A sermon by Rod Benson
When I was growing up in Papua New Guinea I attended a school where religious education was taught every Friday, and I remember a Swiss missionary, Mrs Jungen, who with her husband Erwin had been pioneer missionaries in the highlands in the 1950s, teaching us to memorise this psalm in 1980.
Memorising scripture is a lost art today, but every time I read this passage I remember Mrs Jungen’s patience and determination, and I am thankful for people like her who have helped shape my life.
You and I are travelling along one of two roads. The psalmist points them out here, and Jesus put it clearly in his Sermon on the Mount:
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7:13-14).
The two roads represent two ways of life. The broad road is the path of least resistance: a lifestyle attractive and popular, that provides incentives for the exercise of power and expedience, dazzling rewards for success, and perhaps great personal satisfaction and opportunity for self-congratulation. But a lifestyle that leaves no room for God or for the way of Jesus, the way of inner transformation.
You may begin with good intentions, but the further you travel along the broad road, the greater the compromises, and the more difficult it is to change direction. Very few start out with a conscious desire to pursue a life of sin, but as the poet Alexander Pope put it,
Vice is a monster of such frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen.
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
Before you know it, you’re “walking in the counsel of the ungodly, standing in the path of sinners, sitting in the seat of the scornful” (v. 1b).
Three degrees of departure from a lifestyle that God approves: accepting this world’s wisdom, conforming to its cultural habits, and ultimately adopting its most demeaning and degrading and destructive attitudes.
That’s the road to ruin and regret. What of the other road? The Bible teaches that deep and lasting personal fulfilment comes to those who swim against the flow.
As the third U.S. President, Thomas Jefferson, said, “in matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
Sadly, I’m far from sure that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump would understand.
There is only one sure and proven way to stand like a rock in the face of spiritual and cultural opposition, in the face of pressure from your peers and colleagues and family.
And that is to ask, “What does the Bible say?” True fulfilment finds its source in an ongoing engagement with the word of God. I like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of verse 2b: “you chew on scripture day and night” (The Message).
It’s not that you expect Scripture to hit you like a jolt of adrenalin every time you read or study it.
It’s like following a healthy balanced diet: people don’t usually expect immediate, instantaneous results, but hope that over time they will gain resistance to disease and strengthen their wellbeing.
The great 19th century British preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said, “A Bible which is falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t!” “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law he meditates day and night (verse 2).
Feeding in a subjective, meditative way on the objective word of God will lead to growth in wisdom and spiritual maturity, and provide spiritual protection and moral strength in difficult times.
It will also produce spiritual and moral fruit, blessing the one who spends time in the word and blessing their community.
“He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he does shall prosper” (verse 3).
This is what unfolds as you place God at the centre of your life, and determine to live according to the way of Jesus Christ.
This is what I want to emphasise for our church in 2017: the opportunity for each of us to contribute more fully in our common life, giving joyfully from our own resources for the benefit of others.
The other way, the path of least resistance, produces fruit which might look good at a quick glance but which finally fails the test. There is no lasting benefit, no blessing, no glory to God.
“The ungodly are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgement, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous” (verses 4-5).
Everything looks good while the weather is fine, but when the storm comes, as it will, they are finished. Their life fails to stand up to severe hardship, or to objective judgement.
All of us will one day experience God’s perfect justice and objective judgement. For the Christian, the judgement will be executed by Jesus when he returns, and some of us may be in for an unpleasant surprise, as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15:
For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will be manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is.
If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
In 1973 a man was convicted of trying to bribe a witness to a crime, but he remained free through three years of appeals. Finally, all avenues for appeal exhausted, it was time for him to begin serving a four-year sentence, but no one notified him, and he kept quiet.
For years, he lived in a twilight of fear and hope. Had he escaped justice, or would the long arm of the law finally catch up with him? Finally, acting on a tip-off, the court identified what had happened and ordered the man to prison.
Are you living like that man? You might be able to evade justice for a while, but eventually it will catch up with you.
At the end of life, each of us must give an account of our lives to God: what we have done, how we used our resources, whether we took the path of least resistance, or had the courage to go against the flow.
When life is over, only what God judges right will count, and only those who live by the Book will enjoy eternal life.
“For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish” (verse 6). There is no third road to choose; it’s either good or bad, the Word or the world, Jesus or judgement, life or death.
John Wesley, the evangelical founder of Methodism, once wrote,
I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit coming from God, and returning to God; just hovering over the great gulf; a few months hence and I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing – the way to heaven . . . God himself has condescended to teach the way. He has written it down in a book. O give me that Book! At any price, give me the book of God!
Wesley had a deep and abiding appreciation of the Bible, and its value for his daily life, his vocational ministry, and his eternal future. We do well to follow his example, as he followed the good examples of those who preceded him.
Psalm 1 sketches the character of a person who pleases God, and a lifestyle that counts for God. To go against the flow of this world’s principles, and to invest your life in pleasing God and obeying his word pays great dividends, far outweighing the transient benefits of following the path of least resistance.
Base your life on the Bible’s teaching, follow its wisdom, pursue the path of personal transformation into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, and your life will have eternal significance.
Sermon 711 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 1 January 2017. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). See also https://rodbenson.com/sermons