This is, as you can tell, the first Sunday of Advent, and at the risk of sounding like the Grinch who stole Christmas, I thought it might actually be helpful as we begin the Advent season to talk about why we do so. A little bit of history - you may know that the first generation of reformers, men like Calvin and Knox and Bucer, they were passionately committed to a principle that said nothing is to be done in worship except with the express warrant and authority of holy Scripture. And yet, affirming that principle, they also found it useful to retain and use what they called the five evangelical feast days - Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. They weren't suggesting that the Bible commands those days; they were saying no, the Sabbath Day, the Lord's Day is the only day commanded by God in Scripture to be kept holy until Christ comes. So they're not making extra-Biblical rules, but they were suggesting that by using that traditional calendar outline, the church can punctuate its regular teaching schedule with seasons of particular focus on various aspects of the life of Christ - His birth at Christmas, His betrayal and sufferings on Good Friday, His resurrection on Easter Sunday, His heavenly enthronement on Ascension, and His work of pouring out the Holy Spirit as the exalted Christ on Pentecost. And I think that's a helpful tradition.
I bring that up because I have conversations with some of you who come from opposite ends of the spectrum on this point. There are some who are shocked that a Christian might not celebrate Christmas. They think that it is a binding obligation on Christians to celebrate Christmas. And my response to that is, “Not so fast.” Our consciences are to be captive to the Word of God. The Lord has left our consciences free from the commandments of men and from anything contrary to or beside the Word of God. If you say Christians must celebrate Christmas, we have a parting of the ways. But, if you say it’s helpful in a regular diet of Christian worship to pause, to remember the central mysteries of the Christian faith, the incarnation of God in the man Christ Jesus, for example, then I’m with you all the way. If you bind my conscience when there is no clear, “Thus saith the Lord,” we have a difference of opinion. But if you say there’s something useful here, then I’m absolutely with you. So there’s one extreme.
The opposite extreme also exists. I have conversations from time to time with some who say, “Because the Scriptures don’t teach Christmas or Easter, we ought never to do that.” And I think that is needlessly narrow. And the result is, if we were to follow that counsel, we’d miss a great Gospel opportunity first for ourselves to focus in a more intense way on the meaning of the incarnation, the coming of God in flesh in Christ, or at Easter time on the sufferings and the glorious resurrection of our Savior. So there’s some opportunity for our own growth there that we may miss. There’s also an opportunity for evangelism. There is still at least sufficient residual awareness of the Christian message that at Christmas, in our culture, people are more inclined to come to church than they might otherwise be. And I think that opportunity is an opportunity we should take to press the claims of Christ and make known the wonders of the Gospel.
And so today, we begin to focus on the meaning of the first coming of our Savior, the Lord Jesus. Actually, as Gary pointed out at the beginning of the service, we have a whole raft of Christmas events designed mainly with non-Christians in view. I’m convinced they will be enriching and encouraging to all of us, but we do particularly want to exhort you to be in prayer and to be inviting friends to come and hear the Gospel. So for example, tonight and again next Sunday night, we will have services that have a more evangelistic flavor to them. And again on the sixteenth, don’t forget, the Music of Christmas - another marvelous opportunity to come and hear the Gospel ministered to us in song. So please, will you be in prayer and be thinking about who to invite and bring friends and neighbors and guests to come. They are often much more open at Christmas time, and so please be bringing people to hear the good news. And pray that the Lord will bring many to bend the knee to King Jesus.
And so today in our morning services as we begin Advent, I want to invite you to take your Bibles in hand and turn with me to the prophecy of Isaiah; Isaiah chapter 9. Page 573 in the church Bibles. We’re going to be reading verses 2 through 7; page 573. Each week in the mornings during Advent, in the four Sundays of Advent, we’re going to take one of the titles given to Christ in verse 6 of this passage. If you look in verse 6 you’ll see them. Here are the titles given to Jesus - Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And each week we’ll pick one of those, take one of those and turn and reflect on its message and meaning. Which means, of course, today we’re thinking about Christ our Wonderful Counselor. Before we read the passage, would you bow your heads with me as we seek God’s help in prayer. Let us pray.
O Lord, we pray now that You would open our hearts, open our minds, open our eyes and ears to receive the good news about Jesus that we may receive and rest upon Him as He is offered to us in the Gospel. Do that mighty work by Your Spirit for Your glory among us now as Your Word is read and proclaimed, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Isaiah 9 at the second verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
Wonderful Counselor. Wonderful is a word we use a lot at Christmas time. “It’s A Wonderful Life” will doubtless air for the thousandth time. “The most wonderful time of the year” will play in every cafe in the land. On the radio this week I heard a hardware store that has, “A wonder-inducing array of Christmas trees for sale.” Wonder. And then there’s the word, Counselor. Wonderful Counselor. And now let’s be honest, after all the money is spent and too much food has been eaten and the relatives and in-laws have pressed all your buttons, counselor is a word that may be on the lips of not a few of us by the time Christmas is over! So Wonderful Counselor - isn’t there a little bit of cognitive dissonance when you put those two terms together? Wonderful sounds delightful; Counselor is what you need in the crisis. So given how we tend to use those words, what should we make of this first title given to the Christ Child in chapter 9 verse 6, Wonderful Counselor?
