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    The Comforter

    A Sermon (12 April 1993)

      "Blessed be the God who comforts us...that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble"
      (2 Cor.1:3-4)

    A Buddhist View of Life

    Not so very long ago someone told me: "I don't agree with your religion -- there's too much sorrow, and suffering and death. You need a religion of joy." That young lady joined a group that followed just that prescription -- they praised God, thought positive thoughts, and never let sorrow, suffering, or death enter into their conscience. She doesn't belong to that group anymore and has gone and joined another one. She has also left her husband and now has a fatherless child.

    One of the teachers at the school where I work told me of a visit she has made to the island of Bali in Indonesia. She said how impressed she had been by the Buddhist religion because it was such a peaceful philosophy devoid of what she called "hell and damnation".

    As an ex-Buddhist I can understand what both of these women meant but I can't agree with them. Their philosophy is to fundamentally deny the realities of life.

    Some years ago a mother who had lost a son asked an elderly Chinese philosopher how to overcome deep grief. "I can help you, but you must first bring me some mustard seed," said the old wise man. "But you must get it at a home where there has never been any loss or sorrow."

    Eagerly the woman started her search, but in every home she visited was someone who had lost a loved one or had known some heartbreaking loss. Returning without any mustard seed, she exclaimed: "How selfish I have been! Sorrow is common to all." "Ah," said the philosopher, "you have learned a valuable lesson. Because you know sorrow, you can sympathise with others and comfort them. And when you do, your own sorrow will be lessened."

    One of the things that struck me as a Buddhist was the lack of compassion for the less fortunate. Both Buddhism and Hinduism take the approach that suffering is in the mind and the best way to deal with it is to become detatched from it. Yes, those people in Bali lived in a kind of "peace", but it is not the peace that comes from caring for others. Theirs is a peace of denial, the kind of peace that comes when the conscience is numbed. It is the same deadening of conscience that occured when SS men murdered Jews without any kind of remorse.

    Lesson 1: Accept Reality

    If human beings are to live properly balanced lives the first thing they must do is accept reality, however unpleasant it may be. Whether we like it or not, we are here on a most unpleasant world where there is little justice and plenty of sorrow. Millions are crying out in need. Who will help them?

    The Four Lands

    Firstly, we have to deal with our own sorrows. A person who sorrows will, without exception, enter into one of four spiritual "lands":

      (1) the first is the barren land in which we try to escape from it;

      (2) the second is the broken land in which we sink under it;

      (3) the third is the bitter land in which we resent it;

      (4) and the fourth is the better land in which we bear it and become a blessing to others.

    But to enter that better land we must stop focusing on our own sorrows, accept God's comfort in them, and reach out to others in need. Without exception, so long as there is true faith, this remedy works.

    How to Cope and Deal with Reality

    When God entered this world in the flesh by sending His Son Jesus Christ He did so to teach us the way in which we are to enter this world. For many people life has no meaning or purpose because they cannot see the grand design, or simply don't want to see it. Why are we here? Is life an accident? Has God lost control? No, God has not lost control. Life is not an accident. And there is a real purpose for both you and me being here.

    One thing that the lady who lost a son understood after her encounter with the Chinese philosopher was that sorrow, correctly applied, does two things: Firstly, it brings understanding; and Secondly, it brings comfort to others.

    When people ask about life's purpose they usually ask the wrong questions because they are only thinking of themselves. Their approach is egotistical and selfish, the very problems that have made the world as it is, and for which they blame God. If you try to understand life's purpose purely in terms of yourself, you will never find the answer.

    We Were Not Made to Be Alone

    This, brethren and sisters, is the great key to life. Nobody, in isolation, can find fulfilment. Nobody can come to understanding alone. God created us to be social creatures. Alone, we perish. With others, we flourish. But there's more to it than that. We need to see clearly what is going on around us and enter into that world. That is one reason why God send us His Son, from a position of glory and honour, into this cruel and uncaring world. He willingly left His throne in heaven in order to show us the Way to Salvation, Happiness, and Peace. And that Way involves, to use His own words, "taking up your cross", that is, bearing your burdens. And He makes the promise that if we do things His way, our burdens will be light.

