The Carols of Christmas
Part 3: O Little Town of Bethlehem
Micah 5:2; Luke 2:1-5
Pastor Morris Brown
December 10, 2017
Many of you know that this Advent season we’re preparing for the celebration of Christ’s birth by sharing a worship series entitled The Carols of Christmas. In this series, we are using some familiar carols that we sing around this time of year as a way to help us prepare our hearts and lives for the celebration of Christ’s birth.
For example, the first carol we looked at in this series was What Child Is This? This carol reminded us that preparing for Christmas is about remembering that the Babe of Bethlehem is Christ the King. And what kind of king is he? We said he is a commanding king, who calls us to love one another as he loves us. We said he’s a correcting king, who doesn’t condemn us when we mess up, but lovingly seeks to help us get our lives back on track. We said he’s compassionate king, who “walks beside us” through the ups and downs of life. And we said he’s a conquering king who overcomes darkness and death and helps us do the same.
Then last week we looked at Joy to the World. We learned that if we are to experience the hope, peace, joy and love of Christmas we must prepare room in our hearts and lives for Christ to be born. We said we could do this by: filling a valley, leveling a mountain, straightening a crooked path or making a rough road smooth.
Well, today we move to the third carol in our series. And today we want to explore a theme that we find in the beautiful Christmas carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem. I don’t know if you are aware of this, but the words to O Little Town of Bethlehem were written by an Episcopalian priest by the name of Phillip Brooks.
On Christmas Eve in 1865, Brooks was visiting the town of Bethlehem. Late in the afternoon he decided to walk the five miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem where he was going to attend a worship service. At dusk, he stopped in an open field and looked back at Bethlehem as darkness began to envelop the tiny town. Brooks was so inspired by the beauty of what he saw that three years later he tried to recreate it for the children of his church in Philadelphia. Penning the words of the carol on Christmas Eve, he asked his organist put them to a simple tune the children could sing to learn about the place of our Savior’s birth. The rest is history.
So, how does O Little Town of Bethlehem help us prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas? Well, this carol reminds us that when God wanted to give birth to God’s love in the world, God didn’t use big, flashy things. Instead, God used and still uses, little things. Little things that may seem insignificant to others.
For example, this carol reminds us that God uses LITTLE PEOPLE. When it came to bringing Christ into the world, God didn’t choose a wealthy, powerful couple with clout. God chose a poor, young, peasant girl and her fiancé, an ordinary carpenter. Two people who seemed very small and insignificant.
I recently read about a physician and pastor by the name of Len Broughton. In the early 1920’s, Dr. Broughton was the pastor of the Baptist Tabernacle, the largest church in Georgia. He was also the founder of the Baptist Tabernacle School of Nursing, which is now known as The Mercer University School of Medicine.
The interesting thing, however, is that although Dr. Broughton was the pastor of a very large church and the founder of a very prestigious institution, he was a very small man. He was 5’1” and weighed little more than a hundred pounds. Well, one day Dr. Broughton got into an argument with one of the trustees of his church. During the course of the argument, the trustee (who was a very tall, heavy set man) realized that he was losing. So, in frustration he leaned over tiny little Dr. Broughton and said, “Preacher, you’re a little runt. I’m going to chew you up and swallow you.”
According to the story, Dr. Broughton peered up at the giant trustee. And then he said, “Sir, you can chew me up and swallow me. But if you do remember this, you’ll have more brains in your stomach than you do in your head!” Dr. Broughton was very small in stature, but he was a man God used to do big things in God’s world.
Listen, you may or may not be a person who is small in stature. But, can I ask you something? Are you a person who sometimes feels small? Are you a person who sometimes feels insignificant? Are you a person who sometimes feels incapable of doing great things for God? If you are, don’t worry. O Little Town of Bethlehem reminds us that you’re just the kind of person God wants to use.
The Christmas story reminds us God wants to use people who seem small and insignificant, people like Mary and Joseph, people like you and me, people who are willing to open their hearts and allow God use them to do things that will bless God’s world. O Little Town of Bethlehem reminds us God uses little people!
Second, this carol reminds us that God uses LITTLE PLACES. The other day I ran across a website entitled “Big Stars from Tiny Towns.” I was pretty amazed at what I found. For example, Taylor Swift grew up on a small Christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania! Johnny Depp was born and raised in Owensboro, Kentucky! “The Bieb,” Justin Bieber, is from the tiny Canadian town of Stratford, Ontario! George Clooney lived and attended high school in the small town of Mason, Ohio. And Zach Galifianakis, of “The Hangover” fame, grew up in Wilkesboro!
So, what’s my point? When it came to bringing Christ into the world? Well, God didn’t choose to use the big and important city of Jerusalem – the capital of political, social and religious life at the time. Instead, God chose to use the village of Bethlehem! God decided to use Bethlehem, which the prophet Micah referred to in this morning’s scripture as, “the smallest of the clans of Judah.”
God used a tiny shepherding village that archeologists say might have had 300-500 residents. Perhaps this is meant to remind us that when it comes to bringing God’s love into the world, God doesn’t always use the places we’d expect God to use. In fact, more often than not God uses places we’d least expect God to use.
