Text: Psalm 23:2b-3a
:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
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:: Scripture and Music ::
Sung Call to Worship: Prepare the Way (Evans/Nuzum)
Song of Praise: My Soul Finds Rest (Ps. 62) (Keyes/Townend)
The Word in Music: Song of Assurance (Leech/Grey)
Invitation to Communion/Distribution: You Satisfy the Hungry Heart
Song of Praise: Wonderful, Merciful Savior (Rodgers/Wyse)
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 continue on our series on Psalm 23, looking at the phrases, “He leads me beside quiet waters” (v. 2b) and “He restores my soul” (v. 3a). In previous weeks we have looked at the overall metaphor of God as Shepherd, an image that describes God’s provision, protection, and guidance. Last week we asked the question of why the grass is not always green. Two answers stood out: 1) that God’s Shepherding is often (and ultimately) spiritual, though sometimes physical; and 2) like sheep and shepherds, life is a journey from one place to the next, sometimes over rocky and dangerous paths, and we are prone to wander from our Shepherd’s guidance and get ourselves into trouble.
This week we look at a different kind of provision, protection, and guidance. We already looked at food; this week we focus more on rest. Yes, water is mentioned, but the focus is on the quiet and safety provided to enjoy that water. And, for the first time, the Psalmist moves out of the metaphor to talk about the soul. So, we’ll focus in on what rest and restoration mean hear and what they mean for us when the Lord is our Shepherd.
Quiet Waters (v. 2b)
This phrase calls up the same questions and reflections as last week’s green pastures. If this is what the Good Shepherd provides, why do we not constantly experience the rest and refreshment of “quiet waters?” Last week we talked about how life is a JOURNEY not unlike the one sheep experience. A Shepherd leads them from one pasture to another, one stream or spring of water to the next, often with rough and dangerous terrain in between. We also talked about how we, like sheep, WANDER and stray from the Lord’s guidance. Here that alternative is made more explicit with the word ‘leads’ – for if we do not follow, we will end up somewhere else than the Lord’s best. That’s fine for the sheep metaphor, but we must ask the question, “How do we know what the Lord wants and where the Lord is leading us?”
Back on Rally Day we sang and heard the verse from Psalm 119 that God’s Word, the scriptures, are a light to our path. That is how we know. God has given us His Word to guide us, not only through the journey that is life, but to places of spiritual nourishment and rest like the green pastures and quiet waters of Psalm 23. Particularly when we realize that “He leads me beside quiet waters” is not only refreshing water, but REST, we realize that God has actually led us precisely to that in His Word.
Do you remember the fourth commandment? It is in Exodus 20 and says, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy or set apart.” It was patterned after God’s own resting on the seventh day of Creation. This is an important thing to understand: God’s pattern is not to reward good behavior with rest or food or blessing, much less riches, prosperity, or the like. God has and is ALREADY leading us to rest and food and blessing through His Word!
Let me draw out that distinction; it is broad indeed. God has commanded a number of things in scripture, teaching regular habits of rest, giving, worship, morality, and more. Those are not “good deeds” for which you will be rewarded on earth or in heaven; those ARE the reward. Let me say that again that it might sink in. God’s teaching – in the Law, through the prophets, in the writings, through Jesus, in the letters of Paul, all the way to Revelation… all of what we tend to think of as “what God wants OF us” is actually what God wants FOR us and is itself the reward!
Take the Sabbath. I know how hard and seemingly unrealistic it is these days to set aside one day in seven for the Lord, to worship, to rest, to pray, to enjoy family. God isn’t keeping track of church attendance or Sabbath’s kept; the Sabbath teaching IS God leading you beside quiet waters. Choosing not to observe is choosing not to enjoy the place of rest God has prepared. Or giving… scripture teach principles of first fruits and tithing and care of the poor and needy. God does not reward those things as “good deeds” – those ARE the green pastures of ordering life and priorities in the best possible way according to the Shepherd. Or morality; God’s morality sounds increasingly out of step with culture, with fun, with an exciting life. We plead with children and teens and each other to “be good.” But it’s not because there is a prize for being good; it’s because God’s morality IS the best for us, the healthiest, the place of greatest flourishing.
