The Servant Who Endures

Scripture: Isaiah 42:1-9

Half Truths

In the last year or two, a number of the small groups here worked through some curriculum written by Adam Hamilton which is titled Half Truths. For those who haven’t had the good fortune of reading the book or watching the videos as of yet, the basic premise is that there are things that Christians often say without really thinking about it which are not really biblical and are often damaging. These are things like:

Everything happens for a reason……

It must have been God’s will……

God won’t give you more than you can handle……

God helps those who help themselves……

God said it, I believe it, that settles it……

Love the sinner, hate the sin……

In the discussion surrounding each of these, Hamilton argues that there may be a kernel of truth at the center of each saying, but as articulated and used in general conversation each is more harmful than helpful.

I’m not going to regurgitate Hamilton’s book to you this morning, but these “half truths” seem like a good place to start our reflection. They are (in my assessment) bumper sticker stop-gaps–they are pithy things we say when we don’t know what to say, usually in response to something we don’t understand…… like injustice, or death, or change.

A lot of them have at least a tangental connection to a question that has plagued human philosophy for millennia: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Does that not continue to be a relevant question? 

We all know someone–or more than likely several someones–who have had more than their fare share of hardship, or grief, or suffering. 

We all know someone whose time on earth was cut short.

We all know someone who–despite their generous sowing of kindness and love–has only seemed to reap thorns and brambles.

We all know someone who deserves better out of life than they have received.

 

This doesn’t seem right to us. It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem just. And we don’t really understand why it is so.

Which makes it all the more unfortunate when we become so uncomfortable by these rough edges of life that we strike out at those suffering with one of these largely thoughtless aphorisms. At times when we would better off say nothing at all, we feel the need to say anything so we can feel like we did something.

Insulated Christians?

I continue to find that there are a good deal of people who identify as Christians and who genuinely believe that this identification with Jesus should somehow insulate them from the troubles of life. 

Like Hamilton’s “half truths,” this can work itself out in damaging ways. 

When we point this at ourselves, we can despair and lose hope–after all, if only we were closer to Jesus we would  not experience these things…… and yet we seem unable to be “good enough” to cross that threshold into a trouble-free life.

More often, however, we point it at others–not to their faces, perhaps, but in our minds and perhaps through gossip: 

“Did you hear about so-and-so? They made that bed for themselves……” 

Or: “Those kids wouldn’t be like that if they brought them to church…….” 

Or: “What do you expect? You know who they were growing up!……”

In their own ways, these are all expressions of the falsehood that bad things only happen to people who deserve them.

Job

Far too often, I fear we have become more like Job’s so-called friends than the Jesus we follow.

Job’s story (if you remember it) stands somewhat unique in the scriptures in the ways it directly challenges the kind of bumper-sticker theology that we are tempted to develop out of the Psalms and Proverbs. Job is described as an exceedingly just and faithful person–the most godly person you can imagine [Job 1:1]. He is also described as what many Christians today would call “blessed,” in that he has all the trappings of success: a big family, good health, a great amount of wealth, and even community influence (it seems). He is the paradigm of the good, successful, godly life–a role model in every possible way.

And in one–or actually two–fell swoops, all of it is gone. Most of his family have died tragically. All of his wealth has been taken from him. His health gets so bad he cannot even function anymore. And ultimately Job is joined by a few other community leaders (or so we are to suppose of them) who insist repeatedly that Job brought this on himself. 

For roughly the next 35 chapters, they insist that bad things just don’t happen to good people; that Job must have brought all this onto himself by doing bad things in secret; that he must have only appeared to be good, and that these catastrophes have only proved that he was really a bad dude all along.

The biblical book of Job stands as a vivid corrective against this temptation to assume that a person only experiences hardship if they deserve it. It proclaims to those with ears to hear that bad things do happen…… and they happen to good people too…… and our attempts to understand why bad things happen are usually fruitless. 

Jesus’ Response to the Question

It’s natural to try to make sense of life. But the testimony of the scriptures–which I suspect is confirmed through the experiences of each person here–is that the hardships of life are not reserved for those who deserve them. 

Every day, we are aware of people who deserve better than what they get.

Every day, we are aware of people who deserve worse than what they get.

Our Heavenly Father “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous”–that’s what Jesus said (Matthew 5:45). That was his way in that moment of acknowledging that human life is unpredictable when it comes to such things. 

At the beginning of Luke 13, some people bring news of recent catastrophes–some Galileans who were killed by Pilate, and eighteen who died when a building collapsed (perhaps in one of the region’s frequent earthquakes).

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No…” Jesus says…… (Luke 13:2-3a NRSV)

“Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No…” Jesus says…… (Luke 13:4b-5a)

They did not bring these things on themselves. They were not targeted and taken out by a strategic strike by God. Life is dangerous. Life is short. Life is fragile.

That’s the lesson Jesus tries to impart on his hearers there in Luke 13. He urges them to awareness of the brevity and fragility of life–to be aware that they don’t know how much time they will have on this earth–and to live into the fullness of abundant life in God’s Kingdom of the Heavens.

Why Not?

A mentor of mine used to suggest that if a question cannot be answered, try turning it around. So if we cannot easily answer “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, we should instead try asking “Why shouldn’t bad things happen to good people?”

Maybe (in some ways) that’s a less comfortable question–but I do believe it gets us closer to the bible’s description of life and faith.

Three hundred years or less, St. Anthony the Great summed up the whole of the Christian life in this way: “Our great work is to lay the blame for our sins upon ourselves before God, and to expect to be tempted to our last breath.”

Within this corpus of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, one also finds examples like that of the wise woman Sarah. It is said that Amma Sarah “waged warfare” against a particular temptation for thirteen years. “She never prayed that the warfare should cease but she said, ‘O God, give me strength.'”

A Difficult Road

Difficulties will be a part of any Christian’s life, because difficulties are part of every person’s life. In our redemption, we do not somehow cease to be human; rather, we become more fully human–more fully what God intends and desires that “human” means and becomes.

Jesus himself experienced tremendous hardship–even and ultimately a sham trial and capital punishment. To anyone who chose to follow him, Jesus did not suggest the road would be easy; rather, he suggested they should expect to receive the same treatment he himself received. In John 15 (for example), Jesus reminds his disciples:

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you…… Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:18, 20 NRSV)

Suffering Servant

This brings us back to today’s scripture lesson.

