O Little Town of Bethlehem

Phillips Brooks was the Episcopal rector of Holy Trinity Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Even as a young pastor, he was already renowned for his powerful preaching. Loved by young and old alike, this six-foot-six giant was equally at home standing among the adults or playing with the children.

One December day in 1868, Brooks decided to do something special for the Children’s Christmas Program. He would write a carol based upon his visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem three years before. So it was that Brooks came to write the lovely carol that we know today, O Little Town of Bethlehem. He gave the lyrics to the church organist, Louis Redner, who wrote the tune in the nick of time. On Christmas Eve, Redner received his musical inspiration and on Christmas morning, he taught the children the new hymn. The first time that the stirring carol was heard was on Christmas Day, 1868.

The words were simple to sing, chosen for children’s voices, but their meaning was profound. For example, here is one line that is filled with meaning:

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.


How are the hopes of all the years met in Jesus? Perhaps, the most obvious hope of every human heart is for peace. We long for peace: peace of mind, peace in our homes, peace on earth. The glory of the Babe of Bethlehem is that He grows up to be the Crucified and Resurrected Son of God who establishes peace. Jesus is the Prince of Peace who makes peace between God and humanity and creates peace among all people. There is unity across the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church because we who are joined by faith to Jesus are joined by Jesus to one another.

Perhaps, the universal hope of all human beings is simply for enough. We hope for enough food to fill us, enough clothing to cover us, enough home to shelter us, and enough money to provide for us. God knows our needs and He knows them intimately. This is true because God has lived among us, not as one in opulence but as one of lowly birth. As a child, the holy One was laid in a manger. As an adult, the Messiah was stripped of His possessions. God knows our needs personally, and He has promised that He will provide for us more than enough. He is able to do exceedingly, abundantly more than we can ask or even think.

Perhaps, the deepest hope of the human heart is to be loved. How wonderful that the Stranger in the Manger is God in flesh, come to love us. God makes the perfect display of His limitless love for us in the lowly infant who grows to become the Suffering Servant. Such is the love of God for us that He will spend the blood of His Son to save the soul of a slave, like you and me. We are loved by God; this fact is proven by His incarnation, His crucifixion, His resurrection, and most especially by His adoption. He has adopted us! We are the adopted and beloved children of God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. With His love in our hearts, we become those who love each other.


How are the fears of all the years met in Jesus? Jesus meets our fears and destroys their power. Jesus meets our deepest and most pervasive fear, the fear of judgment. Sin tempts us and its memory torments us. We stand accused before God as sinful, shameful creatures. We are deserving of His punishment for what we have thought and said and done. What can stop God’s judgment? What can conquer our sinful nature and sinful actions? What can remove our shame? Jesus has done all of this. Jesus has conducted the great exchange by taking our sins and shame upon Himself and exchanging them for His righteousness and holiness.

Jesus meets our fear of loneliness. We were created by God to be in a nuclear family, in a church family, and in the human family. One of the worst tortures imaginable is to separate a person from others, to place him or her in solitary confinement. But, Jesus has promised that He will never abandon us. He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). He will be with us always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). In life and even in death, we will never be alone because Jesus will be with us.

Jesus meets our final fear, the fear of death. The declarations of Jesus concerning death are powerful promises indeed. “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believers in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26). How can we trust such a grandiose claim? We believe the Word of Jesus because He has conquered death. He was crucified and rose on the third day. Jesus has destroyed the power of death and opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. We no longer fear death because we know that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). Neither life nor death, nor any created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39).

Almost 150 years after it was first written, the precious Christmas Carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, is still true. Of course it is; it will be true forever. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus. The hopes of all are met in Him and are fulfilled. The fears of all are met in Him and are destroyed. This holy season, whether you are a child or an adult, this Christmas hymn will remind you of a wondrous truth about the birth of the Son of God:

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!