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Heeding the Leading
July 10, 1977

St. Paul's United Methodist Church


This is the second sermon in a series of four on the 23rd Psalm, one of the most well loved passages of the Bible, and one of the least applied. “Relax in the Lord” is the name of the series. Last week, I pointed out the necessity for relaxing as in summer vacations and in regular periodic Sabbaths. Our body and our minds cry out for rest, for relaxation. We are made to lie down in green pastures. 

But relaxing is more than just on the Sabbath and more than just on vacations. Relaxing indicates an attitude or stance towards life that we need to learn. Dr. Morehouse from UCLA conducted a study of top executives with high pressure jobs. He found that the most successful top executives were those who were relaxed, had fun in their work, enjoyed their work, and made their job seem easy to observers. This is true with athletes as well. Take runners, for example. When a runner tries too hard, he tenses up, the brakes come on, he slows down and even does damage to his body— his legs and his muscles. The best athletes are those who relax in what they're doing. Relaxation is an attitude or a stance that we need to apply to all of our living. 

The 23rd Psalm gives us insight. Dr. Morehouse explains that most of us try too hard. Whatever we're trying to do, most of us try too hard. I remember two examples back in my past, both were ministers— one was a very good friend. One was a district superintendent. They were the epitome of work. Everyone looked at them and said, “Now that's how you should work.” They were workaholics. They put themselves completely into their work. They were intense about what they were doing. Neither one knew how to relax. Both are dead. One died in his 30s and one died in his 40s. Now whether there was a correlation between between the way they lived and their death, I don't know, but one died with a heart attack and the doctor said he had the heart of an old man. Relax in the Lord. 

The 23rd Psalm gives us some good insights, and spells out an attitude that we can develop towards life. Last time we looked at the phrases, “The Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Today, let's look at the next three phrases, “He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” The key word of these phrases is the word “lead”. In the shepherd and the sheep image, the shepherd leads the sheep. What does that mean to you and to me? Paul's letter to Philippians 2:13,”God is at work in you to make you willing and able to obey his own purpose.” God is at work in you. God is not passive. God is not sitting up somewhere in some place looking at us. God is not just observing you. God is not removed from you and is just someone to whom you pray on occasion. God is not over there and we're over here. God is at work in you. Relax in that knowledge. Relax in trust that God is at work in you. 

How is God working in you and in me? The psalm tells us he leads. Where is God primarily located? Some say up, some say down in the depths of our soul. Some have him way in the past in the good old days. I think God is primarily located, according to this psalm, ahead of you and me. Where is God? He is ahead of us leading, calling us into the future, leading us into tomorrow, leading us into that next step. God is ahead of us. There's great comfort in the fact that God goes before us leading as the shepherd leads the sheep. Sometimes the shepherd leads in tenderness and sometimes he leads more emphatically with the crook of the staff around the throat or with a good swift jab in the ribs of a recalcitrant lazy sheep. God impels, propels, pushes, pulls, tugs, calling us. As Jesus pointed out in that beautiful story. When the shepherd counted his sheep, he had 99. But he was not content to let that one sheep remain lost. God and the shepherd went, searched, found the sheep and carried him home in his arms. 

God leads, God cares. God leads in love. So heed the leading. Listen, be aware of, recognize how God is leading, how God is working on us. Take for example, the body. Our body tells us, the body speaks to us, our mind speaks to us, tells us when to stop, when to relax, when to let up. When we get in tune with our body, we can understand it and we can hear it. The older style of training athletes was the Tear and Repair system. The idea was that you so exerted yourself, you so strained yourself that you ached. You pushed yourself to the point where you literally needed to be repaired, you were tore down. Then you rested a while and came back after the body had a chance to repair. The theory was that by overpushing yourself and overextending, and then coming back, you were developing your body. Now many of the trainers say that system is in error. Listen to the body. Increase a little day by day in whatever you're doing. Increase the exercises, develop stamina gradually. Listen to the body. And when it speaks, when the back hurts, stop. When the head aches, quit. Relax. The body is trying to speak. God is at work in us. God speaks in many various ways. Get in tune and listen. Be aware, recognize and heed the leading. 

What is God doing in us? Paul said, “God is at work in you to make you obey his purpose.” Psalm 23 spells that out in a little more detail. What is God doing in your life? The psalm says, “He restores my soul”— restores, revives, renews. Like a watch that runs down we need to be wound up or with these newfangled contraptions, when the battery wears out every year we put in a new battery. Or like the juice that is extracted from an orange leaving only the pulp left. Life sucks the juice out of us and leaves the pulp. We're tired, we're weary, we get discouraged, we lose our enthusiasm. We wane. We need to be renewed, revived, restored. God is at work in us to revive and to renew us. God is at work in us to restore us to himself, to restore us to a relationship with Christ. 