Here in Isaiah 42, we find the first of what has come to be called the “Servant Songs” of Isaiah.  These are poems that describe someone called “the servant of the Lord.” Jewish interpreters tend to read these as either describing a messiah figure (the more classical reading) or describing a restored and fulfilled Israel (the more modern reading). 

Christian interpreters usually see them as anticipating Jesus the Christ, especially in light of the Servant Song found in Isaiah 52 and 53, which describes a servant:

who is “lifted up” (52:13), 

whose appearance is “marred…beyond human semblance” (52:14), 

who is “despised and rejected by others” (53:3), 

who “was wounded for our transgressions” (53:5), 

and who “bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors” (53:12). 

As we followers of Jesus have traditionally read these texts, we understand that the servant in Isaiah 42 is the same as the one in Isaiah 53. The servant who suffers in chapter 53 is the same one who preserves the suffering in 42. The one who experiences injustice in chapter 53 will “faithfully bring forth justice” in 42.

The way of this Servant-Who-Endures is a gentle way that invites instead of demands: “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street” (Isaiah 42:2 NRSV).

The way of this Servant-Who-Endures is persistent and enduring, despite obstacles and obstructions: “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (Isaiah 42:4a NRSV).

The way of this Servant-Who-Endures opens up pathways of good news–and good news precisely for those on the margins of society: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6–7 NRSV).

This Servant-Who-Endures paves the way for us to endure as well. Just as was his own experience of life, our own will not be without hardship. In fact, we may find that following the Servant-Who-Endures will place us at odds with the government and other people of faith. Just as with Jesus himself, we may find that it feels like the world hates us [John 15:19]. 

Outro

But if we are following the way of the Servant-Who-Endures, we will discover that we can abide in the blessedness of Christ’s Kingdom even “when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11 NRSV). 

Because in Christ, we realize that our blessedness and experience of God’s favor is not conditional upon the circumstances of our life, but rather independent from them. That God’s love for us is not limited to our ability to live rightly or follow the rules, but is rooted fundamentally in our very creation: because we exist, we exist as creatures loved by God. 

And as we begin to grasp this reality in our developing relationship with Jesus, we learn that we are able to endure not because of our own strength or stubbornness, but because of the endurance of the Servant-Who-Endures, who offers his presence and power to endure whatever the world may throw our way. We may even find ourselves discovering that we can, in fact, “Rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:12 NRSV)–not by trying harder, but by growing in relationship and trust with the Servant-Who-Endures and learning ever-more of his love.

The Word Who Reveals

Scripture: John 1:1-18

Intro

Church, I know I just got back from vacation, but like far too many vacations, the pressures of time and travel and the obligations of family have left me far less rested than I’d like to be. 

In the time I’ve had since we got back to town late on Thursday, I have written and rewritten this sermon multiple times; and after dinner on Saturday I said “it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be” and I surrendered to the Spirit. I opened a blank document on my laptop, breathed a prayer to God, and started all over from scratch one last time.

The topic guiding us this morning is “the Word Who Reveals.” As tomorrow is Epiphany, it seems appropriate to think about unveilings…… revelations…… discoveries…… And it has led me to reflect considerably about my own epiphanies of Jesus—those unveilings in which God revealed something of Godself to me…… in which perhaps even God chose to be vulnerable to me by exposing part of God’s deep and true heart.

I prayed that Jesus would enter my heart at an early age, and was baptized soon thereafter. I don’t doubt the reality of those experiences, though I have long since wished someone would have mentored me for the next years and taught me about how faith changes through life. The overwhelming sensation I had way back then was belonging—somehow I now belonged in a way I never had before.

In the many years since, I have had a number of encounters with God—ranging from what might be called mundane conversations to more mystical experiences. Two of these seem worth sharing this morning.

The Devil, Hostage

I don’t remember exactly, but I think I was 16 or 17 years old, and my life was filled with that tremendous complexity of high school life. It’s funny how little of the circumstances I now remember, given the significance of what happened. I suspect I was exhausted from overcommitment, fueled by the chemical emotionality of a rocky teenage relationship, and a bit spiritually dry from repeated moral failures.

So I went for a walk. There wasn’t much to the small town I grew up in, so I wasn’t worried about getting lost. I just walked in the dark. And I talked to myself and to God, which I suppose you might call praying, though I doubt prayer is what it sounded like to anyone who might have overheard.

Without meaning to, I ended up outside the church my family was part of. It was a cold night; the sky was crystal clear and the stars shone like the suns they were. 

And I broke down; I sobbed tears that froze to my cheeks. I was not good enough. My best efforts were not enough. The sins that I had allowed to enter my life now seemed to have control, and I was too weak to wrestle back command. Everything felt like it had gone off the rails and life felt hopeless.

God responded with a kind of vision. I don’t claim to know what visions are like for the biblical personalities, but for me it wasn’t like anything around me changed. Rather, it was like I was seeing truth in image form—perhaps only in my mind. 

What I saw (quite simply) was God restraining the devil. And God invited me into this, asking “What do you want to say?”

I knew God wasn’t asking what I wanted to say to God, since I’d been doing that for a couple hours already. 

So, my resolve strengthened by this reminder of God’s own strength, I started yelling at the devil—shouting and screaming and cursing and whatever other primal things found voice—while I felt God hold the devil in place, forced to listen against his will.

When at last—spent and exhausted—I quietly sank to the ground, I knew two things for certain:

First: that God would always have the upper hand, and that with God’s help I could overcome anything.

And second: that I didn’t need God to hold down the devil for me to tell him off. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7b)

There was, of course, a third thing I learned from this revelation, though it didn’t become clear to me until later: God was on my side, provided I was on God’s side.

Embraced

Some years later, I’m on a missionary trip to Chicago. Sure, I signed up for the service aspect of it, but I was really looking forward to spending a whole week with some of my best friends. Because of my familiarity with the city, however, I became navigator to our driver—and that was a level of responsibility I wasn’t prepared for—not mentally, and certainly not spiritually.

Now I’d grown up visiting Chicago. We took school trips to the zoos and museums, occasionally caught baseball games, and even took family day trips to eat and explore. But by coincidence—or at least by the confluence of human opportunity and divine shaping—we ended up in some of the poorest areas of the city, partnering with storefront churches, food kitchens, and the like—certainly not the side of town I knew and loved, to say the least.

