Advent begins four weeks before Christmas, well after stores light their aisles with LED reindeer and fill the air with the canned smells of cinnamon and evergreen. Advent comes after Thanksgiving (or is it “Gray Thursday”?) and Black Friday. For the month of December, our culture keeps time differently than the church does.
Advertisers would have us speed through these weeks, preparing our homes for family and our cluttered shelves for trinkets we didn’t know we needed, but Advent allows us to meditate on the gift we have already received: the Word who spoke the world into being and then humbled himself so that he became a helpless, squalling part of it. Advent brings a different sort of anticipation, one that has built slowly from the time God said “Let there be light” and light appeared (Gen. 1:3) and that continues to build as we look forward to the day when the one who said “Surely I am coming soon” will come (Rev. 22:20) and Scripture’s remaining promises will be fulfilled.
Churches observe Advent in a variety of ways, but one tradition that seems to reach across denominations, sitting as comfortably on a kitchen table as it does on a church’s altar, is the Advent wreath. You’ve seen it: a simple evergreen wreath, laid flat and adorned with five candles (usually white, but sometimes purple, red, or rose-colored). During the four weeks of Advent, we’ll examine the significance of each of those candles, beginning with the first one, which is often called the Candle of Prophecy.
Jesus’ birth in the manger was not a sudden impulse of God’s. He did not decide, on a whim, to send his Son to earth, but laid the ground for his coming painstakingly, over the course of thousands of years. Like a skilled author, God foreshadowed Christ’s coming through promises, covenants, and prophets, so those with eyes to see might recognize, in that one small child, the beginning of the end of God’s enemy—the first stitches in the mending of our broken world. As we light the first candle of Advent, we look back at the long history between the Lord and his people, the Israelites, as he prepared them for the coming of his Son.
Only one generation into our human history, we fell. When Adam and Eve believed the serpent’s lies over the promises of God, sin established itself in their hearts and ensured that every person born after them would be born damaged: every one of us, the people God created to love and enjoy him, would reject our Creator.
But rather than destroy us outright, the Lord pursued us. Even as he banished Adam and Eve from the garden, he promised that one of their offspring would rise up and strike the serpent that deceived them, undoing his work and freeing them from sin (Gen. 3:15). This was the first of many promises that the Lord embedded throughout Scripture, each of them pointing toward a time when sin would be defeated and his people redeemed.
The Lord gave the Law to Moses—a law that trained the Israelites to live as a holy people before God and set up a pattern of repentance and atonement for sin—but he also promised the Israelites that one day he would establish a new covenant with them, writing his law on their hearts and setting them apart, in a new and better way, as his people. “I will forgive their iniquity,” he promised, “and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:31–34).
When Israel defied the Lord and turned to worship other gods, the Lord sent prophets to warn them that, as a consequence to their sin, he would send them into captivity under the very nations whose gods they had worshipped (Zech. 7:11–14). But those same prophets also brought the good news that Israel’s captivity would not last forever: “For thus says the Lord: ‘You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money’” (Isa. 52:3).
People sometimes object to the Old Testament, claiming that the God depicted in its pages is harsh and unloving—even unjust. But the God who condemned sin through the Law is the same God who repeatedly gave his people reason to hope that sin would not endure in them forever. There is a just penalty for sin, he says through the prophets, and he will be the one to pay it (Zech. 9:9–13).
He told them what the Messiah, their rescuer, would look like (Isa. 53:1–3). God told them what he would do (Mal. 3:1–4), and how he would live (Isa. 53:4–13). But when he came, as an infant, there were few that recognized him as the one sent to pay that penalty. It was only after the prophecies were fulfilled, after Jesus died and rose from the dead, that many more came to understand who he was and what he had done (Luke 24:15–31).
But we, living after his coming, still live in anticipation. Throughout the New Testament, new promises are sown: that Jesus will return (Heb. 9:28), that he will make all things right, that he will dwell among those who loved him in a new and perfect land (Rev. 21:1–4). The last chapter of the Bible contains one of the most beautiful promises in all of Scripture: “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him” (Rev. 22:3).
We do not wait in darkness for a light to shine, as the Israelites lived before Christ’s coming (Isa. 9:2). The light shines on us (1 Thess. 5:4–5), in us (2 Cor. 4:6), and through us (Matt. 5:14–16). We have been given a glimpse of the story’s end, and we live in hope of the day that Christ will return. As we light our Advent candles this week let us look not only back toward the baby in the manger, but forward, toward the reigning king come to establish his kingdom once and for all. Come, Lord Jesus!
“Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst,
you shall never again fear evil.
On that day it shall be said in Jerusalem:
‘Fear not, O Zion;
let not your hands grow weak.
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.’”
To read the next post in our advent series on the Bethlehem Candle, click here.
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