Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Isaiah 9:1-7 Commentary
History is full of tragic figures who had great potential, who had perhaps even risen to prominence, only to fall from the very heights they had worked so hard to scale. Often what accounts for the downfall of a leader is the fact that he or she possessed either great wisdom or great strength but not both. But failing to bring those traits together often yields unhappy circumstances. It’s usually not enough to know what the right thing to do is–a person needs also the strength and the ability to then do it. Conversely, there have been leaders who have been very strong and stalwart and able to actualize grand plans but they lacked the wisdom to make good plans and so the result of even strong acts ended up being disastrous. The proverbial bull in a china shop is a bad thing but so is the proverbial ninety-pound weakling who doesn’t dare to do what even he knows is right.
The first and last titles that we read in Isaiah 9:6 reminds us that in God’s Messiah, we find someone who embodies both wisdom and strength. What’s more, the larger sweep of Isaiah 9 reminds us that to do anyone any good, the Messiah needs precisely wisdom and strength working in tandem. Let’s reflect on Jesus as Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace to see how this combination brings hope to this world.
To see this, we begin where Isaiah begins: in the dark. Isaiah paints a grim portrait in the preceding chapters and in the opening verses of this ninth chapter. The people have been living in the dark. They have been dwelling in the chilly shadow of death itself. Worse, he tells us in verse 4 that the people have been afflicted by a burdensome yoke, a kind of heavy bar across their shoulders even as they get driven forward under the stinging blows of an oppressor’s rod and whip. The images here are awful. Isaiah goes on in verse 5 to talk about warrior’s boots, about garments rolled in blood, and we can presume that this is the shed blood of the people who are being oppressed and enslaved.
Of course, historically Isaiah was referring to the exile experience of the people of Judah during the seventh century B.C. But metaphorically this could just as well stand as a description for humanity’s larger enslavement to sin and evil. At any given moment, you can locate people who are literally suffering under an oppressive regime somewhere. Think of the genocide in the Sudan in recent months. Think back to the slaughter that took place in Rwanda some years ago as well as the dreadful violence that has gripped Sierra Leonne. Think of the Jews marching to Nazi gas chambers in World War II’s Holocaust or Native Americans on this continent suffering and dying on the Trail of Tears.
But we all know that there are more ways than one to suffer from burdens that oppress our hearts and minds and spirits. Even we modern-day Americans are an oppressed people when you think about it. We live in the freest society on earth and millions of us are also very comfortable in terms of income, lifestyle, and the like. Yet in some ways we are also a mess. More people than not are on some kind of medication. We have hundreds of possibilities for ways to treat aches and pains, to lift our moods, to control our high blood pressure, to relax our frayed nerves, to enhance even our sexuality.
We are a driven people. You can’t get out of the grocery store anymore without being assaulted and assailed in the checkout aisle by a dozen or so different magazines, every one of which features women and men whose bodies and sculpted good looks proclaim what the goal of our lives should be physically. But since these same magazines featuring all those skinny women and handsome men are usually situated right next to the Snickers bars and M&Ms, you get the funny feeling that someone out there is conspiring to make you despair!
Seldom before in history has there been such a systematic effort on the part of manufacturers and advertisers to keep us feeling inferior. Recently we heard the story about a mother and father whose high school graduation gift to their daughter was a gift certificate to have plastic surgery for breast augmentation. Even in the most private areas of our bodies we are being told day and night that we may very well be lacking and so need to buy something or do something to fix it.
All of this cultural silliness seems trivial compared to what I mentioned a few moments ago in terms of the Sudan or the Holocaust, and of course it is comparatively minor. Yet there is a connection somehow, too. There is just something about the nature of this world that keeps us in bondage one way or another.
In the New Testament the apostle Paul often talks about the “powers and principalities” of this age. We often slide past that kind of talk. We’re not sure what to make of such rhetoric for one thing, but perhaps we are a little scared off by it, too. We don’t always like to entertain the notion that maybe we and our world are in the cross-hairs of real powers, truly evil forces that are out to work woe in our hearts and lives. Probably for that very reason we prefer the Luke 2 version of the Christmas story compared to the far more startling version of that story we get in Revelation 12 (indeed, most of you just now thought, “There’s a Christmas story in Revelation 12???”).
