Pastor Kyle Bitter - The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, August 22, 2021

Text: Psalm 1

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A journey starts with just one step. That’s true of just about anything you want to accomplish – starting something new, breaking an old habit – it starts with just one step. If you decide you want to kick your caffeine habit, it starts with the first cup of coffee you pass up. If you decide you want to get into better shape, it starts with that first trip to the gym or that first step out the door. If you want to eat healthier, it starts with that first changed meal. A journey starts with just one step. It sounds kind of simplistic, because one cup of coffee, one workout, one meal – none of these do much in and of themselves. But, if they’re the first steps in a new routine? You might look back in a few weeks or months and be amazed at the progress!

Unfortunately, the very same thing is true in reverse. The journey to bad habits starts with just one step too. You wake up really tired one morning and decide to have that extra coffee anyway…just once. Your family or friends make some plans and the schedule starts to fill up, so you skip a day of exercise. Just this once! You oversleep and don’t have time to pack a lunch, so you think: “I’ll just swing by that fast food place.” It’s just once. And if it were just once, it probably wouldn’t matter much, but you know as well as I do how such things usually play out! Just once isn’t always just once. It becomes just twice, and then just three times, and before you realize it several months have passed and you’re completely out of shape, or you’ve gained some weight, or you’re back to the jittery caffeine headaches you were trying to get rid of, maybe even worse off than when you started! A journey, whether good or bad, starts with just one step.

This serves as a good illustration of the spiritual truth that we find in Psalm 1. The writer compares a spiritual healthy person with a spiritual unhealthy person, and we see the huge effect habits can have! A wise Christian recognizes this and behaves accordingly. The first verse of Psalm 1 describes a spiritually healthy, wise Christian: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the council of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.” (Psalm 1:1 – NIV84). Notice the progression highlighted in the verbs. He doesn’t walk off the path and wander into wicked places. When he does find himself in a spiritually unhealthy place, which will happen in a sinful world, he doesn’t stand and delay there, because he knows the ultimate risk. He might be tempted to sit right down and join in.

When you take a closer look at life, you can see why this is such a wise course of action. Like any bad habit, sinful habits start with small things. Sometimes these things are so small that it’s hard to say definitively if it’s outright wrong or just unwise. For the many catechism students out there who love to ask: Is it a sin if___ insert whatever questionable activity you have in mind ___, take note: Spiritually unwise behavior, even if not inherently wrong in and of itself, can grow into actual sin, and then finally into the sinful habits that become part of a lifestyle that leads a person away from God. Couple of examples. If we mindlessly consume media filled with profanity, we can’t be shocked if that very profanity starts to become part of our vocabulary without even thinking about it, and then a habit no longer completely under our control. If we frequently let our attention linger on the provocative media that is all around us, we really can’t be shocked if it starts to have an effect on the way we look

at other people and then later even the decisions we make in friendships and relationships. If allow our sense of needs vs. wants to be defined by marketing and commercialism around us, it shouldn’t be too much of a shock if we later find ourselves struggling with discontentment and the sins it spawns.

I’m sure you can think of more examples, but the pattern is always the same. It starts with something small – maybe even unwise instead of outright wrong. Then, when actual sin does happen, we excuse them. It’s just once, and no one got hurt anyway. Eventually, this grows into full-blown rebellion. I know what God says, but it’s just not that big of a deal – I don’t really care. The psalm writer describes the final outcome for the foolish person who gives their life over to ungodly behavior: “They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.  For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish!” Psalm 1:4-6 – NIV84). There are only two paths in life – righteousness and wickedness. Spiritual health, and sickness. With God, and without God. And only two destinations – heaven and hell. There are no other paths, there are no other destinations, and no one is exempt. Where do you want to be?

