A SERMON BASED ON THE CHRISTMAS CAROL: O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me One who is to be Ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Micah 5:2
We love to count. We love to view everything through statistical lenses. It seems to be the preferred way of processing everything in our day, but we must park our penchant for numbers at the door when we enter the church, because as our carol says, the wondrous gift comes silently, so however hard we try, we will never be able to reckon the blessings that this carol has bestowed upon men since its birth on Christmas day, 1868. Every year people sing it, believers and unbelievers alike, but we cannot know how many souls it has led to the manger or how much peace it has imparted to human hearts.
Our dear Carol is base on Micah's prophecy, teaching us once again the lesson that God delights to teach, that with God, small is big. Why does the Lord take such pleasure in teaching us this lesson? Because it gets our attention like nothing else; because by human reckoning a thing must be big to be successful. Big is how you win the admiration of others, make your mark in the world, and get what you want out of life, but with God small is big and only He can transform what public opinion considers to be nothing into something.
We learn in this piece that God chose Bethlehem to be the birth place of the Everlasting Light, the native town of the Incarnate Christ, the birth place of the One who meets "the hopes and fears of all the years" by his virgin birth in this little town tonight.
The Romans had a saying, "dum spiro spero." While I breathe, I hope. All men hope, but what do they hope for? They hope for rest, for peace, for relief from the desperate race that it takes to stay alive. They hope to secure food, shelter, clothing, and to know where their next meal is coming from. In a larger sense they hope for peace on earth, not due to altruistic impulse, but only so that they need not look over their shoulder day and night to avoid the covetous neighbor. They hope to find the thing that fully satisfies the human heart so that it is truly at rest. In their quest they have employed discipline and debauchery, intelligence and ignorance, beauty and beastliness. They have looked everywhere, high and low; everywhere, that is, except the little town.
Yet men don't only hope, they also fear. They fear the loss of life, of health and happiness. Those are the obvious fears that all men share, but there is one great terror that underlies them all, the fear of death, the fear of judgment. Though most cannot put their finger on it the apprehension is always there, lurking in the background, and those who deny it the loudest, believe it the strongest, their protests betray them. If only they could see the Light, but they cannot, because Satan has blinded them; blinded us.
Jesus is the everlasting light that pierces the Stygian darkness. He assumed human flesh with all of its frailty, in order to answer the hopes and to quell the fears of all the years, to enlighten our benighted minds. He came, He saw, and He conquered our enemies for us by His humble birth, sinless life, redeeming death, glorious resurrection and by His promise to come again in glory. He further demonstrates his love by distributing it to us freely, in the church, employing his chosen means, the word and the sacraments, and also by inspiring sacred song to be musical monuments to the splendor of this Newborn King.
Yes, God loves to shock! Loves to save the world by the incarnation of His Son in this little town, so Jesus was not born in a palace but in a stable; not in a royal bed, but in a manger which is a feeding trough for cattle. He was not dressed in the purple robes that befitted his royal person, but wrapped in strips of cloth to protect his tender skin from the cold night air.
Today, nothing has changed. God still does not come to us with fanfare. Yes, we embellish our worship, for that is only fitting, but it is not by the embellishment that he comes to us, but by the water, the bread and the wine, by those most ordinary elements, combined with His mighty word, He gives us what eludes the world; an answer to the hopes and fears of all the years. He calms our troubled hearts and fills us with good hope so that now we can glory even in tribulation because we know who is in charge, that all sorrow has an expiration date, and that the present troubles are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us.
Therefore on this Christmas Eve let us give endless thanks to our God, who imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven, born in this little town tonight.
Let us thank him, too, for Rev. Phillips Brooks, the 19th century Episcopal priest who gave this incomparable carol to us. He wrote it as a poem following a trip he made to the holy land, and it would have remained only that were it not for a wealthy real estate broker named Lewis Redner who was the organist at Fr. Brooks' parish, and who dedicated his life to sacred song. He is the one who transformed the poem into a carol by composing its pleasing melody, a melody written with great skill, each line beginning on the tonic to create its placid feeling, but the third line of each verse venturing into a minor key in order to illustrate musically the dark streets, the morning stars that proclaim the holy birth, the un-meek ear that is unable to hear His coming, and the Christmas angels who tell the great and glad tidings. We thank God for these men, for the refreshment of sacred music, and for the Little Town of Bethlehem, where the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Christ, the Everlasting Light, tonight. Amen.
~ Rev. Dean Kavouras