Naming Jesus (1): Wonderful Counselor
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
If it’s the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit, I’d call it a cultural phenomenon: conversations with family and friends that have become something to navigate through a potential hotbed of political arguments and hard feelings. Front-page newspaper and online articles offer strategies to engage your nearest and dearest without fear of unpleasant disruptions around the holiday table. A number of clergy colleagues participated in a panel discussion sponsored by Iliff School of Theology about post-election healing of deep divisions, fear, and pain. We need to provide forums for our congregations to come together and speak in a safe place, our friend at Temple Emmanuel, Rabbi Joe Black noted. One of you sent me an app designed to “burst the information” bubble in which many of us dwell, to connect with people who think differently and …well, have a conversation that includes listening as well as sharing. The Saturday Night Live sketch featured a family gathered at the Thanksgiving table, and whenever the tension rose in response to someone’s How could you vote for her? What’s the matter with you that you voted for him? –the little granddaughter would start playing a sappy Adele love song and they’d all join in singing.
I’m intrigued by this for a whole bunch of reasons. The election didn’t cause the division in our country, but certainly revealed it. And politics is only part of it. Our language about values and the things that matter most has reached a level of incivility such that silence seems a merciful alternative. Central is committed to building community among diverse people, yet we acknowledge the difficulty of discussing matters about which we know we disagree. Well-meaning people have cautioned against bringing up certain topics because they’re simply too controversial. Of course I don’t want to turn every gathering into a debate, but I do wonder about the cost of avoiding even the appearance of disagreement, as if that threatened our fragile unity. Keeping everything smooth on the surface maintains this image, but is a far cry from a church that courageously engages important issues with a desire to understand better and more deeply not only the issues themselves but those who hold a variety of perspectives on them. Doesn’t the command to love one another imply some learning about what makes the other tick?—what moves and motivates them?
Today is the beginning of a new church year, the season of Advent. We prepare to receive again the One sent by God to reveal the heart of God as love. This year the spiritual guide to help us is contained in a single verse from the prophet Isaiah: For to us a child is born, a son is given; authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Strength of God, Eternal Protector, Champion of Peace. Because this text is so familiar (and many of us hear it through the music of Handel’s Messiah), to get a fresh outlook I’m using a translation that focuses on the qualities named rather than a gender-based role.
It’s important to recall the historical context of Isaiah’s prophecies, a low period in Israel’s history. The nation had adopted the religious practices and values of its neighbors and had turned away from the distinctive worship of God. They experienced economic exploitation under the empire of Assyria and were at war with Babylon. Though most Biblical scholars believe these prophecies signaled the rise of a new king of Israel who would restore peace and release the country from oppression, the first Christians drew from these writings to identify Jesus as the one who truly and completely fulfilled them. During Advent, we will consider what it means for us today to name
Jesus “Wonderful Counselor, Strength of God, Eternal Protector and Champion of Peace.”
Listen for God’s word to the church in the prophecy of Isaiah, the eleventh chapter at the first verse. [Isaiah 11:1-9]
I remember the feeling of maternal pride when I saw one of my son’s business cards for the first time: Paul Knupp III, attorney and counselor at law. A “counselor” at law summons up images of a trusted advisor, guiding you through the intricacies of the legal system to produce just outcomes (and not some of the negative stereotypes of sharks and shysters).
Likewise a mental health counselor can provide wisdom and support when you’re confronted with a difficult situation, unresolved trauma, or acute anxiety. A listening ear, but even more important, perspectives on a process towards healing without the history and entanglements of emotional involvement. Some people consult spiritual counselors as part of an intention toward personal growth and faith formation. The best ones don’t judge, but help us explore the landscape of our souls through the resources of prayer and relationship with God.
What constitutes a “wonderful” counselor? The text has some ideas: a spirit of wisdom and understanding. . . . a spirit of counsel and might. . . . someone who judges fairly. . . . whose rule brings together predator and prey, strong and vulnerable, to produce peace and well-being. Think for a moment about how Jesus embodied that identity.
What came to mind? Perhaps you thought immediately of Jesus’ power to heal people —to bring sight to the blind, freedom to those in captivity, health to the chronically ill, peace to the brokenhearted. Or maybe it was his teachings—the paradoxical blessings of the meek, the poor, the persecuted; the way he challenged the rules in favor of mercy and forgiveness; his demonstration of love as service and sacrifice; how he opened up new possibilities thought impossible before. Though Jesus didn’t shy away from controversy, only on a few occasions did he confront his challengers with anger and fiery rhetoric. More often he told a story that caused them to ponder, or asked a question for their consideration. Who do you say that I am? How do you understand the law? What is the kingdom of God like? Jesus didn’t go around simply spouting divine knowledge, but spent time with others in searching conversation. Frequently these took place around a meal table, where he relinquished control and allowed himself to be a recipient of another’s hospitality.
And here’s the thing, friends. Jesus the wonderful counselor did not remove himself from the rough and tumble of everyday life. With the love that casts out fear, he engaged people wherever they were: be they rich and powerful or poor and oppressed, outcasts or popular ones, immigrants, women, children, sick people, disappointed people, and everyone else. His ministry took him into the synagogue, into the halls of government, and into forbidden leper colonies. Follow me, he said, and I will make you fishers of people. Greater things than you have seen me do will you do. We who seek to follow in Jesus’ footsteps are called to be wonderful counselors as well. People –like him—who leave our comfort zones and familiar bubbles to engage people with the good news of God’s love and a future with hope.
So I propose we practice today, in the manner of Jesus the wonderful counselor. Our goal will not be to persuade each other of the correctness of our position, but to understand one another better. Our goal will not be to change anyone’s mind but to identify the common ground between us. Our goal will not be to produce conformity of belief, but to affirm that agreement or not, we are brothers and sisters.
I think we can do this, and I think we can do this about a very seasonal and controversial issue (one from which I was practically expelled for raising. In first grade, and come to think of it, from pretty much every church I’ve served as pastor). It’s Santa Claus and the story of how he brings presents to good children and lumps of coal to bad ones. How he “makes a list and checks it twice” to find out who’s naughty and nice; so you better watch out. . . The old me might have framed the question like this: Defend your misguided promotion of Santa Claus in light of a God who loves unconditionally and gives gifts to both good and bad people. But I think there’s a better way, less judge-y and more likely to get to the heart of the matter without defensiveness or manipulation. So instead, I invite you to join in conversation with a few people around you and share how the Santa tradition in your childhood home has shaped your practice of it now. What do you like best about it?
[CONVERSATION IN PEWS]
Friends, brothers and sisters, wonderful counselors: welcome to Advent. With our actions and our conversations, let us prepare for the day when the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the nursing child shall play over the snake den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. Amen.