Monday, October 05, 2015

A Life of Joy

A Life of Joy
Psalm 1[1]
When you look at the way we as a people live these days, I’d say we’re obsessed with happiness. Self-fulfillment is the number one item on most agendas. We are healthier and wealthier than any other generation in the history of the world. So you’d think that would translate into our being the happiest people ever. But the sad reality is that the more we have, it seems like the more unhappy we are. More than that, it seems that we grow more insistent that we know what’s best for us, and that we don’t need anyone or anything—even the Bible—to teach us how to live. When we insist that we know what’s best and refuse let anyone tell us how to live, we’re only digging our ruts deeper.  I would say that approach to life typically doesn’t pay off.
Our Scripture lesson from the Psalms today insists that true happiness, what I would call joy, is found only in one place. The Psalm makes it clear that joy is found only through “delighting” in God’s truth, in God’s instruction found in Scripture.[2] Now, “delight” is a word that we don’t hear much these days, so it may not communicate to us. I would say that “delighting” in God’s truth refers to the practice of spending time every day, in fact “day and night,” reading and studying and thinking about the truths of Scripture. And the reason for this is to be able to live a life that is more closely aligned with God’s will. The outcome of that kind of life, according to our Scripture lesson for today, is true joy.
Now, if you’re like me, you may find yourself wondering about this passage. It makes some pretty big claims. It promises that those who follow this approach to life will not only find true joy, but also “In all that they do, they prosper” (Ps. 1:3). And yet the reality of life is such that there are plenty of people who faithfully align their lives with God’s will but do not seem to prosper, outwardly at least. And we can bear witness to the frustration found in other Psalms that there are plenty of people in this world who live their lives with little or no thought to God’s ways but, outwardly at least, they seem to prosper. Some of them prosper greatly.
So it would seem that we face some obstacles to the way of life prescribed by this Psalm in the realities of our world. For many of us, trying to read the Bible can seem like an exercise in futility. We may start off with all the determination in the world to make devotion to Scripture a regular part of our lives. But when we actually sit down to read the Bible, it can often leave us feeling cold. In fact, it may leave us feeling bored. Let’s face it, the Bible is not an easy book to read, especially in some translations. And there are some passages of Scripture that leave you feeling less than uplifted.
In light of this, what are we to make of the claim our Scripture lesson for today makes? I think we have to start by getting clear about what it is that we’re hoping to gain from a discipline of regular Bible study—day and night, as the text puts it. We may not always understand everything we read, even though we have an abundance of resources available to us. We may not always find that our devotion to Scripture gives us some “takeaway” to help us at the time. But then, that’s not always the way Bible study works.[3] If we expect that every time we read the Bible we’re going to be “blessed” in a specific way, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. The discipline of studying and meditating on Scripture “day and night” is one that changes our lives over time, as we continue to practice it over weeks and months and years.
I think another aspect of this has to do with the real-life benefits a regular discipline of Bible study. We are a results-oriented people in many ways, and we want to know what we will get if we invest the time to actually engage with Scripture “day and night” as the psalmist suggests. I have to say that it’s unlikely that we will find ourselves understanding all that there is to know about the Bible. There are Bible Dictionaries and Bible Handbooks that can help us here, but we’re not going to emerge as an expert who can answer any question about the Bible. I have a doctorate in biblical studies, and there are plenty of questions about the Bible I can’t answer! Rather, the outcome of this kind of regular engagement with the Scriptures is that it opens us up to the life-giving, transforming presence of God.[4] When we devote ourselves to the discipline of taking in the Scriptures “day and night,” we are connecting ourselves with the true source of life, and well-being, and joy. I think that’s what the promise of “prospering” is about—it’s about knowing true joy in life regardless of our outward circumstances.[5]
