How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.
Phillips Brooks, O Little Town of Bethlehem
These words are, in my estimation, some of the most attractive in all the carols of Christmas. The poetry itself is elegant (did you notice more than one rhyme scheme?). And Lewis Redner’s famous tune backs the words marvelously. And, most of all, the theology is grand as well! For, says Brooks, just in the same way that Jesus came into the world in relative silence, so He enters many a heart in much the same way! And that is worth our pondering for a few moments this Christmas season.
Now, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that that famous stable in Bethlehem was not literally silent on that first Christmas night. I have six-fold experience that tells me childbirth is not quite like a gentle stroll through the freshly fallen snow! There is some little commotion, isn’t there? And, of course, there was a choir of angels singing out in the nearby fields that holy night, too! So Jesus didn’t literally come into the world in absolute silence. But I think the sense of Brooks’ words is that it was a relatively peaceful and secluded scene that night in Bethlehem. Yes, the magi would eventually bring a regal procession to the scene. But that first night, it was just a poor young couple, and their little son, and a few shepherds quietly enjoying God’s gift. Not much hubbub, outside the angel songs out in the fields. No great human announcements, pronouncements, or crowds (as when a British Royal finds herself, even in the throes of labor, followed by the paparazzi all the way to the door of the hospital). Not much that would indicate, to a passerby, that this was anything but a sweet little no-name couple, cuddling their firstborn son. As far as the world stage was concerned, this King came into the world rather “silently.”
And “so” (or, in the same way), says Brooks, God also sends His Son and His salvation into the dark nights of our hearts. It’s true that, sometimes, God engages in His saving work as with “a noise like a violent rushing wind.” Sometimes, for His glory, God converts people to Christ in very public and noisy ways (as with the demoniac in Mark 5, for instance). But very often, too, Christ enters the souls of sinners relatively quietly, as with “a sound of a gentle blowing” (think of Lydia in Acts 16). Or sometimes God imparts Christ and heaven to human hearts with what one church calls ‘gospel + safety + time.’ That is to say that, as the good news is proclaimed, and as sinners are loved (rather than condemned) by those who seek to win them, and as God gives time for these things to marinate, Christ enters many hearts … gently, quietly, almost silently. The changes will eventually be obvious, to be sure! But, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, they may appear on the horizon of the soul something like the gentle rising of the sun, rather than like a lightning bolt. “No ear may hear His coming.” And eyes may at first have trouble perceiving exactly what God is doing in a given soul. But He is doing it just the same, just as He was in that relatively obscure and quiet stable in Bethlehem!
Do we, therefore, discount the lightning bolt conversions? No! On the contrary, we pray for them! And we continue to urge people to repentance and faith with urgency, because we do not know how much time any given person may have before it is forever too late for turning to Christ! And yet we also realize that God does know the timing, and that He chooses to bring many people to Christ slowly, quietly, patiently, and often (as with His Son in Bethlehem) without some of the fanfare that we might have expected if we were writing the script. And therefore we do not grow discouraged (and we keep on working, praying, and believing) even when ‘all is quiet.’ It was quiet in Bethlehem 2000 years ago … and yet God was working the greatest work that ever was wrought! And He continues to gather its fruit even to this day. “No ear may hear His coming, but in the world of Sin, where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.”