About our third day in, I was empty from trying to do everything by my power and my ability, from trying to live up to everyone’s expectations, from operating so far out of my comfort zone for too long. 

And so when the day ended, and everyone tried to find somewhere to spread out their sleeping bags in this black church we overnighted at, I instead tried to find an empty space where I, like so many biblical figures, could seek an audience with God.

I remember pouring out my heart: my inadequacies, my failures, my irritability, my pride, my sin, my everything. And I found that there—at the end of my rope—was an invitation: if only I would let go, I could be caught by God. Caught by God.

And I let go.

I was on my knees, but the sensation was that of falling—I don’t know for how long. And then I was being held by God. The light seemed to go right through me, as though I was more shadow than substance. And for a time—again, I don’t really know how long—God simply embraced me. 

When I stood up later, knees stiff and weak from kneeling, I again discovered I now knew two things more deeply and truly than ever before:

First, God really does love me. Against all odds and despite everything you might guess, God loves me with a heart of love big enough to swallow the whole of creation.

And second, I knew that I’m not supposed to do God’s things by my power alone. Jesus invites us into the power of the Kingdom of the Heavens, a power that is available to all who are ruled by him.

Epiphany

Epiphany is about realizing who Jesus is. And maybe we can expand this to realizing who God is, since Jesus teaches us that if we have seen Jesus we have seen the Father. John 14:7 reads:

“If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:7 NRSV)

Our scripture text this week asserts that Jesus is the Word Who Reveals. So I ask: Who has Jesus revealed himself to be to you?

 

Your experience isn’t going to look like mine…… not because I’m better than you or anything like that, but because we are two different people. And while the heart of God is unchanging, the means by which God carries out his priorities in relationship are eternally changing.

God loves us each so much that God meets us one-on-one, just as we are and in the ways we can best hear. 

Sometimes that’s a still, small voice that is almost indistinguishable in our heads. 

Sometimes we encounter God through the words or presence of a friend or stranger. 

At times, we experience such epiphanies when reading the bible, or when praying, or when worshipping in song. 

Maybe we see on a random billboard just the word we need to hear. 

And maybe—and I know this sounds crazy—maybe you might even discover something of Jesus revealed in a sermon or during Sunday worship.

Herod

Epiphany is the feast day when Christians remember the visit of the Magi. But their story of epiphany—of learning something of who Jesus is—is bound up in the story of Herod and his own dangerous epiphany. 

The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ was bad news to King Herod, an insecure tyrant (and puppet of a foreign leader) who is brought word of his inevitable downfall. Responding to this epiphany, he plots violence to preserve power. Children die and Christ becomes a refugee when his family flees state violence.

And while the tragic choice of an immoral leader can and does bring about the death of thousands, it can never dissuade God from God’s life-giving and redemptive purposes. On the coattails of human violence rides the God who suffers with us, who binds up our wounds, and who leads us to life again and again and again.

When God rolls back the curtain on all that is done in darkness, the revelation to come will not be good news to all. But those of us who have learned the truth of God’s love know there is nothing we have to hide from our beloved.

 

The Word-Who-Reveals reveals God’s heart—an unending well of love and mercy that will never fail to catch you when you let go at the end of your rope.

The Word-Who-Reveals reveals the present power of the Kingdom of the Heavens which is available to all who are learning to allow God’s rule in their lives.

The Word-Who-Reveals reveals light and life, and through the penetrating testimony of Jesus, enables us to be reborn as children of the One True God.

 

This season, may the Word Who Reveals reveal to you something new of the of God’s pervasive love and infinite compassion.

 

Prayer (adapted from here)

God, we are one day out
from epiphany
and my view is backside of a camel,
the road is a blister-maker,
the night-sky is cloudy,
and I think I am
going to make a bad decision.

I know that being wise
involves avoiding the bullies,
in families, communities,
schoolyards, prison yards,
nursing homes, work places,
churches, and across the globe,

because their reasons
to make decisions
have nothing to do with
the light-years of hope in a star
or the priority that dreams have
to protect children.

We are always one day out
from epiphany,
at a fork in the road —
Jerusalem or Bethlehem?

Help us find
the place to set down
the precious burden of our gifts.

Amen.

The Dance

Old Testament Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7

New Testament Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

Thinking… Thinking…

I like data. I like learning about things—how they work, what the technical pieces and distinctions are, and so on. If something peaks my interest, I will likely be thinking about it for weeks—reading books, watching videos, and pondering…… processing…… figuring out what I think about all this. 

I’ve recently realized that this is one of the things that makes me hard to shop for. How do you buy a present for someone who has thought so deeply and specifically about the things that interest him?

I’ve long known that this mechanism within me makes it hard to be in relationship at times as well. Feelings are hard to get objective data about, so I can get locked into this cycle of trying to figure out the whats and whys of what I feel because I want to understand it before I talk about it. To my poor spouse, this must often be like sitting in front of a computer screen that has locked up, with the infamous pinwheel of death spinning and spinning and never stopping.

Mary

I believe Mary might be a kindred spirit to me. From the moment Gabriel appears to her [Luke 1:29], Mary is thinking, pondering, processing, wondering. 

She needs more data. 

Three times in Luke’s telling of Jesus’ birth, Mary is described as pondering, or wondering, or treasuring her experience in her heart. The portrait painted of her in the scriptures is of a woman who pondered her experiences and was slow to judge them. Solitude and silence seem to be refuges that enable her to live out her calling sincerely and fully. 

I think Mary and I would have a lot to not talk about. We could sit together all day and just think.

But Mary is not invited by God to just think. She is invited to embody, and to embody in a way that is completely unique throughout history. She is invited to not merely embody God’s priorities and purposes, as the people of God throughout the ages were to do.

No, Mary is to literally embody God: to build within her the very Son of God enfleshed…… God incarnate…… Immanuel, God with us.

No wonder she spends so much of the story not responding, but taking in the data and processing, trying to figure out how she feels and what she thinks about the invitation that she has accepted. No wonder Mary appears almost mute throughout these chapters.

Meek and Mild

But it is a shame that this muteness has been confused with “Mary meek and mild” through the centuries. Because the character of Mary is not passive or timid, she is fierce and powerful, independent and strong. 

