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Sing We Now of Christmas: Where Meek Souls Receive Him Still

07 Dec

9bd6c-ec84b1ed8384eca088(A sermon for December 7, 2014, the Second Sunday of Advent; second in a series, based on Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15a and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”)

Today most of us would likely be hard pressed to recognize the name of the Reverend Phillips Brooks; but back in the mid-19th century, to church goers his name would have been as familiar as, say, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen or even Billy Graham is to us.  Phillips Brooks, you see, was considered to be one of the most brilliant and best loved American preachers of his time.  He was born and raised in the city of Boston, “the ninth generation of Puritan stock” and Harvard educated; and as a young man powerfully pastored churches both in Boston and Philadelphia; but it was his strong reputation as a topical preacher that spread throughout the country in the years during and just following the Civil War: in fact, Phillips Brooks became something of a pastor to the whole nation after he preached to his congregation a heart-wrenching sermon of mourning and healing just following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that was subsequently printed and widely distributed in 1865, a phenomenon that today is referred to as “going viral!”

It was said of Brooks that he was literally and figuratively larger than life:  he was six foot six and weighed 300 pounds; so not only did that make for an imposing presence in the pulpit, his preaching just seemed to match.  It was written at the time that his sermon delivery “came in lightning bursts,” and he himself used to say that he felt like “he had more to say than time in which to say it.” (I know… “preacher’s problems!”) But Phillips Brooks was also headed toward what you and I today might refer to as “clergy burn-out,” what with his sudden rise to fame and all the responsibility that came with that, and especially given a great heaviness of heart in dealing pastorally with so many of his parishioners who themselves were dealing with the aftermath of the destruction and brutal violence of the war.  It had all become more than Brooks could bear, and late in 1865 he left on a sabbatical in the Holy Land in order to seek some peace for himself and perhaps some measure of healing.

And so it was that on Christmas Eve 1865, Phillips Brooks found himself traveling on horseback from the city of Jerusalem to the “little town” of Bethlehem.  “It is a good-looking town,” he wrote in a letter to his father, though he noted that the streets of Bethlehem seemed rather dark in comparison to the well-lit streets of Philadelphia or Boston.  He also marveled at the fact that there were shepherds in the fields “keeping watch over their flocks” in much the same fashion as they’d done on the night of Jesus’ birth so many years before. It was like he was there, which filled him with an unspeakable awe; and that awe only grew from that moment on.  The night ended with a five-hour (!) service of worship at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is built very close to the spot where it is believed Jesus was born; and even years later Brooks would tell of how “the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God.”

But interestingly, the thing about that night that Phillips Brooks would remember the most was not as much in the liturgy and trappings of what must have been an amazing worship service, but in fact “crowd of pilgrims,” who had gathered in and around the church on that Christmas Eve night, and who “with their simple faith and eagerness to share in the ceremonial,” were telling each other with all joy of the wonderful night of the Savior’s birth.  It was an experience that provided both healing and a renewal of Spirit; and with the memory of it still “singing in [his] soul” a year later, it served as the inspiration for a song written for the children of his church’s Sunday School:

“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.”

With a melody that was composed pretty much overnight by his church organist (!), “O Little Town of Bethlehem” has since become one of the most enduring and beloved carols of Christmas; and I have to say that when I’m planning a Christmas Eve service I always tend to place this song just prior to reading the nativity story from Luke.  The words and music seems to evoke the utter beauty and the wonder of this little, backwoods village of Judea that’s dark and asleep even on a holy night when, by God’s grace and love, the world is about to change forever; and truly, in that regard, it’s a perfect song in describing Christmas itself.  But as the story of Phillips Brooks illustrates, it’s a song that expresses a whole lot more than that.

