Saturday, December 12, 2009


Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40.1-2)
A Deep Breath
The 40-day period between the resurrection and ascension intrigues me. The Gospels and Acts report several interactions between Jesus and His disciples, but we don’t observe Him doing much beyond issuing last-minute instructions. While Paul asserts one of these encounters involves 500 people (1 Corinthians 15.6), neither the Gospels nor Acts chronicle it. He spends His final days on Earth behind the scenes, preparing His closest followers to continue His ministry after He leaves. And there’s no record anywhere of a major public appearance where He announces He’s risen to life to the masses. This strikes us as a bit surprising, since Christianity hinges on faith in Jesus’s resurrection. We might think He’d seize every chance to be seen by as many as possible—until it occurs to us if His resurrection were a verifiable fact, faith would be irrelevant. Jesus stays out of the public eye because His mission centers on ending our reliance on what we know by requiring us to trust what God says. “Whoever believes shall have eternal life,” He says in John 3.16.

Instead of an historically definitive event, the pivotal moment comes in John 20.21-22: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” He uses a fairly innocuous gesture to transfer power to the disciples. He inspires them exactly as God first inspired humanity. With one breath, He fills them with His presence, His gifts, nature, and authority. Jesus explains they’re receiving the Holy Spirit—the Comforter Who, as He promised, “will guide you into all truth.” (John 16.13) Yet note why He breathes the Holy Spirit into them: “I am sending you.” The Spirit’s comfort and counsel aren’t only for the disciples’ edification. Henceforth, they carry It with them wherever they go and express It in calm assurance conveyed in their demeanor and words. They’re now able to bring Christ’s presence to any situation and change the atmosphere around it with no more than a deep breath.

A Most Unusual Message

When God directs Isaiah to “comfort My people… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” He’s invoking the prophet’s capacity to bring solace and clarity to Israel’s turmoil. Repeatedly God has pressed His people to obey and repeatedly they’ve failed. By the time Isaiah comes on the scene, their stubbornness has pummeled them with sorrow. They’re punch-drunk, exhausted, and despondent as they see their hope, like Jerusalem itself, lay in ruins. In times past, prophets predicted doom and destruction if Israel didn’t mend its ways. But God calls Isaiah to restore the nation’s faith and ease its worries. He commands the prophet to proclaim their hardships are ending, their sins are forgiven, and He’s repaying their repentance twice over with His love and mercy. This is a most unusual message delivered by a most unusual prophet who views his responsibilities in a most unusual manner.

Isaiah describes his mission this way: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” (61.1) His compassion is so remarkable Jesus quotes him verbatim to define His ministry in Luke 4.18. And He essentially condenses it when He breathes on the disciples. He endows them with the Holy Spirit and sends them into the world to preach, to heal, to liberate people in distress. “Comfort my people; speak tenderly to them,” God tells Isaiah. Jesus vests the disciples with the Comforter so they can do the same.

We too have drawn the breath of Christ into our beings. We’ve also received the Holy Spirit and been sent into the world. We too can provide solace and clarity to troubled lives. Because the Comforter dwells in us, we have the capacity to make Its presence felt in every situation we enter. The confidence expressed in our behavior and the words we speak—words carried on inspired breath—have the ability to change the atmosphere around us. Yet if we limit our perceptions of what the Spirit within us can do and how we manifest Its power to our problems alone, we negate Jesus’s purpose for giving It to us.

We’ve received a most unusual message that must be delivered in a most unusual way. Our faith in Christ’s resurrection convinces us of His power to restore life. We’ve experienced it in our own lives. Thus, there are no lost causes and no one is beyond redemption. It’s our privilege to comfort God’s people—to assure them He has their problems in hand, He’s forgiven them, and He will repay the costs of their mistakes twice over. Though much of their anxiety results from stubborn disregard for God, others, and themselves, we honor our calling to comfort them by resisting urges to confront or condemn them. “Brutal honesty” is an oxymoron; since it justifies wounding someone’s spirit as a method of healing, it’s patently dishonest. It’s best we leave that sort of “comfort” to self-deluded haters and old-school prophets. We provide comfort in a manner that pleases our Maker and reflects the Comforter’s presence in us—in a word, tenderly.

We neither confront nor condemn. We comfort.

(Next: Travel Advisory)


Fran said...

Oh how I needed to read this today and to gather these words and thoughts deeply in my heart.

Crying - weeping actually and sending you much love and so many prayers, my beloved brother and friend.

Tim said...

Fran, this Advent threw me a new curve and has me thinking of Isaiah less as the great Messianic prophet and more as a forerunner of Christ. What we see in him--his care and balance, his empathy with Israel and his unequivocal trust in God--anticipates the very nature of Jesus. It's as though Isaiah is following Jesus in advance, which gives us a stunning example to follow.

This probably isn't big news for a lot of people, but I can't remember ever hearing it taught or preached. I imagine it probably was and it somehow flew right over my head. Regardless, it's completely changed my reading and response to the famous Isaiah passages that always get hauled out during Advent.

Instead of reading what God is saying to prepare Israel/us for Christ's birth, I'm looking at what He's telling Isaiah. His guidance often reads like stage directions, as the case is here. And without fail, there are parallels in how Jesus behaves and speaks, as well as how He tells the disciples/us to behave and speak.

It's left me responding exactly the same as you, moved to tears as the Word pierces my heart. It's sent me down a new Advent road entirely, convincing me we all have it in us to be prophets--not in the psychic/seer sense, but most definitely in the capacity to speak comfort and peace to troubled lives and times. The "meaning" of Christmas has opened up like never before.

I apologize for running on, but I know you (and others overhearing us) relate to why this excites me so--the pristine holiness of Advent/Christmas has knocked me for a loop this year, and I'm so grateful for that.

Blessings of joy and bounties of comfort and love to lavish on everyone around you.

Your brother always,