Come to Bethlehem

by Peter Gregory

We love the old familiar Christmas carols, don’t we? The season just wouldn’t be the same without them. Whether heard on the radio or played on CD, rung by church bells or sung by children, they’re the sound of Christmas. And that’s true not only for us Christians. Even the un-churched, the de-churched and the “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) are likely to be familiar with many of them. In the Advent and Christmas seasons, singing carols is one of the simplest and easiest ways to reach out with the good news that Jesus Christ has come. So gather a few of your friends from church, go door-to-door in your neighborhood and sing joy to the world. If the calendar’s already full this year, put a note on next year’s.

Christmas carols invite us to join in the celebration of our Savior’s birth. Consider the words from two of the old familiar tunes. In “Angels We Have Heard on High,” we sing, “Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth the angels sing; Come, adore on bended knee Christ the Lord, the newborn King” (LSB 368:3). In “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” the invitation is all over the place, starting with the first stanza: “O come, all ye faithful, Joyful and triumphant! O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem” (LSB 379:1).

Come to Bethlehem, the carols say. But of course we can’t. Not really. And even if we could come there, what good would it be now? After all, the manger is gone and the child is grown. Bethlehem may be an interesting place—I would love to visit it—but being there wouldn’t actually bring us any closer to our dear Lord Jesus. So what do these carols mean? Where is Bethlehem for us? In what manger will we find the Christ? By which swaddling clothes is He now wrapped that we may know Him and come to Him?

Our Bethlehem is the Scriptures. Consider what Martin Luther had to say about the Old Testament: “Think of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines which can never be sufficiently explored. . . . Here you will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds. Simple and lowly are these swaddling cloths, but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them” (Luther’s Works 35:236).

The world may not get too excited about God’s Word, but we know that Jesus, our Savior, is swaddled there. That’s where we now seek Him and where we’ll find Him. So the Christmas carols invite us—and through them we invite others—to the place where Jesus is sure to be found: in His Word read and preached, the Word with water, bread, and wine, the Word sung by choirs and children. Yes, Jesus is really present right in our own churches. So come to this Bethlehem and join in celebrating the birth of our Savior, not only at Christmas but all year long.

The Rev. Peter Gregory is associate pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, Ind.

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