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I Can't Change - Psalm 23

“This is who I AM MOM - you just don’t understand me” - it’s the motto of every teenage generation. As we transition from child to adult there’s this period in the middle where you are sort of - both. And a huge part of the teenage experience is figuring out your identity. Am I a jock? Am I a nerd? A band geek? A popular kid? A goth kid? Am I a hipster? Or a swiftie?  Think back in your life - what was the thing that you were obsessed with when you were a teenager? What was your identifying feature?vWhat did you see as your “thing” when you were a kid? Sometimes it’s a hobby - like I had a friend who was into equestrian stuff. Her whole life was horses. That’s just who she was. I had a buddy and for him - it was guitar. He was this amazing musician and he spent every waking moment in his room noodling on his guitar. When we would hang out, I would ask him, ‘What you do this weekend?” And he would just stare at me - I played guitar. Duh. For me - I was a nerd who desperately wanted to be one of the punk rock kids. I got really good grades and I actually loved school and learning (math and science were my favorite subjects) - but I didn’t want anybody to know that. I wanted to be in the band scene. All my friends - we were in “bands”, right? So we wore the black t-shirts, and the stud belts, the saggy jeans - I know it’s hard to believe in a skinny jean world, but ripped up, saggy jeans used to be the style. Actually, that’s one of my favorite things about Gen Z is that they seem to be going back and taking all of their style trends FROM childhood. “Check it out, we’ve got baggy pants that are ripped at the bottom” Don’t talk to me, my people INVENTED ripped jeans, okay? [laugh] So I went back and I found some pictures. And I want you to understand I’m being vulnerable right here. Okay? So please be nice, but this is your pastor.

Look at that dork. Hair in your eyes was a big thing, and bandanas - I still use a bandana all the time, but now I carry it in my pocket to clean up baby spit up. And angry - that was a part of it. You always had to look angry. This is my Senior picture, I’m 17 in that picture, yuck. [show pics 3 and 4 sr pic and sweater] If you’ve met me for ten seconds you know in my real life I’m this bubbly upbeat personality, but that’s not cool - and so we make that face. Hmmm, I’m tough and I’m deep and edgy. Alright one more and then we need to put me out of my misery [pics 5-6, church and highlights]. Ugh, I forgot I had highlights. What a loser. [laugh]. I had a different shirt on in every picture, and yet they were all black - because that was part of my identity. This is my point with all of this - this is not just public humiliation - every single one of us over the course of our lives, we have crafted an identity. How we see ourselves, how we present ourselves to the people around us. And what I want to show you today is that THAT identity can change. 

If you’ve been with us the past couple of weeks, you know that we are right in the middle of a series of messages called “The Lies I Tell Myself” - and we started with this recognition that if you believe a lie, it will affect your life same as if it was true. The lies that you believe, the lies the world around you has fed you, creates a cage that holds you back from who God has called you to be. But thankfully God’s truth has a habit of ripping the lies of this world to shreds. And so for a framework we have been walking through Psalm 23, one verse a week. It’s like the easiest series ever - you only need to learn one verse a week. But what’s cool about it is that we get to see that God only needs one verse to destroy the lies that are holding you back. There’s a lot of people in this room and in this world who tell themselves, “I can’t change, this is just the way I am” - but let’s take a look at what God’s word has for us. Let’s dive in. 

