This is the message I gave at our Hope in the Darkness service last Thursday evening. Blessings for a wonderful Christmas!!
I love Christmas. For me, Christmas season begins the minute we recover from our huge Thanksgiving meal and lasts through New Year’s day...sometimes even longer. I love Christmas music, I love Christmas decorations, I love Christmas lights and, much to the embarrassment of my teenage daughters, I love tacky Christmas sweaters. I even love the crowded mall and Christmas shopping. If you went into the parking lot right now, you would see that my brown car is adorned with a big red nose and antlers. And, of course, as a follower of Jesus Christ, most of all, I love the Christmas story and the mystery and beauty of the gift God gave us in the birth of Jesus in that manger so long ago.
As much as I love Christmas, there have been some Christmas seasons in my life that have been very difficult because of the circumstances in my life at that time. I know many of you are here this evening because you know exactly what I am talking about. Some of you may be experiencing grief over the loss of a loved one this year. Some of you may be battling some kind of health challenge or depression. For some of you, this year is particularly difficult because of the transitions that families go through as someone moves away, loses a job or ends a relationship. In 2008, our family had a very difficult Christmas. On the first Sunday of Advent, we received a call that my father had finally lost his battle with alcoholism and that he had unexpectedly died. The next week or so, as we drove back and forth to North Carolina to make arrangements and have a memorial service, were filled with so many conflicting emotions. Grief, loss, sadness were mixed with anger and regret. Here I was in the midst of this fresh loss right smack in the middle of the Christmas season and everything felt raw.
For me that year, I found comfort in the familiar words from Isaiah 9 that get read and sung so often during the Christmas season each year. As I thought about what I wanted to share at this service, I couldn’t think of anything that would be more appropriate than this scripture. That year, I clung to these words like never before:
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of course, I had heard these verses before that year. However, that year, it did feel like “living in the land of deep darkness.” That year in particular, I decided that I needed a God who would indeed be MY Wonderful Counselor, MY Mighty God, MY Everlasting Father and MY Prince of Peace. This scripture has become a lifeline for me all year long and a way to re-focus my understanding of who God is....particularly when I am in those especially difficult seasons of my life. Let’s look a little more closely at these titles that Isaiah gave to the coming Messiah.
First, what does it mean for Jesus to be MY Wonderful Counselor? When I was reading this verse in the different translations, I noticed that some versions put a comma between the words wonderful and counselor. One of the translations used the word "amazing" instead of wonderful. I read somewhere that the word that is translated as "wonderful" in some parts of the bible, is translated as "beyond understanding" in other places.
Wonderful and counselor, together or separately, speak to me of wisdom so amazing, so unbelievable, so unexpected, so surprising that it is hard to explain as anything but Divine...something that can’t be found in the resources that the world has to offer. And while professional counselors can be an important part of our support system during difficult seasons in our life, this version of the word “counselor” means much more. One scholar I ran across explained the world “counselor’ in this context in this way:
This is a term that has connotations of deity. The term "counselor" is not what we think of today in terms of a therapist, or someone we tell our problems - although Jesus is that as well. It's more of a military strategist. It probably refers to a king who has the ability to come up with a winning military strategy. You could say "Extraordinary Strategist" (NET Bible).
Isaiah predicts a baby that will become an Extraordinary Strategist. Jesus is a Master Strategist, able to deliver his people from hopeless situations. He is a strategist who can handle situations that look hopeless to us.
In this sense, Jesus is a "strategist" that is greater than we can even comprehend or understand. He is a strategist...a counselor, that specializes in situations that we simply can't handle on our own...any one had one of those lately? Those times in my life when I didn't know where to turn, when I was confused or troubled or looking for answers, those are the times when I can experience Jesus as my wonderful counselor, if only I ask. As I seek His wisdom, the answer may come as that still small voice in my spirit, or in the wise words of a friend, or in the discovery of the perfect scripture for my situation, or maybe the strength to endure a situation where the answer is still unknown to me. With that wisdom...that answer...comes the incomprehensible realization that I am never alone. When Jesus finished His earthly ministry, He promised us the gift of the Holy Spirit...the Wonderful Counselor to whom we have access 24/7....if only we avail ourselves of that ministry.
