Shepherd: Lead Me – Psalm 23:2-3
Last Friday, Kelly and I went rafting to celebrate our 13th anniversary. Kelly and I love being outdoors and rafting. The water’s pretty high right now—-about 2500 cfs, which is moving. We went with Noah’s Ark. We hopped on our raft with the wet suits, booties, life vests, helmets, etc. We were cruising down the Arkansas River. The guides tell you that the first half of the trip is the easy part. It’s the “lazy river,” if you will, the first five miles of it. Within about 10 minutes of beginning the trip, we hit a rock at just the right angle and I go catapulting almost out of the raft! My toes are hanging on by just a hair and I’m thinking this is the lazy river part??!! I’m in trouble!! We got to the rapid. It’s called Zoom Flume. As you’re going down it it looks like a mountain of water staring at you! (Pastor Ryan shows picture of them taken at this point. He’s paddling hard and his face displays it. Kelly looks like she’s on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park!) Landon, our guide, is calm as can be. We’re facing a massive rapid and Landon is just…..he’s done this a few hundred times. We got through the rapid and I asked Landon, “How do you learn to be a guide?” I came to this realization that if I were alone in this raft I would die. That’s the bottom line. Landon said, “For the first five weeks of our guide summer and the first summer you guide, we take this trip 2-3 times every single day. I know this river like the back of my hand. I know every single rapid when it’s high like this. I know what the river runs like when it’s lower. I know which way to take and what things to avoid. I know where to go.” I thought to myself, “I’m glad you do because I have no clue whatsoever.”
I thought of that as I was preparing to teach Psalm 23 this morning. I thought of the fact that God, in many ways, is our guide in the same way. He invites us to get in the boat with him. He declares to us, “I know the way. I know what to avoid. I know where to go. If you trust me, if you get in with me and if you paddle “front 2” or “back 1″, if you paddle when I invite you to paddle I’m going to lead your life.” Listen to the way David says it in Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. {We talked about that one little phrase last week. We said that God is the great satisfier of our soul. The shepherd of your life determines your soul’s satisfaction is what we said last week.} He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
I want to camp out on just verses 2 and 3 today as we see that God is not only the Great Shepherd, but he’s the Good Guide. Remember, we’re using this psalm, Psalm 23, that for millennia has resonated with the collective soul of humanity. We declare back to God, “God, we long for you to be like this psalm describes you. We want you to be this good, this caring. To be a God that provides, a God that comforts, a God that shields. We want you to be like this.” We’re using this psalm over the next few weeks to try to get a clearer picture in our hearts and minds of what God is like. What his nature and his character is like. Here’s what David said. What is God like? He says he’s a leader. He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness. So not only is he a great satisfier, as we looked at last week, he’s a great leader and don’t you just love that God is described as the good shepherd, the great leader NOT the determined cattle-driver! Because a shepherd is out front of his sheep, that’s how a shepherd leads. A shepherd leads from the front, a cattle-driver leads from the back. A shepherd leads to nourishment, leads to life, leads to sustenance. A cattle-driver wants to get you someplace in a certain amount of time. There’s a big difference. The Scriptures describe God not as the determined cattle-driver, but as the good shepherd. He’s out front. His motives are pure and he {look up at me a moment} longs to lead you to life.
Here’s what we’re going to see in our time looking at God’s word today: If you want Jesus to FEED YOUR SOUL, you must let Jesus LEAD YOUR LIFE. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve run across that want Jesus to feed their soul, but they’re unwilling to follow him to green pastures, quiet streams, still waters and paths of righteousness. They say back to God, “I like you. I want to have you as an accessory for my life, but I’m not sure I’m ready to really commit. I’m really not ready to follow.” The only way you’re led to the quiet streams, green pastures, still waters and paths of righteousness is if you’re willing to follow. He can’t lead you if you’re not willing to follow him. So that’s the big question for us to wrestle with today. Is not do we admire Jesus, but are we willing to follow him? Are we willing to follow him in the way he invites us to love our enemies? Will we follow him then? To forgive those who wrong us—-will we follow him then? To embrace his way of looking at sexuality—-will we follow him then? To embrace his way of looking at service, of generosity—-will we follow this God who says turn the other cheek? If you want Jesus to feed your soul, you must let Jesus lead your life.
