The past week or so I have been focused on Psalm 1, because I was preparing the sermon I preached on Sunday at my church. My apologies for not sharing Mark reflections over the past few days! But for a bit more inspiration to make daily Bible study a part of your life, here is the manuscript of my sermon. I pray it encourages you. I’ll be back to sharing Mark reflections tomorrow!
Trees Planted By Streams of Water (Psalm 1, Psalm 119:105)
In 2005, I spent the summer teaching English in the far west of China. I was working in a city in the Xinjiang autonomous region, and the people I was with were called the “Uighur” people. As I’ve shared here before, the Uighur people are a Turkic Muslim people classified by missiologists as “unreached” with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Less than one percent of the Uighurs are known to be Christians, and when I was there, there were no known Christian churches among the Uighurs. While I was in their city, I met with a missionary who was working there on behalf of a Bible translation team. They were working to translate the Bible into the Uighur language. They had done most of the New Testament and the Psalms, and they were beginning to translate the rest of the Old Testament.
Holding the portions of scripture that would become the first Uighur language Bible was a profound—I would even say life-changing—moment for me. I had grown up with Bibles in my home. I got my first Bible when I was in second grade, and by the time I was in China at age 30, I probably had six or seven Bibles on my book shelf. I had the NIV, ESV, NRSV, Good News Bible, I even had a Spanish Bible! But here in front of me were people who had never read the Bible and didn’t even know that it existed.
Suddenly, something I had just always had access to became a precious commodity in my mind. And I began to treasure the word of God in a new way.
Faith in Christ—saving, redeeming faith— comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:10-17 ESV)
And these folks—these missionaries—were working to make the word of Christ available to a whole people group that had previously had no access to God’s word. My sister-in-law is working for a Bible translation ministry in Asia. She has devoted her life’s work to making the Bible available to others.
So that brings me to today’s scripture passage, which speaks of the relationship between how we feel about and engage with God’s word, and the condition of our lives:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but 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 water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1 ESV)
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)
I have put behind me a visual aid for today’s message: two pictures of trees. The trees on the left are drought-stressed trees. They are severely under-watered. The trees on the right are planted by a river.
In this psalm, the word that is translated as “man” in verse one does not simply mean “men” and it doesn’t even just mean “people.” The word that says “man” here in the original Hebrew actually referred to a righteous person. A man or woman who is identified as righteous—a follower of God. And the psalmist draws this parallel: righteous people are like trees. When they delight in the word of God and meditate on the Word of God day and night, they are like trees planted by streams of water—yielding fruit. Their leaves don’t wither. They prosper.
So what about trees that are not by water? What about believers in God who do not delight in God’s word? What about righteous people who don’t meditate on God’s word day and night?
I did a little bit of research on what happens to trees when they are deprived of water. And here’s something I read:
Water deficits in trees have an adverse effect on many of the tree’s growth processes. Severe water stress will injure trees and may kill them. In addition, stressed trees are more vulnerable to insect and disease pests when compared to a healthy tree. (Diseases and insects prefer under-watered trees.) Hardwood trees display numerous symptoms related to water stress. Wilting of leaves is a common indication of water stress. Wilting can be classified as incipient, temporary, or permanent. Incipient wilting is not readily noticeable, but it can change to temporary wilting which is characterized by visible drooping of the leaves during the day. At night the plant will rehydrate and recover from temporary wilting. During prolonged dry periods, temporary wilting can change to permanent wilting where the plant does not recover during the overnight period. Permanently wilted plants may recover when water is added to the soil, but prolonged permanent wilting usually kills most species of plants.
So we have two examples of trees: one is strong, healthy, fruit-bearing. The other is weak, vulnerable to disease, and non-productive. And the question I have is, if trees are a metaphor of the people of God, what kind of trees do we want to be?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that everyone in the room would say, “I want to be strong, healthy, and I want my life to bear good fruit.”
Well, it starts here, with God’s word. Being poured out into our lives, into our hearts, into our minds day by day. For every season of life, there are scripture passages that can teach and encourage and comfort and correct us. If we read it.
This passage makes a case for daily, meaningful engagement with scripture. But what might that look like? Some of you might already have a practice of regular Bible study and meditation, and if that’s you, I would simply like to encourage you to keep it up. Perhaps my message today will simply fan the flame that is already ablaze within you.
But for those of us who are not currently spending time devoted to the study and application of God’s word, I’d like to offer a few suggestions. How can we go about making Bible study part of our daily live?
This became very real for me in the past year and a half. Before I got married, I was, for years, engaged in regular Bible study. But after I got married and moved and started my new life here in Seattle, through no fault of Karl’s, I found myself struggling to make time for Bible study. I don’t know if I wasn’t motivated or just had too many new things to juggle, but for over a year, I was out of touch with God’s word. And I could feel it! And it wasn’t until about two months ago that I started again. So I’m someone who needs this message—this reminder—often.
So if our goal is what the Psalmist calls “meditating on the law day and night,” where do we start?
First, it doesn’t matter what time of day you read the Bible. Try it a few different ways and see what seems to be best for you. I have been in places where speakers have insisted that morning Bible study was somehow better than afternoon or evening study, but that simply isn’t true. Some people are sharper in the morning, or are natural early risers. What matters is that it happens!
