Of Sheep and Tender Shoots

First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Mark 13:24-37

“Therefore, keep alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning…”   Mark 13:35

On a crisp afternoon in late December my family lounged in the grass at our friends’ homestead in Winterville, Georgia. The kids swung on rope swings and ran through what was left of the garden. My husband and I sat talking with Hank, whose wife Rita slipped in and out of the conversation, walking out to the shed to check on her laboring sheep. I talked and enjoyed our families’ company, but my attention had shifted, and I felt the quiet, dispassionate alertness that only ever comes over me at work. I am a midwife, and I was watching my friend as she watched her sheep’s first birth.

As the late afternoon sun grew cool, I prided myself for not jumping in, offering advice, or trying to find ways to be ‘helpful.’ I left Rita alone in her shepherding, as she left the lamb alone in her birthing. Paula Simmons’ guidance to the modern shepherdess is clear, “labor is beginning when the ewe lies down with nose pointed up, then strains and grunts. Give her plenty of time to lamb by herself before trying to assist.” Done right, midwifery and shepherding are the same, the studied art of doing neither too much nor too little.

As the day neared an end, it seemed to Rita that the sheep had been straining for far too long and must be in danger. She asked me to come take a look. I wasn’t needed to do much of anything but be there. But being there let me witness a birth like I have never seen. In a labor & delivery unit, or even the few homebirths I’ve attended, the baby is born, and the pulse of the room quickens, holds its breath, shifts its feet, reaches in, rubs the baby up, hastens the life into it. Even with all the calm we can muster, there is a frenetic energy held just at bay.  Human beings feel the enormity of the moment before the first breath; knowing it could go either way, we anxiously desire to make it turn out right. Not so with sheep. This was the most unrushed, unhurried first minute of life I have ever witnessed. With an eerie calm, the ewe didn’t look at the lamb with membranes still covering his mouth; she shuffled her weight, rolled about, collected herself, and only later, in due time turned her head, found him, and nudged and licked him to life.

All the texts on this first week of Advent tell us something about how we are to wait for the Christ who was coming, and who will come.  “Don’t fall asleep,” “Keep alert!” “Keep awake — the master is coming!” Jesus implores his disciples three times in Mark’s gospel (13: 33-37). In I Corinthians, Paul prays that we may not be “lacking in any spiritual gift as we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7). And Isaiah tells us we should not be like those who have so tired of begging God to come down that they no longer call on God’s name or attempt to take hold of him (64:1, 7).

 Waiting is hard. “How long?” we cry out until we cannot wait any more (Ps. 80: 4). So we fall asleep, or we take matters into our own hands. We fall into despair when it seems God tarries far too long (cf. Mark 4:38). Or we frantically insist that all be made right, right now (cf. Mark 6:48). What if instead though, we could await the LORD as a shepherd or a midwife watches a birth, patiently alert, hands folded in her lap, but quick at the ready?

Jesus knows that calm alertness, active passivity, is hard for humans to muster. Unfulfilled longing is more than our souls can bear. So, He turns our attention to nature. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near” (Mark 13:28). Henry Swete puts this word tender in its botanical context; hapalos denotes “the softening of the external covering of the stem as it grows succulent under the moisture and sunshine of spring.” The seasons change inexorably. The fig awaits the coming summer by doing no more nor less than it can.

The parable of the fig tree reminds us that we are creatures just like the plants and the animals. Yes, we ought to await the Lord with the patience of a shepherd. But when this proves too hard, the Good Shepherd reminds us that we ourselves are sheep. We must let ourselves, indeed, we cannot help but let ourselves, be warmed by the sun that God makes to shine. God’s good future will not be thwarted by anything that God has made. Even the sun and the stars are God’s creatures (Mark 13:24-27). Whether we see well or poorly, the light that we see by is not all that there is.  Whether we wait anxiously or patiently, or have ceased to wait at all, the Advent of the LORD is at hand. Let us rejoice.

Image Credit: Julian Dupres, La Fermiere, 1876

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