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Monday, October 31, 2016


"The Good Shepherd: Psalm 23" (2016)
Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
September 18 - October 30, 2016

A seven-week series on the well-known and beloved 23rd Psalm.

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) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: 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.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Full to Overflowing (Psalm 23.5)

Sermon by: Kathy Larson
October 23, 2016
Text: Psalm 23:5; Ephesians 3:14-21

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Let God Arise (Tomlin, Cash, Reeves)
Hymn of Praise: Psalm 23 (Townend)
Offering of Music: Gentle Shepherd, choir (ljames)
Our Song of Praise: the Doxology
Hymn of Sending: Behold the Lamb (Getty/Townend)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Slides Shown During Sermon ::
shepherd image from While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks, by Tim Laniak

Monday, October 17, 2016

Walking through the Valley (Psalm 23.4)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; October 16, 2016
Text: Psalm 23:4

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Blessed be Your Name (Matt and Beth Redman)
Hymn of Praise: Be Still My Soul (FINLANDIA)
Sermon Song: How Did You Find Me Here? (David Wilcox) - temp. audio link
Hymn of Sending: What a Friend We Have in Jesus (CONVERSE)
Postlude: Linda Jenkins, organ

:: 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.

I remember years ago – about 20 years ago now – I worked at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem as a hospital chaplain as part of my seminary training. I was assigned to the 10th floor of Reynolds tower -- the trauma unit. Within one week, I was up on the unit visiting patients. One of the very first patients I met was a lady in her late 70s. The first time I walked into her room, I immediately noticed that her face and neck were completely purple, having been bruised severely. She was barely able to speak in a raspy voice. She told me that she was in the unit for a cardiac contusion -- she had been in an automobile accident. Even more startling to me was the other thing she told me -- that she had been in the hospital for over a week, and none of her family had come to see her. As a matter of fact, she blamed one of her family members for the accident, saying that he had been drinking and driving. Well, this was a lot for me to take in that first week. I found myself wondering just what I should do for this lady. I wonder what you might have done if faced with the task of ministering to her? Or perhaps more to the point -- what do you do when faced with great need or crisis in the life of someone you know? Whether in our own lives, or our family, or our church family, or others around us, there is need and crisis around us much of the time. How can we respond? What is our role as church family? And what do you do if you are one of those experiencing the crisis?

That summer I had a chaplain supervisor who oversaw my training. Knowing I would immediately confront situations of intense crisis and caring, he met with me during the first week and gave me a model for pastoral care. He told me, “Robert, almost everyone you meet in this hospital will be experiencing some kind of crisis. These people are walking through the ‘valley of deep darkness’ that is described in Psalm 23. Your job is to offer a ministry of presence to those in that valley.”

Today, with the description of the “valley of darkness” in Psalm 23 before us, I want to describe more fully a ministry of presence. This is not simply a technique for a chaplain in a hospital; it is our calling as Christians and as a church family as we live and move in a world full of crisis. I want to talk about three situations of going into the valley of deep darkness. The first occurs when we minister to others through a ministry of presence -- by walking alongside people in their times of crisis. The second occurs when you find yourself walking through the valley. The finally, we will look at our model for a ministry of presence -- that is, when God walked through the valley of deep darkness in Jesus Christ.

A Ministry of Presence

First, just how shall we minister to people in times of suffering and crisis? What does it mean to have a ministry of presence? When I was in training I discovered some things to do when I visited a hospital room – pray, ask questions, distract. And sometimes, those were what was needed. Yet I also felt like these things were not meeting the deepest needs of those I visited. When I told my chaplain supervisor about what was happening, he suggested that I was going about ministry in an “emergency rescue” fashion. His image was that I was standing on the hill overlooking the valley of deep darkness. Seeing people walking through the valley, I was tossing supplies and rations in to them, even offering a rope or a momentary distraction -- yet, I was staying on the hilltop.

Looking back on that time, I fully agree with him. There were two things encouraging me to stay on the “hilltop.” One was a drive to Find the solution... fix it... achieve success... fix the problem. A second: I was and am scared to death of the valley of deep darkness. If there was a way to interact and minister to the people in it without actually going there myself, I would find it. I wanted to avoid the valley at all costs.

Bill, my supervisor, challenged me to a different kind of ministry. Rather than practice an “emergency rescue ministry,” he encouraged me to practice a ministry of presence. How does that look different than those other things I had been doing? A ministry of presence is sitting with someone, holding their hand or giving them a hug for support. It is listening rather than talking. When I visited a cancer patient, it meant not theologizing when they asked, “Why is God letting this happen to me? Why is God doing this to me?” Rather than launch into an academic discussion of why bad things happen to good people and try to answer those questions which can only be addressed by God to that individual, a ministry of presence meant sitting and absorbing those questions on God’s behalf. It meant putting a face on God in a time when that patient needed to ask some hard questions to God.

A ministry of presence also means walking alongside of people so that they will not be alone in this valley. Caring for people in crisis means asking yourself, “What is the valley like for them? Is it scary? Is it lonely? Is it dark and full of despair?” Being with someone during these times does do something very significant: it puts skin on God’s love. It makes God’s presence in the crisis very tangible. At a time when a person’s prayers may seem to bounce off the ceiling, holding their hand may allow them to actually feel God’s presence and love. Walking alongside someone during crisis is a very real fulfillment of the great commandment to love God and neighbor.

