The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.Isaiah 9:2
We read these words from the prophet Isaiah every year on Christmas Eve, because the birth of Jesus brings us that promised light. All who walk in darkness, and who walk with Jesus, have seen a great light. On them and on us, light has shined.
I think it is safe to say that this past year has had its moments of darkness. Whether due to this endless pandemic, or for personal reasons that may be known only to, many of us have experienced some darkness this year.
And that is why this particular night is so very special to us. Because in the midst of the darkness, we are here to celebrate a great light. We gather with Christians around the world, who have all known their own times of darkness, to celebrate the great light that shines on all our world, and that fills us with hope.
Yes, we, too, have seen a great light. A light that came into our world 2,000 years ago, and that still shines on us all. It is a light that the darkness cannot overcome. A light that accompanies us through life. A light that shines on our path, and shines in our hearts. But it is a light that can only be seen with faith.
Mary saw this light because she believed what the angel said. Joseph, too, after being visited in a dream, believed and saw this light. And the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night? They, too, believed, and saw the light – not only from the angels, but lying in a manger. We are here because we, too, have seen the light, and believe. But it’s not always easy. It’s not always easy to see this light shining in our world. C.S. Lewis, the famous atheist-turned-Christian, once put it this way:
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.”
We, too, can believe in this light, not only because we see it, but because by it, we see everything else. How blessed we are to see, now, this world by the light of Christ. How blessed we are to be born into a world that has already been visited by God’s Son, that has already been redeemed through his love. It changes how we see everything. We who have walked in darkness have now seen a great light. And by it, we see this whole world anew.
The Name of this Great Light
This light, whose birth we celebrate tonight, has a name, of course. Actually, many names. The prophet Isaiah, who first prophesied about the great light, said that this child would be named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” And that “authority would rest on his shoulders.” (Isaiah 9:2-7)
And that is the passage that I want to focus on tonight. Because if Jesus is to be the light of the world, he must be all of these things to the world, too. Authority must rest on his shoulders. The authority of a wonderful counselor who is a mighty God; the authority of an everlasting Father who is the prince of peace. We need all of who Jesus is, if we are to see the world by his light, because all of it together is what gives us true light.
One of my favorite writers, the Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, put it this way:
“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Every one of these words has endless depths, and all of them together try to express only one single name: Jesus.”
These words are from a book of Bonhoeffer’s (The Mystery of Holy Night) that was given to me back in 1997 by my wife’s grandmother. She has long since died, but I remember her every year when I open this book, and see her inscription. And in this book, Bonhoeffer goes on to offer a reflection on Isaiah’s words. His words have inspired some of my reflections tonight.
What does it mean to say that authority rests on his shoulders? What does it mean that he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace? Each part of this passage has something to teach us about the child whose birth we celebrate this holy night.
Authority Resting on His Shoulders
Authority will rest on his shoulders, Isaiah tells us. Which is hard to imagine when we look at this child’s humble birth. In the small town of Bethlehem, and laid in a manger because there was no place for him in the inn. What a strange authority this is!
And even when this child grows up, it is no less strange. For then he will place on those shoulders a cross. And on that cross, on those loving shoulders, he will bear all the pain and all the sin of this world. And yet, is there a better place to rest that authority? Are there more loving shoulders than his? Are there stronger shoulders than his? Isn’t it because of that cross, that we know there is no pain and no suffering that God cannot redeem? The child, God’s own Son, knows our suffering. He knows our pain. And he brings it all to the cross.
Tonight is about the manger, of course, more than the cross. But whenever we see the manger, we see it in the shadow of the cross. We see, in the manger, a baby whose shoulders are more than strong enough to bear the authority of the world, because they are more than willing to bear the sin and the suffering and the pain of our world. Or, to put it in the beautiful words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“Because the joy of God has passed through the poverty of the manger and the torment of the cross, it is unconquerable and irrefutable.”
But who is this child, lying in a manger, and destined for the cross? He is Jesus, our Savior. And as Isaiah reminds us, he is also named: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. And each of these names teaches us something uniquely important about who this child is for us.
He is, first, named Wonderful Counselor. Why? Because all who see in Jesus the wonder of the Son of God, also hear in Jesus the wisdom of the Son of God. There is wisdom there, but always alongside wonder. When we look to the manger without wonder, we see nothing worth our time. We see no wisdom, no counsel, no answers to the questions of our lives. Surely a baby lying in a manger has nothing to teach us unless we, like the shepherds and the magi, fall on our knees to worship him, and receive him as our king and our savior. When we do that, we learn what a wonderful counselor our savior truly is.
This child is also named Mighty God. Because this child lying in the manger is none other than God in the flesh. Yes, it seems impossible, but it is true: God became a child. Small, vulnerable, emptied of divinity and majesty and might. But, still, God, mighty God.
And because this is true, this child’s humble birth teaches us that our God chooses to rule not by might, but by love. If the poverty of the manger and the torment of the cross teach us anything, they teach us that our mighty God rules this world by this amazing, self-giving, sacrificial love.
And our mighty God, our wonderful counselor, teaches us to live in this same way. His birth and life teach us the way of love. His life shows us how to give of ourselves, in humble, ordinary ways. And it assures us that these simple acts of love are what will heal our world.
The child is also called Everlasting Father. How can this be the name of the child? And yet it is, which teaches us that this child will reveal the Father’s love like no other. Because this child is one with the Father.
When we see Jesus – his words, his deeds, his love – we see our heavenly Father. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus tells us (John 14:9). He and the Father are one. When we see this child in the manger, we see the very creator of the universe. We see the one who created all that is seen and unseen. It is astonishing but true, that the one lying in the manger is one with our Everlasting Father.
And Prince of Peace
And, finally, this baby is called Prince of Peace. This is a name that we can understand, isn’t it? Prince of Peace. When the angels sang in celebration of our Lord’s birth, they sang of this peace: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Peace is the gift of Christmas. But not just any peace. The peace that comes from Jesus. “Peace I leave with you,” the Prince of Peace tells his disciples, and tells us, too. “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Isn’t this the gift that our world longs for more than any other? The peace that we long for more than any other? The peace which only Jesus can give. It is the peace which he offers to those whom he favors, sings the angels. And who does he favor? In a word: the world. God so loved the world that he gave his only son. Born for us. Given to us. Our wonderful counselor. Our mighty God. Our everlasting Father. Our prince of peace.
We who sometimes walk in darkness have seen a great light. A light that came into this dark and weary world through the simple birth of a child. Lying in a manger was the light of the world. Dying on a cross was the light of the world. Shining from heaven above is the light of the world. And here among us this night is the light of the world.
A light whose name is above every name. Because it is the name, Jesus. The child born to love us all. May the light of his love continue to shine in our hearts, and in our world, until his glorious return. Amen.