Sunday, 17 February 2013

Contemplation: Psalm 1

My sermon notes for the first in our benefice sermon series for Lent, Wisdom from the Psalms.

Psalm 1
Can be sung to any 8686 tune (suggested: Richmond)

O blessed, blessed is the one
Whose walk is out of step
With wickedness and mockery
Who does not sit with sin.

O blessed, blessed is the one
Who hears God with delight
Who day and nightly contemplates
The law and love of God.

That one is like a fruitful tree
Whose roots stretch deep and firm.
Its planted by a living stream
Whose waters never fail.

Its leaves stay green in hottest drought
Its roots remain secure
And in due season blossom blooms
And fruits grow ripe for all.

The wicked are like fallen leaves
Tossed all ways by the wind
They cannot stand when judgement comes
Not rooted in the Lord.

I love this image of contemplating God, contemplating the Bible, being like a tree planted by a spring. A spring whose waters don't fail or dry up even in the hottest summer; the roots of the tree have stretched down and found a source of water that is always reliable, and so the tree flourishes.

First, think of those roots, as an image of contemplation. They grow down and seek out the water, and then drink it up, without any particular effort. They aren't working hard or doing something difficult, they are just doing what comes naturally.

The water - God - is there. The roots don't have to summon it by an effort of will, or do anythingbin particular to be worthy of it. They are just there, in the right place, being themselves. And the water is ther, being itself.

We dont have to work hard at contemplation, just be there, present with the text, drinking it in. The water is there; contemplation is being where it is. The refreshment happens naturally.

Contemplation may not be something we are very used to as a method of prayer or as a way of approaching the Bible. We might think of it as something that only particularly holy people do, monks and nuns perhaps. But is something we all do in the other contexts, so we know we can manage it.
Imagine, for example, being on holiday. You have a caravan or a cottage overlooking the sea, the curve of the bay. You arrange your deckchair so you have a lovely view over the bay, and just sitting there drinking in the view - the sound of the sea, perhaps the occasional seagull, the smell of the salt air, the softness of the warmth around you - for maybe twenty minutes or half an hour.

You feel totally relaxed, restored. Then, after half an hour you may want to do various things. You may want to carry on sitting there all day. You may want to keep sitting there, but go and get your knitting or crossword or novel as well. You might want to go down into the view, to go for a walk on the beach or have a swim. Or if you're like me, you might think thats quite enough sitting around and you want to get up and head into town to see the sights or visit an improving museum.

All these are OK! Contemplation feeds you, gives you energy to do other things. You aren't expected to do it all day, or not do other things too. The psalm makes the point that the tree image also include seasonality: bearing fruit in due season. The watering of the tree is not simply so it feels happy and content, but results, at times, in its bearing fruit.

So this is what contemplation is like: just being there with the view (God, a Bible passage), drinking it in. It isn't an effort of will, and it doesn't necessarily result in particularly holy feelings or actions, at least not immediately. It just is.

This is what Jesus was doing in the desert. So he is so deeprooted in the scriptures, after 40 days of just being with God, that not even those spectacular temptations can shake him. Or, in the coming weeks, a crowd threatening to throw him off a cliff: or the reality of his crucifixion.

The final image in the psalm contrasts that rootedness with chaff: or, in my paraphrase, fallen leaves. The contrast is with waste material, light, blown by the wind. With many a conflict tossed about, in the words of the hymn. The contrast isn't primarily between those who do and don't sin, but those who are and aren't deep rooted. The wind blows everyone, and the wisdom of this psalm is that we should seek to be deep rooted, anchored in and fed by the contemplation of God.

Wisdom is presented here not as having the right answers, or even doing the right things, but having your roots in the right place.

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