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O Little Town of Bethlehem

Series: Songs of Christmas

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Dec 6, 2004

Micah 5:1-5

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As we continue this evening in a series that began last Wednesday and will be running through the month of December, we're looking at well-known Christmas carols and looking at some theological reflections on these Christmas carols and allowing them to be windows into Scriptures that are also extremely well-known to us.

Two passages of Scripture come to the surface this evening. The carol in view is the one we've just sung: O Little Town of Bethlehem. Perhaps you can keep that open before you. It's No. 201 in Trinity Hymnal, but I'm also asking you... if you’re ambidextrous you can have a hymnbook in one hand and a Bible in the other. I want us to look at two passages of Scripture, one coming from the Old Testament: Micah 5, we’ll be reading the first five verses; and then, Matthew, chapter two and verses one through twelve.

Before we read the Scriptures together, let us come before God in prayer.

Our Father, again we ask for Your help. We need Your Spirit to come and illuminate these words of Scripture. We desire to understand that which we read, and we pray, Lord, that we might read, mark, learn and inwardly digest for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now, Micah chapter five, and we’ll read the first five verses. We need to know something of a context before we plunge into that first verse.

This is Micah– eighth century B.C. prophet, contemporary of Isaiah– prophesying of the coming invasion of Assyria, and that Assyria will come down (having already ravaged the northern kingdom of Israel)... will actually come all the way down to Judah and will threaten Jerusalem, and, more importantly for our text, Bethlehem, which lies very close at hand to Jerusalem.

As you know from your Bible history, the Assyrians never did attack Jerusalem. They were sent packing by the angel of the Lord. But they certainly did ravage Bethlehem, and the question that's being asked here in the passage is ‘Will Bethlehem always be downtrodden?’ And with that in mind, let's hear the word of God.

“Now muster yourselves in troops, daughter of troops; They have laid siege against us; with a rod they will smite the judge of Israel on the cheek. ‘But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.’ Therefore, He will give them up until the time when she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of His brethren will return to the sons of Israel. And He will arise and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they will remain, because at that time He will be great to the ends of the earth. And this One will be our peace.

“When the Assyrian invades our land, when he tramples on our citadels, then we will raise against him seven shepherds and eight leaders of men.”

And now in Matthew, chapter two, and verses one through twelve:

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.’ And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he began to inquire of them where the Christ was to be born. And they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet,

‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,

Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;

For out of you shall come forth a ruler,

Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called the magi, and ascertained from them the time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, ‘Go and make careful search for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, that I too may come and worship Him.’

And having heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of god and frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.”

Amen. And may God add His blessing to the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie;

Above the deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by...”

One of the reasons I love this carol, and I know that some of you love it, too, and it is perhaps quintessential of all that the Christmas season (the Advent season, actually) is, is because its focus is preeminently upon Jesus and the birth of this little child in Bethlehem in Judea. The carol refers to two particular aspects of Jesus.

In the very opening stanza, second half of that opening stanza, “...yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light...”...and the author of this carol depicts a scene of a night, a dark night in Bethlehem; and people who are utterly oblivious to the significance of what is taking place, and in that little town a light is shining: a light, to be sure, that the people of Bethlehem by and large do not see and cannot comprehend, but a light nevertheless: an everlasting light, a light that is a foreshadowing of the One who will say “I am the light of the world.”

And then, in stanza four, yet another depiction of Christ:

“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 Emmanuel.”

Not only is Jesus the everlasting light, the light of the world, but He is also the Lord Emmanuel. And Emanuel means “God with us.” And as you will remember, it was at the very heart of all that God had promised by way of covenant; that at the heart of the covenant promise of God lay that promise that God would be with His people. You’ll remember, back in the time of the wilderness wanderings God tabernacled literally in a tent so that the cloud of fire and smoke... and that tent-dwelling was emblematic and representative of the very presence of God, the Almighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth: the presence of God with His people.

