Scripture: Psalm 23: 3; Genesis 32:22-30
Date: August 10, 2014
We pick up today with our consideration of the 23rd Psalm. This morning we want to focus on that part of the third verse, which reads: He restores my soul.
But before we settle there, I want us to go back a few hundred years before David wrote these words, and take a look at this story from the life of Jacob. Now, quite frankly I have always found this wrestling match on the river bank a little hard to understand. It’s not that I don’t know what it feels like to wrestle with God. It seems like I spend a lot of my time in that mode because there are so many times that what I want and what God wants are not compatible, and so I wrestle with Him until I can wrestle no more and I give in. And every time it seems that I have submitted, retired from wrestling, something else comes along and a new match begins. I have come to the conclusion that, no matter how old I get, part of me is going to continue to fight. I suspect that we can chalk that up to human nature. I read an article about George Foreman, who before the George Foreman indoor grill was a pretty good prize fighter. He retired at the age of 35 after losing the heavy weight championship to Mohammed Ali. But at 45 he came out of retirement and fought several more times and retired again. When he was 55 he talked about coming out of retirement again and when asked why he said because he still had the fight within him. So it is with our relationship to God. No matter how young or old we are, we still have that fight in us. And so when God wants us to go one way, we often fight against Him and like Jonah, try to go another way. I know what it is to wrestle with God. But what has always puzzled me about this story is God touching Jacob’s leg and crippling him. Why would God do that?
Well, as I was working on this message, it occurred to me that perhaps the answer lies in understanding the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep, which, of course, is the centerpiece of Psalm 23 and what David had in mind when he talks about God “restoring our soul”. So what does that have to do with wrestling with God? Well sheep are prone to wander. Not because they are intentionally disobedient, but because they are just dumb. They don’t pay attention to what they’re doing. They let their appetites lead them, rather than their brains. And so they’ll see a clump of grass in the distance and knowing that it is better then the one they are munching on, they separate themselves from the flock and go munch on it. And then once they have grazed for awhile, they look around and discover another clump of grass that looks even better, and so they go to that salad bar for awhile. And each time they go to a new clump to graze they get a little bit farther away from the flock. After awhile they look around, and they are all alone, and because sheep don’t have a good sense of direction, they can’t find their way back. Now I looked at that description of a lost sheep and I thought about my own spiritual journey because that’s usually how I lose my way. Not all at once, but bit by bit. Always looking for that next thing which brings me pleasure, which fills my hungers, and with each pursuit wandering farther away from the flock. Haddon Robinson says that some sheep are more prone to wander and get lost then others. He writes:
The shepherd will go after a sheep again and again and restore it to the flock. Night after night he goes out to seek the lost animal, and night after night he brings it back to the fold. Sometimes, if this wandering becomes a pattern, the shepherd will break the sheep’s leg. Then he makes a splint for the broken leg, but the sheep is still helpless, so the shepherd carries the sheep close to his heart. (Perhaps you recall the famous picture of Jesus with the lamb hoisted up on his shoulders, being carried.) Then, as the leg begins to mend, the shepherd sets the sheep down by his side. But to the limping animal, the smallest stream looms like a giant river. The tiniest knoll rises like a steep wall. The sheep must depend completely on the shepherd to carry it across rough terrain. After the leg is healed the sheep has learned a lesson and it stays close to the shepherd’s side.
Now we look at that and probably think how heartless that is, for the shepherd to break the leg of the sheep. But then reflect on the enemies and hazards that await sheep in the wilderness. A defenseless sheep away from the flock has little hope of survival. So one that continues to wander away from the shepherd and the flock will not survive long on its own. And so, for its own good, the shepherd breaks its leg, which means that the shepherd is committing to carry that sheep everywhere the flock goes, until the leg heals. And when the shepherd is not carrying the sheep, it must remain right next to the shepherd. And then for the rest of its life, it walks with a limp which serves as a constant reminder to not wander from the flock. It is the shepherd’s way of restoring the wandering sheep to the flock. And so as I reflect on this wrestling match between God and Jacob, I would suggest that’s what is happening. Up until that moment, Jacob had been a very unsavory character. He had cheated his brother out of his birthright. He had neglected his wife Leah in favor of her sister. He had essentially snuck away in the middle of the night with half of his father in laws flocks. And now marching towards a confrontation with his brother, whom he feared would kill him because of his previous deception, Jacob had sent the women and children on ahead, hoping that his brother’s wrath would somehow be exhausted before he reached him. Jacob had continually wandered far from God’s flock. And now on the shore of the river, the Shepherd had come to restore him to the flock. And the shepherd calls him by name. Remember, that Jesus in describing himself as the good shepherd tells us that “he knows His sheep and He calls them by name.”
