The Miracle of Comfort
Advent 2B Isaiah 40:1-11
Every person here in this room gets hurt at one time or another, therefore every person here in this room needs to be comforted when you have been hurt. No matter how young or old, no matter how rich or poor, no matter how important or unimportant you may think you are, common to every single person here is the fact that during your life time, you are going to be hurt and hurt quite severely on occasion. There is pain, tragedy and disappointment waiting for us all. No one, absolutely no one, is exempt. Therefore, since all people get hurt, all people have the need to be comforted when they are hurt and to give comfort to others when they are hurting.
Life begins and ends with comfort. A tiny little baby is born and this new born baby is startled by the newness of life, and the new born baby cries out. That baby is then comforted and cuddled by an attending nurse, trying to calm that baby down. The years fly by far too quickly, and that little baby becomes a dying grandma or grandpa, and at that point, that elderly baby needs to be comforted as he or she prepares to die. And so life begins and ends with comfort. And every day and every month and every year in between, human beings are designed in such a way that we need to be comforted and give comfort to others.
In my own life, there have been numerous times when I have been comforted. In the past year, there were two times when the pain was just too great for me inside, and I broke down and wept like a baby. And each time, fortunately, there was a friend in the parish to be present with me. They didn’t say anything in particular. They didn’t give me any pat answers or little nifty pearls of wisdom. They didn’t give unsolicited advice as to how to solve my problems. They were just helplessly with me, touching my shoulder and saying, “That is OK. It will get better.”
I have found that you don’t share your inner emotions with just anybody. You don’t let just anybody comfort you. You know the person who you share your pain with. This is somebody you can trust. Somebody who will be gentle. Somebody who will retain the inner secret of your pain.
I have also found out that it takes two people to comfort. It takes the one who is willing to share the pain inside, and it takes the second who is willing to listen with love. And, if there is a person willing to share the pain inside and a second person who is willing to listen with love, the miracle of God’s comfort occurs again.
I have noticed that children are very good comforters, and that their comfort means a good deal to Mom and Dad. I have seen young children comfort their mothers and fathers, and I have seen older children do the same. Seeing their mom or dad on the verge of tears, children will come up and touch their parent and say, “That’s OK, Mom. That’s OK, Dad.” The comfort of a child feels very good, if you are a parent. I have noticed that children are good comforters of parents, and parents never outgrow the need to be comforted by their children. Children never outgrow the need to comfort their mothers and fathers.
I have noticed that friends are good comforters. There are certain things that you cannot tell your parents. Your parents may be part of the problem and they are too close to the problem or they may be the problem. And so we all have good friends who are comforters. Over a cup of coffee. Over lunch at work. While riding bikes after school While fishing. While riding in a car somewhere. While being together in a quiet room in a quiet place. Thank God for friends. Friends, if they are friends, are very good comforters.
I have noticed that husbands and wives are good comforters, if they love each other. A loving husband and wife bind each other’s wounds and disappointments. There is so much grief in marriage and so much shared tragedy, that comforting, the inner sharing of grief, is the essence of a loving relationship. All husband and wives, who truly love each other, comfort each other. The essence of love is to comfort.
There are national tragedies that evoke comfort in us. This past year, 150,000 were killed by one tsunami in southeast Asia. 80,000 were killed by an earthquake in Pakistan. Thousands of homes of people were washed away by Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi and there was so much loss of life. The list of natural disasters and war disasters goes on and on. Each of these tragedies evoke comfort from us, the need to go along side of these people and help.
It is with this mood and image of comforting that we approach the Old Testament lesson for today from Isaiah 40 where the prophet Isaiah says, “Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her war is over and that her sins are pardoned. I will comfort you as a mother comforts her child, says the Lord, so shall I comfort you, for I am a God of comfort.”
The man who wrote these words is a favorite of mine. He is one of the most human, warm and compassionate authors in the whole Bible. In fact, it just may be that he is the kindest author of all the Biblical writers in the whole Bible. We call him Second Isaiah, and he wrote chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah. These fifteen chapters have been called “The Little Book of Comfort” because the author writes so consolingly, so compassionately, so kindly. A reader can feel the poetry of his comfort. His is the only book in the whole Old Testament where you hear those three little words from the lips of God, “I love you.” In Isaiah 43:4 and following, Second Isaiah writes, “Because you are precious in my eyes, I love you. I will be with you.” This author also writes, “Don’t be afraid. Do not be afraid for I will strengthen you and I will hold you up with my right hand. I have redeemed you. I know you by name. I know everyone of your names. Can a mother forget a suckling child? Yes, But I the Lord God will not forget you. Is my arm too short that I, sitting up in heaven, cannot reach down and lift your life up? Of course not, says the Lord God. I am like a shepherd who gathers my lambs in my arms, and I will gently lead the mothers of young sheep.”
