Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 7, 2008

2008.12.07 “Comfort, If You Need It”

Central United Methodist Church

“Comfort, If You Need It”

Isaiah 64: 1 – 9

December 7, 2008

“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.” – Isaiah 40: 1 – 2, The New Revised Standard Version


            Each year during Advent, I always start with the intent of preaching from one of the other Scriptures, but rarely do I get past Isaiah. There is, after all, a reason Isaiah is sometimes called the 5th Gospel. The passages of the great 6th century B.C. Hebrew prophet are so great, so foundational, so moving, I rarely get past them.

Just hear this morning’s text from the 40th chapter 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.”

        What moving words. What images these words bring to mind: a loving embrace, arms around shoulders, tears wiped from eyes, people raised up to live in comfort and hope.

I know that today “comfort” conjures up a cloud of images ranging from La-Z-Boy recliners to Royal Caribbean cruises. There are “comfort food” and “creature comforts,” connecting to all things warm and fuzzy. Such that the idea of comfort to many is to sit in a lounge chair with drink in hand and feet up.

But the English word “comfort” means more than that.  It’s a combination of the Latin words “com-fortis” or “with strength,” so that the thought behind comfort is not just to make someone feel better, it is to give them strength to go on, to do what needs to be done.

After some of the items in the news this week, we ourselves may need some comfort this morning.

Today, for example, December 7th, is the 67th anniversary of that Sunday morning in 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor; as President Roosevelt called it, “the day that will live in infamy.” I know that for all of you old enough to remember, December 7th will forever be associated with that day, and that you can still tell me exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news. That moment is to your generation was 9/11 is to the current generation. Although it’s questionable whether Japanese Admiral Yamamoto ever actually said it, the words attributed to him proved true: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.”  America rose up in strength to become the Greatest Generation.

Anyone who has ever stood on the memorial of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, as I have, and watched the oil bubbles still rising to the surface from the ship below, where many of the 1,177 crew members who died that day are still entombed, can appreciate Isaiah’s words:  “Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.”

But there was another tragic commemoration this week that called for comfort. On Monday, we were reminded of what happened in Chicago on December 1st, 1958, the Our Lady of Angels fire, where 92 students and three nuns lost their lives.  It was a landmark fire which changed fire codes, especially for schools and churches, across the country. This famous photo appeared in the December 15, 1958 issue of Life Magazine, of fireman Richard Scheidt carrying John Jajkowski from the northwest entrance of the school. Firefighter Scheidt carried a total of 19 young victims out himself.  It was, as you might understand, the single worst thing he ever experienced in his career as a firefighter. 

I had the privilege of knowing the late Patrick Culhane, former Chicago Police officer, one of the first police inspectors to walk through the scene that day, before most of the bodies were removed.  Pat died in 2005, and to his dying day, it was not something he could easily talk about. “Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.”

Let me add that we also pray for comfort this week to Denis David and his brother Deryk, and the members of their families, upon the death of their father Alfred. Though Alfred lived a good long life and died peacefully last Friday, we extend to this family our comfort in their loss.

We should also note that Advent 2008 finds many in as severe an economic situation as anyone has experienced in living memory.  Millions have lost, or may soon lose, their jobs and their benefits, such as health insurance.  For many, this will be a blue Christmas.

These are only a few examples why these ancient words of Isaiah can still speak so powerfully to us.  There are simply times in our both our public and our private lives when our despair and grief is so great, that we find ourselves in need of equally great comfort and hope. In this grim climate, the word of the Lord comes to us: “Comfort, comfort my people.”  

These words signal a critical moment in the book of Isaiah, in the history of Israel, and thus also to all future generations of the people of God.  What it says is, God is revealed as a God who holds those who are brokenhearted and forsaken, close to heart.    

Here’s what happened. Six centuries before Christ, the worst thing that could happen to a nation happened to God’s people.  Engaged in a war with the Babylonians, the army was defeated and pushed all the way back to the capital city of Jerusalem. A long siege took place and, in 586, the city’s walls were breached, the city overrun, and looting, pillaging, and killing followed. The Babylonians leveled the city, paying particular attention to see that every single wall of the Temple of Solomon was destroyed. Then the Babylonians assembled the leaders, the politicians, priests, lawyers, and people and marched them across the desert to Babylon, where they were kept in captivity for seventy years, a period known in the history of Israel as “The Exile.”

If you were God’s chosen people, how would that have made you feel? Well, that was how they felt. Even more difficult than their separation from their land, temple, and home, was the sense that they had lost their God, or worse, God had forgotten them. In the biblical literature, it was a time of silence, during which the exiled community experienced the loss of old certainties and assumptions, the end of the world as they had known it, complete abandonment. It was a time of deep suffering and sadness, and the only thing that kept them from despair was the hope that God had not abandoned them, that God would act to save them and bring them home.

Between 1st and 2nd Isaiah, between Isaiah chapter 39 and Isaiah chapter 40, 200 years passed, 200 years of silence. And then, out of the silence, out of the wilderness, God speaks:  “Comfort, O comfort my people.”

