This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Gift of the Son". See series.
This sermon is part of “The Gift of the Son” sermon series. See the whole series here.
The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the season leading up to Christmas. It's always an exciting time of year, and for many, it's a favorite time of year. But it can also be—I think you'll agree—a hectic time of year, as well. Perhaps you joined millions of other Americans and risked life and limb for a few Christmas bargains during "Black Friday."
Understandably, during this time of year, with all the hustle and the bustle, it's not uncommon for pastors like me to appeal to their congregations to slow down and not miss the meaning of this Advent season. So sermons will tend to focus on the "real" meaning of Christmas and invite people to center their thoughts on Jesus' birth and what that means for the world and for their lives. I've made these kinds of appeals in the past, and they're worthwhile and even necessary.
Recently, though, I heard a young mother express some misgivings about this kind of approach. She's a mature Christian, and so of course she appreciates the spirit behind these sorts of Christmas sermons. But, she says, during the Advent season she longs for something more—not another guilt-inducing exhortation about what she needs to do to get Christmas right, but a message of hope about what God's already done to put the world to rights in Jesus. She wants a message that doesn't depend on her doing one more thing to make the Christmas season a success: shopping, cooking, caring for kids, finishing school, wrapping presents, attending parties, keeping house, traveling across country to visit family, and, oh, making sure I keep my focus on Jesus. Got it!
She described standing against the back wall of the church during the four o'clock Christmas Eve service, bouncing a baby on her hip, and listening to the pastor's well-intended Christmas challenge to focus on Jesus. She made this honest confession: "I wanted a message that did not hinge on me doing one more thing, as if it is my action or thought that makes Christmas real. I wanted the hope that God's gift of Jesus has already transformed the world, whether I am conscious of it or not."
All God's action
Now, I must confess, I am convicted by this woman's very honest testimony. And, frankly, I want to take up her challenge this Advent season: not to add to your list of Christmas to-do's, but to encourage you with what God has already done.
That's why I ask you to turn to Isaiah 9: a magnificent celebration of hope in the face of national trauma, disaster, and even despair. Israel is facing foreign invasion, so it is shrouded in the "fearful gloom" and "utter darkness" (Isa. 8:22). The mood is no doubt not unlike what we've seen in cities like Paris over the past couple years, only this isn't the tragic death of dozens of innocent people, but the annihilation of an entire country by foreigners. The Assyrians are threatening to invade from the north and haul them off into exile, which they will do a few short years from the time of this writing.
Yet Isaiah 9 turns the peoples' gaze from the present to the future, to what God is going to do to put the world to rights and redeem his people. You'll notice that the chapter is cast in the form of a poem, a song even. It's a celebration of hope.
You'll also note that it's cast in the past tense, as though it's already happened, because—from both Isaiah and God's perspectives—it has. It's as good as done. That's the confidence Israel ought to have in response to this powerful, prophetic word.
Against the dark backdrop of national despair and gloom, Isaiah envisions the dawning of the light of salvation (9:1-2), which results in great joy for God's people (v. 3). God is going to bring about liberation from foreign oppressors (v. 4), but more than that, he is going to bring about a complete cessation to warfare itself (v. 5).
How is he going to do that? Through the gift of a son, the birth of a child. "For to us a child is born, / to us a son is given" (v. 6a). A remarkable answer to all of our problems, isn't it? The birth of a child. Ray Ortlund puts it so well: "God's answer to everything that has ever terrorized us is a child. The power of God is so far superior to the Assyrians and all the big shots of the world that he can defeat them by coming as a mere child. His answer to the bullies swaggering through history is not to become an even bigger bully. His answer is Jesus."
This magnificent chapter gives us the prophet's first major exposition of Israel's coming king, her long-awaited Messiah. He'd already hinted at the birth of this world-transforming child earlier in chapter seven, when he announced that "[t]he virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel," (7:14) which means "God with us." But, here, in chapter nine, he elaborates at greater length about who this child will be, using four more names: "And he will be called / Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, / Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (v. 6b).
Today, we take up the first name given to this child whom we know to be Christ; "he will be called Wonderful Counselor." Just to be clear, though: This is a name given to the child, but (as is often the case with biblical names) it refers to God himself. The child reveals God to be a wonderful counselor, and so you call the child that.
What does it mean? Literally, a wonder of a counselor: that is, an extraordinary counselor, or perhaps a counselor of wonders, one who counsels amazing things
But we should clarify something important. When we hear the word "counselor," we shouldn't think "therapist." Instead, we should think "strategist." Remember, in the ancient world, a counselor was someone who devised plans to win military victories.
It's a way of talking about how God's plans and purposes ought to fill us with wonder; when we see his plans revealed through this child, we ought to sit back and marvel. It ought to cause us to say, "Wow!"
Anne Lamott has a nice book on prayer called Help, Thanks, Wow. I like how she describes the response of "wow." "Wow," she says, "is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can't think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. 'Wow' means we are not dulled to wonder. We click into being fully present when we're stunned into that gasp … 'Wow' is about having one's mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous."
