A Sermon Given at St. Andrew & St. Margaret of Scotland on Christmas Eve 1996 by the late Most Rev. John Thayer Cahoon, Jr.

The great proclamation of Christmas is that in Jesus Christ, God was on earth as a human being--as St. Paul puts it, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself." Other world religions and philosophies talk about the influence of God or the gods on the affairs of men, but only Christianity says, "God himself walked among us at a specific time and in a specific place."

Historians in the ancient world did not strive for the sort of precision in timing and dating that we take for granted. We know exactly when Charlemagne was crowned, and Magna Carta was signed, and Robert E. Lee surrendered, and President Kennedy was shot. They were content to say that an event took place when Nebuchadnezzar reigned, or Pericles ruled, or Alexander the Great was conquering.

So the New Testament gives us only those kinds of dates for the great events of the earthly life of the Son of God: he suffered and died while Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judaea; he began his public ministry in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar when Herod was tetrarch of Galilee and his brother Philip tetrarch of lturaea; and he was born in the days of Herod the king, when Augustus was Caesar and Cyrenius was governor of Syria. All that may not be as specific as we might wish it were, but it carries a far greater note of reality than "once upon a time" or "long long ago."

The Gospel writers are, on the other hand, quite definite about places. Jesus died and rose again in Jerusalem. He preached around the Sea of Galilee. He grew up in Nazareth. Those are all places well-known to other ancient writers, and we can still locate them now. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a town just south of Jerusalem, a sheepherding center in the first century and a focus of strife in the West Bank today. This specificity of location tells us that we are dealing with something very different from "in a galaxy far, far away."

We can preach the story of Jesus' birth by talking only about where it happened--the little town of Bethlehem. One of the things which qualified Jesus to be the Savior of Israel is that he was "of the house and lineage" of David, Israel's greatest hero. Isaiah said that the savior would "sit on the throne of his father David," and Jeremiah said that God would "raise unto David a righteous branch"--a new shoot from the family tree.

Micah wrote, "Thou Bethlehem ... out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel: whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting." So even though Jesus was conceived in Nazareth where his mother lived, he had to be born in "the city of David, which is called Bethlehem." And so he was.

No one has done more to keep the word "Bethlehem" alive in the popular imagination than an Episcopal Bishop named Phillips Brooks. In the 1860s, while he was Rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, Brooks made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. His visit to Bethlehem inspired him to write a poem about it for his Sunday School. The parish organist set the poem to music, and we know their collaboration as"O Little Town of Bethlehem."

Besides all of the setimental associations which attach themselves to any beloved hymn, Phillips Brooks's composition does us the great favor of addressing again the issue of the time and the place of the birth of Jesus. While acknowledging that it took place there and then, Brooks completes the great theme of the season of Advent to make that past event present.

"In this world of sin! Where meek souls will receive him/Still the dear Christ enters in." "Where children pure and happy pray.. .Where misery cries out ... Christmas comes once more." So we pray, "0 holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us ... Cast out our sin and enter in/Be born in us today."

Christmas offers each of us what it first offered the world two thousand years ago--a new hope--anew beginning--a new life. The baby of Bethlehem is still Emmanuel--"God-with-us." And he tells us, "Marvel not that I said unto thee, 'Ye must be born again."

And he assures us, "All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out...This is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day."

Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

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