And His Name Shall be Call-ed: Wonderful Counselor

Reflections from Dr. Howell

And his name shall be call-ed: Wonderful Counselor. {I love this version of Handel with only children’s voices!)

Counselor? Ancient Israelites didn’t have therapists to listen to, advise or medicate them. They did have wise sages in every town who were revered, and listened to. Jesus was one fabulous listener: to the woman at the well with a story so painful she avoided people (John 4), to the crazed demon-possessed and lepers and women reduced to selling their bodies that everybody else despised, even to Pilate as he struggled over what judgment to render, to the poor demeaned by the haves. He had words, wonderful counsel for them.

Hard words though for us sometimes, although it’s wonderful counsel if we can trust him, the Wonderful Counselor: forgive, lay up treasure in heaven not on earth, love your enemies, befriend the unlikely neighbor. He read from and quoted Scripture, of course. God, the Planner of Wonders, planned a long book with words and stories, some of which are too ugly to be in the Bible, but there they are – a hint that our lives can never be too ugly to God. Such wise counsel in this book of wonders, direct counsel from prophets and in Proverbs and in Paul’s letters, the counsel we derive from exploring the stories of people and their embarrassing and yet hopeful interactions with one another and with God.

A question this Advent – and for the rest of your life: where do you get your counsel? Not the official kind you might seek from your pastor, therapist or attorney, but more informally: to whom or what do you unwittingly listen? December is as good a month as any to ponder what bombards us from TV, billboards, the malls (in person or online), and even in movies or books or social media: what is of value? What is the good life? Not to go anti-culture, but there are loud, seductive voices out there telling you whom to fawn over and whom to pity or despise, what you simply must have, on and on. Above all else, those voices demand you never be content.

God, the Wonderful Counselor, invites you to keep it simple, to be rich in the things of God, to discover joy in generosity, and that you are, and most likely have Enough. Spirituality is developing a keen eye for the voices of those who peddle what cannot really satisfy, noticing the divergences, and letting desire be reshaped, and reshaped some more, around what is of God and brings true life. God’s counsel is wonderful. The world’s? Gandalf reminded Frodo “All that is gold does not glitter,” or we can invert is to “All that glitters is not gold.”

In our society, not the Bible’s, the words “counsel” and “counselor” may suggest your attorney. At the funeral I performed of a lawyer a while back, several at the reception told me “I never made an important decision without receiving his wise counsel.” Your lawyer knows the ropes, has seen it all, and is paid to be non-anxious. Your lawyer prevents you from falling into an unnoticed hole. Your lawyer stands up for you in court or in negotiations. Your lawyer can parse those complex documents other lawyers have created so we’ll need lawyers. Yes, you can smile now…

The Bible regularly depicts God as our advocate, our representative, our defender, the one who, no matter what dumb things we may have done, makes a case for us. Lucky us, in the Bible’s realm of grace, God is indeed the prosecutor, but also the defense attorney, and the judge, and the jury. And that God, the Wonderful Counselor, being full of grace, is bent on getting you off – or rather, getting you in, into the marvels of the life of freedom, freedom not to do as you wish, but freedom to serve God, and live a noble, holy, courageous life.

…which takes us back to the Hebrew, best rendered “Planner of Wonders.” God planned, before the universe was even born, for things to be this way. God knew, as free people with agency and individuality, we most likely would make a mess of things. God foresaw that a meritocracy, theologically speaking, would result in the loss of everybody and everything. So God devised a very different kingdom, one of grace, mercy, responsibility and yet compassion, and above all else joy. How God would operate such a world is revealed in the next pairing of words in the extended name of this child to be born, Emmanuel, God with us, Wonderful Counselor: Mighty God. Stay tuned.