Unwrapping Comfort at Christmas
So, this is my mom right here, my mom, Judy. Some of you over the years have been able to meet my mom, and you know that her personality is a little bit more like this picture here. That is a 76-year-old grandmother sticking out her tongue in the middle of family photos at Thanksgiving.
Mom is an amazing gift giver. When I was a kid, Mom always got us the best presents. Now, I do have to fault Mom a little bit on the gift-giving because my sister was born on Christmas Day. My birthday’s December 29th. So, our birthdays got combined, and then they would get combined with Christmas. December people, you know the pain here, how that works. So, there were fewer presents in the Ferguson household, but they were still great. Even as a grandmother, I think Mom was always looking for a creative way to give cool gifts to her grandchildren. I want to be like Judy during this series. I want to give you the perfect gift. And I believe all of us right now need the gift of comfort.
This past week, Alan Bunn, who oversees the Crisis Ministry, counted up in the past year we’ve had fifteen families lose someone, some very recently. Some of our families have experienced illnesses and disease. Some of us have battled the realities of anxiety and depression, mental illness. Some of us have just had a hard year financially, relationally, emotionally, mentally. So, right now, whatever may make us differ from each other, we all unite in our need for comfort because everyone in here at the end of the day has needed, needs, or will need comfort.
But what is it? Comfort is one of those hard-to-define words. It’s like trying to define the color red. Some people call comfort “comfort food.” I’m in on that. Comfort’s more than a comfortable pillow or comfy jammies. Many people consider comfort a feeling. Others think comfort is the absence of discomfort or the discomfort being solved. And I think all of that has something to do with comfort, but it’s not all of comfort.
In the past six or seven months, I believe I have looked at every reference to comfort in the Bible. That includes at least two Hebrew words and three Greek words that translate into around twenty-five different English words, all having to do with comfort. Words like “comfort,” but words like “encourage, extol, legal aid, one who comes along beside, plead, and beg.” See, comfort is a comprehensive word. If you Frankenstein-together, if you sew together all those twenty-five English words, or if you distill them down into a single definition, then biblically comfort is “an active ally, creating peace when life is broken.” Comfort is an active ally creating peace when life is broken. See, comfort is always rooted in another person. Trying to comfort yourself is like trying to tell yourself a joke. It just doesn’t work quite the same way. Comfort creates peace or a sense of everything being right or the sense that everything’s going to be okay. And unfortunately, comfort occurs when life’s broken, when something goes wrongly.
If one of you were to come up to me after the service and say, “Ryan, I’m bored with my money. I’m going to give you $1 million,” I wouldn’t need a shoulder to cry on. I’m going to need comfort when something goes wrong, when something breaks. But I think if we’re all honest with each other, I think we all know that comfort is more than just situational. It’s more than just the thing I’m in. It’s as if underneath all of the broken things that we all experience, there’s a big brokenness that created it all. Why do we even need comfort? Why is there brokenness at all?
Well, Paul, a writer of a lot of the New Testament in the Bible, describes two types of brokenness, two types of big brokenness underneath it all. Paul says this in Romans 8:19-22,
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”
Our literal creation needs comfort. We’re walking on a broken planet that needs comfort. And then Paul tells us that the people walking on the broken planet are broken people. Paul puts it this way — Romans 5:12,
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. “
Do me a favor. Everybody say, “Oh, no!” See, sin is the brokenness that we feel underneath everything else. Sin is the brokenness between our relationship with God that once was united, and then through one man, it was divided. And Paul tells us that death may be the most pressing moment we experience that needs comfort. Death came through sin. Death is here because of sin. So, we’re walking on this broken planet that has weeds and disease and floods and tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis, starvation. And all of the resulting collateral damage of that needs comfort. And then we are broken people with anger, lust, greed, hatred, jealousy, biting words, cheating, stealing, murder. And all of that resulting collateral damage needs comfort. Have you ever experienced comfort, an active ally creating peace when your life is broken?
Three years ago, my dad … Almost three years ago in February, my dad died. We had the funeral. Several of my friends from here drove down. Many of them knew my dad or had met my dad. So, I expected them to be there. But there was one person who showed up who was, I would describe as, a new friend. I had known him for six or seven years. His name was Billy, and Billy walked in the back door, driven three and a half hours to where my dad lived, walked through that receiving line that you have to do with those things. And when he got to me, I lost it. I’m talking full-on Ferguson, ugly cry. Just why? I knew I had someone in my corner. He was my ally in that moment, and there was a sense of things being better. When my life was broken, Billy was comfort. He was an active ally, creating peace when my life was broken. But Billy only had this much power. My dad was still dead. He couldn’t fix that brokenness.
