Advent at the Chapel: Infinite Comfort to the Suffering

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by Emily Gibson

Jesus brings infinite comfort to the suffering

17 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Hebrews 2:17-18

 

At seventeen years old, I thought I had things all figured out.  I was a good student heading off to college and felt confident about who I was becoming.  I had attended church all my life but my commitment to my faith was actually waning rather than strengthening.

In anticipation of college tuition bills, I took a summer job at a local nursing home for $1.25 an hour as a nurses’ aide.  My training was two days following a more experienced aide on her rounds of feeding, pottying, dressing and undressing, and bathing her elderly patients.  Then I was assigned patients of my own and during a typical shift I carried a load of 13 patients.  It didn’t take long for me to learn the rhythm of caretaking, and I enjoyed the work and my patients.

One woman in particular remains vivid in my memory 46 years later.  Betty was in her 80’s, bedridden with a painful bone disease that had crippled her for a decade or more.  She was unable to do any of her own self care but her mind remained sharp and her eyes bright.  Her hearty greeting cheered me when I’d come in her room several times a shift to turn her in her bed to prevent pressure sores on her hips and shoulders.  The simple act of turning her in her bed was an ordeal beyond imagining.  I would prepare her for the turn by cushioning her little body with pads and pillows, but no matter how careful I was, her bones would crackle and crunch like Rice Crispies cereal with every movement.  Tears would flow from her eyes and she’d always call out “Oh Oh Oh Oh” during the process but then once settled in her new position, she’d look up at me and say “thank you, dear, for making that so much easier for me.”  I would nearly weep in gratitude at her graciousness in her suffering.

Before I’d leave the room, Betty would grab my hand and ask when I would be returning.  Then she’d  say “I rejoice in the Lord” and she would murmur a prayer to herself.

As difficult as each “turning” was for both of us, I started to look forward to it.  I knew she prayed not only for herself, but I knew she prayed for me as well.  I felt her blessing each time I walked into her room knowing she was waiting for me.

One evening I came to work and was told Betty was running a high fever, and struggling to breathe.  She was being given oxygen and was having difficulty taking fluids.  The nurse I worked under thought she was likely to pass away on my shift and asked that I check her more frequently than my usual routine.

As I approached her bed, Betty reached out and held my hand.  She was still alert but very weak.  She looked me in the eye and said “Do you know our Lord?  He is coming for me today.”   I could think of nothing more to say than “I know you have waited for Him a long time.”   I returned to her room as often as I could and found her becoming less responsive, yet still breathing, sometimes short shallow breaths and sometimes long and deep.  Near the end of my shift, as morning was dawning, when I entered the room, I knew He had come.

She lay silent and relaxed for the first time since I had met her.  Her little body, so tight with pain only hours before, seemed at ease.  It was my job to prepare her for the mortuary workers who would come for her shortly.  Her body still warm to touch, I washed and dried her skin and brushed her hair and wrapped her in a fresh sheet, knowing now I could turn her with no pain and no tears.

I could see a trace of a smile at the corners of her mouth.  I knew the Lord had greeted her and carried her from this bed Himself.

I rejoice in the glory of the Lord and am comforted in my difficult days, thanks to Betty.  She showed me what it means to watch for the morning when He will come.  Immobile in bed, crippled and wracked with pain, her faith led to loving a teenage girl uncertain in her faith.  Betty had brought the Lord home to me as she went home to Him.

 

For Advent devotions this year, we are using Pastor Tim Keller’s themes in his new book  Hidden Christmas

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Anticipating Advent: Comfort, Comfort to My People

Isaiah 40: 1, 2
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.

Heidelberg Catechism Q. and A. 1

Q.  What is your only comfort in life and death?

A.  That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ . . .

By now, at 63 years of age, I have watched and waited at the bedside of first my father and then, ten years later, my mother as each by death passed from this life.  They had both lived good, long lives and were faithful followers of Christ.  Yet death for each was a battle, and those of us children present at their sides sought to comfort the beloved who was dying.  The sustained grip of hand on hand, the caress of the forehead, the moistening of dried lips and mouth with cool water, the soft yet firmly spoken words of love—we were intent to comfort:  you are dear to us, all will be well, we will be together yet again . . . . Then, as one by one they passed beyond our labor to comfort and we were left bereft and alone to witness the flash-freeze pallor of death, we sought comfort for ourselves.

Thus when God speaks comfort to his people through his prophet Isaiah, we are ready to identify ourselves with that people.  We have seen hard service, our hearts have been rent by separation from our beloved, we have pocketed within our own souls the wages of deadly sin, so God knows, we need comfort.

As God commands comfort in verse one, so he promptly provides the means of delivering that comfort in verse two:  speak tenderly, proclaim that hard service is completed, that sin has been paid for doubly, much more than enough.  These are indeed sweet words for one who would be comforter.

But what is the basis in reality for such words?  Here is where Christmas is in play.  It is in Christ, the Ancient of Days become babe, that God himself has performed hard service for us, has paid off the wages of sin with the gift of his life, has given double grace in spite of all our sins, has gone ahead and opened a way for us through death to life everlasting—and we belong to him.  On account of his mercy we by faith are his dear family, his children, his brothers and sisters—and he alone is our comfort, in life and in death.

