Don't be chaff; don't be bonsai

Psalm 1

6 January 2008

Woodley Baptist Church

Evening service


What do these people have in common: Kylie Minogue, Michael Parkinson, Des Lynam, Stuart Rose (boss of Marks and Spencer), Jasper Conran, Brendan Foster and England rugby coach Brian Ashton?

Answer: along with 965 other people, they were all awarded an honour in the Queen's New Year honours list. These are the people who have been deemed this year to have lived significant lives, so she has blessed them with an honour: KCMG, MBE, OBE and all of that.

You no doubt have your own views on the significance or otherwise of these people. But the real question I want to consider is, what would God's new year honours list look like? Who are the people he chooses to honour? Whom does he think is living a significant life? Whom does God choose to bless?

Psalm 1 gives us an answer to these questions. It holds up for us a portrait of the person blessed by God. And the question it poses for us is, do we want that blessing ourselves?

Actually the psalm holds up two pictures for us. It shows what a life is like that is blessed by God, and it shows us what a life is like that is not blessed by God.

The person who is blessed, it says in verse 3, is like a tree. [Picture: this is a very significant tree - it is the so-called Hitachi tree, and my company is currently paying $400,000 a year for the exclusive rights to use its image for promotional purposes. The tree is better paid than I am! Anyway...]

The man or woman who is blessed by God has, according to the psalm, a rooted life, a substantial life, a significant life. God takes him and plants him, and he survives and prospers. He is fruitful and a blessing to others. He survives trouble and prospers and grows.

Note that it is God's blessing that makes him rooted and significant. It is God who takes this life and plants it. With the Queen's new year honours, it is those who are already deemed significant who are honoured. With God it is the other way round. It is God's blessing that makes this life significant.

On the other hand, those who don't receive God's blessing are described in verse 4. They are like chaff. [Picture: chaff blowing away]

The contrast could not more more striking, could it. What is more useless, more insignificant than chaff? The farmer throws the grain high into the air; the grains of wheat fall to the ground, and a breath of wind blows the away the chaff, the rootless, weightless husks.

On the one hand we are presented with a picture of a significant life: a tree rooted and solid and prospering. On the other we have a picture of a wasted life: weightless chaff dispersed by the wind. One results from a life blessed by God; one is a life without God's blessing.

Which is the life you want?

It's a stupid question isn't it? Who wants to be chaff, living a wasted, weightless life? But that is the choice the vast majority of people in the world have made for one reason or another. So perhaps it's not such a stupid question.

How not to be Chaff (v. 1)

Assuming we don't want our lives to be chaff, verse 1 of this psalm tells us what we need to do.

Psalm 1, verse 1 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.ref

By nature we are all these things: the heart of every one of us from the day we were born is wicked and sinful and mocking. We don't come into this world with hearts that love God; we come into this world with hearts that reject him. We want to live our own lives; we certainly don't want God telling us what we can and cannot do! We are by nature proud, self-centred and opposed to God, every one of us.

However, the person who is blessed has made a decision. He has decided: no, I'm no longer going to go the way of those who oppose God. I'm not going to associate with the wicked; I'm not going to adopt the lifestyle of sinners; I'm not going to join in with the mockers. I'm going to turn away from these things. It's what the Bible calls repentance: a decisive turn away from sin, and towards God.

If you've done that, then you have God's blessing! He has planted you and rooted you. You are no longer chaff to be blown away, but your life now has significance.

[Next picture: tall trees]

In the letter to the Ephesians in the New Testament it says, Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.ref This is the blessing the psalm describes. If you want a real tonic for your souls this evening then go home and read Ephesians chapter 1, where the Apostle Paul goes on to spell out what it means to be blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

But please understand that we don't to do anything to achieve this blessing. We haven't earned it in any way, and we can't earn it in any way. Our being blessed does not depend on what we have done, but what Jesus has done. As Ephesians 1 says, we receive every spiritual blessing in Christ. In this way it is not like the Queen's honours list: we are only honoured by God because he honours Jesus, and we are in Jesus if we come to him.

So, verse 1 of the psalm tells us how not to be chaff. When we make a decisive break with sin and turn to him, God blesses us. Now we are rooted like a tree, rather than blown away like useless chaff.