And what the author of this carol is saying to us is that this Jesus who is the everlasting light is also God amongst His people, God dwelling amongst His people.

Now, as you can see, the author of this carol is Phillips Brooks, who was born in 1835 and died in 1893. He was born in Boston, in Massachusetts, on the thirteenth of December in 1835; and, through his father was related to the Puritan John Cotten. To some of us he is most remembered by two books: one a book about preaching called The Joy of Preaching, which is still in print and is one of the top fifteen or twenty books on homiletics available today, and another book of sermons called The Consolations of God. His most famous quote, at least to me, is the quotation about preaching: that preaching is truth through personality. It is truth through personality.

Phillips Brooks prepared for college, attending the Boston Latin School. He was a graduate of Harvard University; after that, went to seminary in Alexandria, Virginia; he was given during the course of his life honorary doctorates from Harvard, and from Columbia, and from Oxford, England. He was knighted by Queen Victoria to become the Chaplain to the Royal Chapel at Windsor, an invitation which he turned down.

He had a heart for children. Loved children. It is said that in his study he kept a box full of toys, and invited regularly children to come and visit him in his study. In 1862, he became the Rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, and he remained there for seven years–that is, of course, during the years of the Civil War (if I can call it that here this evening!). He preached–and this is a mark of his esteem–he preached the funeral sermon of Abraham Lincoln (and it may now forever cast a slur on this carol as you now sing it, but I hope not!)

In 1869, he became the Rector of Holy Trinity Church in Boston, and would remain there and some twenty years later would be consecrated Bishop of Massachusetts. He would remain throughout his life an enormous influence on Harvard, declining an invitation to become its resident preacher and professor of Christian ethics. He remained single all of his life. He died on the twenty-third of January in 1893.

Following the end of the Civil War–it had taken quite a toll upon him–he took sabbatical leave and did as was fairly common amongst a certain group of ministers in the middle of the nineteenth century, he went on a tour of the Middle East. And he found himself, on Christmas Eve in 1865, in Jerusalem. He hired a horse, went for a ride south and somewhat west of Jerusalem toward the hill country of Judea, and toward, of course, Bethlehem. And as the evening approached, he found himself coming to the fields where he imagined the shepherds had been keeping watch over their flocks by night. And all of the story of the advent of Jesus Christ came rushing into his mind. He rode and walked about the streets of Bethlehem, and much of what we have in this carol is his remembrance of that. He didn't write the carol there in Bethlehem: it would be three years later when he returns to Philadelphia that he would recount the experience of visiting the site where Jesus was born.

He records in his diary,

“Before dark we rode out of town to the field where the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been, as we passed, still keeping watch over their flocks. I was standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, and the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God; how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I know well, telling each other of the Savior's birth.”

And so the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem came into being.

As you can see from the Trinity Hymnal, there are two versions of it. Number 201 and the tune there written by Lewis Redner - that is the one we're speaking of this evening. The original is somewhat altered, but he had a very special concern for children, and he wanted children to be able to sing this carol and remember the lines of this carol; and for that, he asked his organist, Lewis Redner, to compose a tune. It took him a while, and it is said that the tune came to him not while he was at the organ, but while he was lying in bed on Christmas Eve.

Three locations are brought to the surface in the course of this carol as it reflects on Jesus as the Everlasting Light, and Jesus as the Lord Emmanuel, and they are: Bethlehem, heaven, and our hearts. Bethlehem, heaven, and our hearts.

I. Bethlehem, first of all.

Now, perhaps we need to comment on the poetic license that depicts Bethlehem as “how still we see thee lie” and “resting silently” in “deep and dreamless sleep.” Actually, Bethlehem was crowded with people because of the census. There was no room at the inn, and probably the streets were full of people. In actual fact, it's probably more of a description of how Phillips Brooks found Bethlehem the time he went there, rather than the time in fact that Jesus was born.

