And His Name Shall be Call-ed: Emmanuel

Reflections from Dr. Howell

A few weeks ago, my friend Rob Fuquay, a North Carolina guy who’s now senior pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, reached out to me asking if I had any suggested resources on Isaiah 9:6, which he was considering preaching upon. It’s one of those rare verses that you cannot read without hearing it sung aloud in your head:

“And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

The music in my head, of course, is from Handel’s Messiahgive it a listen! (although some may know and favor Chris Tomlin’s contemporary version!). My mind began to flit here and there, landing on Bible passages and musical interests and theological mysteries I love but have never written or preached upon myself.

What’s your name? And why is it your name? Studies show that people, oddly enough, look like their names. In the eighth century B.C., Israel trembled at the prospect of an Assyrian invasion, knowing their armies were too meager to withstand the onslaught. And Israel trembled under the terrible weight of failed leadership. Ahaz was a cocky, impotent waffler. The prophet Isaiah promised him and the people that a new king was arriving soon.

Laughably, that new king would still be in infancy before it would be too late. But God’s ways are not our ways. The child to be born would be named “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14). Best nickname ever, so bold, so true, so defiant in the face of darkness. It would be Jesus’ nickname in 730 years! Carl Sandburg wrote that “A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.” Isaiah’s word from God is that Israel will survive and even thrive, not because of arms or clever strategems. God is and will be with them.

Ultimately, we now know that God had plans not only to use and name a baby, but mysteriously and miraculously to become one. “God became small for us in Christ. God showed us his heart so our hearts might be won” (Martin Luther). It’s not that Isaiah gazed into his prophetic crystal ball and foresaw that birth. Isaiah heard from God a vision the people already shared of what the great, faithful king they needed would be like. Hezekiah, that infant born to Ahaz, was pretty good – but not a full realization of the vision. During his reign, a wonder of the world occurred when a tunnel was dug through stone, two groups grinding away from opposite ends – and miraculously they met in the middle! But he was just a man, with feet of clay.

God knew what Isaiah and the people could only dream of: that one day a king would come who would be the real thing, the one they needed, the one to answer centuries of disappointment. And he was a little infant in a cow stall, laughable to the powers of this world. And he wound up ridiculed and crucified. God works not through might but through weakness. God makes foolish the wisdom of this world. Everything is turned upside down in God’s dispensation.

After all, doesn’t the birth of an infant change everything? Strong, burly men coo at and cradle infants with gentle hands. Armies with any semblance of honor back off is there are little children in the line of fire. Infants demand, not just food, but to be held, to be noticed, to be loved. God is love.

Isaiah wasn’t done declaring the infant would bear the theologically weighty nickname “Emmanuel.” Expansively he expands upon it with the words Handel set to such glorious music: “And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” I am so fond of the way Handel composed and now choirs sing that word “called.” It’s two syllables, not one. “Call-ed.” Take notice. This isn’t just any old name. A marvel is this name, these names that aren’t names but magnificent adjectives and nouns, four pairs of them clustering together, as if striving to articulate what is too fabulous for just a single word or name.

Take some time to ponder that God is with us, and that this God-with-us’s name is Wonderful Counselor. What might that be like? Mighty God. What surprising forms does God’s might assume? Everlasting Father. Our best fathers don’t last forever – or do they? Prince of Peace. Why not King of Peace? And is Peace remotely realistic in our world of rancor and violence?