Summary: For Advent III, preached at First Baptist of Gaithersburg, MD. "We may be knee deep in sheep, but let this keep you as you sleep, it is joy we reap". God in Christ transforms the ordinariness of everyday, humdrum life.
We may be knee deep in sheep, but let this keep you as you sleep – it is joy we shall reap.
Did you get all that? Too many rhyming words? Ah, but every one of them is important. Listen again: we may be knee deep in sheep, but let this keep you as you sleep – it is joy we shall reap.
Now you don’t want the preacher to be merely flip this morning, I know. So maybe I’d better launch into this and make sure we are on the same wave length. After all, this is suburban Maryland, and I’d guess not too many of us have daily experiences with sheep! So whatever does it mean to say that we may be knee deep in sheep? And why would that lead to the promise that it is joy we shall reap, keeping us in our sleep?
Not far from Bethlehem town on a Judean hillside some twenty centuries ago there were shepherds, tending their sheep, on a cold winter’s night that was so deep – oh my, even the carol writer couldn’t resist rhyming things with “sheep”! – but in the story of those men and their life among the flocks there is a profound lesson for us, suburbanites though we are, sophisticated, educated and a long way from their simple world. For I am going to press the notion today that it is in the very ordinariness of life that God’s inbreak is most felt. I am going to argue that it is in fact when you get a grip on what you have to do, day after day, sun up and sun down, year after grinding year – that when you get a grip on your ordinary life, you will see that God is in it and that in that seemingly stultifying routine, there is joy.
We may be knee deep in sheep, but let this keep you as you sleep – it is joy we shall reap.I
First, let’s take stock of what those Bethlehem shepherds had to do. I suggest that it was not very different from what most of us have to do.
Shepherding was a lonely, largely unpleasant task. Think about what it must have been like, to tend those wooly wonders. They brushed up against you; they wandered off in the wrong direction; they shoved one another and competed for turf. Some of them bleated in complaint, but you could never quite tell what it was they were complaining about. All of them expected to eat regularly and thought it was the shepherd’s job to find the food. And, because they all ate, all of them produced by-products best left without further description. Sheep! Scores of sheep, hundreds of sheep; noisy, smelly, hungry, demanding, dependent, stupid, silly sheep. And, most of all, they were always there. Always there! Never going away, never moderating their demands. Just a constant responsibility.
In other words, like parents having to tend to children. Or like store clerks facing a never-ending line of impatient customers at the check-out. Or like customer service agents, knowing that as they deal with this complaint, there are six or seven more waiting on the telephone, growing more impatient by the second. Or like government workers, hearing taxpayers grumble. Or like – well, let’s just say that it is no accident that the word “pastor” is Latin for “shepherd.” Enough said?!
So many of us live lives of constant responsibility, with unending lists of things to do and unrelieved burdens. So many of us are knee deep in sheep – that is, we have more to do than we can handle, and it never goes away. Most of all, it is not just that it is work to be done, but so often the work is accompanied by people who demand so much. Spouses who think the dinner should be on the table on time. Children who suppose that “Mommy” is the magic wand to get everything done. Bosses who dream up new assignments at 4:59 p.m. We are knee deep in sheep, as the shepherds were that night.
And so one of the small wonders of the Christmas story is this, that: In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. That is, they had stayed by the stuff and had accepted their station in life. “Abiding in the fields”, the King James Version says. Hanging in there. Doing what they were supposed to do. It’s one of the small wonders of the Christmas story, I say, because they had kept at it. They had remained faithful to what they knew to do. Was there any joy in shepherding? We don’t know. But at least they were available for God’s good news just because they attended to their tasks and held steady.