Last Thursday I saw a picture which made me smile. Someone had noticed in their town that the black and white sign telling everyone that they were outside a Polling Station had been placed next to another sign which read: “No sitting on the fence”. And when you listen to the `returning officer` read out the statistics of how people have voted it`s sad to hear how many people enter the Polling Booth and effectively sit on the fence by what we call `spoiling` their Ballot paper in various ways.
But I want us to think this morning about how fence-sitting in matters faith is equally prevalent. So, for example, just check out your reaction to these words of Jesus: ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony`. John 3.11
Now my hunch is that many of us here (and a good many others) would regard this rather categorical statement of Jesus as perhaps a little too certain for our liking. Essentially what I`m getting at is this rather categorical way in which Jesus speaks jars a little with some of us. In some circles scepticism and a degree of doubt is thought to be more acceptable and appropriate for the person of faith.
Some go so far as to wear this as a badge of sophistication. “Oh I`ve examined it all and there are arguments both ways”, is what they`ll say but the first thing I want to say is that it`s also more `convenient`. Fence sitting scepticism is more convenient because purporting to believe, for example in a largely un-knowable and somewhat distant deity where everything is left open to question leaves me in control of my religion. It leaves me free to indulge my appetite for religious fulfilment and experience; I can pursue what interests me in my search for meaning. It boils down to what one author described as `faith disguised as therapy`…Of course it`s all a bit dated. I mean, it`s very 1960`s- it`s all about ME learning to `express myself`.
But the point is that it`s so much easier, so much safer to talk `about` God; or to conjure up nice thoughts and ideas…. To turn worship into an artistic, aesthetic or entertaining experience and to dream of ideal circumstances or that perfect Church where praying would be so much easier and fulfilling. And we stay on the fence because we prefer this fantasy. We know that it`s much more of a challenge to as it were come off the fence and encounter a knowable God; to have to respond and give answer to him here and now. And I play this fence-sitting game because I know that getting off the fence means relinquishing the fantasy of control; a life of obedient response and the re-shaping of my life to His agenda in this less than ideal world in this less than perfect Church.
Now the antidote to fence-sitting is there right in the heart of our Bible in that collection of writings we call the Psalms. This Book of 150 songs, poems, praises, laments and protests were written by a people who knew that God had spoken and that human life is about coming off the fence and making a reply.
And generations of Christians have faithfully and regularly sung, chanted and prayed these words because they give us a vocabulary of prayer – a means of reply. These words shape our response; they keep us honest, rooted and earthed. They ensure that we come tumbling off the fence into a face-to-face encounter with the living God, not in some fantasy world of our choosing but in the here and now. And as you might expect, it`s the first Psalm that paves the way…….
1 Blessed are they who have not walked
in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the assembly of the scornful.
2 Their delight is in the law of the Lord
and they meditate on his law day and night.
3 Like a tree planted by streams of water
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither,
whatever they do, it shall prosper.
4 As for the wicked, it is not so with them;
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
So as to loosen our grip on the fence this Psalm gives us two things: a word and a picture. The Word is `Blessed` and the picture is that of a tree. The first thing we notice is a very stark contrast. The Psalm tells us by implication that the non-praying; non-replying world (which it calls `the counsel of the wicked`) is essentially all about pushing and shoving; it`s noisy and violent, anxious and demanding. This hardly needs saying of course. And the Psalm invites us to leave behind this ego-centric and anxious struggle and embrace a God-centred way of living. `Blessedness` is precisely this: a God-centred focus; the ordering of time (day and night) by the precepts of God.
In verse two it`s referred to as finding delight in the Law of the Lord but it`s worth remembering that the word that`s translated as `meditate` here is very interesting. In the book of Isaiah the same word is used to describe the way a Lion chews and gnaws on its captured prey. To talk of `chewing over` God`s Word hardly does it justice…. we`re talking here of ripping flesh and crunching of bones and getting to the marrow. And of course all of this is contrasted with what`s called `the way of the wicked`. We`re told that those who `walk` in this way are on the slippery slope. `Walking` here is a traditional metaphor for describing the path we follow or the way we go about making moral choices.
So we hear of the downward spiral that results….. walking in the counsel of the wicked, (leads to) lingering in the way of sinners, (which results in) sitting (becoming established) in the assembly of the scornful. `They are` says the Psalm `like chaff which the wind blows away`.
And it`s then that we`re given the Picture. The writer likens the `Blessed` to a tree planted by streams of water. The word used here literally means `transplanted`. What we need to remember here is the story of Israel`s time of Exile in Babylon. It`s thought that the Psalms may have been gathered together during that time and they served as a support for the people`s praying during that difficult time.
Now Babylon was known for the single river flowing through it with irrigation channels to feed the crops; and what the writer does is very observantly to draw an analogy. The tree finding nourishment from those irrigation channels in the desert is the transplanted and exiled people of God. Again, the people of Israel were at rock bottom. All their familiar landmarks had gone. Yes, they longed for whom but transplanted as they were they wold find nourishment for their faith; they would be sustained in exile as they shaped their lives around the Word of God. Hope was lost and they longed for home. You`ll recall the familiar Psalm 137
“By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
You see that was the question. How could faith not only survive but thrive in such a situation? They didn`t believe they could pray or continue as God`s people in these circumstances ……but they did. It`s a simple point but the people of Israel had to learn from bitter experience that their God was not like the God`s of the heathen; for example carved in stone and significantly limited to a particular geographical location.
The writer of this Psalm looked under his very nose for a picture to describe how God would nourish his people; be present with his people even in their exile. He offers no fancy ideas or doctrine and no fantasy… just a tree. Right from the start this Psalm confronts the foolish thought that we might pray better if circumstances and if `things` were somehow better arranged. Right from the start this Psalm (and all the others) insists that God meets us not in abstractions, fantasy or when I`ve got my life sorted out but in our lived experience; the mess of life; the often raw stuff of life; the places where we come off the fence; have our feet on the ground and where we are most honest to God.