down by the riverside: a tree is planted by the stream

At the heart of Psalm 1 is a beautiful image – an image that I suspect will capture our imaginations this morning. In Psalm 1 we have this image of a tree that is planted by the water – in fact the Hebrew word means transplanted. We have an image here of a tree that is taken from some other environment – probably a dry environment – and is transplanted near a stream or a river. As that tree is transplanted, you can almost hear its sigh of relief – moisture passes into its root system and water begins the migration up to twig and stem and leaf. Life fills the tree. The tree breathes.

Before this week I didn’t know a lot about trees or about how they process water. And I still don’t know a whole lot about trees, but when I started looking at Psalm 1 I decided to do just a bit of exploring. It seems that the root system of a tree is able to generate some pressure to push water upward into a tree. But the pressure that the roots can generate is not nearly enough to push the water all the way up the trunk of the tree. It turns out that the movement of water up the tree is actually controlled at the top, in the leaves. There are tiny openings on the surface of leaves called stomata – and when those stomata open, water molecules evaporate slowly through the opening, and as water evaporates out of the opening – as water moves out of the leaf – it creates a negative pressure within the leaf and stem that draws a train of water, that pulls water up through the tree. So water isn’t pushed up from the roots – rather, water is drawn up from the leaves.

And of course it’s not just water that is drawn up through the tree in this way – but that water itself is carrying nutrients from the soil that are needed by the living parts of the tree. The water is carrying nutrients that help the tree to grow and to produce leaves and to produce fruit and seeds.Now an interesting question in all of this is what happens when water resources start to be depleted in the environment. What happens when things get dry? Well, in fact, when the soil and environment dry up, the stomata close up. Those tiny openings on the leaves close. There are actually cells called guard cells that lie alongside the tiny opening – and if conditions start to dry up, if there isn’t enough water in the environment – the guard cells will close the openings in the leaf surface in order to prevent water from evaporating out. In dry conditions, the tree goes into self-preservation mode – it tries to preserve water – the stomata close up so that water won’t evaporate out of the leaf and tree.

And of course we remember that when those tiny openings close, and water stops evaporating out of the leaf – which means you no longer have that negative pressure to pull up water and nutrients from the soil. If the situation of water stress persists, the tree may not be able to produce new leaves and fruit – if the water stress becomes too great there is also, of course, the possibility that the tree will die.

So here in Psalm 1 we have a tree that has been in dry context – a context of water scarcity – a situation of water stress. The trees stomata are closed up tight – the tree is preserving itself, keeping the water in – keeping the water from evaporating out – that tree is in no situation to produce new leaves or fruit. But then that tree is transplanted by a river, by a stream, by the water – and you can almost hear the tree breathe as the stomata open, and the exchange of gases begins again, and as water and nutrients are again pulled up, drawn up to twig and stem. You can almost hear the tree breath a sigh of relief as there is again the possibility for the production of new leaves and of fruit.

Psalm 1 points us toward the human life that we all want to live – it gives a picture of the human flourishing toward which we all reach out. The Psalm describes those who are “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all they do, they prosper.”

It is a picture of a fulfilled humanity – a picture of life lived in fullness, in joy – it offers a vision of a life that is productive and contributes to the well-being of the community and of oneself – it is a picture of life as we all want it. We all aspire to a life that is good and full. We all aspire to be that tree planted by the stream.

But who is this person – who is this person with a fulfilled life? Who is this person planted by the stream, and flourishing? What does the good life look like?

For the Psalmist the answer is given in the preceding two verses. I should point out that we aren’t using the translation we usually use, the NRSV, because that translation gets the poetry and images of this Psalm so very wrong. We are using, rather, the NIV. So we read in verses 1 and 2: “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners take, or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law night and day. They are like a tree planted by the stream…”

Looking at these words, and starting with verse one, we find a very interesting progression at work – the one who lives a fulfilled and flourishing life – a beautiful life – is one who does not walk, who does not stand, who does not sit. The one who lives a flourishing and beautiful life does not walk in wickedness, does not stand in sinfulness, does not sit with mockers. It’s an interesting progression from activity and action (walking) to a kind of settled and static mode (sitting). We can think about this in terms of the fact that in our lives it is so easy to slide into negative patterns of behaviour – over time to become settled with harmful ways of living.

Here’s a simple example – and one very much from our own time and context. A city engineer and a private contractor go out for a game of golf together – they walk 18 holes together, and as they walk off the 18th green the private contractor says to the city engineer: “Let me pay for this round.” A few weeks later, the private contractor and the city engineer find themselves standing together at a bar somewhere talking about how they could have an interesting relationship – you know, from time to time a little advantage for the city engineer and a little advantage for the private contractor. A few months later, the private contractor and the city engineer find themselves sitting together in someone’s office laying out a plan for who is going to get what percentage of the contracts, and who is going to get what percentage on the kickbacks. The have settled into a nice little system.

