A sheep’s tale and the story of Christmas

Sheep at the mart
Sheep at the mart

Sheep are a vital part of our agri-food economy here in Northern Ireland and we are rightly proud of our product. While no area of farming is unaffected by all the discussions about Brexit, fears seem to abound about how sheep farming may be affected should we lose exports. We all hope that farmers’ voices get heard.

It is good to know that in the most momentous event of history, God listened to and cared about sheep farmers in Bethlehem. In the accounts of history’s greatest events, we expect to see kings and emperors, pomp and circumstance. Yet, at the greatest event in history, the real stars of the show are humble shepherds on a hill looking after their sheep! God has a big place for sheep and shepherds, and for good reason.

Some years ago, as a ministry student, I had a wonderful opportunity to stay and study in the Holy Land. One of my highlights was to visit Bethlehem, though, given that it was in June, any notion of Bethlehem as a Christmas scene was hard to imagine. Nevertheless I did get to see sheep; lots of them in the countryside around and I also got to learn a bit more about Bethlehem’s historic sheep industry.

Why so many sheep? At the time of Jesus, the Temple was in Jerusalem, just down the road. All year round, lambs were needed for the daily sacrifices and once a year at Passover tens of thousands of pilgrims would pour into the city - all needing a lamb. So demand kept shepherds busy.

Joseph and Mary, having made the 70 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, then had the nightmare of finding somewhere to stay. In that town, every home had a place for their sheep. In a sheep shed, usually a cave behind a house, or a basement below a house, Mary found privacy to give birth to Jesus. She even laid him in the feeding trough and the ‘swaddling cloths’. These may actually have been what the lambs were wrapped up in to stop them running away, waiting for their customers!

That night who did God tell first? Not close family, but some scared-to-death sheep farmers on Bethlehem’s hills, that ‘a King’ and a ‘Saviour’ was born! They hurried off and in their sheep-smelling clothes entered the stable to see the new born king. Why did shepherds need to know first? They needed to know that Jesus was ‘God’s Lamb’, and he would be the ultimate sacrifice, no more need for helpless lambs to die as sacrifices for people’s sins.

The greatest gift He could ever give us was His Son - who would be “...the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). For all who accept God’s Christmas gift - His Son, there is forgiveness. Christmas takes on a brand new meaning, not just a time for good business, or enjoying lovely food together, but having a living hope that never ends.

In days of uncertainty - politically, economically and agriculturally - because of Jesus we have Good News. Great news in fact, for God proves He has a place for sheep farmers. Great news because God has a place for us all, if we will only receive His gift, by placing all our trust in Him – will you?

Happy Christmas

Every fortnight people from a farming background, or who have a heart for the countryside, offer a personal reflection on faith and rural life. They hope that you will be encouraged by it.

Ian was brought up on a dairy farm near Limavady. He was a minister in Ballyroney and Drumlee congregations in south Down, and latterly Moneydig Presbyterian in County Londonderry. Due to a serious cancer diagnosis, Ian has had to retire from active ministry and now provides counselling and support to others with cancer.

If you would like to talk to someone about any of the subjects raised in this article, please email Rev Kenny Hanna at khanna@presbyterianireland.org or call him on 028 9753 1234.