Monday, December 19, 2016

O Little Town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Luke 2:1-7)


Augustus Saint-Gaudens is one of America’s most famous sculptors. In Chicago’s Lincoln Park, his 12-foot tall statue of Abraham Lincoln stands, which is regarded the finest portrait statue in the United States. From the mid-1800s until his death in 1907, Gaudens sculpted some of the most notable figures in the world. But one of his lesser known works of a lesser known subject stands outside the Trinity Church in Boston. Standing before a large cross, with one arm draped across a Bible on a pulpit, with the figure of Jesus behind him with His hand on his shoulder, the robust figure of Rev. Phillips Brooks stands with one arm raised high. The inscription reads, “Phillips Brooks: Preacher of the Word of God; Lover of Mankind; Born in Boston, AD 1835; Died in Boston, AD 1893; This Monument is Erected By His Fellow Citizens, AD 1910.” If you pass by that statue sometime, you might find a small group of people standing there singing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which Brooks wrote in 1868. 
In the Winter of 1865, while Brooks was serving as pastor of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Church, he traveled through the land of the Bible. During Christmas week, he wrote home to say,

After an early dinner, we took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens. It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine. . . . Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. The story is absurd, but somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been. . . . As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks or leading them home to fold.’

A few months later, the pastor wrote back to his church from Rome, reflecting on that Christmas Eve he spent in Bethlehem:

I remember especially on Christmas Eve, when I was standing in the old church at Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when 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 that I knew well, telling each other of the ‘Wonderful Night’ of the Saviour's birth ….

It was the memory of that Christmas in Bethlehem that prompted him to write the carol that we all know so well. At Christmastime, we turn our thoughts to Bethlehem and to the wondrous thing that happened there as God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ and dwelt among us. But it was not by accident that Bethlehem was the place where this miracle occurred. God orchestrated the events of history to bring all these things to pass in the little town of Bethlehem. It was a place of promise, a place of providence, and a place of provision.

I. Bethlehem was a little town of promise (Micah 5:2)

Centuries before that night when Christ was born, God had announced through His prophet Micah that Bethlehem, the hometown of King David, would be the birthplace of another ruler. But this king who was coming would be no ordinary ruler. “From you [Bethlehem] One will go forth for Me [the LORD] to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.”

With these words, God promises that the little town of Bethlehem is significant in His purposes, for from it, He will send forth One who will rule on His behalf. This One who is to be born in Bethlehem has origins that predate His own birth. His goings forth are from eternity. Only God is eternal, and in the person of Jesus Christ, God became one of us. John says of Him in his gospel, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God, … and the word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory.” Philippians 2:5-11 puts it this way, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, being made in the likeness of men.”

In Matthew 2, when the magi came to inquire of Herod where to find the newborn King, Herod summoned all the chief priests and scribes and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. Without hesitation they responded, “In Bethlehem of Judea,” and they cited this prophetic passage of Micah to support their claim. The prophecy was well known that the Messiah was to be born in this little town of Bethlehem. It was a little town of promise.

II. Bethlehem was a little town of providence (Luke 2:1-5)

God has chosen a virgin named Mary to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary was betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph. They lived in another little insignificant town called Nazareth, but it was on the opposite end of the land from the place where the Messiah’s birth had been prophesied. But God providentially directs the affairs of men and the world in which we live. Paul says in Romans 13 that no governing authority exists except those which have been established by God. And in the providence of God, He raised up one Augustus Caesar to rule the Roman Empire. Mind you, Augustus was not a devout worshiper of God. In fact, not too many years after this, Augustus would be declared to be a god, and the worship of the Roman Emperor would be established during his reign as Caesar. But God can use anyone and anything to further His purposes. Throughout the Scritpures, we find Him speaking through a donkey, raising up pagan nations to discipline His own people, and using imperfect people to carry out His perfect purposes. So it should come as no surprise that He can use a godless emperor to set the events in motion that will bring about His promised events.

Augustus declared a census of the entire Empire. And one of the stipulations of this census was that everyone must go back to his own hometown. Jameson, Fausset, and Brown’s commentary gives this excellent summation:

But how came Joseph and Mary to remove thither from Nazareth, the place of their residence? Not of their own accord, and certainly not with the view of fulfilling the prophecy regarding Messiah's birthplace; nay, they stayed at Nazareth till it was almost too late for Mary to travel with safety; nor would they have stirred from it at all, had not an order which left them no choice forced them to the appointed place. A high hand was in all these movements.

God’s meticulous providence guided Mary and Joseph back to the place of promise where the prophet had foretold long ago that Messiah would be born. And so Bethlehem becomes ground zero for God’s entry into the world. It was a little town of providence.

Now finally …

III. Bethlehem was a little town of provision (2:6-7)

When the Lord commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, Abraham told Isaac that they would go up to make a sacrifice. Isaac said, “We have fire and wood, but where is the sacrifice?” And Abraham’s response was this: “God will provide for Himself the lamb” (Gen 22:8). And from that time on, God was known to His people as YHWH Jireh, the Lord who provides. And we have come to know Him as such as well. He is the One who meets our need with His gracious provision.

It was here in this little town of Bethlehem that God provided for our greatest need, and provided for Himself the Lamb that would be our sacrifice. Had our greatest need been poverty, God would have sent a financier. Had it been ignorance, He would have sent a professor. Had our greatest need been boredom, He would have given us an entertainer. But our greatest need is deliverance from our sinful condition, which keeps us separated from God. Therefore God provided us with a Savior. When the angel appeared to Joseph in Matthew 1, he said, “You shall call His name Jesus.” The name “Jesus” means “YHWH is Salvation.” The angel said that this must be the child’s name, “for He will save His people from their sins.”

The name of the town, “Bethlehem,” means “House of Bread” in Hebrew. And here the One was born who said, “For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world … I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:33-35).

And so the first gift ever given at Christmas was the greatest gift ever given – a gift from God to man. And unlike some of the gifts we give each other, we don’t look at this gift and wonder, “What in the world do I need that for?” Rather, we look at this infant, born to live righteously in our place, born to die as a substitute on our behalf; and then we look at ourselves, born in sin, living in rebellion, destined for eternal separation from God because of our enmity with Him. And we take this gift in our arms, and say, “Thank you God, this is just what I needed! This is what I’ve always wanted.” “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Bethlehem was a little town of prophecy, providence, and provision.

It didn’t make it into our hymnals, but Phillips Brooks wrote a final stanza to his beloved Christmas carol about the little town of Bethlehem. It went like this:

Where children pure and happy
    Pray to the Blessed Child
Where misery cries out to Thee
    Son of the Undefiled
Where Charity stands watching
    And Faith holds wide the door
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks
    And Christmas comes once more

Pure and happy ones, the hymnwriter says to you, “Pray to this blessed Christmas child.” Miserable and afflicted one, cry out to this Son of the Most Holy God. And in love and faith, you will find the glory of the Lord breaking into your dark night, and Christmas will have come once more.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven. No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend on us we pray. Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O Come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.

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