Make Yourself Comfortable


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It’s MESSIAH time again, as it is at this time every year. I usually begin listening to Handel’s monumental work in early December, and play it many times before Christmas. It has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I have most of it memorized. I never tire of it, and every year I determine to learn something new, something of value to my soul that will help me to grow closer to the Subject of the oratorio.

It didn’t take long this year. After the intense orchestral prelude, the tenor sings:

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” ~ Isaiah 40.1-2

That first word–“comfort”–hit me like a bus. It’s what I need this year. I began to think about comfort and Christmas, but especially about comfort and Christ.

Isaiah is speaking to Israel, but His words reach into the nation’s distant future, when her King will return to decimate her many enemies and establish theocracy as global governance with righteousness, justice, and peace. Given the state of God’s chosen people in Isaiah’s day (and ours) and the magnitude of their impending judgment, the promise of comfort would have come as a welcome reassurance to a believing Jew.

Comfort–real, lasting comfort–comes from God alone. Despite their best intentions, even the most dearly loved family members and most well-intentioned members of the Body cannot provide it without His help. Comfort is God’s domain.

Isaiah looks ahead to Israel’s restoration. Her geographical and political restoration have already occurred, as Isaiah and many of the other Old Testament prophets said it would millennia ago. Isaiah asks rhetorically,

“Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?” ~ Isaiah 66.8a

The unexpected answer is, “Yes!” On 13 May 1948, Israel did not exist. On 14 May, it did. At 4:16 PM on 14 May, Israel did not exist. At 4:17, it did. Regardless of what one thinks of the Jewish people, Israel is here to stay. God clearly stated in many Old Testament Scriptures that He would take them back to the land He gave them through their patriarch, Abraham. And there they are. He also promised that He would make them a righteous nation–one that would truly love and obey her Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. Isaiah’s promise of comfort to Israel also comes with the promises of  peace and pardon–neither of which Israel enjoys now.

Still looking ahead to Israel’s final restoration, Isaiah writes,

“Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.”     ~ Isaiah 49.13

And again,

“I, I am he who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, and have forgotten the LORD, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundation of the earth, and you fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor, when he sets  himself to destroy?” ~ Isaiah 51.12,13

How can God offer comfort to His people? To anyone?

Paul of Tarsus, the Turkish Apostle, answers this question in his second canonical letter to the church in Corinth:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” ~ 2 Corinthians 1.3,4

Jehovah God is the “God of all comfort,” and the Lord Jesus–God in Flesh, Immanuel, “God With Us”–spent the bulk of His ministry comforting the afflicted. He healed the sick, restored hearing to the deaf, made the lame to walk, raised the dead, fed the hungry, reassured the sorrowful, and cast demons out of people possessed. After His resurrection, when He was about to return to the Father, He told His disciples that He would give them another Comforter–another Helper–who would be with them forever:

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”                       ~ John 14.16,17

Those who do not have the Holy Spirit, or do not even believe He exists–cannot know real comfort. The laws and trappings of religion, the traditions of families and cultures, even the ministrations of loved ones cannot approximate the comfort that comes from The Comforter.

Why is comfort on my mind this Christmas? This is the first Advent season in forty years that I have experienced without the marvelous woman I married in 1977. Only the “God of all comfort” has been able to treat the wound in my heart, which may seep for years to come. But His grace is more than sufficient, and the “comfort and joy” of which the familiar carol speaks has been our portion as we have celebrated this Christmas together without our beloved wife and mother.

But, as Paul says, comfort–like grief itself–is a stewardship. It is not something to simply receive. It is something to pass on to others who need it. Perhaps you need comfort this Christmas, as well. Seek it from the One Who can provide it because it His very nature. The Incarnation is not just about a Baby in a manger. It is more about a Saviour on a cross and a King on a throne.

Donna is not with us, but God is “with us,” and she is with Him. Together–she from there, we from here–we look forward to that glorious day in which the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will rule the earth with righteousness, justice, and peace.

Comfort and joy.

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Is Anyone Listening?