What does it mean for Him to be MY Almighty God? There are just some situations in life where we need a really BIG God. When I think about this aspect of God’s character, I am reminded of the Veggie Tales videos that my kids used to watch when they were little. There was a song that always stuck in my head that said “God is bigger than the boogie man. He is bigger than Godzilla or the monsters on TV. God is bigger than the boogie man and He’s watching out for you and me.” There are times in our lives when our circumstances are just too big, too scary, too overwhelming to face. For me, it is the mightiness of God that is the antidote to fear. Numerous times in scripture we hear God say to us "do not fear." The reason He can say that to us is because He is in control and there is no power in the universe greater than His. God's power, strength and influence mean that we can rest in His embrace and turn our worry, fear and uncertainty over to Him. Even when we don't understand why something is happening, we can rest assured that He has it under control and that we are never alone in the midst of our struggles. We can retire every day as the General Manager of the Universe because He already has that job and He is much better at it than we are anyway. When life doesn’t make sense, I need a Mighty God who is bigger than even the most difficult circumstances I face.
Wonderful Counselor speaks to His divine wisdom, Mighty God reminds us of His unmatched power, and the next one, Everlasting Father is the perfect picture of His eternal, personal, intimate love for each of us.
Paul reminds us of how big God's love is in his letter to the Romans. In Chapter 8, he says the following:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God...even death. God loves us because He created us to love us. I love the verse in 1 John that says "How great is the love that the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God!" This love is personal and intimate; like a parent and child. I remember when Brooke was little, there was a period of time when she was first learning to talk that I was the only one who could understand her. Because I knew her so well, I could anticipate her needs and understand her in ways that others couldn’t. Our Heavenly Father knows us and loves us even more than the best earthly parent. He created us and knows our every thought. He knows our hurts and knows how to comfort us. He loves us so much that He even knows the numbers of tears we have cried. In Revelation 21:4, John says these words about our Everlasting Father “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things will be gone forever." When life feels like more than I can handle, I cling to the promise of a Father who sees my tears and loves me so much that He will never leave me or forsake me...no matter what I am going through.
Finally, Isaiah promises us that this coming Messiah will be a Prince of Peace. It seems to me that during these times, peace might be the most elusive thing of all. When we are dealing with a season of loss or despair in our life, there are so many conflicting emotions...sadness, anger, regret, anxiety...maybe even relief or guilt in some circumstances. That year that my dad died, I struggled with every single one of those emotions. I was sad that he was gone. I was angry with him for continuing to drink when he knew that it would kill him. I was devastated that when he called on Thanksgiving Day, I had been too busy to talk to him and said I would call him back and now I would never get that chance. And, if I was completely honest, I was relieved that this battle we had waged for 30 years with his alcoholism was finally over and then I felt guilty for feeling that relief.
Grief, fear, sadness and despair are messy and complicated and inconvenient any time of the year. At Christmas, it just feels magnified by the contrast to the joy and celebration around us. That Christmas, I particularly needed to know this Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, and Everlasting Father on a personal level. And that Christmas, like no other before, I desperately needed a Prince of Peace. There is no earthly peace to be found in much of what life throws at us, yet Jesus promises us His peace, which is altogether different. Hear these words from our Lord from the Gospel of John; “Peace I leave with you; MY peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” He goes on to say “I have told you these things so that in me, you may have peace. In this world, you WILL have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
God knows that we will have trouble in this world, but the good news of Christmas is that we do not have to walk through those troubles alone. In the Gospel of Matthew, we hear one more name for our promised Messiah.
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
Emmanuel. God With Us. This promised Messiah has come. Because God became man, He knows what it is like to hurt, to be sad, to be lonely, to be afraid. This GOD...this wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, prince of peace...this God is also Emmanuel, God With Us. God with you and God with me. The Good News of Christmas is that He is right here with us, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in this year. Praise be to God for His wonderful Gift!