Dec 18, 2016 – The Songs of Christmas: O Little Town of Bethlehem

by Pastor Cherie Dearth

We’re finishing up our sermon series, The Songs of Christmas, and our song for this week is “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The lyrics are by Phillip Brooks, a Presbyterian minister from the mid-1800s. He was the senior pastor of a very large congregation in Philadelphia during the Civil War. As you can imagine, it was a very difficult time. As the war went on, more and more people knew soldiers that had been severely wounded or killed. More and more women came to worship each week wearing black for mourning. People wanted inspirational messages filled with hope and peace, but Brooks found it harder and harder to give it to them. His energy and his hope was being sapped, too.


Then it came, the end of the war, but on its heels came a new tragedy, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Can you imagine that? Despite the fact that Brooks was not President Lincoln’s pastor, due to his great reputation as a preacher and orator, he was asked to speak at President Lincoln’s funeral. The whole process was so draining to him that he felt the need to take a sabbatical to restore his faith. He wound up taking a trip to the Holy Land, and found himself there during the Christmas season. The trip was so powerful that it renewed his calling. He returned home invigorated with a new passion for living.


For three years after his return, this great speaker could not find a way to communicate his experience to his congregation. He had a great “singing in [his] soul,” as he put it, but he wasn’t able to share it. Years after he returned he wrote this in his journal about the trip:

Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say 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, the shepherds were still keeping watch over their flocks.


And he added this to his log of the trip:

I was standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when 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.


Then finally, in 1868, as he thought of the Christmas season ahead and his time in the Holy Land, the words came to him, not as a great sermon, but as a poem. That poem became the song we know as “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Let’s sing this song together, #230 in your hymnal, and keep the song handy, as we’ll be coming back to it. (Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, by Ace Collins, pp. 139-44)

Matthew 1:18-25
      18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about : His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
     20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
     22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
     24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

How does singing Christmas songs get you into the mood for or the spirit of Christmas? Do the words really register with you, or is it the music itself or the rhythm of the poetry that puts you in a certain frame of mind.


Maybe, you have a favorite movie that you always watch at this time of year. If you don’t see it, it just doesn’t seem like Christmas. This past week I took a survey on Facebook of people’s favorite Christmas movies. I had responses from sixteen different people, and received answers like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Grinch That Stole Christmas.  I even received some responses that aren’t necessarily actual Christmas movies like The Sound of Music, but it’s a movie that is often shown at this time of year. As a kid during PBS’ December pledge drive, my station would always show The Glenn Miller Story, so I came to associate that with Christmas. Of course, I love A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is technically not a movie, but it has been shown on television every year since 1964. But my personal favorite, the movie I just have to see for it to feel like Christmas is A Christmas Carol … or I should say … The Muppet Christmas Carol.


It is interesting how few of these movies and shows even mention the birth of Jesus, though a few of them sneak it in, most notably, A Charlie Brown Christmas. I heard something recently about it that I never noticed before. You know Linus, who always has to carry his security blanket. He puts up quite a fight to justify keeping it to the constant mortification and embarrassment of his sister, Lucy. But, when he answers Charlie Brown’s question of what Christmas is all about, from the Gospel of Luke … I’ll save that passage for Christmas Eve … he drops his blanket when quoting the lines “fear not.” Jason Soroski says about this, “The birth of Jesus frees us from the habits we are unable (or unwilling) to break ourselves. The birth of Jesus allows us to simply drop the false security we have been grasping so tightly, and learn to trust and cling to Him instead.” Amazing.


So, we sing these songs. We watch these movies. Maybe it’s trying to find that perfect gift for someone special, putting up the Christmas tree, making special holiday foods, or some other tradition that puts you in that Christmas frame of mind.


We have the songs like the ones we’ve been looking at this season: “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” They are certainly on the secular side. Some Christmas songs have crazy lyrics like the ones from The Grinch That Stole Christmas. The song “Welcome Christmas” starts off with the lyrics, “Fahoo fores dahoo dores, Welcome Christmas, Christmas day…” But of course, they are inspired by the one and only Dr. Seuss. That doesn’t change the fact that if I think about them too much, my brain starts to hurt though they are fun to sing.


Then, we have the religious songs too, like this week’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” We sing them. They are familiar. They put us in the Christmas spirit, but do we actually pay attention to the lyrics. Do we truly believe the words we say?


Let’s look at “O Little Town of Bethlehem” a little closer. Remember that Phillip Brooks wrote this as a response to his incredible experience in the Holy Land after experiencing what we refer to as “the dark night of the soul” after the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s death. He was in deep despair, but through this experience his faith was renewed. He was able to include details based on what he saw there. This is what the “singing of [his] soul” produced.”


Look at the lyrics in your hymnal #230. The first verse.

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see [you] lie;
above [your] deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in [your] dark streets [shines]
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in [you] tonight.


The Jewish people had been waiting for their Messiah for centuries, the one who would save them from oppression and bring them a good live, bring them peace. This was the night that that their hopes met their fears that it may never happen with the birth of the one who would bring salvation to all the nations on earth.


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!

Those same angels who announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the fields were keeping watch over the new born Messiah.


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.

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!

When we look at all four verses, THIS is the Gospel. This is the Good News. This is how we keep the Spirit of Christmas all year long. Jesus was born to save the world from sin. As we approach Christmas proper, we must do more than celebrate his birth, we must apply the implications of his birth to our lives, allow them to guide our lives.


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!

Glory to God!
Hallelujah and Amen!

Categorized as Sermon