Sermon on Isaiah 8:11--9:7; Matthew 4:12-17; and 1 Peter 3:13-16. Delivered 7 December 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church. The seventh installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3-4, Isaiah 5, Isaiah 6, and Isaiah 7-8a.
Five years ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to spend a few months studying and living in Greece. I remember one autumn day in November 2009, no more than a few days after leaving Corinth, I stayed overnight in a village called Andritsaina, settled on the side of a tall hill in the mountains of Peloponnesian peninsula, near the border of Arcadia and Elis. I found I couldn't sleep that night, and so I determined to go out and hike to the top of the hill. Back and forth up the winding path I went until I reached the top, where a small chapel had been built of stone and surrounded with a small courtyard. The chapel was locked, but I determined that in the cold of that still and silent night, I would spend my hours walking around the church, devoting my time to prayer. Almost everything was pitch-black, except for a few spots of light down on the hillside, showing the village nestled among the trees of the forest. The hours of cold and darkness and gloom weighed on my soul as I prayed in total solitude. It seemed like ages went by until, ever so slowly, the sky turned dark blue as the first rays from the sun broke forth over Mount Lykaion. And then there were peaches and pinks and lavender and light blue – the dawn had come. Bit by bit, everything became clear and beautiful – the mountains, the forest, the rustic, red-roofed houses and taverns and churches of the little Greek village, and even other smaller villages dotting the landscape. Over a land of deep darkness, the sun's light had finally dawned. The long wait was all worthwhile.
Thousands of years ago, in the days when Ahaz was king of Judah, that darkness was all the deeper. We saw last Sunday that those were days of the Syro-Ephraimite War: when the nations of Aram-Damascus and Israel, to the north, and the Philistines and Edomites, to the south, threatened to crush Judah to dust, and Ahaz failed to resist the temptation to sell his soul to Assyria to make the problem go away. In those dreary days of desperation, the people were filled with the gloom, fear, and superstition that naturally arise when every horizon threatens danger (Isaiah 8:21-22). Isaiah paints a portrait of people running astray after false and vain hopes – not just the political powers that exalted themselves so high, but even the spirits of the dead and all kinds of pointless traditions – when instead they should be relying on the sure testimony of God, who knows best (Isaiah 8:19-20). A sober reminder for our own day, when we want to listen to everyone and everything except what God has spoken through his prophets and then in these last days by his Son (Hebrews 1:1-2).
In that long night of darkness, Ahaz was filled with “dread” of the nations that threatened him (Isaiah 7:16), and so too did the people “dread” the destroying forces arrayed against them (Isaiah 8:12). But Isaiah warns, “Sanctify the LORD of Hosts himself, and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isaiah 8:13). Their attention shouldn't be on how small and weak they are. Their attention shouldn't be on how massive and imposing the Arameans or Assyrians are. Their attention should be on how holy God is – holy God, holy and mighty, holy enough to fill heaven and earth with his endless might (cf. Isaiah 6:3).
Isaiah's direction isn't just given to Judah. It's given even to the Northern Kingdom, one of the states ganging up on poor Judah. Isaiah's concern is for the whole people of God, even in the midst of their violent division and their flirtations or outright devotion to pagan ways. Isaiah has warned passionately that Ephraim will get punished severely by the Assyrians, and we remember that the northernmost parts will be the hardest hit – stolen away by Assyria. But even as the war goes on, Isaiah stresses God's grace toward the rival nation's desolated land. Their land doesn't belong ultimately to wayward Ephraim. It's part of Immanuel's land (Isaiah 8:8), and his birth and life will change everything.
The one called Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14) will bring light even to gloomy “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 9:1), for there he will proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God (Matthew 4:13-17). All this darkness, all this gloom – they don't last. The gloom is doomed! Just as the darkest night turns to day, their darkness can't withstand the dawning of the Light of the World (John 8:12), the “Light of Light Eternal” – Jesus Christ, to whom the whole “law and the testimony” points and of whom all the Law and the Prophets speak (Isaiah 8:20; Luke 24:44; John 1:45).
And listen again to what Isaiah says! Joy will overtake all the earth because “unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there shall be no end. He shall reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isaiah 9:6-7). Don't let those familiar words grow stale! There's a wealth of treasure packed in them.