Look at the encounter here. Jacob tells God that he will not let Him go until he receives His blessing. And God says: “What is your name.”“Jacob” And then God says: “I will no longer call you Jacob, I will call you Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” So Jacob, now Israel, was called by name and restored to the flock. But God knew Jacob’s heart, and He knew that Jacob would stray again, and so, he gives him a limp to remind him for the rest of his life what his wanderings had led him to, there in the wilderness. Recall that Paul struggled with what he called “a thorn in his side”. Many scholars believe that Paul had a disease of the eyes that made them weep constantly and in later life made him nearly blind. Perhaps, scholars speculate, the problem began when Paul, who had wandered far from the flock, was converted and restored on the road to Damascus. He was blinded by the experience and it was only when Ananias came to Baptize him some time later, that “something like scales” fell from Paul’s eyes and his sight was restored. But for the rest of his life he struggled with his eyesight. “I prayed that God would take it away, but He did not,” Paul writes and so it became a reminder for him to not stray, to stay near enough so that he could hear the shepherd when he called his name. A reminder that God had “restored his soul” when he met Jesus. Jacob and Paul knew the pain that sometimes comes with restoration, but they also knew the joy of not wandering again. David, the shepherd king, also knew the pain of restoration. As a shepherd, he would have known what sometimes was necessary to restore a wandering sheep to the flock. And his own adultery with Bathsheba and the subsequent complicity in the death of her husband, cost him dearly. The son that was born of the union between David and Bathsheba died. And though some of the other Psalms he wrote, chronicle other times that David felt the urge to wander from God’s flock, the pain of that experience remained with him and called him back. Sometimes that process of restoration is a painful process, but it is the memory of that pain that keeps us from wandering from the flock again. And that is often the case with spiritual restoration. You see, God does not want us to experience pain in this life, but knowing that we will, He often uses those painful times to remind us, to call us back, to restore us.
The modern day Shepherd, Phillip Keller says that he has discovered that there are basically three reasons that sheep get separated from the flock. The first reason that sheep become separated from the flock is because they become distracted by the world around them. It’s the process I described earlier, searching for a greener and juicier clump of grass to munch on. And so they move from clump to clump and then look up and the flock is no longer in sight. That’s most often how it happens for me when I am confronted with temptation. If I just give in a little, what could it hurt. But next time it takes more to fill my hunger. And more and more. And before I know it, I’m lost. David Roper writes:
Moral collapse is seldom a blowout. It’s more like a slow leak, the result of a thousand small indulgences, the consequences of which are not immediately apparent. We are seduced by sin’s attraction and led on by subtle degrees. But still the shepherd comes, searching for me, hoping to restore me to the flock.
So sometimes our wandering is unintentional.
But sometimes it is willful disobedience. Sometimes a sheep is so headstrong that even though it knows what it is doing is wrong and even dangerous, the temptation of distant pleasures is too strong, and so it separates itself from the flock. Now sheep are selfish creatures, and if they see a green and juicy clump of grass, they will sneak away so they won’t have to share it with the rest of the flock. Sometimes our wanderings are like that, aren’t they? We know that our conduct is wrong. That we should not give in to the temptation, that we are moving into dangerous territory, but that sin is so enticing that we do it anyway. Even Paul wrote that “sometimes he does the very thing he hates.” We give into the temptation that we think will satisfy our hunger even though we know it will take us away from the flock.