~Dan Gibson

Part of the Promise

Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.
We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn.’
The real problem is not why some pious, humble, believing people suffer, but why some do not.
C.S. Lewis ~~writing on suffering

The assumption on the part of some is that life comes with a “no pain” guarantee. Anyone who has experienced or witnessed childbirth knows better. It all starts out with a push and a cry, not exactly the most comfortable moments for mother or baby. No one escapes suffering, no matter how strongly they believe in God. It is what we signed up for once we exited our mother’s womb.

How could an all-powerful all-knowing God allow suffering, especially in innocent children? This is a standard argument used against the existence of God. The reasoning is that there is abundant suffering in the world so therefore no God in control. Somehow the gospel reality is set aside: God allowed His own suffering and experienced real pain in order to defeat death on our behalf and to ensure an eternal union with Him.

He mourned. He wept. He hurt. He bled. He died. Just like us.

What all powerful all knowing God would do that? Our God would, because He is first and foremost a loving God who makes imperfection perfect again.

No, there isn’t a “no pain” guarantee –neither God nor even the natural world ever promised that. But only our God promises “no stain” –that we are washed clean for eternity by the blood He shed in suffering.

For that is our greatest comfort of all.

For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.
2 Corinthians 1:5

~E. Gibson

Comfort, Comfort To My People

Isaiah 40: 1, 2
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.

Heidelberg Catechism Q. and A. 1

Q.  What is your only comfort in life and death?

A.  That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ . . .

By now, as sixty years closes in on me, I have watched and waited at the bedside of first my father and then, ten years later, my mother as each by death passed from this life.  They had both lived good, long lives and were faithful followers of Christ.  Yet death for each was a battle, and those of us children present at their sides sought to comfort the beloved who was dying.  The sustained grip of hand on hand, the caress of the forehead, the moistening of dried lips and mouth with cool water, the soft yet firmly spoken words of love—we were intent to comfort:  you are dear to us, all will be well, we will be together yet again . . . . Then, as one by one they passed beyond our labor to comfort and we were left bereft and alone to witness the flash-freeze pallor of death, we sought comfort for ourselves.

Thus when God speaks comfort to his people through his prophet Isaiah, we are ready to identify ourselves with that people.  We have seen hard service, our hearts have been rent by separation from our beloved, we have pocketed within our own souls the wages of deadly sin, so God knows, we need comfort.

As God commands comfort in verse one, so he promptly provides the means of delivering that comfort in verse two:  speak tenderly, proclaim that hard service is completed, that sin has been paid for doubly, much more than enough.  These are indeed sweet words for one who would be comforter.

But what is the basis in reality for such words?  Here is where Christmas is in play.  It is in Christ, the Ancient of Days become babe, that God himself has performed hard service for us, has paid off the wages of sin with the gift of his life, has given double grace in spite of all our sins, has gone ahead and opened a way for us through death to life everlasting—and we belong to him.  On account of his mercy we by faith are his dear family, his children, his brothers and sisters—and he alone is our comfort, in life and in death.

~Dan Gibson

Fearing Nothing

Psalm 23:4
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

To have a rod and a staff comfort me is a confusing thought. The thought of correction and rebuke being the source of strength and encouragement is counter intuitive, but it runs deep with truth. In his discipline God strikes an amazing balance we could not have anticipated. In the midst of the valley of the shadow of death, God makes his presence known, even if it is not that for which we were expecting and hoping. Rather, in our pain and confusion, he makes himself known discreetly.

The shepherd would not beat with his rod and staff, he would silently and gently guide through dangerous areas. The advent season points us toward the same truth. In the midst of a confused and pained world, Christ discreetly breaks in and guides us through our valleys. Ultimately, he leads the world through that valley to new creation. All the while, he did this by creating and leading his church through guidance, not force or violence. We the church still know the deep reality of valleys, but we continually look back to God made flesh, knowing in his word, his rod and staff will be made evident.
Thanks be to God for a savior who, this advent season, removes all fear; who we trust to guide with rod and staff, for he felt the full brunt of them.

~Ben Gibson

Passing On What We Receive

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 —Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

The secular world has popularized “random acts of kindness” as a way to pay forward kindnesses that one receives.  It leaves the receiver of a kindness awed and inspired to do something nice for someone else and the giver feels good at having given away something of themselves to benefit another.  The classic examples include plugging someone’s parking meter that is about to expire, or quietly paying for the coffee drinks for the person behind you in line.

There is nothing random about how God the Father approaches us “in all our troubles.”  He is quite intentional in His comforting of all His people; it isn’t just kindness bestowed in a random way.  His compassion means we are never abandoned to trouble.  He is beside us at all times.

We are asked to respond in the same way, coming alongside “those in any trouble” overflowing with the comfort we have been shown from God.  This is also intentional; comfort is not just ours to receive and keep but it is ours to give.  We are comforted even more so knowing we are sharing as God intended when He shared the Comforter with us on Christmas Day.

E. Gibson

Sharing Abundantly

2 Corinthians 1:5–For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.

To follow Jesus does not mean an end to suffering but it means we willingly and joyfully choose to share the overwhelming burden He has borne in payment for our sin.

God sending His Son to walk among us
did not end sin on earth
but showed mankind how
to choose mercy rather than tyranny,
to offer forgiveness rather than blame,
to express gratitude rather than resentment,
to share what little we have rather than covet all that we desire.

By seeking truth, by following Jesus,  the comfort found in Him will far outweigh our suffering.

He was born for this.  And so were we.

E. Gibson