If you want to open up your bibles, or look it up on your phone - I’m going to get started in Psalm 23 - and I’ll be using the New King James Version - Psalm 23, the poetic translation puts it like this, [read v.1-3]. And I want to zoom in on verse 3. Let’s throw that up on the screen. There’s two big parts to this, but it’s actually a little tricky. When most people hear that first sentence, “he restores my soul” - I think a lot of people think of rest or comfort. Like, “I was depressed, and the Lord restored my soul and helped me feel better.” We think of it as “refreshed” or ‘replenished” - but that’s not actually what it means. The literal translation is “he brings me back” - so it’s restores, as in, you got off the path, and he put you back on the path. We’ve been talking a lot about shepherds and sheep and this fits perfectly. The sheep gets lost and the shepherd has to go after it, find it and carry it back. He restores the sheep. Actually, I didn’t know this - but when a sheep realizes that it’s lost, a lot of times it will hide under a bush or a rock and it starts quivering and bleating. It just starts crying - “Baa, baaaa” - problem is, the shepherd has to find it quick, before a predator finds it. Because cowering under a bush screaming “I’m helpless and lost and alone I sure hope nobody comes to eat me” is not a great plan when it comes to self defense. This is the part I’d never heard before tho - when the shepherd finds the sheep, they quiver, they’re too scared and so they shake. And many times they are too traumatized to walk, and so they have to be carried back to the village. So shepherds would put them over their shoulders to carry them, which is why in the famous paintings the shepherds are carrying the sheep like that - that’s a real thing they do! (so cool). So when it says, “he restores my soul” - the best way to understand it is “he brings me from the wrong path to the right path.” Last week the message was about rest, and lying down in green pastures and drinking from still waters - it was a message of slowing down and finding rhythms of rest. But this is more than that, this message goes deeper.

We actually see this in the story of Jesus - I’m going to jump all the way over to Luke chapter 15, where it says [read v.1-3]. Okay, so that was the framework, and we’re going to come back to that in a minute, but let’s hear the story. [read v.4-7]. There’s like literally a thousand years between Psalm 23 and Luke chapter 15, and yet it’s SO clear that Jesus is the good shepherd that David’s talking about - I love it, so amazing. But remember, Jesus tells this story of that little lost sheep inside a framework. He was hanging out with Tax Collectors and “notorious sinners” - and he was getting criticized for associating with those people, even eating with them. Now I don’t know what level of sinning you gotta do to get into the “notorious” category, but it’s probably not the jay-walkers. But Jesus puts the lost sheep story out there, and then he slam dunks the point home in verse 7 [read it again]. Do you see it? The lost sheep is a story about repentance. When Psalm 23 says, “he restores my soul” - it’s not about feeling good, or about getting some rest and feeling refreshed - it’s about repentance. Now I’ve used that word a couple of times, “repentance”, and maybe you’re not a churchy person and you’ve never heard that word. Let me explain it like this - repentance is when you realize you’ve done something wrong. You realize you’re lost, you realize you’re on the wrong path, and you decide to turn around. In your heart and in your life - you realize, I want to be found. I want to be restored. I want to be put back on the right path. That’s repentance -  because listen, Jesus didn’t sit down at the dinner table with these tax collectors and notorious sinners and look them in the eyes to say, “look, I just love what you’re doing with your life. You do you, girl. This is the way I made you and I know you can’t help it - you just have to steal money from people and lie and cheat” [or whatever they were doing.] Jesus didn’t hang out with sinners to affirm them, or approve of what they were doing. He hung out with them to save them. To find them. To bring them home. That’s what Psalm means - he restores my soul. He brings my soul home. 

“I can’t change, this is just the way I am” - have you ever heard that? I hear it all the time, OR the redneck cousin of that lie is “I don’t WANT to change, this is who I am - take it or leave it.” This lie forgets who we actually are. We’re not statues chiseled out of stone - we’re living, breathing creatures - we grow, we learn, we mess up, we repent, we heal.  I can’t change, says the seed before the rains come. I can’t change, says the baby bird before its feathers grow in. I can’t change says the flower bud before the sun comes out. Here is the truth for you this morning. You were made for change. You were made for restoration.  And I want to be careful - this is not me pressuring you, “you just have to try harder to change.” No! No, not at all - the sheep can’t find itself, it needs the shepherd to guide it. I’m not putting the pressure on you - Jesus will bring the change in your life. You just have to follow him.  Psalm 23, verse 3 - let’s put it back on the screen. “He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