The third way that sheep become separated from the flock, according to Keller is accidental, by becoming “cast down”. Now when we use that term, we usually are referring to being forcefully separated from the flock. We are “cast out”. In Jesus day, it was common for sinners to be cast out of the flock, to literally be stoned to death. And those who were the accusers were the ones to “cast” the stones. Remember when the woman who was caught in adultery was brought to Jesus, He saved her with the words, “Those who are without sin, CAST the first stone.” And the sounds of their righteous indignation and accusations were replaced by the thud of stone after stone being “cast” to the ground. But that’s not what cast means to a shepherd. A “cast” sheep is a sheep that has somehow gotten over on its back. Now, once a sheep is on its back, it’s center of gravity is such that it can not right itself. And so it will struggle in vain, until either it is rescued, or in a very short time, it will die. A sheep that is cast becomes separated from the flock, and will not live long. Often one of its many predators will find it in its helpless state. And even those who somehow survive the predators will die because as it lies on its back struggling and panicked, gasses build up in its blood, and as those gases expand, they cut off the circulation to the extremities, paralyzing the sheep. And eventually it will struggle to even breath and the heart will stop from the strain. On a hot day, a “cast sheep” will die in a few hours. In cooler weather, it might survive for a couple of days. Now sheep don’t get that way on purpose. When sheep lie down, they try to find a place in the ground that is slightly indented and conforms to the shape of its body. And it will lie down in the indentation and eventually roll to its side, but because sheep are fat and carry most of their weight in their midsection, they can easily roll too far and wind up on their back. Then unable to move, they will be left behind by the flock. When the shepherd discovers that one of his sheep is missing, his first thought would be that his sheep had been “cast down”. And he would rush to find it before it’s too late. In describing this process, Keller writes:
Again and again, I would spend hours searching for a single sheep that was missing. Then more often than not I would see it at a distance, down on its back, lying helpless. At once I would start to run toward it — hurrying as fast as I could — for every minute was critical. Within me there was a mingled sense of fear and joy; fear it might be too late; joy that it was found at all. As soon as I reached the cast ewe my very first impulse was to pick it up. Tenderly I would roll the sheep over on its side. This would relieve the pressure of(internal) gasses. If she had been down for a long time I would have to lift her onto her feet. Then straddling the sheep with my legs I would hold her erect rubbing her limbs to restore the circulation to her legs. This often took quite a little time. When the sheep started to walk again she often just stumbled, staggered and collapsed in a heap once more. All the while I worked on the cast sheep I would talk to it gently, (calling it by name), ‘When are you going to learn to stand on your own feet?’ ‘I’m so glad I found you in time.’
And eventually the sheep would be restored to the flock.
There are times in this life when we feel as though we have been cast down or cast out. Often through no real fault of ours. When grief comes, when illnesses invade, when tragedies strike.’ Sometime we feel so lonely, alone, defeated. We struggle and struggle until we don’t feel as though we can struggle anymore. Jacob wrestled with God, until he could wrestle no more. And so often it is those times that cripple us, that separate us from the flock, that make the shepherd seem so distant. I believe it is those times that David had in mind when he offered these incredible words of hope, “He restores my soul”. It is in those times when the great Shepherd searches and searches for us, and when He finds us, He gently embraces us, and He whispers our name, and gives us that calm assurance and the strength to stand once more. “He restores our soul”. And sometimes, that restoration can be a painful process. Sometimes it means rebuilding, reclaiming a life that has wandered far. And often, those lost times leave us walking with a limp through life. But you know what, I don’t think that Jacob minded that limp at all. In fact, I suspect that he, like Paul, came to rejoice in that limp. Because with each labored step through life he was reminded of that moment when God came and called him by name and “restored his soul.”
What about you? Did you come here this morning feeling separated from the flock. Maybe you’ve been wandering, trying to make it on your own. Struggling to find your way. Or maybe you have made some bad choices, bad decisions and lost your way. Or maybe you’re feeling cast down or out by life. No matter your circumstance, this morning the shepherd has a restoration project in mind for your life.
Some of you have followed our recent home renovation process. It began as simply remodeling a screened in porch into a space that could be used year round. But then we called in a structural engineer and discovered that the existing porch was not built well and one corner was sinking and the porch was about to collapse. And so the next thing I knew the existing porch was gone and a new structure was being built. And though I tried to insist that this was simply a remodeling project, the city and the Home Owners Association had a completely different perspective. No matter my assertions of the opposite, it soon became evident that this was going to be something completely new. And that’s exactly what God wants to do with us. He is not content to simply remodel our lives. He desires restoration. To make us completely new. All because He loves us so much. Because He loves you so much. He restores your soul.
After David sinned by taking the wife of another man for himself, God sent the prophet Nathan to David. And Nathan told him a story about a rich man who had more than he needed, had abundant flocks, but he saw a poor man who had only one lamb, and he took it from him. When David heard that story, he became furious with the rich man, and said, “He should die for what he did.” And Nathan looked at King David and said to him — “You are that man.” I think that was the moment that David began to walk with a limp. His moment of restoration. And so he wrote: He restores my soul. And sometimes they are our words. Because to all of us come those times when “we are that man.” Or we are that woman. When we wander from the flock. When our souls cry out for restoration. May this be that moment of restoration for you, that moment when you realize that God’s love for you, is so much greater than your sin. And that no matter how far you have strayed, God is searching for you and when He finds you He will do what is necessary to restore you to the flock.