Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 25, 2022
Isaiah 9:2-7 Commentary
The first and last titles that we read in Isaiah 9:6 remind us that in God’s Messiah, we find someone who embodies both wisdom and strength. And as with John’s description of the Word of God being full of both grace and truth, so also with wisdom and strength: we all know people who have one of these pairs of traits but rare is the person who can be equally full of wisdom and strength, grace and truth. Some people are very strong but not very wise. Others can be pretty wise but not strong enough to put that wisdom into practice.
But the larger sweep of Isaiah 9 reminds us that to do anyone any good, the Messiah needs precisely wisdom and strength working in tandem. For this Christmas Eve or Christmas Day selection from the RCL, 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. As we celebrate Christmas 2022, we do so in the shadow of a lingering global pandemic, a time of grave partisan divides and mistrust, and a horrible war in the heart of Europe that has left millions of people in Ukraine in the cold and dark as winter grips that country.
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.
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. 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. There are too many social, cultural, and historical counter-forces that make wisdom both hard to discern and sometimes harder to follow. 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.
As we celebrate 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.”
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.
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. It’s not wisdom we lack sometimes but the strength to do it.
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