Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sermon for First Sunday in Advent, "His Name Shall Be Called: Wonderful Counselor," Isaiah 9:2-7

Sermon 11/27/16 Isaiah 9:2-7




His Name Shall Be Called: Wonderful Counselor


            Today we begin the holy season of Advent. Advent is a four week time of preparation for Christmas. It’s a time when we prepare our hearts, our spirits, our homes, our place of worship, our lives, for the coming Christ-child. It’s a time when we practice the holy discipline of waiting. Jesus is coming. Jesus will be born among us – but not yet. It’s a tension we live in as a people of faith, even as we are always Easter-people, people who know the mystery of faith that Christ has come, and died, and risen, and will come again. We live as a people who know the story already, and yet still spend this time waiting and longing for Christ to be born among us again.
            Advent is a counter-cultural season. Christmas, the season in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus, begins on Christmas day and lasts twelve days – the twelve days of Christmas –from December 25th- January 5th, the day before Epiphany. We’ll talk a lot more about that later, at Christmastime. All around us, the world is saying that Christmas is now, already here. But our focus will be on preparing. When a child is to be born, it’s best to prepare and learn as much as you can to make sure you are ready for the baby. When a guest is coming, you clean your house and get things in order. And when the Christ-child is coming, we prepare our hearts, and make room in our lives for God to dwell among us in the flesh. During Advent, a season of longing, we pray that the longing that fills our hearts is a longing for Jesus to come among us.
           This year, our Advent theme is “His Name Shall Be Called.” Each week, we’ll think about one of the names for the Christ-Child, and we’ll particularly be focusing on the names that we heard lifted up in our scripture text today from the prophet Isaiah, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” What does it mean when we say we expect the Christ-child to be these things? How is Jesus a Wonderful Counselor? How is he Mighty God? How is God’s son the Everlasting Father? How is the child in a manger the Prince of Peace? Each week, we’ll try to answer those questions in depth.
            Our text comes from the prophet Isaiah. The book of Isaiah is written over a long span of time, in the days leading up to, and during, and after the time the kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Assyrians, and when the people were exiled to Babylon. The book is a mixture of warning, despair, and hope. In the section we read today, written before the fall of Judah to Assyria, Isaiah is hopeful. King Ahaz’s son Hezekiah has been born, and there’s a great deal of hope pinned on Hezekiah that he can save Judah, restore Judah, return Judah to days of peace and prosperity. Hezekiah does seem to be a good king. But, he’s only human. He proves no match for the powerful nations seeking control of Judah. Isaiah eventually turns his hope not to a specific ruler, but a vision of a future time of peace and hope. When we read the words we’ve shared in worship today, we’re hearing from a prophet writing in the midst of an incredibly chaotic time as a nation, a time when people were full of fear and doubt, wondering how they could possibly live through the terrible scenario unfolding before them.
            In this context, we hear Isaiah’s words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Isaiah imagines a ruler who conquers oppression, and he envisions the tools of war being stamped out completely. This will happen, Isaiah writes, because “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.” This child will rule with authority that grows continually. He will usher in an endless peace, a kingdom marked by enduring justice and righteousness.
            The passage gives me goosebumps, it is so inspiring and hopeful! Of course, followers of Jesus read this text and think: I know who this is about! Of course, it is Jesus! But on the other hand, as we talked about last Sunday, Jesus was never an earthly ruler in the way of a king of a nation. A ruler, yes, but of a completely different kind. The Judeans were looking for someone who would save them from being wiped out by invaders, not a child born to a carpenter and a young woman. So how is it that we read this text and see in it a description of the very Jesus for whom we are longing this Advent? That’s the focus of our worship and study in these weeks. 
Today, we’re thinking specifically about Jesus being a Wonderful Counselor. The word counselor in particular is used in different ways today than they were when Isaiah chose them centuries upon centuries ago. In his book Names for the Messiah, Walter Brueggemann writes that “counselor” in this sense refers to “the exercise of governance, the capacity to administer, to plan, and to execute policy.” (3) When Isaiah talks about a wonderful counselor, he’s saying that the new ruler he longs for will show “extraordinary wisdom and foresight about planning” or have “royal plans and policies [that] will be of exceptional quality … that goes beyond all the usual conventions of political power and practice.” (3-4) Indeed, God’s people continued to picture and long for an earthly ruler who would be an exceptional king, wise and just, a strong leader, someone who would defeat the power of Rome and Rome’s Caesar, the emperor.
