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Article: O Little Town of Bethlehem


A man named Phillip Brooks penned these words in 1868 just three years after the end of the Civil War. He was inspired by a trip he had taken to Israel at the end of 1865 in which he had the great privilege of riding to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and taking part in a worship service that lasted until the Christmas sun broke over the horizon. Philip Brooks was an esteemed pastor of a church in Philadelphia, but he is most remembered for his heart for children, especially those in his Sunday School class. He wrote this song for them. And so they sang it for the first time for their congregation as part of a Christmas Program in 1868. 

“O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.”

The hymn starts by looking back to the eve of Christ’s birth. “O little town of Bethlehem…” is a reference to an Old Testament prophecy that’s tucked away in the book of Micah. It says, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2) At the very start, we are reminded that God keeps His Word. Jesus' birth happened exactly as He said it would. It's comforting to be shown again that we can trust Him. Especially in the middle of deep sleep when we are the most vulnerable and have absolutely no control, to be confident that God does not sleep or grow weary. He holds the world and you in His hands and continues to work out His plan while you sleep. “Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Friend, you can rest in the knowledge that whatever circumstance or “dark street” you find yourself in, the Everlasting light is there too. 

“For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth and praises sing to God our King and peace to men on earth.” 

From a heavenly perspective, this, the birth of Christ, was an event of eternal significance. Angels can only gaze in wonder and marvel as they watch their God become man. They have known and been watching as Yahweh worked out His plan from generation to generation to save man from his sin and fulfill His promise from Genesis 3 that He would redeem people from their sins. They’ve waited this moment for centuries, and all they want to do is shout His praises and proclaim the coming of His peace to all the earth. 

“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heav’n. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

From an earthly perspective, Christ had a very humble, unimpressive beginning. At the time, no one really knew or cared that Jesus had come. Yet, there is a wondrous beauty to the fact that Christ was born in a filthy, ramshackle stable to simple, ordinary people who were unknown, displaced, and homeless. There were no medical experts helping with the birth, no crowd of people supporting the couple and waiting to celebrate with them. The beauty of Jesus coming this way is that He can relate to anybody in the world with whatever they’ve gone through. Our King didn’t come in splendor, he came meek and lowly. Theologically speaking, in order for God to become fully human, “the Everlasting Light” had to subject himself to a beginning in the womb. He went from being the ancient of days, who holds the universe together by the word of his power, all the way to the bottom, to become one of the least of these. He came into the world as an outcast, to grow up as the perfect but scrutinized son of Mary, to die separated from God and rejected by man. 

He did that for you. 

“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, the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Immanuel.”

For most of us, it's easy to look at our lives and be confident that life is not supposed to be this way. There has to be something more. We crave peace, but the wrong kind. We crave different circumstances without realizing that our sin is standing between us and God. Some day He will judge rightly according to what we deserve, therefore, the peace we need is actually peace with Him. There’s nothing we can do to save ourselves. We need help. We’re always hoping, always waiting for something, but we don’t really know what we’re looking for. It's easy and sickeningly natural to put our hope in all the wrong things and be frustrated and depressed when those things fail us. In fact, Isaiah 8:22 says it this way, “And they will look to the earth, but behold distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.” “In this world of sin”, we continue to look to the earth to provide light and hope that we will never find. We need saving from the outside; someone outside time, outside our curse of sin, outside beginnings or endings to come in and be our hero. Enter Jesus our Immanuel. Here’s why He matters. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. For….you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor….For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7)

And so He has. If you have taken Him at His word and called on the name of Jesus to be saved from your sin and to follow Him as your Lord, be astounded again at this miracle of the Incarnation, that Jesus was born for you, and he has been born again in you. You are free! Go in peace.