Summary: A Christmas Eve sermon describing the great and varied attributes of our Savior!
Names are an interesting phenomenon. We have last names, and first names, and many of us even have middle names. In some places in the world, people are properly addressed by their first names and then their last names, while in other parts of the world you begin an address with a person’s last name and then their first name. Often our last names are somehow tied to and reveal something about our heritage. We know that a McConnell probably has some Irish in his background, while an Inouye is Japanese. Smith reveals to us that somewhere in that individual’s genealogy was a person who worked with leather or silver or some other ware; while Shoemaker (obviously) would point to someone who makes shoes. And then we have our first names. Some of us, like myself, carry family names; others the name of a friend, or perhaps a hero, or even a Biblical figure. And still others bear a name that was simply liked and agreed upon by the parents. People will hold newborn babies, inquire about the name, and remark about what a good name it is, or how fitting it is. Indeed, our names say a lot about us, and as we grow our names in a great way become a part of our identity.
Gordon MacDonald, a pastor and author, tells this story: “After giving a lecture one day, a Nigerian woman who is a physician at a great teaching hospital in the United States came out of the crowd to say something kind about the lecture I had just given. She introduced herself using an American name.
‘What’s your African name?’ I asked.
She immediately gave it to me, several syllables long with a musical sound to it.
‘What does the name mean?’ I wondered.
She answered, ‘It means “Child who takes the anger away.”’ When I inquired as to why she would have been given this name, she said, ‘My parents had been forbidden by their parents to marry. But they loved each other so much that they defied the family opinions and married anyway. For several years they were ostracized from both their families. Then my mother became pregnant with me. And when the grandparents held me in their arms for the first time, the walls of hostility came down. I became the one who swept the anger away. And that’s the name my mother and father gave me.’”
So very often, when we call out names, we are saying something about the person being identified. This is precisely what Isaiah is doing in the Scripture reading we heard moments ago. He is identifying a great King who is to come, but he doesn’t stop at King or Lord, he lists many names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But for the meaning and importance of these names to be truly understood, Isaiah has to give us a little background; he has to remind his readers of the situation in which they find themselves.
Life is not easy; it often seems that we face difficulties at every turn. We do now, and the Israelites did many generations ago. When Isaiah delivered this prophecy to the Israelite people, they were exiled in Babylon. And even in those days years later, just before Jesus came, the exile was over, but the Jewish people found themselves under an oppressive Roman rule. As Isaiah says in the opening passage, it was a time of darkness. But in the best of ways, Israel held onto hope; a hope that their God would act on their behalf, that a Savior from the line of David would come and free them and rule over them in peace and justice. And this is exactly the prophecy that Isaiah is making; a light will come into darkness, a new King will take the throne.
So into that darkness, Isaiah speaks; into the darkness of exile in Babylon, into the darkness of Roman occupation, into the darkness of our modern turmoil. Isaiah points to a shining ray of light. But it’s not just that Isaiah speaks of the light to come, it’s almost as if he holds a prism in the path of that light and tells us exactly what that light is: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. These names mean everything, they are carefully chosen to tell us exactly how the darkness will be dispersed, to show us the shape of God’s new future, to reveal to us that the best of times are on their way, and to impress upon us the wonderful things that God is doing and will continue to do among God’s people! You see, God’s good news is always greater than the world’s bad news.
So Jesus Christ comes. And he is Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But why did Isaiah use these names to describe the coming Messiah? What do these names mean? There is wonder in his name, our Lord is wonderful. His birth was wonderful. It began with a young and humble servant named Mary who willingly submitted herself to God’s will, and though she was a virgin, she conceived and gave birth. Then at his birth, a multitude of heavenly hosts sang songs of praise and directed the shepherds to the manger where they would find the baby; a baby whose birthplace was marked by a star seen in distant lands and followed by the Magi. And as this baby became a man, his life was wonderful; his teaching, his healing, his miracles, were all wonderful. Wonderful because he made the blind to see, the lame to walk. Wonderful because he ate with the outcasts. Wonderful because he forgave the sins of the broken. And then when he was crucified, his sacrifice was wonderful, and his resurrection even moreso; because in that death and resurrection a path was made for us, our sins were forgiven and we were offered a life eternal with God. His name is Wonderful.