Let’s start by thinking about the context for a few moments. Back in chapter 8, Isaiah pronounces some rather dire predictions of coming suffering for the people of God. If you’ll look at the very end of chapter 8, verse 22, you’ll see just how dire they are. “They will look to the earth,” Isaiah says, “but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish, and they will be thrust into thick darkness.” It is not a happy picture. But then chapter 9 opens and it’s like the sun coming up. There’s a message of coming hope, bright and clear. Notice the contrast. Verse 2, light instead of darkness - “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Verse 3, joy instead of sorrow - “You have multiplied the nations; you have increased its joy. They rejoice before you as with joy after the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil.” Light instead of darkness; joy instead of sorrow. Then in verses 4 and 5, freedom instead of oppression - “The rod of his oppressor you have broken, as on the day of Midian, for every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.” Forgotten, war is over, peace at last; liberation for the captives. It’s a great reversal; it’s the dawn of hope. “A time for joy is coming,” the prophet says.
And it's a message, if you'll notice, all of it entirely focused on the birth of a baby. Verse 6, "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulders." You'll remember that Matthew's gospel, chapter 4, verses 15 and 16 quote these verses as being fulfilled with the birth of Mary's boy; the child laid in a manger in Bethlehem, with the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the child whose birth is the pivot point for those who were in darkness to see the great light; for those who were in anguish to now be full of joy; for those who were in bondage to be set free at last.
But why is it that the birth of this child should affect such a great reversal? What is it about this child that makes all the difference, that makes Him the turning point for every human life that trusts in Him? The four names of verse 6 are really designed to answer those questions. You may know that it was common in the ancient world when a king ascended to his throne to be given additional names; throne names you might call them. And they functioned programmatically for the reign of the king who bore them. They described his rule, outlined his mission. And that’s certainly how these names function here in verse 6. They tell us what Jesus has come to do, who He is and what He’s come to do. They tell us, don’t they, why Christmas is really worth celebrating. Each name, each title has two parts - Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace - and we’re going to think about the first of them and take each half of the title, Wonderful and Counselor, in turn.
So what are we being told, first of all, when we're told that Christ is wonderful? In some ways, it's an unfortunate translation because we typically use the word emotionally, subjectively. We feel wonderful. A thing is wonderful because it inspires in us a sense of wonder, like the wonder-inducing array of Christmas trees in the hardware store I suppose. And that is typically how we read verse 6. Isn't it? To mean something like "Jesus is the kind of counselor we're going to really, really like. He's wonderful." And I suppose that's true enough as far as it goes, but it's not really what the Old Testament Scriptures mean when they see the word translated, usually in our English versions, as "wonderful" or "a wonder." In the Old Testament, this word means something more like miraculous or supernatural. So for example, Psalm 78 at the twelfth verse, we are told that "In the sight of Israel's fathers, God performed wonders, mighty works, in the land of Egypt in the fields of Zoan. He divided the sea and let them pass through and let the waters stand up like a heap." So the exodus, this miraculous intervention of the sovereign Lord is a wonder. In Judges 13:18 we have another interesting use of this word "wonder" and "wonderful." The angel of the Lord meets Manoah and Manoah asks his name. And the angel replies, "Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?" That is to say, it is so far above our natural capacity ever to comprehend; there's something supernatural and transcendent about it.
And understood that way, wonderful really fits what we know about Jesus. Doesn’t it? He is, as Isaiah tells us, a child who was born. He is a real man, a real human being, and yet more. He was supernaturally conceived and born of the virgin Mary; filled with the Spirit without measure. He merely spoke and He calmed the storm and healed the sick and gave sight to the blind and the dead were raised to life. The commentator E.J. Young gets at the point here rather well, I think. He says, “The Old Testament usage of the word compels us to the conclusion that it here designates the Messiah not merely as someone extraordinary, but as one who in His very person and being is a wonder. He is that which surpasses human thought and power. He is God Himself.” He is wonderful not just in the sense that He is attractive or special or inspiring. He’s wonderful not simply because He evokes in us a sense of wonder, and He should. He is Himself the great Wonder. He is exalted, sovereign, supernatural. He is this baby born, this child given, is God born a man. That’s what it means.
And after all, nothing else could make the fortunes of the people in such dire straight pivot so dramatically. They were in darkness and in anguish and in bondage at the end of chapter 8. And in chapter 9, here they are now bathed in light, full of joy and set free. No ordinary child, no matter the earthly gifts of the privileges with which he is endowed, could ever accomplish such a transformation. The pivot upon which lives change is the coming, the birth of the great wonder. The true Light who said, “Let there be light and there was light,” that One has come in Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, Jesus the great I AM, Jesus the Word who was with God and who was God in the beginning. He, only He, only He can take us in our darkness and chase the shadows away. Only He can meet us in our sorrows and wipe away every tear from our eyes. Only He can come to us in our bondage and captivity to sin and set the prisoner free. Light and joy and liberation are His to give. They are in His gift and He delights to give them freely to His people. He is the great Wonder. He is Wonderful.
