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Grace has a name

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Isaiah 9:1-7

This past Thursday, the New York Post told the story of Joshua Persky, a man who was laid off by an investment bank in New York City a year ago. He has tried everything to get work, even handing out resumes to passers-by on Park Avenue. His wife and two of his five children were living with her parents in Nebraska to save money. Finally he posted a blog with his qualifications and began walking the streets of Manhattan wearing a sandwich board with the words, “MIT grad for hire.” And that did the trick. He has a new job, and his family will be together for Christmas.

You can’t hire someone you don’t know exists. That’s why, seven centuries before the Incarnation, God started telling the world about the Christ of Christmas. All so we could know enough to choose him as our Savior and Lord. He promised us that the Messiah would be a Wonderful Counselor, a Mighty God, an Everlasting Father, and a Prince of Peace.

The third title is our focus today, literally a “Father forever.” A God whose love is absolute, unconditional, and eternal. There’s a reason why you need God to love you today, and there’s a reason why you wonder if he does. Let’s explore both.

Know that God loves you

The people of Isaiah’s day were threatened with military defeat and annihilation. Assyria had destroyed the North and was now marching on the South. I know that the threat of a Canadian invasion is not frightening to most of us; imagine that you were in South Korea facing China coming from the north, and you’d have a sense of their dread.

They wanted a Messiah to be a military conqueror, a general who would overthrow their enemies and establish his Kingdom on earth. The Jewish people of the first century wanted the same thing. Both times, God promised a very different kind of deliverance. The Messiah would be a “Wonderful Counselor,” one who would guide their lives and give wisdom to their steps. He would be a “Mighty God” with power to heal their bodies and save their souls.

Now we learn that he would be an “Everlasting Father,” a “Father forever.” He would come with all the grace, unconditional love, and nurturing compassion a father should have for his children. How would he be such a Father?

He would come to “Galilee of the Gentiles,” to those “walking in darkness” and living in “the land of the shadow of death.” Despite their many sins, he would establish and uphold the throne of David “with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”

Did Jesus fulfill Isaiah’s promise?

As you know, he was the only baby to choose his parents and first attendants, and he chose Galilean peasants and despised field hands. Imagine that you could have Bill Gates or Warren Buffett as your father, and you choose a construction worker or day laborer. You could invite movie stars and politicians to the celebration, and you choose street peddlers and those men who accost you at intersections with “will work for food” signs to come to the maternity ward of your hospital.

He could have chosen to live anywhere, from the palaces of Jerusalem to the beauty of the Judean hillside, and he chose to live in Nazareth, a Galilean town so obscure it is not mentioned even once in the Old Testament. Imagine that you could grow up in Dallas but choose Dibble, Oklahoma, population 289. Never heard of it? Neither had people heard of Nazareth.

He could have called Judean rabbis or Hebrew scholars to be his disciples, as he had certainly impressed them in the Temple when he visited at the age of 12. Instead, he chose Galilean fishermen, people considered to be “unschooled and ordinary” by the elites living down in Judea (Acts 4:13). He later called tax-collectors, the most despised turncoats of their day, to join his movement. Imagine that you could hire Catholic cardinals and Baptist mega church pastors and Ivy League scholars, and you chose to hire migrant farmers and dishonorably discharged and disgraced Army privates.

He touched lepers, men who were unclean both physically and spiritually. He healed demoniacs, men who were rejected by everyone in their culture. Imagine that you could do your work with business executives, flying in private jets and meeting in top floor board rooms, and you chose instead to start a church in inner city slums.

Now God promises to be Everlasting Father to you and me just as much as Jesus was to the Galileans he first came to love. Even in hard times—especially in hard times, he loves his children.

He tells his people: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…You are precious and honored in my sight” (Isaiah 43:1-3, 4).

He assures us, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1).

Scripture testifies, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9).

No matter how many Assyrians are camping on your borders, God is your Everlasting Father. No matter how guilt-ridden your past, difficult your present, or bleak your future, God is your Everlasting Father. Nothing you can do can make him love you any more than he does right now, or any less. This is Isaiah’s promise, fulfilled by the Christ of Christmas.

Believe that God loves you

But there’s a “but.” If God loves you and likes you and accepts you unconditionally as a Father forever, why do you live in a broken and battered world? This week we learned of record unemployment and foreclosures. No one thinks that the economy is ready to turn around. More layoffs are expected after the holidays. As you know, Miller is having surgery tomorrow for a tumor on his spine; I’ve spoken with many this week who are facing enormous physical challenges.