It is Mary who proclaims in the Magnificat that

“[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52–53 NRSV)

These are not the words of a “Mary meek and mild,” but of a Mary who has grabbed hold of a power and a vision and a truth that transcends all things.

We find no “Mary meek and mild” in Canaan, prompting her son Jesus into his first miracle in John 2. We find instead a confident and strong woman who recognizes the appropriateness of time and place—even when Jesus does not.

We find no “Mary meek and mild” at Calvary, as her son hangs, crucified by Rome to sate the public’s lust for blood—blood that was sought because Jesus dared to challenge the status quo and the power brokers of his world. Mary does not look away or cower from this moment of terror. She is ferociously present.

Mary is brave. Fierce. A force to be reckoned with.

Mary is who many of us wish we were.

An Alternate Vision

I want to suggest tonight that what enables Mary to become this inspiring figure is not the data she naturally sought, but rather the vision given to her by Gabriel. Remember way back in Luke 1, at the very beginning of Mary’s story, Gabriel appears to her and gives her this alternative vision of what was to come. Beginning in v.30, we read:

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:30–33 NRSV)

After a little more back and forth, Gabriel assures her”

“For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37 NRSV)

It is an alternate vision—one that relies not on the data she already has, but on her ability to imagine God’s future made present.

The Dance of Imagination and Knowledge

The pairing of knowledge and imagination has been written about by longtime chaplain J. Claude Huguley in his book Transforming Fear with Love. He writes that we are often afraid because of limited knowledge—because we just don’t know enough about a situation, or the future, or whatever. Limited knowledge can lead to unlimited fear.

In this context, he talks about what he calls the “dance of imagination and knowledge.” That, yes, we know some things—we have data……however incomplete or uncertain. But we also have this alternative vision, which he calls imagination. These two—knowledge and imagination—operate hand-in-hand…… arm-in-arm…… in this beautiful dance that together cast out fear and create action.

Mary was given a bit of knowledge…… a bit of data, if you will. But it is imagination that took the lead. That little bit of knowledge fueled her imagination and vision of what God would do…… of what God could do…… And once she began to trust this alternate vision, she found a source of unlimited power that enabled her to overcome that potentially paralyzing fear with a confidence and a strength that would become her M.O. for the rest of her life. 

Wrapping Up

What drives your fears?

What data (or lack thereof) inspires uncertainty in your life?

What holds you back from living God’s future in your present?

Perhaps this season, we might discover how utilizing our imagination alongside God’s alternative vision of life will empower us to overcome fear.

 

You know, in some ways, this “dance of imagination and knowledge” might just be the definition of faith:

We know some things, and in relationship with God we continue to grow in what we know and live out. 

Yet when our “knowing” gets thin, we combine our imagination with the Divine imagination, and we discover a peace and a comfort and a power that sees us through.

Our faith, after all, is not a matter of simple belief…… simple intellectual acknowledgment. 

The faith we practice is and always has been a matter of action. It has been about embodying God’s priorities and principles in this world. It has been about following Jesus so as to learn how to live as he lives. 

And that is why fear has always been the tool of the enemy. When we are afraid, we do not act. We do not embody. We do not follow. We do not live. 

But we who have discovered the love of God through Jesus…… 

We who follow the advice of the Wonderful Counselor…… 

We who permit in our lives the reconstructive work of our Mighty God…… 

We who have been born again in likeness of our Heavenly Parent…… 

We who have submitted to the rule of the Prince of Peace……

We know that perfect love casts out fear [1John 4:18]—that we need only to utilize our God-given creativity and imagine this alternate vision alongside God, and it will become real. The bonds of our fear will fall away. The cage of our terror will dissolve. 

Because God has been born this day. God has entered this world. And the incarnation—if nothing else—is a vote of confidence in each of us: God believes you are worth saving—not as you will be or can be, but as you are. 

Just as you are, God loves you.
Just as you are, God wants your wellbeing.
Just as you are, God desires you experience the fulfillment that comes with living an abundant life.

How are you going to respond to that?

When she was asked to carry the Christ child,
Mary said “yes.” 

When he was asked to stand by Mary,
Joseph did it, without saying a word. 

Shepherds heard the angels and decided to see Jesus for themselves, and magi traveled miles to give him gifts. 

The characters in the story orbit the new savior in ellipses of active obedience.

The lullabies of the season are for baby Jesus – they are not for you. 

Listen.
When God speaks, obey.
Get up and go.
Give. 

So many will respond to Christmas like the shepherds could have——enjoy the pretty music, then go back to sleep. 

But the call of Christ is a call to follow. As Jesus begins his journey, why not follow him in the dance and renew yours?

Prince of Peace

Old Testament Scripture: Isaiah 7:10–16

New Testament Scripture: Romans 1:1-7

Absolute Chaos

Church, it’s the fourth Sunday of Advent—December 22nd—with Christmas just three days away. And I don’t feel particularly peaceful. 

Not with the presents to buy and wrap, 

the cleaning that needs done around the house, 

the preparations still to make for our holiday travels, 

the work that needs finishing before I can leave, 

and the 47-bazillion little things that will certainly come up between now and then. 

Is anybody else with me?

 

Yet I find there’s something ironic about the way our cultural celebration of Christmas parallels the life-giving message of the Advent season:

Just when we’re feeling the urge to give up, Advent calls us to hope.

Just when we’re at risk of despairing, Advent encourages the discovery of joy.

Just when we’re starting to see red in anger more than decor, Advent invites us into love.

Just when we’re feeling the time-crunch and everything is in chaos, Advent leads us towards peace.

For that I’m grateful.

Series Recap

This season, we’ve been reflecting on those identities of God that are revealed in Isaiah 9: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Parent, Prince of Peace.

Our consideration of God as “Wonderful Counselor” led us to reflect on whether we can trust God.

Reflecting on our “Mighty God” helped us consider how Jesus makes a difference in our life.

And then last week, we discovered how deeply our “everlasting parent” cares for us—working for our goodwill not just in the moment, but with the scope of eternity in mind.

Which brings us to today—and the last title that guides our reflection: Prince of Peace.

Overview of NT

The word “peace” appears 94 times in the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament—96 in the NIV, 111 in the 400-year-old Authorized Version more commonly called the King James. 