This 'Wonderful Counselor' of the prophecy meets us as “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24), whose cross-bearing pilgrimage the world wrongly ignores as weakness and folly (1 Corinthians 1:25). Jesus Christ is the eternal Wisdom of God in person; he's “the Way and the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). In our day, a chaotic choir of voices compete to sell us on their versions of wisdom: Do this like so! No, do it this other way! No, do this instead! Next do this! Just do it! Have it your way! Some voices tell us to look within, to retreat to our own little inner islands, and trust in our own sin-broken and deceitful hearts (cf. Jeremiah 17:9). Other voices tell us all the goods we need to own and the services we need to use if we want to be successful. Over the past decades, the idol of Mammon has increasingly tried to defile Advent with more and more commerce: it's all about getting the newest, the best, the priciest. So many voices cry out to us, “Buy! Buy!” Only one voice tells us to buy... for free:
Doesn't Wisdom call out? Doesn't Understanding raise her voice? […] Choose my instruction instead of silver; knowledge, rather than choice gold; for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her. […] Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters. And you who have no money, come, buy, and eat! ...Why spend money on what isn't bread, and your labor on what doesn't satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you'll delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. (Proverbs 8:1, 10-11; Isaiah 55:1-3)
What better counsel could we ever get than that? The Wisdom of God became flesh and pitched his tent alongside ours so that we might “have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10; cf. John 1:14). Amid the many voices of this world, we need a Wonderful Counselor – a Counselor who gives life to the full, a Counselor who speaks by his written word and who guides his people continually with his gentle Spirit. And his sheep, from years of following their Shepherd, know his voice (John 10:4). No other Counselor is so wonderful. Hear what the acclaimed preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon said about the Child born and the Son given (Sermons 5:47-48):
Christ is the Counselor whom I wish to consult every hour, and I wish that I could sit in his secret chamber all day and all night long, because to counsel with him is to have sweet counsel, hearty counsel, and wise counsel all at the same time. […] We go to Christ, and we get wisdom, we get love, we get sympathy, we get everything that can possibly be wanted in a counselor. […] “Lord,” said I, “I will follow thy counsel, and not my own devices”; and I have never had cause to regret it. Always take the Lord for thy guide, and thou shalt never go amiss. Backslider! thou that hast a name to live, and art dead, or nearly dead, Christ gives thee counsel. “I counsel thee to buy of me, gold tried in the fire and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed.” And sinner! thou that art far from God, Christ gives thee counsel. “Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Depend on it, it is loving counsel. Take it. Go home and cast yourself upon your knees. Seek Christ; obey his counsel, and you shall have to rejoice that you ever listened to his voice, and heard it, and lived.
No wonder the nation will “rejoice before” Jesus “as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder” (Isaiah 9:3)! Second, unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and his name shall be called... Mighty God. Can it really be so? Or is it too good to be true? If anyone's tempted to doubt that this means exactly what it says, look at how Peter treats the chapter just before it. Peter has advice for those who suffer evil: “Don't fear what they fear, don't be afraid” (1 Peter 3:14) – that's Isaiah's advice to Judah. But where Isaiah tells them to instead sanctify the LORD of hosts (Isaiah 8:13) – that is, Yahweh, the God of Israel – Peter tells us to “sanctify Christ as LORD in your hearts” (1 Peter 3:15). Just so, in 1 Peter 2:8's twist on Isaiah 8:14, Jesus is now the “Stone for stumbling and the Rock for offense” for the faithless, those who don't build upon him and seek their sanctuary in him.
So as we Christians read Isaiah, Peter – moved along by the Spirit of Jesus Christ himself – wants us to be very careful not to misread this. We can't shrink this down to size. We aren't to pit Jesus against the Old Testament God, like some people in popular culture do: a God of wrath versus a God of love. No, that's a heresy as old as Marcion: the Old Testament is as loving as the New, and wrath is nothing but God's love for the downtrodden and the sacred. Nor do we get to treat Jesus as some lesser god, like some cults do. No, no, Jesus is the personal outpouring of Yahweh's love and rule. We're called to 'act accordingly' in worshipping him with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength. And surely he is mighty. Jesus is the God whom Moses sang as a mighty warrior (Exodus 15:3). Jesus is the God who redeems his people “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:15)! “Who is this King of Glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8).
Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and his name shall be called... Everlasting Father. Some people misuse those words too. Jesus bears the title 'everlasting father', but he isn't God the Father. We confess “one God in Trinity, and the trinity in unity, neither blending the persons nor dividing the substance: for there's one person of the Father, and another person of the Son, and another person of the Holy Spirit”. Jesus, as God the Son, is fully equal in glory and majesty with God the Father and God the Spirit – not three gods, but one God in three persons. But in the days of Ahaz long ago, kings proclaimed themselves as fathers to their people. But they were so often abusive. They didn't rule by love, no matter what they claimed; they ruled by fear, and they ruled by power. Those kingdoms rose, and those kingdoms fell. Isaiah wants us to know that this Royal Child, this King – King Jesus – is not like the others. King Jesus is the real deal. He will watch over his people in love forever!
Finally, unto us a Son is given, and his name shall be called... Prince of Peace. Not only will the Child be called 'Prince of Peace', but his “peace will have no end”, Isaiah says (Isaiah 9:7). He'll rule from David's throne forever – just as Gabriel promised Mary: “You will conceive, and you will give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob's descendants; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:31-33).
