Summary: We need to go to Bethlehem … the Bethlehem of long ago. We need to find the peace and hope that was born there in Jesus Christ … and Advent and hymns like Brooks’ “O Little Town of Bethlehem” can take us there in mind and heart, amen?
On Thursday, November 29, the people living in and around Anchorage, Alaska, went about their lives as usual – working … shopping … watching TV … talking on the phone ... making plans … surfing the net … hinging out with friends. Just going about life. Totally unaware that 3.9 billion – that’s “b” … billion – tons of TNT was about to go off right under their feet.
At 8:30 a.m, on November 30, what geologist called a “normal faulting,” 400 miles of rock shifted just a few feet, creating a 8.9 magnitude earthquake that sent shock waves around the globe and shook the ground beneath our nation’s Capital 4,000 mile away. Experts say the damage would have been a lot worse were it not for the fact that the shift in tectonic plates occurred over 20 miles below the earth’s surface. Since then, they’ve had over 200 after shocks … the biggest one being 5.7 on the Richter Scale. Roads were busted up. Buildings shook up. The airport and oil pipeline were shut down for a while. Thankfully, praise God, no one was seriously injured or lost their life.
How many times had they driven over that fault line? Walked on it? Camped on it? Maybe even had their house built on it? Totally unaware of the massive pressure that was building up right under their feet?
The epicenter of the Anchorage earthquake was about 8 miles north of tow. Two thousand years ago, Bethlehem … a little town about six miles south of Jerusalem … would be the epicenter of a spiritual earthquake that is still sending shock waves around the world!
During the day, Bethlehem had been packed with people coming to register for the Roman census. All the inns were full. It was there, in the still of the night when most of the people were asleep that a spiritual event occurred that would change the whole world forever. And it happened in a manger right there under their noses. Yet all but a very special few woke up the next morning and went about their day and their lives as though nothing unusual was happening … except for the Roman census.
“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37-39).
That was how it was when Jesus first came … and how it will be when He comes again.
Phillips Brooks captures this hidden tension so marvelously in the opening verse of his poem, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” “O Little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by” (stanza 1) … yet! Yet …
In 1865, Phillips Brooks did what many pastors did after the Civil War. He went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve, Brooks hired a horse and began riding south and somewhat west of Jerusalem toward the hill country of Judea. As evening approached, he found himself coming to the fields and hills where he imagined the shepherds had been keeping watch over their flocks when an angel of the Lord appeared heralding Jesus’ birth. His mind and his heart were flooded with the images of the Advent story as he rode and walked through the silent streets of Bethlehem. “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem,” he wrote in his diary, “close to the spot where Jesus was born. And 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 knew well, telling each other of the Savior’s birth.”
The night that he was in Bethlehem, the town was filled with music and chiming bells … and it got him to thinking about the night when Christ was born. There was singing … an angelic choir … but only the shepherds in the fields heard it. The rest of Bethlehem slept on. For them the night was dreamless and the heavens were silent.
Brooks wrote his poem about that night three years later. He then asked his organist … Lewis H. Redner … to set his poem to music so that people could sing and remember and experience the birth of Jesus in much the same way that he did that Christmas Even night in Bethlehem.
The main focus or feature of this carol is, of course, the identification of Bethlehem as the chosen birth place of the Messiah in whom “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” (stanza 1b). In the eight century BC, the Prophet Micah announced that Jesus would be born in the sleepy little nowhere town of Bethlehem. “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathat, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you,” says God, “shall come forth for me one who is to rule Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2).