I well remember on being on watch many years ago at sea during the night. To break the monotony, I burst into a song. For some now forgotten reason – it was ‘rock of ages’. Frank, our Chaplain, happened to be on the Bridge at the time and remarked in jest– Graham – you stick to your songs and I will stick to mine.
But the psalms are really everyone’s songs. For it is highly possible they were sung in parts at the temple of Jerusalem long before Christ. They have been sung in worship over theses last 2000 year. We even sang a rather difficult setting of one of them just last week at the General Assembly. It seems then that we need to hear the psalms not just as prose but as poetry, as lyrics as indeed music designed to stir the heart and soul as well as the mind.
And what better place to start the music than at the beginning with Psalm 1?
Now it has to be said that we could spend a month of Sundays studying this work alone due its richness of language and imagery. So let’s narrow into what we can valuably explore in this hour. Let us focus in on the wider picture given by the psalmist. Let us grapple will the fruits of the tree planted by the stream.
Of course, to us in rainy Scotland, the sight of some scrawny bush surviving on a heather-clad moorland by a brackish burn is very common. But such a phenomenon was very rare in the land of the Psalmist. For the Holy Land has always been challenged for water; in fact much of heart of the problems over that divided region today lies in the access to this scarce resource.
And so we need to ponder what is the cause of another type aridity today’s modern Britain?
In general, it is not material lack albeit there is poverty around. It is usually not a shortage of things to do or watch or read. It is not even paucity of ideas and opportunities of expression.
Instead, it is quite the reverse. It is the almost irresistible allurement of the vast riches of attractions. It is the constant movement of interest for one mental bauble to the next. Indeed, it is often our ill-discipline of mind that prevents us staying focussed on one thing for more than a second.
Therefore, the concern provoked by Psalm 1 is how to survive in the most desolate of spiritual places. It is how to our souls can thrive in acres of distraction. How in fact do we live a fulsome and rewarding life in a landscape that seems literally without God.
And the answer is to realise that even in this glitteringly unproductive environment that the spirit is close at hand, Christ is indeed just beside us and that God is just below us as the foundation of our being.
Therefore, to be spiritually refreshed, we need to do nothing. We need to be still in our very being. We need to let our roots sink deep into divine sustenance. Since then alone will be sure to drink from living waters that freely flows from the Holy Spirit. Or as Psalm 46 has is:
God is our refuge and our strength
An ever-present help in trouble
Be still and know that I am God
I will exalt you among the nations
I will exalt you in the earth
To illustrate my point, let’s take that reading from Mark.
In it, we heard that Jesus had just started his ministry and was encouraged by the positive response of his first disciples. Yet now he had a daunting responsibility for them. Not least for their safety in an occupied land under a self-serving administration. He had also found the power to heal physically, mentally and spiritually. However that had brought fame and even more demands on his time and talents.
His answer to these competing forces of attraction was to be still – be still in a solitary place of focus and be still and know that God was God.
And as a result, he moved forward to be the universal saviour and not just a small town celebrity. Fruit had indeed flourished in an adverse place.
Few people would call the village of Woodstock near Oxford an arid place. It lies at the gates of that world heritage site which is the huge Blenheim Place. Its streets then are always crowded tourists and its well to do bistros never seem to lack customers for their high prices. I know all this because one of our favourite caravan sites lies a mile away.
Well one warm day, last summer, I took a walk into Woodstock and meandered through its lanes. As is often the way in my holidays I was restless in my contemplation of what we as a congregation should be doing next. It was then I chanced upon the village church hidden from the madding crowd in a leafy yard up a honey-stoned byway. I entered and in its ancient silence sat and was still. Without a sound I suddenly knew refreshment, I knew again certainty to risk new ways and I knew in my quietness that for me, for you and for St Luke’s – God was God. I left ready to travel on!
Today more than ever we need to say to ourselves in life’s hurly burly – let me be still. We need consciously to give ourselves over to moments of tranquillity, of open spirituality and infinitely godliness. We need to force ourselves to focus not on the world that is beckoning us but the sustaining divine that we are rooted in. Because it is he who gifts fruits in this dry season, it is he who awards leaves that do not wither and it is he alone who allows us to prosper along the quiet lane of righteousness.