Philip Yancey once wrote about the apocalyptic Christmas tale that John presents in Revelation 12. Satan, in the form of a dragon, plays the role of a kind of grim OB-GYN just waiting for Mary to give birth to God’s Son so that he can devour the infant before he draws his first breath. But at the last second, the moment the child is born, he gets whisked safely away and so the dragon snaps its jaws around empty air. He is then hurled down to the earth where he is down but not out–before his final defeat, this demonic dragon would still have some kicks. That is what lies behind the New Testament talk about our spiritual warfare with the powers and principalities of the age.
When and where the devil can oppress people in violent, dreadful ways, he will do so. But the devil has always been flexible, has always been a world-class opportunist. If he can’t oppress us in one way, he will find another. Maybe we need to sense such wicked designs on our lives, therefore, even in our society’s greedy drive to consume more and more of what this life has to offer even as at the same time we are driven forward to feel better, look better, and perform better than maybe anyone has a right to expect of him- or herself.
In short, we are under attack and we need Someone to deliver us from all the bondage, violence, and unhappiness that infects this world. This is where Isaiah’s prediction about God’s Messiah being a Wonderful Counselor and the Prince of Peace come in. We will begin with Wonderful Counselor. This ties in with the Bible’s wisdom tradition, encapsulated best by the Book of Proverbs but really on display all through the Bible. A counselor is, of course, someone who dispenses advice.
But in the wisdom tradition of the Bible, what you get from a counselor is not information in the book-smart sense but counsel on the way life in this world works and how you can best fit yourself into that. Even today no one goes to a licensed counselor to get help with algebra. You don’t visit a counselor to learn the same stuff that got taught to you in school. You visit a counselor to talk about the shape of your life, the shape of the world, and how you can get your life and the world to gel.
That’s why the biblical wisdom tradition could be called a kind of “street smarts” over against the kind of learning involved in memorizing the periodic table of elements in chemistry. True wisdom discerns the way God has set up this world and then tries to go with the flow as God established it. Whether people like to acknowledge it or not, the fact is that there is a right way and a wrong way to do just about anything. Sometimes reading a how-to manual is enough to teach you the right way to proceed. Currently the DIY movement is popular: DIY stands for “Do It Yourself,” and on the Internet as well as on TV specials experts can teach you step by step how to fix plumbing, how to wire a light switch, how to put up drywall, and so on.
But in other parts of life you need not an instruction sheet but a wise and discerning heart. No one can teach you from a book precisely what is the best way to raise a child, how to woo someone you’d like to marry, or how to deal with the variety of different kinds of people you encounter at work or in school. Those of us who are parents can learn some things about child-rearing by reading books, but we all know that no child ever gets raised strictly “by the book!” Each child is unique and so woe betide the parent who isn’t able to discern the best way to adapt general principles to different kinds of kids.
Wisdom is the knack for getting along in the varied circumstances of life. Wisdom is what helps us figure out how to behave, what to say, and so how best to get along in life according to the blueprint God himself established in the created order. So it is wisdom that lets us look at the goals our society tries to set for us only to have us say in response, “This is folly! These are not the things our God in Christ wants us to pursue.” With the Spirit of Jesus in our hearts, we have the chance to take his wise and wonderful counsel.
But this will not happen easily or certainly automatically for us. Because keep in mind what I just mentioned: at least part of the explanation for what drives us toward so much that is finally foolish and destructive is the fact that there are powers and principalities out there whose only goal is to keep people enslaved to their appetites, to make people fall in love with their own selves, and to reduce all of life to a relentless competition whose end is always the diminishment (if not the outright destruction) of those who get in our way. This is where we need God’s Messiah as the Prince of Peace.
