Posted on December 16th, 2012
Starbucks Holiday Blend coffee is advertised as “Spicy and sweet with hints of comfort and joy.” On Craig’s List, a notice of an apartment rental says, “Let Santa bring the gifts … we bring comfort, joy, and savings.” It’s derived from the Christmas carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and ubiquitous are the references to Christmas carols by shopkeepers trying to part you and your money. If I was in marketing, I’d do it too. It’s smart. But it’s not the Gospel.
I’ve derived my share of comfort and joy from coffee, to be sure, or saving money. And there are many things that make us “comfortable,” starting with the comforter on your bed that keeps you warm at night.
Other things cause you discomfort, sending you to food and drink, or to the pharmacy. We’re uncomfortable when crammed into the middle seat on an airplane, or when we think everyone is laughing at us. You might be uncomfortable at the thought of speaking in public, or seeing your in-laws at Christmas.
If you hear the doctors and nurses start talking about your condition and saying it’s time to “just make you comfortable” – well, that might make you very uncomfortable.
Some years ago I had a little incident playing softball that landed me in the emergency room. Michael Corvelli came to the hospital and did for the pastor what the pastor usually does for others: He prayed for me and with me. Michael was my comforter, and it was a more important comfort to me than the pain medicine.
For the last three months I’ve been to many different churches: some Lutheran, some not. I learned something at all of them, but what surprised me was how sparsely any real comfort came from the preaching. Stepping away for a week at a time, like on a vacation, I don’t get a sense of what’s really happening in the church. But being away from Immanuel, and especially being entirely free from the challenge of preaching and teaching, allowed me just to be a human being, a Christian, separate for a time from the pastoral office. Thus the churches I visited, I approached not just as an interested, detached observer, a professional clergyman, but just a dying man hoping to find some good news. The thing is, I’m a sinner. Worse than you can really imagine. Down to the core, I’m a rebel, a son of Adam, filled with lusts and resentments, grudges and anxieties, fearing the world and not fearing God, loving what I shouldn’t and hating what I should. I know all this about myself and I detest it. So what I really have been needing from all these preachers the last three months was to hear, “Yes, Christopher, you are a wretched man, not worthy of God’s grace, but the whole point of God’s grace is that it’s free, precisely for sinners not worthy.”
Rare is such a message. One of my lifelines during this time in the wilderness was today’s first reading from Isaiah: “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God.”
This is God’s message to us. This is the message that the preacher is charged with giving. It’s not my message, or Pr McClean’s message, or Luther’s or St. Bernard’s or St Augustine’s or St Ambrose’s or St Athanasius’s or St Irenaeus’s. It’s not even Isaiah’s message. It’s God’s.
Isaiah is just a mouthpiece. The voice says to Isaiah, “Cry!”, that is, Cry out, speak, shout to the people! Isaiah responds, “What am I supposed to say?”
The message God gives is not very comforting, at least not the first part. “All flesh is grass.” Which is to say, Every person is like the grass. It grows up in the spring, but it dies in the fall, and is buried under snow and ice in the winter.
That’s you. That’s your life. It’s almost over. How much do you have left? Another year? Ten? 70 or 80 more? Whatever it is, it’s not much. And whatever you manage to accomplish, however many of your goals you achieve, however much money you can blow through or pass on to your kids – what is it in the end? Dust and ashes, shadows and wind.
Dust and ashes, rubble and slaughter, is what the prophet Jeremiah saw in his lament over Jerusalem. Jeremiah begins the book of Lamentations,
How lonely sits the city
That was full of people!
How like a widow is she,
Who was great among the nations!
The princess among the provinces
Has become a slave!
She weeps bitterly in the night,
Her tears are on her cheeks;
Among all her lovers
She has none to comfort her.
All her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
They have become her enemies.
Judah has gone into captivity,
Under affliction and hard servitude;
She dwells among the nations,
She finds no rest;
All her persecutors overtake her in dire straits.
The roads to Zion mourn
Because no one comes to the set feasts.
All her gates are desolate;
Her priests sigh,
Her virgins are afflicted,
And she is in bitterness.
Her adversaries have become the master,
Her enemies prosper;
For the LORD has afflicted her
Because of the multitude of her transgressions.
Her children have gone into captivity before the enemy.
And from the daughter of Zion
All her splendor has departed.
Her princes have become like deer
That find no pasture,
That flee without strength
Before the pursuer.
In the days of her affliction and roaming,
Jerusalem remembers all her pleasant things
That she had in the days of old.
When her people fell into the hand of the enemy,
With no one to help her,
The adversaries saw her
And mocked at her downfall.
Jerusalem has sinned gravely,
Therefore she has become vile.
All who honored her despise her
Because they have seen her nakedness;
Yes, she sighs and turns away.
Her uncleanness is in her skirts;
She did not consider her destiny;
Therefore her collapse was awesome;
She had no comforter.
Thus begins the poem telling the story of Jerusalem’s fall – but it is also your story, your fall, your reality apart from Christ: “She had no comforter.” But to people of grass – to ruined cities, ruined men, widowed wives, messed-up lives, the LORD says, Comfort, Comfort My people. These people not worthy to be His people, still He calls My people.
Twice He says it, like in the Upper Room at Easter when Jesus says, “Peace to you,” and then repeats, “Peace to you!”
Comfort, comfort My people. Those words are for you. Of you, He says, “Mine.” That’s what He says of Bella today: “Bella, you are mine, in the waters of Baptism I adopt you, today I become your God; I will be your Father and you My daughter.”
The beauty of the Lord’s words of comfort is that they are not just for the elite, those who are of the right clan or party or income bracket. His words of comfort are for the downtrodden and despised, the sinner, the drug addict, the drunk. It’s for you and to you that the Lord directs those beautiful words, Comfort, comfort.
In the Hebrew Bible, Comfort is a strong word for bad times. Comfort is what you do when someone has died.
It doesn’t always work. You know this from going to funerals. What can you say, really, to the widow who’s lost her husband, the father who’s lost his son? You can communicate your sympathy, but you can’t repair what has been damaged, restore what has been lost.
In Gen. 37, when Jacob learns about the presumed death of Joseph, Jacob didn’t find any comfort in the words of condolence: And all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and he said, “For I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning” (v35).
But Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says there is a comfort coming that will actually do something. The comfort of Jesus is an eternal comfort, a comfort that will bring healing, restoration, joy, resurrection unto the ages of ages: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Death, collapse, utter ruin – that is the moment when God’s comfort does its work, as the Psalmist says: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
All the suffering, all the strife, all the warring, and the end of life, comes from a single source: man’s rebellion, our sin. At this God is justly angered. But the comfort of the Gospel is this, that God’s just anger is turned away in the Advent of the Messiah. Looking ahead to Christ’s work, Isaiah prophesies in ch. 12: And in that day you will say: “O LORD, I will praise You; Though You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, and You comfort me.”
Since you have the comfort of the Gospel, all the uncomfortable things lose their power and sting. Are you dying? Be comforted, for your Jesus has already died your death. Are you sad? Be comforted, for your Jesus knew sadness in Gethsemane and shares even your gloom. Are you a sinner who has fallen again and again? Be comforted, for your Jesus has assumed every one of your sins, and gives to you in exchange His righteousness. Those words from Isaiah are for you: your warfare is ended, your iniquity is pardoned.
So enjoy your Starbucks, or whatever holiday treat you prefer. But know that comfort and joy is not in a latte but a Lord, not in a cookie but in a creche. Jesus bore your sin and died your death. These are your tidings of comfort and joy.