Psalm 23:1-31 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
It’s not often that the Lord gives me a sermon idea several weeks in advance, but this idea came to me about a month and a half ago, and I believe God instructed me specifically to prepare this message for this day. This message is not only for our graduates, but for all of us. The main focus is this path, this road, this journey that we are on as disciples of Jesus Christ. The Psalmist calls it the “path of righteousness.”
The word translated as “righteousness” from the Hebrew is the same one that is often translated as “straight.” There is a right way, a morally straight way Christians can live as we follow Jesus, the Shepherd. He will never lead us astray, and following in the groove or path He sets before us will enable us to accomplish His will and to live our best possible life. I want that. I want to live well and to honor God as I do. If that could be said about me at the end of my life, I will have absolutely achieved my life’s greatest success.
God doesn’t force us to follow His path. He gives us a choice as to which road we will take. I do, however, need to remind us all that the choices we make about which road to take in life will have great consequences.
An August 12, 1969 news article from the San Francisco Chronicle read, “The blazing summer heat of the Death Valley area has killed two men and a youth who tried to reach habitation by setting foot across the desert.” Arnold Dobson, Harold Mast Sr., and his son Harold Jr., apparently became stranded in the barren Saline Valley without water. One of the three bodies was found 7 miles from their abandoned car, another 14 miles, and the last 17 miles.
Deputy Red Landergren said, “It looks like they just went the wrong way.” It would seem that they turned in the direction toward a ranch house they had passed 30 miles back. However, just a mile the other way was a grove of willows with a spring.
The paths that we take are important because the paths we take have consequences. If we take the wrong path in life and go in the wrong direction it can lead to tragic consequences. If the outcome of life is determined by the paths we take, and it is, then we should take great care in choosing the right paths. (http://www.sermonsearch.com/sermon-outlines/74285/the-paths-of-the-righteous-1-of-5/)
One thing is perfectly clear to me about Psalm 23 and the path of righteousness; you will never go down the path of righteousness if the Lord is not your shepherd. There is no other shepherd, no other leader, no other guide who will take you on the route called righteousness. And only the path of righteousness leads to eternity in heaven. All other paths will lead a person’s soul to hell for eternity. Cheerful news, I know. Aren’t you glad you came this morning? J I hope you will be in a few minutes!
We will never get on the path to righteousness on our own. We will only be on the path of righteousness if we have accepted Christ as Savior. He is the only One who can lead us down the path of righteousness. In our humanity, in our flesh, even in our earthly wisdom and understanding of what is best for us, we are limited and unable to clearly see the path of righteousness. Only those who are right behind Jesus will be on it.
The Psalmist says that this road to righteousness involves resting in green pastures and being refreshed beside quiet waters. There is a sense that this righteous way is the way of peace and tranquility in your inmost being. Graduates and all of us, when we feel anxious, when we feel troubled, when we are conflicted in our hearts and minds about decisions we have made, relationships we are in, job we are pursuing, and planning for our futures we need to stop and make sure we are on the road of righteousness.
For getting off of that path will be costly. It will cause confusion. We will have a feeling of being lost which will produce anxious thoughts. We will be frustrated by the extra time, money, and effort it takes when we have gone the wrong way or when we have gone out of our way. Life will be more difficult when it could have been more pleasurable and peaceful. Getting off the right road can truly be a costly mistake and can set us back in many ways.
If God leads us in a righteous or right path, there are obviously wrong paths we could also go down. Have you ever asked yourself, “How did I get here?” You find yourself off course, in a remote and lonely place, out of gas, and without any idea about how to get back on track. How does that happen? I doubt many of us woke up this morning saying, “My goal is to be completely outside of God’s will for my life today. I hope to get as far off the path of righteousness as possible.” That would be absurd for a Christ follower, right? But it happens.
Let me offer some possible thoughts about how our life on the righteous path gets detoured.
1. We ignore the Word of God.
It is not troubling to me that many, if not most now in our society don’t live by the Word of God. What I mean is, those who aren’t Christians, I am not surprised or disappointed that they don’t live by the Bible as their standard. I wouldn’t expect them to. Yes, I want them to come to Christ and submit to His Word, but until they do, I wouldn’t expect them to live by His Word.
But what I have deep concern over and at times even anxiety and sleeplessness over is that many Christians live with a disregard for the Word of God. It is treated as optional. What arrogance we as Christians display when we accept the great salvation of our God through faith in Jesus Christ, but then ignore God’s Words which teach us how to live out that salvation! It’s as if we are saying to God, “Thanks for the gift of salvation, but I’ll take it from here!” “Thanks, God, for getting me started, but I’m good to go now.” How totally arrogant! How totally deceived we are to think we can maintain our steps on the righteous path without following the Word of God! We are not masters of our own destiny, but rather we are to follow what we are taught by God through His Word.
1 Corinthians 4:6 Paul says, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Paul was lifting up the Word of God as a standard for life. What great and right advice for all of us. Ignoring the Word of God will take us off the path of righteousness.