So, as I continued studying Scripture about comfort, I realized God promised a comforter, an ally, that would fix the big brokenness of planet and people. He promised an active ally who would come and fix all of it, someone to bring peace, to make things right between God and man, to solve the brokenness problem. God promises us real, eternal comfort. So, I traced that story of comfort through the Bible, and I want to share it with you.
Now, some of us have heard a lot of this story before, and many of us have heard it more than once. But I think the story of comfort is one that we maybe need to tell each other a lot more rather than a lot less. So, let’s trace some comfort clues about God’s comforter in the Bible.
Who is God’s promised comforter? In the beginning, deceived by their enemy, Adam and Eve reject God. Man’s relationship with God is broken. The planet is broken — broken planet and broken people. In that moment, God speaks to humanity’s deceiver and gives him this warning — [Genesis 3:14-15,]
“Because you have done this [because you deceived humanity], I will put enmity [division] between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
Comfort clue number 1 is offspring. The clearest clue about comfort in the Bible is offspring. God tells us where his comforter comes from, this ally who’s going to create peace in the midst of brokenness. And God does it at the very beginning of the story. Eve’s offspring is somehow going to destroy the enemy of humanity. He’s going to crush his head. So, who is this head-crusher in Genesis 3? We don’t know yet. We have to keep looking for more comfort clues about this offspring. So, we read in Genesis 17 that God says to Abraham,
“I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you through their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
Comfort clue number 2: God will solve the problem of brokenness between him and humanity forever. He’ll permanently fix it. God promises I’m going to create a really strong agreement, a covenant, between me and you, and I’m going to be God to your offspring forever. Humanity and God will be reconciled. In Genesis 26:4, God says to Abraham’s son, Isaac,
“I will multiply your offspring … and in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”
Comfort clue: God’s comfort is for everyone. In Genesis 28:14, God says to Jacob, Abraham’s grandson,
“In you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”
The comfort clue: God’s comfort is going to arrive through Israel. Genesis 49:10, Jacob tells his offspring Judah,
“The scepter will not depart from Judah nor the rulers’ staff from beneath his feet.”
So, the comfort clue is God’s comfort will be a king, a ruler from the line of Judah. So, if we fast forward in the story of comfort, we meet a king. His name is David. David is the grandson of Boaz, who is from the tribe of Judah. Boaz married Ruth, the Moabite. David becomes Israel’s greatest king, but he’s not the promised comfort king because God tells David in 2 Samuel 7, he’s going to raise up a forever king from David’s line, and he
“will establish his throne forever.”
So, now the comfort clue is even more specific. God’s comforting King is going to arrive through David’s line, and he’s going to rule God’s people forever.
But then in the story of comfort, it takes a strange turn because God’s people actually reject God and end up in exile. And now they certainly have serious questions about this promised comforter. Hundreds of years of history, comfort promised, but not delivered, and now they’re enslaved to another nation. Where’s comfort? At the bleakest moments of exile, God continues giving his people comfort clues. In Jeremiah 33:17, God says,
“David shall never lack a successor on the throne of the house of Israel.”
God returns to his comfort clue of a forever king to comfort his people. An active royal ally is coming who will rule well and bring comfort, and he has to be the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ruth and David. Isaiah continues the comfort clues during exile.
Now, if I ever write a commentary on the book of Isaiah (which I will never do), but if I were, I would nickname Isaiah the Captain of Comfort. He loves it. He talks about it like this.
“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord … Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.”
Look to the promises made about comfort. Where did you come from? Why?
“For the Lord comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like a garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.”
“Sing for joy, O heavens and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! [Why?] for the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.”
Isaiah 40:1-5, the text that Garrett sang for us at the beginning of the service,
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
The comfort clue here is in the midst of waiting, God’s comfort is so sure he talks about it as if it already happened. It’s so sure … Comfort coming is so sure, God talks about it as if it’s already happened. The Lord has comforted Israel and they’re in exile. He’s so sure. Comfort hasn’t arrived yet. The clues have been given, the promises made, and then God’s people have to wait for the arrival of comfort. It’s as if the whole story of the Old Testament is about God’s people waiting for comfort. Waiting for comfort. Do you know that feeling? When’s it coming? When’s it coming?
