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Holidays to holy days

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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Topical Scripture: Isaiah 9:6-7 / Hebrews 4:14-16

As you know, our mission teams returned from Cuba this past Tuesday and Wednesday. The week was for me the best of my five trips to the island. We are now working with three sister churches, and have an opportunity to help the Havana Baptist Seminary, now in its hundredth year, expand its ministry in very exciting ways. But that’s not what some of you heard about our trip.

Some of you heard that we were instructed by the Cuban government not to visit churches or do religious activities. This was no problem for us–we were able to bring benevolent aid and support, and do everything we went to do. But the edict did make for one memorable evening.

Saturday night we were eating with Oscar’s church when Oscar walked into the room and said, “We have a problem. Two immigration officials are downstairs. They say that you made illegal donations in the streets.” We made no donations in the streets, as that is indeed illegal in Cuba. But they had been told that we did. They wanted to see our leaders, so Jeff and I went downstairs with Oscar to meet with them.

Everything turned out just fine. They wanted us to leave Camaguey for Havana and return to the United States. We told them that we planned to do just that–to leave in the morning, and return on Tuesday and Wednesday as these were the first available flights.

They were fine with that. In fact, when we told the official that we had not been visiting church services because of the government edict, he told us that it was no problem for us to attend–just not to preach. So we got to go to church Sunday morning. I will always be grateful for that official.

But that’s not the memorable part. The part I’ll not forget is that while Jeff and I were downstairs, the rest of the team was upstairs praying for us. Oscar had said that we were accused of making illegal donations, so they began looking for every receipt and record of the week they could find. They shredded them like Enron executives. One team member had pictures on his digital camera documenting all we had done–he hid the chip in his shoe, and took pictures of the table instead.

Then they realized that one of them had the ministry training manual we always distribute. Or as a lawyer in the group called it, “Exhibit A.” It was too big to shred, so they burned it. All the while we were doing just fine downstairs with the Cuban officials.

But only because our Cuban brothers were with us. Jeff and I did not know the customs or politics of the situation. He knows Spanish, but I don’t. Our translator and pastor friends made the conversation possible, and gave us the guidance we needed. As a result, we had my best week in Cuba.

Where do you need such a counselor today? What problem has followed you into worship this morning? On this Advent week of peace, what is keeping you from peace? Where could you use a Wonderful Counselor right now?

Why does Christmas matter?

Preparing for this series, I realized that I have never considered ways Jesus’ birth might be significant as an end and not just a means. Not just as the reason for wonderful holidays and gift-giving, or as the first step to Jesus’ death and resurrection, but as an event of crucial importance itself. Why does it matter? What is true because of Christmas, and would not be true otherwise?

As I thought about that question, I came to this simple but significant answer: because of the Incarnation, the God of the universe is available to me today. He’s not a Zeus atop Mt. Olympus, or Allah living unmoved and removed in heaven, or an impersonal Brahman or life force. He is one of us, available to us, with us, right now.

Try seeing the president or governor or mayor about your property tax bill. Avery Johnson is probably not available to help you coach Upward Basketball this month; Bill Parcells may not be able to help you with your fantasy football choices this weekend.

But the God who made this planet is Immanuel, “God with us.” We could not climb up to him, so he climbed down to us. And now all the wisdom and power of the Maker of the universe is available to us, this morning.

As I considered the specific ways the Incarnation matters, Isaiah’s prediction came to mind: he would be our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Each of these is available to us because of Christmas, and only because of Christmas. Let’s accept the first of these four invitations today.

Why Jesus is a Wonderful Counselor

“Wonderful” in the Hebrew means “so full of wonder as to be miraculous.” “Counselor” points to a person of such wisdom that he can advise kings, the wisest man in the land. The words together can be rendered, “He who plans wonderful things.”

Such was Isaiah’s first name for the baby of Bethlehem. And he was right: when he was only twelve, “all who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). When he taught the people, “they were astonished, and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom?'” (Matthew 13:54). Paul claimed that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).