Surveys give us dismal results when it comes to the number of Christians who read their Bible and the number who know the major stories and teachings of the Bible. That reminds me of a story about a new minister who was asked to teach a boys’ class in the absence of the regular teacher. He decided to see what they knew, so he asked who knocked down the walls of Jericho. All the boys denied having done it, and the preacher was appalled by their ignorance. At the next deacons’ meeting he told about the experience. “Not one of them knows who knocked down the walls of Jericho,” he lamented. The group was silent until finally one seasoned leader spoke up. “Preacher, this appears to be bothering you a lot. But I’ve known all those boys since they were born and they’re good boys. If they said they didn’t know, I believe them. Let’s just take some money out of the repair and maintenance fund, fix the walls, and let it go at that.” J
For those who disregard the Word of God it is as if they are walking through life in the dark. Psalm 119:105 says God’s word is a lamp unto our feet and a light for our path.
1 John 1:6 says, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” You can’t be on a dark path and be on the path of righteousness at the same time. It is impossible.
Make it your aim, even this summer, to immerse yourself in the Word of God. It will help you stay on the path of righteousness.
2. A second thing that can take us off the path of righteousness is when we ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Allow me to address the graduates this morning. Many of you are just beginning your adult journeys. I couldn’t even begin to calculate the number of major decisions you will have to make over the course of the rest of your life. You will have decisions about houses and spouses, more training and jobs, where to live, how to parent, how to plan for your financial future. Just dealing with life’s decisions can be overwhelming.
You will not choose wisely without paying attention to and following the promptings of the Holy Spirit in your life. In John 10:27 Jesus used the language of Psalm 23 to explain that as He leads us, we can hear Him speaking to us. He said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” We can learn to hear and know the Holy Spirit’s voice so that in moments of decision we will make the choices He desires we make.
We all love to quote Jeremiah 29:11. It is probably the favorite Scripture of many in this room. It talks about how God has a plan for us, to prosper us and not to harm us, a plan to give us a hope and a future. But what we stop short of sometimes is the reality that discerning that plan, hearing God’s voice will require great humility on our part. For verses 12-13 go on to say: 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
The Spirit of God moves in the hearts and minds of the humble. The Spirit of God brings revelation to those who are seeking it, diligently seeking it. The Spirit of God shares the plans of God with those who not only want to know what God has in store, but t those who ask with the mindset and commitment to follow those plans when they are revealed.
You see, God’s voice isn’t the only one we are hearing on a daily basis. There is the voice of the world, the voice of Satan and his demons, and the voice of our own fleshly desires. We must develop a spiritual filter a spiritual sensitivity and discernment to know which voice is the Spirit of God.
We know the Spirit of God will never contradict the Word of God, so when we are tempted to do something that is clearly a violation of Scripture we must denounce whatever voice is encouraging us to go down that road. The condition of our hearts is very important when it comes to being able to receive revelation and instruction from the Holy Spirit. God says in Hebrews 8:10 “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people,” but if our minds and hearts are filled with sin and evil thoughts and plans, it will be difficult to receive those messages from God in our hearts and minds.
It would seem to me that it is vital that Christians regularly detox, if you will, that they de-clutter their hearts and minds, confess their sins, review their heart’s motives and mind’s thought life in order to make sure there is nothing preventing the Holy Spirit from being able to convey a message that we can effectively receive.
God has spoken to us in His Word which was inspired by the Holy Spirit, but He is also speaking to us through words of knowledge, wisdom, prophecy and revelation that are spoken to us through others in His body who hear from Him. I have had those kinds of experiences in my life as people have shared with me a special message they believed they received from God on my behalf. There were times I was in a spiritual place to receive them and times I wasn’t. As I studied for this message, I had to bow my head and repent and ask God to forgive me for some moments when I poked fun at or dismissed the words that had been given to me as a farce. For God led me to 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20 19 Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; 20 do not treat prophecies with contempt. I got my toes stepped on by the Holy Spirit this week, and I had to repent. I know there is misuse and abuse of this kind of thing and there are people who falsely attribute a message to the Holy Spirit, but there are also people whom God has gifted to be able to reveal wisdom and truth in strategic and timely moments and they should not simply be dismissed. If you are the recipient of that kind of message, you pray and ask God to show you if it is from Him for you. He will confirm His Word.
I remember being asked out on a date by a guy who said the Lord told him to ask me out. I simply responded to him, “When the Lord tells me the same message it’s a deal.” J Yes, take all prophetic words from others to the Lord in prayer, but don’t simply dismiss that the Holy Spirit could inspire someone to say something to you in order to convey God’s message to you. I hope that happens here every Sunday through the message for at least someone, right?
Big decisions will take big prayer, but remember prayer is two-way communication. As you speak with God, you can expect a response from Him through the Holy Spirit.
