Sunday, December 28, 2014

God With Us

During this time of year, one of my favorite things is to attend a musical concert featuring Handel's Messiah. I love the majesty and meaning of the music that declares that "He shall reign forever and ever."  Within this elaborate work of musical art, we find five names of the Messiah, that are worthy of reflection and meditation. Those names are deeply meaningful, and contemplating them makes us aware that indeed, God is with us."

The first is from Matthew 1:23, which quotes Isaiah 7.14. The ESV renders this as:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).

Everybody needs to be reminded that God is with us.  At times, when the troubles of life threaten our well-being, we need to feel God's presence and care.  All too often, we feel quite the opposite.  In Dante’s Inferno, the medieval storyteller takes us to the very gates of hell, upon which are inscribed the words, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  According to Dante, hell is defined as a place where there is no hope.  A lot of people are living in hell on this side of the grave.  They cannot feel God’s hopeful presence, even though He is embracing them all the time.  Psalm 139.8-9 (ESV) says:

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

            The blessing of Immanuel, the hope of Christmas, is that God is with us.  We don’t have to abandon all hope, because God is walking with us every day.  Christ in us is the hope of glory.  Since the dawn of the church, Isaiah’s prophecy of Immanuel has been embraced by Christians as referring not only to an event that would take place in the prophet’s own time, but also pointing to the future coming of Christ.  In the same way, Christians interpret Isaiah 9:6 in messianic terms.  Along with Immanuel, Isaiah gives other names for God that we need to understand during this season and throughout the year.  Handel quoted the prophet, who said:

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 (Isaiah 9.6 ESV).

            Wonderful Counselor—what a marvelous name!  Each of these names for the Messiah is comprised of both a noun and an adjective.  This lets us know that He is more competent than just any counselor, greater than any pagan god, more faithful than any father, and more peaceful than any earthly prince. 

What a beautiful thing to know that Jesus is more competent than any counselor.  These days there are all kinds of people who call themselves counselors.  There are life coaches and psychologists, psychiatrists, attorneys, school guidance and vocational counselors, and much more.  Proverbs 15.22 (ESV) says, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”  Proverbs 20.5 (ESV) tells us, “The purpose in a man's heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”  Everybody needs someone to talk to, someone to listen to our troubles and give us wisdom and insight.  Sometimes we shy away from counselors because they intimidate us.  As Tennessee Williams said, they meddle too much in our private lives.  But we need their voice of experience to guide us.  Yet even the best of counselors will fail.  Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, never fails.  His voice speaks wisdom to our hearts and never leads us astray.

Many people claim that this passage in Isaiah refers to a messianic figure who was merely human.  The next phrase is the reason why Bible scholars say this can be only Jesus—He is the Mighty God.  Why is this adjective necessary?  Is it because there are indeed many gods?  1 Corinthians 8:4b-6 (ESV) says,

“…An idol has no real existence…there is no God but one…For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—  yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

            Indeed, there are many supposed gods—those that have religions devoted to them.  Then there are those things like riches and pleasure and power that simply have people chasing after them with religious devotion.  Yet, above all these things, Christ is the only Mighty God.  Because he is not just a god but the only actual God, His power outstrips all the supposed powers that we could imagine.  The Bible says that one day “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2.10-11 ESV).”  One day, all creation will declare that He is the Mighty God.

            “Everlasting Father,” declares the prophet, looking toward a Savior fully human but also eternal God.  Certainly there are all kinds of fathers.  On Father’s Day we celebrate good fathers, and even thank God for those good qualities possessed by bad dads.  Throughout our lives we try to have the best relationships we can with our fathers, and those of us who are dads try to be the best we can be.  Sometimes we even adopt spiritual children, investing in the lives of those who aren’t biologically related to us.  But every father, good and bad, will have his funeral.  At the worst, people will celebrate his demise.  At the best, they will mourn his passing and try to live up to his example. 

            Yes, earthly fathers are for a time, but the heavenly Father is for eternity.  When our worldly fathers’ voices are silenced by the years, the Everlasting Father still speaks truth to His children.  Every one of us needs the Everlasting Father.  We need His love, protection, provision, and wisdom.  Thank the Lord that, while earthly dads are limited by time, the Everlasting Father is forever.

            Finally, Isaiah predicts the Prince of Peace.  There are all kinds of princes in the world—rulers that range from benign to beastly.  The sixteenth-century Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a treatise called The Prince, in which he says that rulers should gain power by any means possible.  All immoral actions can be justified as long as they work toward the prince’s ultimate goal of control.  Machiavelli says that the prince should do what is politically expedient, not necessary what is right.  To express this idea, we often say, “The end justifies the means.”

            In contrast, the Messiah does not seek peace by any means necessary.  Christ doesn’t simply seek political peace, but affects inner peace in the hearts of all who trust Him.  We await the day when the Lord returns, establishing righteousness and renewing creation.  Until that day we wait for inner change—spiritual transformation that makes us a different kind of people.  As such, believers do not say that the end justifies the means.  Instead, we trust the Prince who can bring His peace even in a world of unrest.  Kingdoms crumble and governments fail, but peace reigns in the hearts of all who trust the King of souls.

            “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  These are the names of the God who is with us.  He never leaves us nor forsakes us.  Isaiah 9.2 (ESV) says, “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.”  By that light we all can see, and we can more than see.  We can walk in faith that shines brighter than day.  We can walk with confidence because God is with us.  Authority rests “upon his shoulder…of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end (Isa 9.6-7 ESV).”

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