And now all this wisdom is available to us, because of Christmas. Everyone knows that the best counselor is the person who has been where you are. When my father died, Linda Sharp was my best help because she had lost her father the previous year. When my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer back in Midland, those who had survived colon cancer were our best encouragers. Those of you who have been through the pain of divorce are best encouraged by those who have survived such pain and loss.

Think about Jesus in this same way, because of Christmas.

Are you facing Christmas without someone you love? When Jesus wept at the grave of his dear friend Lazarus, “the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!'” (John 11:36).

Are you dealing with difficult, critical, frustrating people just now? Jesus had his Judas and Caiaphas and moneychangers in the temple.

Have you been disappointed by someone you trusted? Jesus had his Peter. Are you tired and weary today? “Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well” (John 4:6). Are you lonely and alone this holiday season? Jesus had nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58).

Do you feel abandoned and forsaken? Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Are you tempted and tested today? Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18).

Now Jesus is “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Because he never fell to sin, he faced every temptation Satan could try. You and I fall long before the devil runs out of strategies; Jesus defeated them all.

Note that none of this could have been true before Christmas. In heaven he felt no grief; he faced no Judas, or Peter, or weariness, or homelessness, or abandonment, or temptation. If Christmas had not come, he could not be our Wonderful Counselor.

Because it has, he is: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Where do you need to do this today? Where do you need a Wonderful Counselor?

How to have a “wonderful counselor”

Preparing for this message, I spoke with some counselors I know. Here are their suggestions for stepping into the best counselor-client relationship.

First, admit that you need help. If I have a problem with anger, or depression, or drugs or alcohol, but won’t admit I need help, no counselor can help me. The first of every twelve step program is to admit the problem. Where do you need a Wonderful Counselor today?

Second, follow his advice. Counselors can only guide our steps–they cannot make us take them. The God of the universe has chosen to limit himself at the point of our free will. Where do you need a Wonderful Counselor? At that point, have you searched his word for help? Have you spoken with people he might use in your life? Have you spent time listening to his Spirit? Are you doing all you know to do in his will?

Third, stay in the relationship. A counselor can help you best when you talk regularly. An occasional conversation every few months is not of much benefit. When last did you spend significant time listening to God speak through his world and word? I must make time regularly through the day to stay close to God, or I wander off. So do you.

Last, don’t give up. It takes at least six weeks to change or form a habit. Destructive behavior you spent years developing will take time to reform. Marriages and families are not healed overnight. There are setbacks along the way to joy. Stay faithful to the last word you heard from God, and open to the next. And never give up.

Conclusion

Because of Christmas, the most Wonderful Counselor in the universe is waiting for your next prayer. He will guide your spirit as you worship; he will guide your steps through circumstances, open and closed doors; he will guide your mind through his word. He has been everywhere you are going today. When is your next appointment with him?

Meeting the president of the Havana Seminary was for me worth the trip to Cuba. Rev. Hermes Soto is white-haired and wise, serene and calm. He is the picture of a man of God. Developing a friendship with him was a deep privilege.

In the course of our visit, one of our team members who had met him earlier asked him to tell the story of the “troubles of 1965.” He told us that in that year, the government arrested many pastors and seminary students, jailing some for many years. He was a student at the seminary at the time. At 5 a.m. he was taken from his room to fields north of Camaguey, where he was kept for the next six months in a concentration camp. He would not say all that happened to him there, just that “I will never forget how evil humans can be.”

But that’s not what he wanted us to remember. Having been through some of the worst persecution life can bring us, he called his trauma “one of the best seminaries of all time.” Here’s why: during those horrific times, “we learned two things: not to fear, and not to hate.” He does not fear, and he does not hate. Now he has the right to tell us not to fear and not to hate, because he’s been there.

Rev. Soto was a wonderful counselor to me, because that wise pastor has been where I am. An even more Wonderful Counselor is available to you, because he has been where you are. What would you like to ask him today?