God's Providential Protection


June 19, 2011 DR. WILLIAM L. SELF Senior Pastor, Johns Creek Baptist Church

This is Father’s Day, as you well know. Some of you are trying to figure out what to do with that tie that was given to you this morning. As you may recall we’re making a slow journey through the 23rd Psalm. I’m going to do one verse today and then finish up next Sunday. We have read it so many times, but I want to read it again. I agree with Charles Allen that if someone reads this five times a day, seven days a week, it will change your life.

Psalm 23

1 The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures and He leads me besides quiet waters. 3 He restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

This morning I want to look at simply, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows and next week we will talk about dwelling in the House of the Lord forever. As you may have noticed now in our continual reading of the 23rd Psalm, it divides itself into three categories ,or as some have said, three scenes. The first scene is a very tranquil scene. It’s the scene of serene pastoral protection. The writer feels safe and secure because the shepherd is caring for him. And he thanks God for it.

But scene two, if you’re sensitive to the reading of this Psalm, turns to be something that is not serene and pastoral, but it becomes dark and stormy. The writer talks about, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” He talks about having to eat in the presence of his enemies. Having to have a rod and staff of the shepherd to give him protection and comfort. It’s a dark valley and he feels alone in it. Many of our lives go through that, in fact I would say these three sections have to do with the journey that all of us take.

But the third scene is a maturity. It’s a mature life with God. For he goes to dwell in the House of the Lord forever. And that is more than just a statement of Heaven, that has something to do with our relationship with God.

Today, we finish up the dark and stormy side and I want you to see what it means when we come to understand, “You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” Next week we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Now, anointing a head with oil is not something that we talk about much today. Some of you may have read Phillip Keller’s book on the Lord’s Prayer. He’s a shepherd, and he said the reason that phrase is there is because, when the sheep graze, they would get what they call a “nose fly” that would come into their nostrils and lay larvae there. And then the larvae would hatch and they would go into the brain of the sheep and drive the sheep crazy. And he talks about the shepherd putting an oil or an ointment on the nose on the head of a sheep to keep that from happening.

Well, somehow through the years, as I read that — and that was the popular explanation of that “anoints my head with oil,” — it did not seem to get to the roots of the biblical understanding. And so I did some other work on it. One was to consult some Jewish writers on the 23rd Psalm. And I think that they have their hands on it more than just a medicinal way, in which the shepherd takes care of his sheep. The anointing is a very special thing in the Bible.

You recall in the Bible, when Samuel comes to anoint Saul, the first King of Israel. Later, he anoints David he puts oil on his head. Now, when you read that in the Bible, you don’t get the feeling that’s the first time it ever happened. It was a part of the liturgy. It was a part of the life of the people of Israel. Queen Elizabeth, 50 years ago, when she was coronated the Queen of England. They anointed her head with oil — literally. It is a way of putting the blessing on someone else. It is the way of passing the power. It is the way of saying, “This person is special.” Hold that thought. It’s a way of saying, “This person is special.”

Now what does a shepherd say here? David, the shepherd, looks at his sheep and he knows each one of his sheep by name. Later, we read in the New Testament that Jesus knows his sheep by name. Then we come to understand that the anointing here is more than just a medicinal thing. The Psalmist is saying, “You are God’s special person. I not only give food and shelter and take care of you, but I give you the gift of being special.” That is powerful. For many people go through life and they never feel special. You’re a car and a machine. You’re one person in a big corporation. You live in a house that looks like everybody else’s house, in a subdivision that looks like everybody else’s subdivision. And you’re one car out on the expressway with a thousand cars around you. We are special.

I grew up in a generation where you never tell anybody they were special because you were afraid they were going to be conceited. What we didn’t understand — or what that generation that raised us didn’t understand — was there was a hunger inside for someone to say, “We’re OK to bless our souls, to touch us in the deepest part.” Children who do not feel blessed are always in trouble. Parents, hear me there. Fathers, hear me. If your children do not feel blessed, they will always be in trouble.

