Summary: Bethlehem was a key location in the Bible. It was the place of Jesus' birth. It was also key to the story of Rachel and her son, Benjamin.
1. Song: "O Little Town of Bethlehem"
He was known as the most dynamic and inspirational preacher of his time, but he had lost his fervor and could not seem to recover. In his mid-twenties he had become pastor of the Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. He recruited a super salesman named Lewis Redner to be his Sunday School Superintendent and organist. The church exploded in growth, partly because of Brooks' dynamic preaching, partly because of Redner's music.
But then the Civil War came and the mood in the church became somber. The national spirit was dying, women were wearing black due to a husband or son killed in battle, and darkness fell over every facet of the worship services. Brooks tried to be inspirational and encourage his church but it was draining him. When the war ended he thought the vitality and joy would return immediately but it did not.
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and the pain intensified. Phillips Brooks was not the President's pastor, but because he was such a great orator, he was asked to preach the President's funeral. He reached down deep and found the appropriate words to say for the moment but later he was so burned out that he could not rekindle his own spiritual flame. So he asked the church for a sabbatical and took a trip to the Holy Land.
On Christmas Eve in Jerusalem, he mounted a horse and went off riding. At dusk, when the first stars were out, he rode into the village of Bethlehem. There was singing in the Church of the Nativity and he felt surrounded by the Spirit of God. It lifted Brooks spirits to be with a few feet of the very spot where Jesus was born.
Brooks wrote about his journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he assisted with the midnight service on Christmas Eve, 1865: "I remember 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 splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior's birth."
When he returned he wanted some way to express the stirring in his soul and he decided it would be best communicated in the form of a poem. That was when "O, Little Town of Bethlehem," was written. Lewis Redner, the organist, provided the tune.
I hope Brooks' prayer in the last stanza of O Little Town of Bethlehem is your prayer today:-"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." AMEN!
2. We Know Where, but When Was Jesus Born? A Theory:
* It is possible that Jesus was born between June and November with Pentecost (Harvest) and December 1 (Planting)
* Caesar Augustus -- 27 BC - 14 AD
* Luke 1 -- Birth of John the Baptist -- Herod was king
* The division of Abijah is key
o 20,000 -24, 000 priests for a 30x90 temple
o There were 24 divisions for the 24 Chief Priest families that returned from captivity -- each served for 2 weeks
o At Shavuot (Pentecost) the division of Abijah served -- early to mid-May
o Soon afterwards, Elizabeth was pregnant (June?)
o Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant when the angel visited Mary (December?)
o Hanukkah (Feast of Lights) is in December -- Mary may have conceived then by Holy Spirit
o Mary was pregnant when she visits Elizabeth (within a week?)
o This would make Jesus' birth in September at Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles)
o John 1.14 -- clue to his birth?
* Sukkoth (Tabernacles) liturgy song -- "Glory to God in the highest"
3. Bethlehem is a key place in scripture -- birthplace of Jesus
4. Luke 2.1-7
a. Ancestry back to Boaz and David -- Luke 3.23ff
b. Bethlehem was key
5. As Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem, what were they thinking?
a. Biblical accounts of Rachel? Ruth? David?
b. Prophecy of Micah?
"But you Bethlehem, Ephrathah, 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 of old, from ancient times."
I. Bethlehem is the Culmination of Rachel's Story
A. The Weight of an Affliction
1. Rachel Longed for Children but Leah and their handmaids were giving Jacob sons
2. A challenge for her as well as others -- Sarah; Hannah; Elizabeth
3. God heard and heeded Rachel's request -- Genesis 30.22