It is Christmas Eve, 1865. The nation had just emerged from the most devastating conflict in its history – past, present, and possibly future. The Civil War had ended eight months earlier, bringing an end to four years that saw more American casualties than in all of the other wars the United States fought combined!
Pastor Phillips Brooks of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia led a flock that had scores of widows and parents who had husbands or sons killed or wounded. In April, he had been called upon to preach the sermon at the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. Exhausted and soul-weary, he took a sabbatical to the holy land, hoping to find a spiritual rebirth.
He wrote in his journal:
Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds…. Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still keeping watch over their flocks.
[Later] I was standing in the old church in 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, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I know well, telling each other of the Savior’s birth.
He tried to convey what he felt, write in poetry what he experienced. But he was frustrated. He returned to America and to his church. He felt a “singing in his soul” but he just couldn’t share with his congregation what he felt. He struggled and fought to find the right words but none came.
Three years later, as Christmas 1868 approached, he again thought of his ride into Bethlehem at dusk and the church service that had followed. This time, he didn’t force the words out; he simply relived the experience and jotted down the lines that seemed to float into his head. His thoughts soon took the form of a poem. When he finished, he immediately and excitedly shared his poem with his friend – and musician – Lewis Redner.
Lewis Redner was the organist of Pastor Brooks church and, reading the poem, finally understood the power of what Brooks had experienced in the Holy Land three years early. He wanted to write music that would perfectly convey the experience and struggled and struggled. Exhausted on Christmas Eve he went to bed without having found the music.
In the time between waking and sleep, the music came to Redner. As if blessed by God Himself, on Christmas morning, Redner was able to write the music and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was complete.
I think most Christians have an “aha” moment. Sometimes called a “mountain top experience” or a “wilderness experience” where the salvation that God brings to us in Jesus Christ “clicks” and we experience the majesty, the awe, the fullness of the love that God has for us.
But it is sharing that experience that can frustrate us. Like Phillips Brooks or Lewis Redner, we can become frustrated as we struggle to tell someone else what we have experienced.
And we want to tell others. It is part of our salvation. God sent Jesus to live, die and rise again to save us from our sins. Indeed, the most wonderful Good News! And then Jesus tells us to go into all the world and tell this Good News to everyone. To share the Good News of our salvation is in our Christian “DNA” so to speak.
But we’re not all poets. We’re not all musicians. We’re not all authors. We’re not all cinematographers. Not all of us have the gifts and skills that we would want to use to tell this Good News in the most effective way possible.
The story of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a lesson in “letting go” of what we would like to bring to the table of telling the Good News and just letting God flow through us. Brooks struggled for years. Redner struggled. But when they finally gave up the struggle and were in a Psalm 46:10 moment (“Be still and know that I am God”) the Good News came pouring out of them in an awesome way.
Their Good News is the same as our Good News. Jesus Christ was born in a little town called Bethlehem. He fulfilled ancient prophecy. He was the culmination of the plan of salvation that God had implemented in Genesis 3:15.
And the best way to tell this Good News is to be still and let God speak through our lives.
Phillips Brooks lived through a horrific time, pastoring a Philadelphia flock through the Civil War, culminating by preaching at the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. And God used that in Brooks life to bring to our Christmas celebration one of the most beloved of all Christmas hymns. God can bring His Good News to the world through you as well.