(a sermon for December 13, 2015, the 3rd Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on Isaiah 40:1-11, 28-31; Ephesians 1:3-14 and Isaiah 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
“And he is named… Everlasting Father.”
Let me just say at the outset that of the four names of the Christ child we’re looking at during this Advent series, this one – “Everlasting Father” – might well be the most confusing! To begin with, Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of a Son being given to us, one who is referred to elsewhere in scripture as the Son of the Most High, the Son of God; so immediately it would seem as though name “Everlasting Father” would apply to God rather than to the Son, who is Jesus! And moreover, Jesus comes to us as that “holy infant, tender and mild,” a baby that the shepherds found “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger?” (Luke 2:12) So what Isaiah seems to be giving us here is the name of a father and a child all wrapped up in one; and that’s… confusing!
And in more ways than one; it also runs headlong into our Christian understanding of the Trinity, in which God comes to us in three distinct ways, as three “persons:” Father and Son and Holy Spirit. And once you start talking about the Trinity, you have to start making those very confusing distinctions that can make our heads spin: that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father… but they are all one God! But whereas this is an important doctrine of our Christian theology, and it is true that Jesus Christ was the incarnation – that is, the physical embodiment – of God the Father, I really don’t think that this is what Isaiah’s prophecy was getting at!
The fact is, in Isaiah’s time, some 700 years before the birth of this child in the manger, the people of Israel were looking hard for a Messiah who would be for them an “Everlasting Father.” Remember last Sunday when looked at how this Messiah would also be named “Mighty God,” the Hero who would lead his people Israel to victory; well, “Everlasting Father” is kind of an extension of that: meaning one who would reign over them in their victory; who would protect them and provide for them; who would care for them, who would have compassion on them and be gracious, merciful and forgiving. Simply put, they were looking for a Messiah who would love them, lead them, and redeem them in much the same way an earthly father would; but whose love would endure forever!
Of course, as we’ve mentioned before, it’s important to remember that when Israel heard this they were thinking in terms of a worthy successor to King David! But isn’t it interesting that this description of an “Everlasting Father” for Israel ends up describing Jesus “to a T?” For what we have here in Isaiah is the promised gift of a Messiah who will be that everlasting father for his people: an enduring, compassionate provider and protector who is the perfect combination of the eternal qualities of God with the human compassion of an earthly father!
By the way, have you noticed over the past couple of weeks that in each of these names of Christ we find a combination of the divine quality of Christ and his human quality? “Wonderful Counselor,” reminding us that in Jesus Christ, unfettered divine support touches the deepest human need; and “Mighty God,” telling us that in Jesus we find both the power of the almighty and a profound understanding of human sin and weakness; well, now there’s this one who will be called “Everlasting Father,” promising in this holy child a divine love and care after the manner of a loving parent.
Now, having said that, I understand that for a lot of people, maybe even some of you here this morning, this may not be altogether a positive image. I’m very much aware that this is one of those things that do tend to make the holidays difficult for a lot of people. Maybe you’re hearing all this and you’re thinking, well, I never had that kind of love from my father; my father left my family and me when I was young; my father drank and he was abusive, and believe me, there was nothing at all Christ-like in him! Maybe some of you never even had a father in any real sense, either literally or figuratively; or, for that matter, a mother or any other kind of strong or positive parental figure! So it’s all very well and good, you’re thinking, this business of an everlasting father but it all seems pretty empty and more than a little painful to me!
And yes, that may be true for you, just as I also know that there are those of us here who had wonderful fathers but lost them all too soon; and to all of you I want to say I’m sorry for that pain and that feeling of loss. But here’s an interesting thing about that: the Hebrew word that Isaiah uses for “everlasting” is aviad, which means “advancing in perpetuity,” and actually can be translated literally as “beyond the vanishing point.” Beyond the vanishing point! In other words, while earthly fathers are imperfect and make mistakes, while many fall short of being model parents and others are just absent altogether, the one who comes to as an everlasting father is with us way beyond the point where everything and everyone else in the world vanishes, never to be seen again. Max Lucado says this beautifully in his book, In the Grip of Grace; referring to Paul’s words to the Romans, “If God is for us, who can be against us,” (Romans 8:31) Lucado writes, “God is for you. Your parents may have forgotten you, your teachers may have neglected you, your siblings may be ashamed of you; but within the reach of your prayers is the maker of the oceans. God!” God is for you!