And so, when Luke writes his gospel, and he writes about the birth of Jesus, the story with the shepherds and angels that we know so well, he makes sure to start by setting us in the context of the Roman Empire – “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” The Christ-child will be born where there is already a king, a governor, an emperor – and Jesus will be something very different from that.
 How is Jesus a Wonderful Counselor? We know from the gospels that his uncommon wisdom was something of much discussion. Repeatedly, the religious leaders and the crowds wonder about Jesus. They want to know where he came from, and how he got his authority. They marvel at his clear authority and power, which stands out as different from the authority of both the scribes and Pharisees and the political leaders of Rome.
            In Genesis, when God promises that Abraham and Sarah will have a child, even in their old age, and Sarah laughs at the impossibility, God says: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (18:14) Somehow, though, we forget that, or we stop believing it – that there is nothing too wonderful for God, nothing outside of God’s power and ability, nothing that is impossible with God. When people are oppressed, when they’re hungry, when they’re marginalized, when we are divided as a nation, when we spend so much time tearing each other down, it’s hard to remember the wonder of a God who makes the impossible possible. Jesus is a living reminder for us. Writes Brueggemann, “The teaching of Jesus attests to the possibility of God that the world has long since taken to be impossible. That is what is wonderful about his teaching. His teaching evidenced a kind of wisdom that was unusual. He is wise beyond explanation! … He is wonderful in his teaching because he opens up new possibilities that were thought to be impossible. The foolish rulers of the age did not want such impossibilities to become possible, for such possibilities would override and displace all present power arrangements … [but] the old limits of the possible have been exposed as fraudulent inventions designed to keep the powerless in their places. Jesus violates such invented limitations and opens the world to the impossible.” (10-11) Jesus, wonderful counselor, is “ruler of the impossible.” (15)
             As his followers, our job is to be like him. Brueggemann says, “The ‘increase of his government’ will not be by supernatural imposition or by royal fit. Instead, it will come about through the daily intentional engagement of his subjects, who are so astonished by his wonder that they no longer subscribe to the old order of power and truth that turns out to be, in the long run, only debilitating fraudulence. It requires an uncommon wisdom to interrupt the foolish practice of business as usual.” (17) In other words, we’re called first to remember that nothing is too wonderful for our God. And then, we’re called to start living like we’ve remembered, like we believe, and like we need to make sure everyone else knows too! We, Jesus’s followers, are called to turn the world upside down like Jesus did, to shun business-as-usual that prioritizes wealth and power and status, and choose instead that which exalts the humbled, and puts the last one in first place.
            As we wait, in this season of Advent, we can reflect on the unique wisdom of Jesus. Reflect on the wonderful works of God. And then we start dreaming with God for how we can be part of making the impossible a reality. United Methodist pastor and author Mike Slaughter talks about having a “B-HAG” – that’s a “Big Hairy Audacious God-Purpose.” I’ve got to tell you, I hate that acronym. But it is certainly memorable! He says we need to think about what it is that God is calling us to do, something which “will honor God, bless others, and bring us joy.” He encourages us to get rid of all the lame excuses we come up with for not dreaming alongside God, and get to living out our dreams, using all the tools with which God has equipped us for just the purpose to which we’re called. (Dare to Dream, 16) And he urges us to make sure our dreams with God are big enough, hairy enough, and audacious enough to be our God-purpose. After all, is anything too wonderful for God?
In Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, we have our answer to that question. If we have God-with-us, God-in-the-flesh in Jesus, then nothing is impossible with God. As we wait, we don’t sit back idly. We wait, and we dream, and we plan, and we get ready to respond to the wonderful work of God. Amen.





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