Sunday, November 13, 2016

Comfort

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to you about love. I tried to clarify a bit what Jesus means when He calls us to love one another. I told you that love, according to Jesus’ definition, is patient and kind. Love will confront and take risks. And love endures. This is what Jesus expects when He calls us to love one another.

What I’d like to do this morning is return to the topic of love and look at another piece of what Jesus calls us to. To love one another is to offer comfort to those who need it.
One place you can see this idea of comfort is 2 Corinthians 1.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 2 Corinthians 1.3,4

The Greek word translated as ‘comfort’ is the word ‘parakaleo’. This word actually covers a lot of territory and is sometimes translated by other words. If we’re going to understand what Jesus’ kind of love is, what it means to comfort each other in His way, we will need to take a look at these other meanings included in our Greek word. In doing this, I want to help you to see more of what Jesus expects when He calls us to love one another.

The first word we’re going to look at is the word ‘encourage’. Here’s an example from 1 Thessalonians.

Therefore encourage one another with these words.

That’s our word parakaleo, but it’s translated here as encourage.

What does it mean to encourage someone? A look at the word itself answers the question. En‑courage. It is to give someone courage, courage that they are lacking at the moment. So, there you are, talking to another believer who is having a problem. He is battling away at it, and has been for a while, but it isn’t going well. In fact, he wants to quit. He is dis‑couraged. He lacks the courage to fight on. I imagine that many of you know how this feels. You have experienced something like this yourself.

So, how do you love this brother or sister? What do you do to give comfort? The answer is clear. You give him the courage that he needs to return to the battle, to continue to fight until he conquers the problem. You encourage him.

But how do you do that? What exactly do you do? Well, one thing is simply being there. A big part of discouragement is feeling that you are alone in the battle. Knowing that there is someone there with you can be a very big help. It makes a difference when you know that we are in this together, maybe separately fighting different battles but together fighting the same war.

That verse from 1 Thessalonians that I just read lets us know what else needs to happen. Listen again.

Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Paul was writing to these saints about a problem they were struggling with. A battle they were fighting and not winning. So, he had words to give them that would help. This is what he wrote.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.  1 Thessalonians 4.13,14

Some of the believers in that church had died and those who remained were overwhelmed by that. They missed their friends and thought that they would never see them again. So, Paul explained to them a part of the Gospel that they needed to hear: we will all be reunited when Jesus returns. These were words of hope for those who were grieving. Notice that Paul doesn’t only write these words to them. He also instructs the saints there to remind each another with these words. So, you see, we encourage with words.

But please note that it isn’t just any words. What if Paul had only written something like, ‘I’m sorry that your friends died. I’m sure that somehow it will work out’? Those are empty words. They have no power. But to remind someone of the hope of the Gospel is different. There is power in those words, power to give someone the courage to fight on.

So, one way that we love, one way that we comfort one another, is by wisely encouraging each another.

Here’s another way that our Greek word is translated: consolation.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. Luke 2.25

The idea of consolation is all about helping someone deal with sorrow or disappointment. There are more than enough times when we feel that sorrow or disappointment. To love one of the saints who is in this situation, to comfort him or her, we offer compassion, sympathy, solace. That’s consolation.

And again, how do you do that? Listen to Paul’s advice.

… weep with those who weep. Romans 12.15

There are times when there are no words to be said. There are times when all you can do is hug the other person and be sad with him or her. Sometimes a good hug makes a really big difference.

But usually - though maybe not immediately - there will be a need for words, too. Words help us to understand what’s going on. And that also makes a really big difference. Again, pick your words carefully. Words that are merely sentimental don’t really help. And church words that are offered without thinking about them don’t help either.

When it comes to dealing with the grief that evil leaves behind what’s needed are words that are rooted in the Gospel, words that explain something of what Jesus is doing. And sometimes what that means is to simply remind someone of what he already knows. We all need reminders. It is as we wisely console that we are able to comfort, that we are able to love.

Then, one more word: exhort. This is another way that our Greek word is translated. We need to be careful. Exhort can be another of those church words that we use without really thinking about what it means. To exhort is to spur someone on, to urge him to action. Here’s an example.

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Hebrews 3.13

Being a faithful Christian is hard. There are difficult decisions to be made, sacrifices to be faced and accepted, and battles to fight. And it’s just a fact that the temptation to give up is never far from any of us. Some just might give up because they have been ‘hardened by the deceitfulness of sin’. It has happened. Some of you have seen it happen in people you thought were solid Christians. They were fooled by sin, and they gave up. They walked away from Jesus. So, we are called to exhort each other to continue to endeavor, in humble reliance on the grace of the Holy Spirit, to live as becomes followers of Christ. There is comfort in that. It results in a renewed resolve to face the evil and to fight on. There have been too many times when someone turned away from Jesus because no one was there to exhort him, to urge him on, to spur him to action. How sad that would be if it were to happen to one of us.

Again, we need to be wise in how we do this. Shouting some commands at someone isn’t the way to do it, though there are times when an exhortation will include a rebuke. And while there are times when the exhortation points to the danger that lies at hand, there are other times when the exhortation is about the blessings that are promised. We need again to be wise in how we do this.

Encourage. Console. Exhort. This is how we comfort each other. This is how we love.

​By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13.35

Now, a couple of questions to bring this home.

Here’s the first. Why do this? Why should we reach out to others in the ways that I have described? A major influence of our lives has been the myth that we are able to do it alone, we are able to live well depending on the resources that we have in ourselves. Rugged individualism. What foolishness. It’s a failure to believe the Gospel.

Every few weeks we recite the Apostles’ Creed. And so, we declare, ‘I believe in … the communion of the saints’. One of the themes of the Gospel is that we are in this together. If we believe the Gospel, including that theme, then we will work to comfort each other.

This might become clearer if you think in terms of being on the receiving end. There you are, and you’re struggling. Maybe you’ve just been told something that is making you anxious or you’ve failed again to avoid that persistent temptation or whatever. What would you want in a situation like that? What you would want is some help. And Jesus has set things up so that we can get that help. He has given us each other. When you think of this with you on the receiving end, it’s very understandable. So, do unto others as you would have them do to you.

That’s the why. Now, the how. How do we do this? For us to comfort each other according to Jesus’ definition demands a lot. For one thing, we need to understand people - and not just understand people in some generic sense, though that is true. But we will need to understand the person standing in front of us when he needs some comfort. What kind of comfort does he or she need? Is it encouragement? Or maybe it’s consoling. Or exhorting? When do we use words, and when do words have to wait? To understand people - here think about the people who are sitting around you - takes time and effort. It means listening carefully to what they are saying when life is going well for them so that you can have some sense of what to do when life isn’t going well for them. It means getting to know each other. And being able to comfort also means knowing the Bible. It means knowing what the Bible has to say about how people think and feel, as well as knowing what words to say. To be able to comfort others well takes insight and skill.

And that leads to this. We need the power of the Spirit. Our words and our hugs are impotent if that’s all we have. They might touch the surface of a problem, but they will never get at the heart of the matter. So, we need to pray. We need to pray that the Spirit will give us the insight that we need. We need to pray that the Spirit will give us skill to say the right words when it’s time to speak, and to hug and just listen when it’s time to do that. We need to pray that the Spirit will bless us so that we can give comfort to each other, comfort that we all need.

As I’ve said before, I am persuaded that life for American Christians is going to get difficult. The culture is against us, and it is more so every day. We need to be ready to support each other so that we will be able to make it, to endure to the end. And as we do respond well to all of that, as we do love one another, people will come to know who we are. Because of how we love each other they will know that we are disciples of Jesus, the Savior of the world.

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