(a sermon for November 29, 2015, the First Sunday of Advent; first of a series, based on Isaiah 9:6 and Hebrews 4:14-16)
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6
It was four o’clock in the morning when the phone rang; and you know that when the phone rings at that time of the night, the news is never good! And yet, when I sleepily picked up the receiver and mumbled “hello,” the voice on the other end was bright and happy and disgustingly jovial! “Hey, there, buddy, how ya doin’?”
Even in my fog, I immediately recognized the voice, although it was one I hadn’t heard in a number of years: it belonged to an old friend of mine from high school, who we’ll call “Joe.” Now, Joe always did have a penchant for calling at odd times of the day and night, but this took the cake! Nonetheless, when he then asked me if he’d gotten me out of bed, what did I say? Of course I said, “Oh, no… I was up!” And so it was that I spent the next two hours getting caught up with my old friend Joe!
Actually, it turned out that Joe wasn’t quite as happy as his voice had initially sounded on the phone. As the darkness eased into the dawn, Joe started to tell me about his marriage falling apart; about the bitterness that had arisen over the custody of his two children. What’s more, he’d been laid off from a promising position at one company where he’d been working for many years, only to be injured at his next job and forced to leave that company as well. Now he was working the graveyard shift at some warehouse for little more than minimum wage; all the while lamenting how his life could possibly have spiraled this far downward.
And as he’s telling me all this, I’m listening; trying to be encouraging as best I can; but mostly I’m just letting him talk, which was fine. But to be honest, I’m also wondering why Joe chose me, of all people, to call at that hour of the morning; I mean, we hadn’t really hung out in any significant way since high school! But Joe had called me; and after we’d hashed it all out, he explained why: “You know, I really don’t have that many people I can call. There really aren’t that many people in my life who really know me, who really understand who I am.”
I felt pretty humbled by that; because the thing is, I understood. And I’m guessing that you do, too; because if you’ve ever had such a person in your life, or if there’s one such person in your life right now, you are blessed indeed. Perhaps for you, it’s a family member; or it could be your spouse – actually, I kind of hope it is your spouse (!) – or maybe it’s a teacher or mentor of some sort; or simply a good friend, your best friend. Whoever it may be, these are the rare people in our lives who know us inside and out; these are the people who “get” us, sometimes even better than we “get” ourselves! And it’s someone like that with whom we can be open and honest about things, because we know that they’ll listen and not judge us; that they always love us as they give us the benefit of their counsel and, above all, their understanding.
And isn’t that what we all long for, friends; to be understood? It’s been rightly said that no matter how old you and I become, or how grown up we might appear to be on the surface, deep inside we’re all still children out there on the playground, feeling out of step with the other kids. It’s a confusing and often contradictory world in which we live, a place where so many of us are unsure of who we are and what we’re supposed to be. The bottom line is that we all want to be loved, accepted and valued for who we are; and we all need somebody who understands what we’re feeling and who knows just what we need to get by.
That’s why it is such an incredible gift that in the Christ, we are given a “Wonderful Counselor.”
Understand that in Isaiah’s time, the name “Wonderful Counselor” suggested that this child to be born would have great wisdom and authority over the people of God (and, by the way, here’s an example where punctuation makes all the difference: in some older English translations of scripture, there’s a comma placed between “wonderful” and “counselor,” which suggests two separate names for this child to be born; each of which is certainly appropriate, but which in this case is meant to be taken together, a “wonderful counselor”). In other words, he is to be an exceptional and marvelous counselor; someone who exists quite literally out of the realm of human understanding, yet who possesses all the unique insight that’s necessary for living this human life, along with the powerful compassion and love needed to guide each one of us on our way!
René Schlaepfer, a very dynamic pastor and teacher out of California, tells the true story of a Christmas program at a church in which a children’s choir was singing. And sitting in the front pew of that sanctuary was a little red-headed boy watching the performance; but unfortunately without hearing any of it, because the little boy was completely deaf. So, “at best,” Schlaepfer said, “he was mildly interested in what was going on with these other children all singing up in front of the church. There wasn’t any message for him; how could there be,” because he couldn’t understand anything of what was being sung?
But then everything changed: as it happened, the children in the choir began to sing a song using their hands as well as their voices! They were using sign language, and immediately this little boy’s eyes lit up and opened wide, and smiling the kind of smile that only comes from an incredibly happy kid, he stands up on the pew and starts doing the motions along with the rest of the kids! He could hardly contain himself; he turned to his mother there beside him, and he starts signing to her, “They’re singing to me! They’re singing to me!” In fact, later on, his mother said that her son had started to sign to everyone that this whole Christmas program had been planned just for him!
