Our most recent family pic with only Andrew missing

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The God of All Comfort

Comfort is a word which in modern speech has lost all of its New testament meaning. It suggests to us a kind of sedative, a palliative for pain of body or mind. But the comfort of God is no narcotic. The word "comforter" applied to the Holy Spirit really means "strengthener" (John 14:16). It has the same root as "fortify." We comfort a sufferer when we give them courage to bear their pain or face their misfortune.

So, my first point is that it is important not to confuse God's comfort with being comfortable. We often talk about ‘comfort zones' – meaning the place where we feel able to function without challenge. But a glance at the stories of God's people in the Bible suggests that God is not much interested in keeping us in our comfort zones. His comfort takes us outside what we think we are capable of. It challenges us to do more than we think we can – and gives us the capacity to succeed.

There is a famous section in the Bayeux Tapestry which depicts King William with his army riding in front of him. William is shown poking the point of a spear into the back of the soldier who rides ahead of him. The caption, translated into English, reads ‘William comforts his troops'. We might think of God's comfort in a similar way – a gentle prod in the right direction at times when maybe we are thinking of turning back.

We see this in the story of Elijah from 1 Kings 19:3-9. Elijah has just had a good day in ministry, you can read about it in 1 Kings 18. He confronted, conquered and slaughtered the prophets of Baal and Asherah, he prayed for the three year drought to come to an end ... and it rained. In the rain, he raced back to Samaria on foot, passing King Ahab in his chariot. A good day in ministry, evil defeated and God recognized by the people as the LORD.  

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. (vs3)

In spite of Elijah’s great triumph in the trial on Mount Carmel and the dramatic demonstration that his God is the Lord of heaven and earth and the source of Israel’s blessings, Jezebel is undaunted. Hers is no empty threat, and Ahab has shown that he is either unwilling or unable to restrain her. So Elijah knows that one of the main sources of Israel’s present apostasy is still spewing out its poison and that his own life is in danger. 

You and I have all been in that place ... going along on top of the world, when suddenly, the bottom falls out of our world. This comes in so many ways, but the end result is often the same as Elijah's: we feel hopeless, helpless, afraid and we just don't want to go on

When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’

A broom bush is a desert shrub, sometimes large enough to offer some shade. He sits there and prayed that he might die. He's not the first or the last prophet of God to feel that way. Jonah and Jeremiah had similar bouts of depression (Jonah 4:3, 8Jer 20:1-11) Elijah concluded that his work was fruitless and consequently that life was not worth living. He had lost his confidence in the triumph of the kingdom of God and was withdrawing from the arena of conflict.

If you feel like that this morning, hear the good news:

   5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’ 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
7 The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’ 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he travelled for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.

The angel of the LORD often appears in the OT and often turns out to be God Himself (19:1, 21; 31:11, 13; Ex 3:2, 4; Jdg 2:1–5; 6:11–12, 14; 13:3, 6, 8–11, 13, 15–17,20–23; Zec 3:1–6; 12:8). Traditional Christian interpretation has held that this “angel” was a preincarnate manifestation of Christ as God’s Messenger-Servant but whether this “angel” was the second person of the Trinity remains therefore uncertain. The good news is (getting back to Elijah) God in his mercy provided sustenance and rest for his discouraged servant and He always does and will for you too. Why ... 7  'for the journey is too much for you.' 

Please hear that: sometimes, in fact I would say always, the journey is too much for you in your own strength. Acknowledge that and then know that in your humility, the Lord can minister to you the daily bread which He longs to provide so that you discover that you can do all things through Him who strengthens you (Phil 4:13). YES ... you can!

Why does the God of all comfort comfort us? We find an answer in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Our own suffering gives us power to comfort others. Suffering in which we have found for ourselves the comfort of God is a tool for service. It puts us alongside others. It gives us entry into their pain and can make them willing to listen to us. We can speak with authority because we've been there. There are things people can take only from those who have sat where they sit (Ez 3:15). In this way your suffering or affliction becomes the means of your gaining knowledge of God that someone else will not have. This becomes one of the ways in which suffering finds its proper place in the world ... it is taken up into the purpose of God. It might even make sense ... when you see someone lifted or strengthened or encouraged to persevere because you've shared your unique experience you begin to see how God really does work through all things for the good (Rom 8:28)

We've seen what Biblical comfort is, we've seen how God comforts and why God comforts. I want to close with a reminder of something I've shared before when I said that an early mentor of mine in ministry said "Good preaching should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." I tried to to find out this week who originally said this of preaching, but it seems many have said it:

How would this work today? Well, if you are suffering or afflicted in some way today, I hope I've preached gospel, good news to you ... that you will leave feeling encouraged, strengthened, uplifted or prodded a little, like King William's soldier, to carry on carrying on. So if you arrived uncomfortable, I would hope you are a little more comfortable.

If you arrived comfortable ... I hope the preaching of the gospel has made you uncomfortable. Perhaps you've been through something horrible that you've never told anyone else. Perhaps out of shame or perhaps because you were taught that "we don't talk about things like that, so, keep it to yourself." If that's the case and you know someone who is going through a similar thing ... you have to prayerfully consider sharing with them how you survived. If you've struggled with an addiction and sometimes the church is the last place that helps you with that, but you know someone else sitting close to you is struggling in that area ... you have to consider sharing with them. And so we could go on. In a church of this size, there is a huge amount of walked through suffering that can be strength, encouragement, prodding for others. One of my roles is to hear your stories, not so that I can judge you or run off and share them, but so that when I hear someone else going through something similar I can come to you and, in all anonymity and with the other person's permission, make the connection that will set free, empower and grow the kingdom of God as we "Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way will fulfil the law of Christ" (Gal 6:2). So ...

1 comment:

Bernardine said...

God's timing is always spot on. Today I needed to be reminded of God's gentle prodding: as a means of encouragement and as a means of sharing an unpleasant experience that should not go on unchecked. Thank you!