O Little Town of Bethlehem

In the run up to Christmas, I thought it would be fun to look at some favourite Christmas carols to see what they say about what it is we’re celebrating. So we’re starting with a classic by American minister Phillips Brooks: O Little Town of Bethlehem.

What’s in the name of the “little town”?

The carol has quite a focus on the town of Bethlehem, which makes sense because, for a little town, it is quite significant in the story of the Bible as the cradle of great kings.

The book of Ruth in the Old Testament narrates an event from many hundred of years before the birth of Jesus that climaxes in the birth of a baby boy (to Ruth). The book then finishes with a list of his descendants (Ruth 4:21-22). Low and behold this goes all the way down to king David – Israel’s greatest Old Testament king! In fact, we find out that David’s family itself was from Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16:1-4).

So Bethlehem had a history of being a king-making town. But everyone also new it had a king-making future. There was a prophecy:

As for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, seemingly insignificant among the clans of Judah– from you a king will emerge who will rule over Israel on my behalf, one whose origins are in the distant past.

(Micah 5:2 NET)

That’s why when the wise men show up in Jerusalem, King Herod’s advisers (the religious leaders of the time) knew where to send them – Bethlehem of course (Matthew 2:5-6).

So Bethlehem is significant, because of who was going to be born there. God’s great long-promised king.

The ‘dark streets’

But why is the coming king good news? Well we need to consider the bad news to understand that. The carol talks about the “dark streets,” and we know what it means. Yes, we recognise that this time of year it seems dark all the time and that can be a bit depressing, but we know it’s more than that. The darkness we’re talking about is deeper. It’s spiritual. We live in a dark world. The carol calls it “this world of sin.”

Even at Christmas (sometimes especially at Christmas) we know that the world is broken. At times we can be overwhelmed by the evil and darkness. We’ve seen enough of that in this year alone. But, uncomfortably, we know the darkness is within us too. It’s not just that we’ve made the odd mistake. If we’re honest it’s worse than that. We’ve repeatedly and without being able to stop ourselves done things that we know are wrong and that we are ashamed of.

In the Bible, this brokenness and darkness is explained as our rebellion against God which shows in the wrong thoughts, words and actions that come out of our darkness. This is what we mean by “sin” (James 4:17).

And this darkness doesn’t just make our lives and other people’s lives miserable. It alienates us from the God of the universe. It means that one day we will face him and all we will be able to say is “guilty as charged.” We will face his judgement and punishment (Hebrews 9:27). What the Bible calls hell.

What’s the “wondrous gift”?

The carol says “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.” We all like getting a good gift at Christmas, but the best gift isn’t the latest iPhone or even time with friends and family. The best gift was born 2000 years ago, sleeping in a manger, worshipped by shepherds and wise men.

The Bible describes this gift:

For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

(John 3:16 NET)

God loved us so much that he gave us an incredible gift – his son! The king who came was actually the Son of God, who came to rescue people by dying on the cross for our sin (1 Peter 3:18) taking our punishment, so that we can face God and not have to say “guilty.”

But this gift didn’t stay dead, he defeated death and rose again so that anyone who believes in him has a further gift: “eternal life.” Instead of hell, we have of the hope of living forever with God in a perfect new world – what we often call heaven.

That is quite a gift! “God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.”

What does it mean for Jesus to “come to us” and “abide with us”?

So we can see how Jesus, God’s rescuing king, is an incredible gift. But what does that mean for me?

Well in John 3:16 we see that the gift is for those who believe in Jesus. If we want him to “come to us” and “abide with us,” then we must trust him as our rescuing, crucified and risen king and pray with the carol: “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.”

Will you do that this Christmas?