Before Jesus’ birth, peace was being anticipated by the prophecy of Zechariah, who spoke that his son (who we come to know as John the Baptist) would “prepare” the world for the coming of the Lord [Luke 1:76] by anticipating the Way of Jesus: giving light and “guiding our feet into the way of peace” [Luke 1:79].

When Jesus’ birth is announced to those shepherds, it is immortalized in those famous words that invoke “glory to God” and “peace on earth” [Luke 2:14]. These, after all, are the root purposes of the incarnation itself: to bring glory to God and ton reconcile all of creation to Godself.

Once Jesus begins teaching, he makes it clear that the peacemakers are the ones who really look like our Everlasting Parent [Matthew 5:9]……who really resemble the DNA of one “born from above”…… and then Jesus goes on to embody such peacemaking in his life.

Repeatedly in the gospels, Jesus wishes peace upon others, though perhaps this happens most famously in John 14, when Jesus promises the coming of the Holy Spirit who will enable true peace—peace like the peace of Jesus—which will steady troubled hearts and drive out fear from our lives [John 14:27].

This theme of peace that began before Jesus’ birth continues after his death and resurrection. It is peace this is wished upon the disciples when he first appears to confirm Mary Magdalene’s incredible proclamation of resurrection [John 20:19b]. And it is peace with which Jesus commissions his followers thereafter [John 20:21-22].

The early church understood right away Jesus’ role as Prince of Peace, and so in Jesus’ name they continued to invoke and pursue peace in their communities and in the broader world.

In Acts 10, Peter will sum up the message of God with the phrase “preaching peace by Jesus Christ” [Acts 10:36].

Paul in Romans 15 will call God “the God of peace” [Romans 15:33], an identification he will make in almost every single letter he writes.

We are fortunate enough to have several places preserved in the New Testament where the significance of this Prince of Peace is expanded upon theologically. Perhaps the most complete expression is found in Ephesians 2:

“For he [that is, Jesus] is our peace [isn’t that lovely?: “Jesus is our peace”]; in his flesh he has made both groups [Jew and Gentile] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (Ephesians 2:14–15 NRSV).

The early church understood clearly that a central defining feature of the gospel of Jesus is that in Jesus, everything that divides us and hinders unity is rendered null and void. Gender doesn’t matter. Economics don’t matter. Ethnicity doesn’t matter. Status doesn’t matter [Galatians 3:28]. Even religion—per se—doesn’t matter, because Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion; Jesus came to reconcile the whole world to the God who made all things.

My own favorite scripture passage that describes this work of Jesus comes from Colossians 1. There we read:

“For in him [again, this is Jesus: “In Jesus”] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:19–20 NRSV)

Isn’t that wonderful?

What would this look like in life?

Now then…… If we rightly understand the work of this Prince of Peace to be the ruination of those structures and systems and ideologies that divide us from each other, what would it look like for our lives to be ruled by such a “Prince of Peace”?

Isn’t that a big question, and a simple one all at the same time?

 

It begins, I’m afraid, with the recognization that we are deeply divided against others in this world…… that there are many we care little about, and even some that we wish harm upon.

If we allow the One who is the Truth to lead us down this path of seeing ourselves truly, we will undoubtedly learn that many of the reasons we care so little for others is because we have implicit and explicit biases against people who are different than us: 

we are male and they are female, 

we are white and they are brown, 

we speak English and they speak Spanish, 

we worship in churches and they in mosques,

we have forgotten our family’s story of immigration and they are living a fearful flight from violence,

the list goes on and on.

What would our lives look like if they were ruled by the Prince of Peace who tears down all such dividing walls in our world? It must certainly involve the purging of such inhumanity in us that fails to recognize the humanity in the other.

In fact, I think that Paul was trying to answer the same question in 2Corinthians 5, when he talks about the ministry entrusted to all followers of Jesus. He writes:

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2Corinthians 5:17–20 NRSV)

What does God want for me/creation?

The beauty of this passage is that it also addresses the other big question that reflection on the Prince of Peace elicits in our minds: What does God want for me and for creation?

 

God wants to see you reconciled—to God, to others, and to yourself. 

God desires healing for your brokenness. 

God desires wholeness where you feel divided. 

God desires you to be completely and authentically you—

—and so truly you that you feel no threat from another. 

So truly you that you can see apart from the biases and prejudices that we so ignorantly wield against others. 

So truly you that you can rejoice in the goodness that others experience. 

So truly you that you enable others to be truly themselves as well. 

That’s when we really become a force of reconciliation in this world.
That’s when we know the Prince of Peace truly rules our life.

Everlasting Parent

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 35:1–10

New Testament Reading: James 5:4-10

Series Intro

Once again this week, we continue to examine and reflect on the identities of God named in that famous text from Isaiah 9 [v.6].

The first week of Advent, we considered God as “Wonderful Counselor,” and we wrestled with that deep question: “Can I trust God?”

Last week, it was “Mighty God” that held our attention. As we considered the workings of this “Mighty God” of the scriptures, we wrestled with the question: “Is Jesus able to make a difference in my life?”

This week, we consider God as “Everlasting Father”…… or perhaps “everlasting parent” is more helpful to us, given the ways family structures have so dramatically shifted from Jesus’ day. 

Just as with the previous weeks, this “name” from Isaiah raises questions in us… questions that are more significant for our lives and world than their simple nature suggests. On one hand, we must consider: How might our life be different on account of the presence and relationship of an “everlasting Father”…… an “everlasting parent”?

Alongside this (though) comes a question that cuts to the quick of life and faith and evangelism and church and mission: Does God care about me?

Abba (not the band)

Throughout the bible, “divine parent” is the predominant image of God in relationship with us. We are invited over and over to imagine God relating with us as a parent relates with a child. The reverse is also encouraged: to intentionally relate with God as a child relates with a parent. Even Jesus models this for us, referring to God as “abba” [Mark 14:36]—which is closer to “daddy” than “father.”

Perhaps God-as-Parent is such a frequent image because the idea of a parent is common to all of us. We haven’t all had fathers or mothers to be sure; and some of the ones we had, we might have been better off without. These limitations of our human experience of parents have to be acknowledged. 

