The Curious Case of the Somnambulent Sheep
Words for Midnight – Christmas Eve December 2020 – St John the Baptist Felixstowe
Text: In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2.8-11)
God give you peace my Sisters and Brothers.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
Why were they out in the fields instead of in the sheepfold? What is it about sheep at night that needs special watching over?
Do they have raves that need policing?
Are sheep, perhaps, secret midnight snackers? Waking up about 2am and feeling a little bit peckish do they wander off to a green pasture somewhere and need shepherding back?
Or is it that sheep are afflicted with somnambulance and for their own protection need someone to watch over them in case they have an episode of, as it is known in the farming community, sheep-walking…?
Joking aside there were at least two reasons why shepherds stayed up at night, as they still do to this day, watching over their sheep.
Firstly, there were predators around. Remember how the shepherd boy destined to become King David spoke of protecting his lambs from ‘the paw of the bear and the claw of the lion’? Shepherds watching flocks by night were used to being on edge and a little bit frightened. To be honest Gabriel was taking a little bit of the Mick by turning up with his Angelic Massive and saying ‘Do not be afraid!’…
Shepherds on the hills outside Bethlehem anxious and alert and ready to ward off whatever could leap at them out of the dark night to attack their flock. They had no way to predict the future and could only hope that the light of a campfire and the approaching dawn would keep peril at bay.
In this year, when the whole world has been wracked by the pandemic caused by Covid 19, shepherd-like we too have been anxious, frightened and worried about what may next assail us from the darkness.
We do not know what to expect.
We do not know where to turn.
We will consider ourselves blessed if we make the dawn with only wounds and preserved from the death any of those close to us.
If ever we need an angelic visitation perhaps it is now?
We and the shepherds are sitting in the dark on the same metaphorical hillside praying for dawn-break and the end of darkness.
The most likely reason for shepherds to be ‘living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night’ was not, however, predators. This reason was still fraught with danger but also filled with hope. They would be ‘keeping watch over their flock by night because that is what shepherds always do in the lambing season.
They were not only frightened by the possibility of predators (and angels!) but they were also expectant. Waiting for a birth was what they stayed awake for. So when angels appear to tell of a birth in the city of David it doesn’t take too long for the penny to drop.
Little wonder that they readily ran off to the manger. Used to being midnight midwives and attending unplanned births, they left their lambs to go and seek out the Lamb of God. They left their fear and worries to witness the miracle of new life and the birth of hope.
Unlike the shepherds, we may not be overflowing with hope at the moment…
Our common life seems particularly devoid of ‘good news of great joy’ and it sometimes seems, as lockdown is added to lockdown and the Covid 19 virus mutates, that we are being thrust further back into the dark night instead of getting ready to welcome the dawn.
We find ourselves in a world that is becoming more and more restrictive. Hemmed in on every side to keep everyone safe, it is not surprising that some want to kick out against the very rules and regulations that will bring us freedom.
How do we cope with this basket of emotions that is the common Christmas ‘gift’ for the whole of humankind?
Can a babe in a manger really dispel darkness and fear, worry and anxiety?
Can such a small event transform our darkness into light and our despair into hope?
As the Christchild grows to become Jesus of Nazareth we will hear words that will bring us hope;
Instead of worry and anxiety He will remind us that ‘your Father knows what you need before you ask him’. (Matthew 6v8)
In the middle of our fear He will proclaim ‘Do not fear only believe’ (Mark 5v36)
In place of darkness He will proclaim ‘I am the Light of the World’ (John 9v5)
In the middle of all the restrictions we face God stands, literally, in confinement alongside us and offers hope to answer our despair, light to dispel our darkness, and new life to free us who all our lives, not just in times of pandemic and crisis, have been held in slavery by the fear of death. (Hebrews 2v15)
This is the Good News towards which our Shepherds ran. They knew from their experience as midnight midwives that dawn follows darkness, hope is borne out of despair, and new life banishes fear.
This ‘good news of great joy for all the people’ (not just some people) they witnessed ‘a long time ago in Bethlehem’ is the message they entrust to us.
It is now up to us to ponder, praise, and proclaim to everyone that this darkness, this fear, this despair shall, and indeed has passed because, ‘to [us] is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’
As we proclaim this message with the shepherds we will become midwives of hope and heralds of the Reign of God, sent out to live lives free from fear and selfishness, ‘glorifying and praising God because all we have heard and seen, was just as the angel proclaimed’.
May you, and all those close to you, have a peaceful and blessed Christmas overflowing with the hope that is born this day.
[This blog ‘Midnight Midwives’ is copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2020 and may be reproduced without charge on condition that the source is acknowledged]