And it’s this same God who comes to us as one who never stops loving us; who never says good-bye to us; who never leaves our side; who never breaks that relationship with us, but who maintains and nurtures what we have with one another… forever. And here’s the beauty part, friends; this is how God always intended it to be, and that it is this way is God’s great joy! “In love,” Paul says to the Ephesians in our Epistle reading this morning, “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Now, if that all sounds a bit theological for you, I can give you a three word translation:
God Chose You!
In love and with joy, God chose you, dear friends, and he chose me! God’s relationship with us, you see, is not an accident of birth or some obscure cosmic happenstance, but the result of incredible loving intent on the part of the divine. I’m thinking right now of the many families I know who have adopted children. Anyone who has ever entered into that kind of relationship, particularly as it relates to special needs children, will tell you right up front that there are literally a ton of issues, concerns and challenges that go along it; but more importantly and much more prominently than the so called “problems,” there are incredible blessings, including a family dynamic unlike any other. I’m remembering a family in a former parish who had adopted a little boy; and sometimes that little boy (who was aware he was adopted) would become very troubled about who he was and where he came from. But he always found comfort in the arms of his father and mother, and it was because they always told him the same thing: “Never forget, ever, that you’re special because we chose you.” And friends, we’re special… because by his grace in Jesus Christ, God has chosen us! As René Schlaepfer has said it: “When he created you, it was love at first sight; when he adopted you, he said, ‘I will never look away.’”
What an incredible gift God gives us in this one who will be called “Everlasting Father!” And what a wonderful thing it is for us to know that no matter what our troubles or doubts happen to be at any given time of our lives, no matter how isolated we might begin to feel in a cold, dark world, the enduring truth is that we are loved beyond measure, and we are cared for beyond understanding; even beyond life itself, for the love that we are given from this Everlasting Father will last even unto eternity!
What a Merry Christmas, indeed!
I think I’ve told you before the story of how, when I was probably 19 or 20 years old, out on a hunting trip with my father one very cold, damp November, I got caught out in the Maine woods for a couple of hours after dark. Truth is, I wasn’t really all that far from camp; but as night was descending and was headed back to camp I’d fallen over this blown down alder, and I’d lost my compass and broke my flashlight in the process; so short of wandering around aimlessly in the pitch darkness all night, which is never a good thing to do, I was pretty much stuck!
And the thing is, my father came to get me, Coleman lantern in hand and bringing with him the rest of the guys who were with us on that hunting trip; let me tell you, I was never so glad to see anyone in my whole life than I was to see my father at that moment! And here’s the part of the story I don’t think I told you: that despite the fact that we were all strong and manly men out there in the wilderness (!) and not given to such displays of emotion, I have to confess that when I saw my Dad, I immediately and without hesitation I just about hugged the stuffing out the man!
In our Old Testament reading this morning we are given the promise of one who “tends his flock like a shepherd: [who] gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; [who] gently leads those that have young.” (NIV) That’s a beautiful image, friends; but I have to tell you that for me, when I think of that shepherd or when I consider the ways of my “everlasting father” who is Jesus Christ, in my mind’s eye I almost always have him carrying a lantern. Because you know what? The truth is that as I go about this journey of life I find myself meandering in the dark way too many times; enough to know that I need someone who in great and redeeming love will come looking for me; and who will lead me home by his light.
“Do you not know?” says the prophet. “Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary, and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not be weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
This is our gift, beloved. This child, this one who is born in Bethlehem, who will grow to become our teacher, redeemer, our friend and example; this is the one who shall be called our “Everlasting Father,” and with everlasting love he will truly bring us, as the song goes, “goodness and light… he will bring us goodness and light; ” and truly, wherever the journey of life shall take us, in and through him we will find safety, rest, and comfort.
Thanks be to God for this incredible, enduring gift!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry