‘And the government will be upon his shoulders.’
I can’t read those words at the moment without thinking of the forthcoming
inauguration of President Trump
and my expectation of how little he will resemble
the one expected in these words from Isaiah.
The words we have read from Isaiah 9
were probably written for a coronation, very much like an inauguration,
for the new king about to be crowned.
They were written in the hope of a new wave of peace and prosperity.
They were written in the hope that the new king would be one anointed by God
as a wonderful counsellor, a carrier of God’s power, an everlasting father and a
prince of peace.
In the main the hopes of Israel were ultimately found wanting,
very much like our own hopes in those who give the possibility of newness –
Kennedy, Blair, Obama, Trump …
and so the promises were pushed forward, awaiting fulfilment one day.
What does it mean to expect one who will be wonderful counsellor?
In the context of Isaiah 9
It is a reference to one who will govern with great wisdom,
whose plans and policies will be wonderful for all the people
and so serve the flourishing of the nation,
in terms of peace and prosperity.
Again we look to those who govern us,
to initiate and put in place plans and policies
that will benefit the whole nation,
that will result perhaps not in wonder, but at least in higher approval ratings!
We don’t just read this passage in its immediate context,
but also in the light of the gospel,
For the early church came to read the Old Testament
in the light of Jesus
and Isaiah 9 was rich in royal messianic imagery
and readily seen as pointing to Jesus.
So the question we ask is what does it mean to see Jesus as wonderful
Wisdom is certainly associated with Jesus.
Luke’s gospel twice says that the young Jesus was filled with, and grew in, wisdom
and, according to Mark’s gospel, when Jesus starts preaching the crowd
are amazed and ask what is this wisdom that has been given him?
And in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, Jesus is said to be the wisdom
of God, although a wisdom that confounds the ‘wise’.
If Jesus is wise, he is also seen in terms of wonder in the sense that he is no
ordinary teacher or prophet.
Throughout the gospels, it is said the people were amazed, or astonished.
His teaching contradicted all usual assumptions.
His teaching confounded the authorities;
He engaged the powerless crowds,
He spoke of a world that was coming, and had come, in which the impossible was
What is wonderful about Jesus, is the impossible becomes possible.
Jesus comes to re-describe reality.
Every Sunday the church declares the impossible is possible in God and with God.
There should be wonder every time we open the scriptures.
If you come to church and are never astonished at what is read, what is done,
then either you need to listen more carefully or the church is not announcing the
Stories of coming to baptism, of the saints of old, of lives befriended, surrendered,
transformed leave us in wonder and we see that Jesus is not a person just of
words – he is not only our teacher - but a person of action, of deeds, of miracles,
of changing lives.
If Jesus provokes wonder, he also provokes opposition,
because his counsel, his governance is not more of the same,
but a challenge to the pattern and order of the world.
Those in power to not respond with wonder,
but with counsel on how they might end Jesus.
They were happy with the possible, and feared the impossible
that Jesus announced.
In there is both wonder and opposition,
before we too quickly think of the world as not including us,
we must come to terms with our rejection of Jesus’ wonderful counsel.
We must admit to ourselves and even to each other,
where we have not stomached the teaching of Jesus,
where we have called it impossible, foolish, romantic.
The church, like the world, continues to wrestle with Jesus the wonderful Counsellor.
We continue to need to be convinced,
to have eyes and hearts transformed.
We dare to believe, we cling to gospel stories in hope that,
then is now, that this is that, that the past is present. [i]
And where we do this,
we will find opposition, we will find those who cannot tolerate,
who will not tolerate this Jesus,
those for whom there is too much to lose.
Where the church faces no opposition, it is probably because we have allowed
ourselves to be dulled to the call, the vision, the demand of Jesus to follow.
The church is called to embrace the wisdom of Jesus,
which announces the end of the world as the world knows it,
and which from certain angles looks like foolishness,
but it is the only reality.
Walter Brueggemann says this:
The ‘increase of his government’ will not be by supernatural imposition
or royal fiat.
Instead, it will come about through daily intentional engagement
of his subjects,
who are so astonished by his wonder
that they no longer subscribe to the old order of power and truth
that turns out to be in the long run,
only debilitating fraudulence.
It requires an uncommon wisdom
to interrupt the foolish practice of business as usual. [ii]
I wonder what it would mean, what it would look like,
for us to embrace the wonderful counsel of Jesus –
this ‘uncommon wisdom’. [iii]
It is almost impossible for us to see the world other than as we have it,
It is almost impossible for us to act in the world other than as we have it,
We are so entangled in the world,
that to see and act in accordance with Jesus’ wisdom,
seems beyond our reach.
And so why our first prayer must be,
God grant us the gift of eyes to see,
ears to hear,
hearts to respond,
hands to act,
that are in accordance with the mind of Christ,
that is, his wonderful wisdom.
The uncommon wisdom of Jesus
will call us to live a different way of life,
just read the Sermon on the Mount.
Or look to his ministry where we see it so clearly modelled for us:
in how he makes time for children;
in how he chooses to visit Zacchaeus, a tax collector;
in how he calls the wrong type of people to be apostles;
in how he doesn’t give up on his disciples;
in how he responds to those who question him;
in how he resists temptation by bring well versed in scripture;
in how he extends forgiveness to those beyond the pale;
in how he refuses the use of violence even when be faced with arrest;
in how he is gentle with the woman at the well
and the woman who had been bleeding 12 years;
in how tells stories which defy neatness and instead offer continual wondering;
in how he does not ignore the cry of those who need mercy like Bartimaeus;
in how he sees beauty and not waste in Mary’s use of expensive perfume;
in how he challenges the grip wealth can have on a heart;
in how he brings freedom to a man bound by demons and chains;
in how he sees faith in those outside the Jewish faith;
in how he doesn’t disown the law, but brings it to his proper end;
in how he sees his life as something to be laid down on behalf of others;
in how he sees the cross not just tragedy, but glory.
This is an uncommon wisdom,
which is both wonderful and wondrous,
and at the same time it is the politics of God
an economy of grace,
in which Christ is the key. [iv]
[i] This of course picks up the work of Jim McClendon.
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Names for the Messiah, 16-17.
[iii] There is a reminder here also of a work by a Baptist minister John Peck who wrote with Charles Strohmer, Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World.
[iv] Here I am deliberately echoing the titles of a series of books by Kathryn Tanner.