Catherine Kubler Ross, who did a significant work on death and dying, said that a terrible thing happened to her early in her life. She was a triplet, and she said she remembers clearly one day sitting on her father’s lap and having a wonderful time as he teased her and tickled her. Then, he looked her straight in the eye and said, “Which one of them are you?” She said she never got over it. She never felt blessed. You’ve heard me tell the story of a lady who came to me one day for counseling. And her life had been a mess, tangled mess, and finally she said to me, “Pastor, my father looked at me one day and said, ‘Why can’t you be pretty like your older sister?’” Everybody needs to feel blessed.

Jacob, in the Old Testament, was the trickster. He tricked his brother out of the inheritance, he tricked his father out of the blessing. He was born second, just a few seconds second, but he was a second of the two twins. And he never felt like he had his father’s blessing, so he spent his whole life trying to trick everybody into blessing him. I’ve seen person after person who are filled with holes like Swiss cheese and spend their lives trying to get them filled up. They want to be blessed, and they’re never blessed. The Psalm says, “anoints my head with oil.” He blesses me. This means that, as a follower of Jesus Christ, we — and you — are somebody. In the sight of God, you’re not just a person sitting on a pew in a church. You are somebody to God. Do you realize that, when you die, you don’t go as a cup of water, back into the ocean and just disappear? You are so precious to God that your personality survives beyond death and you’ll always be somebody, all through eternity. “He anoints my head with oil.” God blesses you in the inner being.

Interesting thing, those who got a hold of this passage from the theological standpoint pointed out was that the word “anoint,” is the same word in the Hebrew language as “Messiah.” The “Messiah” would be the anointed one. We see Jesus as the Messiah. He is the anointed one of God. And so he anoints our heads with oil. When we follow Jesus, we become an anointed one, a little Jesus. But Luther made it very clear in his sermons when he said, “Each one of us is a little Jesus. We are a little anointed one.”

And so, to tell us that we’re anointed is one thing, but to realize that that anointing carries with it a responsibility is another. You’re a little Jesus to the person down the street, to the person with whom you work, to the person next door. Mother Teresa said, “A few of us can do great things. But all of us can do small things with great love. And this world is a fractured world, but each one of its pieces has a person in it that is anointed of Jesus.” And we do small acts of kindness, large acts of kindness, we do mission work, we clean up yards, we paint houses, we build houses, we speak a good word in Jesus name, we take a cold cup of water in his name. That’s what holds this world together. Because the anointed ones are doing the responsible thing.

My cup overflows. I see so many people acting as though religion of Jesus Christ is a burden. “Hmmm gotta tithe.” “They’re always asking for my money.” We don’t understand it. “They always want me to go do something I don’t want to do.” Haven’t we ever understood that all of our service, and all of our giving comes because our cup overflows? The shepherd cares for us. The shepherd takes care of our needs. The shepherd is with us in the dark valleys. We’re not protected from scars and scrapes, but he’s there with us. The shepherd feeds us while our enemies look on, they can’t touch us. The shepherd has anointed us. Our cup overflows. As one old country preacher said to me one day, “I’m drinking out of the saucer.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, my cup overflows.”

Roy McClain, my favorite preacher, did some counseling with people who worked at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He said there was one man in jail who was genuinely converted, and he was there for life and spent the rest of his life in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, doing acts of kindness. Finally, a heart attack took him. They came to his cell and put him on a gurney and took the body out. As he was going down the corridor with rows of cells, the most hardened criminal in the Atlanta Penitentiary said out loud, as this Christian who had just died went down the corridor, “There goes the only Jesus I have ever known.”

It was over 40 years ago on Father’s Day that I told the story, based on Harper Lee’s book, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I was asked to repeat it the second year, and some have asked me to do it at the funerals of their fathers. So I’ve told that story for 40 years. Two or three weeks ago, I started getting telephone calls and emails, “Are you going to tell it again this year?” And then the compliment of all compliments, I had a preacher, whose name I will not mention, call me last night and say, “Bill, tell me that story I want to use it in the morning.” I said, “Well why don’t you buy the book and read it?” He said, “Well, never mind.” He can’t read, but anyway, I’ll walk him through it.

