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O Little Town of Bethlehem



Advent is a season of the church year when we reflect both on Christ’s first coming to the world and also his second coming. Thus, as we begin Advent and a new church year, the lectionary has chosen a text traditionally associated with Jesus’ Second Coming, from Matthew 24:36-44. Listen for God’s word to you…

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

I say that this text was traditionally associated with the Second Coming, and that is true. But in actuality, I think Jesus was talking about something else.

The context for this passage is that Jesus has just left the temple in Jerusalem and his disciples have called his attention to the beautiful structure of the temple itself. In response, Jesus has just said,

You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.

With these words Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple that would take place in AD 70 when the Romans came in and leveled the city. Jesus’ disciples questioned him further about this saying:

Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

The word that the disciples use which is translated “coming” is an interesting one. The word is “parousia”. This word was used within the Greek-speaking Roman Empire to refer to a state visit by the emperor. It was also a word used to describe when a god or goddess would do something dramatic, like a miracle.

What the disciples had in mind was probably something like this. They longed to see Jesus truly ruling as king. And they probably already identified this event with the destruction of the temple. This was because Jesus had already done and said things which indicated that he believed he was the center of God’s healing and restoring work, not the temple itself. So, the disciples saw the coming of Jesus as king, the destruction of the temple and the ushering in of God’s new age as three things which would all go together.

Jesus agrees with the disciples, up to a point. The destruction of the temple is going to be a sign of his vindication, for after all, he has prophesied that it will happen. It will also be a sign of the new age of the church being ushered in. But he tells the disciples: don’t be deceived by all the would-be messiahs claiming to be me. He warns them that wars and rumors of wars are to come. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. These are all just the beginning of birth pangs.

After all this will come a time of persecution for the disciples themselves. In the midst of this, in the midst of false prophets, apostasy, and the love of many growing cold, the disciples must stand firm. They must stay on the job and take the gospel to all the nations.

All of this is Jesus’ prediction of what would happen within that generation. In AD 68 Emperor Nero died. He was followed by four contestants for the office of emperor fighting for control. The Roman Empire itself was teetering on the brink of destruction. During that same period of time Rome laid siege to Jerusalem. The siege lasted four years. Many in Jerusalem died of starvation. Some people were even reduced to cannibalism. In AD 70 the Romans finally stormed the city. Over a million Jews were killed in the final conflict and 97,000 were taken captive. The Romans were so happy over what they thought was a solution to the “Jewish problem” that they erected an arch in Rome in honor of the conquering general, Titus. This destruction of Jerusalem and all that went with it was what Jesus was predicting in this passage.

Jesus goes on to warn his disciples that no one knows the day or the hour when the destruction of Jerusalem is going to happen. Normal life will seemingly continue right up to the last moment. Just as people were “caught out” by the flood in the story of Noah, so it will be when the destruction of Jerusalem comes. Two men will be working in a field, one will be taken, another left. This is a reference to the invading forces of Rome taking off one person to their death while leaving the other untouched.

At the end of Matthew 24, Jesus tells a little parable in order to remind the disciples of how they should live as this tribulation approaches. The meaning of the parable is that Jesus is going away, but he is leaving the disciples with work to do: the preaching of the gospel. The point of the parable is that they should continue on with their work regardless of the tumult going on in society.

So, what is the message for us in all of this, if Jesus’ words were directed primarily to his disciples in the first century?

Though Jesus was primarily addressing the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem which would happen within that generation, Jesus’ words have application to us today as we await his final “parousia”, his second coming. Jesus has given us work to do: the communication of his good news in word and in deed to all the nations. We need to be supporting missionaries who carry the Gospel to other lands, and we need to share the good news of Jesus with those in our own community. Whatever work the Lord has given us to do—raising families, working farms, teaching school, whatever we do, we need to do it well, to his glory. If we are doing that, then we will be ready when Jesus comes again.

