- Religion and Philosophy»
- Christianity, the Bible & Jesus
Your Life's A Do-Over
Comfort, O Comfort My People
The Gravina Island Bridge was an Alaskan project proposed to replace the ferry that connected the town of Ketchikan with Gravina Island. The project encountered fierce opposition outside Alaska. It was a symbol of blatant pork barrel spending.[i] The controversial question that arose over the bridge, “How can members of the Alaskan congressional delegation justify spending $398 million American tax dollars on a bridge in Alaska connecting an island with 50 people on it?” The infamous bridge was dubbed “The Bridge to Nowhere.”
Unlike the Bridge to Nowhere, which proved to be a national embarrassment, God, through His prophet Isaiah, set out to build a bridge to the future—a spiritual source of national encouragement for His people. This God-built bridge will ultimately connect His chosen people Israel with the future saints elected from every tribe and language and people and nation.[ii]
Think about the Book of Isaiah as a bridge for the people of God. This “bridge of a book,” composed of 66 chapters, spans three eras known as: (1) First Isaiah—Israel’s sinful past and the country’s destruction by a pagan nation (chaps. 1-39); (2) Second Isaiah—Israel’s woeful present and the people’s captivity in Babylon (chaps. 40-55); and (3) Third Isaiah—Israel’s hopeful future and the Exile’s return to Jerusalem (chaps. 56-66).[iii]
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
Isaiah chapters 40 thru 55 focuses on the Second Isaiah era—a season of great distress and destruction for the people of God—when they were conquered and taken into captivity for 70 years. This catastrophic fall caused the people to reflect on what God had done. There was no turning back. They lamented over the loss of their land and way of life. In fact, a theologian comments that the Book of Lamentations “sits” between First and Second Isaiah, a book full of grief over the exile with only one word of hope: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness… therefore I will hope in him.”[iv],[v]
While exiled in a pagan land, the Jewish people must have wondered, “Where has God gone? Has He given up on us? Why does it feel like He is far removed from our tragic situation?” We know that the people of God in every age have felt that agonizing distance caused by sin and guilt. As people struggle to reach across the great divide, they fall short of His glorious presence. But the prophet Isaiah reassures us of God’s steadfast love for us. In spite of our sin, we can count on God, not reneging, but remaining faithful to His Word. Isaiah says, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”[vi]
Only one word of hope shines out amidst that long dark period of grief. Second Isaiah breaks God’s awful silence. It’s that part of the bridge that offers a breakthrough. It cries out comfort to the people, release and forgiveness, the promise of restoration and a great homecoming. Second Isaiah is all about hope, a hope rooted not in the people’s strength or wits or goodness, but in the faithfulness of God. It’s a surprising, unexpected, and challenging word of hope.
Some people describe the God of the Old Testament as a God of fear and threat, while the God of the New Testament is all about love and tenderness. Second Isaiah paints a fuller portrait of God. Yes the God who comes is mighty and powerful, but He is also a gentle shepherd who feeds His flock, gathers lambs in His arms, and carries them close to His heart. The people are urged to make way for this good news that promises to change their lot in life. The mighty will suddenly fall and the captives will be set free to rejoice.
These words of comfort go forth from Isaiah and echo throughout the New Testament.[vii] In 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 we receive the comfort of God: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.”
In the Greek, the word “consolation” or “comfort” is parakaleo. The word is made up of the verb kaleo, which means “to call,” and the preposition para which means “beside.” Together the word means, “to call alongside.”[viii] In the Message translation we read in verse 4: “He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.”[ix]
Nida Blanca was my father’s partner in film for five decades. If my father was a very private person in real life, Nida was the exact opposite. Nida always surrounded herself with loyal and caring people. And the person who stood out from her entourage was Elena dela Paz. Elena was Nida’s alalay—her personal aide for 45 years. She was her number one fan since the 1950s. Elena stood by Nida through thick and thin supporting her throughout her showbiz career. In good times and in bad, through her failed marriages, and when a movie bombed on premier night or when it broke the box office record, Elena was there for her. She was closer than a sister. Everything you ever wanted to know about Nida just ask Elena. For everywhere that Nida went… Elena was sure to go.
Elena embodied what it meant to be a helper. In the Greek, the noun parakletos means “a helper or one who aids another.”[x] That is what Elena did best. She was Nida Blanca’s faithful helper. Elena was her waiting companion. She remained at her mistress’ side until the day Nida died.
What is every Christian’s ministerial description? God has called us to be His comforters, His parakletos to those who need someone to come alongside of them to be comforted with the comfort we received from Him.
In the 1991 film City Slickers,[xi] Mitch is a middle-aged big-city radio ads salesman. He and his friends Ed and Phil are experiencing a mid-life crisis. As they turn forty, they decide to give themselves the best birthday gift—a two-week holiday in the Wild West driving cattle from New Mexico to Colorado.
One evening a drunken ranch hand bullies Mitch into a fight. At that moment, his friend Phil suffers a nervous breakdown. He looses all control and throws himself madly between Mitch and the ranch hand. He disarms the bully of his pistol and almost kills him. After the bully backs down Phil storms into his tent. He sits on a stool with the loaded gun in hand staring at the ground.
Mitch says to him, “Why don’t you give me the gun, Phil?”
As Phil unloads the gun his life flashes before him. He unloads his life crisis before Mitch. He comes clean confessing the truth he has to face. He has no place to live. His wife is going to wipe him out financially in the divorce because he committed adultery. He may never see his kids again. He feels so alone. After he hands over the gun to Mitch he begins to sob. Mitch comes alongside his broken buddy and offers his shoulder to cry on.
