There was a moment a few weeks ago when I just couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down; resistance became futile, and I order the Jersey Sweet Corn Mac & Cheese at Oliver. Chef Matt classifies his Macaroni and Cheeses as Comfort Food – in fact, he has a whole section of his menu dedicated to comfort foods, things like meatloaf (the food not the singer), mashed potatoes, and the like. Comfort food is not by definition fattening, but it usually is; by taste and smell and feel it draws out memories, it soothes, it quiets, it softens, sometimes literally.
“Comfort, we think, is a soft concept. It is not “working” word. However, a professor… named Fred Klooster knew that even as the English word “comfort” is a combination of the Latin words “cum-fortis” or “with strength,” so the theological concept of comfort is likewise vigorous. Klooster loved the Heidelberg Catechism and its opening question “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” because he knew that there, as elsewhere in the theological tradition, comfort is a word with muscle. Before it is some tender and cozy sigh of relief, comfort comes first as a bracing, in-your-face message about what is what in life. We need to be discomfited and made profoundly uneasy before we will be able to experience the depth of our only comfort.
“If comfort is going to come to us at all, it needs to begin by confronting all that is wrong with life. Isaiah 40 says the same thing. Although this is one of the Bible’s more famous passages about comfort, we sometimes forget how stark these same verses are, too. Obviously the comfort Isaiah is commanded to proclaim is valuable only because the people had been suffering recently. What’s more, verse 2 makes clear that the source of their suffering had been their own sinfulness. Comfort comes not to those who deserve a reward but instead to those who have already felt the pain and the sting of where sin can lead you in life.”1
And who doesn’t know the pain and the sting of where sin can lead us in life? Our national conversations, the big conversations, they’re about nothing if they’re not about the pain and sting of where sin has led us. Our national pundits (I’ll refrain from calling them thinkers or men of letters) usually forward their arguments as a series of attitude problems, as if violence, systematic racism, domestic abuse, and the like are just wrong choices rather than the consequences of the sin of devaluing life.
These people, at least most of them, mean well, and I respect their efforts to fix problems that are so huge that it’s difficult to even size them up. It doesn’t seem like Isaiah even tried to size them up, but then again he wasn’t told to; God doesn’t tell him to manage the problem, but rather to comfort His people. God tells Isaiah to tell Israel, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
The Lord God will come, Isaiah tells us, but first, His messenger, His forerunner, the voice that cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
And so Mark begins his telling of the good news, the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, with that voice in the wilderness, with John the Baptist, who was exceptionally skilled at telling people not the good news, but the bad news. John knew that good news was nothing unless we knew the bad news, that all of us, even the best of us, fall short of the righteousness of God, and that unless something happens, or maybe unless someone happens, we are all in big trouble.
Come this Advent, there are any number of reasons to think that we are receiving double for all our sins. We might look around and wonder where our comfort will come from, when the unrest will end, when the valleys shall be lifted up and the mountains made low. But that’s why Advent gives us John, who tells us that there comes One after him who is mightier than he was, whose sandal strap he was not worthy to stoop down and loose, who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit, who is the Shepherd who will end our warfare and gather us into His arms. Thank God , then, for Advent, which gives us time to prepare to meet again that someone that happened, that same Lord Jesus, the comfort of God’s people.
1 Scott Hoezee, This Week