Sermon: “God Shall Comfort Your Heart” (February 21, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God Shall Comfort Your Heart” (Psalm 27:18)
February 21, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today I am preaching on one phrase from the final verse of Psalm 27—“(God) shall comfort your heart.”

God shall comfort your heart.

I remember being in a preaching class in seminary in my late twenties and the professor exhorting us that “good sermons comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  I dutifully recorded that in my notes.  It sounded so witty, so wise.  But since that time over the course of many years of ministry and life one thing I have learned is that no one is comfortable.

Of course, you may have moments when you feel comfortable.  You may have an old comfortable recliner or a favorite pair of old comfortable jeans or shoes.  You may have your favorite comfort food—perhaps chicken soup or Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.  You may even live in a beautiful comfortable home and drive a comfortable luxury car.  But how often are you really comfortable?

We often talk about comfort zones or the need to “step out of our comfort zones,” but do comfort zones really exist?  In actual life people feel afflicted much more often than they feel comfortable.  They may be externally afflicted by illness or debt or mean people (and there are many mean people out there)—or internally afflicted by worry or depression or stress.  The only antidote is comfort.

Did you know that one of the intended benefits of marriage is comfort?  While often overlooked, comfort is a recurring theme in the marriage liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer.  In the opening words we are reminded that, “The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity” (423).  Moments later the bride and groom each vow not only to love one another but also “to comfort” one other (424), and still later in the service we pray for the newly married couple “that each may be to the other…a comfort in sorrow” (429).

And yet many married people do not receive comfort in their marriage.  When that is the case, it is a recipe for disaster—as the robot from the 1960’s television show Lost in Space put it, “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!”

Those who are not married may seek comfort in a boyfriend or girlfriend or parent or coworker—but sometimes that comfort is not so easily found because the ones from whom they are seeking comfort are too busy seeking comfort for themselves.  In fact, when in need of comfort from others, people often receive discomfort.

A powerful example of this from the Old Testament is Job.  You may remember that Job was severely afflicted.  He lost his children, lost his wealth, lost his health.  And in the face of such tremendous loss did Job receive comfort from his wife?  Not so much.  When Job turned to his wife for comfort, she responded: “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9), to which Job responded, “Thank you, sweetheart” (or something to that effect).

Job had three friends who heard about his afflictions and visited him.  When they saw Job, scriptures tells us, “They raised their voices and wept aloud (and) sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:12-13).  But then they began to explain to Job that he was being afflicted because of his sin, because he somehow deserved it.  As you can imagine, Job did not find this very comforting, and eventually rebuked them, “Miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16:2).

When some people are afflicted and, like Job, in need of comfort but receive none, they may resort to other things for comfort, which in turn may lead to various addictive behaviors intended to numb the pain.  But as you know, the problem is that such numbness is fleeting, the hurt sets in again—and the addiction may become yet one more affliction.

However, when comfort is given to the afflicted, it can make all the difference.

One of the most moving examples I have ever seen of this was at the end of the 1982 NCAA basketball championship game between the North Carolina and Georgetown.  I remember watching this riveting game on a fuzzy television when I was in seventh grade.  With only fifteen seconds remaining freshman superstar Michael Jordan hit a jumper from the left side, giving the Tar Heels a 63-62 lead.

Georgetown brought the ball down the court and with 7 seconds to go, Georgetown guard Fred Brown, thinking he was passing to teammate Eric Smith accidentally passed it to North Carolina’s James Worthy, who dribbled down the court and was fouled with two seconds remaining.  Game over.  Can you imagine being Fred Brown in that moment?

And yet after the final buzzer, in the midst of the euphoric celebration of Tar Heel players and fans, Georgetown coach John Thompson comforted the distraught Fred Brown.  If you were John Thompson, what would you say to Fred Brown in that moment?  Do you know what John Thompson said to him?   He looked him in the eyes and said, “You’ve won more games than you’ve lost.”  In the midst of Fred Brown’s worst nightmare his coach spoke words of comfort to him.

And in the midst of the afflictions of your life, even if you receive no comfort from other people or things, scriptures assures you, “God shall comfort your heart.”

In fact, one of the primary ways God shows his love to us is by comforting us through the Holy Spirit.  At the Last Supper Jesus assured his disciples, “I will pray the Father and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever” (John 14:16, King James Version).  Jesus continued by emphasizing the Holy Spirit’s ministry of comfort: “The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26-27, KJV).

Moreover, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul writes about God’s comforting us in order that we may comfort one another:

Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, KJV).

In other words, one of the primary ways members of the church can minister to one another is by comforting one another.  People who do not receive comfort from other people or other things should always receive comfort at church.  A healthy church provides abundant comfort for afflicted people.

In fact, many of you here at Christ Church have done that for me and my family in the midst of the medical challenges we have faced.  Many of you have comforted us with loving notes and texts, comforted us with hugs and prayers, and comforted us with lots of ridiculously delicious comfort food.  Thank you!

And we all need to be comforted repeatedly by the good news of the gospel, the good news of God’s unconditional love for us expressed primarily in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In fact, in the 1549 Prayer Book Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) added a rubric that during the service of Holy Communion, every single week, following the absolution the priest was to add this:

Hear what comfortable words our savior Christ saith to all that truly turn to him.  Come unto me all that travail, and be heavy laden, and I shall refresh you.  God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have life everlasting.  Hear also what St. Paul sayeth.  This is a true saying and worthy of all men to be received, that Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners.  Hear also what St. John sayeth.  If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the propitiation for our sins (The First and Second Prayer Books of Edward VI 225).

Thomas Cranmer knew that because every single week we have to navigate afflictions of some kind, every single week we also need to be comforted by the comfortable words of the gospel—that as the psalmist prayed, “Let your steadfast love become my comfort” (Psalm 119:76).

One of the most comforting songs I have ever heard is Simon and Garfunkel’s title track from their Grammy-winning 1970 album, Bridge over Troubled Water.  Imagine the “God of all comfort” speaking these words to you:

When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all
I’m on your side when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I’ll take your part
When darkness comes and pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

And that of course is exactly what Jesus did in his passion and death.  Scripture tells us that although Jesus himself “was afflicted” (Isaiah 53:7) he lay down his life for you over the troubled water of your life, to comfort you for all the ways you have been afflicted, and to atone for all the ways you have afflicted others.

One last illustration…in one of his earlier sermons Anglican priest and poet John Donne (1572-1631) preached this:

(God) brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the ways of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintered and frozen, cloudy and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadows, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries.  All occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons (The Sermons of John Donne, Vol. I, 88).

And this is also true when it comes to the afflictions in your life.  Even if you receive no comfort from other people or other things, the good news of the gospel in Psalm 27:18 remains true: “God shall comfort your heart.”

Today may the Holy Comforter, the God of all comfort, comfort you anew with his steadfast love.

Amen.