A while ago I was at the induction of a colleague as Vicar when the regional Bishop, in his usual gentle preaching style, spoke about comfort and the role of the church to be providers of comfort.
It was a refreshing sermon and drew me in in many ways. I was drawn to remember my time at theological college and training to preach. ‘It is the job of the preacher,’ we were told, ‘to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.’ In our community critique of the sermons we offered at college one of the questions that was asked of us in reviewing was, ‘Where is the good news in the sermon?’
As I considered what Bishop Philip was saying in his sermon I found myself thinking about comfort and good news. The good news is the comfort and preaching should provide such good news. I also found myself thinking that as a community of faith and the work we are doing to grow a Christian community for all is to be a place intended for people to find comfort.
I have been to worship services where the sermon has been powerfully delivered, but its focus was on how wretched we are as sinners and we need Jesus in our lives to be right with God. This indeed is true, but when the emphasis is on raising our level of guilt, then it has lost its good news edge. This is contrary to the call of God in 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. (Isaiah 40:1-2)
We are to be a people who speak comfort. I can’t help thinking that the ‘making uncomfortable’ in preaching has more to do with challenging our failure to be people of good news and comfort that making people feel guilty.
This does not mean that we should not talk about sin. We should acknowledge the brokenness of relationships with God, others and ourselves in thought and word and in what we have done and have not done. It is, however, not our task to run a guilt trip on people in order to get them to turn to God for salvation.
To be people of good news and comfort, therefore, is to be a people who can simply offer a community that acknowledges that we all share with one another in our sinful nature; that we too are guilty of sin and continue sinning. To know that we are not alone, we are no worse than anybody else, we are no less deserving or more undeserving.
The ultimate comfort comes from God.
For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51.3)
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God: the message of comfort, the message of good news, is continuing to make known that in Jesus Christ we have assurance in the ultimate saving work of God sending his Son, Jesus Christ into the world.
Comfort sometimes relates to the provision of things, as James says,
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (James 2:15-16)
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God: the message of comfort, the message of good news, is expressed in meeting the physical needs of others.
Sometimes, however, we cannot do anything to meet the needs, physical or otherwise, of another person; we are unable to do anything about the situation. In as much as comfort is also pleading to God on behalf of another, as in praying for healing, for example, we cannot do anything to bring about that healing.
I remember a paraplegic Christian telling me how he lost the use of his legs and prayed and prayed to God to enable him to walk again, until he came to realise that he was more able to talk about God from a wheelchair than he had ever been able to do as an able bodied person. Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God: the message of comfort, the message of good news, is expressed in enabling others to find peace within the situations they find themselves.
Comfort is the work God does to turn things around, as Paul says,
We know that [God makes] all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. ((Romans 8:28)
or a some translations have it, God makes all things work together for good for those who love God. Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God: the message of comfort, the message of good news, is expressed in leading others to see how the trials of life they are experiencing can be one that enables them to enter into a greater sense of fullness of their life.
Comfort then is concerned with words of encouragement, inspiring one another to enter into new experiences and opportunities for expression of who they are in God and what they are able to do. Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God: the message of comfort, the message of good news, is that work that inspires others to take risks and explore knowing that when we are afraid, when we make a mistake, we will always be welcome home among those who love us especially our comforting God.
Comfort, then, has something to say regarding our work of evangelism. Evangelism, as I am growing to understand it, is not trying to convince people of their sin and guilt nor trying to change their minds about what they believe. Rather, evangelism is a work of expressing God’s comfort to his people, inviting them into a relational community that enables them to be encouraged, risk exploring a relationship with God that changes their belief about God, their self and the world, and choosing to participating in things that express that understanding of God and their self.
If we are not enabling this to happen, then we are not being a people that express God’s desire to comfort his people and our message is not good news.