That's what it means to say that this child to be born—this son to be given, named Jesus—is a wonderful counselor. He reveals God's wonder-filled wisdom for the world, and it causes us to say, "Wow!" His plans blow our minds; mesmerize us with the miraculous; show us shocking beauty, unexpected flashes of grace; cause us to gasp, with a sharp intake of breath, and say, "Wow!"
'Wow': wisdom incarnate
What the prophet Isaiah could only see in outline, we now see in full color. This child that is born, this son who is given, is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. He is God's wonderful counselor. He is God's wisdom incarnate. He is the embodiment of God's saving plans for the world, the kind of plans that makes us say, "Wow!"
Consider his incarnation. What a wonder it is! When God decided to redeem the world, he chose to unite divinity and humanity: the infinite to take on the finite, deity to come as baby. Who would ever come up with that? A sovereign and holy God wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger—seriously?! This is how God redeems the world: by becoming like us in every respect, yet without sin.
Or consider Jesus' life. He displayed the wisdom of God perfectly in all that he did: not just in his teaching, but in his way of life. He didn't live high on the hog or in a palace with the royalty. Instead, he lived in lowliness, meekness, and humility; born to a poor virgin: a common man, a carpenter, one who came not be served, but to serve. "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9).
Or think about his death. He died, the Bible says, in our place—and for our sins, not his own. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). But more than that, because it was in our place, he had to endure the fury of God's wrath poured out on him for our sin. He was forsaken on the Cross, so we didn't have to be forsaken for all eternity. God gave him judgment, so you and I could receive mercy—the wonderful wisdom of God in salvation.
Or consider his resurrection. He was crucified, he died, and was buried. There he lay for two whole days, till on the third day, against all odds, God triumphed over the grave by raising Jesus from the dead. Talk about a nail-biter of a story! There's hope against all hope in the resurrection of Jesus: God defeats death by enduring death.
What Isaiah could only see in outline, we now see, with the greater light of revelation, in full color: Jesus is the embodiment of God's saving wisdom, and it fills us with delight and surprise, mesmerizing us with unexpected grace.
Angelic astonishment at God's 'Wonderful Counselor'
It's no wonder that whenever we find an announcement of Jesus' birth in the Gospels, we find angels singing their hearts out, as though they can't contain their surprise and delight at what God has revealed of his plans in the life of this child.
(Read Luke 2:8-14)
The whole company of heaven had to show up for the announcement of this child's birth because they were so astonished with the plan God had devised to save the world. They'd been trying to figure it out for centuries, millennia even, just how it was that God was going to redeem the world. Ever since God showed mercy—rather than wrath—to that first couple, Adam and Eve, when they sinned in the Garden, the angels knew death would not be the ultimate end for humanity.
But they had no idea how God would do it. They could only speculate and try to figure it out. That's why Peter tells us that the angels strained to get a glimpse of how it was that God was going to redeem humanity; these were things, he says, "into which angels longed to look" (1 Pet. 1:12). I imagine the angels like eager children, trying to peek through wrapping paper to see what wonder is inside the package.
But one thing is for sure: In all their speculation and pondering about how God was going to redeem the world, they never would have thought that God himself would do it. What angel would ever imagine the Creator God taking on human flesh and being made, as the psalmist says, "a little lower than the angels" (Ps. 8:5). Just imagine their surprise and delight when they saw God in a manger. No wonder they sing!
The 'wow'-wisdom of God in the church
But here's the amazing thing: In the display of his "wow"-wisdom, God doesn't stop with Christ. He continues to display his wisdom in and through the body of Christ, the church, and you and me.
The apostle Paul picks up this point in Ephesians. He says something audacious. He says that we—the church—are now the place where God reveals his wonderful counsel.
(Read Ephesians 3:8-10)
Think about what the church is—this thing we call the body of Christ. We are an unlikely bunch.
(Read 1 Corinthians 1:26b-29)
You see, the church, as the body of Christ—in all of our beautiful oddness—is living testimony to the wonderful counselor, who has put this whole thing together in a way that surprises and delights us all.
This time of year always makes me reflect on the wonder-creating wisdom of God in my own salvation, because I first met Jesus right around this time of year. It was December 12, 1992, more than 20 years ago. My conversion was a miraculous one. I didn't know anything about Jesus or the gospel or Christianity. But God met me and found me and saved me in the corner booth of a McDonalds. Someone I hardly knew shared the gospel with me, and God saw fit to save me.
That's my story. But every saving encounter with Christ, every act of conversion, is what C. S. Lewis calls a case of being "surprised by joy." When you come to Christ, you meet the wonderful counselor and learn about his mesmerizing and miraculous plans for your life, and it fills you with both surprise and delight.
Of course, it doesn't stop when you meet Jesus. The delightful surprises continue throughout the whole of your life: not just at the first, when you first meet Jesus, but as you learn to walk with Jesus and discover that he is indeed the "Wonderful Counselor." His plans are always perfect; his ways are not always what you would expect, but they're always gracious and good, full of delight and surprise.
As you walk with Jesus, you begin to realize that what he has said is in fact true: There is strength in weakness; there is blessing in brokenness; there is exaltation in humility; there is comfort in affliction; there is even life in midst of death—all because of Jesus the wonderful Counselor. It's all very counterintuitive, but it's all full of deep and lasting joy.