It’s there in what is perhaps my favorite verse in this song (you’ve probably already found out, by the way, that I have favorite verses in these carols that aren’t necessarily the ones that people remember!):

“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given!  So God imparts to human hearts the joys of highest heaven.  No ear may hear Christ coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

You see, whereas our experiences may differ widely from those of its composer, most of us, I think, know so very well what it is to carry more burdens on our shoulders than we can possibly bear.  For some, it’s external in nature:  the unrelenting busy-ness of daily life; trying to make ends meet in a crazy economy; doing whatever it is we have to do to care for ourselves and for those around us without drowning in the sheer volume of it.  And for others, it’s an internal struggle:  trying to make some kind of sense of the multitude of inner memories and feelings and festering conflicts that often have a way of getting the better of us.  And the Christmas season, quite frankly, can easily exacerbate all of that: there’s a reason that there’s a sharp rise in things like depression and illness this time of year; it’s because it’s often hard enough day to day simply to cope with all these struggles, much less attempt to do so with all the chaos of the holidays piling on top of it!  The truth is that in some way or another, we all know what it is to carry more of a burden than we can bear; and so to also know this incredible promise that “God imparts to human hearts the joys of highest heaven” is good news indeed.

It’s much the same sentiment as what we hear from the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament reading this morning, a piece of scripture that’s traditionally read at about this point in the Advent season:  “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins,” because “the Lord God comes with might,” and “like a shepherd, he will care for his flock, gathering the lambs in his arms, hugging them as he carries them.” (The Message)  It’s a beautiful and yes, comforting promise that we’re given here; the assurance that the promised Messiah will come as God has promised.  And yet, as Kay was reading this to us earlier, did you notice how incredibly fatalistic this passage is?

There’s that whole section there that talks about how “all people are grass” that ultimately withers and dies; as “The Message” translates it – and understand, this is the word of the Lord (!) – we are people with love “fragile as wildflowers… if GOD so much as puffs on them.  Aren’t these people just so much grass?”  Wouldn’t you love to see that quoted on a Christmas card… of course, with the added greeting, “with blessings for the new year!”   But it’s true, isn’t it; in this life we do discover that so much on which we cling in this world for the sake of our own security – our money, our power, our place in society – can crumble beneath our feet, and ultimately we wither and fade along with it.  It all seems dark and more than a little foreboding, I know: which is what makes it all the more amazing this promise we have that “the word of our God will stand forever,” and that in every mountain and hill being made low, and every rough place becoming a plain, “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed.”

What we’re talking about here, friends, is the hopeful promise of PEACE:  but not simply peace on earth – although that’s very much a part of God’s promise – but also and most especially peace in the heart:  the peace that passes all our human understanding; the peace that Jesus himself breathed on his disciples; the peace that comes to us when God would “cast out our sin and enter in,” bringing new life with his presence. In the eloquent words of Greg Syler, an Episcopal priest in Maryland, it’s a peace “built by God who is redeeming and renewing and loving and rebuilding this world, brick by brick, community by community, heart by heart.”

And it’s a gift… a gift that’s given silently… “how silently…”  in the quiet movement of God’s Holy Spirit and always; received when meek souls… like yours and like mine… come to the profound yet simple understanding that we cannot carry the unbearable burdens of our lives and of the world by ourselves.  Our peace – the true and lasting spiritual peace that passes understanding – comes when we will open our hearts for “the dear Christ” to enter in, in the guise of this “Holy Child” who was born on that first Christmas night and continues to be born today in every willing heart.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: it’s important for us as Christians to remember that though all around us the Christmas celebration has started in earnest, as believers we are, in fact, Advent people.  And it seems to me that especially now – before we pause to hear the Christmas angels, and before “the great glad tidings tell” – amidst not only the noise of the season, but also in chaos and the confusion of our life’s ongoing journey, now would be the perfect time for us to retreat, prayerfully and purposely, into the stillness of our inner Bethlehem (as our Epistle reading this morning from 2 Peter puts it, prayerfully “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God:” perchance to listen not with ear with heart for signs of his coming, so that at Christmas – and always – that God, Emmanuel, will truly “come to us [and] abide with us.”

How good it is that we have just such an opportunity for prayer and reflection this morning, as we come to the Lord’s Table to feast on the bread and the cup, and to savor the promise and the reality of his presence in our lives and within our very hearts.

“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.”

Let us come to the table, then; and let our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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