Slippery Slopes and Wounded Sheep

Psalm 23:5

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.

Dear Friends in Christ,

Recently I came across an article about 3 of the most potent letters in the English language.  You’d probably be hard-pressed to figure out what they are, so allow me to share them with you.  Those 3 powerful letters are d-i-s – in that order – because when you attach them to the front of a word, everything changes.  For example, the word “obey” all of a sudden becomes “disobey.”  The word “agree” becomes “disagree.”  “Respect” becomes “disrespect.”  An “ability” becomes a “disability.”  “Grace” is turned into “disgrace” and “regard” becomes “disregard.”

Indeed, it would be tough to find a more potent trio of letters in the English language (and by the way, I don’t want you sitting there during the rest of my sermon trying to find a more potent trio of letters!  Just take my word for it.)  But we especially see the power of these 3 letters when we attach them to the front of the word appointment because all of a sudden that word becomes disappointment.  Appointments are kind of nice because they create a sense of predictability in our otherwise unpredictable lives.  I know as a pastor I look forward to an afternoon of scheduled appointments visiting with people in their homes or in my office because at least I know what to expect that day.  It means I have a certain degree of control over my life.  That was something that I didn’t have last Sunday for my 25th anniversary service and I have to confess it made me a bit nervous.  But everything turned out better than I could have ever imagined.

A disappointment reminds me that I don’t have control of my life.  A disappointment is in essence a missed appointment.  Or to put it another way, what we hoped would happen, didn’t happen.  We wanted health; we got sickness. We wanted that promotion at our job, but we got dismissed.  We wanted a hard-working, attentive husband; but we got a boring, TV-watching couch potato. And I’m sorry to say this, but disappointments are pretty hard to avoid in this sinful and imperfect world.  So the question is: What do we do with our disappointments?

Well, we could do what Miss Haversham did in Charles Dickens’ book Great Expectations.  After being jilted by her fiancé right before their wedding, her appointment at the altar became a major disappointment.  So what did she do?  Well, she went home and closed all the blinds in her house, stopped every clock, left the wedding cake on the table to gather cobwebs, and continued to wear her wedding dress until it grew tattered and yellow and simply hung around her shrunken form.  In other words, she allowed her disappointment to consume and control her life.

That’s one course we can follow.  Or, we can take another one.  We can follow the example of the Apostle Paul.  I don’t know how many of you know this, but his ultimate goal as an apostle, a missionary for Christ, was to carry the Gospel all the way to Spain.  But rather than end up in Spain, Paul ended up in prison.  And sitting in that Roman jail cell, Paul could have made the same choice as Miss Haversham made and simply given up, but he didn’t.  Instead, he thought to himself, “Well, as long as I’m here, I might as well make the best of a bad situation and write some letters.”  Because of that, your Bible has the Epistles to Philemon, the Philippians, the Colossians, and the Ephesians.  Now I’m sure Paul would have done a great work had he made it to Spain, but that couldn’t have possibly compared with the far greater work of those 4 Holy Spirit-inspired epistles that made it into the body of the New Testament.

Now I suspect that some of you here today have been where Paul has been.  In fact, I know it.  You had big plans, big goals for your life and you may have been well on your way to achieving them.  But then came the layoff or the pregnancy or the sickness or the divorce.  And all of a sudden, it was “So long, appointment; hello, disappointment.  Good-by, dreams; hello, pain.”

May I ask, how did you handle that when it happened?  Or perhaps I should say, how are you handling right now?  Could you use some help with your disappointments?  If so, I’ve got just what you need.  Six words in the fifth verse of the 23rd Psalm where David says to his Heavenly Shepherd: “You anoint my head with oil.”  You’re probably wondering what in the world a verse on oil has to do with the disappointments of life.  Well, that’s what I want to talk about today.

In ancient Israel shepherds used oil for 3 purposes: to repel insects, to prevent conflicts, and to heal wounds.  Let’s talk about each one of those and relate them to our lives.

We all know how bugs can bug people.  Marilyn and I certainly experienced that on our vacation a few months ago to Yosemite National Park.  One of our last days there we ended up hiking the farthest we’ve ever hiked in a single day – 15 ½ miles.  We started early in the morning and once we got into the woods the mosquitoes came out in full force.  They would fly right in front of our face.  Bug spray helped a bit, but not much.  Marilyn found a wide stick and kept waving that in front of her face to keep these irritating creatures away.  I just endured them and tried to ignore them.

