"O Little Town": Sermon for Christmas Eve, Year C

"O Little Town": Sermon for Christmas Eve, Year C

Dec 24, 2018

Passage:Luke 2:1-20

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Christmas

Category: Hope, Peace

Keywords: hope, jesus, jesús, love, peace, worship


Exactly 150 years ago since this Christmas Eve (in 1868), an event occurred that links us now, as it linked people then, to the birth of our savior Jesus. What was this event? This sermon explores this topic...


In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Don't you just love to hear the Luke version of Jesus' birth narrative? It brings warmth and hopefulness into our lives. Joseph and Mary are at Bethlehem, with the shepherds tending their flocks nearby. The angel of the Lord appears bringing first fear then great hope! And with the birth of Jesus, Mary gets to see others confirm what she had been told by the angel: Her baby... this child Jesus is special--the hope of the world!

 All of this happened some 2000+ years ago and changed the world forever.

But, for us here this evening, there was something else that happened exactly 150 years ago tonight that links us all together with this story from Luke.

This event from 150 years ago tonight shows us that WE are part of that story from 2000+ years ago. WE are intricately associated with Bethlehem, the manger, the shepherds, the angel, and the Christ child.

What happened 150 years ago tonight?

Well, let me tell you a story to fill you in on the details...

It actually starts a few years earlier than a hundred and fifty years ago with 1865 as the Civil War was wrapping up here in the United States.

This had been a bloody, destructive war. Devastation and desolation were everywhere in the country. One glorious outcome, of course, was the end of the national sin of slavery. But Reconstruction of the nation was going to be difficult.

One person who had been working hard behind the scenes speaking against slavery during the war was an Episcopal priest named Phillips Brooks. He was first ordained as a priest and became rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1862, just as the Civil War was heating up.

Now that the war had ended in 1865, Brooks wanted to see how to bring a message of peace to his congregation. He decided to go on a major pilgrimage overseas.

Now keep in mind, travel to multiple countries in the nineteenth century was still not simple. For Phillips Brooks, this meant he would be away for months and months.

He took a ship to Ireland, then traveled through Scotland, England, and the rest of Europe, then after several months, he ended up in the Holy Land in December.

 He toured all of the major sites of the Bible by horseback. He wrote home to his parents and congregation frequently, describing the wonderful, spiritual connections he was making on this journey.

And then, on Christmas Eve, he and his party once again set out on horseback from Jerusalem. They rode about two hours and made it to the town of Bethlehem. On the way into town, Brooks mentioned that there was still a field, with shepherds "keeping watch over their flocks" and leading them home to fold. He described the view of the town as they made their way in as "situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens." In the center of the Bethlehem stood the Church of the Nativity, operated and shared by Orthodox and Roman Catholic monks.[i]  

At the Church of the Nativity that Christmas Eve, Brooks and his companions attended a six-hour worship service that lasted well into the wee hours of Christmas morning.

He later wrote about this evening in a letter home to the children of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

He wanted them to have a sense of what it was like to be there in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve... to be so close to where Jesus was born... he wanted these children to be excited about the birth of Jesus.

So he wrote to them "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...." But then he told the children something wonderful.  He told them that, in fact, they had been there with him!  He said that in the midst of  this beautiful singing, "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, as I had heard them a year before...." He assured them that he was with them and they were with him there in Bethlehem. Their familiar voices, as he said, are "wandering to me halfway round the world."

Phillips Brooks completed his pilgrimage by the summer of 1866 and the people of his parish--Holy Trinity--were thrilled to have him back.

Which brings us to 1868--or, in  other words--150 years ago.

1868 is a tough year in our country. Reconstruction is still going on in the nation. The economy is in shambles. The stock market is extremely volatile. Politics are horrible. Nobody trusts the president or politicians. Racial discord and social justice issues are still unresolved. And the year is ending. People are saying they cannot wait for 1868 to be over!

In Philadelphia, Phillips Brooks is preparing for his Christmas services at Holy Trinity. As he works on his sermon and other responsibilities, he starts to think specifically about the children in the Sunday School.

He's worried about them. He wants them to have that sense of hope. He wants them to understand that the light of the Gospel will outshine all difficulties... even the dark days of 1868.

Then... then he remembers the letter he wrote to the children from a few years ago when was on his pilgrimage. THAT was hopeful. He loved the feeling that the children had been there with him worshiping in Bethlehem that Christmas Eve three years ago. He knew it was true too. He just needs to remind them of that night somehow.

Brooks sits down and starts to write. But this time it's not a letter. This time he writes a short poem... for the children.

When he finishes, he goes immediately to his choir master, Lewis Redner. He says, "Lewis, I've written a little carol for the children, and I need you to write some music to accompany it for the Christmas Sunday School Service."

Redner agrees. He waits for several days. Then on Saturday night Redner writes the melody, and Sunday morning, 150 years ago, Redner writes the harmony.

That day, the children all sing Phillips Brooks' new Christmas Carol:

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. 


So, back to the start. How does this story from 150 years ago connect to us?  Phillips Brooks had it right when he told the children of Holy Trinity Philadelphia they were singing with him that night in Bethlehem. But you, see it was more than that.

Time and space cease to exist in the heavenly places. On this most Holy night, we, too, join in signing those hymns alongside Brooks and those children. We are there  in Bethlehem in 1868... And we are there in 1865.... AND we are joining in with the shepherds and angels and others 2000+ years ago humbly kneeling at the manger in the little town of Bethlehem.

Jesus Christ is the hope of the world for all time. No matter what year it is. No matter what's happening in our world or in our lives. Jesus brings light into the darkness!

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today!


[i] Brooks' travel commentaries were published. See Phillips Brooks, Letters of Travel (New York: E. P. Dutton and company, 1893) , (see especially pages 69-70 and 85-86),  available online at the Hathi Trust Digital Library at