Monday, December 19, 2016

Dial Daily Bread: "O Little Town of Bethlehem"

Dear Friends of "Dial Daily Bread,"

Probably the most beloved of Christmas hymns is Phillips Brooks' "O Little Town of Bethlehem." A precious gem of inspired poetry, it is within itself an evangelistic sermon, groping to reach our human hearts. Hymns have always been an important part of true worship all through our "Christian era," and even as far back as the time of ancient Israel. (Our Bible Book of Psalms was the Hebrew hymnbook.)

Brooks was a powerful preacher in the "cultural oases" of Philadelphia and Boston, so greatly loved that his early death in 1893 was mourned more widely only by the death of Abraham Lincoln. The beautiful melody composed especially for this poem was an inspirational idea that came one Christmas Eve during sleep to Lewis Redner, Brooks' organist. The hymn is a perfect "marriage" of words and music. It must be sung reverently. If prayer must always be thoughtfully expressed, so hymns likewise should be thoughtfully sung, otherwise we bring upon ourselves Christ's rebuke for "vain repetition," a pseudo-worship He will not accept.

Brilliant as he was, Phillips Brooks did not in his day fully understand the gospel of righteousness by faith. There is embedded in his hymn a flaw that can have a painful effect upon our spiritual journey. His last stanza becomes a prayer, "O Holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us today." Good, so far; but then Brooks prays, "Cast out our sin, and enter in ..." And there we pause: Christ is indeed an Almighty Savior, but there is one thing He will not do--He will not cast out our sin. That is our job! He will come in to abide with us, yes, thank God; but as our Guest, it's not His job to throw out the garbage. "The expulsion of sin is the act of the soul itself," says one wise writer.

Over and over Scripture tells us that the power of choice is ours to exercise. We "cast out" the sin and then He "enters in." Let us sing the hymn correctly: "Forgive our sin and enter in, Be born in us today." And then finally to bring Philips Brooks' lyric into full Bible harmony let us sing, "We hear the holy angels the great glad tidings tell."

The word "Christmas" is not in the Bible, neither the idea of observing any day for Christ's birth (He wisely never revealed to us the day). All through the year we are to "hear the holy angels the great glad tidings tell; Oh, come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!"

--Robert J. Wieland

From the "Dial Daily Bread" Archive: December 24, 2001.
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