So bugs bug people.  But you know what?  Bugs can kill sheep.  Flies, mosquitoes, and gnats can turn the summer into a time of torture for them.  Take, for example, nose flies.  If these insects succeed in depositing their eggs into the soft membrane of the sheep’s nose, the eggs hatch and become wormlike larvae, which drive the sheep insane.  One shepherd explains: “For relief from this agonizing annoyance sheep will deliberately beat their heads against trees, rocks, posts, or brush…In extreme cases of intense infestation a sheep may even kill itself in a frenzied endeavor to gain respite from the aggravation.”

For this reason, the shepherd anoints the sheep.  He covers their heads with an oil-like substance that acts as a repellent which keeps the insects at bay and the sheep at peace.

It’s a peace though that only lasts until mating season.  Most of the time sheep are pretty calm and passive animals.  But during mating season, everything changes as the rams, or male sheep, become – well, rambunctious.  They strut around the pasture and flex their necks, trying to win the attention of the ladies in the flock.  And if another ram is vying for the attention of that sweet young ewe, you know what happens.  A good old-fashioned head-butting contest ensues.

So to prevent injury, the shepherd anoints the rams.  He smears a slippery, greasy substance over their nose and head and on their horns so that when they butt heads, they glance off one another.

There are times though when they do get hurt.  And that brings us to the third reason the shepherd anoints the sheep.  Most of the wounds the shepherd treats are simply the result of living in the pasture.  Thorns prick; rocks cut; or a sheep rubs its head too hard against a tree.  So the shepherd regularly inspects the sheep, searching for cuts and abrasions.  He doesn’t want today’s wound to become tomorrow’s infection so he anoints the wound with oil to speed the healing process.

Well, in the light of what we’ve just learned about sheep, can you understand why the Bible often refers to us as sheep?  Do you see some similarities between them and us?  Just like sheep, we have wounds, don’t we?  Only ours are wounds of the heart that come from one disappointment after another.  And if we’re not careful, those wounds can become infected and turn to bitterness.  So just like a hurting sheep, we too need treatment from the Shepherd.

Then there are those times in our lives when we butt heads with someone else.  Perhaps a spouse, or one of our children, or our boss or that co-worker who just has a knack of getting under our skin.  Then add to that the day-to-day swarm of frustrations and mishaps and disappointments that bug us.  You don’t get invited to the dinner party.  You don’t make the team.  You don’t get the scholarship.  Your boss doesn’t notice your hard work.  Your husband doesn’t notice your new dress or hairstyle.

And just like that we’re wounded.  We’re hurt.  And like the sheep we’ve been talking about today, we need a Shepherd.  And the good news I want you to take home with you today is that though everyone else in the world may disappoint you, he won’t.  Ps. 100:3 says, “We belong to him; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”  And if the Gospels teach us anything about Jesus, they teach us that he is a Good Shepherd.  In John 10:11 Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Throughout his ministry, we see him tending to the countless needs of his sheep, touching lives wherever he went.  He touched the eyes of the blind man.  He touched the festering sores of the leper.  He touched the body of the dead girl.  He touched the searching heart of Nicodemus.  He touched the dejected heart of Zaccheus.  He touched the broken heart of Mary Magdalene.  He touched the repentant heart of Peter.  The point I’m getting at here, my friends, is that Jesus tends to his hurting and wounded sheep.  So you can be sure that he will tend to you.  That is, if you will let him.  The question is: How do you do that?

Let me give you 3 simple ways before I close.  First, go to him.  That’s what all those people did whom I mentioned before.  They went to Jesus.  And if you sometimes wonder whether Jesus will receive you, listen to his words in John 6:37: “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”  So have you taken your disappointments to him?  You’ve probably shared them with family members or friends or co-workers.  But have you really and truly taken them to Jesus?

Maybe you don’t want to trouble him with your hurts.  After all, he’s got hurricanes and floods and forest fires and wars to worry about.  Surely he won’t care about my little struggles.  Well, why don’t you let him decide that?  He cared enough about a wedding to provide more wine when it ran out.  He cared enough about the woman at Jacob’s well to give her the answers she’d been looking for.  He cared enough about the woman with a bleeding problem to give her her life back again.  And he cared enough about you to die for you on that old rugged Roman cross.  So rest assured, he cares about you.

So go to him.  Then secondly, bow before him.  In order to be anointed, the sheep must stand still, lower its head, and let the shepherd do his work.  Peter urges us to do the same in the 5th chapter of his 1st epistle when he says: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”  So when you come to God, make requests; don’t make demands.  State what you want, but pray for his will to be done.

And then finally, trust him.  The sheep, I’m sure, does not understand why the oil the shepherd anoints it with repels bugs or heals its wounds.  It just knows that something good happens in the presence of the shepherd.  And that’s all we need to know as well.  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” says the wise man, “and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

So go, bow, trust.  Why not give it a try and see what your Shepherd can do for you?