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.
Some of you have reached that blissful stage of life called retirement. So have I, theoretically. But with the work of guiding the Baptist Foundation, plus teaching a little at Wesley Seminary, plus playing the organ at my church, plus trying to catch up with years of deferred maintenance on our house – well, I echo what one of my retired friends says. She says, “I’m so busy I don’t know how I had time to work when I had a job!” Well, I do want time to sit and read; I do want time to indulge my interests in history and music and genealogy and so on. But in the last year I have learned the power of keeping at what I am called to do. If I stay knee deep in my sheep, I’ll be ready for what God wants to give me. I’ve learned that just as there is such a thing as overwork, there is also such a thing as too little structure, too little discipline. I’ve learned that if we do not keep on pursuing what we know we are called to be and to do, we will lose our sense of joy. We will stagnate. But if we stay focused on the purposes God has placed before us, the end result will be joy. It’s not about your job, it’s not about your salary, it’s not even about achievement. It’s about purpose. When you know who you are and stay by your purpose, you are in position to receive God’s joy.
Thank you, good shepherds, for just abiding in the fields and keeping watch, knee deep in sheep. By keeping watch you put yourself in position to hear God’s good news and reap the joy.
However, now, notice that even though you have stayed by the stuff and have endured the mess of being knee deep in sheep, that does not keep you from being absolutely terrified when God breaks in. When the Lord enters our lives, because we are indeed knee deep in sheep, His coming frightens us to tears.
Hear the ancient and familiar words in a new way today: Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. To you is born this day ... a Savior ...”
When God gets involved with us, He scares us. He terrifies us. Why? Because we have lost the capacity to be surprised. Because we do not really expect God to be at work. When you are knee deep in sheep every lifelong day, and each day feels like a grind, spontaneity is scary, freedom is frightening, and God seems like an awesome interruption.
When we first moved to this area 34 years ago, I was absolutely fascinated with the city of Washington. I wanted to be in the city all the time. My home was in Silver Spring and my work was in College Park, but I took every opportunity possible to drive down into the District to see the great monuments and look at the magnificent symbols of our nation. It was all new and exciting and thrilling then. But now, after all these years, and especially once my work took me into the city every day, it all became routine. I didn’t expect thrills any more. After a while all l saw were traffic snarls and all I thought about was how to get out of that congestion.
Isn’t it like that with the Lord? We’ve become accustomed to His goodness. We’ve come to expect that He will care for us. We no longer marvel at the vast infinity of His universe or at the infinitesimal precision of His creatures. We no longer expect that God will do something stupendous, here and now, for us. And when He does, it’s terrifying!
There was a man who occasionally attended my church, when I was a pastor. His wife and daughter were members, but there were family issues of various kinds, so he was cordial and friendly but not committed to Christ. I had visited him and he had verbally expressed some degree of faith, but he never followed up with baptism or church involvement. Then one day I learned that Mike had an aggressive cancer and was seriously ill. I visited and tried to bring comfort and to present the good news, but once again I got the same old assurances that, yes, he was going to take care of that one day. He’d be at church, he would come forward, he would profess Christ, some day. I heard this while he was in the hospital; I heard this while he was in a rehab center; I heard this when he was moved to a relative’s home for followup care. I prayed for Mike and prayed with Mike, but no change. It seemed useless. But then the day came when Mike said he was finally ready, but now was physically unable to come to church. What could we do? So I arranged for a couple of church members to come with me, and at that bedside we anointed Mike’s eyes and lips and hands with the baptismal waters. I had thought I was ready for this; after all, I had done scores of baptisms. But suddenly the Spirit of the Lord so invaded that room, with the good news of salvation, that all of us dissolved in tears and literally covered our faces with our hands. We were “sore afraid” because we had not really expected anything but a ceremony. Routine. But God showed up! God showed up with good news and the hope of life eternal. My friend Mike was indeed knee deep in sheep, with no way out, but God came with good news and, to keep him as he would soon sleep – it was joy he would reap, and we his friends as well.
Our God brings good news of great joy. It is the good news that God loves us, God cares for us, God is involved with us. And when you hear that, deep down, you get past the fears and you are ready to reap joy.
But there is another ingredient in all this. There is another step in receiving the joy that God wants to give us. It is true that if we are knee deep in sheep, just continuing to do what we have been called to do will help us stay in position to hear God’s good news. And it is true as well that we are going to be surprised by His joy, and just have to deal with our terror when we are surprised. But there is one additional ingredient – and that is that we do have to make a move. We do have to go and see. We do have to get out from being knee deep in sheep, and go to Bethlehem to see this thing which has come to pass. We do need to experience Jesus Christ personally.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger ...
Oh, brothers and sisters, give yourself some time for wonder this year. Give yourself an opportunity to feel, to experience. I know we are busy; I know we are overwhelmed with responsibilities; I know we are burdened with debt and faced with loss. But the time comes when we have to step aside and go and see. The time comes when we have to face this babe of Bethlehem and discover who He is for ourselves.
Have you given Jesus Christ priority in your life? Have you gone with haste to see Him? Have you made Him the object of your heart’s devotion and the subject of your mind’s reflection? Have you allowed Him to transform the ordinary into something extraordinary?
The poet speaks of those who lead lives of quiet desperation. But for those whose lives are humdrum, Jesus Christ is excitement and joy. He transforms dullness into delight and boredom into blessing. That workplace, that kitchen, that schoolroom, that drab apartment, that windswept street – wherever it is you must keep your knee-deep sheep – in that place, with Jesus Christ, “every common bush is aflame with God.”
I know some folks who are chronically unhappy, for whom nothing is ever good enough and for whom everyone around a dummy and a doofus. But for those who lead lives of discord, Jesus is the Prince of Peace. The babe of Bethlehem quashes our quarreling and offers us peace. Knee deep in contentious sheep, He brings us the peace that passes understanding and it is joy we shall reap.
For those who feel left out and lonely, this fragile child teaches us that it is the very sheep with which we are surrounded, the very need that is all around us, that can bring us joy. Find a homeless shelter; discover a nursing home; get involved with a damaged family – and in serving them you will see Jesus and you will help them see Him. Your loneliness will vanish. Knee deep in sheep, it is joy you will reap.
For those who think they are beyond surprise, for those who think they have seen it all and are not impressed, for those whose hearts have grown cold and whose minds have calcified into cynicism – I dare you to pause before the manger scene and see. I challenge you to hear the glad Glorias of Handel’s Messiah. I urge you to set your eyes on the pages of Luke’s Gospel one more time. And I promise you that where you have prayed without expecting an answer, where you have sung without hearing a melody, where you have given without anticipating gratitude, where you have received without feeling a thrill, where you have gone to church without attending worship – go see Jesus afresh this Christmas, go ponder what God has done. It will take your breath away! And, knee deep in sheep, it is joy you will reap.
Most of all, brothers and sisters, most of all: when you face the ultimate – when you consider that your life is but a vapor and that we shall not stay here forever – when the shadows of night are covering the last rays of daylight, then go see the life that God has given in Jesus Christ, who for our sakes became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Go see the life that God gives in Him who lived and died a cruel death on a Roman cross, flung high and wide against an Eastern sky! But the life that came at Bethlehem, and was stamped out at Calvary, came back for us at the empty tomb, forever!
Oh, it does not matter that we are knee deep in sheep. What matters is that as we sleep – nay, before we sleep – we receive Him in faith. Let Him transform your ordinariness. Accept His gift of salvation. And when you do that, it will be joy that you reap. Joy!
We may be knee deep in sheep, but let this keep you as you sleep – it is joy we shall reap.