Comfort ye my people
Console my people, console them, says your God. This line, Isaiah chapter 40, verse 1 captures something very central about our faith. Comfort ye my people is the King James’ version. That translation of the verse appears at the very beginning of Handel’s Messiah. The coming of Christ is a consolation to us. Our Saviour’s work among us is a comfort. Console my people, comfort them, says your God. On the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord we understand this comfort and consolation to be part of an atmosphere of warm approval around the mission of Jesus. At the Jordan, God declared his approval of what his Son was doing, and now we pray that, thanks to the grace that we receive from Christ, beginning with our baptism, that we will also meet with divine approval. A voice came from heaven. You are my beloved. My favour rests on you. There is consolation and comfort in the love of God. As the Letter to Titus puts it: when the kindness and love of God our Saviour for humanity were revealed, it was…because…of his compassion for us..’ And, as the Roman Canon concludes: Through (Christ) you continue to make all these good things, O Lord, you sanctify them, fill them with life, bless them and bestow them upon us.
Comfort from divine compassion
At certain moments we need as much consolation and comfort as we can receive. The ministry of John the Baptist was exercised in tough circumstances and without flinching from the toughness of the truth. John understood that part of the transformation effected by Jesus, who would baptise in the Spirit, was to add to love, compassion, comfort and consolation to all that unavoidable toughness. Is this not our own experience? Steadily we try to follow Jesus. Persevering in discipleship, we try not to flinch from the challenges and scrutinies which are in the Lord’s teaching. Yet our need of comfort is very great. We persevere in the faith in consolation as well as dutifully. Bereaved, we seek comfort, and by the grace of God, we receive some. In the midst of a family crisis, we hope for consolation, and by the merciful dispensation of grace, we receive some. Dismayed by international events and worried about the future of the world we seek comfort from God as well as inspiration and wisdom. And out of his love, he not only enlightens us. He gives us hope and in that hope, joy. Burdened sometimes by our sins, or fearful of divine judgement on the sins of others, we can think the moral situation hopeless. The consolation of the Holy Spirit, and the comfort of Jesus are that about no human wrongdoing, about no wickedness, about no persistent failure does God despair. The divine compassion, the mercy of God comforts us. The ‘comfortable words’ do comfort us: come to me all you labour and are overburdened; and my yoke is easy and my burden light; and God so loved the world that he sent his only Son into it so that all who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life and Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners and Those who may sin have an advocate with God, Jesus Christ, the righteous one; he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world.The critics of our faith can sometimes find fault with our hope of comfort and our unashamed need of the consolations which God may give to us. ‘The comforts of religion’ can be spoken of scornfully. Comfort is disdained by tough-minded folk who face up courageously to what they take to be the truth – that there is no such comfort. It is weak, they think, to seek comfort. For them, if ever there is any softening of the impact of loss, or fear, or evil then such alleviation must be achieved by us human beings on our own. Not all alleviations of pain are rejections of God, of course. But some of our brothers and sisters reject the notion that God can help us in our trouble, can soften our pain.
Everlasting happiness was what we were created for
God’s comforting us is not simply his sugaring for us the bitter pill of real life; a life which is nasty, brutal and either cruelly short or cruelly protracted. Our receiving divine consolation now is a foretaste of that great consolation which will be eternal life with him. Our hope of happiness forever with God is not a shallow comfort against our present sorrow or the misery of those caught up in war or famine or other trouble. Such everlasting happiness was what we were created for. To be with God forever, and happily so, is our purpose and destiny. To pray over that destiny, to think of it, to hold on to it is comforting.
Consoling us is what God does
Our Creator’s desire that we should be with him forever sustains strong hope because it is completely reliable. The promises are true. God’s capacity to comfort us is part of his nature. Consoling us is what God does. Our pinning our hope on divine comfort is part of our commitment to the truth not an avoidance of it. The truth sometimes has an inescapable harshness – death, sickness, human weakness, our fallen state. But some other truths carry equal, if not more, inevitable comfort – the loving Creation of the world by God, the harmonious covenant between God and human beings, the Incarnation, the Epiphany, the Baptism of Christ, the Resurrection, the communion of the saints, the glory of God and many more mysteries. These are truths which comfort.
Comfort ye my people
We pray for comfort and our prayers will be answered partly by God’s love and partly by our confidence that what he has revealed to us about himself and his providence is true. It is God’s holy will that we should trust the promises of Christ. God commands that they should be fulfilled. God longs for us to be comforted by his promises. God consoles us through our present trust in the teaching of Jesus. He comforts us with our hope of the eternal happiness, which will be the fulfilment of that teaching.