Preparing a Table in the Darkness

I like to bake bread. It’s something my mom taught me to do growing up and it’s just about the only thing I can bake reliably, besides those simple brownie mixes they sell in stores. There’s something about proofing the yeast, bringing the ingredients together, kneading the bread, and watching it rise, that gives me comfort and connects me with a certain depth. 

In most bread recipes is oil; often olive oil. It’s an ancient ingredient, one that has been used for thousands of years. In Jesus’s time, olive oil was used for many purposes: fat to light lamps, as a soothing agent for skin, as a rudimentary sun block and insect repellant, and of course in recipes for bread and other food items. Oil would also be used just as I used it a moment ago with Priestly: as a way of anointing during religious ceremonies, a symbol of the healing power of God. 

Olive oil was readily available but not always cheap; it was still a luxury, something to be prized and utilized only when necessary. So when David speaks brilliantly, poignantly, famously, in Psalm 23 about God anointing his head with oil, it’s abundantly, without concern for cost; a sign of God’s abundant healing in David’s life. 

As we continue with our common devotional, today’s object is oil. Let’s hear about that from David in the famous Psalm 23. 


I remember the day a member at Eastman walked into my office with a large jar of olive oil. It was a surprise, even though I knew she had planted olive trees and was laboring mightily to create her first batch of olive oil. That first crop hadn’t yielded a ton of oil and, she was quick to tell me in my office that day, that the oil she had in the jug was, “not fit for human consumption.” I asked her why that was and she said it, “tasted horrible!” But, she thought to herself, that oil could be used by the church. Certainly, she did think just that; across the top of this giant mason jar she’d written in sharpie: EFUMC, Eastman First United Methodist Church. 

I took the jar and stowed it away in my closet. Then, as sometimes happens in communities, a series of tragedies happened back to back. As I sought a pastoral way to respond, knowing that people were suffering, people were concerned, for there was fear and there was confusion, I pulled the jar back out of my closet and began to plan a healing service; the first time I’d ever done one. 

At the center of healing services is an anointing with oil, just like I did with Priestly moments ago during her baptism. After giving thanks over the oil, people came forward to the altar rail to be anointed as a sign of God’s healing presence in their lives and in the life of the community. That service proved powerful; so much so that anointing with oil became a regular part of the rhythm of worship; something we would do about quarterly.

David speaks to this in the famous Psalm 23. God anoints his head with oil and his cup overflows. The symbolism here is rich. The cup was a symbol of power when held by the King, symbolizing both the power given to David as king by God and God’s own Kingly power. The fact that it overflows demonstrates just how much power is there. God is providing in abundance; so much so that David can say with confidence, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.” In other words, God’s goodness and unconditional, steadfast love, shall follow him, and he will rest secure. 

This after David has been anointed with oil; the traditional sign of healing. At baptism, I say, “the Holy Spirit work within you, that being born by water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.” For us Christians, the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, one symbolized and marked by anointing with oil at baptism, is a sign and seal of the healing power of God. In our lives, God comes to us with healing power, providing healing for what ails us. Sometimes, that’s bodily ailments but more often, it’s the way the darkness of life can hurt us, wound us, leave us in need of a spiritual healing.

Consider that, in fact, the table with the oil and wine that overflow in Psalm 23, where we are provided for not only with what we need but abundantly so, is set in the dark valley. The table that’s prepared by our gracious host, the Good Shepherd, is there in the darkest valley, where we know the disorientation that comes from darknesses that settle in our lives. The loss of love in a human relationship, the depression and challenges of mental illness, the loss of income or wealth, the loss of health through a terrible diagnosis; any kind of loss at all that suddenly pulls us into the darkness and disorients us to our world and to our faith. That’s where the table is set; God prepares a table before us in the midst of the darkest valley.

We find ourselves there, in that dark valley, wondering what’s next? What will we do? We’ve all known that kind of desperation. We don’t like to admit to it, but we have and we will again. The darkness comes for us all. And we wander around in it, trying to find our way forward. We hear David say, “I fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” And we think that sounds nice but we aren’t experiencing that in our present darkness. The darkness is like that. It’s hard to make declarations of faith when we can’t see our way forward. 

It’s hard in the darkness to find our footing. And if you’re in the darkness today, or if you’re looking just a bit ahead to the future and see darkness on the horizon, it’s easy to hear that God provides for us abundantly, even luxuriantly, and think that God might provide for others that way, but not for me, because we aren’t currently experiencing abundance, much less luxury!

It happens to all of us when we experience any sense of loss in this life, anytime we find life turned upside down, anytime we feel lost, anytime we are fearful or angry or jealous or overwrought. The darkness comes in and it feels like it settles, enveloping us, blinding us, we think, to the presence and reality of God.

And yet, somewhere in that darkness is a table. On that table are oil, to anoint your head, and a cup overflowing with wine. In the presence of your enemies, the enemies of tragedy, heartbreak, cancer, depression, hateful people, loss of any kind, in the presence of those enemies in the dark valley is a table where God is providing abundantly for you. 

Because God’s goodness and mercy are pursuing you, even in the darkness.

In Psalm 23, David says that such healing power, such goodness and mercy, follow him, and follow us, our whole life long.

Except the English doesn’t do this justice. The verb follow here also means pursue. Goodness and mercy pursue David, and they pursue us, too. God’s goodness and mercy, God’s faithfulness and unconditional love, pursue us, track us down, seek the lost, find us when we’re hurting, know us in the broken places, and keep pursuing us until we’re willing and ready to accept the goodness and love that’s being offered to us. 

God’s unconditional love chases us down, fights til we’re found, leaves the 99; a reference to the parable of Jesus where the shepherd, the Great Shepherd, just like in this Psalm, Ieaves 99 sheep to go after the one sheep that has strayed, rejoicing when it’s found safe and sound. We are pursued by God with goodness, mercy; with love and grace abundantly. 

We are loved overwhelmingly, completely, passionately, by our God. So much so that God pursues us in order to provide for us abundantly. It’s a beautiful reality; a remarkable fact about our God and our relationship with God. In the United Methodist Church, we call this grace: the grace of God that chases us down, fights till we’re found, breathing life into us, providing for us in the midst of the darkest valley.

God is pursuing us, recklessly pursuing us, to make sure that we’re safe, that we’re provided for, even abundantly, to give us everything we need, even to the point of overflowing. There’s a lavishness, a burning passion, on the part of God for us and our lives. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, it doesn’t matter how much of the present darkness is our fault and the fault of sin in our lives, that reckless love of God is coming to us to provide for us, and provide for us abundantly. 

I wonder, when has God provided abundantly for you?

The day was crisp and gray. I love fall days like that, where the sky lets through just a bit of sunshine and the wind chills the air. There’s something powerfully mysterious about those days; and in that mystery, I feel drawn closer to God. That was the case on this day where I come to the woods to seek God in the midst of my own darkest valley.

On that particular crisp and gray day, I hiked across a path. There are two ways to the Berry College reservoir. I took the harder, foot path, way, which requires climbing up a steep mountain and then back down. But the reward is worth it. The last part of the path walks along a babbling brook and, as you walk, the reservoir, this wonderful mountain lake, comes gradually into focus. 

I was taken away by the sight of the lake in front of me. I’d brought my e-reader in my pocket so that I could sit and read once I arrived. And when I did, I felt the majesty and glory of the King of Kings around me. The gray sky captivated my attention with its mystery, the wind reminded me of the power of the Holy Spirit that is always around me, and the water reminded me of the salvation of God. Before I was captivated, my mind was a mess, full of thoughts; my heart was a mess, full of emotion, mostly negative; my soul was a mess, feeling abandoned and wondering where God was. 

And then, I was captivated as I experienced the presence of God. For a while, I sat on a large rock and just took in the sights and the sounds. Fair to say, I discovered a table was set before me in the presence of my enemies: enemies of doubt, fear, and anger; and there on the table was a cup that overflowed and oil to anoint my head.

And in that moment, that holy mystery, I felt healed, I felt made whole. God’s goodness and mercy, that grace, had found me. It’d been pursuing me, it’d been chasing after me, and finally it caught up to me. I yielded to it, I gave into it, knowing that God would provide, that God would take care.

God provided abundantly for me that crisp, gray, day. And I learned this reality: no matter the dark valleys we go through, there’s a table prepared for us by the God who relentlessly pursues us with goodness and mercy; with God’s grace. 

Where, today, do you need healing? To discover a table set before you in the midst of your present darkness?

To find that table, look back in your life. Where has God provided for you abundantly? Somewhere in your past, there’s a memory, a time, a place, where you knew it. God makes himself known to us because God pursues us, even when we don’t yet know God, even when we haven’t committed our lives to Christ, God is relentlessly pursuing us. 

We find that reality powerfully in the simple ingredient of olive oil. On Ash Wednesday, the ashes of the palms from the previous year’s celebration of Palm Sunday are mixed with olive oil; a sign of God’s healing presence with us; with our mortality. At baptisms, I anoint with oil as a sign of God’s healing presence, just as we witnessed minutes ago. This past December, at the Longest Night Service, those in need of healing came forward to be anointed with oil, olive oil, as a sign of God’s healing presence in our lives. 

And this morning, we gathered today have that same opportunity to be anointed with oil. After the offertory has begun and the ushers have had an opportunity to begin passing the plates, Payton and I will come and stand at the base of the chancel, ready to anoint you with oil as you feel so led. There’s no pressure to come forward at all, but if you’re in need of healing this morning, if you find yourself in some sort of darkness, if the enemies of tragedy, heartbreak, cancer, depression, hateful people, loss of any kind, are present in your life, come forward and receive an anointing with oil; a sign and symbol of God’s healing presence in your life. 

For God is good to meet us wherever we are, relentlessly pursuing us with grace. God prepares a table before us, in the presence of our enemies, in the darkness, providing not only what we need but providing abundantly. God’s love is overwhelming, never-ending, relentless, chasing us down until we’re found, leaving the 99, pursuing us until we’re found; until we’re healed. 

Such that with absolute certainty, no matter the darknesses we know, we can proclaim with David that message of safety and security, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.” 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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