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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Righteousness (Psalm 23.3b)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; October 9, 2016
Text: Psalm 23:3b

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
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:: Scripture and Music ::
Hymn of Praise: My Hope is Built on Nothing Less (SOLID ROCK)
Song of Praise: In the Beauty of Holiness (Robin Mark)
The Word in Music: Guide My Wayfaring Feet (Schram)
Song of Confession: Purify My Heart (Nelson)
Offering of Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Song of Sending: Days of Elijah (Robin Mark)
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.

In what may be the shortest portion of the 23rd Psalm that we will look at in this series on the 23rd Psalm, today we will talk about “righteousness.” The Psalm says that our Shepherd “guides us in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” (v. 3b) Righteousness is a churchy word. We use its negative version almost every week in our service in the assurance of God’s grace from 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive us of our sins and cleans us from all unrighteousness.” But then we are assured that in and through Christ, we are forgiven. We become clean and righteous.

So we’ll look today at what righteousness means, how God ‘guides’ us on the path of righteousness, and what God’s name has to do with it.


In the Sermon on the Mount, the first and longest teaching of Jesus recorded in scripture in Matthew 5-7, Jesus began with what are called the “Beatitudes” or the “Blessings.” One of those mentions righteousness and makes a ready connection in imagery to the 23rd Psalm. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6) Clearly it is something we need and should want, and is something God provides. But what is it?

For the most part, it’s just what it sounds like: righteousness is what is right. It is doing the right thing. But it’s not just the ‘correct’ thing, but the just thing for the other and for the community. Another way of thinking about it is as a description of one who follows the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor with an all-out, whole-hearted love. On one hand, it’s an impossibly perfect standard; but how appropriate that the Psalm talks about the “path of righteousness.” It is a manner of life and priorities and commitments that we can pursue and follow or one that we can turn away from.

It is also interesting to me in light of conversations around the protests in Charlotte. I made a connection a few weeks ago between the 23rd Psalm and the broken places in our human family in this country. If that connection seemed forced, consider that here again the Psalm is focused on what is right and just as a central point of God’s leading and guidance. If we are God’s people, we are called towards justice and community as part of God’s definition of ‘righteousness.’

So righteousness is what God says is right and it is expressed Godward in terms of obedience and neighbor-ward in terms of justice and community.

Guidance on the Path

When we read that the Good Shepherd “guides us in the paths of righteousness” we are at once reminded that a Shepherd leads and guides. We are also reminded, as a few weeks ago, that such a path implies a journey rather than an arrival, and that continuing to heed the Shepherd’s voice is critical to staying on the path.

We talked about the Shepherd’s voice in particular last week, noting that the word “restores” connotes both obedience and repentance to God’s voice. And God ‘speaks’ chiefly through the scriptures. So in the same way that God ‘leads’ us to rest and summons us back when we wander, so God ‘guides’ us along the right path, the path of righteousness, godly obedience, and justice. As last week, our twin calling is to obey and continue to follow God’s Word or to repent and turn back toward God’s Word if we have strayed.

One last interesting note about ‘paths’ of righteousness… the word ‘paths’ can also be translated ‘tracks.’ Whether ‘path’ or ‘tracks’ the implication is the same… that others have tread the path ahead of us and the way is indicated. Indeed, Christ has ultimately trod that path in perfect righteousness, so when we follow him – his example and teaching – we are indeed on the path of righteousness!

Obedience, repentance, discipleship, righteousness – those are all words that get at the critical teaching that the life of faith is more than belief, it is following Christ where the Lord leads us.

God’s Name

A final significant part of this half-verse that I want to highlight is the reason given for this righteous guidance. You might think God would guide us in paths of righteousness for OUR own sake. To be sure, we benefit from God’s guidance and from obedience to God. But here is a deep and significant theological point. The Psalm says this is for the sake of God’s name. Does that mean that God is some kind of egomaniac who wants a bunch of adoring fans? Not at all! That’s what WE might do with honor coming to our name; but God is pure and holy and that is precisely what is at stake!

God first revealed His NAME to Moses at the burning bush. When Moses asked, “Who shall I say [to Pharoah] sent me?” God replied, “Tell him Yahweh sent you.” Yahweh is simply our English pronounciation of the name spelled YHWH in Hebrew. It means “I am who I am” as well as “I will be who I will be.” It describes both God’s self-existence, neither born nor created, but the One who simply IS eternally; and it describes God’s consistency and faithfulness to continue to be God eternally. This faithfulness – or the Hebrew hesed – is perhaps the most defining characteristic used of God in scripture, that God is eternally faithful to who He has revealed Himself to be. And because God has revealed Himself to be FOR US, His creations, God is eternally faithful to pursue us for salvation and redemption.

So when God guides us on the paths of righteousness, that is, in line with His Will and Word, the results of that guidance and righteousness – God’s best for us – demonstrates God’s faithfulness in His declared love toward us and it upholds or honors His name, who He has revealed Himself to be. Said another way, a little less formally, when we see someone obeying God’s Word and walking the path of righteousness, it is natural to give thanks and say, “There’s God being God; look at His blessing in that life.”

So like last week, this half-verse appeals to us to obey or repent , follow or turn back, to listen to God’s voice in scripture. In doing so, we not only move towards God’s best for us, but God’s best for our community and world, and we honor and point to God as God and Good Shepherd when we do so.

Here’s a takeaway question: What is the “right path” that God would have me walk this week, particularly in regards to my neighbors around me in my family and community?

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