“When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, ‘Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.’”Luke 2:15
It was December of 1865. Phillips Brooks, minister of the Trinity Church in Boston, made a trip to the Holy Land. He visited Bethlehem, the location that tradition dictates is the birthplace of our Savior. In what was still a sleepy little town in those days, the view of that Judean hill country from 2,600 feet above sea level began to inspire a song:
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.
Brooks was a tall man with a big heart and an intense love for Christ and the people to whom he ministered. He finally penned the words two years later and Lewis Redner, the church’s organist, put the text to music. His children’s Sunday School department sang it for the first time soon after.
How effectively the text takes us back to the spot where Mary “brought forth her newborn son…and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7). What made Bethlehem so special? This famed “City of David” was also known as Ephrath, Bethlehem Judah, or Bethlehem Ephrathah. Its name literally means “house of bread,” and it’s no wonder that the “Bread of Life” would be born there. Nearby, Abraham’s wife Rachel is buried. Ruth came there from Moab with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and became the center of one of the most endearing stories in Scripture. Her great-grandson, Jesse, gave birth to David there, and Samuel anointed David as king in this town.
So why Bethlehem? Why appear to shepherds?
Much of the surrounding wilderness area was little use for anything except pastureland. David was a shepherd, and when someone needed to find him, he was usually out in the fields. It was shepherds—likely out in those same fields—who witnessed the angelic light show proclaiming Christ’s birth, immortalizing this little village for all time in the Christmas story.
In their book Why a Manger, Brodie and Brock Thoene point out that being only five miles south of Jerusalem made Bethlehem the primary source of sacrificial lambs. Week after week, year after year, generations of shepherds tended sheep in those fields, setting aside the unblemished firstborn of the flock to be sent to Jerusalem for sale to temple worshippers. It’s no coincidence that the “lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29) would be brought forth in a manger…in a stable…in Bethlehem.
We sense Pastor Brooks’ evangelistic heart in the prayer embedded in the last stanza of this beautiful carol:
O holy child of Bethlehem,
descend to 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!