The major feature of this carol is of course the identification of Bethlehem as the chosen birthplace of the Messiah, in whom all “the hopes and fears of all the years” were to be focused. Bethlehem means–‘beth’ is the Hebrew word for ‘house’ and ‘lehem’ is the Hebrew word for ‘bread’. It's the ‘house of bread.’ It's fertile territory. Even to this day, if you go to Bethlehem today, it's a place where they grow olives especially, and grapes for making an Israeli wine (not terribly good wine, by all accounts)–but, grapes and olives. In Bible times, it wasn't grapes and olives so much, and you’ll remember of course from familiar stories from the Bible the story of Ruth and Naomi and Boaz, and their gleaning in the fields. It's Bethlehem, and it's grain fields that they’re in. It's the place...it's the “bread basket” of Judea.

In New Testament times it is also a place of enormous fertility, and in this “bread basin” the Bread of Life would be born.

It's here that Jacob buried Rachel, and it was here that David, Ruth and Boaz's grandson, would look after sheep–perhaps in the same fields that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night; the same fields in which Psalm 23 was composed–“The Lord is my Shepherd....”

Bethlehem had known tragedy, great tragedy; that dreadful story in Judges 19 of a concubine that was ravaged by Benjaminites until she was dead. And in Ezra and Nehemiah there is a very direct reference to Bethlehemites returning from the exile in Babylon.

Today it's very different. It's in the West Bank, of course. It is occupied by approximately forty thousand people today. Writing in Christianity Today just a few months ago, a man by the name of Kevin Begos (I've no idea who he is) describes Bethlehem in this way: “O jailed town of Bethlehem, how eerily still we see thee lie.” And he went on to describe a network of trenches, and barbed wire, and fences and walls and military checkpoints closing off the holy city of Bethlehem. There was an attempt to make over Bethlehem in 1999. Today, by all accounts, it's back in ruins again.

It is “Area ‘A’” of the Palestinian communities, therefore it's out of bounds for Israelis. There's a massive Israeli checkpoint on the road into Bethlehem. Fifteen years ago when I visited Bethlehem on two different occasions, there was a military post directly opposite the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. From Bethlehem today come suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their bodies as they make their way into Jerusalem. The unemployment rate in Bethlehem today is said to be upwards of 70 percent. This year alone 500 Christian families have fled the town.

But back in the eighth century B.C.–and the allusion in this carol is to Micah, and the prophecy of Micah, and Micah 5–small among the clans of Judah, this nowhere little town, sleepily lying some five, six, seven miles southwest of Jerusalem–and at a time when Bethlehem Ephrathah (and that's to distinguish it from another Bethlehem in Judea in Zebulon, and the home of the judge Ibzan in Judges 12)–Micah prophesied that a day would come when this small, downtrodden, insignificant little town would see the birth of a mighty ruler and Messiah of the house of David, so that even the magi from the East — not the Jews, who seem to have forgotten this prophecy — but Gentiles from the East were familiar with this prophecy of Micah, and come seeking the child that had been born.

Bethlehem, part of that promise, then, of the Old Testament–that from Bethlehem would rise One of the house of David; a promise that God had made to David himself in II Samuel 7: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before Me. Your throne will be established forever.”

And this is the God of history, the God of redemptive history; this is the God who had made a promise in Genesis 3:15 that from the seed of the woman one would be born, one of the house and lineage of David, bringing together Ruth and Boaz in order to fulfill that promise in an insignificant little town called Bethlehem. God would raise up a King; God would raise up a Shepherd; God would raise up His fulfillment to His covenant promise: Bethlehem.

II. The second location is heaven.

And here Phillips Brooks speaks about the angels. He says in the second stanza: “For Christ is born of Mary; and gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wond’ring love.” And Brooks does something quite remarkable and astonishing, and beautiful, because in the Scriptures it is the shepherds who are keeping watch over their flocks by night; but Brooks is meditating on the shepherds in the fields on that Christmas Eve, and he thinks to himself, ‘There are others also who are watching. Angels and archangels, and cherubim and seraphim; and Michael and Gabriel; and they are watching with wondering love, a love that is full of wonder, full of gasps of astonishment as they behold the unfolding of the mystery of God's plan of redemption.’