According to many scholars, Second Isaiah is the greatest poet, theologian, and tender human being of all the writers in the Old Testament, and I agree. If I had one choice out of all the books in the Old Testament that I could have in my library, I would chose Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55, “The Little Book of Comfort.”
Second Isaiah, and we will call him that for lack of a better name, must have been a truly compassionate and tender human being. We don’t have a biography of this particular author. His personal life remains anonymous, but this author must have known what it meant to comfort his mother and father. He must have known what it meant to comfort his children. He must have known what it meant to be comforted by a friend or to comfort his wife. And so out of his own personal experience of comfort, he then wrote this little book of comfort for the Jews.
What was the occasion of his letter of comfort to the Israelites? The Jews had been in Babylonian captivity for forty years. The temple, the city of Jerusalem, and the Jewish armies had all been destroyed. The surviving and remaining Jews found themselves in prison camp for forty years.
Tell me, what does a prison camp do to you? What does a prison camp do to you when you have lived there for forty years? How does forty years in a prison camp shape your emotions, your spirit, your body? Today, hundreds of thousands of people in the Sudan know the answer to that question.
Well, the people of God were down and out. They were tired out. They were worn out. They were washed out. They were exhausted. There was no energy and purpose to their lives as a result of those long years in prison. God wanted to build these people up again. They had been punished long enough for their sins against God. God wanted to lift them up, to pull them out of their tiredness and their exhaustion. So God sent them the prophet, Isaiah, Second Isaiah, who spoke to the tired and exhausted people saying, “Comfort, comfort my people. Is my arm too short that I cannot lift you up?”
How do these words apply to you and me today? How do these words of the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people,” touch your life and mine?
Our God is a God who comforts. Our God is a God who stretches his hand from heaven to pull us up when we are down. God comes to us when we are down and out, washed out, tired out, worn out. God comes down to us and comforts us just by listening to us. Just by listening to the howling of our aching hearts.
For example, the other day, or was it the other week, or the other month, I cannot remember. I was at the hospital and visiting a person. Maybe it was you. Here was a person who was a bundle of feelings inside about his coming operation for cancer. He had an inner pain about what the doctor had said. He had inner pain about what his wife was feeling, about his kids, about his possibly dying, about losing his job, about what it would mean not to watch and love his kids anymore. Feelings were flooding out from that person in the middle of the night. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. Forty minutes. Fifty minutes rolled by. I listened and I listened. I didn’t say much. There were no pat solutions. No nifty little answers. No pious platitudes for the moment. I was just listening and sympathizing. Finally, it was time to leave and the man said, “Thank you. I feel better.” We shared a Bible verse and then a prayer and closed by praying the Lord’s Prayer together. I must confess it was emotional.
And in that night, in a most significant way, God’s miracle of comfort had occurred. Just by listening. No pat answers. No theological insights. No pearls of wisdom to be offered. Rather, just two people sharing. One sharing grief. And one listening, sharing and listening. And the miracle of God’s comfort was born.
So it is with our God, every morning, noon and night. God is a comforter who listens to our prayers, our aches, our pains, our complaints. I usually save mine for the shower. Some of you save yours for the bath. Yours may be said as you are driving to work. And yours may be said as you lie awake at night. And yours may be said as you sit there alone in your room, listening to the stereo.
But every person here in this room comes to God with our aches and pains, our trauma and terrible things we are dealing with at the moment. Aching to God about our kids and problems. Aching about the death of our mother, our father, our child, our friend. Aching about our loneliness, the feeling that nobody really loves me or cares about me enough to share my grief. Aching that I cannot find the right person to marry. Aching that we can't get pregnant. Aching that I can’t love my wife or my husband. Aching about my job. Aching about not finding work. Aching about the impending bankruptcy. Aching about my disease or my loved one’s disease. Everybody aches! Everybody comes howling with their aches to God.
