The Story Behind the Song


The "Story Behind the Song" was a regular feature as Casey Kasem counted down pop music in the 70s and 80s, and for awhile here in Austin on KVET. After listening to hundreds of them, a common trope is: "And in 5 minutes, he, she, they wrote these hit lyrics or tune." The story behind "O Little Town of Bethlehem" has something like this. It was written by an Episcopal priest after he traveled to Bethlehem on horseback in 1868. He wrote it for a Sunday School service asking his organist to write a tune. He procrastinated till the prior Saturday. He reports, "'I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it'' ( That right there is enough to make a Confessional Lutheran suspect it, but that's not all. It's sung to a different tune across the Atlantic which you'll hear as the Offertory. That's the story behind the song, but the story behind the Son is even better.

The story behind the Son begins in the OT. Micah says that the Ruler of God's Israel, the Church, "origins are from of old from ancient of times." This has been understood 3 ways: 1) It refers to the Son's generation by the Father in eternity. 2) To the human origins of Jesus descended from the patriarchs. 3) To the Angel of the Lord, the preincarnate Christ, appearing in the OT (EHV, p. 1388, fn. c2). And you know what the Confessional Lutheran answer is? "Yes."

Yes, the Christ is the eternally begotten Son of the Father. Yes, He is descended from all the muscle and blood and the dust and the mud that you read in your OT: from adulteries, fornications, incest, prostitutes and worse: idolators. The long list of names Mt. 1 and Lk. 3 have are Jesus' ancestors according to the flesh. The entrance porches to Gothic cathedrals have these people chiseled into the pointed arch you walk under (Mosebach, Heresy of Formlessness, 138, in 20091225). The Promised Seed, Jesus, got to us by descending through all these. And, yes, He is the Angel of the Lord that rescues His people from Egypt and goes before them in the wilderness, who wrestles with Jacob at the fords of the Jabbok and appears to Samson's parents.

This One whose "origins are from of old, from ancient times" will come out of Bethlehem. Though too little to be even counted among the clans of Judah, nevertheless from the little town of Bethlehem will come the Ruler over God's Israel. Bethlehem means "House of Bread". Out of the House of Bread will come the One who declares, "'I am the Bread of life. He who comes to Me will never go hungry'" (Jn. 6:35). We who are condemned through Adam to eat our bread by the sweat of our brow, are to find in the House of Bread, Bethlehem, the Bread of life everlasting free for the eating. It's almost like God had this all planned!

You'll really believe that when you see how the story behind the Son continues into the NT. Who but Mary does Micah speak of 700 years before her time when he says, "Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth"? Go online. Google events of 1321 see if you recognize one, remember one, ever heard of even one of them. Who's birth labor matters enough to be recorded 700 years in advance? The One giving birth to the Man who is God. Isaiah, a contemporary of Micah, predicts, "Behold a virgin will conceive and give birth." This is the same Hebrew word Micah uses "who is in labor gives birth." They both see the same event. Just so you don't miss what the Lord reveals to Isaiah and Micah in the OT, He has Matthew record it as fulfilled in the New: "This took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a Son, and they will call Him Immanuel'...'God with us'" (Mat. 1:22-23).

So the story of the Son that began before eternity continues in time, born of a Virgin, the Babe of Bethlehem. Yet, "He will stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of Yahweh." You know who this is. Yahweh, Jehovah, "I am that I am." The One who makes mountains tremble and skip. The One who commands lightening bolts and hurricanes. The One whom if you saw in His unveiled glory would melt your eyes and pee your pants. The One predicted to crush the head of that serpent Satan already in Eden. Where do you think the legend of Hercules strangling 2 serpents sent by his jealous stepmother Juno comes from? Charles Wesley wrote in a hymn: "Those infant hands. Shall burst our bands, And work out our salvation;. Strangle the crooked serpent, Destroy his works for ever" ("Join All Ye Nations").