The primary motivation that pushes us day after day is to belong, to fit, to be at one. That which undergirds all our actions and all our movements is to be at one with God. We are restless, we are anxious, we are nervous, we are uptight when we're not in relationship with God. We are constantly being driven. God is at work in us to be in relationship with Christ to have salvation, reconciliation, redemption, to be at one with God, to be at one with nature, to be at one with other people, to have at least one other person, if not more, with whom we are in essential unity. God is at work in us, Heed those signs. Heed those words. Heed those feelings that gnaw and tug at us to enter into relationship. 

How are we restored? How does God do it? Well, one of the other images in this psalm is, “He leads me beside the still waters.” In the summer especially, there's something very renewing, invigorating and therapeutic about water. Sheila Morris has written, “We are drawn like a magnet to water, to rivers, to lakes, to the ocean.” And she's written a little article called H20. “What is there about water that so draws and inspires us to seek it out for quiet times? The roar of a mighty ocean as waves crash against the beach, the timelessness of those waves, do they remind us of the eternal nature of God? Does the roar drown out the noises in our own life that clamor for our attention? Do the waves rock us into reflection? Or is there something soothing in the ocean? If we don't have an ocean, where do we go? How about a lake—sometimes large, sometimes small, lakes still have the same pull to the water, quiet times sitting on the dock of a lake, sun sparkling and dancing on the water, wind blowing across the lake, soft breezes, little ripples, thousands of ripples to break the calm of the water. Something serene about a lake. God gives us a lake to remind us of the peace we have in Jesus. Not a peace dependent upon our external circumstances, but a peace available within our nature. And then there are streams. Now don't sell a little stream short. I fished in many streams. Well, at least I've carried a rod. I've waited in streams. I've sat beside streams. I feel the same attraction to a mountain stream as I do a sandy ocean. Busy little streams always moving at different paces toward some destination. Sometimes finding obstacles of rocks, fallen trees, other debris, but always making a wave. The Christian pilgrimage is a lot like a mountain stream.”

God revives through water. But this image also shows us another aspect of the care of the shepherd. For the shepherd is protecting the sheep. A sheep is fearful of running water, a running stream for the sheep has a heavy wool. If the sheep falls into the stream, the wool absorbs the water, the sheep sinks and cannot swim, cannot float. So the shepherd must lead the sheep to the still waters, especially where there were whirlpools in Palestine, especially were whirlpools dangerous. But the shepherd protected the sheep from all those whirlpools of life that get ahold of us and suck us in and puts us in a swirling motion. The shepherd led the sheep to the quiet, still waters. God is at work in us to restore us by leading us to still waters. 

Secondly, God is at work in us to restore us by leading us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. The sheep needed a sense of direction. Sheep have no sense of direction like most of us. It was difficult for the sheep to see. A sheep could not see more than ten feet. The sheep was quite a helpless creature. The shepherd had to be the eyes of the sheep. The hillsides of Palestine were filled with paths. Some of the paths led to precipices where the sheep could fall. Some of the paths are very narrow, and the sheep could fall off the side. Some of the path were dead ends. The shepherd led the sheep on the right path, the path that led to green pastures, the path that led to still waters. A shepherd led the sheep on the right path. 

To relax in the Lord and to be restored in the Lord means to walk on the right paths. How many people cannot relax because of the way they live! How many people cannot relax because they feel so guilty over the way they live. People can't relax because they're ashamed of what they're doing. They're not proud of the way they're living. It's difficult for them to stand in front of the mirror in the mornings because they're filled with guilt knowing what they're not doing and what they could be doing. Many people then drive themselves to always keep busy, busy, so they don't have to stop and take a look at themselves. They’re not happy with themselves. Whether they're lying, or whether they're cheating in their daily lives, whether they're untruthful, whether they're hurting other people, or whether they're just not living up to their expectations, they are not the kind of people they want to be— lacking in integrity. Such a person finds it difficult to relax. Righteous living makes for healthy sleeping. Righteous living makes for healthy living. 

Some people can't look at themselves in the mirror because they're selfish. Some people are not in a restored relationship and happy. They have not discovered the happiness and joy in the Lord because they are not willing to let go, relax and trust. They want to hang on to their money. Or they want to hang on to their ambitions, or they want to hang on to their own petty little dreams. They want to hang on to some worldly ambition and image. They want to hang on to something and they don't want to let it go in the Lord. They are not willing to let go, not willing to trust, not willing to completely relax in the arms of the shepherd which leads to tension, anxiety and being uptight. Let go. 

Relax in the confidence that the Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness.

© 1977 Douglas I. Norris