For example, in 1983 there was a young college student who pretty much thought the Christian faith was irrelevant. During Christmas break that year, however, he got a part-time job in the Men’s department of a retail store in the mall. He wasn’t all that excited by a retail job, but at least he could make some money.
Anyway, during the course of the next few weeks, the young man and the manager of the Men’s Department, who was only a few years older than him, began to develop a friendship. In between customers, they would talk about all kinds of trivial things like: sports, girls, and what they were going to do after work on Friday night. Sometimes, however, the conversations would get a bit deeper. The manager of the Men’s Department, who was a person of faith, would talk about spirituality, about God.
When he talked about God, however, the young man noticed something interesting. The manager didn’t use fancy religious language or silly platitudes. He didn’t talk about religion being a bunch of rules you had to follow. Instead, the manager used everyday language to talk about a God who loves us whoever we are, whatever we’ve done. He talked about a God that didn’t mind if we asked deep intellectual questions that revealed doubts about some traditional religious beliefs. He talked about a God who wanted to flow through people, and use their lives to make the world a better place. The way the manager of the Men’s Department talked about God intrigued the young man. It helped him realize that being a person of faith you didn’t have to have all the answers or check your brain at the door. And you certainly didn’t have to act like some kind of “religious” nut.
That Christmas the manager helped a young man to begin a journey – back to faith, back to church, on to divinity school, and finally to become a pastor. So, he could spend his life trying to help others discover what he’d discovered. How do I know this? I was that young man!
When God wanted to bring God’s love into the world, God didn’t choose Jerusalem, God chose Bethlehem. When God chose to bring God’s love into my life, God didn’t choose a church, God chose the Men’s Department at the Asheville Mall. Where will God choose to bring God’s love into the world this Christmas?
It may be in a worship service here, at church. But, a more likely place may be through a conversation in the break room of your office, or Christmas caroling at a nursing home, or standing in the checkout line at Harris Teeter. O Little Town of Bethlehem reminds us God uses little places to bring God’s love into the world.
Finally, this carol reminds us that God uses LITTLE ACTIONS. The last verse of this morning’s scripture says when Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to deliver the child. And when she did, she placed the baby in a manger (a feeding troth for animals) because there was no room in the inn.
Now, even though he’s never mentioned in the story, the innkeeper often gets a bad rap. He’s thought to me a mean man who made Mary deliver her child in a barn. And yet, in ancient times inns were often dirty, raucous places where shady things happened. No place for a woman, especially a woman having a baby. And so, when Mary and Joseph were offered the opportunity to stay where the animals were, the innkeeper was doing them a favor. He was offering them a warm, safe place to have their child. He was committing what, on the surface, seemed to be a small, insignificant act of kindness and hospitality. So, what does this mean?
Perhaps it means that when it came to bringing Christ into the world, God didn’t use the big flashy actions. Instead, God used a small, seemingly insignificant act of kindness and hospitality committed by an anonymous innkeeper who was willing to offer a couple about to have a baby a warm, safe place to stay for the night.
A few years ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to travel to Italy. One of the highlights of our trip was the time we spent in Florence and Rome viewing the works of the Michelangelo. We got to experience the power of his sculpture of David. We got to see the beauty of his work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
I recently read that one day Michelangelo was working on a painting when a friend dropped by. The friend, who had been to see him a few days before, noticed that Michelangelo hadn’t made much progress on the painting since he’d last seen it. So, he said, “Michelangelo, why haven’t you been working on the painting?”
The great artist turned to his friend and said, “I’ve been working the painting day and night.”
“Well, what have you been doing?” his friend replied, “I don’t see any big changes.”
Pointing to a figure in the painting Michelangelo said, “I worked on his finger all day yesterday. I worked on the lobe of his ear last night. And I’ve been working on this wrinkle on his face all day today.”
“Why do you spend so much time doing such small things?” Michelangelo’s friend replied.
The great painter quietly said, “Small things lead to great works, and great works are no small thing.”
What the innkeeper did was a small, insignificant thing. But, his little act of kindness and hospitality enabled Christ to come into the world. As Mother Teresa once said, “We cannot all do great things. But, we can all do little things with great love!” Listen, if God’s love is to be born in our world this Christmas, it probably won’t be the result of some big, flashy thing you or I do. Instead, it will be the result of some small, seemingly insignificant act kindness, hospitality and love that we commit toward a friend, a co- worker, a neighbor, or even a stranger. O Little Town of Bethlehem reminds us that that when God comes into the world through seemingly small, insignificant acts of that don’t seem to matter.
O Little Town of Bethlehem is a LITTLE song, written for little children, to teach them about a little village where Jesus was born. But, it packs a BIG message. And the message is this - God used little people, little places, little acts of kindness and hospitality to bring God’s love into the world. And the good news is this?
God still does! God still uses little people who sometimes feel insignificant - like you and me. God still uses little places that seem unlikely - like business offices, middle schools, grocery stores, nursing homes. God still uses little acts that seem inconsequential - kind words, listening ears, and warm smiles – to give birth to the Christ, to bring the gift of God’s amazing love into the world!