Holidays to Holy Days

Holidays to Holy Days

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

Dr. Jim Denison

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.