I get it. We are, in so many ways, still spiritual children. That message is about as compelling as the idea that eating one’s vegetables or getting daily exercise is its own reward.
It is also the truth.
Restoration and Repentance (v. 3a)
It is at this point that the Psalmist takes a step out of the metaphor. We have been reading about sheep and pastures and quiet waters. But in verse 3, we hear about the SOUL. That’s a human thing, not a sheep thing. But it flows right out of the Shepherd metaphor; in fact, it’s presumably still the Shepherd who restores our souls. As I dug into that phrase this week I discovered something really interesting and it has everything to do with listening to and obeying God’s Word and will. The word translated ‘restore’ is also often translated in the Bible as ‘repent.’ Either way it’s the idea of turning something around that is lost or heading towards being lost and returning it home, to its previous state, to the place it needs to be.
So it’s part and parcel of what we’ve been talking about. If we do not listen and do not obey the Shepherd’s voice, we wander off away from provision, away from protection, and we endanger and feel the wear and tear on our souls. The use of this particular word is stronger than what has come before, which has been an implicit plea to pay attention to the Shepherd and His voice; this is like a plea to stop and turn around, for we just might be heading in the wrong direction. This is not a new biblical concept; God’s people (again, like sheep) were always wandering off. The prophets would issue the call again and again to repent and turn back to the Lord. In fact, as you heard at the beginning of the service, it became part of the Messianic prophecy that Elijah (or one like Elijah) would come back to prepare the way for the Messiah. And what would Elijah do? That’s what the disciples asked Jesus in Matthew 17:10 – “Why do the scribes say Elijah must come first?” And Jesus answered, “Elijah is coming and will RESTORE all things.” Same word! Elijah (or one like him) would come and again issue the call to REPENT, to turn back to the Lord. And that would prepare the way for the Messiah. It didn’t take much for the disciples to realize that John the Baptist, whose message was “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” was just such a prophet.
Why get into all that? I do because I think it helps to understand that God’s blessings are not rewards for good behavior, but are something that God has already spoken, continues to offer, and has ultimately provided in Jesus. And I wanted to make the bridge between Psalm 23 and Jesus, because that’s where God’s Word – the leading of the Shepherd – takes us.
Two Takeaway Questions
So I have two takeaway questions for you today; perhaps you have others stirred up by the Holy Spirit. One is: Where is God’s voice/Word calling me? OBEDIENCE is at the heart of God’s best for us. We are quick to turn it around and turn it into a system of rewards and punishments, but God’s Word – even God’s so-called “rules” – are not rewards and punishments, but are the leading of our Shepherd. That’s why we read and study the Bible, so we will recognize and hear our Shepherd’s leading. I know obedience is hard and it’s hard to see it as the blessing itself. But it’s one of those things that you can experience for yourself. Try regular Sabbath-keeping and see if you don’t experience significant rest. Try regular, prioritized giving and see if you don’t experience God working in your finances and even your spiritual life. Pay attention to God’s morality; it is not hard to see where going against that has its own harmful consequences.
The other takeaway is similar, the other side of the same coin: Where is God’s voice/Word calling me back? REPENTANCE is what is involved in restoring your soul, in welcoming you home, in recovering what may seem to have been lost. I’m not sure why ‘repentance’ sounds harder and harsher than those things, but it is a good and godly thing to turn around and listen for and to God’s voice. It’s a hard thing, but it’s a good thing. And that’s why this church and our leaders and I are here – not to beat you up to repent, but to walk that turnaround with you and uphold you and encourage you. And repentance is not just for a few, but it’s for each of us at many different times and places of life. We each need to repent – to turn and hear our Savior’s voice – about something.
And here’s what obedience and repentance looks like: He leads you beside still waters; He restores your soul. Amen.