We all know the power of words. However, like a surgeon’s knife or scalpel, it requires great skill and control to hit the target. Almost always it is hard to find the right words to comfort someone who has lost a loved one.
Most of the time, we struggle to find the right words to comfort or remain silent. But we also know that silence can be hurtful when someone is hurting. As such, comforting people who are hurting are extremely difficult. However, we need to comfort the hurting and also receive comfort in return. Especially, now when the majority of our nation are hurting, physically, emotionally, financially, relationally, and spiritually.
And in today’s text, through the prophet Isaiah, God commands us to comfort others. And he also teaches us how to comfort others. Verse 1 says, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”
When God spoke these words through Isaiah, people of God were in the midst of an exile, hostages for 70 years in a foreign land. For us, for the past ten months, our normal routines have been interrupted and many of our free movements and access have been limited or prohibited. And many of us are frustrated, angry, and saddened. Imagine multiplying our situations by thousand times, in terms of the loss of freedom and dignity. Not just for ten months, but for seventy years. And being in a foreign land with strange language, food, customs, and traditions, in addition to humiliation, shame, and loss of dignity. Seventy years as prisoners, what were their hearts like? Resignation, surrender, despair, frustration, broken spirit….And to them, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”
To whom, is God commanding to comfort ‘my people’?
They are others who were also hostages, imprisoned in a foreign land. They have been in the same, Godless, forbidden, and gloomy land for the past 70 years. However, they were different from others. They still had hope in God, they still held to their faith in God. Their hearts and spirit were anchored in God’s justice and faithfulness. They were people of true hope. And God called them out to comfort His people. And in verse two, God provides the basis or reasons for comfort. Verse two says, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.”
It is painful to receive any punishments for wrongdoing. However, the news that we did enough time, that it’s over is comforting. It is Good News that all the debts have been paid in full. Even better that paying the penalty will restore the relationship with God. Moreover, the Lord of lords is coming to save them. He is not coming as a judge but as the one to reward his people, with a heart of a good shepherd. Verses 10 and 11 states, “See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
Now, God’s people are commanded to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Verses 3 and 4, “A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” This are symbolic words. It means, whatever will get in the way of our Lord’s coming and saving people are to be removed and discarded. Turn away from sins and godlessness and rise from despair and hopelessness. Throw away doubts, skepticisms and unbelief. Verse 5 says, “And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it.”
One thing is certain here. Comforts need to be backed up with truth. It cannot be empty words. When God commanded people of God to comfort others, God gave truths and not just nice words. God’s comfort is based on truth. When we comfort grieving people, even with good intentions, we might say, “I know how you feel.” And we know that this is not based on truth. Even the same losses are felt differently to different people. We might say, “Be strong, now is not the time to break down. Stop crying. Be strong for others.” I am also guilty of speaking these words. Well, there is a time to cry and mourn. And it is time to cry and mourn when you have losses. Yet, someone might still say, “this is a blessing in disguise.” Perhaps this is close to the truth, but until the griever understands this truth, it is not comforting, in fact it can be even hurtful, feels like a denial. Why do our comforting words feel empty or even hurtful? Because often they are far from the truth.
True comforting happens with truth. Of course, all truths need to be spoken or delivered in caring and thoughtful ways. It needs to be delivered in ways the receivers of comfort can understand. In order to see the truth, we need to see the big picture. Have you ever walked through a maze or a labyrinth? Those who can see the whole design of the maze from a far distance can see the exits. In life crisis, when we are immersed and primarily focused on problems, we cannot see the big picture or the truth.
Seeing the big picture includes seeing the reality that are not visible to our eyes or not within the scope of our understanding. If you cannot see the spiritual reality, then you are missing the truth, the big picture. The reality of this world is a small part of the bigger reality of God’s Kingdom, which is unseen. This is the truth one must hold. Through Isaiah, God speaks about the big picture in verses 6-8.
“A voice says, "Cry out." And I said, "What shall I cry?" "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever."
We will all agree to the truths of these words. No matter how powerful and strong human beings, nations, and empires come across to us, they fall and disappear. Only God’s word and God’s Kingdom are eternal. Thankfully, you and I belong to God’s eternal kingdom. That is the big picture. That is the truth. That is the good news. Soon the people of God in hostage will see the mighty empire Babylon crushed by another empire Persia (modern day Iraq and Iran respectively).
God says in verse 9, “You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, "Here is your God!"
We are in the season of Advent. We are remembering the First Christmas and preparing for the second coming of Christ. Christ Jesus is the proof that God is in the midst of us. His other name is “Emmanuel.” This Hebrew word means, God is with us. Moreover, the Spirit of Jesus Christ is the Holy Spirit, whose another name is “Comforter.” When we are inspired by the Holy Spirit, we are able to see the big picture and God’s kingdom. We also experience true comfort. As we experience the Good News, we share the Good news to others. “Here is your God!”
I will close with a true experience of Emmanuel. Prof. Gerald Sittser teaches at Whitworth College in the state of Washington after his Ph.D at the University of Chicago. In 1991, due to a head on collision with a heavy pickup truck driven by a drunk driver who crossed the center line, he lost his mom, wife and his youngest daughter. His minivan was totaled. He and his other three children survived. Although he was a devout Christian, he fell into deep depression. He could not make sense of the loss with faith. His knowledge in the Bible or theological discourse could not help him. The words of his friends and family felt like salt sprinkled on his wounded heart. He asked endlessly, “Where was God when this happened?” He was even on the verge of becoming an atheist. But he chose to hold onto God, although his heart remained cold.
Then, one day, while lying on his bed, he had a mysterious experience. He does not know whether he dreamt or saw a vision. In the dream/vision, he and his surviving children are standing on the side of a country road. They see a minivan cornering and following the lane, then a huge truck crosses over the center line heading into the minivan. Gerry witnesses great chaos and deaths like few years ago. And at that precise moment, suddenly a beautiful light illuminates and embraces the accident site. The light provided vivid snapshots of the accident. With the light, Gerry suddenly became aware that God is here with them at the accident site. God is here to receive his family into God’s kingdom. God is here to send the surviving family to new paths in life. This experience completely changed Gerry’s life, in addition to pulling him out of deep depression. He still did not receive the answer to the question why his family was taken so early so suddenly. However, he found peace in his heart. Knowing that God is with him in his losses and in his woundedness, comforts him. It allows him to see the big picture of life.
He writes, “The sorrow I feel has not disappeared, but it has been integrated into my life as a painful part of a healthy whole. Initially, my loss was so overwhelming to me that it was the dominant emotion—sometimes the only emotion—I had. I felt like I was staring at the stump of a huge tree that had just been cut down in my backyard. That stump, which sat all alone, kept reminding me of the beloved tree that I had lost. I could think of nothing but that tree.” Eventually, he decided to plant shrubs, trees, flowers, and grass around the stump. He laid out a brick pathway and built two benches. Now it is surrounded by a beautiful garden of blooming flowers and growing trees and lush grass. He says, “what was once ugly is now an integral part of a larger, lovely whole.”
My beloved members of the church, siblings in Christ, no matter how heavy your losses or burdens are, seek the comfort the Holy Spirit provides. And those of you who are doing well, spread the Good news. “Here is your God!”
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Let us pray.