The Sixth Day of Christmas: Shepherds Roused from Sleep

December 31, 2013

Yesterday was the first day of two weeks without any sort of cancer treatment, medical appointments, or lab tests. I hardly knew what to do with myself! If it hadn’t been for my daughter’s presence, I would have been lonesome, bored, and unimaginative. As it was, the residual effects of radiation and chemo had me pretty much ensconced in my recliner with that deep fatigue that is hard to describe but oh so concrete in experience. After a nap, it took me another hour to muster the will and the strength to get up for our obligatory fifteen-minute walk around the neighborhood.

On this sixth day of Christmas, we turn our attention to the shepherds who were in the hill country surrounding Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth. Their lives were routine as they roughed it every night, sleeping outdoors with their flocks and keeping a watchful eye for prey. Not known for their refinement or for wealth, the shepherds represented the unimaginative, lonesome, perhaps bored underclass of people. The Bible has some notable shepherds in its cast: Joseph (Genesis 37), Moses (Exodus 2-3), David (2 Samuel 17), Amos, and figuratively speaking, Jesus (Matthew 9:36, John 10). Isaiah used the image of shepherding to describe the responsibility of Jewish leaders of Israel, whose inattentiveness led the Chosen down a path to destruction. God seemed to like shepherds, but the rest of society didn’t have a very high opinion of them. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

So, back to our Bethlehem-area shepherds, out in the open air doing their job, sleepy no doubt, lethargic in the middle of the night.  Nobody anybody would notice or even care about (unless of course a sheep went missing). But because of their unknowing proximity to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus upon his birth, they had the experience of a lifetime! An angel appeared before them, accompanied by “the glory of the Lord” which we interpret as almost blinding light. Whatever God’s messenger looked like, the shepherds were terrified, wondering perhaps if they were in the middle of a vivid dream. The angel—laughing in great joy maybe—told them, “Hey, no need to be afraid! I’m bringing some great news:  It’s a boy! And not just any new baby, but a Savior, the Messiah! You should go and take a look!”

After consultation with one another, for these were men with responsibilities, the shepherds decided they should hurry over to Bethlehem for a look-see. I presume “in haste” meant they did not bring their flocks with them. They were so overtaken by the importance and urgency of the moment, their regular duties faded into the background and their fatigue was completely overcome by the excitement. They found Jesus and his earthly parents right where the angel said, and something made a big impression upon them because they told everybody they could about the visit and their amazement.

The middle of the night, or the middle of cancer-fatigue, is a time of low expectation for most of us: we’re not expecting an angelic visit or even a phone call announcing the birth of an awaited baby. Let’s face it: a lot of the time we are like slugs, glued to our recliners, invisible to most people, slow on the uptake spiritually. However, one of the lessons of this account is an admonition to stay alert to what God is doing in our neighborhoods! There may be nothing happening in our own family rooms, but somewhere close by, Jesus is at work shepherding a wayward people, making an appearance in an otherwise hopeless situation, or moving someone to give testimony to his presence and power.

Do we need an angel to tell us what God is doing? No, we need eyes to see and ears to hear, both gifts from God who is willing to let us in on what is happening if we ask. We’re talking about the spiritual gifts of discernment and wisdom, the God-given abilities to pick up on what is happening spiritually and to act wisely to give glory to God.

How long has it been since you became aware of something God was doing in your neighborhood, your workplace, or among your family members? Have you been so sleepy that you have missed the signs? Take stock: do you know enough about those around you to recognize an act of God in their lives? An indication of God’s protection? A spark of God’s creativity? A changed attitude toward the Christian faith? An act of loving compassion toward “the least of these”? Why would you want to know that these sorts of things are happening? Because that is where Jesus is being born in our midst! In those places of love, compassion, service, sacrifice, our Lord is making Kingdom headway on earth as in heaven! You don’t want to miss it because you are glued to your recliner, anesthetized by electronic games or mindless television. There’s an amazing world out there awaiting your discovery, and when you find God at work somewhere, what a great privilege it is to be amazed and tell everybody you know about it!

 9         How long will you lie there, O lazybones?
                        When will you rise from your sleep?
10        A little sleep, a little slumber,
                        a little folding of the hands to rest,
11        and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
                        and want, like an armed warrior. (Proverbs 6:9-11)



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