    Jesus is our rôle model. In His life we see the way to fulfilment and happiness not as being a way of denying the sorrows of the world but of entering right into them. If you want to find someone who can empathise with your problems, then you will have to search for a person who has suffered and chosen the better land. Such persons have a depth of understanding and compassion which those who have not suffered do not. They possess a love which those who only think of themselves do not. They are sympathetic and empathetic -- they are like a magnet to a desperate person.

    False Routes to Salvation

    Most of the new religious groups that are springing up like weeds all over the world today offer you a short-cut route to happiness by denying suffering or teaching you how to escape it. Their gospel is no gospel at all -- their message is bad news because the soul never comes to fulfilment by denying reality. These groups offer mystical experiences, like icing off the top of a cake, but never give the cake itself. If you wish to be free, then the only way is to face reality and follow the Way that God has mapped out for you. All other routes to salvation are false and bring only disappointment and bitterness. So what is that Way? Is it a series of meditational exercises? Is it following a guru? Is it, in the first instance, following a church or some organization?

    It is none of these things. The Lord Jesus Christ said: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; NOONE comes to the Father save through Me" (John 14:6). And by what right does Jesus claim to be the exclusive exclusive Way? It is simple. He has walked the Way of Sorrow for us, taking our deserved punishment on His back (1 Pet.2:24). He has demonstrated that perfect love by sacrificing His own life for ours (1 John 2:2).

    No Greater Love...

    During the last war a Polish man called Franciszek Gajowniczek was a prisoner in the nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. While he was there an inmate escaped. The standard discipline when anyone escaped was to select 10 men at random and place them in a cell where they were left to starve to death. When Gajowniczek heard his name read, he sobbed, "My wife and my children!" At that moment a German Franciscan priest and fellow inmate named Kolbe stepped forward and said: "I will die in his place. I have no wife or children." The Commandant granted his request.

    Since that time Gajowniczek has gone back every year to Auschwitz on 14 August to remember the man who died for him on that date in 1941. And in his yard he has placed a plaque to honour this priest and remind others of his great sacrifice.

    Well, I don't know how you feel but this sort of selfless sacrifice moves my heart. I know it moves the heart of God. Jesus said: "Greater love hath mo man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13, AV). This is true love. Noone, save he who is the worst cynic and who is in the depths of hell, could ever make fun of such a sacrifice. Self-sacrifice touches a chord in most peoples' hearts.

    I remember as a boy being deeply moved by the selfless devotion of Japanese kamakaze pilots who committed suicide for Emperor and country by crashing their planes onto enemy ships. They were misguided, to be sure, but they were nevertheless acting out a part of themselves which at core is noble and godly. Of all soldiers, they were the most feared by the Allies. Throughout the annals history you will find stories of men and women who sacrified themselves for a greater cause. All of them were responding to a need deep within the human soul, to an inner call which gives fallen man dignity and hope. Without these people, history would have probably gone along different directions.

    Most of you, I am sure, would look upon such people as heroes. Most of you would probably like to meet them, because they inspire you and reveal a part of you that you too would like to play a meaningful rôle in your life.

    These heroes are, however, dead. Their noble deeds will be remembered and they may, from time to time, inspire us to heroism and selfless service for others. But none of these men and women, for all their greatness, are able to save us from death itself.

    He that Died for You

    Jesus Christ not only died for every single soul that has ever lived, which is living, and will live (Rom.5:8), but He triumphed over death itself (1 Cor.15:54-57). It is a proven fact. Hundreds witnessed His resurrection and many have left their testimonials in the Scriptures.

    Jesus is the only person ever to have come back from the dead after having truly died. By this He has proven that He alone is the Way to Salvation. Only a person with such power, with such impeccable moral credentials, and with such a demonstrable love for human beings in their sorrows could possible claim to be who He is.

    The heroes of the past inspire us in the stories written about them just as Jesus inspires us in the stories written about Him in the Scriptures. But much as we admire that Franciscan priest for his act of sacrifice, and much as we may perhaps wish to imitate his selfless love, yet that is all he can do for us. By contrast Jesus offers us immediate access to Him -- He offers us a living power which we can have now. It is more than inspiration, it is the very active, living presence of Christ Himself. And He calls that presence the "Comforter" (John 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7).

