Thrill of Hope sermon series – #2: O Little Town of Bethlehem

This is our second sermon looking at some of the favorite hymns of the Christmas season.

SCRIPTURE – Luke 2:1-7 – In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

The Thrill of Hope sermon series
#2 – O Little Town of Bethlehem
December 7, 2014

I was reading this past week about the different meanings that are given to the Advent candles that we light during this season. We use the traditional meanings of hope, peace, joy, and love as do many other churches, but not necessarily in that order. Every year I get confused and have to look at our banners to remember which candle we’re lighting each week. Other congregations identify them as the prophecy candle, the Bethlehem candle, the shepherd candle, and the angel candle.

And then there is the meaning given to them by one girl in Sunday School. The teacher was trying to help the children name the four Advent candles. They had gotten three but were stuck on the last one. The teacher said, “The candles represent love, joy, peace and…” The little girl raised her hand and said, “Love, joy, peace, and quiet!”

Not much about this season represents peace and quiet, does it? It is a season of holy chaos that seems to get bigger and louder each year. Christmas continues to make the slow move from sacred to spectacular, which is amazing when you consider how it all started. The scripture from Luke we read today is such a simple story for such a big event. That simplicity is echoed in our hymn today, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” For the sermons in Advent we’re looking at some of our favorite hymns of the season to learn the story behind them and see how their lyrics are still fresh and relevant today. This hymn was written by a pastor, Phillip Brooks, who penned it after a visit to the Holy Land in 1865. Several years later when he wanted a new song for the children to sing at his church, he wrote these words as he reflected on his visit. The church’s organist, Lewis Dedner, wrote the music that gave us the song we have today.

The images Brooks has given us are of a sleepy little town in the quiet countryside, hardly the expected location of such a magnificent event. Listen to all the images of serenity the song contains: “how still we see thee lie”… “deep and dreamless sleep”… “silent stars go by”… “while mortals sleep the angels keep their watch of wondering love”… “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” This song and our scripture for today tell of a humble birth in a quaint little town. Could have been any town. Could have been any baby.

But that is what makes this story so powerful. This passage from Luke is overflowing with paradox. A paradox is something which seems ridiculous but actually contains a possible truth, which describes a lot of my seminary papers. The fact that the God of the universe would come to earth as a little baby is a paradox. It’s the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and End, the Ancient of Days, emerging as a baby who couldn’t speak or feed himself or change his own swaddling cloths. Paradox. The Roman ruler at the time of Jesus’ birth, Caesar Augustus, was the emperor who reigned during the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. But it is this baby who will become known as the Prince of Peace. That’s a paradox. “Yet in thy dark street shineth the everlasting light.” Paradox. This baby, who is a descendant of King David, one of the richest and must successful Jewish kings, is poor in the poorest and most humble of circumstances. “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” Paradox.

The sense of understatement that dominates this story and the hymn might seem like a paradox to those of us who equate bigger with better. Conventional wisdom tell us the more significant the event, the more hoopla it deserves. When royal babies are born today, the country of England and most of the world stops what they’re doing. We don’t throw big parties for someone’s 42nd birthday or 12th anniversary, do we? We wait for a more significant time. And what could be more significant than the birth of the son of God? This should be a big deal, this baby should be born in Rome or Jerusalem, not some little town six miles from nowhere. This is HUGE and yet Luke treats it like just another birth. “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” Are our lives too noisy to hear it?

I wonder if we’ve lost our sensitivity to the paradox. I wonder if we have become numb to the sheer subversiveness of this story. The son of God, the King of Kings, born right under the nose of Caesar Augustus. Born to an obedient peasant girl named Mary and a faithful carpenter named Joseph. Born in a cattle stall and laid in a feeding trough. God becomes human. “Something which seems ridiculous but actually contains a possible truth.” When we hear this scripture, do we get the paradox? When we sing this hymn, do we grasp the truth beneath the absurdity of God coming to us as a little baby? “For Christ is born of Mary.” Just that statement alone carries meaning that has the power to change the world. But, in this season when bigger is better, do we miss that?

If we do, if we lose the power of this story, we also lose the mystery and wonder it holds for us. Christmas as a season is utterly dependent upon mystery for its meaning, and I don’t mean that strictly from a religious standpoint. Part of the mystique that Santa Claus holds is the mystery of what he does. How does he make all those toys? How does he get down our chimney? How does he eat all those cookies and still fit into his suit?  Christmas is about mystery.