I’ll be the first one to admit that making this discipline a regular part of your life is challenging. I’ve spent many years, even decades, seeking to make reading, and meditating on, and praying through the Scriptures a part of my life “day and night.” And I can bear witness that it takes a definite commitment and the will to persevere in order to continue to do this year after year. But I can also bear witness to the fact that when I maintain this discipline, I definitely experience more joy in life than when I let it slip. As our Psalm for today advises us, this is a serious matter.[6] The Bible is not something we read just because we have nothing better to do.  Our Psalm for today warns us that turning from Scripture and living by our own counsel is a way of life that “perishes.” It’s simply not sustainable. But on the other hand, embracing God’s truth with one’s whole heart leads to a life of joy. It’s up to us to decide which path we will take.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/20/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:684, where he says that the word typically translated “Law” is the word Torah, and would better be translated as “Instruction.” He says, “‘Instruction’ here refers not to a particular corpus of stipulations, but more broadly to the whole sacred tradition of God’s revelation. It is helpful to recall that the Torah for Judaism—the Pentateuch—contains both stipulations and identity-forming stories of God’s dealings with the world and God’s people.” Moreover, (ibid, 685), he says that the use of the word Torah in this introduction to the Psalms indicates that “the psalms are to be received in a manner analogous to the Pentateuch—that is, as an identity-forming, life-shaping source of God’s instruction.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 41: “Here, ‘torah of the Lord’ is used in a comprehensive sense to refer to the whole body of tradition through which instruction in the way and will of the Lord is given to Israel. … This psalmist knows torah in the written form, Scripture that one can read and absorb (see Josh. 1:8). It is from this written torah that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and will of the LORD and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness (40:9; 37:31).”
[3] As Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.1:123 reminds us, “[the] very fact of the language of God Himself becoming an event in the human word of the Bible is … God’s business and not ours.  … The Bible is God’s Word so far as God lets it be his Word, so far as God speaks through it.” In other words, God speaks to us through the Bible on God’s terms, not ours!  Cf. similarly, Cf. Anthony B. Robinson, What’s Theology Got to Do With It?, 55: “the Word of God is something that occurs when the Spirit and the Scriptures connect in listening and speaking.”
[4] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 41-42: “This is the reason why torah is the cause of delight, not because it is an available instrument of self-righteousness, material for a program of self-justification, but because the LORD reaches, touches, and shapes the human soul through it. For this psalm, torah is a means of grace.” Cf. also McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:684. He says, “In contrast to scoffers who arrogantly refuse all instruction, happy persons delight in God’s instruction, having it always before them. What is commended, therefore, is not a close-minded legalism, but a posture of constant openness to God’s instruction.” Cf. also the now classic R. McAfee Brown, The Bible Speaks to You, 48, where he says that the Bible itself is “a means by which God reveals himself to us, since it is by reading the Bible that we find him confronting us.” Cf. also Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book, 23-24: “In our reading of this book we come to realize that what we need is not primarily informational, telling us things about God and ourselves, but formational, shaping us into our true being.” 
[5] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 43-44, were he says that according to this Psalm there are only two ways for life’s journey to take; the way of the righteous “leads to the fulfillment of life” as depicted by the tree which constantly bears fruit. He continues, “The fulfillment is not so much a reward as a result of life’s connection with the source of life. The second way is really an illusion. It has no more substance than chaff that the wind drives away…. The wicked are grounded and guided within themselves, a way that has no connection with the source of life. That way will perish.”
[6] Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:685. He summarizes the message of the Psalm by saying, “The happy or righteous persons are those who are constantly open to God’s teaching, thus always connected to God, who is the source of life. … The wicked, on the other hand, are those who refuse to attend to God’s teaching, thus cutting themselves off from the source of life. That they ‘perish’ is not so much a punishment, but the inevitable outcome of their own choice not to be related to God. In short, wickedness in Psalms is fundamentally to be self-centered rather than God-centered.” He points out that this understanding of life is one that “differs profoundly” from the typical outlook in our culture. He says (ibid., 687), “What is so unsettling about all of this is that what Psalm 1 and the rest of the psalter call ‘wickedness’ is perhaps what North American culture promotes as the highest virtue—autonomy. … The irony is tragic—the pursuit of self-fulfillment yields self-alienation. … Failing to trust God and to make connection with God as the source of life, persons cannot be ‘happy.’ … In biblical terms, to be autonomous, to be alienated from God and other people, is to ‘perish.’”

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