But God-as-Parent is always presented as somehow more: 

more fatherly, more motherly, more parent-ly; 

more true, more permanent, more loving; 

with more resources, and more strength, and more ability to parent us with goodness and grace. 

God-as-Parent invites us to consider the wide swath of folks who have parented us in diverse ways and at various times. 

Playground Justice

I’m not altogether sure that James intends anything like this, but the picture of God he offers in these verses feels very parental to me. As a very, very bad analogy, imagine that all of creation is a playground. Like any responsible parent, God is attentive to their children as they move in and out of play and spaces. At times there is conflict among children, and like any good parent, God will sometimes wait and watch, and sometimes intervene. Sometimes the parent works to set right the wrongs that other children have committed against their own, and sometimes the parent needs to set right the wrongs that their children have committed against others. 

James writes to the children of God and makes it very clear that they have not been playing well with others [James 5:4]. They have been selfish. They haven’t shared [James 5:5]. In their carelessness or even by design, they have hurt others [James 5:6]. James’s eyes are fixed to the edge of the playground, where he sees God rising from the bench and storming over [James 5:8]. This kind of behavior will not be tolerated. This is not who God raised them to be. 

Yet James’s vision here also encompasses those who have been victims on this playground of earth [James 5:7-8]. Hold fast, stand strong, don’t retaliate—because God is coming to set right the wrongs you are experiencing [James 5:9b]. After all, God is a parent you can rely on to stand up for you and with you when trouble comes around.

Everlasting

It’s a little harder for us to get our mind around the “everlasting” part. Yet in some ways, it is just as vital for us to find hope in the dark seasons of life. 

It is worth regularly reminding ourselves that God’s perspective is considerably broader than our own. Even if we are to limit our consideration to how God knows everything that has ever happened to everyone and everything since the beginning of creation, and that God is able to instantly or even simultaneously hold all of this in focus at once, we will be staggered at the expansiveness of it all. To stretch that dataset outside of the bounds of creation boggles the mind. 

And yet our minds must be boggled. Because the scriptures make it clear that God is working on the scale of eternity. I mean, there are a lot of statistics that indicate how we rarely plan for even the short-term future, and yet God holds millennia in mind as plans are imagined and shaped. 

This is why, I believe, we are so easily overwhelmed by the events of our world. We have difficulty planning a year or more in advance, and so we easily despair when we see great injustices being committed and it looks like evil has the upper hand. In our small vision, we lose sight of the fact that God is playing the long game. If we adopt God’s view, we will more easily remain on track with Jesus through the hardships we experience in life.

 

And this is why James and other New Testament writers so often work to remind their hearers of this…… to replace their short-sightedness with the everlasting vision of God.

To riff off of James here, what benefit is there really in cheating others for selfish gain? Sure, we might be able to amass an amount of wealth that allows us to live in opulent luxury for our time on earth. But how is that really a win for us, if we look at things from a God’s eye view? We harm others in order to obtain a few short years of self-indulgence—and for this fleeting luxury we have traded an eternity of God’s abundance and life.

The other consequence of our short-sightedness is the very despair that can overwhelm us. As I named a moment ago, the manifold faces of injustice and pain in our world can lead us to doubt God’s goodness and care, if all we can see is the present. 

But when we learn to see as God sees…… when we begin to consider the scope of eternity…… when we remember the whole of our history with God…… when we reflect upon the end that God has stated is being worked towards…… when we consider our everlasting Parent, we cannot help but see God’s care, and consideration, and love, and grace all along the way. 

It is all so intense and overwhelming that we cannot help but begin to wonder with the Psalmist: “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4 NRSV).

Outro

Does God care about you? Oh, yes!

God cares about you like the father you always wanted…… like the mother you never had…… like the parent you always needed in order to thrive, and become, and abound in a full and complete life.

God cares for you like every parent should—and yet more than even that.

God cares for you by looking throughout and beyond history in order to try to grow you into the “you” you always wanted to be. All of creation has come into being because of how much God cares for you.

None of this is hidden from us, if we will only look and see. As James wrote so many years ago: “You have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11b NRSV).

Mighty God

OT Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-10

NT Scripture: Romans 15:4-13

Intro

This second week of Advent, we continue these reflections on the “names” of the Messiah anticipated in Isaiah 9: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace [adapted from rev-o-lution.org].

Last week, we reflected on God as Wonderful Counselor. We considered questions like: What might it mean for us to have a “wonderful counselor”? What kinds of counsel do we seek and follow? What kinds of counsel are most available, and what kinds are most effective in leading us into that deep life that we innately desire?

At the root of this dimension of God’s identity is the question: Can I trust God? And I believe that biblically, the answer to that is similar to one that seems to follow Jesus around: “come and see.” Or like what happens in Matthew 11 when John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus and ask if he is the Messiah. There, Jesus tells them to use their senses—to test and prove, essentially—and to discover for themselves who Jesus is.

In the same way, I believe that God invites us to discover for ourselves that God is in fact a trustworthy God—a Wonderful Counselor whose counsel leads us to true and abundant life. By testing God’s counsel in small ways, we learn to trust God in large ways as well.

Mighty God

Today, we move on to that second appellation offered in Isaiah 9: “Mighty God.” As we consider this dimension of God’s identity, we ask: What would be the effect of inviting a “mighty God” to work in us? 

Or perhaps put differently: Is Jesus able to make a difference in my life?

 

I suspect that the failure to believe in a Mighty God is one of the greatest faults in the church of Jesus over at least the past century. Among the evidence in support of such a tragic statement are things like: 

the increasing burnout among churches and pastors who try to hold everything together by their own power.

Then there’s a rise in the perceived irrelevance of faith.

There’s the disconnect among Christians between what they claim on Sunday morning and the way they live out the rest of their week, at least some of which stems from an unbiblical theology of salvation that assumes “getting saved” involves getting a ticket to heaven and nothing more. 

Alongside these things, there is a rise in religious and cultural fundamentalism, which elevates dogma and ideology over relationship and human dignity.

Closely associated with this is the increasing pressure among certain groups to wield the government as a weapon against those different than themselves, mistakenly thinking they can legislate people into faith in Jesus.

All of these are the result of believing that God is impotent…… unable to do anything unless we do it for him. 

All of these things result from failing to believe that Jesus makes a difference in our lives.

