My dear friends in Christ,
Last week we took a closer look at the hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel. We found that an ancient hymn written 1200 years ago has plenty to offer in 2018. As we sing it we are worshiping God with us, the Root of Jesse—the King who rules forever, the Dayspring of light and life, and the Key of David who has opened the gates of heaven forever.
Today we dig into another old hymn. ‘Comfort, Comfort My People” was written by Johannes Olearius. It was one of 300 hymns this Lutheran pastor wrote, in addition to a commentary on the entire Bible. Johannes wrote this hymn to celebrate John the Baptist’s festival day. He first published it in Leipzig, Germany, in 1671—347 years ago! Catherine Winkworth translated it—just one of hundreds of hymns she translated from German into English.
The hymn is based on the words of Isaiah 40:1-5. Isaiah received these words at a difficult time in the history of God’s people. He had just finished warning good King Hezekiah, “The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away” (Isaiah 39:6–7 NIV). This was devastating news for Hezekiah and all the people. They needed something to comfort them after hearing what would happen. What could comfort them? The LORD offered comfort with his Word. Let’s take a look at verse 1 of our hymn. Here it is in the original German: Tröstet, tröstet meine Lieben, Tröstet mein Volk, spricht mein Gott; Tröstet, die sich jetzt betrüben Über Feindes Hohn und Spott. Weil Jerusalem wohl dran, Redet sie gar freundlich an; Denn ihr Leiden hat ein Ende, Ihre Ritterschaft ich wende.
Here’s my translation. “Comfort, comfort my loved ones, Comfort my people,” says my God; Comfort those who now grieve Over enemy sneers and mockery. Because Jerusalem is well, Talk to her in a friendly way; Because her suffering has an end, Her warfare I change.
1. When we need comfort, to what do we often turn?
When we need comfort we turn toward things that have made us feel better in the past. Why is it we keep our favorite stuffed animal or blankie until they are so tattered and torn that we don’t have anything to hold on to? Because it comforted us. It was there whenever we climbed in bed. The smooth fabric soothes. It comforts.
Maybe we turn to food. We even call it “comfort food.” What is it about comfort food that comforts us? Once again, it’s the memories it brings. As soon as I smell fresh bread, I am standing in the kitchen watching my mom. She kneads the dough, forms loaves, and finally shakes the golden bread out of each pan to cool. Those memories are comforting. Sometimes we turn to drinks for comfort. It’s not really comfort derived from the past, but comfort derived from escaping the past and the present. Sometimes we look for comfort in a glass or a bottle because we don’t have to remember.
We also turn to people for comfort. We fall down and skin our knee. Who’s the first one we turn to? Mom, or maybe grandma. The car makes a funny sound or the toy breaks. Where do we turn? Dad, or grandpa, or the neighbor who can fix anything. We find comfort with this group because of past shared experiences. We know they’ll understand and they‘ll comfort us because they’ve always been there for us.
2. Why can that cause problems?
The comfort we get from each of these things doesn’t last! The blankie finally goes in the garbage. We eat, but we’re hungry again. We drink to forget, but when we stop drinking, it all comes back. Our spouse, or family, or friends won’t be there forever. Where can we turn?
3. What message of comfort was Isaiah supposed to share?
Let’s take a look at the first two verses of Isaiah 40. “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 NIV).
Good news! All of the hard service has been completed. Anything the people needed to do in order to gain comfort “has been completed.” If they felt like the LORD was punishing them for the bad things in their past, they didn’t have to worry. All of that sin “has been paid for.” Instead of double punishment, she would receive double blessing from the LORD’s hand.
The second verse of the hymn continues that theme of comfort. Here is the German: Ich vergeb’ all ihre Sünden, Ich tilg’ ihre Missetat, Ich will nicht mehr sehn noch finden, Was die Straf’ erwecke hat; Sie hat ja zweifältig Leid Schon empfangen; ihre Freud’ Soll sich täglich neu vermehren Und ihr Leid in Freud’ verkehren.
Here’s the translation: I forgive all your sins, I am erasing your iniquity, I do not want to see anymore, What punishment has provoked; She has double sorrow Already received; her joy Should multiply daily And her sorrow run into joy.
4. How can this bring real comfort?
God’s Word gives it the power. Let’s go back to what he says. Notice that God doesn’t tell Isaiah that a group hug or a pile of teddy bears will comfort them. He says, “Comfort, comfort _________, says your God. Speak tenderly to __________, and proclaim to them that their hard service has been completed, that their sin has been paid for, that they have received from the LORD’s hand double for all their sins.” God makes the promise! You don’t have to do anything to earn God’s love and approval. Your hard service has been completed! Jesus came to do it all. You can’t pay for all the things you did wrong in your past, all the things that steal away any comfort you might have. You don’t need to. Your sin has been paid for! That’s what makes the German verse of this hymn so beautiful. Listen again to those phrases: I forgive all your sins, I am erasing your iniquity … She has double sorrow Already received; Her joy Should multiply daily And her sorrow run into joy.
We hear it. We believe it. And sometimes, we struggle with it. The fear of the dark, the guilt of the past, the shame of the present try to drive this comfort away from us. Our conscience berates us. We hear others say, “I can’t forgive you,” and we say, “I can’t forgive myself.” When those voices come calling, hear your LORD whispering, “נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י,“ “Tröstet, tröstet meine Lieben,“ “Comfort, comfort my little loved ones. I have done it all for you. Rest in this promise!”
5. What do we need to do with the comfort God gives us?
We need to be the voice of comfort in a world that seems to be spinning out of control. Yes, hugs and teddy bears are comforting. God’s Word works even better, and we can share it with someone else! Paul said, “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” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4 NIV). What better time of the year can we find to comfort others who have troubles. We understand troubles. We also know, by faith, what helped us make it through those troubles. It’s not a child’s blankie or teddy bear. It wasn’t food or drink. It wasn’t the people around us. It was Jesus. Jesus handed us the blankie of his Word. Jesus filled us with the comfort food of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus gave us to drink from the water of Life. Jesus walked with us through those dark times and promised he would never, ever leave. Those are the blessings we can share, to comfort those who desperately need it.
Comfort, Comfort my people! Another old song, yet filled with words of promise. Jesus comforts us with the promise that he did all the heavy lifting for us, he took away our sins, and gave us double blessings instead of double punishment. Jesus’ comfort gives us the opportunity to comfort someone else this Christmas season. So comfort them. Comfort them just like Jesus comforted you. Amen.