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God before us

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Psalm 23:1-3

It has been a strange week in the news. In a village in eastern India, a young girl was married to a stray dog to ward off an evil spirit. The girl is free to get married later in life to a man, without seeking a divorce from her canine spouse. We have no word as to whether the dog is free to seek other companionship as well.

Newcastle University in England has proven that cows which are given names increase their milk yields by up to 500 pints a year. For all of you who are dairy farmers in Dallas, this is a tip worth remembering.

And we learned this week the exciting news that the United Kingdom has reclaimed the world underwater ironing title from Australia. Dozens of divers coordinated their efforts to win this coveted prize. How does underwater ironing work?

The weather has been unusually strange in Dallas this week, from an ice storm on Tuesday to something called “frozen fog” on Thursday morning to 69 degrees on Saturday. It could be worse—more than a million people lost power in Kentucky, and some won’t get it back until the middle of the month.

We live in a fallen, unpredictable world. And now the Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl. What’s next, a World Series for the Rangers?

The one constant, unchanging fact of human existence is the God-shaped emptiness in each of us, the fact that our hearts are restless until they rest in him. In good times and bad, sunshine and ice storms, the created needs the Creator.

We have been working through the promises made by God to Solomon for awakening in the land. Now we turn to the faith experience of Solomon’s father.

David was the greatest king the Jewish nation has ever known, the only person ever described as a “man after God’s own heart,” a man who arguably knew more about personal awakening than anyone. His most famous autobiographical testimony of faith is recorded in Scripture as our Psalm 23.

I began my preaching ministry at Park Cities by exploring this remarkable confession of faith with you. We will return to it for these three weeks, seeking the kind of personal revival and awakening which was David’s experience with God.

How can you know God more intimately today? How can you experience personal awakening this week?

Know your need of God

The most famous poem in the world begins, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (v. 1). If he is our shepherd, we are his sheep. And not just in this passage. Forty-four times in the Bible, God calls us sheep. In fact, “sheep” is the most common metaphor for human beings in all of Scripture.

You need to know that this is not a compliment. Sheep are beautiful animals from a distance, but among the dumbest and most defenseless beings God ever made. Does anyone keep pet sheep? Have you ever seen a sheep in a circus? Sheep are defenseless against every predator. They must be guarded and led every day. The shepherd must live with them and watch them constantly, or they’ll wander into trouble. God is not attempting to increase our self-esteem by calling us sheep.

But surely this description doesn’t apply to all of us. Some of us are smarter and more self-sufficient than sheep. But Isaiah 53:6 says, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” God says that every one of us is a sheep.

We don’t like to admit that we need God. But we can’t have a shepherd until we admit that we need one, that we are sheep. Jesus’ first Beatitude says, “Blessed are those who know their need of God” (Matthew 5:3). Do you believe that you need more of God than you are now experiencing?

Seek his direction

First I admit that I am a sheep in need of a shepherd. Then I seek his direction, trusting that his will is always best for me. That’s easier said than done. Don’t you sometimes worry that if you sold out to God he would make your life different than you want it to be? Less successful or wealthy or happy? Send you as a missionary to Afghanistan?

And yet this Shepherd promises that “I shall not be in want” (v. 1). Why not?

“He makes me to lie down in green pastures” (v. 2a). In the pastures of the Middle East grow poisonous plants which are fatal to the sheep, and other plants whose sharp thorns will stab their soft noses. The shepherd must lead them to pastures where good grass grows.

“He leads me beside quiet waters” (v. 2b). The sheep is a very poor swimmer because of its heavy wool coat. Its body weight multiplies five times when wet, like a man trying to swim while wearing five heavy wool overcoats. Instinctively, the sheep know they cannot swim in swift currents, so they will not drink from a moving stream. They must be led to quiet waters or they will die of thirst.

And he leads me “in paths of righteousness” (v. 3b). There are paths in Palestine which lead off cliffs, and the sheep will walk down them to their deaths. The good paths are called “the paths of righteousness,” and the good shepherd leads his sheep down them.

In every way the shepherd wants the best for his sheep—food, drink, and safety.

Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Do you want to know and do God’s will as much as he wants you to know and do it? The Psalmist prayed, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God” (Psalm 143:10). When last did you ask God to do that? Paul admonishes, “Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:17).