    For three years the disciples knew Jesus intimately, traveling around with Him, eating with Him, sharing His ministry. As one disciple acknowledged, He had eternal life, and that was why they followed Him and wanted to be with Him (John 6:68).

    When you love someone very deeply you want to be with them. Thus when Jesus died on the cross the disciples were devastated -- all their hopes appeared to be dashed. They didn't know what to do. For them life suddenly became meaningless. They were greatly comforted when He appeared before them in resurrected form and ministered to them for forty days (Acts 1:3). But then He was gone again, taken away from the earth to His Father's world.

    In His physical place Christ sent a spiritual presence which is often called the Holy Spirit or the Comforter.

    A Legitimate Human Reaction

    We too are sent by God to be comforters. To comfort someone is to acknowledge that they have a real need. Jesus said: "Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matt.5:4) He insisted, unlike the Buddhist, Hindus, and New Agers, that mourning or sorrowing was a ligitimate human reaction to loss and that the ministry of comfort was equally important (Eccl.3:4). What He did not say was: "Deny your sorrows! Bury them away!" No, He said that to express our sense of loss, our problems, fears, and so on is extremely important, so important, in fact, that he says that mourning is to be blessed. How is that so? How can suffering be a blessing? Well, He explains very succincly: "so that they can be comforted".

    Sound strange? Not really. You see, to experience sorrow and comfort is to experience a type of love that someone who never sorrows cannot experience. Part of the purpose of our being here is to experience suffering so that through being comforted we can experience love. We are here, in part, to learn how to respond to adversity in a positive, constructive way. That is not easy because for the most part we are governed by an inner nature that likes to strike out when it is hurt.

    Do You Want to be Comforted?

    Everyone has sorrows. But do you know how to be comforted? Do you want to be comforted? Many don't. They're afraid to look weak or silly. Usually they refuse comfort because of pride -- they don't want to admit that they aren't on top of every situation. They don't want to admit they're helpless. They are afraid to loose esteem. And yet they often complain because they say noone understands them.

    Jesus likens the Holy Spirit, or Comforter, to Himself knocking on the door of the human heart (Rev.3:20) and makes the point that He will never force Himself into anyone's life. You, and you alone, must take the initiative to be comforted. That means first of all admitting that it is legitimate to sorrow. It's natural. It's what being human is all about. Don't bottle all your troubles away -- get them out! Mourn! To be sure, don't make a big display in order to make yourself the centre of attention, but express yourself naturally. There is no shame in letting your heart speak when it has real needs.

    Secondly, never turn away a comforter -- whether it is the Holy Spirit, a loved one, or a friend. Accept their concern and love. As human beings we all need to comfort as well as to be comforted. Through comforting and being comforted we experience love. We learn to feel in a selfless way -- we learn to feel as God feels.

    Thirdly, rejoice in adversity -- thank God that you have been given the opportunity to mourn. Acknowledge His sovereignty and providence in all things. For in Christ all adversity can be turned to the good. That is one reason we have difficulties in life! They are given to us by God to teach us to grow in love, especially those which are not of our own making.

    Why We are Here

    To make sense of this chaotic world we need to understand why we are here. And there are, as I understand it, three main reasons:

      (1) To develop faith in God through Jesus Christ;
      (2) To learn how to love; and
      (3) To gain understanding and wisdom.

    And within the context of these three purposes we must gain a proper perspective of this life relative to the eternities -- we are here for but a short time, a drop of water compared to the ocean of infinity. Because we are "in" the world we tend to lose this perspective -- we see only the wood and not the trees. Like ants, we tend only to see the small world around us. But with God's Holy Spirit, with the Comforter which reveals all things, we see the whole perspectice, we see things as they really are.

    I invite you, if you have never done so before, to receive Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour and start a new life lived out from the divine perspective. If you have received Him before, but lost Him, then I invite you to rededicate yourself to Him. And in committing yourself to Him and His Gospel may He delcare to you through the Comforter: "Today salvation has come to this house" (Luke 19:9, NIV). Amen.

    This page was created on 15 April 1998
    Last updated on 15 April 1998

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