Fintry Church and Balfron Church

Rev. Sigrid Marten

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie?”

This is the time of year when Bethlehem is on our mind more than usual. We remember how in the “little town of Bethlehem” something very special started, the story of the Incarnation, of the Word of God’s love becoming flesh. I think about this carol quite often because it reminds me of my visit there some 18 years ago as part of a Church of Scotland group, seeking to listen to different voices in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Somehow, it seems almost impossible for us to imagine how the Prince of Peace could have been born in a place that today is so torn by conflict and human suffering. But then, it wasn’t exactly peaceful in the days of the Roman Empire either. Occupation and oppression, corruption and desperate retaliation were the order of the day in Christ’s day as much as they are now.

So, what does it mean when we sing about this place of all places that, “...the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight...”? – Well, for me the historical reality of Bethlehem, the fact that it was not removed from the pain and the strife of the rest of the world, makes our claim much more convincing that in Jesus Christ God enters into our life in all its messiness, that our God is not removed from the world, but that the Creator of all life is ever-present in his creation.

Those “hopes and fears” are just as real today as they were some 2000 years ago, or even when the carol was written in the middle of the 19th century. Somehow, this phrase seems a good way to sum up much of our human condition: hopes and fears. So much we hope for, so much we set out to achieve, so much we long for and seek to hold on to; and if we are not careful, so much of our life ends up being ruled by our fear, fear of each other, fear of loneliness, fear of loss.

Ever since I first sang this carol when I came to Scotland, this line has made me gulp inwardly, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”. It sounds wonderful. Finally, here is the promise of a place where all our longing is met, all our dreams fulfilled, all our anxieties wiped away.

If only we could learn to trust that all that we can ever hope for, all that we are so afraid of, can be met in that vulnerable Christ-child which was born in a stable in the obscure town of Bethlehem! If only we would turn to him with those hopes and fears! If only we trusted our God with all the muddle and ambiguity that is our life and let God turn it into new life in all its fullness! It is not always easy, trusting, especially if we have had experiences in life that have made us suspicious and fearful. But, in my experience, this is worth working at: putting our trust in the God of Jesus Christ, because God will never let us down.
At this time of the year we remember that one of the names of Jesus is Immanuel, which means “God with us”. This is what we learn from the story of the birth of Jesus Christ: God is not against us, judging us, pushing us away; nor is God remote and far away, keeping a safe distance. We believe that God is with us wherever we are, whatever we may be going through, ready with open arms to hold us and to keep us safe. In Christ he enters into our lives and offers to redeem us, to set us free from all that hurts and harms us. This is the Good News we remember especially at Christmas time, but thankfully this is true all year round -  forever even.

So, this Christmas, as well as in the weeks and months ahead, may we be able to turn to Christ with all those hopes and fears and join in the words of the carol, “... O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel”.

With many blessings for Christmas and the New Year,


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