fourth Sunday of Advent, DECEMBER 18, 2016
The bethlehem Candle
Leader: Why do we light the Advent candles?
Family: Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the Light of Life.”
Leader: What is the meaning of the fourth lighted candle?
Family: The fourth candle is the Bethlehem candle whose light bears witness to the Savior who was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King. From Bethlehem, though little among the clans of Judah, the light has shined around the world to bring people of all nations out of darkness into His marvelous Light.
Leader: Why was He born in Bethlehem?
Family: King David had been born in Bethlehem a thousand years before Jesus, and it had become known as the City of David. God highly honored David by promising him that the Messiah would come from one of his descendants and from the city of Bethlehem. David’s greater son, Jesus, is also a King who reigns over His Kingdom, a Kingdom that has no end.
Leader: What do the Gospels say concerning Bethlehem?
Family: Luke writes, “Now at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken. This census, the first, took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and everyone went to his own town to be registered. So Joseph went out from the town at Nazareth in Galilee and traveled to Judea, to the town of David called Bethlehem since he was of David’s house and line, in order to be registered with Mary his betrothed. While they were there the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.”
- Read aloud Matthew 1:18-2:6
- Read aloud Luther’s sermon on the Nativity of the Lord Jesus. Discuss what you might have done to help poor Mary and Joseph in those difficult times, and ask what you might do today for the Lord Jesus because of His grace poured out in your life.
- Read aloud the history of the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and sing it together as a family.
Closing prayer to be said in unison:
O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Nativity (Martin Luther)
The birth of Christ took place exactly when the Emperor Augustus sent out a decree that all the world should be taxed. This was no accident. The birth of Christ was timed to coincide with the census because God wanted to teach us the duty of obedience even to a heathen government. Had he been born prior to the census, it might have appeared that he was unwilling to be subject to the Roman Empire. At the very first moment of his life, Christ and his parents had to give evidence of obedience, not to God, but to the heathen emperor, the enemy of the Jews. This is the strongest proof that Christ’s Kingdom is to be distinguished from that of the world. Christ did not wish to erect a kingdom like an earthly king, but wished to be subject to a heathen government. Is not this shameful, that Christ should obey a power that his people and his household regarded as an abomination? But Christ obeyed the civil government of the emperor.
The law of the census required that each householder must be present in his hometown at the time of the enrollment. Joseph was of the lineage of David and had to go to Bethlehem, the city of David. Despite his royal ancestry, he was so poor that he had been unable to make a living in Judea and for that reason had transferred to Nazareth. Now he had to go back. Scripture says that he took with him “Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.” She would have had good reason to excuse herself from making the journey so close to her time, but she said nothing because she wished to trouble no one. We can see how poor Joseph must have been that he could not afford to hire some old woman or neighbor to stay with Mary and look after her while he was gone.
How unobtrusively and simply do those events take place on earth that are so heralded in heaven! On earth it happened in this wise: There was a poor young wife, Mary of Nazareth, among the meanest dwellers of the town, so little esteemed that none noticed the great wonder that she carried. She was silent, did not vaunt herself, but served her husband, who had no man or maid. They simply left the house. Perhaps they had a donkey for Mary to ride upon, though the Gospels say nothing about it and we may well believe that she went on foot. Think how she was treated in the inns on the way, she who might well have been taken in a golden carriage, with gorgeous equipage! How many great ladies and their daughters there were at that time, living in luxury, while the mother of God, on foot, in midwinter trudged her weight across the fields! How unequal it all was!
The journey was certainly more than a day from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, which lies on the farther side of Jerusalem. Joseph had thought, “When we get to Bethlehem, we shall be among relatives and can borrow everything.” A fine idea that was! Bad enough that a young bride married only a year could not have had her baby at Nazareth in her own house instead of making all that journey of three days when heavy with child! How much worse that when she arrived there was no room for her! The inn was full. No one would release a room to this pregnant woman. She had to go to a cow stall and there bring forth the Maker of all creatures because nobody would give way.
“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.”
When now they were come to Bethlehem, the Evangelist says that they were, of all, the lowest and the most despised, and must make way for everyone until they were shoved into a stable to make a common lodging and table with the cattle, while many cutthroats lounged like lords in the inn. They did not recognize what God was doing in the stable. With all their eating, drinking, and finery, God left them empty, and this comfort and treasure was hidden from them. Oh, what a dark night it was in Bethlehem that this light should not have been seen. Thus God shows that he has no regard for what the world is and has and does. And the world shows that it does not know or consider what God is and has and does.
