Son of David, III: Everlasting Father
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the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing;
for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. —John 5:19
As I noted a couple of weeks ago, it is very likely that this lovely promise from the prophet Isaiah originally predicted the birth of Good and Crafty King Hezekiah, a monarch of the Davidic dynasty whose shrewd statesmanship saved the city of Jerusalem and the Vermont-sized nation of which it was the capital from certain destruction by superpower barbarians from the north who were ready to crash the city gates around 700 B.C.
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall rest upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Christians, of course, couldn’t help but see Isaiah’s prophecy as a promise of another Son of David, 40 generations removed, who was born in humbler circumstances to a pregnant teenager and her peasant husband, who unfortunately was not the father, and whose lack of careful strategic planning led to an emergency birth in the cattle shed of a tiny hick town a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem.
And so this Advent we are studying Isaiah’s prophecy to discover what it might tell us about the character of the One who came down to a manger and went up to a cross.
In the Gospels, Jesus’ identification with the God he always calls ‘Father’ is complete and absolute. “I and the Father are one,” he says in the Gospel of John. One time Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath Day, and the Pharisees just go ballistic. They give Jesus a hard time for breaking God’s Sabbath laws, but Jesus responds by saying, essentially, “I made the Law; I can break it.” He says, “I and the Father are one. Know me, know the Father. The work I do is the work of God, the work of the Father.”
That’s why Isaiah says that his name shall be called “Everlasting Father”: Jesus’ identification with the God he always calls ‘Father’ is complete and absolute.
But the title ‘Everlasting Father’ doesn’t fit the pattern of the other three, does it? All the other titles rely on metaphors taken, appropriately, from the royal imagery of the palace: Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Mighty God even, the Creator himself.
A wise Counselor, a shrewd ambassador—that’s what you need when the barbarians are at the gate. Mighty God—the strength of divinity, or at least the might of a potent emperor like Caesar Augustus, who crushed Antony and Cleopatra as if they were inconvenient pests. A Prince of Peace is what you need when conflict engulfs and threatens to swamp your world with chaos.
But Everlasting Father. That’s a title of a lesser stripe. It’s a metaphor taken from home and family, not court or palace. And of course the Messiah Who Saves, the Royal in whose realm all the people flourish, would be loving and gentle as well as wise, strong, and peace-making.
Karl Barth was fond of saying that in Jesus Christ, God turns toward us with a friendly face. Jesus changes the whole visage and demeanor of God, from stern warrior to loving father.
This father loves his charges with the unconditional love of a father for his children—all his children; not just the strong and the successful, but also the weak and the vulnerable; not just the able-bodied, but the halt and the blind; not just for the compliant and obedient, but the recalcitrant and the rebellious; not just the children who are his by right and by birth and by patrimony, but for the orphan and the refugee he adopts into his loving care.
John and Alix are a young couple who wondered whether they should start a family. They discussed what was the greater good—freedom to live their own life, or house-full of loving children. They weren’t sure.
But then they had a son named Dylan, and Alix the mother said, “As it turned out, I loved being a mother much more than I loved freedom.”
Then they had a daughter named Eve. The delivery was so difficult that at birth, Eve was essentially dead. Her Apgar scores were zero; her color was deep purple. Eve has cerebral palsy, which is any disability caused by damage to the cerebrum before or during the birth process.
Many children with cerebral palsy can live relatively normal lives. Many can walk; many have rudimentary speech. Many go to college or get jobs, but not Eve. Her disabilities are so severe that she will never walk, talk, or feed herself. They feed her a nutritional supplement five times a day.
They rise at 5:30 every morning to get Eve ready for school. It takes 40 minutes. The bus comes at 6:30. It would be easier for John and Alix to drive Eve to school, but they want her to mix it up with the other kids on the school bus.
When people are in awe of everything Alix has to do for Eve and ask her how she can do it, Alix just says, “By the time I faced what was wrong with Eve, I loved her more than anything in the world.” Yes?
For me, the most moving moment in the honor America paid to President Bush last week was actually before the funeral, when his body was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Thousands and thousands of Americans waited in line for hours to pay their last respect to 41–celebrity Americans and common Americans, high Americans and low Americans, rich Americans and poor Americans, captains of industry and domestics, Anglo-Americans and African Americans and Hispanic Americans and thousands who didn’t even speak the language.
My daughter and almost-son-in-law live in Washington. My almost-son-in-law rode his bike to the Capitol all by himself at 11 p.m. because he thought the line would be short. He finally paid his respect five hours later and pedaled home at four in the morning.
Also, hundreds of Americans in wheelchairs. We take it so for granted, but it wasn’t always so. There are 83 steps into the US Capitol Building. In March of 1990, 60 differently-abled Americans threw their wheelchairs and canes aside and started climbing those 83 steps. Eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan, a second-grader from Denver with cerebral palsy, gets out of her wheelchair and starts climbing those steps. “I’ll take all night if I have to,” she said.
Five months later in July 1990, President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” It was the second wall that came tumbling down on his watch. Forging a fair peace with our arch-enemy during the Cold War, driving a monomaniacal tyrant back into his hidey-hole in Baghdad—maybe the ADA was his greatest accomplishment? Not just wisdom and strength and peace, but the love of a father for his most vulnerable charges.
The message of Christmas is that we are not alone, but loved back into life by the Everlasting Father who will not rest content with such savage endings, but will lead all broken hearts and broken bodies home to promise?
As Frederick Buechner puts it, “The claim of Christianity is that at a particular time and place, God came to be with us himself. When Quirinius was governor of Syria, in a town called Bethlehem, a child was born who, beyond the power of anyone to account for, was the high and lofty One made low and helpless. The One who inhabits eternity come to dwell in time. The One whom none can look upon and live is delivered in a stable under the soft indifferent gaze of cattle. The Father of all mercies puts himself at our mercy....Year after year the ancient tale is told—raw, preposterous, holy—and year after year the world in some measure stops to listen….It was a profoundly human event—the birth of a human being by whose humanness we measure our own, a human being with a face which, though none of us have ever seen it, we would all likely recognize because for twenty centuries it has been of all faces the one that our world is most haunted by.”
Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree, (New York: Scribner, 2012), 381–385.
Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), pp. 61–65.