Listen to the way that Jesus says it in John 7:37-38: If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” I love this, because here’s what Jesus is saying: It’s YOUR job to follow and it’s MY (Jesus’) job to feed. I get my role mixed up a lot of the time. I think that it’s my job to find nourishment, to find sustenance, to find purpose, to find meaning, to find joy….and so that’s my goal. And I’ll admit that that’s the wrong goal. The right goal is to say back to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, “My job is to follow. Your job is to feed.” In order to follow, friends, we must hear his voice. In John 10, Jesus says: I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know my voice. So here’s the question for us this morning: If he longs to lead us in a way that feeds us, do we know his voice? Do we know his cadence? Do we know his call? Every shepherd that David knew, every shepherd even now has a call. Some may have a flute they play. They’d play a certain cadence, a certain melody and all their sheep would come. Some shepherds would sing a song and their sheep would know this is my shepherd’s voice. Kenneth Bailey, in his great book The Good Shepherd, tells a story of a shepherd that had all of his sheep confiscated by his government and his sheep were out of his care for a number of weeks. And he went to go pick them up after they decided he could have them back. The guy that was in charge of all the sheep said, “Why don’t you just pick out as many sheep as we took from you?” And the shepherd answered, “I don’t want just any sheep, I want MY sheep.” The guy looks back at him and says, “Good luck finding them.” And the shepherd steps back and does his call. Out of this massive mob of sheep, HIS sheep hear his voice and they come.
It begs us to ask the question: Is this the way we relate to our God? We hear his voice and we come, we follow, we chase after Him. Here’s the deal for me and you may relate to this. For me, when I hear God’s call two things go on in my soul. Two push backs, if you will. One is fear. God, where are you going to lead? God, what are you going to do? God, if I forgive in this instance, am I just going to get run over? If I’m able to let go of this bitterness, who do I become now…I’ve held onto it for so long. I start to doubt. The second thing that starts to stir in me is pride. I can remember going down that river with Landon as our guide and I’m thinking, “We’re going to hit this rapid straight on! Why not go to the side a little bit?” The thing is Landon wasn’t taking any suggestions from me. After all, I go rafting at least once a decade! And this is the same way our relationship with God works. He says, “Will you follow me? Drop your pride! I know you have a plan and I know you have an idea, but will you let me lead?” Because if you want Jesus to feed your soul, you need to let Jesus lead your life.
I want to point out to you a few different ways David invites us to do this in Psalm 23. Here’s what David says: He makes me lie down in green pastures. {Remember we talked about this last week. This idea of making us lie down….it’s not that God forces us down. Remember, no one can make a sheep lie down. The only way a sheep lies down is if it has three things: 1) if it’s had enough to drink, 2) if it’s had enough to eat, 3) if it’s not fearful of an attack from an outside invader. The way we said it last week is that God makes us lie down not by force but by favor. He’s so good that we just long to be under his loving care.} He leads me beside still waters. Really interesting since David was a shepherd, as we talked about last week, and many of the shepherds back in this day were what we’d call itinerant shepherds. So they wouldn’t be shepherds that would keep sheep in a pen and let them feed on a given pasture. Most shepherds, at the very beginning of the day, would lead their flock out into the wilderness. And you had two seasons in the Holy Land. One is the wet season and that lasts about two months. So during the wet season you wouldn’t need to go too far to find green pastures or even still waters. But during the dry season, which lasted ten months, some shepherds would need to lead their sheep out pretty far in order to get them the green pastures, the still waters that they needed. When David says he leads me beside still waters, his picture is not of a drinking fountain in town. His picture is of an oasis in the middle of the wilderness. In the desert, if you will. See oftentimes the shepherd would lead his flock into the wilderness in order to take them to green pastures. The shepherd knew exactly where they needed to go to find the best watering holes and oftentimes those watering holes, those green pastures were in the middle of the desert.
