December 3rd, 2018

Jesus is an outlier, a marvel, head and shoulders above any other advisor.

Isaiah 9:6-7; John 3:1-17


Wonder of a Preacher

Sometime in the next year or so, we will begin livestreaming our worship services. I’m not really looking forward to it, in part because I realize I’ll need to watch my own sermons. Few of us enjoy listening to ourselves; watching ourselves is worse. I’m aware that I have some public speaking habits that I would find annoying if I were a listener. I tend to try to pack too much into my sermons, which makes me talk faster. If I get excited about my topic, I speak even faster.

Then there are the awkward hand gestures. Last weekend, while looking for something else I came across my birth announcement from September 1956. This picture was taken when I was roughly 24 hours old. I believe my hand gestures are genetic.

I have no delusion that somehow when we start livestreaming I’ll become the next Andy Stanley or Rick Warren. The preacher I respect the most is Tim Keller, because he’s so articulate and balanced. He’s a wonder of a preacher. I’m not.

The word “wonder” can be used like that. It’s someone who is way off the bell curve, an outlier, a head above, dramatically different.

Whom might you identify as a Wonder of a Counselor?

Isaiah 9

All through our recently concluded studies in Joshua, I’ve been saying, perhaps ad nauseam, that these stories are not about Joshua, not about the Israelites, not even about you. They’re about God. During Advent I want to focus your attention on a verse in the Old Testament that is very much about you. To be sure, it too is mostly about Jesus – but it’s about how Jesus relates to you. The focus of Isaiah 9:6 is Jesus and you.

Let’s begin with some context. How’s your context right now? Linda and I have had a very blessed year. I wrote about that in a devotional earlier this year that was published on the UCC’s web page last Sunday. I titled it, “When Life Is Good,” because this has been a wonder of a year for us. Sometimes life is great, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying it and celebrating it, as long as we give thanks to the Giver of all things and overflow our blessings into the lives of others.

But sometimes life is dark. I’ve talked to people this week struggling with grief, job loss, abuse, addiction, mental illness, family conflict, and more. Sometimes the darkness is thick and heavy. Most of the time we’re also aware of a dark world – reduced life expectancy because of suicide and the opioid crisis, an earthquake in Alaska, Californians whose homes have been burned to ashes.

If you’re feeling your way through darkness now, Isaiah can help. The last part of his book is for those whom life has battered down. The first part is for those who can feel it coming. Isaiah is trying to get people’s attention about how dark the days ahead will be. Assyria, a brutal regional power, will soon descend on Israel and Judah. Chapter nine is one of the few beams of light in the first part of Isaiah.

The chapter opens with a reference to Zebulun and Naphtali. Interestingly, this is the only verse of Isaiah 9 quoted in the New Testament. Zebulun and Naphtali are located in Galilee. You and I think of Galilee favorably, because that’s where Jesus grew up and it was the center of his public ministry. But for most of its history, Galilee was a ring of mostly Jewish towns near the northern border of Israel with far too much pagan influence.[1] Isaiah promises, “There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress” (1). He says, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (2). God will shatter the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders” (4).

Shoulders are for them and for us a metaphor for the burdens we carry. Isaiah continues in verse 6, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.” This past week, the G20 summit dominated the news. You may like or dislike any one or more of those leaders, but what they have in common is a government on their shoulders. Isaiah presents a scene not unlike the scene where Mufasa holds up Simba, the future lion king. “A son is born, and he will rule!”

This child will be called by four names, and we’ll review them one at a time during Advent. These names are designed to give hope to you! The first is “Wonderful Counselor” – or more, literally, “Wonder of a Counselor.” He’s an outlier, a marvel, head and shoulders above any Counselor you’ve known.

When you think of the word “Counselor,” don’t think of a therapist – at least not exclusively. Think also of the President’s cabinet, or an attorney, or a friend you trust to give direction when you need it the most. A king or other leader is called on to give counsel to others based on experience and wisdom. He will be a Wonder of an Advisor!

As Christians, we see Jesus in Isaiah 9:6. During Advent, we will connect each of these titles with a story in the Gospels. What does it mean for Jesus to be a “Wonder of a Counselor?” Let’s see how he interacts with Nicodemus.

Before we go there, let me pose the question I’ve been wrestling with all week. Most of us would say, “Sure, Jesus is a wonderful counselor. I’d love to set up an appointment with him, share my story, and get his advice. I’d follow it to the T. But he’s in heaven and I’m on earth, and I have a hard time getting a response when I ask him for counsel. How does Jesus being a wonderful counselor help me?”

Surprisingly, the same way he helps Nicodemus. Take a look with me.

God thus loved the world

Jesus wants you to pursue him (1-2). Notice first of all that Nicodemus comes looking for Jesus at night. Did he do so out of courage or fear? We’re told that Nicodemus was “a member of the Jewish ruling council.” He was the consummate insider – not a Galilean, not part of the rabble.

Did he seek the cover of darkness because he was worried what other leading Jews would think or to protect Jesus? Was he operating out of darkness or seeking the light? It’s a little hard to tell. What we know is that he came to Jesus, he sought him out. He had heard about “the signs” Jesus was doing – the miracles, like turning water into wine, and he was willing to accept at least the possibility that Jesus was far more than an ordinary man. “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God” (2).

If you read the Gospels, you’ll notice that rarely did Jesus go looking for someone. I didn’t say never, and there are exceptions. But most of the time people came looking for Jesus. The key word in verse 1 is “came.” That’s the pattern – not only with Jesus, but with presidential advisors, therapists, attorneys, and pastors. If they’re good at what they do, they wait until you come, until you admit you need them.

Jesus wants to be pursued. “Seek the Lord and he will be found” (Isaiah 55:6).

