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Sun, Dec 09, 2018

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Our Scripture reading for today comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 1, verses 3-11. In this brief opening interlude of thanksgiving, Paul previews the letter’s themes of joy and gratitude. It is clear how dear this church is to Paul and we hear his prayer that their love might overflow before the coming of the day of the Lord. Let us hear this Word of God.

3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

In December of 1865 American Episcopal priest Phillips Brooks took a trip to Palestine. The horrors of the American Civil War had concluded just months before and Brooks found in the Holy Land a peace his own country sorely lacked. On December 24th, Christmas Eve, he traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on horseback. Before entering the town they stopped first in the fields where the angels would have visited the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. He then entered the city of David and attended an impressive five-hour worship service at the Church of the Nativity, the church built over the place where Christ is thought to have been born.

Three years later, as he was writing words for a hymn to be sung on the Sunday after Christmas by the children at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where he served as rector, Brooks recalled his trip to Bethlehem. So, his poem began:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light,
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

A beautiful verse in what is now a beloved Christmas carol not only by children, but all ages. As we sing those words today, it is almost as if we can feel the peace and the quiet and inspiration that Brooks found in Bethlehem. Yes, Bethlehem has become a magical place in our minds. Pastor Thom Shuman has written:

There is a mystique about Bethlehem among believers. Part of it is this hymn. But it is also the picture we have in our mind of Bethlehem, that picture imprinted on our brains by the drawings of Bethlehem on Christmas cards – a gentle, snow-covered village with a (church!) in the background, a church that seems to resemble those country churches seen in shows and movies set in England. This magical Bethlehem attracts us, calls to us with its beauty, its peace, its sense of the eternal.

Of course Jesus was born in a Bethlehem just like that, right?

Shuman continues:

But the Bethlehem where Jesus was born was probably not that very beautiful at the time, more like a dusty, backwater village. And it probably wasn’t very timeless, but seemingly caught in an endless cycle of poverty and despair. Seeing that it was controlled by the occupation army of Imperial Rome, and under the thumb Herod, a king simply because he was willing to collaborate with the invaders, it probably wasn’t very peaceful. When Mary and Joseph arrived there, it was even more crowded, more dirty, more tightly controlled because of the census (more likely a tax scheme) imposed by the Emperor Tiberius. No, I don’t think we would want to see the Bethlehem of those days, the true Bethlehem, on any of the cards coming to us in this season.

My friends, if we were to travel to Bethlehem today we would still find a very different place than Brooks did in 1865 or the idyllic Bethlehem of our minds. It is a town still controlled by an occupying force that has built a 24-foot high, concrete Separation Wall through its streets. It is a town still marked by poverty, fear, and violence even as the Palestinian Christians (yes the only Christians left in Israel are Palestinian) attempt to put on a sanitized show for the tourists.

Sarah and I had an opportunity to travel to Bethlehem as tourists as part of our trip in seminary to the Middle East in 1999. I remember it being hot and very crowded. We exited our bus and entered the Church of the Nativity, the same church in which Phillips Brooks attended that glorious five hour service on Christmas Eve. We found the sanctuary large and yet everyone was herded to the front and then out a door toward stairs leading to the basement. We stood in a slowly moving line, gradually made our way down the stairs, and finally into a small room. To one side of the room there was a hole in the floor, outlined with a silver star. One by one we knelt down, and reached through the hole to touch the rock upon which Christ had been born. But no lingering for quiet and peaceful meditation was allowed. There were lines of tourists behind waiting not so patiently for their turn, so out of the room and up the stairs we went and back into the street. I remember buying a bottle of water as we hurried to get back on the bus.

That is my own memory of Bethlehem in Palestine. Instead of the beauty and peace of Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town …” it was hurried and hot and crowded and rushed.

Yes, we keep seeking this idyllic and mythical place, but perhaps our experience is more like that of Lewis Henry Redner. Redner served as the organist, choir director, superintendent of Sunday School and teacher at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church while Phillips Brooks served as rector. Brooks had asked Redner to write the tune for his new hymn and gave him the text several weeks ahead. However, as the ultimate procrastinator, Redner could not muster any musical inspiration for the task. Remember the inaugural singing of the hymn was scheduled for the Sunday after Christmas, December 27th. As late as Christmas Day, Redner admitted to Brooks that he did not yet have a tune; but he assured him that he would by Sunday. Saturday night, December 26th - still no tune. Redner worked on his Sunday School lesson for the next day instead and went to bed. Still no musical notes set to page.

However, during the night he was awakened by a melody going through his head. Redner immediately got up and wrote it out on a sheet of paper. It was enough, so he went back to bed. Nothing like waiting until the last minute to get the job done! The next morning, Sunday, he rose early, filled in the harmony, and then headed to church where he and Brooks heard, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” sung for the first time by six teachers and thirty-six Sunday School children. It was the same words and tune that we still sing today.

Do you ever feel like that at this time of year? Instead of the peace and tranquility of the Bethlehem in our minds and that we sing about, we are rushing at the last minute; trying to do too many things in not enough time; just hoping and praying and staying up late and getting up early in an attempt to somehow get everything done. Do you long for still and dark streets, stars and angels keeping watch, and hopes and fears met in the Lord? While the crush of it all threatens to extinguish the light.

And yet, my friends somehow in the midst of all the overwhelming noise, the crushing crowds, the occupation and power, God came to be one of us in that little town more than 2000 years ago. And God is coming still. The promise is sure and true. As Paul writes to the Philippians, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Yes, in the silence and in the noise; in the solitude and in the crowds; in the sleep and the wake, God is actively bringing to completion the good work of redemption and reconciliation and peace and love in Jesus Christ. Christ is coming and coming soon.

Now, we might need to give up the myth of Bethlehem in our minds if we are to see him; if we are to participate in this good work that God is doing. Because the myth tends to be big and grand, and God’s work tends to be small and quiet. Christ is coming and he might be someone helping you with your trash can or receiving an unexpected card in the mail. He might be a line that sticks with you from a Hallmark Christmas movie or a few bars of a song heard above the din at the mall. He might be someone holding the door or sharing an umbrella on a rainy day like this one. He might a nurse who prays with you or a cashier with a smile at the grocery store. He might be in a song sung together at church or even in the solitude of a night spent at home. But Christ is coming, completing the good work, and if we slow down and look we just might see him.

Phillips Brooks might be our guide after all for in the third stanza of his hymn he writes,

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessing 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.

May it is so for you and for me this Christmas.

Thanks be to God.

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