Joseph had to do his best, and it may well be that he asked some maid to fetch water or something else, but we do not read that anyone came to help. They heard that a young wife was lying in a cow stall and no one gave heed. Shame on you, wretched Bethlehem! The inn ought to have been burned with brimstone, for even though Mary had been a beggar maid or unwed, anybody at such a time should have been glad to give her a hand.
There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the Baby! I would have washed his linen. How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!” Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.
The birth was still more pitiable. No one regarded this young wife bringing forth her first-born. No one took her condition to heart. No one noticed that in a strange place she had not the very least thing needful in childbirth. There she was without preparation: no light, no fire, in the dead of night, in thick darkness. No one came to give the customary assistance. The guests swarming in the inn were carousing, and no one attended to this woman. I think myself if Joseph and Mary had realized that her time was so close she might perhaps have been left in Nazareth. And now think what she could use for swaddling clothes — some garment she could spare, perhaps her veil.
She “. . .wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.” Why not in a cradle, on a bench, or on the ground? Because they had no cradle, bench, table, board, nor anything whatever except the Nativity manger of the oxen. That was the first throne of this King. There in a stable, without man or maid, lay the Creator of all the world. And there was the maid of fifteen years bringing forth her first-born without water, fire, light, or pan, a sight for tears! What Mary and Joseph did next, nobody knows. The scholars say they adored. They must have marveled that this Child was the Son of God. He was also a real human being. Those who say that Mary was not a real mother lose all the joy. He was a true Baby, with flesh, blood, hands and legs. He slept, cried, and did everything else that a baby does only without sin.
Think, women, there was no one there to bathe the Baby. No warm water, nor even cold. No fire, no light. The mother was herself midwife and the maid. The cold manger was the bed and the bathtub. Who showed the poor girl what to do? She had never had a baby before. I am amazed that the little one did not freeze. Do not make of Mary a stone. It must have gone straight to her heart that she was so abandoned. She was flesh and blood, and must have felt miserable, and Joseph too, that she was left in this way, all alone, with no one to help, in a strange land in the middle of winter. Her eyes were moist even though she was happy, and aware that the Baby was God’s Son and the Savior of the world. She was not stone. For the higher people are in the favor of God, the more tender are they.
Mary was not only holy. She was also the mother of the Lord. With trembling and reverence, before nestling him to herself, she laid him down, because her faith said to her, “He will be ‘the Son of the Highest.’ ” No one else on earth had this faith, not even Joseph, for although he had been informed by the angel the word did not go to his heart as to the heart of Mary, the mother.
Let us, then, meditate upon the Nativity just as we see it happening in our own babies. I would not have you contemplate the deity of Christ, the majesty of Christ, but rather his flesh. Look upon the Baby Jesus. Divinity may terrify man. Inexpressible majesty will crush him. That is why Christ took on our humanity, save for sin, that he should not terrify us but rather that with love and favor he should console and confirm.
Behold Christ lying in the lap of his young mother, still a virgin. What can be sweeter than the Babe, what more lovely than the mother! What fairer than her youth! What more gracious than her virginity! Look at the Child, knowing nothing. Yet all that is belongs to him, that your conscience should not fear but take comfort in him. Doubt nothing. Watch him springing in the lap of the maiden. Laugh with him. Look upon this Lord of Peace and your spirit will be at peace. See how God invites you in many ways. He places before you a Babe with whom you may take refuge. You cannot fear him, for nothing is more appealing to man than a babe. Are you affrighted? Then come to him, lying in the lap of the fairest and sweetest maid. You will see how great is the divine goodness, which seeks above all else that you should not despair. Trust him! Trust him! Here is the Child in whom is salvation. To me there is no greater consolation given to mankind than this, that Christ became man, a child, a babe, playing in the lap and at the breasts of his most gracious mother. Who is there whom this sight would not comfort? Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem”
During a trip to the Holy Land in 1865, a young minister from Philadelphia, on a year’s leave of absence from his pulpit, had the occasion to visit Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Philip Brooks had ridden by horse the few miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and had gone out into the shepherd’s fields where the angels had announced the birth of the Savior. From there he returned to Bethlehem to worship in the ancient church built upon the traditional site of the birth of Jesus. He was deeply moved by this entire experience. Three years later, now back at the church in Philadelphia, he was determined to write a carol for the children of his church. Recalling the peaceful visit and worship experience in Bethlehem, Brooks completed the writing of the stanzas in just one evening.
Philip Brooks gave the words to his organist, Lewis Redner, and asked him to compose the music. On the evening before the carol was to be sung in a Christmas program, Redner suddenly awoke from his sleep with the tune in his mind. He quickly wrote it out and prepared it for the program the next day. Since that time this carol has been a particular favorite with children because of its peaceful recollection of “how silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” Although Brooks wrote a number of other Christmas and Easter carols especially for children, this is the only one that has survived the test of time.