You know the story. It was 1935 in Maycomb, Alabama. Hot. Sultry. Depression. It was the time when there were shade trees in sidewalks. It was a time when the screen doors would slam and the springs would make that “Twang” they make. Where men would come in from the farms and sit on the curbs in front of the courthouse, and the flies and gnats. It was that time when you could hear the “tick tick tick” of a Model A Ford as it went around the courthouse square. It was that time when there was not much to do, and there was no money for anyone. And the two races lived together — not in harmony, but they lived together.

Now, there was a man in that town named Atticus Finch. He was a lawyer, — a good man. His wife had died several years earlier, and he had two children — Louise, who was about 10, and Jem, who was 12. He called Louise “Scout” as a nickname. They had a cousin by the name of Dill from Louisiana, who would spend the summers with them. Atticus made an adequate living, he was a man of integrity. But, there was an incident that happened. Tom Robinson was a very fine and upstanding African American man, who had lost the use of one of his arms, his left arm. And he made his living by doing odd jobs around the community. People respected him, knew the kind of man he was.

But one day, he was walking by the house of Robert Ewell and he wife, Mayella. They had six, they’re not sure maybe seven children. They lived in an old shack behind the garbage dump. They cleaned out the garbage every evening. Nobody was quite sure what they lived on or how they lived. But Mayella Ewell falsely accused Tom Robinson of making advances to her. In fact, he was accused of raping her. The county was incensed. This can’t be in a social structure it’s going to crumble. And so he was arrested and placed in the county jail.

There were rumors in the county that they were going to form a linch mob and break him out and just hang him and do away with the trial. So the judge came to Atticus. He said, “Atticus, we have to give Tom Robinson an adequate defense. It’s the only way this thing will go away. You’re the best lawyer here, you’re the one with integrity. You defend him.” Atticus knew that his whole life was in jeopardy when he said that he would do it. But his integrity came to the front and he said, “I will defend him.”

It was a very tight summer. Tensions were high, the talk around the courthouse square was nothing but. When the day of the trail came, they all gathered in the Maycomb County Courthouse. The downstairs was full of the white people. The balcony was filled with the African Americans. And their pastor, Rev. Sykes, was in the middle. Now the children, Louise and Jim, had worshipped with the black communities because their housekeeper, Calpurnia, had taken care of them since their mother had died. And she took them to church many times on Sunday.

They tried to get in downstairs, but couldn’t find a seat, so they snaked their way up the balcony stairs and sat down at the feet of the African American pastor. The trial went on and it was obvious from the evidence presented by the prosecution, as well as the defense, that Tom Robinson was innocent. Robert Ewell made the case that his wife had been terribly assaulted, but it didn’t stick and it didn’t jive with the evidence. Finally, the case went to the jury. In those heated trials, nobody wanted to leave, but they went into the courthouse square and mingled around while the jury met.

Finally, someone came and called out on the courthouse square, “The jury’s back.” Everybody rushed in and again the children could not get to their seats on the main floor. So they walked up the stairway and sat at the feet of the African American pastor. Atticus had taught his daughter, always look at the eyes of the jury. If they come in and look at the defendant, he’s innocent. But if they won’t look at him, you know it’s going against him.

“Have you reached a verdict?”

“We have your honor.”

“What say ye?”

“We find Tom Robinson guilty as accused.”

Murmurs went through the courtroom. The bailiffs came and took Tom Robinson from the courtroom immediately. He protested his innocence on the way out. Atticus was stunned. So were the people seated in the balcony. Everybody on the main floor left. Atticus was not aware of what was going on. He didn’t know of anything, except a severe miscarriage of justice had taken place. And there was nobody in the courthouse, except those in the balcony. He gathered up his papers, put them into his briefcase, and started out of the courtroom. And as he started out, the people in the balcony stood. And then you could hear the voice of the African American pastor speaking to the children, who didn’t know why what was going on.

“Louise! Louise! Stand up. Your father’s walking by!”

And on the flyleaf of the book I’d written these words, “Shoot all the blue jays that you can, if you can hit them. But it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Stand up! Your father’s walking by!

We ask you now if you would take Christ as your savior and bring your life into the fellowship of this church, or pray through the issues that are in your life. We invite you to come as we stand and sing hymn number 571. Would you come?

(Taken from an audio recording with minor editorial revisions.)