Pentecost 11 (Proper 21), August 24, 2014
Text: Isaiah 51:1–6
Today we are going to talk about comfort. This might have something to do with the comfort dog we are receiving today. Normally when we talk about comfort, it is in the context of things like clothes, or setting a thermostat, or buying furniture that is comfortable while watching the Packers, not the Steelers, on TV. If you don’t know what I am talking about here, well, you should have been here last week.
But there is another use of this word: when we comfort one another in times of sadness, distress, anxiety. I do not know how many of you watch The Big Bang Theory on TV. It is a silly sitcom kind of a show about 4 nerds and the cute girl who lives down the hall. A lot of the laughs on the show come from the Sheldon character who is very, very smart, but has problems fitting in socially. When his roommate Leonard is having a bad day, more than once on the show Sheldon, who knows he is supposed to offer comfort as a friend/roommate, but doesn’t really know HOW, would walk up to him, barely pat his shoulder and say real fast, “There, there.” And then he would offer a warm beverage. Not really comforting.
In Isaiah today we see that God does better than this, as we are reminded today of the many ways that God comforts us.
At the beginning of our text today, Isaiah prophesies to a people who will be in exile. His audience will be conquered by a neighboring superpower. Many will be killed. Those left will be taken to Babylon and put to work. For the Israelite congregation that heard Isaiah’s sermon that day, it would be easy to look back and see how their sin had destroyed their relationship with God. A glorious city, vibrant worship, God’s calling and blessing of them as His people, all would be in ruins.
Yet Isaiah enters this scene of devastation and lifts up his voice. He calls for people to close their eyes and listen, to listen as he tells them of God’s work in their history (v 1). Yahweh/God calls them to look back to Abraham and Sarah, wandering and childless. Out of this couple, two strangers in a strange land, God brought about a nation. Their nation! Remember verse 3? “For the Lord comforts Zion; He comforts all her waste places, and makes her wilderness like Eden….joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of a song.” Now that’s comfort, right? God doesn’t just look at His people and go, “There, there.” The people of Israel know their sin, know they have rejected God and in repentance, God says He is going to make everything all right. Deserts will be gardens. Anguish and guilt will turn into thanksgiving and happy songs! That’s comfort.
The Epistle reading this morning reminds us we are to be showing people mercy, and offering them comfort. Our natural instinct is to think like the law: If something bad happened to someone then they did something to deserve it, right? Jesus and the 12 ran into a guy who was born blind and the 12 asked if the guy or his parents sinned that caused this blindness. Jesus said that this is not how it works, but that he was blind that people could see God at work. Jesus then healed the guy and people definitely saw God at work in that healing. But the thing of it is is that people should still see God at work, His love, His compassion, His mercy, His COMFORT, through us and how we deal with the people around us every day.
We just need to be there for folks. Now I can guess here that this is the point in this sermon where you may be getting uncomfortable. You may be thinking to yourself, “Pastor, when someone around me is hurting, I don’t know what to say.” Well, the good news is this: Whether it is my training as a Pastor or as a Law Enforcement Chaplain, I am trained to do a Ministry of Presence. It has been my experience that unless you say something really weird or tacky, people who are going through something bad do not remember what we say, they just remember that we were there. My training boils down to this, Speak from the heart, stay away from cliches’ and just be there.
Allow me an example: Once during Queen Victoria’s reign (she was Queen of England for 63 years in the 1800’s), she heard that the wife of a common laborer had lost her baby. She felt moved to express her sympathy. So she called on the bereaved woman one day and spent some time with her. After she left, the neighbors asked what the queen had said. “Nothing,” replied the grieving mother. “She simply put her hands on mine, and we. . .silently wept together.”
Here is another example: Douglas a 15 year old in Creve Coeur, Missouri, a few years back, had what he thought was the flu but he was diagnosed as having leukemia. The doctors told him in frank terms about his disease. They said that for the next three years, he would have to undergo chemotherapy. They didn’t sugarcoat what the side effects would be. Upon learning this, he went into a deep depression. His aunt called a floral shop to send Douglas an arrangement of flowers. She told the clerk that it was for her teenage nephew who has leukemia. When the flowers arrived at the hospital, Douglas read the card from his aunt. Then he saw a second card. It said: “Douglas–I took your order. I work at the florist. I had leukemia when I was 7 years old. I’m 22 years old now. Good luck. My heart goes out to you. Sincerely, Laura.” His face lit up.
It’s funny: Douglas was in a hospital filled with millions of dollars of the most sophisticated medical equipment. He was being treated by expert doctors and nurses with medical training totaling in the hundreds of years. But it was a salesclerk in a flower shop, a woman making $170 a week, who–by taking the time to care, and by being willing to go with what her heart told her to do–gave Douglas hope and the will to carry on.
We need to offer comfort. We need to show mercy. Our lives as Christians are characterized by mercy—God’s mercy to us in Jesus Christ. Our Heavenly Father, out of the depth of His riches, had mercy on us in sending us His Son to die and rise again for us. He declares us righteous by grace alone. He baptized us into Christ’s death and resurrection. He sends out those in the ministry of preaching and the Sacraments (10:14–17). His purpose is to have mercy on all (11:32). And if you find yourself going through something and you do not know if God cares, He DOES! Jesus died and rose again FOR YOU! He promised to be with you and bless you always. And God ALWAYS keeps His promises. He is the Best at giving comfort.
Therefore we live “mercy-given lives” in the Body of Christ: and we need to be willing to do the same in here, and out there. And I firmly believe that Rufus will be able to help us out with that, a lot. The gift of mercy, received by all, is to be used toward all with cheerfulness and generosity (12:8), for God has had mercy on us.
We have received salvation through the mercies of God. Our lives are lived in that mercy in the Church, in our families, and among our neighbors in the world, as we carry out our vocations with mercy and comfort for all. So if we know someone who needs comfort, let’s not pull a Sheldon and go, “There, there,” but let’s lead people here, and here, and here.