gives money and possessions away to be freed from slavery to those things. Giving money is a financial fast. It is a sign that we have another master, and that money will not be allowed to control our lives. If you want to know what controls you, think about the things you could not give up. Those are your masters and you are their slave. For most of us, money and possessions are on that list.
For the Christian, giving money is also an act of gratitude. It is the sacrifice of praise that the Bible speaks about. We give because we are so incredibly grateful for all God has done for us. If we have no inclination to give to God, that is a sure indicator that we are clueless about what God has done for us. Once we begin to realize the gifts we have been given, our jaws will drop to the ground and our knees should soon follow. Our wallets will follow our knees.
Christian giving is an act of discipleship. If we say we want to be like Jesus, which is what we are claiming if we say we want to be a disciple, then we have to learn to give. Nothing characterizes Jesus so much as giving...broken body, shed blood. When we give out of our need to give rather than out of someone else’s need to receive, we will begin to grow. When we give out of love, out of gratitude, out of a desire to be more like Jesus, we will begin to grow.
We grow when we realize that stewardship is not a campaign or a time of the year. Stewardship describes the purpose of our lives on earth. We are not our own. We belong to God and all that we have and are comes from God. We are the trees that God has planted by streams of water. We were planted there so that the world could benefit from the fruit and the shade and the shelter and the wood. Our job is simply to grow...to take into our roots every experience that comes our way. God’s job is to transform those things into new branches and ripe fruit so that when the time comes for the harvest, we can be used for the work of God.
You can always tell the righteous ones...they aren’t the ones who always get it right, they are simply the ones who are growing. As a result, they are the ones who are happy. They are like trees planted by streams of water.
Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, and we will have a service here Wednesday evening at 7:30 to mark that time. Lent is the time to focus on our spiritual growth and the spiritual disciplines of our lives. It’s the time for each of us to ask ourselves, “Am I connected to God…to the springs of living water? Am I focused on growing in Christ and letting God have the use of my fruit and shade and branches? What happens to me when a storm blows across my life? Are my roots deep enough to allow me to stand?” Come into the questions of Lent. Come into the spiritual disciplines. And grow. Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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