But there is a hidden irony tucked into this particular moniker. When we think of “peace,” we usually associate it with images of the “Silent Night” variety. Peace means “peace and quiet.” Peace means a lack of conflict. Yet I contend that as the Prince of Peace, God’s Christ is a very active and aggressive figure. But that seems counter-intuitive, right up there with encountering a loud mime or a fierce nun! Yet the Hebrew used in verse 6 means a champion of shalom, a military-style captain who wages peace precisely by doing battle with all that threatens this world’s shalom.
Because, of course, shalom means so much more than what we typically mean by the word “peace.” Shalom involves a lack of conflict, true enough, but more positively shalom refers to a world where every person and every creature is involved in a vast network of mutually edifying relationships in which each contributes to the flourishing of all. But that is such a very different picture from just about everything that characterizes our world now. Today even slight differences among varying groups of people can become enough to incite entire civil wars. Today we don’t celebrate diversity, we kill each other over it.
But in a world filled with shalom, everything is different. In shalom we do celebrate the very differences that today become the cause of bloodshed. Today nothing sets our tongues to wagging more than a juicy piece of gossip about a scandal. In shalom what will excite people’s imaginations and cause them to collar one another on the streets will be good news, glad tidings, the happy report of how a neighbor succeeded at something.
A world devoid of envy and competition may seem nearly unimaginable to us sometimes. That’s why if God’s Messiah is ever going to achieve that kind of peace for us, if he is to be the Prince of Peace in the sense of being the Captain of our Shalom, then he will have to work long and hard to do it, defeating all those spiritual forces that are constantly tugging the other direction. Revelation 12’s dragon that tried to slay God’s Christ is still lurking about. That’s why even on the very small battlegrounds of our own lives we need a Christ who can not only give us the wonderful counsel we need to discern what is right, useful, and gracious in this world, we need also a strong champion for shalom who will strengthen us to then do what God’s Spirit is telling us.
If you doubt that this is how things really work in our spiritual lives, I ask you to look back on one of the most foolish, sinful, ultimately hurtful things you ever did. Maybe it was flirting with someone not your spouse, a series of ostensibly “harmless” flirtations that somehow led to something anything-but harmless. Maybe it was indulging in pornography or drinking too much one night. Maybe it was really giving old so-and-so a piece of your mind that one time. Whatever the situation, if you’re honest, than you will admit that even at the time, at some level you knew, you just knew, that this was probably an unwise thing to do. You sensed you should stop yourself. But then you did it anyway.
Often times we know full well what’s right and wise, but we don’t follow that path because although we were hearing the wonderful counsel of our Christ’s Holy Spirit, we did not tap the strength we needed from our Captain of Shalom. As M. Scott Peck wrote in his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled, every therapist could produce a long list of people who quit therapy not because they had concluded they were never going to figure out what they had to do to make their lives better but because they lacked the will and the courage to do what they now knew needed doing.
Even so, on the eve of this day when we have been celebrating our Savior’s birth, this is not to say that tapping into the strength of our Peace Prince is easy. Our lives remain fraught with struggles. But the hope we grab at Christmas and always is that we do serve, and are inhabited by, a Savior who has both wisdom and strength. The counsel we need, and the spiritual energy we require to do as our Lord directs, is available.
This rich passage concludes with the line “The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.” We tend to read that line without much thought, but what exactly is this “zeal” of God’s? The Hebrew word there in verse 7 is the same word for “jealousy.” If a husband is jealous of his wife’s affections, this jealousy leads to action in case the treasured relationship is threatened by someone trying to woo his wife away from him. The Bible says that our God is a jealous God because he loves his people so fiercely that he will brook no rivals, he will tolerate no threats when it comes to helping his cherished people flourish.
So when we are told that the zeal of our almighty God will accomplish this increase in shalom and goodness, we are not looking at some abstract zeal. We are being told again how very, very fiercely and ardently and zestfully we are loved by God. That’s the good news of Christmas: love really did come down. And when you realize anew how much you are loved by the God of the galaxies through Christ Jesus the Lord, you will surely find delight in the wonderful counsel he gives even as you rest secure that he has all the power needed to make a world of shalom your dwelling place now and forever. Amen.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!