O Little Town of Bethlehem

Bishop’s Message

One of my favourite Christmas carols is “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (words by Phillips Brooks, ca. 1868). My guess is that the composer was inspired by the Bible promise in Micah 5:2 (NKJV):

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting.”

What a surprise that such a little town like Bethlehem should be the source or birthplace of Israel’s future Ruler. Matthew 2:6 cites Micah 5:2 in expressing the same surprise that Jesus the Messiah was born in the little town of Bethlehem.

“O little town of Bethlehem … yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.” It is in the “dark streets” of the “little town of Bethlehem” that Jesus, the Saviour of the world, is born.

Why was Jesus born in such a little, sleepy town like Bethlehem? Why didn’t God choose the bigger and much more prominent city of holy Jerusalem? And why was there so little fanfare or publicity announcing the royal birth? Yes, there was an angel choir (Luke 2:8-14), but who heard them? Only a few, unnamed shepherds in an unknown field somewhere near little Bethlehem. There were no global headlines the next morning declaring the holy birth of this princely Son and Saviour of the world.

For reasons we would do well to ponder, the God of the Bible seems little concerned with the kind of publicity our modern world deems to be indispensable. Jesus would spend most of his life most of his life on earth as an unknown carpenter, with none of his craftsmanship preserved in any earthly museum. For thirty years, Jesus lived on earth, and yet there are hardly any records of what he did or said during that long period. And even in the final three years of his life in which Jesus came into the public eye just a little more, his presence was confined to a very little corner on earth. If Jesus lived in Singapore, then he never travelled further than to Melaka. He made no headlines in the powerful Roman empire. This is astounding when you think that Jesus was born to be the Saviour of the world!

“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.”

Today, Christmas is celebrated with bright lights, loud music and both commercial and church fanfare. But despite this, or perhaps because of this, it is just as easy today to miss the amazing good news of Christmas. Maybe it is in the smallness and stillness of a little Bethlehem somewhere that we will find the real joy and hope of Christmas.

Bishop Dr Gordon Wong was elected Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore in 2020.
He served as President of the Trinity Annual Conference from 2012-2020.