How not to be Bonsai (v. 2)

Now, if verse 1 tells us how not to be chaff (make a decisive break with sin and turn to God), then verse 2 tells us how not to be bonsai. This is my second heading: 1. How not to be chaff, 2. How not to be bonsai.

Let me explain! The picture the psalm holds up for us in verse 3 is of a tree deeply rooted. Verse 3 says that the one who is blessed like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.ref

Healthy, strong and tall, this tree is well-nourished and fruitful. It is mature and evergreen. It can cope easily with drought and storms when they come.

So, really, the church should be like a forest of mighty trees.

Why, then does today's Christian church so often seem more like this ... [picture: bonsai trees].

These are bonsai trees. They are certainly rooted, but their growth has been stunted. Their roots are deliberately constricted. They have been starved of nutrients to the extent that they are perfectly formed, but miniature. They ought to be tens of feet high, but they barely make ten inches.

Bonsai trees are high maintenance. They need frequent watering and feeding because their roots are so shallow. They are not strong: any little gust of wind will blow these trees down. They might be cute, but they are not going to bear any useful fruit.

Is it too strong a statement to say that the twenty-first century western church largely consists of bonsai believers? We may be planted and rooted because we've taken the first step and turned away from sin, but somehow we don't yet resemble the tree of verse 3: planted by streams of water, yielding fruit in season, drought resistant, prospering in all we do.

Why is it that the church today more closely resembles a bonsai nursery than a forest of mighty trees? Well, just like the bonsai, we are starved of nutrition.

About the blessed person, verse 2 of the psalm says his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of waterref.

God has planted us by streams of water. All the nourishment we need to grow into mighty, solid, fruitful, enduring trees is there. But we remain stunted because we are failing to push our roots down into the goodness and suck up what we need in order to grow.

And what we need to grow is simply the word of the Lord. The Psalmist calls it "the law of the Lord" because his Bible would have been basically just the first five books that we have: Genesis to Deuteronomy, traditionally called the books of the law. In our much bigger Bibles, we have so much more of God's word to delight in!

The Psalmist urges us to push our roots deeply down into the word: to meditate on it day and night.

For us, I think, the word "meditate" evokes a picture of passivity: of sitting still, in peace and quiet with our eyes closed. And certainly that has its place in our feeding on God's word. But surely only monks could meditate like this day and night!

But actually, the word the Psalmist uses for meditate is much more active: it really means to mutter, to make a sound, to talk to oneself.

The Christian grows to maturity by teaching himself God's word. Day and night he builds it into his life. Constantly reminding himself of the promises of God, the character of God, the acts of God. This is nourishment. This is where we need to sink our roots: deeply into the Bible.

The promise of the psalm is that as we do so we will find real delight there. Bible reading is not like learning multiplication tables or irregular French verbs. As we learn to do it, it delights us more and more, because it is the voice of a friend speaking to us.

Obviously the devil doesn't want us to experience this! He wants to keep our growth as stunted as possible. So we need to build strategies and ways to keep our roots in the Bible. We have to expect that it's going to be a struggle.

[Picture: big tree again]

One reason I was keen to preach on this psalm at the beginning of the year is that I hope that some of you will have resolved to read the Bible daily for yourselves during the year. And I simply want to encourage you at the start. A recent survey says that one-third of people will have given up their new year resolutions by the end of January, and only one in five will keep them to the end of the year.

There will be times when your Bible reading doesn't seem to delight you, when it simply seems a slog. And I want to encourage you at those times to turn to Psalm 1 and remind yourself what the goal is: to grow into maturity, deeply rooted, drought resistant and fruitful. We will never get there unless our roots are deep in God's word.

But it's not just about our quiet times. We need both breadth and depth of nourishment from the Bible. Verse 2 encourages us both to "delight" in its truths, and remind ourselves of them constantly: "meditating day and night" in the language of the psalm.

As I said earlier, meditation doesn't necessarily mean silent pondering, but it means reminding ourselves of Bible truths amidst all our daily activity.