The answer is obvious, but the hard part is this: living in a sinful world we are surrounded by these little things that lead us off the path. You can think of the problem in terms of the challenges of caring for your physical health. It’s hard to cut back on coffee when you like the taste so much! It’s hard to stick to healthy eating you’re surrounded by delicious looking junk food. It’s hard to prioritize exercise when there are so many other things you enjoy to fit into your day! In a similar way, our sinful natures crave the ungodliness around us. We are surrounded by spiritual junk food, and it looks delicious. Life is filled with ungodly priorities, and they seem like so much fun. We know what we should do, but all too often we lack the willpower to succeed and actually do it! When faced with that reality and experience, the description of the wise child of God in the first half of Psalm 1 can feel like a tremendous burden. You and I could spend our whole lives striving for what’s described there, and we’d keep on falling short, wandering off the path again and again. But there’s more to the story than that.

Jesus Lives for You

When it comes to changing habits that affect physical health, a good strategy can be to find healthy things that bring you joy. Exercise can be hard to be sure, but if you find an activity you enjoy doing it’s a whole lot easier. In a similar way, Psalm 1 doesn’t describe the child of God avoiding sinful things in the world around by sheer resolve and willpower – that doesn’t work for sinful people like us. Instead, there’s something else in the picture, something far more enjoyable and extremely powerful. “But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:2 – NIV84). A better translation than the word “law” in this context would be the word “teaching.” His delight is in the teachings of the LORD, and on these teachings he meditates day and night. And why is that such a joyful and powerful thing? Because the teachings of God on the pages of scripture reveal an entirely different perspective on the health Christian described in Psalm 1. This isn’t a prescription for life that we have to fulfill – it’s a description of what God does in our lives through Jesus!

The teachings of the LORD in scripture explain exactly how that happened. God sent Jesus to live in our place, and Jesus did. He lived wisely every day of his life. He never wandered off the path, he never stood there, lingering around sinfulness. He never adopted a single sinful habit – not because he needed to earn something for himself, but because you and I needed someone to earn God’s favor for us. Then Jesus died so that we might be healed from that disease of sin, forgiven of all our sinful mistakes, and absolved of all our wicked habits in returned to the perfect spiritual health God wanted us to have from the start. With that good news, we too find delight in the teachings of the LORD, and when we make this teaching, this good news, a regular part of our life and thinking, when we meditate on it day and night, to use the psalm writer’s words, God works through that message to make us healthier and healthier spiritually, and that in turn changes our lives.

You Live for Jesus 

As a general rule, people who are blessed with good physical health have a greater capacity for physical work and productivity than those who are not. In the same way, when God blesses us with greater spiritual health that too is accompanied by a greater output of spiritual activity. The psalm writer describes it in terms of a tree producing fruit, and it’s a great illustration. A tree doesn’t produce fruit because it tries harder or because it consciously decides to do so. It’s a far more natural process than that. A tree produces fruit because that’s what trees do. And the healthier a tree is, the more fruit it produces. The more water a tree gets, the more sun it receives, the more fruit it produces. The psalm writer says, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” (Psalm 1:3 – NIV84). God has replanted you and me by the spiritual waters of his teaching about Jesus, and he promises that such life-giving water will make us fruitful and productive spiritually. So, do you want to be a more godly spouse? A more faithful student? A more diligent worker? A more supportive friend? A bolder witness to your faith? Do you want to live your life in a wiser way spiritually? God promises that when we have regular contact with the good news about Jesus, when we delight in the teachings of the LORD, those are the kinds of things he brings about in our lives!

With that as the background, you and I can see what the wise and foolish paths before children of God. It would be a bit foolish if we were to expect that our spiritual health and fruitfulness to improve when we spend one hour a week surrounded by the teachings of the Lord and the other 167 hours surrounded by all kinds of other things. That would be a far cry from finding “delight in the teachings of the LORD, and meditating on them day and night!” But making a change of any sort is a journey that starts with a single step. So, as you leave today, and as you have in mind the opportunities God gives you to “find delight in the teachings of the LORD,” consider what little step you might want to take. And as you do that, don’t forget to boldly look forward to seeing the fruit God produces in your life as he keeps his promise and makes you healthier and heathier. It’s a wise course of action for a child of God, because it’s not based on your own discipline and effort, but on God doing what he promised to do, and that always works. Amen.