Second, I suggest following a plan. To just sit down and open the Bible to any passage and start reading is fine, but I find that I’m much more likely to do it consistently if I have a plan. And I’ve heard from many others that we tend to get much more out of it if we read somewhat systematically. Depending on your personal preferences, and depending on how much time you have to spend each day, there are three ways of reading the Bible that I recommend.
The first is called the Five by Five by Five reading plan. I have made copies of this plan and they’ll be available after the service to anyone who wants them, on the back table as you leave. The premise of this plan is to spend five minutes a day reading a chapter or so of scripture, doing it five days a week, and using ways to dig deeper into the passage. This is a great tool for any of you who are out of the habit of reading the Bible regularly. It does not take a lot of time, but keeps you consistently plugged in to scripture in a really meaningful way.
The second way of reading the Bible I recommend is to read through the whole Bible in a year. I have also printed this tool out for you and it’s available in the back. Each day on this plan takes about thirty minutes and you’ll read about four or five chapters of scripture from four different sections of the Bible, including the old and new testaments. It’s a bit of a bigger undertaking, but at the end of this (and you can stretch it out longer than a year if you need to—no one is checking up on you!) you will have read every word of every story from Genesis to Revelation. If you’ve never done that, trust me when I tell you, you will be so surprised by some of the things you read. By reading through the entire Bible, we get a broad vision of the whole narrative of God’s plan for humanity. We get to see how we fit into God’s story.
The third way of reading the Bible is to simply go through a book a few verses or a chapter at a time. Read the verses, spend some time thinking about them and meditating on them, considering how those verses can teach you something for your life right here, right now. Currently, I’m chipping away at the book of Mark, reading a few verses every day and then writing out my mediations on a blog.
The goal is simply to spend time every day being nourished by God’s word. Whether it’s for five minutes or five hours, we need to be fed and nourished by scripture.
It’s not because we need to gain God’s favor. God loves us and accepts us and welcomes us into his home, around his table, whether or not we are faithful in our Bible study.
It’s also not to impress others. Our personal Bible study is between us and God. I hope we never feel like we need to study the Bible just so others will think we’re “good Christians.”
And it’s not to make us “more Christian.” A tree that is starved for water is still a tree. But it’s a weak tree. It is vulnerable to disease. It does not produce fruit, and it is not safe for others to climb—it cannot hold up those who need support.
A Christian who is not nourished regularly by the word of God is still a Christian—but she is a weak Christian, at best.
Christian living means living on the Word of God. We live on the Word of God. My dog was made to be nourished by a diet that includes meat. If all I gave Jonah to eat was greens, he would certainly not flourish, and he might even die. We are created to flourish spiritually on the word of God. And if we go weeks, months, and even years getting only one meal of scripture a week, when we come to church on Sunday mornings, we will be starving Christians.
A tree that is deprived of water is vulnerable to disease and erosion by insects. A Christian who is deprived of God’s word will be fragile and easily deceived and easily paralyzed by trouble and stuck in many mediocre ruts.
“Christian living means living on the written Word of God, the Bible. In true Christian living, our relation to the Word is intentional, not haphazard. It’s active not passive. We pursue it and don’t just wait for it to happen.” (Source: John Piper)
And after all this, I still find myself asking, “Why?” Why, in a very practical way, should we, the people of Mount View, be devoted to studying the word of God, not just together on Sundays and at a weekly home group, but day by day in our own personal devotional life?
Because, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the people of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)
Because the word of God is a lamp for our feet and a light for our paths. (Psalm 119:115)
Because Walter’s brother was pulling out of his driveway and was hit by a car and killed, and Walter needs to know what the Bible tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ESV) Walter, I know that you are grieving—but I also know that you are not without hope. And I pray that you are, indeed, encouraged to know the hope of Scripture—that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Your brother is saved.
We need to study the word daily because some people in this church are parents with small children. Kyle and Christina, Stephanie, Laura and Terry, Jess and Doug, Matt and Kim, and so many others here who are raising children—there will be days when you will simply be at the end of your rope. You will be frustrated and confused, not sure what you should do as a parent. You need to be reminded of Proverbs 22 and Ephesians 6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6 ESV)
“Parents, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4 ESV)
We need to study the word daily because many among us work in ministries among challenging communities—in schools, after-school care, youth ministries, etc. And these vocations can be, at times, quite frustrating and quite discouraging. Alex, Matt, Kari, John, Becky, Pat, Margot, Micah, Lori, Emily, and others: you need to hear these words from Galatians: “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:9-10 ESV)
We need to study the word daily because some of us are going through some really, really difficult times. Joblessness, broken relationships, financial needs, health issues. We need the assurance from Romans that “For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 ESV)
We need to study the word of God daily because every one of us in this room is a sinner who has fallen short and continues to fall short of the glory of God. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:5-10 ESV)
I could go on and on and on, listing specific scenarios along with the scripture passages that apply to them. But the bottom line is that for every season of life, the Bible has a nugget of truth to apply.
And we mine for those nuggets of gold only one way: by reading and meditating on and, yes, delighting in, the word of God.
Let’s be a people here at Mount View who delight in the God’s word. Let’s be people who devote ourselves to the study of God’s word, so that it will shape our minds and hearts and words and actions.
Let’s be trees planted by streams of water—yielding fruit in its season, never withering, and prospering in all we do.
So that we would be what the prophet Isaiah called “Oaks of righteousness for the display of God’s splendor.”