So here’s Jesus’ invitation for you this morning: Not just will you follow me, but will you follow me into the barren land and there I’ll show you the hidden banquet. So the question we’re wrestling with in Psalm 23 is what is God like? This God is like….he’s willing to lead you to really hard, difficult places in order to feed your soul. That’s what he’s like. The shepherd knows way more than the sheep do, right? And he goes I’ve got a path that’s charted, I’ve got a way that we’re walking, I’ve got a way that we’re going and I have in my mind streams of living water that I long to guide you to. We talked last week that sheep aren’t the smartest animal that God could have chosen to describe you and I. Turn to the person next to you and say, “You’re a sheep.” They weren’t the smartest animal. They were sorta high maintenance. If the river was running too fast, they could fall in and drown. If it was running too slow, the water would get stagnant and the shepherd needed to know exactly what he was looking for and it was often the wilderness that provided the nourishment. When David says, “When I was a shepherd, I fought off a bear and I grabbed a lion by his mane. I guarded my sheep,” he’s not talking about in the middle of town. He’s in the middle of nowhere. And it’s there that he leads his sheep that they might find nourishment for their soul.
As a backpacking guide I can remember one year that was uncommonly dry here in Colorado. We were following a map. According to the map, we were suppose to cross a river at this certain point where we were going to fill up our water bottles, then head on to where we were planning on camping that night. We got to this river and there was no water running….it was just dry. As guides we had this decision to make: Am I going to continue to push forward or are we just going to stop for the night…just sorta wait it out, hope for the best. What we decided, it was not the popular decision, was that we were going to push forward, because if we don’t find water, we might….who knows what’s going to happen out here. If you don’t have water in the wilderness, you..are..done! It was an unpopular decision, but we kept pushing well into the darkness in order to find running water, because we knew it meant life! Every single kid on that trip hated us! Until we got to that stream!
I think that’s the way I interact with God alot, too. He’s like come on, let’s keep going. I know it hurts and I know there’s pain and I know it’s the wilderness and I know you don’t like it and I know you wouldn’t choose it, but if you will follow me I’ll provide a banquet in barren land. I will feed your soul even when it seems desperate. Look up at me for a moment. Some of you are in the wilderness season right now and your question for God is: God, have you led me out here just to let me down? God, are you really good in the midst of this? Can I really trust you? Am I going to keep following believing that if I follow you you’ll feed me, even though we’ve been trying to get pregnant for years and it hasn’t happened? Even though I can’t seem to hold onto the job and the relationship seems like an absolute mess? And even when…….you fill in the blank. Will you follow Him even then?? You see, sometimes quiet streams only come after tumultuous storms! And he longs to lead you to that place where, like David says, you can say back to God: He leads me beside still waters. Sheep need water. They’re finicky animals and need water just like you and I do and they, just like you and I, start to freak out if they don’t get it. If they feel like they’re getting thirsty and dehydrated, if they feel needy they start to get skittish and they leave and they wander.
So the question is: What does God do when his people wander? Here’s what David goes on to say: He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. {Even in the wilderness he leads me to a banquet in the barren land.} He restores my soul. If you were to look at the original Hebrew writing of this, it would read literally “he brings me back.” Kenneth Bailey, the great scholar, writes this: “The literal translation ‘he brings me back’ makes it clear that the sheep is lost and the good shepherd is obligated to go after it, find it and carry it back.” So not only does God say to us, “Follow me into the wilderness and I will lead you to a feast,” he also says, “Respond to my call and I’ll carry you home.” This is talking about those who are followers of the way of God. This is a sheep who is part of God’s flock. A sheep who wanders off, who gets unsatisfied, who starts to develop a need he doesn’t think his shepherd will meet. It could be, for you and I, a sin that leads us away from the Lord. It could be a longing in our soul that leads us away. He’s talking about followers of the way of Jesus who get themselves off course, stop following the guide of the shepherd……oftentimes a sheep would find itself caught between a rock and hard place. They would bleet, they would call for their shepherd and their shepherd would run and go find them.
