I’m thinking tonight of the shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks…When the angels burst forth from the skies (/heavens) singing of glory, the shepherds were “sore afraid,” and if the sheep weren’t already lying down, I imagine they just keeled over.
Sheep, and flocks of them, are mentioned about 250 times in the Bible—often, humbling though it is, as a metaphor for people. They can be charming beasts, though not impressive ones. They are sociable, easily frightened, and can remember numerous faces for years. They can even learn to respond to their names, if they have them. Thus, they are like me—except for the part about being able to remember faces.
Fortunately for sheep, their value to humanity is partly their wool, which motivates humans to keep them alive as long as the sheep can be sheared. Also, in many regions, ewes are milked for cheese and yogurt. But eventually it is time to take their skins and meat. Sheep, like corn and salmon and turkeys, nourish us by dying. This is where being compared to sheep becomes extremely uncomfortable.
Cultures portrayed in the Bible used sheep meat—mutton—for food and for sacrifice. So I am prompted to wonder if God has compared us to sheep not mainly because of our herd behavior, mediocre reasoning abilities, or response to voice, but because He intends that our lives be spent for Him.
In Sunday school this week I learned that in medieval times, it took about 1500 sheep to make one copy of the Bible. The parchment, or sheepskin, was prized for use in the making of documents, correspondence, and books, long before paper was used in the Middle East and early Europe. We still call a diploma a sheepskin. Real parchment takes ink beautifully and permanently—almost as if it were made for it.
Perhaps our highest purpose is to have the Word of God written on our skin. I’m not advocating for tattoos, but for a much deeper en-graving—the gospel written on our lives. As Paul says, “You yourselves are our letter…written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (2 Corinthians 3:2).
Do I, like the sheep, have to die to carry the Word of God? Yes, if the dying is to self.
As Lilias Trotter, 20th-century missionary to Algeria, said, the cross of Christ frees us “from the power of outward things and from the thralldom of self: not only does it open the door into the world of acquittal, and again into that of holiness, but yet again into the new realm of surrender, and thence into that of sacrifice.”
At Christmas, how freeing it is to think about surrender and sacrifice. Trotter invites us to ask ourselves: “Are all things—even the treasures that He has sanctified—held loosely, ready to be parted with, without a struggle, when He asks for them? It is not in the partial relaxing of grasp, with power to take back again, that this fresh victory of death is won: it is won when that very power of taking back is yielded….Have faith…to let the old things go.” When we yield to Him, the apostle Paul can say to us, “You are a letter from Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3)
Probably, clouds of angels in blinding light and blissful sound are not in the forecast for Christmas Eve this year. But God has messages for all on earth, and we are meant to carry them. We don’t carry them like angels do, as they floated in the sky, glowing and flowing with direct revelation; we carry God’s message in our hearts and on our skin. When we encourage a disheartened relative, or make a space at our Yuletide table for a lonely person, teach in the children’s hour at church, or testify to God’s faithfulness despite the year’s losses and hurt, messages from God that were written on our skin will be “known and read” by many.
About the Author:
Leah Farish teaches college courses on law, language, and public speaking in Oklahoma. She also heads a nonprofit which encourages volunteerism. She and her husband attend Christ Presbyterian in Tulsa, when she is not working on behalf of women in North Africa or the Middle East.