Summary: This is the third message in a series based on some of the most popular Christmas hymns.
On December 24, 1865 at the age of thirty Phillips Brooks’ life would be changed forever by a Christmas Eve service that lasted nearly five hours. The service took place at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Brooks wrote, “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.” The full impact of his Bethlehem experience would become evident as he prepared for the Christmas season in 1868.
Brooks wanted to compose an original Christmas hymn for the children of his congregation to sing during their annual Christmas program. Memories of that life changing experience in Bethlehem flooded his mind and he wrote a hymn of five stanzas and handed the words to his organist Lewis Redner saying, “Lewis, why not write a new tune for my poem.” Redner struggled with the task of putting Brooks’ words to music. Finally, on the night before the Christmas program, he awoke with the music filling his soul. He wrote down the melody and then went back to sleep. The next day, a group of six Sunday School teachers and thirty-six children sang “O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Brooks was thrilled with Redner’s melody and named the song St. Lewis in honor of him. Redner claimed the melody to be a gift from God. The song became an instant favorite of adults and children alike. The song would finally be published for the first time in 1874.
Just as Brooks’ life was changed by one night in Bethlehem ours is as well. Christmas is a celebration of our own Bethlehem experience. Today, I would like us to discover the insights that we can learn from this particular Christmas carol.
I. Bethlehem was quite the unexpected place for a King to be born.
A. A historical overview of Bethlehem.
1. The earliest historical reference that we have about Bethlehem is from the 14th century BC.
2. Bethlehem was located five miles south of Jerusalem within the boundaries of the land that was allotted to the tribe of Judah.
a. The name Bethlehem means “House of Bread.”
b. It is 2,550 feet above sea level which is a 100 feet higher than Jerusalem.
c. The population of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth would have been less than 300.
3. Bethlehem was located just off the north/south highway that linked Jerusalem to Hebron.
4. In 327 AD the Roman emperor Constantine commissioned the building of a church over the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
5. The Church of the Nativity is considered to be the oldest continuously operating Christian Church in the world.
B. A Biblical overview of Bethlehem.
1. We are told that Caleb’s son Salma was known as the father of Bethlehem. (1 Chronicles 2:51)
2. Jacob buried his beloved wife Rachel there when she died during a difficult birth. (Genesis 35:16-19)
3. David was born in Bethlehem as well as many of his ancestors.
a. His great-grandfather Boaz was from Bethlehem.
b. David’s grandfather Obed was born there.
c. David’s father Jesse was born in Bethlehem.
4. It was the scene of a daring exploit by three of David’s mighty men; they broke through the Philistine lines when they were occupying Bethlehem to bring David water from the well (or cistern) “near the city gate” of his hometown. (2 Samuel 23:14–17)
5. Even in his prophecy about Bethlehem being the birthplace of the Messiah, Micah basically speaks of this village as being viewed as insignificant.
II. A quiet night in a small village would literally turn the world upside down.
A. The Jewish people had been waiting patiently for the birth of their new King and the news turned Jerusalem upside down.
1. Matthew continues to use prophecy to make the case that Jesus was truly the Messiah that the prophets foretold.
2. The Magi would have undoubtedly arrived with a caravan that was quite large and would have attracted a lot of attention. The inquiring of the Magi cause some puzzling reactions.
3. The curious thing is if they had been waiting for this event why would they have been disturbed? The Greek word used here means extreme agitation or fearfulness.
a. It is understandable that Herod would be disturbed because this would be a threat to his power and dynasty.
b. It is puzzling that the Jewish people would fear the arrival of their Messiah.
4. The most logical explanation for the fears of the Jewish people is that they expected that the arrival of their king would cause the paranoid Herod to inflict even more cruelty upon them.