I wonder what it would be like if, as adults, we beheld the Christ child with the same awe and mystery that kids hold for Santa. I believe that child-like capacity for mystery is there, in each of us…isn’t it? Or have we gotten so old and mature and adult-like that we’ve lost the ability to wonder? Are we so calloused that we can hear this story or sing this song and not be awestruck? “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” It’s a mystery in the holiest of senses. Or is it just another song?

That’s the key for Christmas to remain alive in us. For so many of us, we’re now at the point during Advent when we’re asking, “Are we there yet?” Not because we can’t wait for the birth of Jesus, but because we can’t wait for it to be over! Soon will come the frenzy of unwrapping and visiting and eating, and then the holiday letdown, and then the Christmas tree takedown, and then it’s January. That’s almost depressing to think about, isn’t it? Where is the mystery, where is the wonder in that?

I believe for the spirit of Christmas to be alive in us in January and July, we need to approach Dec. 25 with a sense of wonder. The mysteries of Christ’s birth remind us that life is bigger, more wondrous, more unexplainable than our precise calculations and neat explanations and tidy little bows. There are so many questions this story raises for us: Why Mary? Why Joseph? Why that time? Why a baby and not a soldier or conqueror? Why a little town and not a palace? Christmas lives on in our souls as we seek answers to those questions.

That sense of wonder is important because as we move forward in life beyond Christmas, those questions don’t go away. While they may fade they are replaced by more pressing questions, like “What is my purpose?” and “What is my future?” and “Where is God?” and “Are my prayers being heard?” Life is a series of questions, and without a sense of wonder and curiosity, our eyes are closed to the answers around us. But the hymn reminds us that Jesus is the place where all our fears and all are hopes come together.

Christmas is such a major happening in our church and our culture that often the beauty of the Christmas story gets treated as if it were the whole story. It’s become so romanticized and sanitized that it sometimes feels like a fairy tale, a wonderful story that provides a brief escape from the world we face every day, like some vacation from reality. A quiet birth in a quaint little town immortalized on Christmas cards and in our hymn. But this story is powerful for its concreteness, the fact that Jesus was born in real time, while Quirinius was governor, born in a real town with streets and houses and a stable. This story happened in real life! It’s the concrete beginning of Jesus’ entry into the world, not our invitation to escape from it.

And this year, he will be born again. God will become incarnate. Jesus will make an appearance here on earth. But I don’t believe he will be born to us. That happened already. That gift was given 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. No, this year I follow the lead of author Brian McLaren, who wrote, “”What matters is not for Christ to appear to us, but for Christ to appear in us, among us, and through us.” Think about that. He isn’t born to us, but in us. “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” We are the vessels that will receive the gift of the Christ child. We will be the God-bearers that hold this gift, the packages that contain the divine present.

But it’s not enough that he’s born in us. He must also be born through us. Because, for whatever crazy reason, God has chosen normal, average, everyday, screwed-up, REAL people like you and me and endowed us with a holy gift. For Christ’s birth to make a whit of difference this year, he must be born in us and through us, we must embody the emerging miracle that is Christ’s presence and peace in this world.

I read about a pastor who had a very interesting message on her voice mail. If she wasn’t there to answer the phone, the caller got this message: “This is Pastor Jenkins. Now you say something.” Christ’s coming is our Creator saying to us, “This is God. Now you say something. You do something. You give something. You change something.” Take what you’ve been given and put it to use for God’s kingdom.

The mystery of Christmas doesn’t end on Christmas Day. The wonder of what God is doing in our world and in our lives is ongoing. The love that the Christ child represents is still alive, right here, right now, within us. As we live that out, we take the hope and peace and joy and love of Christmas and extend it on into the bleakness of January and the cold of February and beyond. Don’t let Christmas end this year. Don’t close your eyes to the mysterious. Christ is coming. God is becoming one of us. The paradox of Christmas is here again. A miracle is emerging. This world needs to know Jesus Christ is here, that he is real, that he brings real love and real peace to little towns like Bethlehem and Ferguson and Lexington. People need to know. Now, you do something.

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