Tidings of Comfort and Joy

SJF • Advent 2b 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

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.
Comfort is one of those words that has unfortunately, over time, almost completely lost its original meaning. When we hear the word comfort the first thing that is likely to come to mind is an overstuffed sofa or one of those space-age mattresses we keep seeing in the commercials on TV — you know the ones: where people can balance wine glasses or drop bowling balls next to you, but you can just go right on sleeping because the bed is so, well, comfortable.

But that’s not the original meaning of the word comfort. The original meaning of comfort is “to make strong” — to fortify. It is about taking heart and being encouraged, being strengthened with resolve and given hope that there is better to come. Comfort is not about feeling warm and cozy, it is about facing the future with trust in God and hope in one’s heart, no matter how bad things might have been in the past, or how they might appear at the present. It is a call to be prepared and strong for the good of the days to come.

Let me give you an example of what I regard as a proper use of the word comfort in this old-fashioned sense. When Bloody Mary came to the throne of England in 1553, and reestablished Roman Catholicism as the state religion, the Anglican bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley knew that they would not be long for this world. Sure enough the two of them were burned at the stake on October 16, 1555. As they were about to die that terrible death, Bishop Latimer spoke his famous last words, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as (I trust) shall never be put out.” Clearly comfort is not about being cozy but about being courageous even in the face of such a terrible end, to “be of good comfort” in the knowledge that the flames of present suffering will pass, and the glorious hope of the future awaits.

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So it is that when God commands Isaiah to speak words of comfort to Jerusalem and its people, it is not to say, “Make yourselves at home.” On the contrary, the prophet here is telling the people that the day of liberation has come — they need no longer make themselves at home in Babylon, as once they did. Rather, in these tidings of comfort and joy they are being recalled to their own homeland. God will prepare a way for them in the wilderness, leveling every mountain and filling in every valley, evening out the uneven spots, and planing down the rough ones, to make a broad, clear highway for his people. And God himself will be their shepherd, leading them in his might, and even carrying the lambs close to his breast. These are words of great comfort to people in captivity, words not just to make them feel good, but to live in hope and strength for a better time.

Saint Peter offers similar encouragement in our Epistle today: explaining that the Lord’s delay is not neglect, but patience; He doesn’t want anyone to have any excuse for not being part of the great procession into the new creation, the new heaven and new earth. This world — this Babylon, if you will — is set to expire, and it will dissolve in a flash of fire. So this time of God’s patience is for all of us to be prepared, to be ready, to be courageous, to be comforted with the knowledge of God’s redeeming love for us, and the salvation given in Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist greets us with such words of strong comfort as well: quoting Isaiah and thereby reminding the people of that ancient comforting promise of liberation — not right now, he tells them; not yet — but soon! John is speaking to Jews suffering under the heel of a foreign occupying power: the might of the Roman Imperium with itslegions and fleets. John offers words of comfort to a people ground down by the kind of corrupt government that such a colonial system is apt to promote: the soldiers who abuse, the tax collectors who gouge, the politicians who connive and the judges who turn a blind eye to the poor and favor the rich.

John offers comfort to those on the receiving end of these various injustices, and a warning and a call to repentance to those who practice them. He preaches the word that Paul would take up later: God is patient, but do not presume on his patience. Be strong either to endure or repent: and take comfort in the coming of the Lord.

John appears as a prophet and advance man for the big show that is coming to town — and we’ll hear more about that next week. There is much to hope for, much more to come, much more that will be revealed — so, John is telling the people, take comfort and be prepared.

So it is that all our scripture today speaks to us in the same accents: take comfort — be strong. Be prepared for the Lord who redeems you, and who will come to liberate you from all captivity, who will make the way clear before you, so that you too might be led on your way to the new heavens and new earth, and be at home at last in that place of righteousness.

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Let me close with a story about another great Anglican, Charles Simeon, who was one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society. He could be called a “theologian of comfort,” from the one end of his life in the church to the other. At the beginning of his adult life in the faith, he had much difficulty in preparing himself to receive the Holy Communion, Back then Communion was something you might receive only a few times each year, and much was made about being in a proper frame of mind — perhaps we’ve lost something of that sense of the importance of preparation to receive Communion. There were many devotional guides, little booklets to help with the individual Christian in preparing for “this awful mystery” — and unfortunately for Simeon the devotional guide he used put all of its weight on law, humiliation, unworthiness and obedience as the ways rightly to approach that holy sacrament. This did little but make Simeon feel miserable. Fortunately he came across another devotional guide that took an entirely different approach, a truly evangelical approach in the sense of bringing him tidings of comfort and joy, the good news of the gospel. This book stressed the fundamental truth that the law cannot make one righteous, but that it is only through Christ, and the sacrifice he made of himself once offered upon the cross for our salvation, that we are washed from sin and prepared to welcome him, and be welcomed by him. We don’t have to become worthy — indeed we cannot: it is Christ who makes us worthy! This comforting assurance liberated Simeon, and inspired and strengthened him not only to make his Communion, but to become one of the great evangelists of the Christian faith, spreading the truly good news that, as Isaiah said, we have served our term, and our penalty is paid, and that our Lord has redeemed us.

The end of Charles Simeon’s life reflected this same strong consciousness of comfort. As he lay dying, he greeted the people gathered around his bedside with a bright smile and cheerful sense of comfort and joy. He asked the gathered friends and family, “What do you think especially gives me comfort at this time?” As they did not wish to hazard a guess, he cried out, “God’s creation! For I ask myself, Did God create the world or did I? And I must answer, He did! Now if he made the world and all the rolling spheres of the universe, he certainly can take care of me. Into Jesus’ hands I can safely commit my spirit!”

It is this consciousness of comfort, this acceptance of the tidings of comfort and joy, that God calls us to this Advent time, and on through Christmas, and on through into the rest of the life God gives us, until we too find our way to get ourselves up the high mountain, hearing the voice of theherald of good tidings lifted up, not fearing, in the knowledge of comfort, and hope in God’s promise, and ready to take our place in the new heavens and the new earth, where righteousness is at home, and where we too at last shall be at rest with our Lord and our God, to whom all praise be given, henceforth and for evermore.