“Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God” (Isa 40:1). These words seem so out of place to me right now. I typically think about them during the season of Advent when they fill my congregation’s mouths in song. It is not because I am working through them during the wrong liturgical season that I find them out of place. Its because, right now, I don’t find a lot of comfort in the world around me. Not only that, but I do not find a lot of comfort inside of myself. There is not much that gives us comfort these days in a world where trust is shattered, racial angst erupts into violence, worldwide diseases become platforms for politicking, and fear and uncertainty preside. There are not many places to find comfort in a world like this.
But, such an out-of-place message is not out of character for our God. His word always seems out of place in this world of sin. When it seems like everything is going well, everyone is comfortable and happy with their peaceful, easy circumstances, God sends a prophet along to proclaim wrath and punishment. Yet, when all hope is lost, to those who find themselves drowning in sorrow or uncertainty, God will send a preacher with a word of comfort and hope. He’s the sort of God who afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, as the old saying goes.
Words of comfort and peace spoken to a world that is torn apart by hatred, sin, and disease are dangerously spoken. Too often, they can come from a place of disinterested apathy. “Thoughts and prayers” we post on someone’s Facebook page amid a bout with cancer. “Be warm and fed” we sweetly sing to the naked and the starving. “We stand with you” we tweet to those enmeshed in years of racial angst just before we shut off our computer and pour a glass of wine for the evening. Too often, our words of encouragement, meant to give us the air of compassion, are heartless platitudes that serve no one. They are not God’s out-of-place words of comfort; they are words removed from a place of compassion and love.
Perhaps God’s word seems out-of-place now because it comes to us from a place we have not yet arrived. You might think of it this way: God’s word is coming to us from the end. The declarations and promises of God come to us, from our perspective, from the future (though, of course, for God, time is not binding). But, it is better to think of God speaking to us from the day of judgment. We can hear that end-time pronouncement here in the present.
He’s the sort of God who afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, as the old saying goes.
Think of a woman running a marathon. She is struggling; her energy is sapped; her body is cramping up. And then, she hears a voice screaming her name. She looks up, and there is her son at the finish line, cheering her on! He has Gatorade and a hug waiting for her! They are hers now, though she hasn’t received them yet. On her way to her son, she stumbles and falls and cannot get up. But that won’t stop her son from running out to her on the path and giving her everything he’s had waiting. The prizes from the end are coming to her now.
She is hearing from a voice of love filled with joy and promises even while she is still in the race. Such joy and hope feels so out-of-place while she is in such physical and mental angst. But, her circumstances will not silence that voice of love! For that voice - that love - is stronger than her circumstances. In the end, it will make all things right.
When God’s word of comfort enters into the place of heartache and suffering, it is anything but empty. It is a word of promise, announcing to those who dwell in darkness, that there is light. God sees the injustices, God has entered the fray to suffer injustice himself, and God will ultimately and finally make all things right. Ours is a God who speaks no platitudinal phrases, but a word filled with power from, shockingly enough, a place of weakness, namely, the cross. Talk about out-of-place. Our God saw the disease and destruction wrought by sin and decided to take it on himself, in his own flesh, for the sake of his creation. He entered into the suffering of sin and death that he might put them to death, finally, and raise us up to a new life. He ran out onto the path to give us the prizes of the end, and now carries us the rest of the way home.
This is our out-of-place God. The Author of life, dying on a cross. The holy and righteous one, dining with sinners and forgiving their trespasses. The crucified one, walking out of a tomb to start a new creation. And now, the Lord of heaven and earth, calls to you, in the midst of your sorrow, in the midst of your pain, as you feel as though you are about to crumble and fall under the weight of the world. He calls to you from the finish line, “Comfort, comfort! Let me tell you what it looks like from here! Here at the end, your warfare is ended, your iniquity pardoned, and you will receive double blessings for all your sins because I’ve run the race for you! I’ve finished it all! And, ultimately, I will make all things new. I will make all things right. Justice will be served upon this wicked and evil place. But for you, your warfare, your sin, will be gone.”
Comfort is not a platitude; it is a promise. It is a promise from our God who left his place of glory and died a sinner’s death for poor sinners.
Now, this is something! Sin and death will have no place in that final day. What is more, for the baptized, these two are no longer in control. They have been deposed by Christ. We now realize that sin and death are out of place so that we can work against them! In this world of judgment, angst, and hate, we as God’s people, already new creations in Christ Jesus, can live a life of love that is out-of-place in the modern context. We who have privilege can sacrifice it for those without. We who are healthy can do all in our power to help and heal the sick. We who dwell in the merciful shadow of the Most-High can proclaim the mercies and comfort of our God to those bound and torn by the darkness.
Comfort is not a platitude; it is a promise. It is a promise from our God who left his place of glory and died a sinner’s death for poor sinners. It is a promise that drives such forgiven sinners to fight for love and compassion. Promises of comfort and peace may seem out-of-place in a world torn apart by sin. That won’t stop God from running out to you on the race path and putting those out-of-place promises in your ears and heart right where they belong.