The Mississippi Baptist Foundation  |  est. 1943  |  Psalm 24:1
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      Phillips Brooks, a well-known and respected Episcopal preacher in the mid-19th century, served churches primarily in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. With his impressive physical stature (Brooks stood 6’4” and weighed 300 pounds) and oratory prowess, Brooks held the attention of his congregants who eagerly learned and responded whenever he stood in the pulpit and proclaimed biblical truth.     
      On the occasion of a trip to the Holy Land in 1865, Brooks attended a Christmas Eve service at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. Needing a song for a children’s service a few years later at his church in Philadelphia, Brooks decided to write a new song himself. Reflecting on his experience in the Holy Land, Brooks penned the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
      The second candle on the advent wreath is often referred to as the Bethlehem Candle. This candle not only commemorates the birthplace of the promised Messiah (Micah 5:2), but the focus on Bethlehem also underscores the journey of Mary and Joseph to the city of David. As such, this candle highlights (1) a small and insignificant town (especially when compared to a city like Jerusalem) (2) to which a young couple traveled at an inconvenient time in their lives (Mary was “great with child.”), (3) while on a journey pursued not by personal choice but established by executive order of the emperor.     
      Some traditions associate the Bethlehem Candle with the Christian virtue of faith while others employ this second candle of advent to emphasize love. I would submit that both of these virtues are evident through the faith of Mary and Joseph and the love of God for the world. God loved the world and sent his son, Jesus, as the expected deliverer foretold by the prophets. Mary and Joseph displayed faith as they lived with the expectation that God would:
  • Prove His Promise – In addition to the divine promise prophesied centuries earlier, renewed expectations of God’s promised Messiah came courtesy of a heavenly messenger to both Joseph and Mary (Matthew 1:20-21; Luke 1:26-38). Joseph responded in faith and “did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (Matthew 1:24) while Mary’s reply to Gabriel expressed the depth of her humility and faith [“I am the Lord’s servant…may it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38)]. These words by Mary unmistakably stress the fact that every thread of her life from that point forward would be intricately woven into fabric and fulfillment of divine prophecy. After all, the prophetic message outlined how a Jew, from the tribe of Judah, and the house of David would be born in Bethlehem and become the Savior of the world. And, “all of this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophets” (Matthew 1:22).
  • Provide a Path – Luke presented the birth of Jesus within the general context of history by referencing two specific political leaders, namely, the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus and Quirinius, the governor of Syria (Luke 2:1). A decree was issued by the emperor that all citizens under Roman rule must be counted for the likely purpose of extracting taxes from the citizenry. In order to comply with this edict, Joseph “went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David because he belonged to the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4)
      Of interest (and perhaps fraught with irony) is the fact that governmental red tape provided the path for  
    Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem. The emperor had no idea that he was involved as a willing participant
    in God’s divine plan. In addition, only males were required to register so Mary was under no legal obligation
    to accompany Joseph. Nonetheless, Mary was present in order that prophecy might be fulfilled. And, while
    these soon-to-be parents did not comprehend fully what was transpiring in and through their lives, they had
    faith that God would provide a path for them.
  • Prepare a Place“…and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in a manger…” (Luke 2:6-7). I am reminded of the wisdom captured on a church marquee which proclaimed to passers-by, “The manger was the first ‘King-sized’ bed.” Finding no available or adequate space to house their growing family, Mary and Joseph found shelter in a place likely used for domestic animals. Whether the manger was located in a barn-type structure or a recessed, cave-like area chiseled by hand or occurring naturally in a wall of rock, God prepared a place. While certainly deemed less than ideal or suitable by most parents, use of the manger demonstrates an unswerving faith in God to prove his promise, prepare a path, and provide a place for Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). As such, the place that God prepared was heralded by the angel of the Lord to some shepherds living and working in nearby fields as a sign: “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).
      Micah informs us that Bethlehem was the smallest clan within Judah. If “judging a book by its cover,” Bethlehem would be viewed as an insignificant town located not far from the much more important city of Jerusalem. God, however, did not choose Jerusalem or any other significant location to introduce to the world the one who “will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD” (Micah 5:4). Rather, God selected the town of David for the “Savior…born to you” who will bear the name “…Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Luke 2:11; Matthew 1:21).     
      The fact that the One who came to change the world was born in the little town of Bethlehem both informs and reminds us that God loves the world and values everyone regardless of the level of significance or insignificance that may be assigned by our sinful society. “While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wond’ring love” as “God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heav’n…(for) …in this world of sin…the dear Christ enters in.” The last verse of Phillips Brooks’ great Christmas hymn expresses both the need and desire for the saving and abiding presence of Jesus, the Savior of the world.


                                                O holy Child of Bethlehem! Descend to us, we pray;

                                                Cast out our sin, and enter in; Be born in us today.

                                                We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell;

                                                O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.


Dear Heavenly Father, Thank you for proving your promise, providing a path, and preparing a place for the entrance of Jesus into our dark and sinful world. Thank you for the faith of Mary and Joseph. Thank you for the lessons that we can learn from the manner in which this humble young couple trusted you in the midst of challenging circumstances that many, if not most, would consider too outlandish to be true. Sadly, most folks yet today consider the birth of your son, God incarnate, the Savior of world to be little more than myth or folklore. May we “the great glad tidings tell” to those who walk in darkness. Thank you for loving us in spite of ourselves and for giving us the gift of your abiding presence, Our Lord, Emmanuel! Amen.