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 God's people to obey and repeatedly they’ve failed. By the time Isaiah comes on the scene, their stubbornness has pummeled them with sorrow. Recovering from 70 years of exile and hardship, 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. God commands the prophet to proclaim their troubles are ending, their sins are forgiven, and God's repaying their repentance twice over with God's 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 God has their problems in hand, God's forgiven them and 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.
God of tender, loving kindness, make the Comforter's presence in us vividly known to us. May words of compassion, mercy, and healing come as naturally to us as our breath. Impress on us Your will that we comfort Your people. Amen.
Originally posted 12/12/09.
We speak tender words that neither confront nor condemn. We comfort.
Postscript: "Comfort Ye My People"
Possibly my favorite piece from the Messiah. Other than that "Hallelujah" tune, of course, and "Lift Up Your Heads," and "Surely He Hath Borne Our Grief," and... Oh, never mind.