I thought it might be useful to share with you some ideas from our family life as to how we try to improve the breadth and depth of Bible input in addition to our daily "quiet times". You mustn't think we've got it sorted — the devil would love my proud heart to think that! We're only little trees, but we long to grow, and you may find one or two of these things helpful. I've got seven ideas to share: it's not an exhaustive list; I know you will have more ideas.

1. We learn memory verses together. I learnt quite a few verses when I became a Christian over 20 years ago, but in later years barely learnt any. It's been great to revive the habit recently with our children who are really good at it. Memory verses are the real swords of the Spirit that David talked about this morning. They so often pop up just when you need them.

2. We sometimes have Christian music on. This needs care: quite a lot of the so-called Christian music out there has about as much to do with the Bible as the Spice Girls do, so it's not much help. But I got a new Stuart Townend CD last week which is fantastic, and the kids love to listen to Colin Buchanan who is a brilliant Australian performer and does loads of Bible songs.

3. On my desk at work I have a Proverbs desk diary with a quote from the book of Proverbs for each day of the year. A scripture screen-saver for your computer would be another option. You can also get daily Bible readings delivered to your email in-box. I read Bible-related websites and blogs on the Internet most days.

4. Recently I've been listening to sermons in the car. Other people like to listen to recordings of the Bible itself. Over the last four months I've listened to 76 sermons from one preacher on the book of Romans - only 150 to go! Christian radio may be another option for you.

5. Christian reading is very important. I try to read at least one Christian book for each secular book or novel I read. Like Christian music, so-called Christian books can sometimes have little to do with the Bible, so it's important to be discerning. I also subscribe to a monthly Christian magazine called the Briefing, which has some great articles about how the Bible works out in the world we live in.

6. Talking to people about our Bible reading is very important! If I have a good insight from my daily reading I often try to tell somebody about it: either Penny or the kids, or send a friend an email. I know a vicar who each week makes a stack of cards with his Bible verse of the week written on each one, and he gives it out to everyone he meets that week, Christian or not Christian, and sees if there is a chance to discuss it with them.

7. For increasing my depth of delight in the Bible there's no substitute for actual Bible study. For me this largely revolves around sermon and homegroup study preparation. But when there's nothing particular to prepare for I still try to have some kind of study on the go in addition to my daily reading.

So, there are some ideas how to increase the level of Bible nourishment in our lives in the Spirit of Psalm 1. Perhaps there are some things there that you can use, and I'm sure you have plenty of ideas of your own. The important thing is to make sure we are putting our roots down deeply into the word, however we do it.

I mustn't neglect to remind you, of course, that the most important thing of all is to put it into practise, as David reminded us again this morning. Jesus gives us a similar contrast to the picture we have in this Psalm of weightless chaff and rooted tree. He says we can either build our lives on sand or rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practise is like a wise man who built his house on the rockref. Building God's word into our lives is a constant process of applying what we've read to what we are doing, 24 by 7.


[Last picture: a forest]

To summarise all that I've been saying this evening: Psalm one verse 1 and 2 show us two things.

Verse 1 shows us how not to be chaff. If we don't want to waste our lives they need to be rooted by God; planted as trees. The only way this can happen is if we make a decisive break from sin and turn to God. It is tragic that so many millions of lives are utterly, utterly wasted. Just chaff blowing in the wind when they ought to be full of the weighty glory of God. If you know that that's your life then please don't leave here tonight without doing something about it.

Verse 2 shows us how not to be bonsai. Bonsai believers are easily overwhelmed by troubles that they ought to be towering above. It distresses me deeply that so many Christians seem to be content to remain stunted and weak, too easily shaken by events in their lives, missing out on so many of the blessings of God. I'm preaching to myself here as well, you understand! During the good times we need to push our roots deep into the word of God, then the promise of the Psalm is that we will grow tall and strong and able to withstand any storm when it comes.

So, I felt I ought to preach on Psalm 1 tonight to encourage you at the start of a new year to go on putting your roots deep down into God's word. I hope that you are encouraged by Psalm 1. I hope you will turn back to it often to remind yourselves of the trees we strive to be. It is my prayer that everyone of us this year will understand more deeply all the blessings we have from God. Amen.