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Christmas in the Carols: O Little Town Of Bethlehem

Luke 1:46-55

It is good that the carols are such an important part of our Christmas celebrations because music, more than any other thing which we produce from within us, is an expression of our hearts. Listen to a spiritual sung by the great Marian Anderson and you will know in the listening something of the faith and the feeling of the history of Black people in this country. Listen to a march of John Philip Sousa or a patriotic song by Irving Berlin and almost instantly you will catch a sense of the heartfelt love many people have for this nation. Listen to the gentle melodies of a love song and you will hear their whispers of intimacy which you will not encounter in any other way. Some of you have noticed, I am sure, that after you have lost a loved one to death, one of the hardest things to do is to come back to church—and when you do get back to church, the hardest part of the worship service is when the congregation sings. The reason for that is that a song comes from the heart, and when your heart is broken and you begin to sing, or hear other people sing, then the pain of that breaking comes powerfully to the fore. Singing then is not just an incidental part of our worship. It is an expression of our hearts. And at Christmastime, of course, we always sing the songs of Bethlehem—and one song of Bethlehem in particular I want us to look at it together, in a moment, after we pray…

In December of 1865, a young American minister named Phillips Brooks traveled to the Middle East. The trip was to be a spiritual pilgrimage and he was scheduled to be in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. When the day came, Brooks and several of his friends mounted horses and rode the six miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Arriving shortly before sundown, they found the little town looking very much as it did the night before Jesus was born. They then rode out to the sloping fields and rocky hillsides around Bethlehem and there they saw shepherds keeping their flocks or leading them home to fold. Overhead, stars glittered in the rapidly darkening sky. It was an experience Phillips Brooks would never forget. Two years later, at Christmastime, that memory of Bethlehem, so clearly etched in his mind, became the inspiration for writing one of our most beautiful Christmas carols. It is a carol which contains striking analogies between the coming of Christ to Bethlehem that first Christmas and His coming into our hearts this Christmas. And who can count the hearts which have been lifted on the wings of Phillips Brooks’ words in “O Little Town Of Bethlehem”? They are more than the sands of the shore. I rather imagine that you know the words by heart, but today I want us to take those words to heart.

So let me reflect a bit on the Bethlehem memories of Phillips Brooks.

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie,
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.

Of course, that vision of peace and stillness does not really square with our experience of Christmas, does it? I mean, the Christmas season these days is marked by deeper emotional strain, greater anxiety, and more acts of violence than any other time of the year. The frantic stress of the holidays, which we do not always observe as Holy Days; the depressing weight of loneliness, which for some people becomes almost unbearable at this time of year; and the frenetic activity, which seems to run night and day at Christmas make this season for most of us a time of bedlam. And unfortunately, Bethlehem gets lost so easily in all the bedlam.

Bethlehem and bedlam. Did you know that they are actually the same word? Back in the fourteenth century, they built a hospital in London called “St. Mary of Bethlehem.” It was a hospital for the insane. In those days they did not treat the mentally ill—they just locked them away. As a result, St. Mary of Bethlehem was a place of constant clamor and confusion and uproar and chaos. In time, the people of London began to refer to the hospital simply as “Bethlehem”, dropping the “St. Mary of”—and then by contraction and corruption over the years, it became known as “Bedlam.” A new word was born—bedlam out of Bethlehem—same word, two meanings. So in a strange way, I suppose, the two words go together.

But then they always have, when you stop to think about it. At the time of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem was a place of uproar and confusion. The town was crowded to the point of suffocation because the Roman Emperor had ordered the people to return to the place of their birth to register for the census. And so on that long ago night, people were pouring into the little town of Bethlehem from all over Palestine. Why it was almost like Miami at midwinter, Washington at a presidential inauguration, New Orleans at Mardi Gras, or New York on New Year’s Eve. It was bedlam in Bethlehem.

Yet away from all the bedlam in Bethlehem, in a silent, straw-filled stable and out on quiet sheep-covered hillsides, a miracle was taking place—a miracle which would make the little town of Bethlehem the most famous town in all the world. That night, in that place, a child was born, not just any child, but a child born of God—and the world has never been the same. For you see if it is true that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son,” if it is true that God came down the stairway of the stars to that little town of Bethlehem bearing a child in His arms, if that is true—and it is—then something brand new has entered human history.

What happened in this little town of Bethlehem made an impact on the world which has never been, and never will be, equalled. In all the annals of the human race, there is no one like the One born that silent, holy night. He never commanded vast political power. He never wrote books. He never accumulated significant wealth or influence in His lifetime. He never won the allegiance of more than a handful of followers. Yet He altered the world completely. He has been opposed and hated and fought and censored and banned and criticized in every generation since His birth. Yet, His influence continues unabated. He has made all the difference in the world. Even Thomas Paine, sometimes accused of agnosticism, was moved to write: “Till the coming of Christ there was no such thing as freedom in any part of this world. Kings and emperors held the world in slavery. All that changed with God’s gift of Jesus Christ.”