How moving the thought of a permanent Prince of Peace must've been in Isaiah's day, to a nation in crisis: threatened with violence from every side, no matter what they do. It's fitting to remember our Prince of Peace now, seventy-three years to the day after the “unprovoked and dastardly attack” – those were President Roosevelt's words – on Pearl Harbor. That day was also a Sunday – the second Sunday of Advent, then just as now. During a time when Christians all over were remembering the Prince of Peace, our naval base was attacked. We didn't go looking for war; it came upon us.
In our own day, circumstances around the world repeatedly ensnare our nation – wisely or unwisely, justly or unjustly – in military engagements. Domestically, we live in days of riots, unrest, dissatisfaction, abuse of power, scandal after scandal. You read the newspapers, you watch the news channels, you know plenty about it. But “do not fear what they fear, do not be afraid” (Isaiah 8:12). Wars and rumors of wars will come and go, but this word of God – “Be not afraid” – will never pass away. The Prince of Peace is “God with us” – forever, through all wars and beyond all wars. How we long for the day when “every warrior's boot in battle, and every garment rolled in blood, will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:5) – the inevitable result of the Prince of Peace ruling. How we long for the day when the government will be upon his shoulders, and never will its greatness end. We have a promise: “peace shall over all the earth / its ancient splendors fling”.
The peace he brings is more than just the end of war, more than just the absence of hostility. It's wholeness: well-ordered, healthy, harmonious relationships. His peace is a healthy relationship with God, for as Paul writes in Romans 5:1, “Since we've been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. His peace is a peace within our very own souls and lives: no more inner conflict, no more war inside, no more out-of-kilter lives, but instead a real balance between rest and work, between family and career, between head and heart, between body and soul. His peace is a peace with each other, for we're told, “Rejoice! Strive for full restoration; encourage one another; be of one mind; live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:11). His peace is a peace between all our divisions, for “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And his peace is a peace between nations, for the LORD will “judge between the nations”, who “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).
Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the Sar Shalom, and that shalom is the kind of peace this world needs, and we each need in our lives – peace in our hearts and peace with each other. There is peace in Jesus for “all the weary world” with “its sad and lowly plains” and all its “Babel sounds” of war and commotion and strife. There is peace in Jesus for all “beneath life's crushing load, / whose forms are bending low, / who toil along the climbing way / with painful steps and slow”. In all these respects, we serve the Prince of Peace by being peacemakers – by bringing his peace to individuals and groups, to families and nations, to clubs and cultures, to make disciples of them all.
And this Wonderful Counselor, this Mighty God, this Everlasting Father, this Prince of Peace, whose kingdom never ends – he comes as a Child, in the weakness of a newborn baby. That is how the Light of the world breaks into the darkness: in the form of a spark. I don't think I could put it any better than John Oswalt did in his commentary on Isaiah (Oswalt 1:245):
How will God deliver from arrogance, war, oppression, and coercion? By being more arrogant, more warlike, more oppressive, and more coercive? Surely, the book of Isaiah indicates frequently that God was powerful enough to destroy his enemies in an instant, yet again and again, when the prophet comes to the heart of the means of deliverance, a childlike face peers out at us. God is strong enough to overcome his enemies by becoming vulnerable, transparent, and humble – the only hope, in fact, for turning enmity into friendship.
And so indeed we're delivered from the tyranny of sin and raised up to new life as friends of God in Christ! Outside of Christ, we're lost – each and every one of us. Outside of Christ, we've all been a “people that walked in darkness”. Outside of Christ, we've all been those who “dwelled in the land of the shadow of death”. Paul notes that we were “dead in our transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world”, and that “all of us also lived among” the disobedient, “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts”, and so we were “children of wrath” no less than anyone else (Ephesians 2:1-3).
But here's the good news! Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given! He is Immanuel – “the best of all is, God is with us!” Our Immanuel is the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. He is Jesus, “born a child and yet a king”. Though we were in darkness, though we were “those whose dreary dwelling / borders on the shades of death”, yet the Son was given to us – and given up for us. “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5).
Even when we were in deepest darkness and gloom, even when we were children of wrath living in a land of death, Jesus is born to us and for us! He promises, “I am the Light of the World: whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). This couldn't happen without the long-awaited miracle of the Child who was born, the Son who was given. We owe all our light to this Wonderful Counselor, this Mighty God, this Everlasting Father, this Prince of Peace – our risen King of Kings and reigning Lord of Lords, the Light of the World. He's our heavenly Christmas gift, and for a gift like this, the long wait was all worthwhile. “Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Trust in him; don't trip over him. If we cleave to him in faith, hope, and love, he is our sanctuary in a weary and war-torn world, and even our sanctuary from our own weary and war-torn souls. Come to him and “rest beside the weary road”, and sanctify the Babe of Bethlehem as the LORD God in your hearts.