Well, this may all sound real good, but what does this talk of a valley of darkness do for me when I am the one suffering? What is there to say to you if you are even now walking through the deep darkness?

When You are in the Valley

I can tell you that my first impulse when I realize that I am facing crisis is to run the other way. I try to do everything in my power to find a short cut around or a quick escape. I also am quick to deny that I am even in a “valley.” “Things are just fine with me,” I say. Or I try to distract myself from what is really going on -- I’ve already told you a little about my gift for distraction.

John Bunyon, in his famous book, Pilgrim’s Progress, tells the story of young Christian travelling the road of his life. It is fraught with allegorized pitfalls and distractions like the sloughs of despond and the pit of despair. Time and again Christian must choose between two paths: the one that looks true, but looks terribly difficult; and the one that looks easy but seems somehow false. Those times when he takes the easy road, he inevitably encounters a dead end or some greater danger, and he must return to take the true road anyway. He discovers that the hardships of life are simply reality and we must not find the quick way out, but the real way through.

So also for us, the valley of deep darkness is a part of life. If you haven’t been there before, you will find yourself there at some point. What can you do? One is to realize, as Christian did in Pilgrim’s Progress, that it simply must be faced. Secondly though, if there is anything to learn from my tales of chaplaincy and my words about a ministry of presence, it is that we need not face the valley alone. Christianity is not a “lone ranger” religion, it is the good news of God loving us and desiring relationship with us. Our example is not of solitude, but of being in relationship. Jesus ministered, not alone, but with twelve disciples. He established his Church to be the gathered together family of God. God, who created us in His own image exists in relationship as a Trinity -- one being, three persons.

It is important then, that we have some kind of support group in place -- ready to stand by us when we inevitably find ourselves walking through the valley. That support might be an AA group, a women’s Bible study, youth advisors, your family, or close friends you know you can lean on. Again, the importance of a support group is that in crisis, they put skin on God’s love. They make God’s presence tangible.

When God Walked the Valley

And that is what the church is for as well. We are a family. We are an extended support group. We are the “body of Christ.” The third point today is that our ministry of presence, our example for ministry, comes from God’s own example in Jesus Christ. When we were separated from God, alone in sin, God provided a way to healing and restoration of relationship. In Christ, God became a human being and walked the steps of our life and death with us. Jesus was born and lived among us, and was tempted as we are. He sat and walked with the sick, and healed them. He forgave sins, he developed relationships with the disciples, Mary and Martha, and many others. And he suffered agony on the cross and died for us.

The cross that hangs in our sanctuary is a symbol that should remind us that we are never alone in the valley of deep darkness. Christ experienced pain, suffering, shame, separation from God, and even death so that we need never be alone again. And not only should the cross remind us of Christ’s presence with us in the valley; the empty cross should remind us that God was faithful to his promises, and raised Christ from the dead even as he will raise us to be with him. The empty cross reminds us of God’s promise, “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.” And it reminds us that God is faithful to keep his promises. Not only has Christ walked the valley before us, he walks it with us even now. And on a deeper level, he has walked the valley of death and separation from God so we might not have to. That valley he has walked for us.

As the church, we are the body of Christ. And just as Christ gave his body on the cross for our sakes, we are to give ourselves for others’ sakes. We are to the walk alongside each other as part of Christ’s own body. In doing this, we put skin on God’s love -- we remind each other of God’s promises and of God’s faithfulness. This is ministry as the body of Christ.

In conclusion, I’d like to sing a song for you. It is written by David Wilcox and describes a man who is surprised to discover that God is present even in the moment of his deepest despair. He thought he once knew God, but found himself alone at the water’s edge of his hopelessness. Yet, even as he was about to drown in his despair, he discovered God to be present. He realized the truth of God’s promise to his children in scripture, “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.” It is not necessary to come to the water’s edge alone, however. Having a support group in place means that there will be someone there in the darkness to remind you of and put skin on God’s promises.

“How Did You Find Me Here?” (audio)
by David Wilcox, 1988

The night I fell in sorrow,
I knew I was alone
A dozen good-time friendships,
But my heart is still unknown
I thought I was your footsteps
In the sand along the shore
And I mumbled empty phrases
That sang so well before

Now inches from the water, about to disappear
I feel you behind me, but how did you find me here?

I couldn’t reach for rescue; I hid myself from you
I couldn’t stand to see me from your point of view
‘Cause I knew I’d disappoint you if I showed to you this child
Who was crying out inside me, lost in the wild

Now inches from the water, about to disappear
I feel you behind me, but how did you find me here?
I feel you behind me...

Laughing in the water, wash away the tears
I feel you behind me, but how did you find me here?
I feel you behind me, but how did you find me here?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Righteousness (Psalm 23.3b)

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

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: 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?

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Rest and Restoration (Psalm 2.2b-3a)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; October 2, 2016
Text: Psalm 23:2b-3a

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: 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.