Friday, 24 December 2010

Hopes and fears

If you go hill walking in certain more remote parts of England today, from time to time you’ll come across a low almost circular wall with a single opening in it. It isn’t an ancient stone circle - it is much more recent than that. It isn’t the remains of a shelter or hovel which has lost its roof - it never had a roof in the first place. It is simply a derelict pen for sheep - an enclosure into which sheep could be gathered - what is called a folding or a sheep fold.

The same simple pattern of wall has been used for thousands of years - and in still exists and is used in different parts of the world. The Spanish word corral is used for similar cattle enclosures both there and in America. The related word kraal is used in South Africa. And so on.

There is actually an even older English word for it - a cote or sheepcote - and it is possible that Great Coates and Little Coates today take their names from Anglo-Saxon enclosures on the edge of the Humber marsh long before Vikings came along and named a nearby port as ‘Grim’s by’.

Such cots or foldings or kraals have existed in the Middle East for centuries, and they still exist today. They are needed particularly where there are dangers - from robbers, or from War Lords, or from wild animals like bears or lions or wolves.

The herdsmen would need to gather their sheep together at dusk. The low stone wall wouldn’t be enough. A sheep steeler or a wolf could easily climb or jump over it. So the walls would need to be tall, and the herdsman is likely to pile thorny bush on top of it as well. A simple gate across the opening at the front wouldn’t be enough either. The herdsmen would be likely to build their fire in front of it, some of them might sleep across it, and at least one would be likely to keep awake and keep watch by night.

It may sound like a remote rural scene. But think of the sheep as valuable trading goods. Think of the stone circle as a steel fence. Think of the thorns on top as razor wire. Think of the fire as floodlighting. Think of the watchman as a security guard. Think of the hillside as looter’s paradise in a war zone. That would give you a better picture of what was needed and what was there.

We have to imagine all that. But an extraordinary thing is that we don’t have to imagine what the herdsmen thought. We actually know what those watchmen hoped for. We know what the security guards wanted. We know - because some of the poems and songs written about them or by them or for them are among the oldest poems and songs which we still read today.

So when someone dies today, and their family brings their body here, it is the words of one of those songs which we most often use to comfort and encourage them. We tell them that God is our herdmen. He isn’t going to leave us huddled and anxious in this kraal. He is going to set us free to roam and flourish on lush ground. Getting there we may walk through ravines made so dark by the bereavements and worse things closing in around us that we feel as if we’ll lose our footing, but his crook and his stave will keep me safe.

And tonight we’ve read another of those poems as the first of our two readings from the Bible.

From torn stumps of the deforestation around us new shoots will come. They’ll come from the family of Jesse from near by Bethlehem. They’ll come through his son the shepherd boy David who became King of Israel. It won’t be like having anarchy and War Lords around any more. There will be reliable justice even for the most vulnerable.

And best of all: the wolf and the lamb will lie down together and a child will lead them. It is not going to be predators and sheep folds and watchmen any longer. It is going to be their young all playing together: wolf and sheep and humans; cubs and lambs and children. We won’t be afraid of each other. We won’t be in danger from each other.

And then - it began to happen. God began to stir like one of their young. Even the sky split open with rejoicing. Close by the only people awake to notice were the night watchmen at a local sheepcote. The story says they were scared witless. It took them a little while to understand what was going on.

The awakening of a new born child was God beginning to live among all the possibilities of abuse, anxiety and attack. The filling of his make shift nappy was God deep in the mess of a world of bereavement, bullying and burglary. His beginning to cry was just God’s first tears which continue in the face of things like cancers and cold and cuts. The visit of some of those shepherds was God’s first human encounter with ordinary people who face death and debt and doubt.

God was beginning to move. His transformation of the world isn’t nearly complete, but he knew their hopes and dreams, and he had begun to get stuck in. We are never again going to be left alone with our fears, and we know we’ll come safe through the dark ravine. Some of the old ways things worked are beginning to break down, and new possibilities of reliable justice and peaceful relating are beginning to open up for any willing to embrace them. It began to dawn on the herdsmen that the hopes and fears of all the years were beginning to be met near by that night.

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