O little town of Bethlehem

Some of the best-known hymns are Christmas carols. Familiar words express the wonder of the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son, and all that his coming brings to people still today. In 1868 Phillips Brooks, the rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, wrote “O little town of Bethlehem” after visiting the Holy Land and seeing Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine at night. He reflected that when Jesus was born in that little town many people were unaware of it. Yet Jesus had come to fulfil their greatest hopes and still their greatest fears. Our deepest needs are the same as theirs, and Jesus meets those needs.

“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. O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth; for Christ is born of Mary; and, gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.”

In Jesus, God drew near to our needy world. He is the greatest gift that has ever been given. Just as he was born quietly in Bethlehem so, over the years, he has gently drawn near to countless people of all nations who have received him as Saviour and Lord. “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.”

Christmas is a busy time with so much to do. Some will rejoice with their families, others may be on their own and feel sad that those they loved are no longer with them. Whatever our situation we, like Phillips Brooks, can take time to reflect on the birth of Jesus so long ago in Bethlehem. The child who was born is an eternal person whom we can still encounter today when we pray that he will draw near to us and be with us. “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in; be born to us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

Asking the big questions

In December 2015, Major Tim Peake became the first British European Space Agency astronaut to visit the International Space Station. In a recent interview, he said that one of the things he misses most is seeing his home planet from space. He said, “I might see a picture of a spacecraft and suddenly it takes me right back to being on board the space station and looking out at the universe. You do have to kind of pinch yourself and say, ‘Yes, I was up there, looking back at Earth’. It’s mesmerizing; it’s constantly changing, every time you look out of the window you see a different part of the world. You might be at a night part of the orbit looking at thunderstorms or the aurora; you might be in a day time looking at volcanoes erupting and glaciers and lakes, so it’s just stunning both by day and by night.”

Tim has started a new role as an official UK Scout Association ambassador. He said, “As a cub scout I remember going out on those early night hikes and first sleepovers in the outdoors. Sleeping under the stars and looking up is when the big questions come out: What’s out there? How did life begin? Where is it all going?” These are the big questions for us all.

Johannes Kepler was an eminent scientist and a Christian. He developed a love for astronomy at an early age. In 1577, when he was six, he observed the Great Comet and in 1580 the Lunar Eclipse. Kepler is best known for discovering the three mathematical laws of planetary motion. He also discovered the elliptical patterns in which the planets travel around the sun. As he studied the universe Kepler said, “O God, I am thinking your thoughts after you.”

The heavens bear eloquent testimony to God. He created all things, guides history, and knows every one of us intimately. In Psalm 8 the psalmist says, “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory is higher than the heavens. When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers – the moon and the stars you set in place – what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? Yet you made them only a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honour. You gave them charge of everything you made, putting all things under their authority.”

I know who holds the future

Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve clocks in countries using Greenwich Mean Time were adjusted as one second was added to 2016. This was done to compensate for a slight slowdown in the Earth’s rotation caused by a small wobble in the Earth’s rotation. The National Physical Laboratory, which is responsible for the UK’s national time scale, uses an atomic clock to provide a stable and continuous timescale. This is the 27th time a leap second has been added.

We live in an amazing universe that is wonderfully stable and predictable. It’s hard to believe it all came into existence by chance. The book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, begins with a majestic account of God creating the heavens and the earth in six days, or rotations of the earth on its axis. On the fourth day God said, “Let lights appear in the sky to separate the day from the night. Let them be signs to mark the seasons, days, and years. Let these lights in the sky shine down on the earth.”

Recognising there is a Creator provides stability and hope for our lives as a New Year begins. Many years ago a young man we knew died in road accident. Just after Christmas he was on his way to work when his car hit ice and he lost control. The car hit a tree and David was very seriously injured. After some days in intensive care he died. His wife, Brenda, was a Christian. In her deep sadness she found strength in God and hope as she faced the future. This hope was expressed in the words of one of the hymns we sang at David’s funeral. They speak to us all as we enter this New Year.

“I do not know what lies ahead, the way I cannot see, but One stands near to be my guide, He’ll show the way to me. I do not know how many days of life are mine to spend, but One who knows and cares for me will keep me to the end. I do not know the course ahead, what joys and griefs are there, but One stands near who fully knows, I’ll trust his loving care. I know who holds the future and He’ll guide me with his hand, with God things don’t just happen, everything by Him is planned. So as I face tomorrow, with its problems large and small, I’ll trust the God of miracles, give to Him my all.”

Open my eyes that I may see

It is always encouraging to read a good news story. Mary Ann Franco lost her sight in 1995 as a result of spinal injuries following a car accident. Recently she fell down stairs and had to have emergency surgery on her spine in a Florida hospital to relieve severe pain in her neck and arms. When she came round after the operation she realised that her sight had returned. Even her childhood colour-blindness had disappeared. The doctors who operated on her are unable to explain the cause of her regaining her sight.

Mary Ann is very happy that, at the age of 70, she can see the sun and the sky and birds and animals again. She said, “In the mornings, I get up, and I look out and the sun is coming through the trees, and the beams are coming down. Oh it’s so wonderful to see.” She is also overjoyed that she can see her 7 grandchildren, and her 2 great grandchildren for the first time. She believes the restoration of her sight is a gift from God. “I believe he just went ahead and gave it to me,” she said. “I really believe this with all my heart.”

Sight is a great blessing. It is wonderful to see the splendour of the natural world around us. At this time of year nature is coming to life again. The spring flowers, blossoms and new leaves are beautiful. God reveals himself to us in the book of his works. Carl Gustaf Boberg’s hymn “How great Thou art” is a response to God’s revelation in his creation. “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds thy hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed. When through the woods, and forest glades I wander, and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees. When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur and see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze. Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee, How great Thou art, How great Thou art.”

We also need spiritual sight to see all that God has revealed about himself in his Word, the Bible. In Psalm 119 the psalmist prays, “Open my eyes to see the wonderful truths in your instructions.” Around the world today people will open their Bibles and pray that, as they read, God will give them understanding and teach them his truth. It is a prayer he loves to answer.