Sisters and brothers, friends and family: you cannot follow Jesus and remain unchanged. You cannot. You cannot. When we come into contact with the divine—the One True God—we cannot help but be changed.

Moses

A vivid illustration of this has to be that time when Moses gets to glimpse God on Mount Sinai. 

If you remember the story from back in Exodus 34. The Israelites have been naughty, and the original tablets of the covenant law—the ones “written by the finger of God” [Exodus 31:18]—were broken. Moses returns to Sinai and intercedes on behalf of the Israelites, with the result that “God changes God’s mind” about destroying them [Exodus 32:14]. 

Rapidly on the heels of this averted disaster, God gives the command to leave Sinai [Exodus 33:1], and the people fear that God is sending them away and will not go with them. So Moses again intercedes, imploring God to continue to go with them into this Promised Land. Even though these stories say that Moses spoke with God “face to face” [Exodus 33:11a], it seems that God still shielded part of Godself, and Moses desires to see God clearly with his own eyes. So God agrees to give him a fleeting glimpse.

Now even though God outlines how this will happen in some detail, the story of Exodus does not record it. Instead, we read about Moses’ other activities on the mountain with God: replacement tablets are made and inscribed, God reaffirms commitment to the covenant, and so on. 

But when Moses comes down from this 40-day sojourn with God, he is visibly changed. Moses himself didn’t realize it [Exodus 34:29], but his face was all…… glowy……

It was eerie. ……No, really: people were freaked out by it—so much so that Moses took to covering his face up with a veil whenever he had to be around other people [Exodus 34:35b].

Encountering this Mighty God of ours changed Moses in ways that he didn’t even see himself, but that change was immediately visible to the others he encountered.

 

It’s the same with Jesus…. We cannot come in contact with Jesus without becoming more…… well… Jesus-ey. 

Relationship & Transformation

This is also why the invitation to relationship with Christ is such a pivotal part of the gospel message. What God wants from us is not perfection…… It is not even theological conformity…… I dare say what God wants most from us is not even obedience or trust. 

What I believe God wants most from us is relationship. God wants to talk with us, to walk with us, to share life with us…… because God knows that when we do that, there’s going to be a little bit of God that rubs off on us and enables us (bit by bit) to become our best self. To become who we were built to be. To become who our own inmost desires long for us to become. 

Such, after all, is the path to life abundant.

Romans

Just as with the reading from Romans last week, we find once again that Paul’s counsel to the church of Rome is consistent with this notion of a Mighty God.

Paul expresses in these verses a hope that seems perhaps even more impossible today than ever before: the hope of unity. He prays for this in verses 5 and 6, offering:

“May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:5–6 NRSV)

Live in harmony??
Agree enough to speak with one voice??

Pshaw…… It’s just not going to happen.

And in a way, that’s the point, really. It isn’t going to happen—not as long as we keep relying on our own strength and our own power and our own vision. This kind of unity will never come about unless we learn to rely on the means of our Mighty God.

It’s probably worth mentioning that this unity for which Paul prays is exactly the same as the unity that Jesus prays for back in John 17. There, Jesus prays for both his present disciples as well as all those who will believe through their testimony (including us, of course). And his prayer is that “they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also bein us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21 NRSV).

How did Paul put it? “May… God… grant you to live in harmony with one another… so that together you may with one voice glorify… our Lord Jesus Christ.” Yeah, same thing. And always relying on the work of this Mighty God.

Hospitality

This is impossible for us to make happen, no matter how much power or privilege we exert. Only God is mighty enough to fulfill the hope of unity. But neither Jesus nor Paul suggests we are without responsibility. The way we enable our Mighty God to act in and through us is to practice a radical hospitality. In v.7 of the scripture lesson we read: 

“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7 NRSV)

Welcome one another. 

Hospitality is the key to enabling God to do this mighty thing. But such welcoming is not natural for us. 

We naturally try to keep what we have from others. 

We will naturally harm another to protect what is important to us. 

We naturally experience apprehension and even distrust when encountering those who are different than us. 

The practice of a hospitality (like that of Jesus) destroys these divisive and destructive impulses that live and fester in us. Practicing hospitality destroys the illusions that deceive and reinforce a fear that stands in the way of the Cause of Christ.

God shook me up recently when I heard Shane Claiborne speak in Kansas City. He works intimately with the poor in his community—he has chosen to live among them even—and he constantly works to advocate for their wellbeing. Speaking to Christians and about Christians, he said: “We do not have a compassion problem; we have a proximity problem.”

He went on to explain his belief that we Christians are actually really good at loving and welcoming people that we know and encounter regularly. The problem is that our circles are so small…… so homogenous…… so lacking in the kinds of diversity that would enable us to broaden our practice of hospitality. 

If we were in real relationship with more poor people, we’d have a harder time dismissing poverty. 

If we regularly talked with more addicts, we’d have a harder time scapegoating them for their situation.

If we deeply shared life with someone who had an abortion, or who was gay, or who sat on death row, or who grew up speaking a different language, or who became a refugee to escape the violence of their native country, or whatever else…… If we practiced hospitality with them—even though it is hard—we would certainly advocate for a different (and more inclusive and just) world.

We do not have a compassion problem; we have a proximity problem.

Benedictines

Here in Atchison, there has been a strong Benedictine presence since there very beginnings of our city. The Benedictine sisters and brothers that built communities here were (and continue to be) deeply committed to living the Way of Jesus as described by St. Benedict 1500 years ago. 

A cornerstone of the Benedictine tradition is the expansive practice of hospitality. Each person encountered…… each guest received is to be treated as Christ himself. For centuries, the Benedictines have sought to fulfill Jesus’ teaching [Matthew 25:35-36] that: 

to give food to the hungry is to give it to Jesus,

to give a drink to the thirsty is to give it to Jesus,

to welcome the stranger is to welcome Jesus,

to provide for the one without covering is to protect Jesus,

to take care of the sick is to take care of Jesus,

to visit the prisoner is to visit with Jesus.

This is not just Benedictine theology; this is the heart of what it means to be Christian. And if we are serious about following Jesus, it will be practicing such hospitality that enables our Mighty God to work through us so that, as Jesus prayed, “the world may believe” and be forever changed [John 17:21 NRSV].

Outro: DTR

But just like last week, we’ve got to consider and consider truthfully the nature of our relationship with Jesus. 