When hard times find us, we have three choices:

We can doubt the knowledge of God—perhaps he didn’t know that your job was in jeopardy or your grandson was so ill. Perhaps he’s not a Wonderful Counselor. I’m sure there are people who question the omniscience of God, but I’ve never spoken with one.

We can doubt the power of God—perhaps he is unable to heal your cancer or prevent your job from being lost. Perhaps he’s not a Mighty God. I’m sure there are people who question the omnipotence of God, but I’ve not spoken with one.

Nearly always, we question the love of God—he knows about your pain and could prevent it, but he doesn’t. So the only option left is that he doesn’t want to. He must not be an Everlasting Father, at least not for us, not for now.

We can believe that God always does what is right. You have heard me state that God always gives us what we ask for or whatever is best. If he didn’t save your job or prevent your car accident, there must be a reason. You may not know it until you’re in heaven, but one day you will.

And we can believe that God always redeems what is wrong. You have often heard me say that God always redeems for a greater good whatever he allows. If he didn’t cure your cancer or heal your mother, he will redeem your pain for his glory and your good.

But when life crashes in, don’t you want more than logic? Doesn’t your heart ache for more assurance than theological reasoning can give? That’s what Christmas is for. The greatest proof that God is our Everlasting Father is the manger, the fact of the Incarnation, the time when God became man. This is the greatest miracle God has ever performed.

If he is God, the Creator of the universe, he has every right to calm stormy seas and heal broken bodies on the planet he made. He can certainly rise from the dead and ascend back to his home in heaven. If you’re writing the story or drawing the cartoon, you can make your hero fly and stop bullets and do whatever you choose.

The real miracle isn’t that the Creator could manipulate his Creation as he pleases. The real miracle is that he would enter it himself, as a fetus and then a newborn, helpless, crying baby. To be the child of a peasant teenage girl, laid in a stone feed trough in a cave surrounded by sweating, smelly animals and field hands. C. S. Lewis suggested that, to get the hang of it, you think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.

Let’s extend the analogy. Pike and I were talking this week about the sermon, and I suggested that the Incarnation could be described this way:

Let’s say that Pike chose to leave his job at Park Cities Baptist Church to begin a ministry among a particular gang in South Dallas. I’ve read that we had more than 200 gang-related shootings in Dallas last year. Crips, Bloods, Deuces, and many others.

To reach them, Pike didn’t just change jobs—he moved out of his home, leaving Andria and Nash, to live on the street. He ate what the gang members ate, wore what they wore, every day, all day. He shared the gospel with them, taught those who came to Christ, and helped them with their problems and pain.

All the while, he knew the members of this gang were planning a crime which would lead to their arrest, conviction, and execution. After this group of gang members was sentenced to die, he went before the judge and somehow convinced him that he should die in their place. So he was arrested, taken to Huntsville, and put to death by lethal injection. Whatever you might say about Pike, could you ever doubt his love for them?

The Bible says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Whenever you doubt that God is your Father forever, that he loves you absolutely and unconditionally, go to Bethlehem.

Conclusion

Why do you need God to love you today? Do you need him to forgive you, or to heal you, or to help you? A Father wants to do all these things for his child. Why do you doubt the love of God for you today? Go to Bethlehem, and choose to believe what you discover there.

Last Sunday afternoon we held our annual bereavement service. Dr. Jack Martin was kind enough to ask me to speak again this year, so I prepared a sermon for the occasion.

Before the message, it came time for us to step to the microphone and say the names of those we had lost. Then we would light a candle for them and place the candle in its holder. Seeing all the candles at the front of Ellis Chapel is a powerful reminder that grief touches us all.

My turn came. Standing at the microphone, with Janet at my side, I spoke the names, “Lester and Ruth Denison.” That was the first time in the 29 years since Dad died that I had spoken their names together. For reasons I cannot explain, the experience was overwhelming to me.

When it came time for the sermon, I couldn’t preach what I had planned. Instead I read from John 14 Jesus’ promise, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (vs. 1-3).

Through tears, I told the congregation about my experience sitting beside Mom’s casket the day after her death, realizing that all the apologetic arguments I had taught for so many years could carry me only so far. How did I know that she was really alive, in heaven and well?

In that moment, I simply had to choose to believe it or not. I cannot prove that God is real, or that he is not. I cannot prove that heaven exists, or that it doesn’t. I think the evidence for God and heaven are remarkably strong, but you cannot prove a relationship—you can only trust it and experience it. In that moment, on that Monday, I chose to believe that it is true. Last Sunday afternoon, I chose to believe that it is true.

Today I ask you to decide that the Lord of the universe is your Everlasting Father. If you will choose to believe in his love, you will experience his love. This is the promise, and the invitation, of God.