Mitch pats him on the head saying, “It’s okay man, it’s not that bad…”
Phil cries out loud, “My life is over! I’m almost 40 years old and I’m at the end of my life!”
Mitch looks into the eyes of his dear friend and comforts him saying, “Phil, hey. You remember when we were kids and we were playing ball and we hit the ball over the fence out of bounds and we yelled DO OVER! Your life is a do over. You’ve got a clean slate.”
Are you facing a crisis and in need of comfort? You may be going through a rough patch in your life. You may be going from paycheck to paycheck and unable to shake off your financial troubles. Your insurmountable debt may be tied around your neck as the noose tightens daily. Your mortgage payment may be unsustainable as the value of your home remains upside down. Your investments may have tumbled along with the entire economy and the future looks bleak. Your job security may be a thing of the past as potential applicants are willing to do more work for way less money. Your family may be unraveling as your relationships are falling apart. The list of lamentation goes on and on. Is there no end in sight? Will the situation stay the same? Have we no hope? The crisis holds you captive and you feel that your life is over.
There is a comforting message that comes alongside of us from this passage in Isaiah. It’s about the good news of God’s love and faithfulness toward us through His Son. The kind of comfort that Jesus brings into our lives is vastly different from the comfort the world has to offer. Drawing comfort from Jesus’ presence moves us to tell His story to those in need of the comfort only He can give. Our life may have been lived out-of-bounds. But in Christ, our life is a do-over. You and I are given a clean slate. We can start all over again.
This season of Advent asks you, “How can you start anew?” Great journeys are not only marked by great destinations, but also by what must be crossed and endured. Magellan crossed the Pacific. Armstrong crossed the lunar landscape. Christ crossed the valley of the shadow of death. What crossing needs to be cleared in your heart in preparation for the coming of the One who shepherds us? Is it easier to believe in God when you’re in captivity or to believe God that the captivity is really over? What are the signs in your life that things are about to change? It’s time to cross over in the newness of Christ!
Long ago the people of Israel were told to clear a path for God—to make a way where there appeared to be no way. Today the text tells us to make a way for God to come into our lives, to remove the obstacles and detours, to clear out the old feelings of hostility and bitterness, to cut back the weeds of fear, doubt, and despair. As we anticipate the coming yuletide season, we should not get caught up in the details of the Christmas gifts and decoration, but in the God-given gift of grace for our life transformation.
During Advent,[xii] we attune our hearts and minds to the many ways that God enters our lives and the life of the world. Advent enables us to hope with a reason—a hope that allows us to get in on the action. Here’s why we hope: Some 2000 years ago, the God of Comfort entered the world and incarnated Himself in humanity so that none of us would ever have to lose our own. Here’s why we hope: Today, God is entering the world through your lives to comfort those who are in dire need of hope. We are empowered by the Spirit of God to comfort the weary and downtrodden because God first comforted us. We are the spiritual embodiment of the hands and feet of God in the world. Let us walk toward the brokenhearted bringing hope. Let us embrace the lost with the comfort only God can give through our ministry of consolation. Let us comfort the people of God this Advent season for we have a reason to celebrate. Amen.
[i] Pork barrel is a derogatory term referring to appropriation of government spending for localized projects secured solely or primarily to bring money to a representative’s district.
[ii] Revelation 5:9.
[iii] Tradition ascribes the book to Isaiah himself, but for over a hundred years scholars have divided it into three parts: Proto-Isaiah (chapters 1–39), containing the words of the 8th century BCE prophet and 7th century BCE expansions; Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40–55), a 6th century BCE work by an author who wrote towards the end of the Babylonian captivity; and Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56–66), composed probably by multiple authors in Jerusalem shortly after the exile.
[iv] Walter Brueggemann, The Word that Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).
[v] Lamentations 3:22-24.
[vi] Isaiah 40:8.
[vii] Second Sunday of Advent Year B, “Reflections by Kathryn Matthews Huey.” Knowing what we know about the Jesus for whom we wait, we can agree with Brueggemann that “it is no wonder that part of this poem is quoted in all four Gospels, a text that voices the radical newness that is to be initiated in the story of Jesus.”
[viii] K. S. Wuest, Wuest’s word studies from the Greek New Testament: Studies in the Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, c1984), 80-82. In classical Greek it meant “to call to one’s side, call for, summon,” the context indicating the purpose of the summons. It meant also “to address, speak to, (call to, call on),” which may be done in the way of exhortation, entreaty, comfort, instruction. Hence, there results a variety of senses in which it is used. Then it came to mean “to beg, entreat, beseech.” Finally, it comes to mean “to encourage, strengthen, to comfort.”
[ix] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs, NavPress, 2002).
[x] In the three passages in the Gospel, the Holy Spirit is the Comforter to the saint, not that He comforts him in the sense of consoling him merely, but that He is sent to be the One to come to the aid of the Christian in the sense of ministering to him in his spiritual life. In 1 John 2:1, the Lord Jesus is the parakletos of the believer in the sense that He pleads our cause before our heavenly Father in relation to sin in the life of the Christian, praying us back into fellowship with God by the way of our confession and the cleansing blood.
[xi] City Slickers (Castle Rock Entertainment, 1991) written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel and directed by Ron Underwood.
[xii] Advent is the four-week period leading up to Christmas beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day.