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As I do each year at this time, I’m drenching myself in my all-time favourite piece of music, Handel’s glorious oratorio, Messiah. Driving down the Queensway here in Ottawa, I sing along with it at the top of my lungs, conducting the London Philharmonic with my free hand. My absorption would probably be classified by an OPP officer as distracted driving–it would be interesting to argue that case in traffic court.

I never tire of this masterpiece, and can even forgive Charles Jennens, Handel’s librettist, for taking some biblical passages out of context. One of my earliest childhood memories involves this music—but that’s another story for another post. I learn something new every time I listen to Messiah, and I am prompted to contemplate different aspects of the biblical account of the birth of Jesus the Christ as dots from all over the Bible are connected in my mind.

Last year, it was the fact that religion fails to offer any savior—the True God is mankind’s only Saviour! This year, I was struck with the the motif of the “voice of the Lord” in the early passages. After the overture, the tenor starts by calling out through Isaiah to the listener—and to the nation of Israel (which, unfortunately, is not listening):

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.”  

On my recording, Philip Langridge continues through the early verses of Isaiah 40 and then the chorus breaks in and sings,

“And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

The next singer is Ulrik Cold, the bass, who dramatically connects the words of the prophets Haggai and Malachi:

“For thus saith the LORD of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.” 

Throughout human history, God has spoken—in fact, the universe itself is a product of the voice of the Lord. The phrase, “And God said…,” appears nine times in the first chapter of Genesis alone. The writer of Hebrews starts out with a summary of how God has spoken through the ages:

“Long ago, at many times and in many different ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” (HEB 1.1-4)

Thinking of the voice of the Lord takes me to one of my favourite psalms, Psalm 29, which is a riveting description of a huge storm that moves across Palestine from north to south. It makes landfall on the northern coast of the Mediterranean and rips through Israel until it finally runs out of steam at Kadesh. As David looks on in awe, possibly from a cave, thunder cracks and roars through the valleys. Lightning splinters the stately cedars of Lebanon. Howling winds strip oaks of their leaves. Billowing black clouds obscure the sun. Driving rain drenches the land and causes the wadis and rivers to overflow their banks.

In contemporary Canaanite literature, Psalm 29 would have been considered an ode to JHWH, God of the Storm–much like one would encounter in Nordic sagas or Wagner’s operas. It is far more than that.

If the Bible is the metanarrative of history–and it is–then Psalm 29 is a metapoem. Using the storm as a palette, David paints a picture not of Mother Nature having a hissy fit, but of the eternal and sovereign Father God making a speech. The motif he uses is, “the voice of the LORD”, a phrase which is repeated six times between the initial call to worship and the closing petition.

The psalm opens with an exhortation not to people, but to angels. David commands celestial beings to observe a fearsome terrestrial event and join the people of JHWH in ascribing to God “glory and strength”. It ends with the benediction, “May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!”

The “heavenly beings” obeyed God’s command given through David. When they appeared to the shepherds to announce Christ’s birth, these same angels shouted, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”  (Luk 2.14)

As the shepherd-king David heard the booming voice of God when He ravaged Palestine with that violent storm, so the shepherds who went to worship the King of Kings that night in Bethlehem of Judea heard His voice. But it sounded very different. The voice of the Lord was the wail of an Infant, and His contented cooing as His young mother put Him to her breast. Most appropriately, those shepherds heard the voice of the Lord as the helpless bleating of “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (JOH 1.29)

This Christmas may not be as festive as others have been. As I type this post through my tears, my wife lies in a hospital bed on the other side of the city, suffering through the effects of pancreatic cancer and its treatment. But even though it may not be a festive holiday, it can still be a joyous one. Because God has spoken–at creation, in that storm David watched, through the prophets of old, and finally, through His own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ–as I drive down the Queensway to visit my wife, I can sing with the London Philharmonic Choir those tender, comforting words of Jesus recorded for us in Matthew 11.30:

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

God still speaks to us on the pages of the holy Scriptures. Oh, dear friend, I beg you: Listen to the voice of the Lord!

To read a longer essay on Psalm 29, click here.

Image is from ACT Emergency Services Agency.