Comfort Ye

Sunday 7th August 2016
Year C, The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
Isaiah 11.10-16; 12.1-6
2 Corinthians 1.1-22

At the moment I am involved in very complex - and even messy - negotiations to merge two large charities because it will make life simpler for our two sets of overlapping customers and save money from administration to spend on badly needed services; but almost every time we meet, these laudable objectives are overshadowed by irrational, personal considerations; people are worried about what chair they will sit on under the new regime or whether they will have a chair at all. This is naturally a proper concern for employees but for volunteer trustees who are negotiating the deal such personal interests should surely be overlooked. But we do find it difficult to do the right thing when it might hurt our own personal interest, prestige, wealth or comfort and I feel this deeply myself as I try to do the right thing and see how this might cause me hurt, discomfort, a loss of prestige and a lower income. In life we usually have to pay for our principles. The idea that honest dealing is rewarded is a piece of nonsense; in our society, unlike fairy stories, honesty is almost always punished; and the honest do not live happily ever after, on this earth, anyway. They have to wait for their reward in the after-life.

Thus it is that we need to look at our Second Reading, the opening of Saint Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians in a much broader way than is usually the case because scholars are obsessed with speculation about the precise state, at the time of writing, of Paul's turbulent relationship with the Corinthians; and, naturally, too, there is an interest in what Paul actually underwent in Asia which brought him so low. But it is one of the virtues of Paul that he frames his own troubles within the context of salvation; his frequent lapses into self obsession and moralism are redeemed by his broader perception. You might say of Paul that he frequently finds himself in violent storms but, ultimately, the sun comes out for him in the person, life and death of Jesus.

It is more difficult to characterise the personality of Isaiah because it seems likely that the book of that name was written by three different hands; but the meaning of our First Reading is clear enough: Isaiah, writing on the verge of the engulfment of the Kingdom of Judah by the Assyrians and the exile of all its surviving citizens to Babylon, is promising hope of a new beginning. The Northern Kingdom of Israel, or ;Ephraim as it is called here, has already been destroyed and its peoples flung far and wide, as the list of countries shows; but all will be brought back together in a second re-enactment of the crossing of the Red Sea by Moses. The meaning is made doubly clear because Isaiah not only cites the Exodus but also the long-gone iconic enemies of the Chosen People, the Philistines.

Reading Isaiah, we might be tempted to focus on his line about the flourishing of the "Root of Jesse" as a foretelling of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem but, even if we do take this to be a foretelling, that is secondary to the overall message which is that no matter what the individual and, more importantly, the collective infractions of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah may have been, they will ultimately be redeemed and comforted, a message reinforced by Paul but, in the post Resurrection world, in the context of heavenly salvation. But what is most remarkable about this passage in Isaiah is the perception of comfort in the depth of despair, long before the more famous passage was written in the same book but many years later by a different author, and here I use the familiar words of the King James Bible:

"Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins."

Isaiah 40.1-2

We all know the feeling of relief at the end of a crisis which sometimes even makes the crisis worthwhile! We experience this, for example, if we are politically active and our party takes office after a long time in opposition. But many crises seem to be much less capable of resolution and then we frequently say to ourselves, as I have done during these negotiations: "just take it one day at a time". But that answer will not do, for example, when a loss is not reversible, just taking it one day at a time is not enough.

At this point of a seemingly intractable crisis, we might turn to God for support but it really is doing ourselves damage if we see God as our last rather than as our first resort. It's a form of pride to believe that we can handle most things but that God is a handy back-stop. We would be much better off using God as our starting point as well as our ultimate point.

And this is the attractive aspect of Paul which tetchy passages can too easily obscure because I was a little unfair to him earlier when describing how the sun came out after a storm because for Paul the sun was also out before the storm began; and during the storm he never stopped praying. We know this from Acts as well as from his own testimony of himself. And this illustrates a second point about the relationship between our suffering and the comfort of God: we are too apt to cry "My God" at a point of crisis when we have been indifferent during times of comfort as if God was simply a comfort blanket. God is our constant sustainer and we build up a relationship with God through Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit so that when the crisis comes our cry is that of the friend seeking the help of a friend, not the cry of a desperate stranger calling more in hope than faith to a stranger. Christianity is not the religion of a supplicant child always asking God for favours in the way that a child asks for sweets or cries when it falls over and asks for comfort; Christianity is, fundamentally, a relational religion, symbolised by the Cross, whose vertical axis is our relationship with God but whose horizontal axis is our relationship with each other.

Which naturally leads to my closing point. There is not point calling on God in our vertical relationship to do those things which are required of us in our obligations to each other in the horizontal relationship between us and our neighbours, globally defined. Our comfort in God and in each other are not separate, nor even in hierarchy; they are the same thing.