Isaiah 9:2-7; 1 John 5:1-5
by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
God doesn’t demand perfection from believers; all of us fail from time to time. Fortunately, grace abounds. Nevertheless, at least one indication that our faith is genuine is a sincere desire to obey. Chuck Swindol
Jesus: Wonderful Counselor
Our second scripture lesson this morning is one that we often hear during Advent or Christmas, or anytime Handel’s Messiah is sung. It is one of the Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah. Isaiah describes what this Messiah will be like and what he will do. Listen to God’s Word through the prophet Isaiah.
Read: Isaiah 9:2-7
Two weeks ago I stood up here and told you that I was glad that the presidential election was over. I am not, by nature, politically inclined. I can see both sides of issues and I don’t like the negative atmosphere of the political arena. I was looking forward to the news not being focused on politics. If only that were true. We come to church, especially during the Advent and Christmas season, hoping to escape from the ugliness and bitterness of the real world, including politics. Then we read a passage like this one from Isaiah, which is a political message. “The government will be on his shoulders” (Isaiah 9:6).
Judah was on the edge of destruction. Assyria was the main world power. They had attacked and destroyed much of the country. Assyria’s army was at the gates of Jerusalem. Judah’s King, Ahaz, had tried to buy off the Assyrian army, but it hadn’t gone well. The darkness that Isaiah talks about is the darkness of war, devastation and bloodshed.
Ahaz asked the prophet Isaiah for a sign, some kind of assurance that God would deliver them from Assyria. Isaiah’s response? “Here is a sign for you – a baby is going to be born to a young woman. He will be Immanuel, God with us.” That wasn’t the type of sign Ahaz was looking for. “A baby isn’t going to do me any good. I need an army, chariots and swords. I need better planes and bigger missiles. I need control of both the House and the Senate so we can get things done.”
Yet a baby is what Isaiah promised to Ahaz. A baby is what God offers to us. Isaiah used four titles, four names to describe this child – Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Over the next few weeks I want to look at each of those titles.
When I first started thinking about Jesus as Wonderful Counselor I headed in the wrong direction. I thought of a counselor as a psycho-therapist, someone who listens to us and comforts us. Someone who helps us deal with the pain of our lives. I am convinced that Jesus is a counselor in that way, but that is not what the word counselor means. A counselor is a person who gives counsel. A counselor gives advice or guidance.
Mike Tomlin is the coach of the Steelers and Clint Hurdle is the manager of the Pirates. They make decisions for what their teams are going to do. Yet they don’t make those decisions alone. They are surrounded by assistant coaches who give them advice as to what they should do. Those assistant coaches are counselors. President-elect Trump has been interviewing people who will be his counselors, people who will give him advice and help him lead our country. Hopefully he will surround himself with good counselors.
Isaiah tells us that the Messiah will be a wonderful counselor. The Hebrew word that is translated “wonderful” is only used to talk about God. The Messiah will have divine wisdom and give God’s advice. The Messiah will show us how to live in the way that God wants, faithfully and obediently following God’s will.
The passage that Kirk read tells us that God’s children obey God’s commands. John is aware that no one obeys perfectly. We still need forgiveness. Yet the presence of God’s grace in our lives creates within us a desire to obey.
In some areas of life God’s will is obvious. If you are wondering whether or not to embezzle money God is very clear. “You shall not steal. You shall not commit adultery, or murder or worship other gods.” The problem comes in those areas that are not so obvious. Should you buy a new car or get your old one fixed? Should you take a new job or keep the old one? How much money should we spend on Christmas this year? How should I raise my children so that they believe in Jesus? The choices before us are sometimes so overwhelming that it isn’t obvious what we should do.
We need a counselor, someone who will guide us and give us advice. Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor. Jesus gives us God’s advice, God’s guidance. We are invited and called to look to Jesus for how to live faithfully and obediently.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t put obedience on my list of favorite Christian words. I know it’s important, but I much prefer words like faith, grace, worship, forgiveness, and holiness. I prefer to focus on spiritual growth and maturity. Yet one of the best signs that we are growing in our faith and becoming mature is that we are attempting to be obedient.
I have preached and I hope that you have heard that an important part of obedience is reading God’s word. It is in the Bible that we learn what God wants. And so, I have spent a lot of my ministry encouraging people to read the Bible and trying to help people understand what’s in the Scriptures. The problem comes because there are many different ways to read the Bible.