Jesus gets you (3). It seems at first glance that Jesus isn’t paying attention at all to what Nicodemus is saying. The Pharisee says, “No one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him,” and Jesus responds, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” What does being born again have to do with Nicodemus’ affirmation and Jesus’ miracles?

A lot, actually. The connection is the impossible. “No one can perform these signs” and “No one can see the kingdom of God.”[2] Jesus knows that Nicodemus is having a hard time interpreting the facts in front of him. A Galilean rabbi is performing miracles. How can that be? Jesus answers, “The kingdom of God is an impossibility, isn’t it? Nobody can see it unless something impossible happens.”

Jesus gets you, too. He understands what puzzles you, where your brain can’t make sense out of what is going on around you. He knows your struggles – that you have a hard time reconciling trust in a good and loving God with the evil you see in the world – or, more precisely – in your world.

Jesus knows you have to start over (4-8). Nicodemus is confused by Jesus’ illustration of impossibility. “When you’re an adult, how exactly do you get born again? You can’t crawl back into your mother’s womb a second time!”

Jesus patiently explains that what he’s using a metaphor. We’re talking about a whole different way of being “born.” This is about the kingdom of God. This is about being born of water and the Spirit. When the Spirit gets involved, there’s a certain mystery about how he does what he does. You can’t harness or predict him.

Every problem for which we need advice has multiple layers. We go looking for counsel to fix one issue or relationship only to realize that it’s connected in a whole system of intertwined needs. When you untangle that string of Christmas lights, you’re likely to find out that each tangle is tied up in another and that each burned out bulb is in a system of lights you can’t (or at least I can’t ever seem to) figure out.

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that this doesn’t just happen with one life here or there. Every life has to start over. Every person has to realize the mess he or she has made of life without God. Every person has to submit to the unpredictable mystery of the Holy Spirit and be born again. Tweaking life’s problems won’t work. There has to be an utter helplessness that turns everything over to him, starting over on Day 1.

Jesus will connect where you’ve been with where you need to go next (9-15).
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asks Jesus. Again, Nicodemus is puzzled by the impossibilities Jesus is describing. It’s no less true today that we struggle with giving ourselves up to things that are out of our control. “God, I can’t fix this, so I’m coming to you.” He says, “You never were in control of outcomes. I just let you come to the place where you realized that.”

“You’re Israel’s teacher,” Jesus answered him, “and you don’t understand these things?” It’s also possible this is not a question but an exclamation or even a simple statement of fact. At any rate, that’s not the point.

The point is that Jesus is connecting Old Testament Scripture (which Nicodemus knows, or thinks he knows, like Ezekiel 36 and the story of the snake on a pole in Numbers) with the new reality he represents (the Son of Man who must be lifted up). He’s also connecting earthly things (which are familiar to Nicodemus, like birth and wind) to heavenly things (like being born again and eternal life).

That’s how Jesus operates as a Wonder of an Advisor. He doesn’t lay out the entire roadmap for you. He shows you the next step, but he does so by reminding you of where you’ve been and what you already know. He’s patient and gracious.

Jesus’ goal is life eternal (16-17). Starting in verse 16, that most well-known of all Bible verses, more than likely we have John’s commentary, not a continuation of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Notice in most Bible versions that the end quotation marks follow verse 15.

Decades later, John is reflecting back on this incident of Jesus’ counseling and says, “This is how God loved the world….” Pastor Amy reminded us in a staff meeting this week that “God so loved the world” doesn’t mean that “God loved the world so much that he gave his Son,” but “God in this way loved the world that he gave his One and Only Son.” God gave his Son to us as a Wonder of a Counselor so that he could direct us to himself.

“Whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Johns adds another “not… but” in the following verse. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Beautiful, amazing, true, wonder-full words! He wants whatever happens to turn into life as he intended it.

The way of a counselor

So what about that question:  How can Jesus be a Wonder of a Counselor to me? Where do I get an appointment with him? I want to lay out all my problems to him, have him understand what I’m feeling, then affirm that I’m on the right track, and by the end of the hour give me that one thing to add to my to-do list this week that will make the rest of my week go better. I want an easy 1-2-3 to fix my problems without changing anything more than is absolutely necessary. That’s not how it works when you relate to any good counselor. A good counselor will propose the thing that requires reprogramming the mind and heart, that needs a lot of patience and work to undo years of unhealthy thinking.

Don’t you think the One who is a Wonder of a Counselor would do the same, only more so? Putting the cookies on the bottom shelf isn’t going to change your life. He’s going to make you wait, work, and change. He reminds you that he will finish what he started in you (Philippians 1:6), but it will take a lifetime. The point will never be a simple, quick way out of the situation you’re in. It’s endurance through that situation that he will use to continue his work in you.

Later in Jesus’ ministry he tells his disciples it will be good for them if he goes away because The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, will come. When we say, “Lord, I want a direct, simple, personal response to you,” he answers, “You have my Word, my Spirit, and my church. They’re what you need. They’re all you need.”

We are not left alone. But sometimes it feels like it. In my ministry I’ve watched so many people go through such challenging seasons and come through much stronger. Russ Meade, whose son passed away unexpectedly last year, wrote the following in an email he sent to me just yesterday:

I hated the last 1.5 years of my life and would not wish it on anyone. But I look back and I would not trust God like I do, I would not be as close to God as I am, I would not have the peace in my life that I have and I wouldn’t have the passion and purpose to carry out His mission in my life.

Having a Wonder of a Counselor in no way guarantees the way ahead will be easier. He only promises you won’t go it alone. Amen.

[1] Click here for a previous sermon on Isaiah 9 that offered more background on Galilee.

[2] The Greek is parallel – a negative particle with dunatai (he/it is able) – so, “It is not possible….”

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