March 29, 2020
Village Chapel Presbyterian Church
Dr. Todd R. Wright
What can I tell you about the 23rd Psalm that you do not already know?
It has been on your lips from when you …
memorized it as a child, probably using the cadences of the King James;
or bravely whispered, “I will fear no evil” while walking your valley of the shadow of death;
or clung to “I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever” as you grieved;
or made links between the Old and New Testaments as Jesus proclaimed, in John,
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my sheep know me”;
or laughed at the old joke about “goodness and mercy” following you like sheep dogs.
You may have colored pictures of green pastures or still waters;
or puzzled about eating in the presence of your enemies;
or nodded your head at the image of your cup overflowing;
but if you are like me, you have skipped past the phrase, “You anoint my head with oil.”
As the Bible study group heard on Monday, olive oil gets used in lots of ways in the Bible:
as fuel for simple lamps,
as oil for cooking,
as a base for perfume,
as a healing ointment,
and as a liturgical element for anointing.
But what does that have to do with sheep?
I’m glad you asked! Let me introduce you to Phillip Keller. He was the son of missionary parents stationed in Kenya. He grew up to be a photographer, agronomist, and author. His most popular book was, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. In it he brings a first-hand knowledge to the phrase, “You anoint my head with oil.”
Keller writes, “Only those who have kept livestock are aware of the serious problems for animals presented by insects. Their attacks can turn the golden days of summer into a time of torture for sheep.”1 The nose fly will buzz about the sheep’s head trying to deposit their eggs on the damp membranes of the sheep’s nose. The eggs will hatch in a few days and the larvae will work their way up into the sheep’s head where they burrow into the flesh causing irritation and inflammation.
“For relief the sheep will deliberately beat their heads against trees, rocks, posts, or brush. They will rub them in the soil and thrash around against woody growth.
They become frantic with fear and panic in their attempt to escape their tormentors. They will stamp their feet and race from place to place in the pasture trying desperately to elude the flies.” Some may refuse to graze in the open at all.
The result is exhaustion, a dangerous drop in weight, injury, sometimes even death.
A good shepherd will apply an antidote to their heads at the first sign of flies. Keller preferred a homemade remedy made of oil, sulphur, and tar which was smeared over the sheep’s nose and head as protection. (Did you get that? He anointed their heads with oil!)
Once the oil was applied, there was an immediate transformation: “Gone was the aggravation; gone the frenzy; gone the irritability and the restlessness. Instead the sheep would start to feed quietly again, then soon lie down in peaceful contentment.”
Like the sheep that Keller cared for, we are tormented by all sorts of tiny irritants that leave us distracted and hurting and exhausted.
Kate Bowler puts it well: “Fear is a terrible friend. Keeps us up at night. Seems to call at weird times. Doesn’t care if we are too busy or too sad. Prevents us from making any good decisions during the day. CONSTANTLY TALKS OVER US. [Whispering questions like:] What if? Have you heard? What about? Did you read this article?”2
Fear is buzzing all around us right now. Fear of the coronavirus or being laid off; of having to go to an overwhelmed ER or not being able to pay the bills; of shaking hands or our retirement fund being sucked dry. Fear of new technology; fear of running out of toilet paper; fear of running out of patience with the kids. Fears for ourselves; fears for our loved ones; fears for our neighbors; fears for our country; fears for our whole world.
When we are stuck at home, separated from the routines and rhythms that keep us grounded, trapped with fear as our steady companion, it gets worse. Doubts burrow into your flesh and multiply; irritation at simple things blossoms, anxiety chases you until your energy is sapped.
The psalmist has good news for us: the Good Shepherd promises to anoint your head with oil … and bring you peace!
Of course, being anointed doesn’t just bring relief. In the Bible it also brought responsibility … to kings and prophets, to a shepherd boy and a woman with a jar of oil. Being anointed with oil meant God had some work for you to do!
So, if the psalmist is right and God has anointed our heads with oil, what is God calling you to do? Perhaps to bring relief to others who are tormented … by flies or fear. Amen
1 Here and following, from pages 115-116
2 from her blog, see https://katebowler.com/no-reason-whatsoever/