“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is one of our best-known Christmas hymns. Phillips Brooks wrote it, and that’s why we remember him today. But in his own time he was one of the country’s greatest preachers. That shows in this hymn. Let’s take a look at it.
We begin with the odd claim that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Matthew and Luke’s Christmas stories are very different, but they agree on that detail. Matthew tells it without explanation; Luke gives us the story of how the Roman tax collectors insisted that people returning to their ancestral towns to pay the census, the head tax. Maybe they believed that the best way to catch tax evaders would be to count on their relatives to squeal on them – and they were probably right.
But it was also part of the prophetic tradition. Micah 5:2 says, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathath, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
But why Bethlehem? Why not Jerusalem? After all, Jerusalem was the great city of the region; the place you’d expect to produce someone important.
(1) In the first place, we have a tradition that great rulers should come from the country, not the city. Abraham Lincoln was extolled as the one who was born in a log cabin, instead of the talented lawyer from Springfield that he was. When Jimmy Carter ran for president, instead of billing himself as a skilled nuclear navy engineer, he ran as the simple peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia.
Barack Obama was born in the state of Hawaii, and was a law professor from Chicago, but when he first ran in 2008, he emphasized that his mom’s family was from good ol’ Kansas. So in the Bible, if little Bethlehem was good enough to turn out David, the greatest of all the kings of Israel, then of course it was good enough to turn out Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
But what’s the underlying psychology here? It’s simple. We know that the true word of salvation; the word that’s going to give us peace and hope and happiness; must come from outside ourselves. We don’t have it in us. Our own words, are relative and conditional, prone to falsehood, and subject to change.
But it’s the word that comes from the outside – from little Bethlehem, and not the richer and more sophisticated Jerusalem—the word that comes from God, is the word that can truly save us. It only makes sense that Jesus should be born in Bethlehem.
But there’s one more step. The name “Bethlehem” itself means “House of Bread.” Breadtown. In John 6:35, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” It only makes sense that the Bread of Life should have been born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread.
In other words, even if Jesus had been born in the Walmart parking lot, Bethlehem tells us exactly who he is. Jesus is Lord—the king who rules our life by his word; the king who came from the countryside, born in the kingly town. And Jesus is Savior – the man from the House of Bread, who himself is the Bread of Life; the bread of life that saves us from sin and gives us the life of heaven.
(2) But now, imagine yourself standing next to Phillips Brooks in Bethlehem in 1865. The land of Palestine was little changed from the way it was when Jesus was born. Some time during Christmas week that year, Phillips Brooks, a young Episcopalian minister from Philadelphia, was on an extended visit to the Holy Lands, and made the short trip from Jerusalem down to Bethlehem on horseback. One evening, perhaps on Christmas Eve itself, Brooks was able to look out across the town. And indeed, in 1865, Bethlehem was still very much a small town.
Obviously, there was no electricity back then, and that meant that at night, it was really dark. It’s a total darkness that’s very hard for us to imagine. The closest we come to it is when the electricity goes out. But even then, the headlights on cars and trucks light up the sky. Try to imagine this dusty little Palestinian village, with no neon signs, no house lights, no street lights, no yard lights on the surrounding farms……..
No electricity also meant no noise: no furnaces or refrigerators chugging away, no boom-boxes or TV’s blaring through open windows. There were no trucks rumbling by on the highway. The only sounds Brooks would have heard would have been entirely natural sounds– perhaps a baby crying, or the noises of the animals—the moos of the cows, the bleats and baahs of the sheep and goats, some dogs trading barks, and so on. In other words, it really was quiet, a silent town that’s hard for us to imagine.
And indeed, even in 1865, it would have been striking to a city boy like Brooks, born and raised in Boston, and working in Philadelphia. As he looked out across this dark, silent scene and the words began to almost write themselves. Three years later, he wrote it up for a Sunday School Christmas program. But listen:
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.”
It was easy for Brooks to imagine what the first Christmas night must have been like. But that was precisely where Brooks was struck by the paradox, the mystery:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years are “met” (or answered) in thee tonight.
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 the King, and peace to all on earth.”
When God came into this world, there were no flashing lights or trumpets blaring. He didn’t come to the great cities of Rome or Athens, or even Jerusalem, but to the little town of Bethlehem. He came not as a king in purple robes, or marching with an entourage of soldiers, but as a baby, swaddled and laid in a manger; with an entourage of the scraggly, smelly shepherds who’d wandered in from the hills.
No flashing lights–but he was still the “everlasting light.” No earth-shattering arrival in the big city, yet “the hopes and fears of all the years” came together that night. No entourage, yet the heavens and angels told those shepherds the news of peace, come down to earth. That’s the mystery of Christmas.
But there was more. As Brooks looked out over the dark and silent town, he realized that he was seeing a model of the whole plan of salvation.
“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”
Brooks was a pastor in Philadelphia during the Civil War. Philadelphia was a rail hub. He would have heard the troop trains rolling day and night. He would have met the same trains returning with coffins. And undoubtedly, he officiated at the funerals of many young men. Some of his parishioners came home missing arms or legs.
When he talks about “this world of sin,” he knew what he meant. It took the bloodiest war in our history to burn that despised rebel flag and end the moral outrage of human slavery that it represents.
That outrage may be gone, but today the “world of sin” is still grabbing all the headlines, all the attention. Yet none of it has the power to prevent Jesus Christ from doing his work in human hearts. When Jesus Christ was born in the humble little town of Bethlehem, fear could give way to hope: “Where meek souls will receive him the dear Christ enters in.”
The everlasting Light will overcome the darkness of your life if you’re willing to humble yourself and say Yes, Lord, I need you.
In 2019, Christmas is a noisy time. But sometime in these next few days, take a moment to reflect in the silence. — “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.”
Let that dark, silent, little town of Bethlehem point you to the truth. Find a moment when all the noise and distraction and fanfare of Christmas can give way to letting Christ come quietly into your heart. The last stanza is entirely personal. Make Philips Brooks’ prayer your own:
“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!”