God has not forgotten them. God knows exactly where they are, remembers each of their names, and now they’re going home.  God will lead them home through the dry, arid desert, like a powerful king, with his servants out in front of the great, triumphant homecoming parade, leveling off the hills, smoothing the rough places. It’s no wonder that part of this poem is quoted in all four Gospels, a text that voices the radical newness initiated in the story of Jesus: “The kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe the good news.”

And then Isaiah reminds them of the most powerful image of all: God is like a shepherd, who holds the forsaken close to his heart.  God is not fully described in terms of power and victory, a muscular God who overwhelms all his and the peoples’ enemies. No, even more true is that God:

Shall feed his flock like a shepherd:

he shall gather the lambs with his arms,

and carry them in his bosom,

and shall gently lead those that are with young.

        In the history of the Jews, this cycle has replayed again and again: suffering and silence, followed by comfort and hope. If I were Jewish, I don’t know if I could have remained devout after WWII when six million of my people – fathers, mothers, children – were exterminated while God — and much of humanity — remained silent. 

        But then, out of the post war situation, came the State of Israel.  New Testament scholar N. T. Wright tells of visiting the Shrine of the Book:

The first time I went to Jerusalem, I went to the Shrine of the Book at the Israel museum, where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display. I stood there, gradually deciphering for myself the ancient Hebrew script, and read Isaiah’s words of comfort, copied by a scribe over two millennia ago: Nachmu, nachmu ammi, yomar elohekhem, Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  And the shivers down my spine as I read were increased in the knowledge that for many Jewish people in the last fifty years their return to the land, after their unspeakable sufferings at the hands of self-styled Christian Europe, was the moment of comfort for which they had longed. (“True and False Comfort”, sermon preached by N. T. Wright at Westminster Abbey, 14th April 2002)

Unfortunately, one does not have to look very far in the world to find entire groups of people who appreciate these words, people who know what it’s like to feel forsaken; people for whom God’s comfort — certainly as expressed by God’s people — has been slow in coming.  


Since 1988, December 1st has been commemorated as World AIDS Day. Despite the progress made, the statistics of this disease and its human toll remain staggering. Since 1981 more than 20 million people have died of AIDS. There are now 33 million people living with HIV worldwide, perhaps 95% of whom live in the developing world, including 2 million children under the age of 15.  Africa alone may have 18 million AIDS orphans by 2010.

On its initial outbreak in the gay population, some people — religious people — said it was the judgment of God for their homosexual lifestyle. But then it turned out that AIDS was a disease – like tuberculosis is a disease –not restricted to gay people but to heterosexual people and people who had blood transfusions and even children.  And even Christians who rushed to judgment realized they were wrong, badly wrong.

Thanks to the activism of such celebrities as Bono of the Irish band U2, even conservative Christians such as Rick Warren of Saddleback Church and Bill Hybels of Willow Creek have changed their minds and called for Christians to care for those throughout the world afflicted by AIDS.

Says Rick Warren’s wife Kay:

“God grabbed my heart . . . I knew nothing about HIV/AIDS and harbored the same fears and misconceptions that are commonly held in our culture.  As I became aware of the number of children orphaned by AIDS, I began to sob and confess that I did not love and care for the people in this horrific crisis the way our God does . . . . With a biblical mandate and a softened heart, I personally invite you to join in the adventure of reaching every person with the love of God.”

This seems like a good time to note one further point about Isaiah’s words:  Not only are we assured of God’s comfort for the brokenhearted and forsaken — like Kay Warren pointed out — we are the ones told to extend it in God’s name.  After all, that is what God told Isaiah:  “Isaiah, you comfort my people. You speak tenderly to them . . . .”

As we have likely all learned through harsh experience, the comfort of God alone in times of sorrow, grief, and despair is never enough.  Like the boy who was afraid of the dark who was reminded that he was never alone, that God was always with him, who replied,  “But I want someone with skin on.”

At such times, we want someone “with skin on.” We need another’s embrace, another’s arms, another words, another who will get down in the dirt with us to comfort us in our grief.

Not that it’s ever easy. In my roles as a pastor and chaplain, I have had too many opportunities to see and be with people in need of comfort, heartbreaking scenes I won’t describe. I can’t say that I have ever felt adequate: at such times there is nothing you can say or do which feels adequate.

So what I try to do is get people into the care of those who can support them: family, friends, pastors, professionals, church congregations. In the long term, those who support us, whoever they may be, are our best and most enduring comforters.

Just this week, I went to my first house fire as a Chaplain here in Skokie. A neighbor across the street saw the smoke, went into the house and helped the family get out, including a 2 year old and 94 year-old grandma. Then he sheltered them in his house from the 17 degree cold. When the father arrived on the scene, he begin to weep, not only that his family was safe, but because “When I see what this man did for my family, I cannot thank him enough.”

God calls us to be such people, to be God’s voice, God’s hands, God’s comfort in the world today.

“Comfort, O comfort, my people.”  Thus says the God who gathers the forsaken and brokenhearted like a Shepherd, and holds them close to heart.  Amen.


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