Eugene Peterson points this out in story he tells about himself. When he was in high school and college he had been a runner. When he became a pastor he stopped running. This was before the time when jogging became popular and he wondered what people would think about a pastor wearing jogging shorts. They were used to seeing him in a suit or with his robe, not with a sweaty T-shirt. In his mid-thirties he realized that he wouldn’t lose his dignity if people realized that he was a runner.
He bought a new pair of Adidas and immersed himself in the running world. He subscribed to three running magazines and loved reading articles about training, nutrition, stretching and caring for injuries. He ran on a regular basis, competed in 10K races every month or so and ran a marathon about once a year. Then he got injured. He pulled a muscle and couldn’t run for several months. After about two weeks he realized that he was no longer reading the running magazines. It wasn’t a conscious decision. They still came in the mail. He just wasn’t reading, because he wasn’t running.
Then he made the connection between reading and running, and reading the Bible and following Christ. He realized that if we only read the Bible to understand it, or to be moved by it, without seeking to obey it, we are missing an essential part of God’s word. It is important to read the Bible with the question, “What does this mean?” We need to interpret God’s word correctly. It’s important to read the Bible with the question, “How do these words encourage me or touch my spirit?” God’s word needs to have an impact on our minds and our hearts. However, we need to ask a third question as well, “What are these words calling me to do? How am I being called to obey?”
Jesus has many names, one of which is Wonderful Counselor. He gives us counsel, advice on how to live as God’s beloved children. He also shows us how that is done. The baby that Isaiah prophesied about was born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. Yet he is still our Wonderful Counselor. His name continues to have power to guide us, to convict us, or to comfort us. Let us celebrate the power of Jesus name. “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!”
Psalm 103:17-22; John 17:20-23
by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Community is intricate and complex. Living in community as a people of God is inherently messy. Peterson, The Jesus Way, p74
Confession of Faith: A Brief Statement of Faith (10.4)
We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life.
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,
and binds us together with all believers
in the one body of Christ, the Church.
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
A Brief Statement of Faith – Unity
In Monday’s newspaper, the night before the election, there was a headline that caught my attention. “This election will come to an end, but mental damage might not.” The article talked about how the election was so bitter, so negative, and so ugly, that more than half of Americans were experiencing stress that was similar to a major crisis. Can you relate to that?
I imagine that most of us are relieved that the election is over. Yet the point of the article was that even though the election is over, the stress continues. Certainly that includes all of those who supported Clinton and the Democratic Party. One friend on Facebook wrote this. “How does one carry on with a stress like this upon their shoulders...a legitimate stress on that magnitude that a lot of people are feeling right now... I cried tonight but not for the reason I thought I was going to.” However, the article I read suggested that because there was so much fear and hatefulness during the campaign the psychological impact will also continue for many of those who supported Trump and the Republican Party.
We are a divided nation that desperately needs healing. Add to that the divisions in the rest of the world – Shia and Sunni Muslims fighting in the Middle East, Pakistan and India fighting over the Kashmir area. I’m sure we could come up with many other examples. We are a divided nation and a divided world. I even read a story about a husband and wife who had stopped talking to each other because of the election. And the Church? We are also divided. This church experienced that before the election. Many churches are divided, over a variety of issues. There is a desperate need for healing and unity.
And so we come this morning to the last of our banners and the Presbyterian confessions. Today we are looking at A Brief Statement of Faith. It addresses the need for unity. I would imagine that there are probably a few Civil War historians here who could tell us the various dates that took place during that war. But I doubt that many people realize that in the Presbyterian Church the Civil War did not end until 1983! At the beginning of the Civil War the Presbyterian Church split into the northern and the southern branches. It wasn’t until 1983 that the two denominations reunited. When they came together there was a call to write a confession that could be included in The Book of Confessions, a confession that could express our unity. 21 people, from very diverse backgrounds, were chosen to write a statement of faith. Imagine putting 7 Republicans, 6 Democrats, 2 Libertarians, 4 independents, and a handful of other people into a group and asking them to write a political statement that would be accepted by a super-majority of our country! Writing this confession was a daunting task. It took about five years. But they wrote a statement that was approved and adopted in 1991.