He leads me in paths of righteousness - it’s funny, going back to the sheep in the ancient middle east - the open wilderness of the Holy Land, when you walk around, you can see on the ground a maze of faint trails worn by countless flocks of sheep. The paths that they take are really important. Only the shepherds know which of them leads out of the valley, and which paths lead to a dead end, or off of a cliff. Little side note - this is absolutely true, there was a story back in 2005 in modern day Turkey, there was this massive herd of sheep. 1,500 sheep grazing nearby, and the shepherds left the sheep to go get breakfast. The sheep were grazing near a cliff. And one sheep jumped off the cliff to its death. And then one thousand four hundred and ninety-nine sheep followed it over the cliff. The crazy part of the story is that most of the sheep lived. 450 sheep died as they plunged off the cliff, but then the pile of sheep got so big, that it was kind of like a big giant pillow for the rest of the sheep to land on. It was still a devastating loss, losing basically a third of the flock - do you remember when I said last week that sheep are really stupid? But it was such a crazy story that proves sheep are very willing to go down the wrong path. We believe this lie that we cannot change, that we are stuck and then we try to make our own way right off the edge of the cliff. But the good shepherd leads us in the paths of righteousness, and NOT over a cliff. [laugh]. Really this is the one-two punch of salvation, right? First we are saved, we are restored, we accept Jesus as our savior. THEN we follow him. This is the difference between Jesus as savior and Jesus as LORD. A lot of people like the “Jesus as savior” - he comes in, he rescues me, he carries me on his shoulders, I’m just a little lost sheep, and it’s so nice to be carried around by Jesus. But the next step is “Jesus as LORD.’ After he has saved us. Jesus has come into our lives, washes away our sins, saved us from the power of sin and death and hell itself - the next day we wake up, we have to choose to follow him. He leads me in paths of righteousness.

It reminds me of Romans, chapter 6. If you don’t know, Romans is the book of the bible in the New Testament, written by this guy Paul. And Romans as a book is sort of an intro to theology, and intro to understanding God. And Paul spends a lot of time explaining different parts of following Jesus. And first he explains salvation, he explains when the shepherd comes and saves the sheep. But in Chapter six, Paul answers this question - “If Jesus forgives me… saves me… does that mean I can keep sinning?” If he’s going to wash me clean, it doesn’t matter if I get dirty - right? I don’t have to change, I’ll just keep going through the spiritual car wash. I think Paul saw this video - have you seen this? [show sheep in ditch video: sheep jumping back into ditch] Romans 6 says in verse 1, [read v.1-2] I love that so much. Paul is a bit of a sassy boy, and he has no time for that nonsense, “Of course not!” Romans 6, verse 12 [read v.12-14]. First he restores our soul, and then he leads us in paths of righteousness. 

The good news that I have for you this morning is that God will restore you and he will lead you. For those of us who realize we are lost sheep, and we cry out to Jesus - we ask for forgiveness, we trust him to save us - God forgives us. He is ready to restore your soul. To bring healing into your life. And repentance isn’t about feeling sorry for who you are. Repentance is about choosing a new path. It’s that moment in our lives where we look at life and say, “okay, my way got me lost - it got me into this mess, but God’s way can get me home. God will restore you AND he will lead you. Repentance and leading a Christian life is about saying “God, I will go where YOU lead. Not just where I want to go.” 

Let me see if I can bring this home. I’ve talked about this a little bit - but a lot of my story is me learning to trust God’s guidance rather than my own plan. I make all these plans, and God says “nope - you’re not going down that path.” I’ve loved Jesus since I was really little, but in high school I got really good grades in math and science - and so I thought I’d be a doctor. I wanted to serve God, so I figured I’d be a missionary doctor. It wasn’t even really what I wanted to do, but I just thought - this is the way I am, these are the test scores I have, I don’t have a choice. And I wanted to do the missionary thing because I believed that all the Christians were “over there” - wherever that was. America, well - everybody knows about Jesus in America - so I need to go over there, and I have to be a doctor because I have good test scores. And I’ll never forget this - I met with a guidance counselor at one of the universities. It was at Indiana Wesleyan University - I didn’t even go to that school - but I met with the guy, and we’re talking med school and pre-med and all that. And at one point, he sort of leans across the table, and he’s like, “you don’t seem very excited about med-school” - and I just had this moment of honesty, I was like, “I’m not! I don’t really want to, but I have to because this is who I am. I can’t change.” And he sits back in his chair and challenged me that day, he said, “forget what people are telling you to be - what is God leading you towards?” I don’t even remember that man’s name, but he changed my life. I started asking, “where is God leading me?” rather than “where do I feel like going?” And so I switched my major from pre-med to religion, and then God started showing me that there’s a whole lot of people who need Jesus right here in my backyard. I don’t need to go “over there” - the need is right here in our community. And it’s almost worse in America - because a lot of our neighbors know about Jesus, or even think they know him - but they don’t follow him. Sort of like that sheep that jumps right back into the ditch.  There’s an authenticity crisis in American Christianity - and when I started asking God “where are you leading me - I never thought he’d say, “look around” I’m leading you to follow me, right here.” God restores us and then he leads us in the paths of righteousness. Ask yourself - are you feeling stuck? Do you believe the lie that you can’t change, that this is just who you are? Or will you follow the good shepherd?