Well, that’s exactly the kind of “wonderful counsel” that you and I receive in God’s great gift; in and through the person of Jesus Christ, you see, God speaks our language! Another name for the Christ, of course – one that we use so often this time of year – is Emmanuel, which means “God With Us.” But more than simply expressing God’s close proximity to our lives, this is a name that tells us that through Jesus Christ, God knows exactly who we are; that God knows where we are in our lives; that God knows what to say to calm us in the midst of our doubts and fears; that God knows what to do to bring us clarity when we are filled with confusion and uncertainty; and that God knows how and where to lead us in our lives, even when we seemed determined to go precisely in the opposite direction.
God knows, you see… and God knows because God has lived as one of us!
If you’d like a theological term for that, it’s “incarnation,” and its meaning is expressed very clearly in our reading this morning from Hebrews; a passage of scripture, by the way, that’s often read on Good Friday as a means of trying to grasp the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are, yet was without sin.” What this tells us is that Jesus is the ultimate counselor in our lives because being fully human, he knows how we feel; and being fully God, he knows what we need. And because of his limitless love, Jesus will bring his power to bring us through every struggle and to know, in the process, what it is to live in the warmth God’s loving embrace forever.
Richard Gaffin, of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, says it well: “It doesn’t matter how complicated, how desperate, perhaps even hopeless your life has become. No matter how overwhelmed you may feel by your problems, if your trust is in Jesus Christ, you can be sure that he is praying for you now and through that prayer he will provide you the resources to bring you relief and [to] enable you to carry on.” When we know that; when we know that Jesus takes that kind of interest in us, then you and I can truly “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
One of the things that continues to amaze me over my years as a pastor are the number of times that one of you will come up to me and say, “How did you know that I needed to hear that sermon (or that song, or that prayer) today of all days?” Well, while I appreciate that and I’d like to take credit, the truth is that it’s the Spirit that does the job (oftentimes in spite of what I do!); it’s the way that God works in and through everything we do here in our worship that makes what’s being said, or sung, or prayed just for you! And it’s not just in worship where that happens; the truth is that there are a great many times, places and people in our lives that serve as ways that our “Wonderful Counselor” takes that interest in us, seeking to speak our language and to break through to us in ways that are life-changing!
And why wouldn’t that be so? After all, our God has a history of shaking his people out of their complacency – from speaking from a burning bush to blowing through a city with the rush of a mighty wind – bringing forth his redeeming love in a myriad of ways, all for the sake of bringing us closer to Him? And it continues now and into the future; indeed, that’s what this season of “advent” is all about: a reminder to us that we should always be waiting and watching for signs of the incredible thing that God is just about to do in our world and in our lives; a promise that is made real to us in the gift of a child, born to bring us his “wonderful counsel,” that the deepest yearnings of our lives might be fulfilled.
One day some years ago up in Maine, while at a gas station convenience store I was approached by an elderly couple carrying a sizeable stack of road maps and computer print-outs (this was in the days before GPS systems!) who asked me if I could give them directions to a nearby town. Resisting the urge to answer them by saying, “You can’t get theah from heah,” I tried to help; but in the ensuing conversation two things became readily apparent: that these two people were from England and had absolutely no idea where they were going, and sadly, even as a “native Mainuh,” neither did I! In fact, three different people at that gas station gave three different sets of directions (each convinced that theirs was the best and fastest way to go!) before this sweet couple finally gave up and decided to rely on their own instincts!
You see, no matter how good my intentions were in setting them off in the right direction, or how deep my concern was for the welfare of these two strangers, the bottom line was that I was simply not equipped to give them what they needed! Well, it seems to me that the same is true about so much of what we receive in this life; ultimately, it just doesn’t help us the way we need to be helped! That’s particularly true, I think, as we enter another busy holiday season – so many of us jump into this time of the year with mistaken belief that the season itself and all the “stuff” that goes along with it will result in everything we think we’ll need need to be happy – but the truth is that that kind of Christmas passes as quickly as the calendar turns to December 26!
We need something deeper, beloved; we need a true Christmas that speaks to the heart and to the course of our very lives! So how very blessed we are that “unto us a child is born,” and that this child will be called “Wonderful Counselor;” one whose ability to help us goes far beyond what the world can offer us and even what we can offer one another. How good it is that our gift is that of Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel; who truly knows who we are, and is able to give us the care and direction we need.
Thanks be to God for such an incredible gift.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry