(a sermon for December 6, 2015, the 2nd Sunday of Advent; second in a series, based on Isaiah 1:2-20, 7:10-17 and 9:6)
“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
Given that as of today, there are only 19 (!) days left till Christmas, I imagine that most of us have at least begun the yearly process of braving the crowds, navigating the mall or perhaps surfing the internet in order to get our holiday shopping done; there may even be a few over-achievers out there who are already finished! But just in case you aren’t, let me give you something to think about as you’re out seeking those perfect gifts for the people you love: and it’s that there are basically two kinds of gifts (good gifts, anyway!); the kind of gifts you really want, and the kind of gifts you really need! The trick is to find that one special gift that is either one or the other, and ideally both at the same time!
The thing is that sometimes the best present you’ll ever receive is the one that may well be frivolous, silly or even impractical; but so often that’s the one that ends up fulfilling a secret Christmas wish or one that expresses the true feelings of the heart. On the other hand, a so-called “practical gift” might just be exactly what’s needed at a particular time and place of one’s life, and shows forth a deep level of care, compassion and utter sensitivity on the part of the giver! Of course, you have to be careful because sometimes things like that can backfire on you: we knew somebody years ago who, when he was first married, actually wrapped up and gave his new wife a six pack of motor oil for Christmas, because her car needed an oil change; and then was flabbergasted as to why she wasn’t at all thrilled about this generous and thoughtful gift!
Oh, well… as the saying goes, “it’s the thought that counts;” and the bottom line is that whether it’s diamonds and jewels, or wool socks and long johns, so often the best gifts of all are the ones you may not have thought you wanted and didn’t know you needed, but ended up being more than you could ever hope for!
I’ve actually been thinking about that in relation to this second name of the gift of Christ that’s offered up in Isaiah, this child who is to be will born unto us and who will be called “Mighty God.” Think about it; in many ways, last Sunday, when we talked here about the Christ child as a “Wonderful Counselor,” that was easy to embrace as a gift; I mean, who can’t relate to someone who’s there for us with unfettered love and wise counsel? But “Mighty God…” that’s a little more difficult; and the reason why comes in knowing that when the people of Israel heard this name prophesied in relation to the promised Messiah, they were thinking in terms of a great warrior; a military leader with great strength, skill and power to reign triumphant over his enemies, delivering God’s people to victory and then to reign over them on David’s throne. That’s all part and parcel of the history of Israel, friends, and well detailed throughout scripture; but for me, at least, that description of the coming Messiah seems to run head-long against everything we like to think of about Jesus, and yes, about Christmas: swords beaten into plowshares, the lion dwelling with the lamb, peace on earth and goodwill to all… and especially in these troubling days when the culture of violence not only appears to be running rampant but also which is becoming all too commonplace, it’s kind of hard to think about our needing or wanting such a gift as this; much less that it comes to us in the guise of a child!
And yet, I would suggest to you this morning that if you look at this gift in the context of how and why it was given, you begin to understand. That’s why I chose today a couple of readings from the first few chapters of Isaiah; because if you take a close look at what’s in scripture here, taken together these chapters pretty much make up a “divine rationale” for God’s coming into the world in Christ, and really give the name “Mighty God” its proper meaning.
For what we have in these verses is a depiction of Israel as a nation deeply flawed and in hard bondage to their own sinfulness; a people who by this time in their history had fallen so far away from their identity as God’s people they barely knew who they were anymore. Friends, this may be Advent, but trust me, the first chapter of Isaiah is not the stuff of Christmas cards! “Ah, sinful nation,” the prophet says, “people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, [and] who have despised the Holy One of Israel.” And it gets worse: “Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me,” one translation (NIV) puts it. “I cannot bear your evil assemblies… even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.”
And this is pretty much how it goes for six chapters! What becomes clear is that God’s people have fallen so far from faith that even Isaiah’s call for Israel to come and “argue it out” and to “cease to do evil, [while] learn[ing] to do good” would seem to have fallen on deaf ears. But it has come to the point that whatever it is that Israel is trying to do for themselves is doomed to failure. They cannot save themselves, you see; they need someone to rescue them, to save them from themselves and their sin!
And so it is for you and me, as well.
And isn’t that interesting…because if you look at the original Hebrew for that name, “Mighty God?” The word is El Gibbor and as it it’s used elsewhere in the Old Testament it can be literally translated as… hero! It turns out, you see, that the promised Messiah is coming to this sinful, hurting people and his name will be HERO GOD! Hero God, the one who has come to rescue his people; in fact, there is at least one reference in scripture to “the Hero God, [who is] the one who brings order out of chaos:” the one who can and does take that which is confusing and conflicted and dark, and makes it clear and unalloyed and full of light. So you see, what we have here is this utter contrast between how imperiled and powerless we are as people, but how incredibly perfect God is!
And here’s the best part: whereas we might think we have a load of judgment coming for having turned so far away from God; that the military might of this Warrior Messiah might well and deservedly turn against us for our sin, we find out that this “mighty,” hero God is going to come to us… as a baby! A tiny, helpless, crying, living, breathing, hungry infant! It’s there in that very familiar passage from chapter seven; “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
This is monumental… and not simply because now we start to hear talk of a “virgin birth.” It’s monumental because here we have a God who has been utterly rejected by his creation, and yet says to them, Yes, you are sinful; no, you haven’t returned to me as I have begged and pleaded with you time and time again; certainly, you have had ample opportunities to rend your hearts and come to me and you haven’t; and you can’t even begin to do what you need to do to live a righteous life on your own; but my solution is not to destroy you, but to come to you and be with you… as a little baby!
And what an incredible gift that is! Even now, even with you and me in our lives, by virtue of sin there exists this incredible gap between us and God, a chasm that we can’t begin to cross on our own; but now… here’s God, who in the guise of a child, will help us cross over; this one who will be our hero, our rescuer, this one who will be called “Mighty God!”
The thing is, of course, is there are countless people in the world today who don’t really feel they need rescuing, certainly not from God, whoever God might actually be to them; people who take great pride in their self-sufficiency; people who maintain to their dying breath that they can manage life on their own, thank you very much, and have no need of spiritual intervention to see them through. Some are convinced that enough money, a good career and a proper social status will be more than enough to take of things; some believe that the value of life can only be measured in the accumulation of “stuff” (you know, the old adage that the one who dies with the most toys wins!); and yes, there are those who look to their families, friends, politicians and even the church to do it for them, because…well, that’s what they’re there for!
And the truth is, for people like that, life all seems well and good… until it’s not. Until that time when their hearts are broken; when tragedy happens and everything changes in an instant; when the foundations of their lives start to crumble and suddenly there isn’t anything to hang on to. And that’s when you and I need something more than what we are capable of providing for ourselves; and that’s when we need that gift that only God can provide. The irony is that this a gift that is both the easiest thing in the world to receive, and yet the most difficult one to accept, because opening that gift, taking it as your own, means living a different kind of life than the one you led before. But… without it, friends, there’s no real life at all!
Those of us “of a certain age” will remember the late Paul Harvey, a radio broadcaster who not only reported the news but also made sure we knew “the rest of the story.” Well, one of those stories I’ve never forgotten was one about a police officer who received a very special gift from his wife, whose name was Terri; and Terri was so excited about this gift that she literally couldn’t wait until Christmas, and insisted that her husband open the gift several days before the holiday; early December in fact… and, just as she had hoped, he loved it!
Well, as it happened, a few days later Patrolman David Schaeffer, working the night shift, pulled over a speeding vehicle; and as he approached the suspect, the driver pulled out a pistol and shot Schaeffer at point blank range at his stomach with a .45 caliber slug.
A few hours later, another officer knocked on the door of the Schaeffer’s home; and this officer calmly explained to Terri Schaeffer what had happened that night. But all that Terri can think about in that moment is how glad she was that she’d not waited until Christmas to give David that present; she’s thinking how glad she is that she’d insisted that he open the gift right then. Because otherwise, having been shot at point blank range, her husband would surely have died; but the good news was that David was now in the hospital, not because of a gunshot wound, but with a bruise… Christmas, you see, literally came early for this family because David has this wonderful gift that his wife had given him: a bullet-proof vest.
I think it’s safe to say that was the best Christmas gift he ever got! But here’s a haunting thought: what if David had really loved the gift, even got excited about it, but then insisted that he didn’t really need it, so didn’t wear it?
In the Christ, God has given us this wonderful gift of his might and power. It is the kind of strength that draws close to him when we are filled with loneliness; it’s the kind of power that fills us with courage even when we are engulfed with fear; comfort when our hearts are broken; direction when we don’t know which way to turn; hope and joy when we’ve run out of both; justice when all the world seems to have turned against us; and yes… forgiveness of sin and fullness of grace.
Whatever our need, friends, the one who is called our Mighty, Hero God is able to meet that need; but just like the gift under the tree that’s only a brightly wrapped package until it’s opened, this gift of divine love truly has to be received to be of value!
“Unto us a child is born.” I hope and pray, beloved, that we won’t let this Christmas gift go unopened.
And may our thanks be to God, who is the giver of this and every good gift!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry