In 1859, Phillips Brooks, the author of O Little Town of Bethlehem, became a rector at a church in Philadelphia. He stayed in that city for a total of 10 years. The early years of that time were during the Civil War. Brooks was a staunch opponent of slavery and spoke out against it often. People describe him as a man of giant stature—both physically and in the strength of his convictions. Yet he is also described as someone that no one could be completely upset with, either; I guess because of his overall humble spirit.
In 1865, as the Civil War was coming to an end, Brooks took a year-long trip to Europe and the Holy Lands. On that trip, Brooks saw the city of Bethlehem; listen to this description:
“It was the sight of Bethlehem itself, one feels very sure, that gave Phillips Brooks the impulse to write this hymn. He was then rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, in Philadelphia, and had spent a year’s vacation traveling in Europe and the East. “After an early dinner, we took our horses and rode to Bethlehem,” so he wrote home in Christmas week of 1865. “It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens. It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine. . . . 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 (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. The story is absurd, but somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been. . . . As we passed, the shepherds were still “keeping watch over their flocks or leading them home to fold.” Mr. Brooks returned in September, 1866, and it must have been while meditating at home over what he had seen that the carol took shape in his mind.”
“Somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been.”
Can you imagine living in a place consumed with war and hatred and racism and slavery, and then riding through the same fields where the shepherds who first learned about Jesus were? A person who had taken a stand against the evil of his day and had lived close to some of the bloodiest battlefields of the war looked out over the city where our Savior was born.
We heard the first two verses of the song already tonight, but listen to these last three:
- How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His Heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
- Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee,
Son of the Mother mild;1
Where Charity stands watching
And Faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.
- O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray!
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels,
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!
“No ear may hear his coming, but in this dark world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
Sometimes, the peace that Jesus brings is not an end to the conflict we are facing. Sometimes, the peace that Jesus brings is that He is present with us in the conflict.
Let’s read Matthew 1:18-23:
18 So here, finally, is the story of the birth of Jesus the Anointed[a] (it is quite a remarkable story):
Mary was engaged to marry Joseph, son of David. They hadn’t married. And yet, some time well before their wedding date, Mary learned that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, because he was kind and upstanding and honorable, wanted to spare Mary shame. He did not wish to cause her more embarrassment than necessary.
20 Now when Joseph had decided to act on his instincts, a messenger of the Lord came to him in a dream.
Messenger of the Lord: Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to wed Maryand bring her into your home and family as your wife. She did not sneak off and sleep with someone else—rather, she conceived the baby she now carries through the miraculous wonderworking of the Holy Spirit. 21 She will have a son, and you will name Him Jesus, which means “the Lord saves,” because this Jesus is the person who will save all of His people from sin.
24 Joseph woke up from his dream and did exactly what the messenger had told him to do: he married Mary and brought her into his home as his wife25 (though he did not consummate their marriage until after her son was born).And when the baby was born, Joseph named Him Jesus, Savior.
22 Years and years ago, Isaiah, a prophet of Israel, foretold the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus:
23 A virgin will conceive and bear a Son,
and His name will be Immanuel.
Can you imagine what Joseph must have been thinking? His fiancé, supposed to be a virgin, comes to him and says she is pregnant. Because Joseph was a good man, he was going to deal with it quietly. He wasn’t going to publicly disgrace Mary. He wasn’t going to stone her to death. But he was going to end their relationship.
Until the angel comes to him. And the angel says this is part of God’s plan. And Joseph willingly submits to the will of God. But understand this: the shame, the public perception, the difficulty did not go away. Joseph still had the same situation when he woke up that he had when he went to sleep the night before.
But now, there was a peace that he had been missing.
I’m not known for having a lot of peace. If the average amount of peace in an eighth grader is 100 grams, I probably have 6. I’m not even joking; I am the most stressed person I know. I gave myself an illness because of this stress. If we’re gonna be honest, let’s just also talk about how the writer of this song was anti-slavery during the flipping Civil War and he seems to understand peace more than I do.
I also am a very impatient person. I can wait for something I want for maybe, maybe, thirty seconds. I’m not kidding, I am the second worst wait-er I know (the first is sitting in this room and is related to me, but that’s all I’m giving you).
So, of course, Paul over here decided I would be the best one to talk the bulk of the lesson.
Now I’m expected to ramble about those things for a half hour.
Peace is a hard word to understand simply because it seems like a foreign concept. I stress about school – there’s an algebra final tomorrow, my grades are almost all ending in 9, I didn’t read as much as I would have liked, my science teacher keeps talking about how the Sun could go out at any moment and we wouldn’t know until nine minutes later when we all die –
and family – Jordan’s annoying and I’m not allowed to hit him, I said something sarcastic and it was bad, I don’t want to –
and faith – church is really early in the morning, youth group has become awkward, there are going to be a lot of people, I don’t always feel comfortable being me –
and I stress about myself – the way my stomach sticks out slightly, the way my hair does this weird thing on top, my odd, if not unique, personality, my strange obsession with hugs.
Right at this moment I’m shaking in my boots because my peers are here and it’s a lot harder to be real at this time then it was last week.
One of my favorite lines is, “But in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.” I absolutely adore this line. This verse gives me some of that peace I’ve been missing. I may not be meek, but knowing that close friends of mine can receive Christ makes me feel good. The line encourages me, because in this awful, terrible world, God still comes. He’s going to enter this world, no matter the condition.
I recently read a book about aliens who thought of themselves as angels who came to save the earth from itself by bettering the people they came into contact with. They ended up leaving because humans weren’t ready or something crazy. And this was the world God sent his son into. God still saves, even if people are defiant and resolute – God will come.
Somehow, we still get to experience the Prince of Peace coming into a world where peace is nonexistent and stress is the king. I am part of a community who believe in a Savior so powerful, I can stand here in front of my peers without having a heart attack.
Let’s talk about this waiting thing. Advent is about waiting. Hope for what is to come. Joy for when the waiting is over. Love for…something. Peace for knowing it won’t be forever that we have to wait. Peace for realizing that we have proof that our wait is not everlasting. Oh, yeah – love for having peace!
Anyways, like I said earlier, I’m not a good wait-er. I enjoy knowing. I even, don’t hate me for this fellow readers, I read the last page of the book I’m reading so I can know what happens. And if the last page isn’t enough, I’ll keep reading back until I get to a part that will explain what the ending was. I don’t do this whole, “Wait and be surprised thing.” Oh no, I will know the end.
Yet I love Advent. I enjoy the whole season, I like the messages, I love, love, love the themes. This begs the question, “Why is Rheannon a walking oxymoron?” Well, that’s because I don’t really have to wait for anything. Of course, I’m waiting for Jesus to return, but I’m not flipping out over it, mostly because I know He will come, which as much of an answer as I need. I already know Jesus has come and will return. I don’t have to wait for that, I have an easy time waiting for this particular thing.
Which makes me think, why am I not peaced? Honestly, Jesus coming back to save me should give me all the peace I need (all 100 grams), yet I still worry about anything and everything. I still hyperventilate when I think about this or finals or family disputes. I still cringe thinking about getting feedback after tonight and listening to people tell me, “It was good, but you could have done this…” or “Next time, you might consider….”
I’m sweating just thinking about this.
But I do believe in a Prince of Peace, in the Wonderful counselor, but it’s hard. I’m still learning how to find peace in God, still learning to make my own peace. It’s hard for me to imagine that I’m supposed to give everything up, that I can just let the hard things go.
I can try though.
Jesus’ early life was filled with anything but peace. A scandalous pregnancy. Being born at the end of a journey miles from home. A king who wanted to kill him. Becoming a refugee to Egypt. Having to pick a home that seemed to be a safe distance away from people who might want to kill him.
Our world is not one of peace. There are conflicts. There is confusion. There is angry, fear-based rhetoric.
There is the reality of our own lives that we have to face every day. We sing about peace, we long for peace, we love peace, we want peace.
But some days, peace is the furthest thing from our grasp.
Yet Jesus had a father who submitted to God’s will. He had a mother who said, “May it be to me as you have said.”
We live in a dark world filled with hate, but we are people who love the light. Peace does not mean all of our troubles will go away. Advent does not mean that all the troubles of the world are resolved.
Advent means Jesus comes into this dark world to walk with us. Those of you who are hurting: Jesus is here. Those who are homeless: Jesus is here. Those who have tests tomorrow: Jesus is here. Those who are terrified someone might speak to them: Jesus is here. Those who want to drink or drug: Jesus is here. Those who think this life is meaningless: Jesus is here. Those who hate themselves: Jesus is here.
Jesus is here.
I stand here in front of my peers, panicking in my head, but calm as a cucumber outwardly. I still look forward to learning more Algebra next semester. I’m still excited for school to start in the morning. I will still live my life normally, no matter what the Sun decides to do. I’ll still go home with my parents and brothers and listen to them and roll my eyes at them and love them.
I can talk to my friends because I know at least seven of them have been going “same” after all my stress talk, I can still talk to my Freedom peoples because they’re the greatest and the bestest. I can still talk to my dad because he’s the bomb-diggity and will encourage me. I can still talk to people who came to listen to me because after all my talk about being stressed they probably won’t be mean.
I can do all this, because God is the Prince of Peace, come to defeat the King of Stress.
by Maya Angelou
Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.
Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.
We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?
Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.
It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.
Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.
It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.
We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.