My challenge to you this week has two parts. First - I want you to find your identity in Jesus. Don’t let sin become your identity. Don’t get stuck in the mentality that “this is just how I am, and I will always be like this.” Maybe you have sinful desires - I know I do. Maybe you’re a gossip, or you just lack the fruits of spirit. Maybe you have habits or addictions that are keeping you away from God. But what I’m trying to tell you today is that those things do not have to define you. You can be free. You can change. Think about what Paul said in Romans, chapter 6 verse 14, “Sin is no longer your master…instead you live under the freedom of God’s grace.” I want you to find your identity in Jesus. They say one of the hardest things about people who get out of prison - one of the greatest obstacles that keeps them from re-adjusting to society is that they are defined by the worst thing they have ever done. If they committed a felony, then they are a felon. That’s all we know about them. We reduce their identity down to the worst thing they have ever done. To move past that and grow as a person - to overcome their past they can’t identify themselves with their sin. Think about it like this - if you have ever lied, then you are a liar. And I’m not going to point fingers - I’ll use myself as an example. I have lied. I am a liar. But do I take that label and make it my identity? This is just who I am, I can’t change. No. Because sin is no longer my master. If you have ever cheated then you are a cheater. If you have ever stolen then you are a thief. But do we let those things become our identity? This is just who I am, I can’t change - absolutely not. Because sin is no longer my master, I’m going to live under the freedom of God’s grace. Find your identity in Jesus, don’t identify with your sin. I have a lot of friends who are alcoholics. They struggle every single day with alcohol. I have one good friend, and he does use the label. He’s been sober for decades, but he still calls himself an alcoholic - rather than use that as an excuse to give in, he uses it as a warning to keep himself on the path. He knows that he is one of the sheep that is prone to wander, and so he stays right behind the shepherd. Find your identity in Jesus, let Jesus restore your soul. 

My second challenge is follow Jesus on the path. What the Psalm is teaching us today is that God will restore us and lead us down the right path. So 1) let God restore you and 2) follow him down the path of righteousness. Now I’m not just using cute words - there are real ways you can make this happen. They are called the “means of grace.” If you’ve never heard of that, don’t worry - it’s kind of obscure. 300 years ago there was this guy John Wesley. He was a HUGE dork. Brilliant organizational mind, but he was very methodical, almost neurotic. He wrote down lists and methods for how to do everything. In his hymnal he wrote down instructions for “how to sing” on the first page. But he also came up with something called the means of grace. These are the methods, the stuff you can do to grow closer to God. The means by which you can experience God’s grace. And he split them into two categories. The acts of piety, which is the vertical, growing closer to God. That was stuff like prayer, reading your bible, communion, worship. And then Acts of Mercy, which is the horizontal, growing closer to God’s people. This was stuff like visiting the sick, visiting the prisons, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked - your basic love of neighbor stuff. And what he taught was that if you do these things you will grow closer to God. But really what it is is that doing all that stuff helps you follow Jesus closely with your life. The Means of Grace are just ways of living the Christian life. So my challenge for you this week is to look at the list - and ask yourself, where could you grow? Where could you follow Jesus more closely?

This is just the way I am, MOM - I can’t change. I think this is one of those lies that we tell ourselves all the time. We all believe it, even just a little bit. I can’t help it, I’ll never change - this is just who I am. But even just looking back to who you were as a teenager. Take it from this kid [put the picture back up]. That guy was so convinced of his identity. I’m never going to change, this is who I AM. And if THAT can turn into this [point to yourself] - maybe we’re not as stuck as we thought. Maybe God made us for growth. Maybe we were made to be restored. Sin is no longer your master. If you choose Jesus, you can be restored and follow him down the paths of righteousness. Let’s pray.


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