Have You Called Sheep Lately?
You can call out to sheep, and most likely they will give you half-hearted attention (like the ones above did to me). That’s because sheep know their master’s voice and only answer to his or her call. For the second week of Advent our hands touch the woolly head of the animal most often mentioned in the Bible. Sheep are, indeed, important to the Christmas story, because we know:
“There were sheep herders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:8-12, MSG).
Fearful Shepherds, Frightened Flock?
The shepherds were terrified. Throughout scripture it seems God’s messengers often have to say, “Fear not!” And then the receivers of the messages are obedient; these lowly sheep herders hurry to Bethlehem to see the newborn king.
Have you ever thought about the flock’s reaction that night? Sheep are gregarious, yet they also like familiarity.
A sheep recognizes up to 50 different faces, so they know when something is awry. Were they terrified like their masters? Or, did they recognize creator goodness in those heavenly heralds? Maybe they simply thought, “Oh, wonderful! There’s light! Now we can eat a midnight snack.”
I’ve also wondered: Did some old, crippled shepherd or the youngest rookie get stuck staying with the flocks while the others went running to check out the most important news of humanity? Probably, but I imagine they received their turn when the others came back.
Sheep Have Velcro Coats
As a child, I had two lambs for a couple of months. “Mary had a little Lamb” was all I knew about the creatures. I was sorely disappointed when they didn’t follow me around, and I was repelled by their smell and dirt. Think about an outdoor pet wearing a Velcro coat for twenty-four hours a day.
Eventually, Dad realized it was a mistake to keep these little fellows, and they were sold. I am embarrassed to say they are the only pets I did not grieve. So, when the Bible repeatedly compares people to sheep, it brings to mind the image of dirty, not-so-bright animals, who need protection.
The people-are-like-sheep theme runs consistently through the Good Book, so it is not surprising that the lowly shepherds received the Good News first. Besides, it was the profession of Jesus’s ancestor King David, who had watched his flock by night in that same area.
Nativity Sets Get It Wrong
Also, the Advent sheep are not just in the fields. Most likely sheep were near Jesus’s manger too. I might shock you by declaring our nativity sets do not get it right.
Bible Scholar Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey gives convincing evidence in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes that Joseph and Mary were most likely housed in a common two-room home of a Bethlehem relative. The “no room in the inn” is better translated “no room in the guest room” (because other guests were already occupying it). According to Bailey, the idea of a public innkeeper in the Christmas story is traced to an account of Jesus’s birth dating 200 years after his birth called “The Protevangelium of James.” Its nonJewish writer was unfamiliar with Middle Eastern hospitality of sacrificially making room for guests.
Also, Bailey says the manger was a hole in the living room floor for hay. At night the animals were corralled inside the house’s lower corner. Larger animals, like donkeys and ox, would eat by lifting their heads to the manger in the ceiling. According to Bailey, even today one can find homes in rural Palestine that have this simple floor plan.
Hearing and Speaking
Here’s what strikes me in thinking about sheep this Advent. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” is a familiar quote from Jesus in John 10. But it is also true that this Great Shepherd hears our voices and comes to us when we call out, whether for companionship or crisis rescue. This kind of individualized care for each person, sheep or little lamb, is precious. So, during this Advent week may we not only hear the Good Shepherd’s voice, but may we call out confidently to him. He is right there.
Climb a high mountain, Zion.
You’re the preacher of good news.
Raise your voice. Make it good and loud, Jerusalem.
You’re the preacher of good news.
Speak loud and clear. Don’t be timid!
Tell the cities of Judah,
“Look! Your God!”
Look at him! God, the Master, comes in power,
ready to go into action.
He is going to pay back his enemies
and reward those who have loved him.
Like a shepherd, he will care for his flock,
gathering the lambs in his arms,
Hugging them as he carries them,
leading the nursing ewes to good pasture.”
(Isaiah 40:9-11, The Message)
Below is a video of a Norwegian farmer, whose sheep hear his voice in a fog and come running to him.