The opening recitative of Handel’s phenomenal oratorio Messiah begins, “Comfort ye, my people…”
The words are taken from the book of Isaiah,
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.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God. (40:1-3 NIV)
These words were recorded for the benefit of the Israelites who were captives in Babylon; who had learned that the rule of Yahweh didn’t guarantee them comfort, security, or certainty while they lived in a fallen world, especially when they were living in disobedience to his revealed will. And yet, we hear Yahweh speaking words of promised comfort to his people in the midst of their exile.
Israel had learned the hard way that life in a fallen world is uncomfortable, insecure, and uncertain. They had been violently rooted out of their homes and driven from their beloved country into a strange land with strange gods and hostile neighbours. Though we may never experience anything quite as drastic, in terms of discomfort, as the Israelites we can empathise with their feelings of displacement, insecurity, and uncertainty. Perhaps we’ve had to move to a new city far from loved ones. Or we work in an office where our colleagues are openly hostile to us because of our faith in Jesus, even though our only provocation is that we genuinely care about them and work hard. Maybe we just don’t understand all the changes that are taking place in our culture and consequently feel disarrayed and unsure about how to love our neighbours as we share with them the unchanging truths of God’s Word.
And like Israel, these feelings can be compounded and multiplied when we don’t expect them. The apostle Peter realised our proclivity to be taken by surprise by such feelings in the introduction to his first letter which is why he begins by addressing his letter, “To God’s elect, exiles scattered…” (1 Peter 1:1 NIV). Peter begins by reminding his readers of who they are by reminding them of whose they are. They are God’s elect, God’s chosen people; they belong to God. He then quickly points out an implication of what it means to belong to God in a fallen world: exiles scattered. As Christians we belong to God but because we belong to God we are at war with how the world presently operates which can oftentimes leave us feeling like scattered exiles: unsure of our footing, disoriented, uncomfortable. But so long as we remember whose we are we will be able to face all the discomfort, insecurity, and uncertainty during our present exile here on earth because our comfort comes from a knowledge, a sure knowledge, that we belong to God no matter what circumstances we may be facing and that he is with us throughout every step of our desert wilderness (cf. Isaiah 40:3).
We know this is true because God himself walked through a far more uncomfortable, insecure, and uncertain desert wilderness that led directly to the foot of a blood-stained, splintered cross upon which he was brutally murdered. In Jesus, God entered into the discomfort, insecurity, and uncertainty of humanity in a fallen world. His tender words of comfort are not empty, they are not unknowingly ignorant of our pains and struggles. He knows them intimately because he has shared in them. Which is precisely why he is able to speak tender words of comfort because with his life Jesus paid double for all our sin by taking the very wrath of God upon himself in our place. He experienced the hard service we deserve so we can receive God’s words of tender comfort as his people, his adopted sons and daughters.
By faith we can know the comfort of God in an uncomfortable world because Jesus took on himself our discomfort. A comfort that comes from belonging to God, of knowing whose we are even while we are scattered in exile.
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.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.