Do you know God’s will for your life today? Do you want to know it? How can you?

Seek God in his word. Ask the Spirit to speak to you from the words of Scripture. Find a promise or principle which applies to your question or problem, and trust it.

The Westminster Confession of Faith is right: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life is either expressly set down in Scripture or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture, unto which nothing at anytime is to be added whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of man.” In other words, God reveals his will in his word.

Seek God in his worship. Pray, spending time alone with your Father. Listen for his voice. Ask his Spirit to speak to your spirit.

Seek God in the wisdom of his people. Counsel with godly men and women, people who submit to the Spirit. Know that God will speak to you practically, intuitively, and rationally.

God promises us, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). Claim his promise and it is yours.

Follow his lead

Admit you need more of God, and seek his direction for your life. Now choose to obey what you know to do. No leader can lead those who won’t follow. Trust what you believe. Do what God says. It is not enough to believe that a pilot is competent—you have to get in the airplane. You cannot know that the plane will land safely until you get on board.

We must follow God before we can know that his will is best for us.

Sheep have very poor eyesight. They cannot see 10 or 15 yards in front of themselves. And they are dumb enough to follow the sheep in front of them off a cliff or into a crevasse.

You cannot trust your eyes or your friends. You and I must trust the leadership of the God who loves us. When we do, we prove that his will is indeed “good, pleasing, and perfect” (Romans 12:2). But only then.

Adam and Eve were told to trust God in refusing the forbidden fruit, lest they “die.” But no one had ever “died” before. They didn’t understand, so they didn’t obey. And the warning came true for us all.

Noah was told to build an Ark when it had never rained. Abraham was told he would be the father of a great nation when he had no children and his wife had no ability to bear them. Moses was told to stand up to Pharaoh with nothing but a shepherd’s staff. David went into battle with Goliath with nothing but a handful of rocks and a sling.

Jesus healed a blind man when he went to the pool to wash. He healed a lame man in the instant that he took up his mat to walk. He healed a man with a withered hand in the moment that the man tried to move it by faith. He sent his Spirit at Pentecost only after his people risked their lives by staying in Jerusalem to pray.

God is still calling his people to trust his will by faith.

He called Bill and Vonette Bright to begin Campus Crusade for Christ on the UCLA campus in 1951, when they were the only employees of the ministry. Campus Crusade now engages over 25,000 staff members in 191 countries of the world.

My friend Walt Wilson was one of Steve Jobs’ first hires when he started Apple. Walt left when Jobs left the first time, and eventually became the head of a multi-billion dollar software company in Silicon Valley. Walt resigned from that position five years ago to begin an Internet evangelism ministry called Global Media Outreach. I’ve been to their world headquarters in San Jose, and met all seven of their staff.

Last year they shared the gospel with more than 17 million people through their 91 websites, with more than three million indicating that they prayed to receive Christ as their Lord. They saw conversions in all 191 countries of the world.

Conclusion

Now God is calling you and me to make him our shepherd. No human is the Good Shepherd, not me or anyone else. Why trust Jesus fully and unconditionally? Why admit that you need a more intimate and passionate relationship with him? Why seek him with all your heart and trust him with all your life?

Jesus’ self-description in John 10 is the best commentary on Psalm 23 in all the Bible.

Listen to your Lord’s words: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:7-10).

How was a shepherd the “gate” for the sheep? After he brought the sheep into the enclosure for the night, he would then lay across the doorway and sleep there, on the ground. That way no thieves could get in and no sheep could wander out. He would die if necessary for his sheep. The Good Shepherd, in fact, did.

Now he wants to lead you to peace, purpose, and joy no matter the circumstances of your fallen world. Those who have trusted him most fully have known his peace most joyfully.

On Friday afternoon we held a memorial service to celebrate the life and faith of Sara Foxworth. Sara battled leukemia for years, suffering through three bouts of stem-cell transplants. Toward the end, her body ravaged and in excruciating pain, she could barely speak to those who came to see her. But in the hardest, darkest hours, there was an amazing peace of God about her.

Sara had for years been one of Jesus’ most devoted, loving, passionate followers. To know her was to know Christ more fully. She was his sheep in every way, and he was her shepherd. When she needed his presence and peace most, she knew them most fully. And now she is home and she is well.

Jesus was her Good Shepherd. Is he yours?