You will remember that Peter speaks of that in the first chapter of his epistle, of how the angels long to see and pry into and ask questions about the unfolding of the gospel of redeeming grace. The sinless creatures whose life is filled with worship and praise...and they look down and they see God at work. They see the Triune majesty of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit fulfilling that ancient promise in–not Jerusalem, but Bethlehem, of all places! And not in Holiday Inn® or Comfort Suites® in Bethlehem, but in a manger with cattle and donkeys, and sheep and oxen looking on, perhaps with equal astonishment and wonder.

And what Brooks does here in this wonderful carol is to get us to look not just to Bethlehem; not, as it were, to have our eyes fixed on that which is below, but to have our eyes also fixed on that which is above, on that which is unseen: on the greater plan and greater purpose, and greater forces of unseen creatures that we may entertain unawares, Scripture says.

“The Christmas angels” — those astonishing creatures — and we don't know the half of it. We know of angels and archangels, and cherubim and seraphim, and that there are orders and degrees among the angels; but there may well be (as Revelation seems to hint at) orders of being that you and I haven't even begun to wonder. And each one of them looks down at what God has done in bringing Jesus into this world, and they look with awe and wonder. And can't you hear, my friend, can't you hear gasps of angelic wonder? The ‘ooo's’ and ‘aah's’ and sanctified high-fives in heaven, as God accomplishes every detail of His promise!

III. And there's a third location, and that is our hearts.

There's Bethlehem, there's heaven, and there's our hearts. And Brooks does a beautiful thing in the final verse as he talks about God imparting “to human hearts the blessings of His heaven”. And he talks about meek souls:

“O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;

Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.”

“Be born in us today.” Do you see what Brooks is doing? It's one thing to sentimentalize the story of Bethlehem, and it lends itself to that. It's one thing simply to see the objective reality of the incarnation of the Son of God, the enfleshment of the second person of the Trinity; but the real point of Christmas and the real point of the incarnation is that He has come to save us from our sins, and to quicken and regenerate us, and bring us into union and fellowship with the now-risen Christ who sits enthroned at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

And the question this carol is asking of us– the prayer, in fact, that it makes–is that Jesus might not only be One who is “out there” or even “up there”, but in here, in my heart, dwelling by His Spirit; having brought us out of darkness and into light; having converted us, having saved us, and washed us, and cleansed us, and justified us; and adopted us into His household and family; and given to us the very seed of promise that assures us that having begun a good work, He will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.

Do you know Him in that sense? Do you know Him in that sense, as your Lord and Savior, and Prophet and Priest, and King?

On a snowy day in London, in January of 1850, January 6 of 1850, a fifteen-year-old school boy under great conviction of sin would enter into a Primitive Methodist Church. There were barely a handful of people there. And the preacher for the day hadn't turned up, and a lay preacher was exhorting, and exhorting a sermon that this fifteen-year-old later would say was not a terribly good sermon, but he redeemed himself by repeating the text over and over and over: “Look unto Me, all the ends of the earth, and be ye saved.” And he was saved, that very night on the sixth of January in 1850. His name, of course, was Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who, like Phillips Brooks on this side of the Atlantic, would be perhaps the most famous preacher on the other side of the Atlantic in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

As you and I come to another Christmas season, do you know Him, my friends? Do you really know Him? Do you really know that your sins are forgiven, and you have peace with God? O may it be so! May it be so!

Let's pray together.

Our gracious God and ever blessed Father, we thank You now for this wonderful carol that is so well known to us. As we come yet again to another Advent season, we pray, Lord, that we might truly come to know Jesus Christ. For anyone here this evening, perhaps drawn by this series, but whose hearts are strange to You, draw them to Jesus Christ we pray, Sovereign Spirit. May Christ be born in them this evening, we pray for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand, receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.