Interestingly, Ezekiel, the prophet, writes about bad shepherds. His point about bad shepherds is they don’t chase after those who are lost. Listen to what he says writing to the leaders of Israel: The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:4) But he points us to a better shepherd, the Good Shepherd. Here’s what he says about this coming shepherd, who we now know is Jesus the Messiah: I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, {When you wander…when that bitterness builds up in your heart, when that sin just entraps, when you get off course he says I will bring back the strayed.} and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. (Ezekiel 34:16) This is beautiful! This is YOUR God! Listen up! He seeks the lost. He brings back the stray. He binds up the injured. He strengthens the weak. This is the Gospel, friends. It’s not that you find grace, that is not the Gospel. The Gospel is that GRACE FINDS YOU! When you’ve wandered, when you’ve strayed, when you’ve said to God, “No thanks, I think I can do it myself!” When you say to the guide in the boat, “You know what? I think I can take it from here, thank you very much,” and you get bounced out….this is the God who goes after you. Pulls you back in and says, “You are mine!” What is God like according to Psalm 23? He’s tenacious! He has a furious, passionate love for you! He will not let you go. He will chase you down in passion and in love, because that’s his character.
About a year and a half ago, our “puppy”, our 10-year-old yellow lab got out. It was winter. I’m always joking with my family about this dog: We need to get rid of this dog. We should put him up for adoption. We’ve had him for 10 years, right? Yellow lab but Kelly’s constantly vacuuming up his hair! It’s everywhere! I’m always joking that we need to get rid of this dog. We got home in the evening and he wasn’t there. And something in my heart just sunk! I talked about it for so long and now it happened! I was wiping away tears. I went to bed that night and it was snowing. I wake up the next morning and with my six-year-old son we put signs up all around the neighborhood: Lost Dog! Most attractive dog you’ve ever seen. Hairiest beast. If he’s in your house there’s hair everywhere. We put signs up EVERYWHERE! Finally I looked on Craig’s list and there’s this section on there “Lost Pets” and the first listing on there was: Lost Yellow Lab–“This is definitely somebody’s pet!” Sure enough, that was our Sherpa. I went to pick him up and the lady says to me, “Well, I clipped his nails. I brushed his teeth and I gave him a bath!.” Evidently, he was at a doggie spa. I was extremely happy to see him. I don’t know how happy he was to see me. I can remember the feeling of he’s lost and now he’s found!
Just the way God feels about you…when you wander and come home. On the surface it feels like conviction….the Spirit just poking and prodding and prompting and Jesus drawing you back. That’s what it feels like internally….God saying, “Come home, come home. You’ve wandered. You’re bitter. You’re angry. You’re not following after me. You’re not abiding in my love. You don’t trust me. Come home….come home…come home.” That’s what it feels like inside. When you look at it from the outside, though, it’s the shepherd going and finding the lost sheep, putting him on his shoulders and bringing him back to the flock. Anybody need to come home today? He’s saying the door’s open and the shepherd’s looking. Will you respond to his call so that he can carry you home? I love the way Charles Spurgeon put it: “He has not cast me off, or left me to myself, or abandoned me to my own devices—-but in Love to my soul, He has plucked my feet out of the net, drawn me up from the horrible pit, and set my feet upon the Rock of His Immutable Love!” What a beautiful picture! Here’s why I love this verse. It shows me that Jesus is far more interested in finding ME than I am in finding HIM. He seeks me out. He restores my soul. He chases me down. It reminds me that Jesus is capable of putting me on his shoulders and bringing me home! And it reminds me….my soul…your soul…are never too far gone to be restored. THIS shepherd is that good! I don’t know where you’re at this morning, but if you’re here and you’ve strayed I can guarantee you that your Good Shepherd wants to bring you home. He wants to bring you home….because He loves you and he’s good, but he can only feed your soul if he leads your life.
Here’s the way that David ends this section. He says: He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. {He brings me back.} He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. That’s awesome, is it not?! I started thinking about that this week, because what David doesn’t say is he leads me to the pasture of righteousness or he leads me to the camp of righteousness. What he says is righteousness, or living rightly, walking with God, is far more akin to a path. It involves movement. It involves action. It involves walking. It doesn’t involve just sorta sitting there. It involves movement. Phillip Keller, in his book A Shepherd’s Look at Psalm 23, says: “The greatest single safeguard a shepherd has in handling his flock is to keep them on the move.” Jesus doesn’t want you working…he DOES want you growing. Growing requires movement. If the pinnacle of our Christian experience is something that happened decades ago and that’s what we continually look back at to remember and to remind ourselves that God is good…can I tell you, I think we’ve missed it! There’s paths of righteousness that he intends for you to walk in today. The righteous life is a life of continual growth, continual maturity. Never arriving….always receiving and always walking with the Good Shepherd. Here’s the way Paul says it to the church at Philippi and remember, this is one of the most prolific Apostles the church has ever seen. Not that I have already obtained this {As if to say, I haven’t arrived. I love that!} …or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Phil. 3:12) He goes on to say in verse 15 that everybody who’s mature is going to take the same view. What view? The view that maturity is never quite arriving and Jesus is always doing something new. Maturity requires movement. So for you, friend, maybe there’s a fresh field on the horizon. The question is will we allow Jesus to guide us in a way that will grow us.