The NT tells the story of this Son. He crushes the head of the serpent by keeping the Law, both sides of the ledger, accounts receivable and payable. He took on our flesh and blood to take on the requirements of God's Laws. As True Man, He obligated Himself to fear, love and trust in God above all things; to never misuse the name of God; to gladly hear the Word of God and keep it. Have you ever gone one day doing all three? Doing even one? And let's not even bring up the Second Table of the Law where our sins of the flesh run rampant if not in deed, then in word, and most certainly in thought. Yet, Jesus, true God, as a Man kept all of that side of the ledger too. He kept all of God's Law's, not using the strength or majesty of Yahweh but as 'just a Man' like you. Yahweh showed His true strength in humbling Himself to keep the obligation side of the ledger and then to pay the debt side. Nothing less than earthly suffering and eternal damning would satisfy God's wrath against sins and sinners. That's the story of the Son celebrated in Lent and Easter, but it's in the background even now. Remember when not even 2 months old Simeon will speak of the unspeakable suffering Jesus will endure.

And all of this comfort is summed up in the "majesty of the name of the Lord His God." From Masonic Lodges, to Argentinian author Juan Louis Borges, to Leonard Cohen there is a fixation on the Name, one Name that can turn the world upside down, is all powerful, and to hear is to drive insane. In the Majesty of the Name of Yahweh: the gates of heaven do open sesame. Jesus just says His name in Gethsemane, "I Am", and all of His enemies fall down. Baptism places you into that Name. I send your sins away from you in this Name. In His name He commands you, "Eat My Body; Drink My blood and live forever."

Got ahead of myself. The story behind the Son began in the OT, continued in the New, and is sung today. I'm talking about today when politics has us agitated and afraid, when we don't know whether to fear a pandemic or the medicine that is said to cure it, when everyone is suppose to be woke to the sacredness of all life except for that of the unborn human. The song of the Son is for singing today. Micah tells us this. In his day N. Israel is about to fall. Judea is threatened. According to Luther, Israel and Judah are going to pieces even as Micah writes. (LW, 35, 324). It was a time of "deep degradation" for the OT Church. Then skip to the NT. When the Virgin goes into labor the NT Church is abandoned with a descendent of Esau ruling over them under the pompous name of Herod the Great. No wonder when the Christ arrives you only find faith among dirty shepherds, foreign Magi, and old Simeon and Anna. Sound familiar? Talk radio, left and right, gives the impression that not the world but the US is going to pieces. But we've been crumbling for over 50 years and the demolition accelerated when we made not only children, but gender and marriage a matter of choice. How dark the day. How darker still the night.

Yet, Luther continues: "Even though Israel and Judah have to go to pieces, Christ will yet come and make all things good" (Ibid., 324). When she who is in labor gives birth, then the rest of His brothers return to the Church. That's what Micah says in the OT and what we see happen in the New. After resurrection, Jesus sends for those who denied Him, abandoned Him, sinned so grievously against Him with the words, "Go tell My brothers." That's us. Sinners, deniers, cowards, we're brothers. The Lord doesn't call us this reluctantly, hesitantly, but joyfully. The joy that was set before Jesus for which He could endure the hell of the cross, was the joy of being able to look you in the eye, just as you are without one plea and say: "I'm still your Brother. Come home."

Go home and continue reading Micah 5 verse 5. We are promised by the Good shepherd, the One who has the Strength of Yahweh and the Name of Yahweh, the One who causes us to live securely, we are promised that we can sing even this Christmas: "He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found,...He rules the world with truth and grace". We can sing this song today because Micah 5:5 the verse after our text says, "This One is our Peace." Out there is war. War against the unborn, war against marriage, war against male and female, war against God and His Christ. In here is peace not just for in here but especially for out there. From the Communion Rail to the Nunc Dimittis, to the Benediction what are you told? No matter what you face, what illness, what sinfulness, what fearfulness, you are told, "Depart in peace." You can, you must, you shall because in the Son promised by Micah, birthed by Mary, you see with your own eyes the Lord's Salvation.

This brings up one weakness with our song of Bethlehem. It's in the line, "Cast out our sin And enter in, Be born in us today." This hymn reflects the 17th century, pietistic notion: "Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem - but all in vain until He is born in me." (Angelus Silesius). Protestants, mystics, and Pentecostals agree. But the real truth is that Christ could be born a 1,000 times in you and it would be useless unless He had really been born in flesh and blood of a virgin in a backwater town named Bethlehem. That's the story behind the Son to be proclaimed for the song of salvation to go on. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Fourth Sunday in Advent (20211219); Micah 5:2-4