By David Shibley
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting (Micah 2:5).
Phillips Brooks was a noted nineteenth-century Episcopalian minister. After graduating from Harvard in 1855, Brooks served as a teacher but soon felt called to be a pastor. He returned to school, this time to Alexandria Seminary, in Virginia. In 1860, just as the Civil War was about to erupt in all its terrible fury, Brooks was named rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. It was there that his fame as a great preacher of the Gospel began to spread.
In 1865 he took a one-year leave of absence from his pulpit. During this sabbatical Phillips Brooks visited the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve of that year Brooks traveled the few miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by horseback. That night he attended a traditional Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity. The five hour service made a strong impression on the young pastor.
Phillips Brooks never forgot that night in the ancient city. Three years later, he wrote some of the most cherished lyrics of all Christmas carols:
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in Thee tonight.
For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God our King
And peace to men on earth.
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 or Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out or 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, Immanuel.
Many years later I too visited Bethlehem. I will never forget my pilgrimage into the lowest parts of the Church of the Nativity. Now cordoned off, there is on the marble floor a multi-pointed silver star. According to records of antiquity, this is the spot – or very close to it – where Jesus was born.
I remember standing there awestruck. All I could do was stare at the star. Riveting through my heart was this thought – Here, of all places. God arrived here. God arrived here. God arrived here! I wept and worshiped.
Soon after I was back out on the troubled, tense streets of modern Bethlehem. “Precious little ‘peace on earth’ around here,” I mused. Even today, Bethlehem is a little town. But good things do indeed come in small packages. God Almighty compressed into eight pounds and eighteen inches. The hinge of history in what we might call a “one stoplight town.” Yes, “the hopes and fears of all the years” intersect here – of all places. So inconspicuous. So eternally important. God – away in a manger.
The old Scottish preacher, Horatius Bonar, understood. He wrote, “At Bethlehem our world’s history begins. All before and after the birth of the young child takes its color from that event.”
Where are you right now? No place special? Don’t be too sure. Almighty God has a preference for putting inconspicuous places – and never heard of people – on the map. He wants to meet with you. Right now. Right here . . . of all places.