The confession is only two pages long. It’s brief, at least compared to most of our other confessions. It doesn’t try to cover everything we believe. It starts with an introductory statement, which we used for our call to worship. Then there are three paragraphs proclaiming that we trust in Jesus, we trust in God the Father and we trust in the Holy Spirit. It is a Trinitarian statement. We used part of the paragraph about trusting in God as our prayer of confession and part of the paragraph about trusting in Jesus as our assurance of forgiveness. This morning I want to focus on the statement, “We trust in God the Holy Spirit.”
A Brief Statement of Faith has a wonderful description of the Holy Spirit. Let me share with you three ideas that come out of it, three ways the Spirit works in the world and in our lives. If you want to get out the Confession of Faith that we will use at the end of the sermon you will see what I’m talking about.
First, the Holy Spirit is “everywhere the giver and renewer of life.” This points to the passage that Grace read from Genesis. When God made the man – the Hebrew word is Adam – he took dirt – the Hebrew word is adamah – and formed it into the shape of a body. Then God breathed into this body the breath of life. The word for breath in the Hebrew is sometimes translated Spirit. God breathed into this body the Spirit of life. The Holy Spirit is the one who gives us life. That is true with our first breath and with every breath that follows. It is also true we need emotional or spiritual renewal. Life, in the deepest sense of the word, abundant life and eternal life, joyful life is the work of God’s Spirit within us. Take a deep breath right now. Inhale… When you feel as if your life is depleted and empty breathe. Inhale… Breathe in the Spirit of God, who is the giver and renewer of life.
Second, the Spirit “sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor.” A Pharisee asked Jesus about the greatest commandment. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God with every ounce of your being. Then Jesus added the second great command – love your neighbors in the same way that you love yourself. That sounds nice, but it isn’t always easy to love some people. Some of the statements that people made during the campaign were so outrageous and so filled with hate that it is hard to love some people right now. I can think of a few of those statements by people I’ve known and loved my whole life. I find myself feeling very irritable and negative toward some people. But if I want to be fully honest with you, there are times I don’t even like myself, either. There are times I feel worthless and unacceptable. The ability to love and accept ourselves, the ability to love our neighbors and the ability to love God is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We can’t do it on our own. God, the Spirit, does it for us.
Third, the Spirit “binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church.” In the 17th chapter of John, Jesus prays. First he prays for himself. Then he prays for the apostles. Then in our passage he prays for those who will follow the first Christians. That is us. Notice what Jesus prays. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (John 17:20-21 emphasis mine). Jesus prays for unity in the church.
It is possible to understand that prayer as a challenge. “Jesus wants us to be united, so let’s work a little harder at agreeing with each other.” The implied message behind that is that you need to change your mind and agree with me. Let me suggest that a better way to understand this prayer is that Jesus is asking that our eyes would be opened to the unity that is already ours. We are the body of Christ and Christ is not divided. Therefore, whether we feel like it or not, we are one. We are invited to pray for unity not so much as something we have to achieve. Rather, we are invited to recognize and embrace the unity that is already ours through the work of the Holy Spirit. It ends up being a unity in diversity.
Jesus invites us to live out our unity so that we can go out into our broken and divided world, telling the world about God’s love in Jesus Christ. We may not agree on who should be president. But as followers of Jesus Christ we can agree that he is the source of our hope and our life. Through our life together and our unity we are to demonstrate to the world the gospel of Jesus Christ and invite the world to be one with God and with God’s people.
The banner for A Brief Confession of Faith was not designed by Avery and Marsh, who created other eight banners. It was designed by Gay Sorenson who was a member of First Presbyterian Church in Port Charlotte, FL. The Rainbow Cross in the background celebrates the unity we have in Christ, in spite of the diversity of races and cultures in the church.
The earth has cracks in it. We live in a broken and divided world. We have certainly seen that this week. However, notice that our world is held in the hands of God.
In the white we have the official seal of the Presbyterian Church (USA). This seal has multiple symbols. The basic shape is a cross, the central symbol of Christianity. The horizontal lines of the cross are an open Bible. The Scriptures are the primary way we hear God speak. The top part of the cross is a dove descending down onto the Bible. The dove reminds us of the Holy Spirit which we need to understand the Bible. Beneath the dove and the Bible is a pulpit, which points to the importance of preaching in the Presbyterian Church. On the lower sides of the cross are flames that point to the burning bush when God spoke to Moses. They also are a symbol of the tongues of fire that descended on the apostles on Pentecost. Finally, there is a baptismal font in the center of the base of the cross. We enter the church through baptism.