By Steven Norris
It is hard to imagine the Christmas season without the soaring strains of George Frederick Handel’s “Messiah” ringing in my ears. Our church’s tradition is to include “The Hallelujah Chorus” in our Christmas Eve service — right after one of the children reads the Christmas story from Luke 2.
The lyrics of Handel’s masterpiece echo the words of the prophet Isaiah, speaking of one who would inaugurate the hopeful reign of God’s anointed. Though it likely pointed to someone in the prophet’s day, Christians quickly found vocabulary and images in this prophecy that helped make sense of the life and ministry of Jesus.
In the four weeks leading up to Christmas this year, I would like to explore four messianic titles found in the ninth chapter of Isaiah in hopes that doing so might help us all appreciate the wonder of God’s good gift to humanity. According to that prophecy, he will first be called “Wonderful Counselor…”
Who is your first call when you need advice or are going through a particularly difficult time? Throughout his prophecies, Isaiah is extremely critical of the folly of human wisdom. We might look around at the mess of our world — divisions, violence, suffering, and heartache — and hear the Twelve Step slogan: “It was your best thinking that got you here…”
The book of Proverbs teaches us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (1:7). Remain humble in the presence of the Divine and in the face of our human limitations — this may be the best advice we could receive. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord, and my ways are not your ways” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
The first step to seeking the counsel of God is to recognize our ignorance and limitations and ask the Lord for help. “If any of you lacks wisdom,” the book of James states, “you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (1:5).
As Isaiah scholar, John Oswalt states, “it is true wisdom which knows that in weakness is strength, in surrender is victory, and in death is life.” The miracle of Advent is found in the paradoxical truth of Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, who shows us an alternative way to be in the world.
In the infant king in the manger, power is found in vulnerability. In his call to discipleship, Jesus demonstrated that the only way to gain life is to lose it. In the towel wrapped around his waist, Jesus shows us that leadership is embodied in service. In the forgiveness he offered from the cross, Jesus modeled that victory is found in refusing to participate in the cycle of violence.
The Wonderful Counselor is the one who challenges our earthly understandings of wisdom and folly. Through the paradoxical teachings of the Kingdom, Jesus challenges us to rethink our definitions of success, power, strength, victory, and importance. He challenges us to recognize that, from a worldly perspective, his message looks like foolishness. From a heavenly perspective, however, it looks like eternal life.