Comfort, O comfort my people … Get you up to a high mountain … lift your voice with strength … lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God”.
It is a dark winter afternoon and the wind blows wildly as I gather my jacket around my chest and open my truck door and quickly shut myself away from its bite. But I can’t shut out the sadness of the past half hour, the sadness that bites down deep. I look back at the fine house I have just left and there he stands looking out the door as if at nothing at all. Grief grips him like a vice and appears to squeeze the life out of him, for the one he loves is most surely dying in a room a few feet away, and there is nothing, nothing at all that he can do about it. He is a strong and a good man, but as I pull away I can’t help but think about how small he looks. Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
O God, how I wish I could! How I wish there were magic in my words, in my prayers, that would change things, but they don’t seem to … not really. I’ve been in this very spot hundreds of times, at different houses with different people, and though the circumstances change, there is always the same unutterable pain and I wonder, Is there any comfort, or are there only words?
Still the command comes with startling clarity from far away across the centuries from the prophet’s pen, and still the command comes in the moment when any of us sees another made small in the face of pain; it comes to all of us with the same startling clarity; it speaks to us in our own hearts, Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God, as if, of all the things you and I might ever do, of all we might accomplish, that this is the thing, the one thing, that people most need: to be comforted. But do we have any comfort to give?
It is not just the grieving who need to know God’s comfort expressed, of course. It is also those of us-and isn’t it all of us?- who are held in the grip of our anxiety about, well, everything and nothing in particular. We, who walk this world uncomfortable in our own skins, who are lonely despite all the friends, and are sick at heart despite our robust health, and who are busy, too busy, despite the fact that if we stopped to think about it we have all the time in the world; we who dream, but fear that our dreams for ourselves and those we love will be only dreams and no more. It is we, it is all of us, who need someone to speak tenderly to us and say to us the words of comfort. But, what comfort is there in words? Are there words that hold the power to ease our discomfort with ourselves, with the life we lead, with the troubles we boldly bear, and the troubles we ignore?
Comfort, O comfort my people.
Advent is the time when we prepare for the Lord’s coming. Perhaps the greatest preparation is time spent amid all the rest of the doing mulling this preposterous word of comfort. For the message of Christmas is precisely this preposterous word: that God has come and removed the valleys and the mountains that make God a distant power. God has come to us. Though we live in the exiles of our making, he has provided our way home, nearer than our own breath, closer than the thoughts that occupy us. God as come and smashed those barriers by his own love given, body broken, blood shed, and nothing in all creation shall separate us from him, not even our sins, for they have been paid. That is the Word, the self-revealing of God, the Word made flesh, that endures forever. It is that Word that is the word of comfort, the Word of Christmas, the Word of the preposterous Gospel.
Is there comfort that you and I have to give? There are no magic words. There is no litany of comfort that takes away grief. There is only the preposterous speech of Christ living in you and me. The word of comfort is you, and the word of comfort is me. The word of comfort is us when we go to the other and say in word or in simple presence, God is still God. You are loved. You are forgiven.
Comfort, O comfort my people. The command comes to us. It is clear every time we see another’s pain. We have a word of comfort to speak , but we must receive it, preposterous though it may seem. Of course it is preposterous. Nothing less will do. Could we be bearers of such a powerful and comforting word? Of course we can.
Tupper Garden is the Senior Pastor at Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church. Visit them on the web at rcpres.org.