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Comfort My People
the Reverend Rykie Marx, Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (NGK)
January 19, 2020
Isaiah 40:1-8; 43:1-4
Readings from the Book of Isaiah
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
. . .
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
The Old Testament is a number of books about God and His relationship with His people. Isaiah 40 and 43 is an example of that. This relationship continues in the New Testament through Jesus Christ. In these specific texts, God comes to His people to comfort them. Right through the Bible comfort is proclaimed and promised. The people of Isaiah are in captivity. They are alone. They are scared. They are desperate. And to them it feels as if God has forsaken them. But then God comes and He says: “Comfort, comfort my people.” He says it twice, because it is urgent. It must be emphasized that God has come to comfort His people.
Now, comfort is a complicated word. It is a word that can make one feel uncomfortable, because if you need to be comforted it means that something is wrong with you. You are sad, you are going through a difficult time, you are overwhelmed by something that has happened in your life. And this makes us fragile. It makes us defenseless. Because we are taught to be strong. As South Africans, we have no choice but to be strong. That is how we grow up: to be strong and to be strong people. And if I have learned anything about Americans in it is that they are
also strong people. Strong, powerful, individualistic people. And the result is that one doesn’t want to be fragile. We don’t want to be comforted, because then it feels that we haven’t got control. We are at the mercy of something or someone else. It’s funny that as a child you are allowed to cry. But when you grow you must be strong. You are not a child anymore; you can’t just cry anymore. But sometimes it still breaks inside of us. But we don’t show it. You can’t ask: ‘Can somebody please comfort me, because I am alone and scared, I am in a situation I don’t know how to handle. Life is just too much for me.’ No. we must pick up our heads and walk the road courageously. Because we are grown-ups. And grown-ups, especially God’s people, doesn’t lie down. As if you don’t need comfort when your child is experiencing hardship. As if someone whose whole world is crashing down doesn’t need comfort. As if someone who is very ill, someone who has to say farewell, or misses people far away, or someone who is just alone and scared. As if they don’t need any comfort.
Jesus spoke to His disciples at a time when they felt scared and uncertain. He called them TEKVON, which is the Greek word for children. Why did He call them that? Because Jesus knows- even grown-ups sometimes feel like small children and sometimes need comfort. Jesus knows- because He also experienced it. He was scared. He got hurt. He felt abandoned by God.
Many times in life, we think, we ask, where is God? Where is The One that must help us to understand our role in life and how we must approach it? The One that must help when things are falling apart? When nothing is making sense anymore, when we want to throw in the towel? Where is the One that must help us?
Through the ages, this question has been asked. Think about Job and David. Think about Dr. Martin Luther King, and the memory of him this week. And today still we wonder if God just doesn’t care anymore. Therefore, the philosopher Gerrit Brand wrote: “We want to tell you Lord: Nothing, nothing is as it should be and therefore, we pray, please, be with us! Change our circumstances! Comfort us!”
And thank goodness there is comfort. The great Comfort- Jesus Christ. That our small little life here on earth in the end doesn’t belong to us, but to God. We are not left to ourselves. It is not our own strength and resourcefulness, our clever schemes and plans that gives us the edge. It is not our achievements and failures, our heights or depths that are crucial. This is a great comfort. Because, if my choices, mistakes and sin and all the stupid things I do was going to determine the direction of my life, it would be fatal. The comfort is I do not belong to myself. I am the Lords’. I am His child- Not His grown-up that is not allowed to cry or to be scared, but His child. And therefore, it is not the rivers and the fires that is crucial in my life, but His care. His involvement in my life. His continuous love. The love He shows to me when He says: I want to comfort you.
And when the people didn’t understand the comfort of God, He sent Christ. The Great Comfort. And He brings His love that forgives our sins and takes away our failures. In Jesus we see the God of Isaiah 40 and 43. knowing that He meant what He said: “Do not fear.” Because you are precious in my sight, and I want to hold you when you are weak, and the rivers are great. He knows that we are defenseless. That we get sick and can die. That we can get hurt in relationships. That life can be very different than we anticipated it to be. That we sin and make mistakes and hurt others. That we sometimes struggle to have faith. And therefore, He brings His Comfort so near that shepherds with the smell of wool on their hands can come closer, Simeon can take Him in his arms. Beggars can call to Him. A woman can wash His feet with her hair. Children can bother Him. And people in need can discover Emanuel- God with us. Between us. Around us. He talks to us and forgives us. What a comfort!
The people in Isaiah didn’t have any more prospects. Everything was lost. Their land, homes, possessions, that they have built up and put together for a lifetime is gone! They have lost their identity! They are nameless. And then you get scared. In this situation, the prophet comes and says: ‘God wants to comfort you.’ And they say: ‘But we are afraid.’ And God replies: ‘Don’t be afraid!’ And they say: ‘But we have lost our names.’ And God replies: ‘I have called you by your name!’ And they say: ‘But we lost our identity.’ And God replies: ‘You belong to Me!’
This thought that we belong to God is so powerful that Paul that he writes: whether I live or whether I die I am comforted because I am the Lord’s. It is so enormous that the Heidelberg Catechism begins with: What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. That I am a child of God.
Someone wrote critical on this subject. He says this is an odd question (What is your only comfort?). It doesn’t fit the lifestyle of today. It’s a 16th century question to people of the 21st century. We have matured. We are not as vulnerable anymore. Please don’t tell me that you want to comfort or help me. I will take offense. We are stronger, after all. More advanced. Psychologically, we have developed. And then there is also the prosperity cults that say: But Christians are children of God. Everything is always well with children of God. You don’t need comfort, and if you do there must be something wrong with your faith. Christians are immune to pain and suffering. If you need comfort, your faith must be too small.
Isn’t it strange that God self says: I want to comfort you. And that He sends Christ as His Comfort. And Jesus says: My children. And the last book, Revelation, ends with God that says: ‘And I will wipe away every tear from your eyes.’ God thinks of us in a different way. The Bible says that in this world, we need comfort. Even God’s children are defenseless. Christians also sometimes feel powerless and the situation feels too great. Maybe we should say that God’s children, above all, are fragile. Because we are called to allow the sadness of the world to pierce our hearts and take hold of us and it does not let us go. And that makes us fragile.
The Bible says it is not a shame to need comfort. It was not a shame when He who was the greatest of all humans, He who came to bring God’s comfort, wanted comfort from His disciples in Gethsemane. We have all been at the end of our answers. We have all asked, ‘Where are you Lord?’ We all seek the light. And then we hear the words of Isaiah 40 and 43. And in the memory of epiphany we say: ‘Look! The light drove away the darkness, because God’s Comfort came.’ And then when pray together that He will come. He who does not spare us the fall, but who holds us in the depths.
There is a book written about the winds that blow over our lives. The author says there are gusts, there are soft breezes and there are storm winds. Israel felt as if a strong wind blowed, but so mightily that it would blow their faith away. In our lives, the winds also blow on the landscape of our existence. And sometimes it feels as if it wants to break me into pieces. But more important than the wind that blows, is what God does with you in the wind. He folds me in His love so I can hear the words above the sound of the wind: ‘Do not be afraid. You belong to me.’ Emmanuel— God with us.
God called us so we must also call to each other. God came to comfort us, so we should also comfort each other. This is how silence gets broken, sadness is shared, and fears are talked about, and grown-ups can cry again. We comfort, not like God, but because God did it for us. And in this way, we meet each other.
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