Planted by the Waters (Psalm 1)

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When you travel through the Australian Outback, for hours all you see is desert or low, scrubby salt-bush. Every now and then you might find tall gum trees rising from the dry landscape. These trees are signs that there is water somewhere nearby. It might be a river or a waterhole or even an underground water source, but for trees to grow strong and tall, they need water to sustain them in the long, hot, dry Australian summers and droughts. Their presence tells us that there is water somewhere close for their roots to provide them with the goodness they need for life.

The ancient people of the Bible lived in a hot, dry climate like Australia. They knew how important water is for life. Plants or trees didn’t last long if they tried to grow a long way from a dependable water source like a river. For a tree to grow strong and produce the fruit that it was intended to, then it would have to be planted near water to give it what it needed to survive and thrive.

We can learn a lot from this image from Psalm 1 of a person who meditates on God’s word being like a tree planted along a riverbank. In lots of different ways, we can experience dry spells or droughts in life. When that happens, where do we go for strength, nourishment or hope? Where do we look for what we need to survive in this world and try to find what we need for life?

The promise of Psalm 1 is that when we are planted next to the life-giving water of God’s word, we will find everything we need to not just survive in life, but to thrive in even the driest times of life, and to produce the fruit that God wants to share with the world through us. When our roots go deep into God’s word and his promises to us through it, we will be like trees whose leaves never wither and are always fresh and green like a gum tree in the Outback. I know that the analogy is flawed because gum trees don’t produce fruit, so maybe it’s more appropriate to think about an apricot, apple or orange tree thriving in the middle of an Australian desert – can you imagine that? God’s promise to us in Psalm 1 is that no matter how things might try to suck the life out of us, when we are planted in God’s word with our roots going down deep into his love, grace and goodness, God will provide us with everything we need to have green leaves and produce delicious fruit in season.

At the heart of God’s word is the promise of his grace and love in Jesus. We can read God’s word as laws, rules and direction for our lives, but they are there to point us towards Jesus (Galatians 3:24). He is the source of a life which is stronger than the dry spells and droughts we go through, even stronger than death. When we read the Bible and hear the good that God promises to do for us and in us through Jesus, the Holy Spirit feeds and strengthens us, giving us everything we need for life in this world and the next (Romans 8:32). When we put our roots down deep into the good news of Jesus and draw on the grace and love of God for us in him, then the Bible gives us life to survive through and even thrive in every situation of life (Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18).

That’s why it is vital that we are meditating on God’s word daily. If I just water a plant every now and then it’s not going to be as healthy and the fruit won’t be as sweet as when I water it regularly. It’s the same with us. When we are planted near God’s word and it’s a part of our everyday life, it gives us what we need for life to the full (John 10:10). It also means that when the dry times come, when tragedy strikes or life gets really hard for any reason, we are already prepared. Trees which have roots that go deep into the soil have a much better chance of surviving a drought than those with shallow roots. When our roots are diving deeper into the goodness of God’s word every day, we are already drawing on its goodness and finding what we need to thrive and continue to produce the fruit of good works when the dry times of our lives come.

Psalm 1 says this comes through meditating on God’s word (v2). The word ‘meditation’ might make some people think of sitting cross-legged on a mat while we try to achieve inner peace. Meditation doesn’t have to look like that. We all meditate when we think about things, turning ideas and other thoughts over in our heads. We all think about things such as what we’re going to do, what we’re going to eat, what do other people might think about us, what people may have said to us or about us, and so on. The main question for us isn’t so much ‘Do we meditate?’ but ‘On what do we meditate?’

The art of Christian meditation is bringing what God says to us in his word into those thoughts, so that our focus is on what God says to us and about us. Being planted by God’s word might be carrying one word of God’s grace, love or peace from the Bible with us through our whole day. The way I do it is to read the verse of the day on a Bible app on my phone before I look at the weather or my email first thing in the morning. Or I’ll read a couple chapters of my Bible in my office before I turn on my computer. My goal is to find one piece of good news or one promise from God which I can carry with me. During the day, then, I go back to that verse, promise or piece of good news to give me God’s perspective on what’s going on, to filter what’s happening through God’s word or to find God’s goodness in Jesus through it. Meditation is about seeing the whole of our existence from God’s perspective, through the lens of God’s grace and love for us in Jesus.
Learning to meditate on God’s word isn’t just for professional ministers. It’s an art for all of Jesus’ followers to grow in so that we can be planted near God’s word like a tree by a billabong in the Outback, drawing on and finding life in the goodness of God in Jesus which we encounter through the Bible.

I know the difference being planted near a river can make to a gum tree in the Outback. Being planted near God’s word can make the same difference to our lives.

More to think about:

  • Why is it important for trees and plants to have a constant source or water? What happens if they don’t get regular water, especially during hot, dry summers or droughts?
  • What are some things that can cause people to experience ‘dry periods’ in life? What are some of the ‘dry spells’ you’ve experienced in your life?
  • Where did you go or what did you do to try to get through those dry spells? Did they help?
  • What do you think of God’s promise in Psalm 1 that we will find life when we are planted near & meditating on God’s word? Is that a difficult promise to believe? What do you like about that promise?
  • How do you go with reading your Bible? What might help you read your Bible more regularly?
  • How do you think you would go if you committed to reading your Bible every day, found one piece of good news or promise from God in your Bible, and then carried it with you through your day? Would that be easy or difficult for you? How might it help you find God’s goodness in your life during the day?
  • What are some other ways you might be able to be planted near God’s word to draw goodness from it to help you in your life?