The problem I often face is that I think I know better. Proverbs 14:12 says: There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. Phillip Keller, in the same book, says: “The stubborn, self-will, prod, self sufficient-sheep that persists in pursuing its old paths and grazing on its old polluted land will end up a bag of bones on ruined land.” Sheep are notorious for just absolutely demolishing and decimating the ground beneath them. If they are not on the move, they will destroy! Look up at me for a moment. If we’re going to lay our lives over this psalm, Jesus’ invitation to us is not just to camp out and bunker down, but to follow him. Actively pursuing him. Oftentimes I would rather forge paths of independence than I would follow in paths of righteousness. What about you? Here’s the hard part about following Jesus in paths of righteousness: One, I have to let him determine the course. He knows where the good water is. He knows where the nourishment for my soul is. Just like Landon, our guide, knew that river like the back of his hand, he knew which rapids to avoid, he knew which ways to take…..Jesus the Good Shepherd knows the land he leads you to and he invites you to follow him. He knows the course. The second thing that’s hard for me, though, is that I have to follow his pace. And oftentimes he’s slow…slower than I think he should be. Following involves, oftentimes, waiting. But he’s good. He knows the way, he knows the path and he invites you. Will you allow him to guide you in a way that will grow you? You see, Jesus can only feed your soul if you’ll let him lead your life. Is he the leader?
David makes this interesting point on this very last phrase. He says: …for his name’s sake. It’s a great phrase because it involves both the motivation of why the shepherd does what he does…..because everybody looks at the shepherd and goes, “Wow! You’re amazing, good shepherd.” It involves both the reason AND the result. Nobody looks at a healthy sheep and thinks to himself, “They must workout!” Nobody looks at a sheep and thinks they’ve been pumping the iron. That coat of wool is really thick….they’re awesome, they’re amazing. No, here’s what they think when they see a healthy sheep: they think they must have an amazing shepherd. That’s what people think. When the sheep are healthy, the shepherd gets the glory! And he should. The question is are we following him in such a way that we are healthy and that our lives reflect the glory of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He can only feed your soul if you let him lead your life.
And Jesus desiring to feed his disciples’ souls, led them to the table. He leads them into the barren land. He walks there first. He walks to that cross on Calvary’s hill. He gives his life. He enters into the wilderness knowing that in the barren land there’s a hidden banquet for their soul. And so the Good Shepherd gathers his sheep, gathers his disciples one last time around a table. In John 10, he declares prophetically the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. And on the night that Jesus was betrayed, he did just that. He gave his life for his sheep. He gathered them around his table and said, “Will you follow my lead, because I long to feed your soul?” So for 2000 years followers of Jesus have been gathering around this table to remind themselves that the shepherd is good. To remind themselves that he leads the way. And to remind themselves that there’s food for our soul when we follow after Him. I’ll invite you to contemplate this table in light of the Good Shepherd. Will you pray with me?
Good Shepherd, we love you! We are absolutely astounded that you would love us. That you would lead us in such a way as to feed our soul. Jesus, that you would, when we stray, that you would chase us down and bring us home, that you’d restore our soul and that you would long to lead us in the path of righteousness, of living the life that you designed us to live. And so, as we come to your table this morning, King Jesus, would you remind us of the fact that you are the Good Shepherd, that you do feed our soul, that you do long to lead us and that in walking to the Cross and dying on Calvary’s hill that you led the way to truth and to life. Jesus, may we find ourselves wholly and completely and totally in you this morning. We invite you to lead our lives in a way that would feed our souls. In the name of Jesus. Amen.