And God listens. How God listens to so many aches and pains of the whole world. God gives no answers. God has no neat little solutions. God does not handwrite on the wall what we should do. God has no magic wand to drive all our problems away and no simple explanations. But God listens. How God listens. God comforts us in our despair by truly listening to the aching howls of our inner hearts.
And just as I went to the hospital and that person howled that night and he felt better afterwards, so will you and I also feel better when we howl to God and get it off our chest, and God has listened to us. And as usual, it takes two to comfort. One who is willing to share one’s inner pain and one who is willing to listen. And if you are willing to share the inner pain of your life, God is always willing to listen with love. And then the miracle of comfort occurs.
It is especially meaningful to me that Jesus named the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. Jesus said, “I will leave you and when I leave you, I will send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.” Jesus gives the name of the living Presence of God, the Comforter. The Presence of God who is with us now is called the Comforter. The Greek word for comforter is “paraclatos” and it means to “come to the side of.” The result of that person coming to your side is to strengthen you. If you are sick and in your bed, you will call somebody to be at the side of your bed to give you a glass of water and strength. So the name of God reveals who is he and what he does. God’s name is Comforter. He stands beside us, strengthens us, and listens to us.
When you are at a graveside, it is utterly terrible to stand alone, with no one beside you. When you are critically ill and preparing to die, it is utterly terrible to stand alone with nobody beside you. When you have experienced an awful car accident, it is utterly terrible to stand alone with no one beside you. Our God is a God who stands beside us at all times.
How awful it would be to believe that we stood alone in the universe. Alone with the stars. Alone with the infinity of the galaxies. Alone in a cold, impersonal universe with no one beside us. That would be utterly terrible, when you think about it.
God’s very name is Comforter, paraclatos. God stands beside us, with us, listening to our complaints in the middle of the night. Listening to our quiet rage and frustration and despair, God speaks softly and says, “I am with you. I will help you. Is my arm too short that I cannot reach down to earth and help you up? Is my arm too short that I cannot help you stand again?” Our God is a God of comfort. God stands beside us and pulls us up when we are down.
And then, we are called to comfort other people. The Apostle Paul says, “Blessed be the God, the Father of Jesus, the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our pain, so that we are able to comfort others in their pain.” As we have been comforted by God, so we are to comfort those around us. Good comforters are those who have been comforted themselves. If a particular pain has been yours, then you have a special gift of comfort to those who experience similar pain.
For example, when I visit the hospital room of Mike K., the young man who was recently injured in an automobile accident, there are many “get well” cards taped on his hospital wall. One of the cards that meant the most was from David and Mary Frantz, whose own daughter experienced a similar tragic car accident a few months before. Therefore David and Mary knew the feelings of the family involved in this similar accident.
When you have experienced a special pain, there is a special comfort that you can give to others in similar circumstances. If you have been divorced, you have the special strength and comfort to give to that person who is going through the same torment now. If you have been an alcoholic, you have a special comfort and strength to someone who is struggling with their alcoholism right now. If you have experienced deep depression, you have a special comfort and ministry to others who are going through that black hell right now. If you have experienced feelings of inferiority, worthlessness, depression, hollowness, emptiness and “I’m not worth a thing to anybody,” then you have a special ministry to people who are having similar feelings right now. Every person here has gone through a particular set of suffering, pain and trauma. No one is exempt. Therefore, you and you and you and you and you have a special set of comfort that you can give to people who are “walking in our moccasins,” as the saying goes. All people bleed. All people get hurt. All people despair. Therefore, all people have a special word of comfort to share with others in similar circumstances to their own.
But a problem for us is that we pretend to have no pain. A problem for us is that we are not willing to share our inner pain with others. We are too proud. Too puffed up. Too vain. We are often unwilling to be honest with other people about our own pain, covering it up, pretending that our pain is not there or that we can handle it, like some “tough guy.”
Another problem with us is that we are often too busy to listen to another person’s pain so then the miracle of God’s comfort rarely occurs. For it takes two, one who is willing to share and one who is willing to listen with love, and thereby the miracle of God’s comfort is born.
Comfort. Comfort my people, says the Lord God. We are all in need of God’s miracle of comfort. God’s very name is Comforter and his very name reveals his purpose, his inner desire to comfort and strengthen his children as a mother comforts and strengthens her child. That is what the prophet Isaiah said, “God comforts us as a mother comforts her child.” So are we to be and do for one another. Comfort, comfort, my people, says the Lord God. Amen.
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