Well, there’s a guy in the Bible who knows all about waiting for comfort. His name is Simeon. It may be the only reason he’s in the Bible, because he waited for comfort. We meet Simeon as we fast forward in the story of comfort in Luke chapter 2. Luke describes Simeon as a committed and righteous guy. Simeon was, in Luke’s words, waiting for the consolation of Israel. Now, consolation is one of our Greek words there, our comfort words. Consolation could be comfort. Simeon was waiting for the comfort of Israel. He was waiting for that promised head-crusher in Genesis 3. He was waiting for the promised offspring of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who had blessed the entire earth. He was waiting for the forever King that would come from Judah and David. He was waiting for the comfort of Israel. Luke tells us the Holy Spirit actually met with Simeon and said, “Listen, you’re not going to die until you see the comfort of Israel.”
So, we find Simeon at the temple when a mom and dad walk in with their forty-one-day-old baby. Now, this was a tradition among Jewish people to bring their baby to the synagogue as a symbolic offering their child to the Lord. Well, guess what Simeon does to this family? He walks over to Mom and Dad, takes the baby, and then he prays this —
“Lord now you are letting your servant depart in peace according to your word for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.”
Simeon says, “Lord, the consolation, the comfort, the salvation of Israel is here. I can die in peace. You kept your promise. Comfort has come, a baby.”
Israel waited all of these years for offspring. A forty-one-day-old baby? How can a baby solve a broken planet and broken people? It’s wearing a diaper, after all. Well, maybe it has to do something with this baby’s family tree. The baby, it turns out, is named a pretty common Jewish name, Jesus. Sometimes Mom and Dad call him Emmanuel. Mom and Dad are named Mary and Joseph. Luke tells us that Mary, like Simeon, had an interaction with the Holy Spirit, with the Spirit of God, and that her baby was miraculously conceived without Joseph’s help. So, this is no ordinary pregnancy. This is no ordinary baby. This is offspring of God, born in as a human. So, maybe this baby can bring us comfort after all.
Joseph, Jesus’s dad has a really interesting family tree. Matthew records his family tree for us in his gospel, his story about Jesus, and tells us that if you trace Joseph back twenty-eight generations, that Joseph is the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Boaz and Ruth, Judah, and David. Now, remember, offspring is the clearest clue about the comforter in the Bible. God will ultimately comfort and rule his people through Abraham’s offspring. So, this supernatural baby, Jesus, is the offspring of God and the offspring of man, and the man-family that he is born into is straight from that line of the promised comforter.
Now, this baby would grow up in a pretty nonspectacular way and become a general contractor by trade. Then when he was about thirty years old, Jesus had a moment where he collided with Isaiah, the Captain of Comfort, and once more, this moment happens in the temple. In Luke 4, Jesus, when visiting the temple, was handed a scroll from Isaiah to read in the service. So, Jesus scrolled through the scroll to find where he wanted to read, and he picked a section that’s basically the job description of God’s comforter. And that’s what he decided to read.
So, these are the words Jesus read from the Captain of Comfort —
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion — to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”
When Jesus finished reading that section that he chose, he put the scroll back together, gave it to the attendant, and sat down. And then he said one more thing.
“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now, can we just pretend for a moment that we live a couple thousand years ago and we’re Jewish and we’re in a temple where we’ve heard Isaiah read many, many a time and all of a sudden, a thirty-year-old general contractor gets up and, you know his dad, Joseph. He reads the job description of God’s comforter and then looks at you and says, “Done. That’s me.” What would you do? I seriously wonder at this point in the story if Jesus remembered a story his mom told him about a guy named Simeon in the temple, who held Jesus when he was a baby and said, “This is the comfort of Israel,” and Jesus, now standing in the temple once more, declares, “I am the comforter sent from God. I am the active ally who will create peace when life is broken.”
Did you notice in the text the great exchange that happens between brokenness and peace? All those broken words — “powerlessness, hurting, captive, enslaved, mourning, ashes and weakness” are exchanged with peace words like “good news, healing, liberty, freedom, favor, compassion, beauty, gladness, and strength.” God’s comforter announces his arrival. All the comfort clues in the Bible point to Jesus Christ, God’s promised comfort delivered.