Jesus’ Upside-Down Values (Matthew 5:1-12)

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What would you say a blessed life looks like?

A lot of the time we associate God’s blessings with good things in life, so we can often think that people who are attractive, healthy, successful or wealthy are blessed. From a human point of view, we might think that it is normal to understand being blessed as having a good, comfortable, or happy life.

Then we hear Jesus’ teaching as he begins his Sermon on the Mount and he seriously challenges our thinking about what being blessed looks. Instead of teaching that people who are attractive, wealthy or successful are blessed, he teaches that those who are blessed are poor in spirit, in mourning, meek or humble, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful to those who do wrong, pure in heart, working for peace, or persecuted for doing what is right. Then he concludes by looking at his disciples and saying that we are blessed when people persecute us because we are his followers (vv3-12).

To a worldly way of thinking, Jesus’ teaching seems upside-down. Jesus appears to be saying that the people who seem to be the least blessed by worldly standards are the ones who are actually blessed by God’s standards. Instead of wealth, beauty, or success being the measure of blessings in life, Jesus identifies the spiritually poor, the small, the timid and the selfless as those who are truly blessed by God.

The difficulty of preaching on this text is that we could look at each of these nine statements on their own and dedicate a message to each one. I don’t have the time or space to do that here, but would encourage you to spend time reflecting on the meaning of each one of these statements for yourself. Maybe we are feeling like we are spiritually empty, with nothing to give. Maybe we are mourning the loss of a loved one. Maybe we are hungry or thirsty for God’s righteousness or goodness, either for ourselves or for someone else. Maybe we are working for peace in a relationship, or we are suffering in some way for being followers of Jesus. Whatever it might be, how do Jesus’ words speak to you?

Because the good news of this teaching is that when we don’t feel blessed, or when we look at others and they appear to be more blessed by worldly standards than we are, then Jesus is saying that we can still find God’s blessings in life. In each of these upside-down statements, Jesus gives a promise – that God will provide what we need. We are really blessed when Jesus’ words describe our situations because we are in positions to recognize and receive God’s grace. God gives his Kingdom to those who have nothing to offer. He comforts us who mourn with the promise of Jesus’ resurrection and victory over death. He will lift up all who are humble or put down in life. He will provide his righteousness through Jesus for us when we are hungry or thirsty for it. He purifies our hearts by forgiving us our sins for Jesus’s sake so we can live in ways that are pure and good. He establishes peace with us through Jesus so we can work for peace in our relationships and in the world. When we are persecuted, either for doing right or for following Jesus, Jesus suffers with us and promises us that we will still be standing with Jesus when the suffering ends.

In all these things, we are blessed when we recognize our need for God. In his grace, God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves and gives us what we need most of all as a free gift for the sake of Jesus and by the power of his Spirit. In this grace, we are called to live by an upside-down set of values in the world. In a culture that values things like wealth, success, beauty and happiness, being followers of Jesus means valuing people who align with Jesus’ blessings. We are to value those who are spiritually empty, mourning, humble, hungry or thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers or persecuted, whether Christian or not, over what the world values. Valuing them means taking the time to be with them, prioritizing them, giving them the value that Christ gives them so that God’s blessings flow through us to them and they encounter what Jesus promises in us.
This week, then, as we explore discipleship, we can think of being Jesus’ followers like this:

Discipleship is…
… finding God’s blessings in ways that are radically different to the world.

This doesn’t come easy because it goes against our culture and our human nature. However, when we find the freedom to be honest with ourselves about our need, when we find our need provided for in Christ Jesus, and when we commit to live in the way he teaches, we find what it means to be truly blessed, even when life is difficult or challenging.

Over the next three weeks, we will be following Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount as we explore discipleship and what it means to live as Jesus’ followers. Like his teaching on being blessed, Jesus’ other teachings will challenge us and at times make us uncomfortable. However, as we explore them and put them into practice in our lives, Jesus promises that we will find God’s blessings in our lives, no matter what our circumstances may be.

More to think about:

  • What would you say a ‘blessed life’ looks like?
  • Does Jesus’ teaching on who is really blessed sit well with you? Or does Jesus’ teaching challenge your ideas of what it means to be blessed by God? Can you explain why?
  • As you read Matthew 5:3-12, with whom might you identify the most – the poor in spirit? those who mourn? the meek or humble? those who hunger & thirst for righteousness? the merciful (or those who need of mercy)? the pure in heart? those who work for peace? the persecuted? How can Jesus’ teaching be good news & give you hope in your situation?
  • How might Jesus’ words about who is truly blessed by God challenge you to make a difference in your life? (eg being more humble, extending mercy to someone, making peace with someone with whom you might be in conflict, etc)
  • If Jesus teaches that we are blessed when people persecute us for following Jesus, are you prepared to live as Jesus’ disciple, no matter what the cost? Why/why not?