Yet in the dark street shineth,
The everlasting light,
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

But just as amazing as Christ changing the world is Christ changing your life and mine. Just as amazing as the fact that Christ came to Bethlehem is the fact that He will come to your heart and mine today. And if we receive Him, He is going to change us. There is a moving scene near the end of the play “Becket”, where the king has made Becket, his old hunting companion and carousing partner, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He expected Becket to cooperate in his scheme to bring the church under royal control. What the king hadn’t counted on, however, was that Becket would encounter the claims of Christ upon his life. He refused to obey the king’ s commands. When the king then reminded him of their wild and carousing days together, Becket replied: “Perhaps I am no longer like myself.” When the king demanded to know the reason for this change, Becket said: “I feel for the first time in my life that I have been entrusted with something truly grand. There in that empty cathedral when you ordered me to take up this burden, I was a man without honor. But suddenly I found it—the honor of God.” There it is. If you receive Him, He will change you.

No ear may hear His coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive Him, still
The dear Christ enters in.

Now let me reflect a bit on my own Bethlehem memories.

In December of 1981, my family and I traveled to the Middle East. The trip was to be a spiritual pilgrimage for the five of us, and we were scheduled to be in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. The experience turned out to be one of those events in life which burn themselves forever into the memory. It was a profoundly moving time for us, but it was also a time twisted with a terrible irony.

On Christmas Eve that year, Bethlehem was an armed camp. Only weeks before Anwar Sadat had been assassinated in Egypt, and now, the Palestine Liberation organization was threatening a terrorist incident at Bethlehem. The whole region was in a state of unrest. As a result, heavily armed Israeli soldiers sealed off the little town of Bethlehem. Blockades were erected six miles away on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Entrance into Bethlehem could be gained only by submitting to harsh and thorough security checks.

Expectantly, and in retrospect, naively, we approached the checkpoint at the Jerusalem blockade. Immediately, our son, John David, and I were separated from Trisha and our daughters, Meg and Beth. At gunpoint, we were herded onto separate busses and told that in due time we would be taken to Bethlehem. We were ordered to surrender our passports. There followed an extended time of inactivity on the solders’ part coupled with a rising anxiety on my part. Finally, the busses, loaded primarily with soldiers, departed. At the town limits of Bethlehem, we were ordered off the bus. To our great relief we were reunited as a family—a reunion which proved to be short-lived. Suddenly, once again, we were looking at the killing end of an Israeli machine gun. Short, crisp commands barked out by an Israeli officer, indicated that we were to separate, male and female, as before. We were then taken away to large, olive-drab military tents and there we were roughly searched. To think that we had come to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of One known as the Prince of Peace.

At last, shaken but still sound, we were released from the tents and transported to Bethlehem’s Manger Square. There, before we could recover fully from the shocking experience at the hands of the soldiers, we were besieged by people trying to take advantage of the occasion to make as much money as they could in any way that they could, by selling trinkets, souvenirs, and relics. As they clawed at us from every side, it seemed to me that their hunger for dollars had driven them mad. To think that we had come to Bethlehem to remember One whose birth to peasant parents took place in the rude bareness of an animal’ s feeding trough, and whose adult life was marked by the fact that He had no place to lay His head.

Worse came to worst, and we found ourselves trapped in the midst of roaming bands of drunken, cursing young people, sadly most of them American. They seemed determined to submerge the loveliness of Christmas under a sea of raucous and repulsive ugliness. To think that we had come to Bethlehem to pray to One who declared: “I have come to seek and to save the lost.”

It seemed to me then, and it seems to me still, to have been an act of God’s grace, but we were led to slip away, with a number of others from Manger Square, and to make our way out to the shepherd’s fields. No more guns. No more hawkers. No more revelers. Just beauty—a quiet beauty with beautiful people. There were men, women and children from every part of the world—different colors, different languages, different dress, but with one Lord. There on rocky, cave-pocked hillsides, where so long ago shepherds heard the promise of the angels—there, as the night slowly squeezed the last light out of the day and stars pierced the gathering darkness overhead—there, together, our family surrounded by the family of Christ, we sang our carols in five different languages. We read the Gospel stories. We prayed together. We wept together. We worshipped together. We felt as one in Christ, and we felt at one with Christ. It was a feeling born in me there in Bethlehem and it has never left me. I sat that night on that rocky hillside, with my feet dangling down over the mouth of a small cave used then, as now, by Bethlehem shepherds to shield their flocks by night. And there I was captured—heart, mind, body and soul—by the love Jesus has for me and the love I have for Him. And that is why, to this day, I can never sing the words without feeling a sudden rush of tears to my eyes:

O holy child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
Their great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel.

May the Christ of Bethlehem abide in your heart this Christmas.

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