But we still have a question. How are the broken planet and broken people fixed? How does the comforter do it? While the rest of Luke’s gospel chronicles that story of how Jesus, God’s comforter, solves the brokenness problem. See, the God-man Jesus lived a sinless life; he traveled, blessed the poor, healed the disease, and he taught the truth. Religious leaders hated him. Political leaders feared him. And as a result, through bribery, a sham trial, and a traitor, Jesus died a common criminal’s death, crucifixion. Comfort was crucified.
But Jesus’s death was far from common. Do you remember how we read in Romans at the beginning of this talk how, because of Adam’s sin, all of humanity is sinful, sin is perpetually contagious; therefore, all of us are broken too? And remember that death came through sin, and it’s a pervasive death. It’s a death that is both on our body, but we’re also dead on the inside. We’re separated from God. It’s a holistic deadness. It is that reality of death and condemned-before-God, that Jesus as God’s comfort came to solve. Jesus, as the offspring of God and man, died our death for us on that cross. And in that he created a great exchange, where he gave us his eternal life in exchange for our condemned verdict.
Paul describes it this way. Romans 5:18-19,
“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men”
Again, that’s the beginning of the story. Adam deceived and rebelling, passes on a guilty verdict to all of us.
“So one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”
Comfort has come! Jesus’s death provides justification, or you could say, a new verdict, not a verdict of condemnation, but a verdict of complete righteousness — broken people made right with God. And the sentence, instead of being death, is now life. Jesus solves that great brokenness problem that we all as people have. Instead of condemned and dead, we’re righteous and alive.
“For as by the one man’s disobedience [Adam] the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience [Jesus] the many will be made righteous.”
Broken people made right! Jesus provides eternal comfort by reconciling us to God. And Paul, in another book, goes on to describe that he also, in the cross, solves the broken planet problem, too.
He says this in Colossians.
“For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through [Jesus] to reconcile to [God] all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
Jesus, as God’s comforter creates so much peace, he heals everything, whether it’s on earth, in heaven. He reconciles all things. Broken planet and broken people made right!
Comfort — that’s the gift I want to give away. That’s what I want you to receive — God’s promised eternal comfort, Jesus. Jesus, who through his birth, life, death, burial, resurrection fulfills God’s promise of being a comforter.
So, I have an invitation for all of you that includes all of you, no matter where you are —
To those at North Hills Church who can’t measure up, can’t reach the mark, can’t cross the line, and can’t check the box;
To the disregarded, disrespected, disturbed and diseased;
To those who lost a grandparent, parent, sibling, child, spouse, or friend;
To those down on their luck, on their last leg, at the end of their rope, down to their last dime, holding on by a thread making ends meet;
To those who’ve tried to do everything right, but everything still goes wrong;
To those who doubt God, are angry at God, hate God, or question God;
To those who’ve grabbed the bottle, popped the pill, embraced the stranger, or inserted the needle;
To those receiving the diagnosis from the doctors and the prognosis from the specialist;
To those who think “if I just” or “if I could only” or “I would feel better if;”
To those discriminated because of the color of your skin or the gender of your birth;
To those who feel they don’t belong in their own body;
To those mocked because of the width of your waist, the height of your frame, the speed of your brain, the look of your face, the length of your feet, the size of your nose;
Receive comfort. Receive comfort this Christmas.
To any and all who are hurting, suffering, crying, worrying, fretting, fearing, trembling, anguishing, numbing, screaming, shouting, sinning, grasping, reaching, hoping, begging, and languishing;
Receive comfort. Receive Jesus, our eternal comforter, our active ally who is creating peace in the middle of our life when it’s broken. Receive him. If you don’t know Jesus, if I could use that phrase, if you’re unfamiliar with the claims of Christ, I’d love to talk to you, because I know in here, I use a lot of churchy language. But there is only one way to solve the comfort problem, and that’s Christ. And if you’re here and you know Jesus, I’ve been reminded through the story of comfort that this is a story that we need to keep telling each other all the time because brothers and sisters, you don’t know who’s sitting beside you all the time who needs to hear a little message about comfort.
I think Jesus cared about reminding his disciples, his followers, his family about comfort a lot. He actually gave us a comfort meal. He was sitting with his disciples, and he gave them a meal to remember the reality of what it took for him as comforter to solve the brokenness problem — his body and his blood. And it’s this meal that we’re going to share here this morning, and we invite all of you to participate. If you are following Jesus, this is a meal for you to remember he is my comfort, he is my ally, he is creating peace in the middle of my brokenness.
So, we’re going to hand out some juice, and we’re going to hand out some bread. And I’ll come back up here in a couple of minutes after a song, and we will all partake together.