And let me mention the ideas of the Holy Spirit and our conscience. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve knew they had sinned. The Holy Spirit convicted them in their conscience. Before he was king, David disrespected King Saul in 1 Samuel 24:5 and the NIV says he was “conscience-stricken.” We know that feeling in the pit of our stomach when we have messed up, right? Even before we came to Christ, we had a general, but comprehensive sense of right and wrong and knew when we did wrong. That’s because every person has a conscience. It is the monitor of self which God has given to us to help us distinguish between right and wrong. You know when you haven’t paid attention to your conscience you have regretted it, right?
Well, the Holy Spirit is added to the conscience of believers to help us interpret the signals the conscience sends us, to remind us of what God’s Word says about what we have just done or are doing or are thinking about doing. In addition to all of that, the Holy Spirit will draw us as believers away from things that don’t fit the righteous path profile. (http://www.intouch.org/resources/sermon-outlines/content.aspx?topic=A_Good_Conscience_Part_1_Sermon_Outline)
You see the Holy Spirit, according to John 16:13 tells us the Holy Spirit will guide us in all truth. The path of truth is another word for the path of righteousness. We must pay attention to the voice of the Holy Spirit if we are to stay on the righteous road.
3. There is no way I could list the many things which could take us off course, but for our time this morning I will just mention one final thing which could get us to veer off course. Ignoring the ways of the Lord could cause us to veer off the righteous path.
God has a way in which we are to walk, but He also has a way in which we are to experience Him and respond to life’s circumstances which we must embrace as we walk down that righteous path.
One way we are to experience God on the path is through trust. We need to believe what Psalm 23 says. If God is our shepherd, He will supply what we need. When we live beyond our means, when we don’t plan for the future, when we spend crazy money “just because” we have a little for a minute and we don’t consider that we might need to store some up for the surprises life brings, when we buy things we can’t afford on credit and think we’ll figure out how to pay for it later, we cannot blame God when our resources become scarce and we have consequences to deal with. But when we allow God to guide us in the way we should acquire money, spend money, and give money away, meaning when we let Him be Lord of our financial life, He promises to meet our needs. Notice I’m not talking about a path of prosperity this morning. I don’t believe God desires everyone to become wealthy. The ability to create wealth is the gift of God which comes with opportunities to bless others. But each of us has a responsibility to be stewards of the lot or the little God gives us. If we truly let Him be in charge of that area of our lives He will take care of us.
Another way we will experience God is as He tells us to stop and rest and to be spiritually refreshed. That’s the green pastures and still waters piece we have read about. Perhaps those seem like logical ways to encounter God at work in our lives. We can understand how it makes sense to let God control our finances and to help us regulate our schedules so that we aren’t tired and stressed out all of the time.
But there are other ways we are to encounter God and respond to Him which don’t make as much sense. How about Psalm 23:4? 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. God says that contrary to the natural, human experience of fear when it comes to moments of life or death, we can experience comfort. That is a supernatural way of embracing the difficult parts of the human experience. It is a gift of God which we can receive, and when we do, it can help us stay on the path of righteousness.
When we refuse God’s comfort, when we blame God for our pain or turn away from God to the things of this world to deaden our pain or help us cope with our pain, we are veering off course. The shadow of death and death itself is part of life for each of us. How we allow God to settle us, satisfy us, and speak to us about the eternal perspective in those moments is crucial to our remaining on the right path. I have spoken to many people who have lost a loved one, blamed God, quit going to church and are out of fellowship with God today because rather than accept God’s comfort in their sorrow they blamed God for it. We can grieve or we can grieve with God. They are two different paths.
How about the next part of Psalm 23? (VS 5) You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Really? We can sit down and eat when our enemies are standing near? That’s pretty contrary to the human nature, isn’t it? Wouldn’t we rather tell them off? Wouldn’t we rather expose how terrible they are to everyone else around us? Wouldn’t we rather fight them or fight with them? Many of us lose our appetite in the presence of our enemies. We let them ruin our experience. We leave the table. We leave the party. We break off relationships. We check out of the life experience because we let them steal our joy.
But God says, if we stay on the path of righteousness with Him, He will enable us to rise above our enemies and still enjoy His presence at a table He has prepared for us. We don’t have to get bitter and angry and alter our plans to live an abundant life because of some bully or self-serving person. We can always stay in a place of contentment and satisfaction in the way of the Lord. If we are seated at the table of the Lord, we are eye level with Him. We are focused on Him. We are being sustained by Him rather than flying off the handle at someone who is on a different path.
You see, it’s not just about where we are going, but how we are going about getting there as well. We will all have disappointment, discouragement, and pain in life, but God’s presence enables us to walk differently in those moments than those on the path of self.
One last thought. We are guided in paths of righteousness for what? Look at verse 3. “For His name’s sake. God’s reputation is on the line in the lives of those on the righteous path. One way to check if you are on the path to righteousness is to ask, “Is God getting glory from my life as I am currently living it?”
Choose the righteous path. Choose Jesus. Embrace the Word of God. Embrace the Spirit of God. Embrace the ways of God. They are the tools to keep us on the path of righteousness.