The Bethlehem Candle
Words by Lindsay Cournia // Images by Annetta Bosakova
Sometimes, Advent is agony.
Advent is the season of preparation, of expectation and waiting, but it is not always hot chocolate by the fire, with soft carols and a shining tree in the background. More often, it is the groaning of the whole of creation and humanity, yearning for redemption and renewal (Rom. 8:22–23).
Last week, we lit the first Advent candle—the candle of prophecy—and remembered the promises God has sown throughout Scripture—both the promises fulfilled and those whose fulfillment is yet to come. This week we light the second candle and look toward Bethlehem, that tiny town resting in Jerusalem’s shadow where the world’s agony was pierced with hope as God drew his first human breath.
When David was anointed king of Israel, God made a covenant with him to establish David’s throne forever (2 Sam. 7:12–13, 16). Throughout the Old Testament we see confirmation of this promise that the Messiah would be of the kingly line of David (Ps. 89:34–37) of the mighty tribe of Judah (Matt. 1, Gen. 49:10), and born in David’s humble hometown: Bethlehem.
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.” (Micah 5:2–5a)
But David’s earthly throne didn’t last. God’s people were divided, conquered, dispersed. And then God was silent for 400 years before he wielded the heart of an emperor to demand a census of the world, bringing Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem in time for the birth of Christ (Luke 2:1–7).
It would have seemed more fitting for the King of Kings to be born in Jerusalem, or at the very least, into a setting more serene and orderly than a bustling, overcrowded little town in the midst of a worldwide census. Bethlehem was insignificant, and ill suited for such an honor. Why would the long-awaited Redeemer come under such imperfect circumstances?
“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hid their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:2–3)
Jesus’ first coming was not for a royal reign (that part comes later). It was not for earthly triumph or status or rule. The Uncreated One took on our nature to make himself lowly—not the pinnacle of humanity, but the drudges. A humble birth was the necessary beginning of his becoming our sin, taking our judgment, and erasing our guilt (2 Cor. 5:21, Heb. 2:14–15).
Christ didn’t choose a comfortable and well-appointed setting for his arrival, just as he doesn’t choose to make his dwelling in us because we are well suited for it, with everything in perfect order. That’s why we so desperately need him—we are as unfit as Bethlehem was to welcome the Savior. And yet he came.
But if Christ has already come to bear our sin and make his home in our Bethlehem hearts, why does creation still groan in the agony? Why do we still wait with keen expectation?
Because our waiting isn’t over! Christ has come to redeem, and will return to restore. The Latin adventus means “coming,” and that is just what we’re waiting for: King Jesus, who came once, will come again one day, turning our agony to joy and our expectation to celebration.
“[Christ Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:6–11)