December 2, 2018

Son of David, II: Mighty God

Passage: Isaiah 9:6; Ephesians 6:10–1

Click here to listen to this sermon.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.—Ephesians 6:10

 Our sermon series for this Advent is based upon Isaiah’s prophecy to King Ahaz in 8th century BCE who was literally stuck between the oppressors of the north and those nations from the south, who also sought their destruction. Isaiah promised God would give Ahaz a sign to trust…this sign was a pregnant young woman…not too formidable when compared to the armed forces.

Listen to how Isaiah describes this child —Isaiah 9:6

For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

 Silence in us any voice but your voice. Through these words of scripture and our meditation bring us to know your truth that we may be faithful followers of your son. Amen.

The early Christian church in Ephesus was formed in the shadow of the great Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World at the time. Imagine Soldier Field on steroids. Most religions worshipped situational gods and goddesses and practiced magic to keep evil spirits at bay. If evil spirits were not enough to frighten you, one needed to be on guard from an oppressive, Roman regime.

In this setting, a humble faith proclaimed Christ is cosmic, was with God from the beginning, and is omnipotent over all time and places. Baptism into his body and keeping the faith will bring salvation. Paul’s letter is a pep talk for how to live in this hostile world.

Listen to Paul’s closing from Ephesians chapter 6.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.

I can only wonder if King Ahaz paid attention to Isaiah’s prophecy that the Mighty God would arrive as an infant. The kingdom needed protection right then, not in decades to come. Placing trust in an infant might be okay for priests and the weak, but a leader needs strength.

I can only wonder if the recipients of Paul’s letter were really hoping to hear that God would subdue a sorcerer’s evil magic and eliminate the threat of a Roman soldier’s sword. When you are truly afraid to walk out your door and encounter another human, truth and righteousness don’t feel very secure.

I wonder who threatens our life today. “Threaten” may be too harsh. Instead who or what causes you to feel vulnerable?  What would a Mighty God do to change that? Secure your job? Dissolve any barriers to finding competent care for your family—older parents or young children? Shelter us from gang violence?

In all instances it is honest to acknowledge that when we feel our lives are at risk, we seek to trust in something or someone with the power to vanquish the foe. We’d like to say, “Protect me from the threat. I am not enough.”

How is Jesus our Mighty God? Jesus calls a motley crew of disciples, entrusting them with the good news for the world. They listened and because of their witness we proclaim Christ’s good news.

Jesus sees into the heart of the rich young ruler, Zacchaeus, and invites himself to his home for dinner. Zacchaeus makes amends for any wealth gained by deception and he changes.

Jesus brings a Roman’s centurion’s servant to life rather than let him die.

Jesus engages with his fierce opponents, who challenge him and try to box him in, unlocking scriptural truths they had long buried.

Jesus does not oppress anyone, he connects, and he is present.

The Mighty God of Isaiah’s prophecy appears vulnerable with modest sandals and handspun cloak. The Mighty God never diminishes the other but brings about life by engaging with the other. God’s might does not fear the other or build barriers. God’s might always is a grace that changes us all for the better.

This is the divine imprint we all bear.

As followers of Christ, this is the armor of God Paul tells us to put on.

The author Colin Fleming—not the tennis player, although he may have a similar story—writes of venturing into an unpopular bar at a low point in his life. Perhaps he chose an unpopular bar so he would not encounter friends and a bar, so he could get some strength from the bottle.

His bartender was about his age and Fleming assumed he was much better off—working and talking with people. But, as it turns out the bartender was candid enough to share, he was receiving unemployment, could not find work in his profession, and tending bar produced little income.

To Fleming, this man did not come across as fragile but instead, “This guy is impressive. He is solid in his belief about himself. He has problems to deal with, and he knows there is no point in pretending they are not there.”

Because of this encounter, Fleming let his guard down.

The bartender’s honesty was disarming. Most people would put on false smile of “all is fine” and hide this barrier to make sure no one is the wiser.

Fleming writes, “The result is that many people go on playacting. They never take a seat at life’s bar, look over the wood to an honest person, and make the type of connection humans always need to remain tethered to the truth.”

In case you are wondering, this story was not from a pastoral care website or such. It appeared in the Wall Street Journal as “Don’t Clam Up When Life Brings You Down.” [1]

We might experience this connection with each other in times of trial as empathy. Empathy seeks to understand life as experienced by another. It is to suffer with someone’s suffering, to struggle with them, to face danger together, and experience life as our neighbor experiences life. Empathy asks us both to let down our guards to be fully present. It is scary, it is so life giving.

The Pew Foundation recently asked thousands of Americans “where they find meaning.”

Here is one response:

Wow, what a terrible time to ask. I would have said my job until last week but we've gone through a surprise ownership change and I don't know if I'm quitting / getting fired tomorrow!

I guess what keeps me going are the surprising acts of kindness I see everyday in this city. A kid dropped and broke his toy on the train during rush hour and had a meltdown.

Strangers grabbed the pieces and worked together to snap it back together while the frantic father tried to usher his screaming child off the train so they didn't miss their stop.

The toy was fire brigaded through the train to a grateful dad and a no longer screaming child. I've never seen that look of relief on a man's face or a happier kid. That makes it worth it![2]

When our Mighty God comes to us as Jesus, God shows us a love for the other that empties out to take humanity in. God stoops down to raise us up. God asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves, think of that love as empathy.

How we live on this earthly plane draws us closer to experiencing life with Christ in the heavenly realm.

Empathy is not some cerebral ideal. It is practical. It does not require training. Empathy saves lives.

In early November, Julie Peterson organized an adult education evening with Fr. Dave Kelly of Precious Blood Ministry and Phil Andrew, a former FBI leader in gun violence.

They spoke of restorative justice and other tactics to reduce violence by meeting face to face with youth most vulnerable either to be involved or be a victim. Empathy was mentioned repeatedly in the programmatic and legal efforts.

At the very end of the evening, after all sorts of ideas of how to reduce violence and restore lives, a 19 year old named Nigel, who had been involved in crime and through Precious Blood’s work was now in college spoke.

Nigel was direct and impassioned. He said, “These kids need jobs but most of all they need to learn to speak without saying ‘uhm.’ Talk to them. Teach them how to speak. Let them know you care about what they have to say. Just show up and talk to them.”[3]

I will close with my story.

Last Saturday I stopped by Whole Foods in Lincoln Park for the coming week’s groceries. Since it was the quiet holiday weekend, very few checkout lines were open, they all seemed to move slowly, and I seemed to choose a particularly slow line.

As I unloaded the groceries, I realized I’d left my iPhone at home with my Whole Foods app and online wallet. Rats. I’d looked through the cart wondering what had I bargain-shopped for, thinking the Whole Foods app would reduce the price an additional 10%? (I realize the silliness to bargain shop at Whole Foods.)

When I lamented to the check-out guy my missing phone, he smiled broadly saying, “They call me ‘Mr. Wonderful.’ I can offer you the price adjustment.” Okay, this gesture alone made up for the slow pace.

Mr. Wonderful truly had an infectious smile. He was a slight build and from the hearing devices that were visible and his mannerism, he appeared as one not born with typical hearing abilities.

As I focused on bagging my groceries, he asked, “What book has transformed your life?”

This was Whole Foods on Saturday morning not the Seminary Co-op or Newberry Bookstore or The Book Stall.

His earnestness and eye contact inspired an honest answer.

As an aside, I felt a huge risk. I don’t wear my collar outside of church or read theology texts on airplane with the book jacket. I hope to live my faith, but not broadcast it.

I was almost surprised at myself when I immediately said, “Holy Scripture has and continues to change my life.”

He smiled broadly and responded, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God,” as he quoted his favorite book, The Gospel of John.

“But then again,” he said, “I love Moses’ psalm…Psalm 90,” and paused to see if I would engage.

“‘Our God Our Help in Ages Past’ is one of my favorite hymns and I know is based on Psalm 90.” It was like we both scored.

“Oh—the poetry of Song of Songs—what a gift.” Then he laughed, talking about the prophets, “Who does Jonah think he is, arguing with God?”

Our banter went on all the while he was scanning and I was bagging the groceries with intermittent questions if the cauliflower was organic or conventional and what to do with my bag credits.

Once we were done, he said, “The most profound book of all is the prophecy of Isaiah, ‘unto us a child is born.’” His voice seemed to crescendo to “and they shall call him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.”

I was speechless.

Before this sermon series, I confess I would not have been able to place all four descriptors and modifiers in the correct order.

Perhaps by the end of Advent, I would remember all four attributes of the prophecy, in order. But I know I will always remember “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace” because of Mr. Wonderful at Whole Foods, who had the courage to witness to the word.

Here was my Saturday morning lesson: I will continue to be transformed by Holy Scripture when I am willing to be honest with another, let my guard down, and truly connect. I felt washed with a grace that changed me.

Here is the challenge I received from this encounter: Am I willing to engage with another on his or her terms? It may be without speaking a word of scripture, but by living into the Word. What happens when I get out of the way, take off my stand-offish-ness, and put on the armor of God to let empathy enter between another person and me?

Here is my prayer:  I am willing to try this, particularly now in Advent, and I pray you too may be willing be fully present with another in whatever way that person needs or wants.

As I left, he shared one more thought: “You know there is only one interpreter of scripture you ever need to hear…Johannes Sebastian Bach. No one brings scripture to life as he can.”

[1] Colin Fleming, “Don’t Clam Up When Life Brings You Down:  Risk some candor. You’ll find it a relief, and others will respect you for it,” The Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2018.

[2] “Where Americans Find Meaning in Life,” The Pew Foundation, Accessed November 25, 2018,

[3] “Think You’re Helpless Against Chicago’s Violence? Think Again,” Kenilworth Union Church Adult Education, November 8, 2018,  The references to Nigel’s witnesses is at 1:05.