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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Goodness and Mercy (Psalm 23.6)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; October 30, 2016
Text: Psalm 23:4; Psalm 136

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
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:: Scripture and Music ::
Call to Worship: African Psalm, choir (Johnson)
Hymn of Praise: Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (LOBE DEN HERREN)
Song of Praise: Good Good Father (Barrett, Brown)
Offering of Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Sending: Merciful God (Getty/Townend)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Today we come to the end of our series on Psalm 23. This wonderful Psalm portrays God as our Shepherd, one who provides, protects, and guides us if we heed His voice. We have seen that God not only leads us to green pastures, but walks with us in the valley of deep darkness, even death. In this Psalm we also see God as Host, setting a table for us and giving us more spiritual blessings than we could expect or need. Today we look at the last verse of the Psalm: “Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (v. 6) This verse ties together several themes that run through the 23rd Psalm. We’ll look at those and then end with an assignment that I think will be helpful to you.

Blessings Follow the Followers of God

One of the things that struck me in this final verse was the idea that goodness and lovingkindness will follow me. This whole Psalm has been about me following God’s voice – the sheep hearing the Shepherd’s voice. So it’s a big of a turnaround to now use “following” language to talk about the Lord’s blessings. We’ve moved from the blessing of the table back to sheep/Shepherd language. On top of that, we’ve already wrestled a bit with the notion that being a Christian means “pleasant pastures” for the rest of my life. We talked about how even the sheep and Shepherd were on a journey from one pasture to the next, often with difficult paths in between.

The missing piece here is that “goodness and lovingkindness” are shorthand for God, Himself. These are not just the blessings of God, but the very character traits of God, Himself. Both words are used to describe God or God’s deeds a couple hundred times in scripture. The word ‘goodness’ is tov, as in mazel tov, as in God created the heavens and the earth and it was tov/good…. God created the plants and trees and it was tov/good… God saw all that He had made and it was tov/good. The work of God’s hands, whether in creation or salvation is tov/good. And ‘lovingkindness’ is a word we have talked about before: hesed. It is the incredibly rich word that means faithful love, compassion, mercy, and more. It is one of the most-used descriptions of the character of God given in the Bible. While “goodness and lovingkindness” are blessings to us, they are more than that, they describe the very presence and activity of God in our lives.

How can this be? Aren’t we following after God, the Shepherd? How is God also following us? While it is hard to understand, it is a reminder that God is bigger than we can imagine, certainly bigger than we are. God’s presence and power and blessing are so comprehensive that they indeed can go ahead of us and follow after us. The Irish understood this. In numerous Celtic prayers you will hear lines like “God before us, God behind us, God above us, God under us.”

Then there is also what is easier to understand: blessings follow the followers of God. If we are walking in God’s perfect will, God’s BEST for us, then we will experience the fruit or the consequences of obediently following. If you are in relationship with the one who loves you, if you listen to the Word of your Shepherd and follow His voice, you will experience that love – it will “follow after you.”

And it is all summed up in the final phrase: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Ultimately this is not about good things for me, or me at all; rather it is about finding a home with God. An alternate reading of that final phrase picks up on the return/repent aspect of “restores me soul” from earlier in the Psalm. We are returning home with God because God has sought us out and rescued us. It’s finally all about God’s good and gracious love to rescue us and bring us home.

For His Name’s Sake, revisited

For that reason, this final verse revisits something we talked about several weeks ago in verse 3. There, God’s restoration and guidance are described as “for His name’s sake,” that is, bringing glory to God’s name. And here at the end, we are reminded again that all of this shepherding and hosting activity, all this saving activity, all this grace and mercy and lovingkindness, are a demonstration of who God is. And in being and doing all these things, God is shown to be God, shown to be good, shown to be merciful and gracious.

What Psalm 23 describes, in a poetic metaphor, is the very story of the Bible, the story of God. We, who have wandered and strayed like lost sheep, are nonetheless cared for and pursued by a loving Shepherd whose intent is to lead us home. And each time God does that, it demonstrates to the world that God is good and God is merciful; and invites others to hear His voice and come home as well.

That is why it is so helpful and important to tell the story of what God has done in your life. God uses those stories to help other people hear His voice and experience His love. I’m hoping we will hear some of these stories in December as we hear Jesus’ call to “come, follow me.”

Psalm 136 Assignment

Finally, I mentioned that I have an assignment for you out of today’s text. It is simply this: set aside 10 minutes this week (or even better, today), and make a list of how you have experienced God’s goodness and lovingkindness. That’s what Psalm 136 is. It is a listing of what God is like and what God had done in the life of the people of Israel. And so it begins with God, who is good, who is above all powers, who created the earth. And this is not just glossed over with “God made the earth” but some time is taken to walk through that… God does great wonders… made the heavens with skill… spread out the earth above the waters… made the great lights… and so forth. Then, in the part we didn’t read, the work of God in rescuing his people from slavery in Egypt is described, in similar detail: He overthrew the Egyptians, He brought Israel out, He divided the Red Sea, and so forth.

Here’s the assignment: write your own Psalm 136. Maybe just come up with ten statements of what you know God to be like… personally, that you have experienced. And some of that can be specific things God has done. So some of who God is and some of what God has done – in YOUR life. And in-between each line, do what Psalm 136 does: add the phrase “for His lovingkindness is everlasting.” And when you are done, pray that out loud. Save it and pray it every day for a week. (If you are inclined, send me a copy; I’d love to see your personal Psalm 136!)

There is something about remembering, naming, and giving thanks that is very powerful. And we so seldom take time to do any of those things. But try it – ten lines, add “for His lovingkindness is everlasting,” and pray it for a week. I think you’ll be surprised at the encouragement it brings (and maybe some other things as well!).

Let’s finish by re-reading the end of Psalm 136. This time, I’ll ask you to read the first line and I’ll offer the response:

[To Him] Who remembered us in our low estate,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
And has rescued us from our adversaries,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting;
Who gives food to all flesh,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
Give thanks to the God of heaven,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

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