And his name shall be call-ed Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God. Surely “Mighty God” is the most obvious and self-explanatory of all conceivable names for God. How much might did it take to touch off the Big Bang or however our universe came into being? Galaxies, nebulae, black holes, our earth? If it’s God holding the earth in the palm of God’s hand instead of Atlas (or you, or me) trying to hoist the world on our shoulders, God’s might is immeasurable.
God, by definition, is Almighty – right? Yet if there’s one principle the Bible reveals to us, if there’s one divine joke on all of our assumptions, it is that God defies our definitions – which is our attempt, isn’t it, to manage God, to squeeze God into a neat box we like? We are fond of our intellectually correct ideas that God is sovereign, God is in control, that whatever happens is what God wanted and wants. But if God is in control, why is the world in such a mess? Why am I such a mess?
I have no doubts that Isaiah’s first audience, and probably even Isaiah himself, believed or at least hoped their God was and could be once more “mighty,” as in powerful enough to repel that ferociously powerful Assyrian army on its juggernaut. Their rulers bore names to make you tremble: Tiglath-Pileser III, Sennacherib, Ashurbanipal. They had already demolished Israelite cities, and now were circling Jerusalem itself. We need now, more than ever, for God to be Mighty.
The prophet Isaiah, a man with his own family and fears, might have flinched a little when he delivered what he was sure God had told him. There would be no surprise arrival of an angelic horde of warriors to strike down the Assyrians. Isaiah points to a pregnant woman’s belly; I imagine her feeling a stab of labor pain even as he speaks. It’s a child about to come, and his name will be Emmanuel, God with us, Planner of Wonders, Mighty God. So our defense plan is… a baby?
No king, general or sane person would bet on such a foolish strategy. God’s strategy subverts our strategies. God has no interest in control. God is love. Love, if it even attempts a little control, ruins the love. I recall being dumbfounded when I read Jürgen Moltmann’s classic The Crucified God, especially this: “A God who is only omnipotent is in himself incomplete, for he cannot experience helplessness and powerlessness. Omnipotence can be longed for and worshipped by helpless people, but omnipotence can never be loved. It can only be feared.” God, not wishing to be feared, did not come as a titanic warrior, but as a vulnerable child. You can only love, not fight with a child. Love is vulnerability, love is so risky. God takes the risk of birth. God did not wish for there to be winners and losers. God did not create marionettes to be manipulated to suit God’s wishes.
Paul and the first Christians, trembling in the face of the violent Roman armies, understood the risk, losses and yet love and hope in God’s strategy: “Christ Jesus, although he was in the form of God, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, born like men, humbling himself, obedient unto death.” A better translation is “Because he was in the form of God.” Jesus, like us, humble, vulnerable, all love: that is God. No pretending.
A revolutionary way of being Mighty God. No wonder we find ourselves in a world that is jammed way too full of trouble. It’s God’s fault, we might say: God isn’t smiting us, but that’s how things unfold in a world where people don’t love God or one another; these are the consequences. God sticks with the love strategy, suffering heartbreaking losses – but what else can God really do if God’s project is love?
A mystery, all this. Love always is a mystery, with its delights and sorrows, its joys and losses. Through it all, God, the one whose nickname is Emmanuel, is with us. He is “Mighty God,” although it’s the might of a child in a manger, it’s a God whose power is vulnerable love. As we’ll see in our next email, he’s our great hero.