With destructive behaviour – with behaviour that exhibits deceitfulness or selfishness or betrayal of others in relationship – with destructive behaviour it often starts with a little conversation along the way – and then it becomes a little easier over time – and eventually you are into a settled and comfortable familiarity with those wrongheaded and hurtful habits. We go from walking in them, to standing in them – to sitting very comfortably with those habits.

The one who lives a flourishing life – the one who lives a beautiful and fulfilled life according to Psalm 1 – is the one who stops that progression at the outset. The one who lives a beautiful and fulfilled life is the one who refuses to let destructive habits take shape in heart and mind from the very beginning – who sees that our humanity as given by God requires something different.

Our character and our behaviour are shaped over time. And how easy to slide into a settled vindictiveness – how easy to slide into a settled pettiness – how easy to slide into a blindness to one’s own worth – how easy to slide into pride that holds others at a distance – how easy to slide into a preoccupation with the superficial things of life. The flourishing one – the one who is like a tree planted by the stream – is one who refuses to let him or herself be seduced into such a way of living and being. From the very outset, they refuse these inhuman and destructive ways of being and becoming.

But verse one only gives us half of the picture – the negative half of the picture, if you will. Those who flourish – they don’t do that. They don’t slide into such settled habits. That’s the negative side.

But there’s also a positive side of the picture, given in verse 2. The one who flourishes, we read – his delight is in the law of the Lord. The one who flourishes – she meditates on God’s law day and night. Delighting in the law. Meditating on God’s law.

Perhaps that doesn’t initially strike us as the way to a flourishing life. We aren’t a people who think that the law will lead to flourishing. Can we imagine delighting in the law – delighting in a rule book – delighting in the commands of God. Do this. Don’t do that. Perhaps it will be hard to get our heads around the possibility that we might meditate on God’s law day and night.

But we have to remember that the word in the background here is not “law” in the sense that we might think of it – the word in the background here is “torah”. He delights in torah. She meditates on torah.

The torah is a broader word than our narrow conception of law as rules and restrictions and commands. Torah is an expression of God’s relationship to his people – it probably means something more broad like God’s instruction or God’s teaching. It may refer to the first five books of the Old Testament – the Pentateuch, which is mostly the story of God’s encounter and relationship and covenant with his people.

Those who are planted by the stream – those who live a flourishing and beautiful life – are those who delight in the narrative of God with his people – are those who delight in the instruction God has given his people – are those who delight in the teaching that God has given his people. Those who live a flourishing and beautiful life are those who dwell with, and meditate on, and prayerfully reflect on the teaching of God and the narrative of God with his people.

This is the first Sunday in Lent. And it’s interesting that the New Testament lectionary text for today is the temptation of Jesus. And there is an important parallel between this Psalm we are looking at and the story of Jesus’ temptation. As you will recall, Jesus is fasting in the wilderness – in that dry place of hunger and alienation. And while he is in the wilderness, Satan comes to tempt him. There are three temptations thrown out at Jesus – each of which is actually a temptation to turn away from the path to which God the Father has called him.

Knowing the hunger of Jesus, Satan first tests him by saying: “If you are the Son of God, turn this stone into bread.”

In the second temptation, Satan invites Jesus to worship him – with the promise that Jesus will receive the kingdoms of the world as a reward.

 In the third temptation, Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and says to Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down – God will send his angels to save you.”

And what’s important for us is the way Jesus responds to these temptations – how he replies in the face of the temptation to walk, to stand, to sit in ways contrary to God’s desire for him. In each case, infact, Jesus responds by quoting from the scriptures of the Hebrew people – from the torah.

Tempted to turn a stone to bread Jesus answers; “Man shall not live by bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Tempted to bow down to Satan, Jesus answers: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” (Deuteronomy 6:13)

Tempted to thrown himself down so that God would send angels to deliver him, Jesus answers: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Deuteronomy 6:16)

Jesus knows the torah. Jesus knows the teachings of God. Jesus has spent time exploring and meditating on the narrative of God with his people. The torah shapes his life. In a position of vulnerability, in a position of stress and pressure, Jesus is sufficiently rooted in God’s instruction, Jesus is sufficiently open to the Spirit, that the words of that narrative come easily to his mind and heart. “His delight is in the law of the Lord; and on that law he meditates day and night.” Jesus is like a tree planted by the stream – even as he fasts and prays and makes himself vulnerable in the desert – his life is one of flourishing – he is the truly human one.

Returning to where we began today – returning to that longing we all share for human flourishing – returning to that desire we all have for a life that is fulfilled – here is our realization based on this Psalm. That Jesus is the embodiment of the torah. That Jesus is the personification of God’s instruction and teaching. That Jesus is the embodiment of God with us. And so the simple message is this: that he is the one on whom we are to meditate. He is the one who is to be our delight.

It’s not enough to turn away from settled and destructive habits. It’s not enough to turn away from dispositions that ultimately hurt ourselves and hurt others. We need something toward which we might turn. We need something to capture our imaginations and our hearts and our minds – to sustain our energy.

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners take, or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in Jesus the truly human one – and who meditates on the person and life of Jesus day and night. These ones will be like trees planted by the stream, yielding their fruit in season, their leaves never withering. In all they do, they flourish.”

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