Are we “talking”? Is that all this is? We might give a little eye in Jesus direction from time to time, but we flat refuse to see him face to face?

Is our relationship more serious than that? Are we “dating”? Do we tell everybody he’s our “Savior,” but we’re still trying to figure out if he’s right for us?

Or are we “married” to this following Jesus thing?—now and forever: for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish; and even death will not drive us apart.

That’s how committed Jesus is to you.

And when we learn that we can trust his “wonderful counsel”…… when we discover that our Mighty God is able to make a real difference in our life…… then our commitment grows in equal measure.

It is an invitation into this deep relationship that is offered to each of us today as well. May we respond with growing trust in the One who loves us so.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13 NRSV)

Wonderful Counselor

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5

New Testament Reading: Romans 13:11-14

Introduction to the Advent Series

Thanksgiving is now (barely) behind us, which means that those among us who like to take holidays in their proper order can now start thinking about Christmas.

Except no, not yet. Not really. Not if you try to follow the Christian calendar, anyway. Because in the Christian calendar, we are not yet in the season of Christmas; that season begins Christmas Day and lasts for twelve days (that’s where the song comes from).

Beginning today, however, we start not Christmas but the season of Advent. Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of Immanuel, Jesus the Christ, into the world. As this ancient calendar reflects, your celebration is enhanced when it has been prepared for. Thus, one prepares through the season of Advent for the celebration of Christmas, just as one prepares through the season of Lent for the celebration of Easter.

 

Our tradition of lighting an Advent candle each week is one way of marking this progression. The closer we get to Christmas, the more candles are lit—all reflective of the coming of the Light of the World. 

This year, we are framing our Advent reflections through the lens of those “names” or “titles” of the coming Messiah* that we encounter in Isaiah 9:6: 

“For 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
.” (Isaiah 9:6 NRSV)

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

 

Each week, we will aim to reflect and consider together the impact on our lives of such titles, should we allow Jesus free reign in us. 

What might it mean for us to have a “wonderful counselor”?

What would be the effect of inviting a “mighty God” to work in us?

How might our life be different on account of the presence and relationship of an “everlasting Father”?

What would it look like for our lives to be ruled by a “prince of peace”?

These seem appropriate questions to ask, as we prepare ourselves for the coming of the one who embodies them all.

Counsel from Where?

Since we are beginning this week with “Wonderful Counselor,” it seems inescapable to ask: Where do we get counsel from? Who do we go to for advice?

Don’t let yourself off the hook too easily with this one. Somewhere inside us, we know what the “right answer” should be: God, our parents and mentors, those friends who inspire us, and so on.

But take a moment and reflect on your last week or two, and ask yourself honestly if you don’t turn more readily to: Siri, Google, and YouTube. God knows I do.

And just to be clear: these technological resources are not bad places to turn, depending on the kind of “counsel” you seek. 

If I need to know what tools are required to change an alternator in my car, YouTube might be the best counsel I have available. 

It may not, however, be the best place to receive advice on how to read the Bible; just like Siri may not be the best one to teach you how to pray [“Siri, teach me to pray”]

We may not always get our counsel from the best sources; but even when we do, we don’t always get good advice. There’s a whole meme genre that’s popped up in the last month about getting advice from people who are out of touch with the way things currently work. But bad advice doesn’t have to come from Boomers in order to be bad. I’ve had bad advice from folks of all ages: friends and family members, pastors and church members, teachers and civic leaders. I’ve been given bad advice about dating and marriage, about debt and economics, about food and diet, about parenting, about books, about photography, about… well…… everything! And I suspect I’m not alone.

 

What if I told you that you have, readily available to you, a Counselor whose advice you could always trust to be good, just, and fair?

What if I told you this Counselor not just gave advice that was “wonderful,” but that following their advice would lead you towards a life that was wonderful to live?

Good news, indeed.

Romans 13

Even though it may not be immediately apparent, the apostle Paul (in the scripture lesson) is talking about the effects of a life lived according to the advice of this “Wonderful Counselor.”

Paul talks about “laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light” (v.12b). These things are impossible for us to accomplish unless we follow the leading of this Counselor.

Paul talks about “living honorably as in the day” (v.13), as opposed to embodying the vices that thrive in the dark: jealousy, sowing dissension, and others. Despite the oft-repeated myth to the contrary, there is no path to becoming a good person that does not align with God’s priorities and purposes for human life. And through this Counselor, we have a direct, trustworthy line… straight to the source.

Paul talks about “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ” (v.14), one of his favorite expressions that means something like “embodying Jesus in your life.” When we do this, we are not driven by our own selfish desires (“gratifying the flesh”) but by the priorities taught and demonstrated by Jesus. Once again, it is only through the advice of this “Wonderful Counselor” that such “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ” is even possible for us. 

Isaiah 2

In the same way, it is by living according to this counsel that the vision of God in Isaiah 2 will come to pass. This is the text quoted in this week’s Candle Lighting. 

Isaiah speaks of a day [Isaiah 2:3a] when people from throughout the world—from all nations and peoples—will seek the counsel of the Lord God. 

And because are all attuned to this “Wonderful Counselor” and the counsel offered, the world is dramatically affected by the “justice that is truly just” that issues thereforth. Weapons of violence are no longer needed, so they are transformed into instruments of feeding [Isaiah 2:4]. Warfare is forgotten—an ancient rumor—no longer useful in a world now pervaded by peace, in a world where all accept the invitation to “walk in the light of the Lord” [Isaiah 2:5].

 

Outro

The “Counselor” is what enables us to live into God’s vision of the future, to live into Jesus’ pattern of being human, to live into this day-to-day growing into Christ-likeness that roots out the darkness in us as the light of Christ shines brighter and brighter.

 

None of this happens by trying harder. It happens by submitting to the work of God in us. It happens because in little decisions we learn to trust the wisdom of the Counselor. It happens because we come to value our friendship with Jesus so much that it actually begins to affect the way we live our life.

Wonderful counsel leads to a wonderful life, and that (my friends) is what God has built us for.

As we move into this season of Advent, I pray God grow in us the desire to lay hold of this wonderful life, made possible by the work of the Wonderful Counselor who stands at the ready.

 

 

*This framework was developed by Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell at rev-o-lution.org. Check out her awesome worship planning resources!