So, during this Advent season, we remember Christ’s first coming and we prepare for his return. But there is also a third sense in which Christ comes to us. Phillips Brooks talks about this third sense in his lovely Christmas Carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. In the third verse we sing:

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

Christ came as a baby born in that little town of Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Christ is coming again in glory to judge the world and establish his eternal kingdom. But Jesus can also come into our hearts whenever and wherever “meek souls will receive Him still”. That is a “coming” no one can hear or see, but it is real, nonetheless.

The story behind the writing of this beautiful carol is a touching one…

On December 24, 1865, Phillips Brooks was a half a world away from home and feeling like an older man than his thirty years. Already recognized as one of the most dynamic Christian voices in America, it was Brooks, only six years into his ministry, who had been called upon in May to give the funeral message over President Abraham Lincoln. That solemn honor, in tandem with leading the congregation of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Church through the bloody years of the Civil War, had taken its toll. Worn out and badly needing a spiritual rebirth, Brooks took a sabbatical and left the United States to tour the Middle East. On Christmas Eve in Jerusalem, the American felt an urge to get away from the hundreds of other pilgrims who had journeyed to the Holy Land for the holidays. Although warned that he might encounter thieves, the preacher borrowed a horse and set out across the desolate and unforgiving countryside. For many peaceful hours he was alone with his thoughts as he studied a land that had changed little since the days of Paul and Timothy. For the minister, December 24 was a wonderful time of prayer and meditation. At dusk, a sudden sense of awe fell over Brooks. Under a clear sky, the first stars just beginning to emerge, he rode into the still tiny and remote village of Bethlehem. He recalled the story of the birth of his Savior, and by being present in the place in which Jesus was born, was able to add vivid detail to the familiar tale in Scripture. The great speaker was all but speechless as he considered the heavenly King, born in such modest surroundings. There, on streets almost unchanged since biblical times, Brooks felt as if he were surrounded by the spirit of the first Christmas. He would later tell his family and friends that the experience was so overpowering that it would forever be “singing in my soul.”

Three years after his visit to Bethlehem, Brooks wrote a poem about the experience. When he finished writing, he hurried to share the lyric with his organist, Lewis Redner, a man who had helped him grow his congregation’s Sunday School from 36 children to 3000.

While reading the simple words, Redner finally understood the power of what Brooks had experienced in the Holy Land. To further share this message, the organist tried to compose music to accompany the poem. For hours he struggled at the piano. Finally, on December 24, as Redner went to bed, he was forced to admit he had failed… It was only in his bed, long after he had given up his efforts, that the organist found an unadorned and straightforward tune. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Redner discovered the tune given to him in slumber perfectly fit Phillips Brooks’s words. As if blessed by God himself, on Christmas morning “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was complete. For the next six years “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was a Philadelphia favorite… By the time of Phillips Brooks’s death in 1893, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” had become one of the most beloved Christmas carols in the world.

Phillips Brooks is now recognized as the greatest American preacher of the nineteenth century. His first volume of sermons sold more than two hundred thousand copies when released in 1878 and is still read and studied today. There is even a building named for the preacher at Harvard University. Yet it is the songwriter, not the preacher, whose work millions now know and cherish. It is the simple language of a common traveler in search of spiritual renewal that continues to touch lives today. In a sermon Brooks once said, “It is while you are patiently toiling at the little tasks of life that the meaning and shape of the great whole of life dawns on you.” On a horse, in a tiny village, a half a world away from his home and family, the meaning of Phillips Brooks’s life and the purpose behind his work were brought into sharp focus. Since that time, millions have been blessed because of his ability to share his revelation with the world.[1]

I love those words from Phillips Brooks: “It is while you are patiently toiling at the little tasks of life that the meaning and shape of the great whole of life dawns on you.” Just so, it is as we patiently and faithfully toil at the little tasks of life, that we will be prepared for Christ when he comes. And it is even in the midst of the little tasks of life, that Christ can come into our hearts, even at this moment…


[1] Collins, Ace. Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (pp. 139-145). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

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