And then look at the next word in this first title. He is the Wonderful Counselor. That doesn't mean He is a really great therapist; that's not what it means. We are here bowing before the throne of one seated and reigning rather than reclining on a therapist's couch. That's the point. This is the King. And earthly rulers always have counselors, don't they? Offering guidance, lending their wisdom for critical decisions in government. But this king, Isaiah says, has no need of counselors. Solomon you may remember, King David's son, he was renowned for God-given wisdom. But the king who reigned, the descendant of Solomon, the king who reigned when Isaiah spoke was a king named Ahaz and his wisdom was of a different character altogether. Ralph Davis says that "Ahaz was worldly wise and bungling." Street smart, but in the end incompetent. So on the one end, you have Solomon, the epitome of a wise king, and at the other, Ahaz, the epitome really of a foolish ruler. Here's the point - earthly rulers are sometimes wise and sometimes fools. Their insights are sometimes penetrating, sometimes tragically wide of the mark, sometimes they're driven by self-interest or a lust for power. Sometimes their lofty ideals for the good of their people are compromised by their personal inadequacies. And Jesus, this child who was born, Jesus isn't like any of them. He is rather a King who needs no counselors, whose wisdom is not liable to compromise.
Now we live in a time when many people find it hard to trust our elected officials and our leaders; cynicism abounds, uncertainty about the future is commonplace, corruption is real, bias is normal, and money, more often than not, money carries more influence than high ideals. And Isaiah is reminding us not to place our deepest hopes on mere men whose best efforts are inevitably flawed. He’s asking you not to trust the Ahazes of this world, not with any kind of ultimate trust or confidence. “Some trust in chariots and some in princes,” but Isaiah is calling us to trust in the Wonderful Counselor, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is endowed, as Isaiah will go on to show us in chapter 11, with the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. So that unlike every other earthly ruler, He shall not judge by what His eyes see or decide disputes by what His ears hear. Gossip will not sway Him. He does not respond to first impressions. He will judge, rather, Isaiah says, “with righteousness He will judge the poor and decide with equity the meek of the earth.” “In Him,” Colossians 2 at verse 3, “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” You can trust this King. You can trust this King.
He is the great Wonder whose counsel will guide your steps safely to their intended destination. His Word will be a lamp to your feet and a light for your path. He has gone ahead of you through the valley of the shadow of death and made it safe for every other pilgrim who will follow Him. You can trust Him. You can trust Him. "In His light you will see light." He is a Wonderful Counselor. A Wonderful Counselor because He is the great Wonder; He is truly and fully God. Actually, He's Wonderful Counselor because He's also truly and fully a man. He knows our frame and remembers that we are but dust. In His humanity, the Scriptures remind us, "He learned obedience by the things that He suffered." "He increased," Luke chapter 2 at verse 52, "He increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man." "He has been touched with the feeling of our infirmities." "He is able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses." That is to say, Jesus knows you. He knows you, not just by virtue of the omniscience of deity that knows all things, but also by virtue of the solidarity and empathy of His humanity He knows you.
Like the people of God at the end of chapter 8, plunged into darkness and gloom of anguish, thrust into thick darkness, He too was thrust into thick darkness, impenetrable, when the Father turned His face away at the cross. And He cried out in dereliction and abandonment. He has plumbed the depths of sorrow, hasn’t He, and loss and abandonment. He has borne the guilt of sin; not His own, ours. And suffered wrath and condemnation. He has been cut off and disowned so that the plague, every plague of the human heart - whether the guilt of sin or the paralysis of fear or the pain of loss or the gloom of loneliness or the grief of death - every plague of the human heart find sin Jesus a Wonderful Counselor who hears with understanding when no one else understands, who loves without reserve when everyone else holds back, who gives grace to pardon and to cleanse and to comfort and to uphold you when every other resource runs dry. He is a Wonderful Counselor. He is a sufficient Savior. He is all that you need. He is all that you need.
I wonder if today you have seen the great Light. I wonder if today you have tasted true joy, discovered real freedom. You can only find it in one place, you know; only one place. You find it in the Son who is given, the child who was born. You find it in the Wonderful Counselor. You find it in Jesus Christ. You need to look to Him, to cast your gaze upon Him, to turn and cry out to Him. Stop living by your best guesses and your own threadbare wisdom. There is a Wonderful Counselor who will guide your steps and He will keep you to the end. You can trust Him. Let’s pray together.
Our Father, thank You for the Wonderful Counselor, Your Son, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Please, will You forgive us for trusting in chariots and in princes in our best attempts to make sense of things, and trusting in ourselves. We bow before You and we acknowledge the bankruptcy of life on our terms, life our way, and we look now to Christ, the Wonderful Counselor, the God-Man who knows our frame and remembers we are but dust, who has been touched with the feeling of our infirmities, who's plumbed the depths of darkness, loss, and sorrow, and is a sufficient Savior to all who look to Him. Help us to look to Him, for we ask it in His name, amen.
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